Tony Jones G7ETW explains the basics of repeater operation, often the first operation encountered by new licensees.
This is written for Foundation licensees. You’ve got your callsign and your first priority is to get on the local repeater. (Whose wasn’t?) That may be trickier than it sounds because a Foundation course doesn’t cover repeater operating. Let me make good that shortfall. Follow my advice and you’ll fit right in, soon receiving ‘congratulations on the callsign’, invitations to clubs and offers of help. I’ll use my callsign and some made-up ones and my local repeater and give some real world examples.
Making an Initial Call
Repeaters have quiet periods so it’s important to know how to make an initial call. ‘This is G7ETW calling through GB3HR and listening for any calls.’ This is long enough for someone to hear me. It also identifies the repeater, which helps when there’s a ‘lift’ (enhancement in propagation) going on. If I’m mobile I can add my approximate location. ‘This is G7ETW mobile in Northwood’. I could use the optional ‘/M’ suffix but I usually don’t. I might be calling for one person in particular. ‘M7ZZZ M7ZZZ, this is G7ETW for you.’ Giving M7ZZZ’s callsign twice gives him (I made M7ZZZ up and he’s a man) chance to pick up on his callsign and also tells listeners this is not a general call. M7ZZZ is listening and hears my call. He replies. ‘G7ETW M7ZZZ. Hello Tony.’ M7ZZZ probably wouldn’t double-identify because he knows I’m listening. Note the order of callsigns. I called with M7ZZZ’s callsign first, he replied with mine
first. The correct order is ‘your call, my call’. Without exception. ‘M7ZZZ G7ETW’ begins my reply.
Faults on Air and Radio Checks
Sometimes repeaters transmit short periods of ‘dead air’, which repeat in quick succession. This is usually caused by faulty microphones. On hearing this I always try to help. ‘This is G7ETW. Station heard, but no audio’. The person transmitting knows he or she is accessing the repeater but has an audio problem. When the audio is weak, sometimes there’s just enough voice to recognise the Operating 101 Tony Jones G7ETW explains the basics of repeater operation, often the first operation encountered by new licensees. person transmitting. ‘This is G7ETW. M7ZZZ heard but very low audio’. This is even more help. I’ve had a few faulty microphones myself. After making repairs, I always request a radio check. ‘This is G7ETW calling through GB3HR. I’m testing a microphone. I’d appreciate a report if anyone is listening.’ That usually gets me a report or two straight away. Sometimes they don’t agree but at least I know I’m being heard!
(Photo 1) All you need to get started on repeaters is a cheap handheld, in this case the sub-£30 Baofeng reviewed in our May 2019 issue, and you can immediately start communicating with others over a wide area. (Photo 2) Repeaters, first introduced in the UK around 50 years ago, make it possible to work over a considerable distances with a handheld or mobile.
Joining an Active Repeater
At any one time, ‘doubling’ aside, only one voice is heard because repeater users take turns. There is a system to it, awkward at first but easily learned. Imagine that M7XXX, M7YYY and M7ZZZ are on the repeater in a three-way QSO when I switch on. Being good operators, they leave short (one second is enough) gaps between transmissions. To join, I wait for the gap between M7XXX and M7YYY. I transmit my callsign, snappily. ‘G7ETW.’ M7YYY hears me. ‘M7XXX and the group, M7YYY. G7ETW acknowledged’ is how he starts his over. At the end he clearly brings me in. ‘M7YYY, passing it round to G7ETW. From you it goes to M7ZZZ’. It’s as simple as that. We only have to identify ourselves, please note. It is perfectly legal for me to use someone’s name when passing ‘it’ round. I mentioned ‘doubling’. This is when two or more amateurs inadvertently transmit at the same time, resulting in a high pitched
buzz with no one audible. Even considerate and experienced amateurs double occasionally but patience and leaving gaps are the key to avoiding this. When in doubt, de-key and listen for a second. ‘I’ll just check I’m not doubling’ is what people usually say. If someone else is transmitting, leave them to it. Nothing technical can prevent this on a simple voice repeater.
Callsigns are important. We are legally required to identify ourselves ‘clearly at all times’ and ‘as frequently as practicable’. Quite aside from that, we become known by our callsigns – indeed our whole amateur radio life is based on them. We should treat them as the priceless assets they are.
Phonetics or Letters?
Most people don’t give callsigns phonetically. Why? Because it takes longer and the audio quality through a repeater is usually excellent. Take my callsign. ‘GEE SEVEN EEE TEE DOUBLE-YOU’ is clear enough, you would think, but people quite often get it wrong. It’s the ‘T’ that’s the problem; the letters ‘B’, ‘C’, ‘D’, ‘E’, ‘G’, ‘P’ and ‘V’ all sound almost the same. Other letters − ‘M’ and ‘N’, and ‘F’ and ‘S’ spring to mind – can cause confusion too. Accents, speaking too quickly, interference and weak or distorted audio are all factors in callsign intelligibility so it’s not surprising callsigns aren’t always heard correctly. I’ve always done my initial calls and sign-offs phonetically but I’ve just persuaded myself that I will use phonetics the whole time from now on.
How often should you identify? ‘As frequently as practicable’ obviously. Most people give their callsign twice per over, at the beginning and the end. Do I always do this? I do, except when my transmission is just one or two words. If I’m answering a yes/no question or similar I might reply without identifying. But for anything longer, I always give my callsign.
Imagine the repeater has been busy but only M7ZZZ and G7ETW now remain. ‘G7ETW M7ZZZ/M Just arriving at work so I’ll have to go. Thanks for the QSO. This is M7ZZZ going QRT and listening for your final’. QRT strictly means ‘stopping transmission’ but has come to mean ‘closing down’. M7ZZZ is saying he is going off air. Many people just say ‘clear’ and pull the plug. This is fine – what matters is that you make your intentions clear so there is no confusion for others using the repeater. ‘M7ZZZ G7ETW. Yes, thanks for the QSO. This is G7ETW going to standby.’ This means I too am stopping transmitting but I am not switching off and I will be listening. A variant I use is ‘going QRT unless called’, which invites anyone who was listening to the QSO but didn’t want to interrupt to call me quickly before I close down. Sometimes stations simply vanish mid-word. This happens when people are using handhelds – when the battery is flat, the radio makes the decision for you!
Sadly, repeater abuse is all too common. Whatever the abuse is, never acknowledge it or engage with an abuser. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, a response is what an abuser wants, and the more an abuser gets what he or she wants, the more they cause trouble. As a psychologist might say, don’t reward bad behaviour. Secondly, radio amateurs are only licensed to communicate with other radio amateurs. If an abuser is not licensed, to talk to him or her is a breach of licence regulations.
Since the 1980s CB radio has been a popular route into amateur radio. While both hobbies involve radios and transmitting, CB and amateur radio have different operating styles. I mean no offence but if your background is CB please take note of these Dos and Don’ts.
• Never use ‘break’, ‘QSK’ or ‘on the side’ to break into a QSO. We must be clearly identified at all times, and only a callsign does this.
• Be careful with traffic announcements. ‘This is M7ZZZ mobile Eastbound M25. We’re all stopped at junction 21.’ As part of an over in a QSO, this is a ‘remark of a personal nature’ and is perfectly fine. But as an initial call the transmission constitutes broadcasting, which is expressly forbidden in our licence.
• Amateur radio voice signal reports are in ‘RS’ units (Readability and Signal strength), for example ‘five and nine’. A weak signal might be ‘three and four’, not ‘back of the box’.
• A radio amateur ‘tunes’ an antenna, adjusting it for minimum VSWR, using a VSWR meter. CB operators do the same thing but they make ‘SWR’ into a verb and a noun, pronouncing it ‘swahr’. I’m sorry, radio amateurs never talk of VSWR like this.
• Risqué talk and swearing – anything at all ‘adult’ really − is unwelcome. Even a modest repeater can reach out 30 miles and that’s a lot of potential listeners. No radio amateur wants his friends or family to hear embarrassing transmissions – it gives a bad impression of the hobby. It’s all too easy to forget that, unlike a mobile phone, amateur radio is an ‘open’ communications medium – you never know who else might be listening.
I seem to have left this piece on a negative note, and I need to fix that. Inexperienced radio amateurs are bound to make mistakes in operating. I certainly did when I first started but local amateurs were kind and helpful and I quickly learned. My advice is not to worry – be active, have fun, and learn by doing. If this article helps just one new amateur to do that, I’m a happy man.
This article was featured in the October 2019 issue of Practical Wireless