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Running a Ham Radio Net

Monday, October 19, 2015

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Background

I'm the Monday night net control for George's Old Timer's Net, a ham radio net that's been going on for years now. Because a net might sound complicated to new comers, I wanted to offer a resource to explain some of it.

What is an Amateur Radio Net?

A ham radio net is nothing more than the chat room of the airwaves, but because of the nature of transmissions, only one person can talk at a time. People who are in the position of Net Control dictate whose turn it is to speak. This reduces the chances of multiple people talking simultaneously and preventing either of their transmissions from being heard.

There are two kinds of nets, formal and informal. Formal nets, like CM2M of the NTS, meet with the purpose of discussing their matters in a formal matter. For example, traffic nets will handle formal written traffic, ARES and RACES nets practice for emergency communications. It is rare to hear someone talking about their day during a formal net, as that sort of content is best suited outside the net.

Informal nets, like George's Old Timer's Net, operate with a little more flexibility. In GOTN, we have a topic of the day and some fun trivia. It offers local operators an opportunity to share their daily stories with everyone and have a little fun. Some informal nets might offer help to new hams, where local operators can contribute.

Regardless of the type of net, formal or informal, there is still a net control station (NCS) that dictates whose turn it is to talk.

What is George's Old Timer's Net?

George's Old Timer's Net is an informal ham radio net that meets most evenings at 7:30 PM on the W1BIM repeater in Paxton, MA. Being an informal net, we do not meet with the purpose of passing formal written traffic, or emergency communications - we just check in to chat.

We try to have topic questions and fun trivia each night. Since it's often the same folks who check in, having a topic to discuss can keep conversations lively. The trivia is an added bonus that's been a GOTN tradition for years.

Preparations

If this is your first time running a net, you'll need permission first. If there is a well-established net that you'd like to run, chat with the other net controls; they'll be able to get you in the right direction. If you're looking to start a new net, check with the repeater's trustee, which can be found in the FCC database.

I became a net control after chatting with Bob, KB1VUA. He agreed to let me take Monday nights from him to both help lighten his load and to give me the experience. It was a win-win for all those involved.

The equipment to run a net is pretty basic. You'll need something to take notes; I use pen and paper, but if you like to do it on the computer, you can. Of course you'll also need a functioning radio. You'll want to make sure you have enough signal to hit the repeater without issue before running the net. If you're very far away, and only on a HT, you may have some issues.

If your net has a script to follow, you'll want to have that ready. I follow the George's Old Timer's Net script when running the net.

If you're planning on doing trivia or the alike, you will want to have a good list ready ahead of time - it's very hard to produce trivia on the fly while maintaining your list of check-ins.

Running the Net

To listen to what a net sounds like, this is a recording of George's Old Timer's Net from Monday, October 19th, 2015. Please note that some audio has been redacted by request. You may download the audio here.

We heard from the following stations during the net: W1IDE, KB1VXY, W1LEB, W1OCJ, WA1GVM, NG1I, K1QJM, REDACTED, KC1CAR, WI1Y, K1RAU, KC1DWX, WA1MDD, N1RWW, and N1TZM.

Callup Procedure

You can follow the script that may have been provided. The basics is just asking for callsign, name and location. We normally ask for mobiles first and then everyone else.

If there are regularly people with some time constraints, you can add a "time constraint" section to your callup. I have at least one person that has a time constraint on Mondays, so it's a part of my internal script now.

If we hear a callsign that sounds new, we like to ask that person if they're new the hobby. And if they are, we ask about how they got interested in ham radio and what kind of equipment they're running.

Station Identification

Per FCC regulations, you do have to identify at least every ten minutes. I try to do it on the even ten-minute increment, but sometimes it's tough to get it to align right and you end up identifying more than necessary. Just do your best.

Since you're the net control, you also have to say what net you're running. Chances are good this is included in your script.

Closing the Net

When you're done with the net, you will need to release the repeater back to regular amateur radio use.

It's pretty normal to thank the club that runs the repeater and all the repeater trustees. They listen, sometimes check in, and definitely appreciate hearing the thanks.

If you're running an established net, this will probably be in your script.

Considerations & Tips

Don't Quick Key

Emergency traffic always has priority; if you quick key (transmit quickly without leaving a break for the next person), you may not hear stations calling. And it may not even be an emergency, it could just be a comment or a station who has a question. Always be sure to leave enough of a gap for someone trying to break in.

Also, it's worth noting that some radios require the carrier signal to completely drop before transmitting. Especially during the call-ups you should let the repeater completely drop its signal before keying so that people running said equipment can be heard.

Fighting QRM

Occasionally you may come across harmful interference (QRM). By definition, this interference is illegal, and it is actually against FCC regulations to respond to it. Because of the nature of the event, it's not beneficial to acknowledge the troublesome stations either.

You can, and it's generally accepted that, the net control operator increase power output to overcome the interference.

Practice for Emergencies

Amateur radio nets, even the informal nets, are great practice for emergencies. While the formal nets do offer an experience closer to the real thing, both nets' protocols are good to know in the event of an emergency. By participating in these nets, it makes some of the protocol second nature.

Preparing for Faulty Equipment

If you're net control for the evening, it's a good idea to make sure your equipment is working ahead of time. Ideally, you may even have a backup radio to continue the net in case something happens to your primary setup.

Fill-ins / Substitutes

If you're unable to run the net, it's a good idea to get coverage in advance. If I know I'm not going to be able to make the net, I'll call someone on the radio ask for coverage. Recently Herb, KC1CAR, has been very helpful in making sure someone always runs the net.

It's pretty common that other operators will pick up the net after a few minutes of silence. For example, if the net is supposed to begin at 7:30, and no one has started it by 7:35, someone else should start it.