Most of us spend our days without much awareness of the pervasive presence of radio all around us. Consider for a minute, how everything from our cellphones, Bluetooth devices, near field communication, wireless devices, and microwave ovens all work with radio waves. By “radio waves” we don’t mean Radio 2.0 or some new incarnation of the technology, but the very same radio waves that were pioneered by Marconi.
The view that ham radio is simply an old-school hobby is understandable. Why listen to the radio when you can immerse yourself in Dolby Surround cinema via Youtube, right? For most of us getting the information we want is only a search query or email away. Ham radio may seem like an irrelevant and forgotten proto-technology, yet, the truth is that ham radio is internationally standardized and acknowledged as a service. Major players such as Motorola and Kenwood cater to this market, and Ham radio equipment is a part of most space missions and scientific field bases. For this reason, not just anyone is given free range in the Ham radio airwaves and operators are required to pass competency examinations before they are allocated an international call sign and allowed to transmit.
Their ability to communicate effectively via shortwave radio during and following natural disasters has made the Ham radio community a willing and able helping hand during many events of extreme weather, earthquakes, tsunami and mobile mast outages.
Despite the association of services such as social networking and email with the internet, Ham radio enthusiasts have, for decades, enjoyed the benefits of their very own social network. They have, for example, created a network of radio-based mail servers that allow the sending and receiving of ordinary email using only radio transmission. Ham radio also has, for some time, been able to transmit still images and video, in real-time, on dedicated frequencies adjacent to the frequencies used by wifi, cellphones, and GPS.
“Big deal,” one might think, “I’ll just stick to my zippy 40MB internet connection,” and fair enough – most people find cabled internet sufficient. The thing is – what happens to our internet lives (and blockchains) should the centrally controlled internet be unavailable due to physical or political known unknowns?
The circumstances under which the internet and 3G networks could buckle are many, and we’ll get to those in a minute.
Remember when you first “got” Bitcoin and the moment when you first had the chilling thought: “Hold on a frickin’ minute… how is this going to work without the internet?” The next logical thought was “… and when the electrical grid goes down, how am I supposed to access my blooming ElectroPowerCoins!”
Time passed, and thanks to selective memory, you could immerse yourself in the Blockchain Revolution and, recently, Bitcoin 2.0. The infrequent twitches of doubt fade away – no-one else seems to worry about the integrity or longevity of the internet, why should I?
The following scenario – extreme, though likely – is presented not as Doomsday porn, but because it emphasizes the importance of Ham radio and illustrates a case where Ham radio will be the only functional communication network available to ordinary citizens.
As part of its normal activity, the sun intermittently ejects flares of charged particles into space. Such a particle flare is called a solar coronal mass ejection (CME) and in the infrequent event that a CME hits the Earth’s atmosphere it causes a geomagnetic solar storm with far reaching consequences.
The last major geomagnetic solar storm (called the Carrington Event) occurred in 1859 when a solar coronal mass ejection hit Earth’s magnetosphere. Aurorae could be seen around the world – as far south as the Caribbean – and telegraph systems in Europe and North America blew sparks, shocked telegraph operators and failed.
An equivalent solar storm, if it were to happen today, poses an interesting dilemma for our technology-dependent society.
Next, a wave of highly energized protons and electrons arrives at a speed just slower than light and electrifies (“fries”) all electronic systems not protected by the atmosphere – think satellites.
In the wake of the electrified particle wave, and taking a day or more to reach the Earth, comes a billion-ton magnetized plasma cloud. This is the coronal mass ejection itself. Scientists expect that a powerful CME will blow electricity substations, destroy any electric and electronic appliances connected to the power grid, and largely disable the water supply (since most urban water is pressurized by electrical pumps). As learned from 1859’s Carrington Event, all telephone, fibre and cellphone communication networks will be inoperable and along with them the internet and cyberspace.
The frequency of CMEs oscillates with the sunspot cycle. At solar minimum about one CME a week is observed and near solar maximum an average of 2 to 3 CMEs occur every day. CME intensity varies, yet, even a relatively weak CME poses a threat to electrical systems and satellites. It is likely that, in time, at least a low-intensity CME will intersect with Earth’s orbit.
The prospect of even a moderate CME disaster is, therefore, grim for most population centers: no cellphones, no television, no GPS (no air travel), no utility electricity, no ATMs and no internet.
The only civilian communications network in this scenario will be the mesh of Ham radio operators, who – with electricity supplied by generators or solar energy converters – can continue hosting their global communications network. Their low-tech radio emulations of internet services will become the new high-tech: email, image transmission and… thanks to HamRadioCoin, a made-for-radio blockchain.
We tend to spend little time thinking about worst-case scenarios. The implications are so morose and unpredictable that it’s hard to justify preparing for natural disaster and exogenous events. The consensus seems to be “Everything will be alright” – that is unless you’ve been in a situation where emergency or disaster services attempted to salvage those caught in a wildly unanticipated outcome. Natural disaster is not the only factor that can shatter consensus reality – political censorship and control of the internet is possible and happens.
“Alternative blockchain transports are critical to the success and survivability of the Bitcoin system.”
– Greg Maxwell, Bitcoin core developer
Three designs currently exist. Jyri Hovila of Vertaisvaluutta.fi has designed CBRadioCoin with the objective of creating a P2P network over half-duplex “citizen band” radio. In the digital radio (DVB) domain, Kryptoradio, allows for one-way broadcast of the Bitcoin blockchain via both television and commercial RF bands. In the amateur radio domain, BitcoinTalk user hamhrc designed HamRadioCoin, which was pushed into prototype phase by fellow BitcoinTalk user, garmin, who suggested that HamRadioCoin addresses could be transmitted via SSTV (more below).
Retro-fitting the advanced technical innovation of the Bitcoin protocol to the constraints of analog and digital radio presents the design teams and developers with unique challenges:
The coordinated efforts of the HamRadioCoin community, Vertaisvaluutta.fi and KryptoRadio benefits all cryptocurrency users with alternative channels of blockchain distribution and decentralization. Being more than just a proof of concept, HamRadioCoin is furthest along the development route that leads to a fully functional alternative blockchain channel and ensures that – even in the absence of the internet – cryptocurrency can continue to function.
The HamRadioCoin project allows Ham radio operators to send and receive hamradiocoins (HAM) via the global Ham radio network.
In order to send cryptocurrency protocol data via radio instead of the internet, developers are extending the HamRadioCoin protocol to use packet radio as a carrier. The following video shows developer garmin’s proof of concept in action:
The team seeks to cater for both short and long range transmission, so satellite transmission is the next milestone. To send HamRadioCoin addresses and data via Ham radio, operators require an international call sign and a full-blown Ham radio transmitter/receiver. However, anyone can listen to HamRadioCoin packet radio transmissions via Software Define Radio (SDR) on their Android device or by using, for example, the following low-cost radio equipment and PC interface:
APRSdroid Software Defined Radio for Android devices
Ham Radio Software for Ubuntu Linux
Shackbox Ham Linux Distribution
Portable Radio Reception Kit
Compatible Coax Antenna
Bluetooth Modem for hardware and software radios
In the Spring of 2015 HAMRadiocoin will attempt an Earth-Moon-Earth communication over Ham radio. Earth-Moon-Earth communication, also known as “moon bounce”, is a radio communications technique that relies on the propagation of radio waves from an Earth-based transmitter directed via reflection off the surface of the Moon back to an Earth-based receiver. This event will make HamRadioCoin the first cryptocurrency in space. CCN will be featuring the story.
For more details and transmission dates see:
Interested developers should contact the team via their BitcoinTalk forum or website.
Please submit comments below
Acknowledgment: Thanks to garmin, hamhrc and Jyri Hovila for their valuable input and feedback.
Last modified: November 23, 2014 12:16 UTC