Disaster Management, Media and Communications, Politics and Governance

Who’s Afraid of Amateur Radio? Tsunami’s heroic technology has few backers in Sri Lanka

Five years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, amateur radio helped revive emergency communications with some of the worst affected locations.

The decades old practice was hailed as the ‘low tech’ miracle that literally helped save lives. Where electricity and telephone services — both fixed and mobile — had been knocked down, amateur radio enthusiasts (or ‘radio hams’) restored the first communication links.

They were at the forefront of relief efforts, for example, in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India, and in Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka.

When all else fails, shortwave persists...
When all else fails, shortwave persists…

Within hours of the tsunami, a short wave radio link was established between the disaster management operation at the Prime Minister’s office in the capital Colombo and government offices in the stricken south.

“We went in because the District Secretaries office only had a satellite phone and communications was difficult,” recalled Victor Goonetilleke, then President of the Radio Society of Sri Lanka (RSSL). The service was discontinued when other disrupted communications networks resumed.

As he later summed up: “When all else is dead, short wave is alive.”

Goonetilleke, one of the island’s best known radio hams (call sign: 4S7VK), reported at the time that “uncomplicated shortwave” radio saved the day. And it was accomplished by unpaid radio enthusiasts using nothing more than basic equipment and determination. The only cost to the state was providing food for volunteers operating round the clock.

Sir Arthur C Clarke, inventor of the communications satellite and long time resident of Sri Lanka, wrote in Wired magazine: “We might never know how many lives they saved and how many minds they put at ease, but we owe a debt to Marconi’s faithful followers.”

Sidelined and overlooked

Now, fast forward five years to the present. Notwithstanding their celebrated role after the tsunami, radio hams have been sidelined in Sri Lanka. Their very hobby is being frowned upon by the state on the grounds of…national security.

“As the applause died away, everything was forgotten,” Victor Goonetilleke recalled last week in an email interview. The only recognition in Sri Lanka was ‘a very appreciative letter’ from President Mahinda Rajapakse, who as Prime Minister at the time spearheaded the governmental response to the tsunami.

Victor Goonetilleke, a radio ham since 1966
Victor Goonetilleke, a radio ham since 1966

Encouragingly, however, the Radio Society received awards and accolades from Europe, Japan and India for their post-Tsunami work.

In the months following the mega-disaster, Sri Lanka passed a new disaster law and set up a new public institution mandated to coordinate disaster risk reduction and emergency responses.

“We have made presentations and participated in every disaster management seminar, but no follow up has taken place despite standing ovations at such seminars/meetings,” says a dejected Goonetilleke, who is currently secretary and disaster operations manager of the Radio Society.

The provisions for involving radio hams already exist. A disaster mitigation plan by the Telecom Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) some years ago listed the integration of amateurs in disaster recovery action.

Looking back, it seems like the public-spirited radio hams were given their 15 minutes of fame and then soundly ignored. Worse, the short-lived prominence may have attracted new bureaucratic hurdles.

For example, disaster communication equipment donated by foreign amateur radio groups was held up for two years pending clearance from the Customs and Ministry of Defence. These were released only after the ‘direct intervention’ of the Secretary to the President, says Goonetilleke.

The reason for such official hesitation was probably the long-drawn civil war in Sri Lanka, which intensified in 2006. Now, more than six months after the war ended in May 2009, the ‘temporary’ restrictions have not been lifted. Radio hams are both puzzled and frustrated by this.

“This is the irony,” says Goonetilleke. “Amateur Radio assisted and offered help — unasked — at tsunami time, and during the 30 year war, helped the security forces in many ways at a crucial time when our forces were caught unprepared and inadequately unequipped.”

He is emphatic that during the entire war, no amateur radio enthusiast was ever involved any violation. “Even their equipment, however meagre, (was) never robbed by terrorists.”

Poorly understood

One reason for this bureaucratic negativity may be simple ignorance of what amateur radio really is — reflecting the disturbingly low levels of media literacy in Sri Lanka.

In fact, ‘Marconi’s faithful followers’ have been indulging in their serious hobby for a full century. It relies on short waves, in the frequency range of 3,000 to 30,000 kHz, or 3 to 30 MHz. These waves propagate by bouncing off the ionosphere and the Earth’s surface, thus travelling long distances.

Today, an estimated six million worldwide engage in this pursuit for recreation, self-training or public service. It requires considerable knowledge, skill and time — the term “amateur” merely implies they are not in it for making money. It’s used in the same sense as an amateur athlete.

Radio hams use various transmission modes, including the Morse code, radioteletype, data and voice. Around the world, radio hams are licensed to operate two-way communications equipment using radio frequencies set aside for this purpose. This allocation is done nationally by telecommunications regulators (TRCSL in Sri Lanka) and globally by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

Amateur radio is not to be confused with community radio, a localised method of broadcasting mostly using the FM band of the spectrum.

In this era of advanced communications systems, amateur radio remains an important part of emergency communications after disasters. Recent examples include terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre twin towers in New York September 2001, Hurricane Katarina in New Orleans in August 2005, and China’s Sichuan earthquake in May 2008.

One main reason for this appeal is its amazing simplicity: radio hams can mobilise quickly, improvising on antennas and power sources. Most of their equipment can be powered by a car battery. Even when batteries drain too low for voice, the last bit of power can support exchanges in the Morse code.

Perhaps the low tech, low key nature of amateur radio contributes to its image problem. The proven technology has few champions among development donors or humanitarian relief agencies. Most radio hams are too busy with their hobby in their spare time to do much ‘marketing’ for their pursuit.

Goonetilleke feels amateur radio is ‘worse off than ever’ since the Radio Society was established in 1950. The non-profit-making group now has 210 members, of whom 120 are amateur radio license holders.

He laments: “Today…the service is treated as a threat or hindrance by the defence authorities, not granting clearance for equipment (or) new licences for those who have passed.”

Other constraints include the high cost of equipment compounded by high customs duties and other tariffs. But even if these can be overcome with the generous support of foreign amateur radio clubs, security clearance remains a big challenge.

The amateur radio community in Sri Lanka is also not attracting enough young blood to keep it going, partly because obtaining an amateur radio license is a tedious process. There is also the appeal of newer, flashier technologies such as Internet, mobile phones and video games.

Radio hams keep springing to action in times of distress. But who will respond when amateur radio itself sends out an SOS?

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene studies how communications technologies impact society, and has been calling for enhanced media literacy in Sri Lanka. He blogs at http://movingimages.wordpress.com

  • Save Ham Radio

    I agree that the government has imposed restrictions on Ham radio activites with security threats came up during last few years. The relevant authorities were competent to identify ‘possible threats’ that could come up if they allowed free access to radio communication equipments like in western countries. Therefore nobody can argue that the restrictions are unfair.

    Ham radio is an innocent hobby among majority of the hobbyists with a good self control. Therefore there are thousands of ways and means of justifying how it could be made useful and accessible to genuine hobbyists without sacrificing security of the country. Present situation shows that the party who should do the advocacy has failed in their duty and throwing the blame to a third party. Who should do the advocacy? Haven’t they failed?

    I do not agree with the fact that young community is not interested in Ham radio. It is said that there are some senior entities preventing young people coming in to the seen for their own sake. Can anybody find out what could be these reasons? The reasons for this type conflicting interests are probably related to money. A good point to study – How come!!!! hobby makes money??

  • Russell

    I have to agree with the quotes i have copied below.

    ““Today…the service is treated as a threat or hindrance by the defence authorities, not granting clearance for equipment (or) new licences for those who have passed.””
    “”The amateur radio community in Sri Lanka is also not attracting enough young blood to keep it going, partly because obtaining an amateur radio license is a tedious process. “”

    We visited Sri Lanka in 2003 and were looking at coming back in 2006 I carried out all that was needed to be done for applying for a visitors licence.
    I contacted ALL the agences I needed to but to this day I still await for my permission to operate in Nov/Dec 2006, in fact I still await ANY information

    I regeret to say we did not make our return visit because of the Tsunami but we did make collections and contorburtions towards aid
    We still hope to return again but it will depend upon licences for visitiors

    seasons greeting and happy 2010

  • I quite agree with my old friend, Victor’s, most eloquent, comments. Since it’s inception in the early 20th century, Ham Radio (a.k.a. Amateur Radio) has saved countless lives all over the world. I myself was first licensed in 1959 as WV6FAJ, and later had to sit for the exam in Sri Lanka in 1994! My dear friend Arthur Clarke also had great respect for the hobby…however, after constant nagging from me for almost 14 years, he still would not permit me to teach him the Morse Code…even when I promised I could do it in less than one day! However, that small omission can be overlooked since Arthur gave us Hams (and the world) the geosynchronous satellite!
    Kind regards and respects to the hobby, and to the wonderful Hams of Sri Lanka – 73’s! Wayne Houser (12/31/09), 4S7CQ, CN8CU, TI2VOA, W6VOA

  • From what I have heard from Island sources, the prevailing situation might have a lot to do with a handful of Radio enthusiasts having taken matters into their own hands. As a result, the integrity of the entire fraternity has been ruined. Therefore, if the authorities have shown any unwelcome attitude towards Amateur Radio, the blame has to be placed largely on this clandestine group which has gone out of its way to tarnish the image of the Radio Society, but have also succeeded in creating goal posts for all.

    The authorities have a job to do and they will do what it takes to ensure that nobody misuses Radio. I do not agree that Radio Hams have been singled out. Foreign NGOs have also been asked to shut down their HF stations. One positive step towards reestablishing the credibility of the Radio Amateur might be to encourage the authorities to take an inventory of all Radio equipment in use by the Radio Hams as well as satisfying themselves that all such equipment has been legally imported into the country. All responsible Hams should have copes of letters of clearance, customs receipts and related documents. It is my belief that the authorities could be concerned that equipment of questionable origin might be finding their way into the Ham Radio stations.

  • I find it extremely unlikely that the government’s interest here is in ensuring that no “equipment of questionable origin” is being used by ham radio operators, as is asserted above by “Roger Roger”. Much ham radio equipment is of “questionable origin” in that it is often built by the ham himself or herself; such equipment will have no papers to prove its origins.

    It is plainly obvious that the government’s clamp down on ham radio is a classic attempt by an authoritarian government seeking to control the channels of communication in and out of the country. Only the most repressive regimes do this; that Sri Lanka is doing so bodes very poorly for them indeed.

    Kelly Martin – AB9RF
    Cook County, Illinois, United States

  • I’m glad to see a discussion evolving from the article I wrote. Thanks for everyone’s comments so far, which add further context and nuance to the debate.

    I have no stake at all in the internal affairs of the Radio Society of Sri Lanka, which probably has its own dynamics as any other group. I’m also not a radio ham, although I once briefly harboured intentions of becoming one (as I wrote on my own blog, at: http://movingimages.wordpress.com/2010/01/01/who%E2%80%99s-afraid-of-amateur-radio-and-why/).

    My interest in this stems from three concerns: 1) how this low-tech, resilient communications technology may be integrated meaningfully into modern day disaster communication strategies and plans; 2) why the highly militarised and paranoid Sri Lankan state is so apprehensive of a proven and regulated technology, even in the current, post-war era; and 3) how the prevailing state attitude to amateur radio is highlights a deeper issue, i.e. the mismanagement and abuse of the electro-magnetic spectrum, a common property resource (see http://movingimages.wordpress.com/2007/04/17/sos-save-our-spectrum-for-media-freedom/)

    These bigger concerns would be better served if all of us can rise above the internal politics of the Radio Society. Shall we?

  • Nalaka, is Customs and Ministry of Defence primarily concerned with collecting taxes on imported amateur radio equipment or are they more concerned with the ability of individual amateur radio operators to communicate without using any government controlled communication network? The amateur radio fraternity tends to self-police itself. Military use of amateur radio frequencies would result in lots of international exposure of the intruders which I assume would be bad for clandestine communications.

    Amateur radio is so resilient in a disaster because a dispersed group of individual hams gain radio communications experience as they communicate just for fun. The resilience goes away when government applies too much central control. Takes more than just access to a HF transceiver to use the shortwave bands.

  • “….I do appreciate the difference between community broadcasting and amateur radio, but since both pursuits are fellow travellers on the airwaves,….”
    In Thailand, we are using a different potential to enhance each other.

  • Marco-s-ni

    It is not just Third World governments that want to block citizens from communicating without total oversight and control by the state. Even certain liberal, western democracies still try to do the same thing, sometimes as crudely as our governments. Far more than amateur radio, it is mobile phones and internet that scares the daylights out of all governments.

    Italy is a good example. Foirst they wanted to register all bloggers in the country. Then they wanted to have draconian defamation laws specifically aimed at bloggers.
    See this story: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/07/17/italian-bloggers-strike-o_n_238113.html

  • NCF

    I agree with Kelly Martin! Anytime authority can restrict communications, they will. It is hardly ever done “for national security reasons”, but only under color of law (unlawful manipulation and misapplication of law).

  • Pro Bono Publico

    What is unfortunately not mentioned here and glossed over is that thousands of U.S. dollars in equipment and funds that were received by the national society were never properly accounted for by Body. No audit was done and no accountability assumed as to what happened to all the gifted resources.

    This fact is a festering wound within the local ham community and nobody wishes to talk about it.

    However, it is time it was aired in the open as the donors went to a lot of trouble and expense to come to the need of the ham community to enable them to deal with the crisis.

    The donations were to an incorporated entity to deal with a National crisis and at no time were the donations earmarked or meant to be personal gifts either in respect of money or equipment.

    Much water has flowed since then and many attempts made by a concerned few to exercise some sort of accountability have faced roadblocks at every turn.The stain is on the good name of the country as it is Sri Lanka that was the recipient of the largess and not individuals in a ham group.

    Time the stain was washed off and the good name of the RSSL even at this belated and very late juncture, be restored.

    Hopefully this will catch the eye of the authorities responsible for overseeing the tsunami aid that flowed into all NGOs; the RSSL being one too.

  • BeepBeep

    Incidentally a correction is in order. Mr, Goonetillek was not a “ham” in 1966; not even in the mid 1970s. He became a ham much later.

    In 1966 he was an avid SWL (Short Wave Listener); one who listens to SW radio but does not transmit.

  • Added on 20 June 2012: I’m happy to report a new development in this story, as captured by journalist Mel Gunasekera in LBO:

    Sri Lankan radio amateurs renew offer to help national disaster

    Three-years after the war ended in May 2009, defence ministry has rolled-back the red tape, offering hope for radio ham’s to renew their passion and volunteer their services for community work.

    “From January we have little less red tape to get our equipment cleared, to make our members capable of meeting disasters,” a grateful Goonetilleke said.

    Gamini Hettiarachchi, Director General of the National Disaster Management Center, was keen to discuss the radio ham’s offer.

    “We will certainly like to hear how you can help us. We like to join with all civil societies,” said Hettiarachchi, a retired army major general.

    The society made a similar offer to state disaster management agencies months after the tsunami, but received a lukewarm response.

    The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka disaster mitigation plan, has provisions to integrate radio ham’s in national disaster work.

    Full story at: