Why Network Engineers should be Radio Amateurs

Being Network Engineers, most of you are able to talk for hours about Layers 2 to 7, but very little of us know what actually happens at Layer 1. According to Wikipedia:

The physical layer (Layer 1) defines the electrical and physical specifications of the data connection. It defines the relationship between a device and a physical transmission medium (e.g., a copper or fiber optical cable, radio frequency). This includes the layout of pins, voltages, line impedance, cable specifications, signal timing and similar characteristics for connected devices and frequency (5 GHz or 2.4 GHz etc.) for wireless devices. It is responsible for transmission and reception of unstructured raw data in a physical medium. It may define transmission mode as simplex, half duplex, and full duplex.

The OSI Reference Model

What is Amateur Radio?

Stealing from /r/amateurradio's wiki, Amateur radio is a hobby centered around the enjoyment and advancement of radio-technology. Most radio amateurs begin their lives as curious people, and eventually come to discover the hobby. Ham radio also boasts a community of hundreds of thousands of like-minded individuals, which are very much similar in style to Network Engineering communities.

What do you do as a Radio Amateur?

There's a lot of thing you can do as a Radio Amateur but some of the activities that might interest Network Engineers are:

  • Work long distance contacts
  • Make contacts via digital modes (Some even with TCP/IP! /u/LVDave informed me on the reddit post that Radio Amateurs have been given the IP allocation to conduct scientific research and to experiment with digital communications over radio!)
  • Make contacts via VHF/UHF satellite (OSCAR - orbiting satellites carrying amateur radio)
  • Run a repeater
  • Operate a propagation beacon
  • Build your own radios
  • Download images from the International Space Station
  • Talk to Astronauts on the International Space Station
  • Design, build and test antennas
  • Experiment with circuits
  • Providing email to ships at sea
  • Track a high-altitude balloon
  • Bounce signals off of the moon, meteor trails and the magnificent aurora borealis!
  • Make contacts via Microwave Links
  • Run an APRS node, such as: position tracking, weather station, digipeater
  • Explore digital signal processing and software defined radios (SDR)
  • Create an 802.11 (WiFi) mesh node and explore wireless networking
  • Interlink repeaters with IRLP, Echolink or Allstar VoIP links

What's in it for Network Engineers?

Network Engineers are a curious species; they are makers, doers, hackers and inventors. Amateur Radio is all about science and you need to go back to basics.

Although this hobby is mostly concerned on Wireless Layer 1, you will still need to learn (or rather refresh your knowledge) about: Electronic Principles (molecules, atoms, electrons, conductors, insulators, current, voltage, resistance, phase difference, inductance, capacitance, magnetism and electromagnetism, resonance, filters, mixing, integrated circuits, power supplies, rectifying circuits and smoothing circuits).

Wireless Communication is a big part of nowadays Networking Infrastructure, be it WiFi Access Points or 24GHz Microwave Links that span 20KM with data rates of up to 2Gbps, so topics like Receivers, Transmitters and Transceivers (mixers, intermediate-frequency amplifiers, frequency oscillators, frequency synthesizers, modulation (SSB,AM,FM), transmitter power levels, tuning, valves), Interference (Drift, Chirp, Harmonics, Spurious Oscillation) and Propagation and Antennas (Ground-Wave Propagation, Ionospheric Propagation, Tropospheric Propagation, Antenna Length, Radiation Patterns, Angle of Radiation, Directional Antennas, Feeders, Doppler Effect, Refraction)

Remember, that every radio you own was once an experiment by a Radio Amateur. In your phone, you have at least GSM, HSPA, LTE, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, NFS, FM, Bluetooth and GPS radios. You have probably configured huge WiFi deployments, so why not go ahead and discover more in detail how the different electromagnetic waves in the electromagnetic spectrum work and learn how data is actually transmitted from one Node to another in a Wireless Network.

The Electromagnetic Spectrum

How to become a Radio Amateur?

Before you can get on the air, you need to get licensed by the appropriate governing body in your country. For example, here in Malta, the Malta Communications Authority (MCA) will give you a license to transmit on all Amateur Frequencies after you have passed an exam. Amateur Radio communities that are situated close to you will usually have classes that prepare you for these exams, such as: