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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

World ham-radio competition coming to Hollis this summer

Aglobal sporting contest drawing teams from 38 countries is coming to Hollis this summer as part of its first appearance in the U.S. since 1996 – although it concerns an activity, ham radio, that many people don’t think of as a sport.

Tell that to the folks who’ll be spending 24 hours straight, no sleep, contacting 3,000 or more stations around the world. “It’s exhausting,” said Doug Grant of Windham, who won a gold medal once and bronze medals twice at the quadrennial World Radiosport Team Championship. ...

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Aglobal sporting contest drawing teams from 38 countries is coming to Hollis this summer as part of its first appearance in the U.S. since 1996 – although it concerns an activity, ham radio, that many people don’t think of as a sport.

Tell that to the folks who’ll be spending 24 hours straight, no sleep, contacting 3,000 or more stations around the world. “It’s exhausting,” said Doug Grant of Windham, who won a gold medal once and bronze medals twice at the quadrennial World Radiosport Team Championship.

The championship, previously held in places like Russia, Slovenia and Brazil, will be setting up in 16 New England communities from July 9 through 14. About two-thirds of the 59 teams competing will be coming from overseas, many of them arriving in the U.S. for the first time.

The open field alongside Hollis Brookline High School will be the most northern location, and the only one in New Hampshire.

“It’s way too hilly up here,” said Grant, who is chairman of the championship. “We need big open fields, not surrounded by hills, not close to power lines, which generate a lot of noise.”

The competition is a tougher version of the annual Field Day held by local amateur-radio clubs, in which teams set up a 40-foot antenna and try to make contact with as many other ham radio stations around the world as possible.

“Field Day is like a fun run, and WRTC is more like the Boston Marathon or Olympic championships,” said Grant, who is semi retired from the high-tech industry.

All teams get the same antenna setup and similar equipment, and must operate anonymously to prevent boosters back home from helping them. Connections can be made in Morse code or by voice, in English.

The fact that so many countries are participating reflects growing interest in amateur radio, the official term for what many call ham radio, despite many predictions that the Internet and cell phones would kill this century-old technology.

“Right now, there are more ham licenses in force than at any time in history, both U.S. and foreign,” said Grant. “A lot of governments have opened up. As recently as 15 or so years ago, it would be almost unthinkable to make a contact with China ... there are tons of them now.”

Most of the boost came from emergency-management concerns after the Sept. 11 attacks and the big hurricanes or ice storms that have hit the eastern U.S.

Ham radio is very robust, requiring so little power that a car battery can be enough in a pinch, and such a simple antenna that a wire thrown over a tree limb can suffice. Yet it can send signals long distances, hundreds or thousands of miles, by bouncing them off charged particles in the atmosphere, called the ionosphere.

“After the Boston Marathon bombing, so many people called out that the cell phone networks crashed. Hams were the only ones who could get messages in and out, help first responders communicate,” said Grant.

Local emergency-management facilities now include ham radio as a standard component for that reason. “A lot of hospitals have a ham station set up to be able to communicate if there’s an emergency and everything else goes down,” said Grant.

And that helps explain the radiosport championship.

“As in anything where there’s a skill required, a game or competition so you get practice in the skills – is just a terrific thing,” he said.

Most of the teams will be staying at a hotel in Westboro, Mass., roughly in the center of the competition area. Setting up all the antennas and preparing the grounds at 16 locations will be the work of hordes of volunteers, including members of the Nashua Area Radio Club.

Work will begin at Hollis Brookline High School on Friday, July 11, with the competition taking place on the weekend.

It won’t be known which team will compete in Hollis until that week, when locations are assigned to teams at random.

For more information, check the website at www.wrtc2014.org.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks
@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).