Amateur Radio Buffs’ Quest to Connect Quake-Ravaged Nepal

Maker News Technology
Amateur Radio Buffs’ Quest to Connect Quake-Ravaged Nepal
Photo: think4photop - Adobe Stock
Photo: think4photop – Adobe Stock

In the pre-dawn hours of April 25, when my phone buzzed “Q Q Q” — the code I had set to notify me when the USGS Earthquake Notification Service registers a quake above a certain seismic level — I had to check and re-check to make sure it was right: a 7.8 Mw earthquake had struck Nepal only 48 miles northwest of Kathmandu. Still, it wasn’t completely unexpected. I serve as strategic advisor to Radio Mala, an organization that has been working for five years to bring amateur radio to Nepal in preparation for just such an event. This earthquake was not an “if,” but a “when.”

The area known as the Kathmandu Valley experiences massive earthquakes about every 70 to 80 years, and the last major quake (estimated to have been 8.0 Mw) occurred in 1934. Seismologists’ predictions were only a year off for this quake. The April 2015 Nepal earthquake was devastating due to its intensity, proximity to densely populated areas, and large aftershocks.

The USGS PAGER system, which estimates impacts to human life and economic losses based on shaking intensity and population density, predicted a 33% probability of up to 10,000 fatalities — an unfortunate but highly accurate estimate; the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs counts as of August 24, 2015 stand at 8,881 dead. The earthquake caused an estimated US$5 billion in losses — about 25% of Nepal’s GDP. More than two million people were displaced, with more than 600,000 houses fully destroyed. The long summer brought the monsoon season, and along with it further devastation due to landslides and water-borne diseases. (In late July, a slide near Annapurna killed 33.) Even with the massive international response in aid and assistance, it will be many years before Nepal recovers from this disaster.

This is a story about a tool — amateur radio — that has helped, and will continue to help, and those of us who are working to deploy it. We call ourselves Radio Mala, and in Nepal, before and after the earthquake, we have distributed radios and expertise in an effort to improve communication and alleviate suffering.

In the early days of wireless, all radio was amateur radio. Gradually, governments created regulations and controls to reign in the chaos as radio transitioned from a hobby to a tool of commercial enterprise, public safety, and military strategy. As commercial wireless technologies became more affordable, amateur radio became less common — it’s not unusual for people to wonder that it still exists. There remain technical challenges and it takes some effort to learn, though it provides a reward similar to any technical hobby, like building a home security system from a Raspberry Pi rather than buying a complete system.

Photo: Tribhuvan University
Photo: Tribhuvan University

But in other scenarios, it’s more than just a hobby. It’s simple, adaptable, and unlike cellular or internet, doesn’t require infrastructure. Every node is self-contained and locally powered. In the U.S., radio operators assisted in the wake of disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, 9/11, and more situations when infrastructure-based communications failed. As a solution for countries with limited infrastructure and power systems, amateur radio can connect remote villages far more cheaply than satellite phones, and without the infrastructure of other communication. As a bonus, it provides an opportunity for practical education and hands-on experience.

“Even the limited amount of amateur radio we’ve been able to deploy in Nepal has made a tremendous impact after the April 25 earthquake,” says Dr. Sanjeeb Panday, an associate professor at the Institute of Engineering at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan University. “Immediately after the first earthquake all amateur operators were communicating with each other. One of my students was able to walk to a place named Shantinagar, near his house, and then was able to inform us that the Gate of Shantinagar has collapsed and some people had been killed by the collapse.”

Radio Mala began with Suresh Ojha. Born in Nepal but raised in the U.S., Ojha requested W6KTM from the FCC as his radio callsign, as a reference to Katmandu’s airport code, KTM. After graduating from the University of California, Davis, where I got to know him, Ojha moved to Nepal to teach radio frequency and microwave engineering at Tribhuvan University. What he learned there made him worry about the disaster that could strike any time.

“After returning from Nepal in 2004 I felt a helplessness in the pit of my stomach about the devastation I knew awaited Nepal during their next major earthquake,” he says. “Sometimes I couldn’t sleep at night, imagining the horrors that would happen.”

Photo: Tribhuvan University
Photo: Tribhuvan University

We reconnected in 2012 after Ojha got involved with Bay-Net, an amateur radio club in the San Francisco Bay Area that runs six repeaters — paired radios, installed in high places, that receive and then re-transmit signals — to allow public service organizations as well as amateurs to carry simpler, lighter radios on the ground.

“I realized that amateur radio could provide a solution, and became committed to building something ahead of time – creating a solution that would be available when the earthquake eventually came,” says Ojha.

A project like Radio Mala requires help on the other side — you can’t just mail radios and expect them to be useful. Historically, Nepal’s government was reluctant to grant amateur radio licenses. The country was ruled by an absolute monarchy until 1990, suffered a bloody civil war from 1996 to 2006, and has since transitioned to a parliamentary republic, though it still has not ratified a constitution. While it no longer officially has a caste system, there are still significant social barriers. Some within Nepal have even tried to keep amateur radio reserved as a privilege for the upper castes, fearing its use in unrest and revolt.

In the U.S., examinations for amateur radio licenses are done by groups of senior amateurs, known as Volunteer Examiners. The FCC processes the paperwork and records the licenses, but they don’t administer tests; this allows us to administer tests anywhere, provided we can get three or more VEs to the test site. In Nepal, all exams are conducted by the Ministry of Information and Communication at a government building in Kathmandu, which means that any Nepali wanting to get licensed must travel to the capital. Prior to 2011, there were just five licensed amateurs. Since then, 78 additional amateurs have been licensed, mostly Kathmandu residents, and many are students at Tribhuvan University.

Photo: Tribhuvan University
Photo: Tribhuvan University

Beyond the difficulty in obtaining licenses, Nepal’s relatively low per-capita income — the average Nepali earns approximately US$1,000 per month — create further barriers. While radios can be made, they are more often purchased. Availability of parts is a key issue; Nepal has no stores that cater to amateur radio, and international shipping costs are often high.

Furthermore, electrical power is not always stable in Nepal, and battery backup systems can be expensive. Radio equipment donations from Radio Mala and amateurs in the USA have been held in customs for long periods of time with no apparent reason. The uncertainty caused by these political and social forces have been a source of challenge for the Radio Mala project, though we have had some success: Both of the radio repeaters currently operating in Nepal use equipment donated by Radio Mala.

Enter Sanjeeb Panday (callsign 9N1SP) who has been working for years to help more Nepalis get licensed. Supported in part by Radio Mala, Panday has made amateur radio an important part of his engineering curriculum.

“My students have been really inspired to get involved in local relief and recovery efforts because they saw the impact amateur radio can have,” says Panday. “They were always asking me how we could help.” Together, they installed the repeater at Tribhuvan in 2013, and Panday helps his students get licensed.

Dr. Sanjeeb Panday. Photo: Tribhuvan University
Dr. Sanjeeb Panday. Photo: Tribhuvan University

I joined Radio Mala’s advisory board in 2013. Having decided to deploy amateur radio in Nepal, we faced the practical and daunting question of how best to do this. We put together kits and sent them to Panday, who taught Nepalis to use them. And after the earthquake, we redoubled efforts to deploy handheld radios and repeaters, and added a project to connect remote areas using shortwave radios and dipole antennas.

At Maker Faire Bay Area, just a few weeks after the earthquake, we asked attendees to help build those antennas. Wire dipoles are the simplest antenna — two wires stretched horizontally between two supports, usually parallel to the ground and placed 15 feet high or higher.

Photo: David Witkowski
Photo: David Witkowski

When a dipole is strung parallel to the ground at a height less than ¼ of its resonance wavelength, it tends to direct its RF energy in a vertical direction. If the signal’s wavelength is low enough (below 10 MHz), it will bounce off the Earth’s ionosphere and can be received by stations within 500 to 800 km. This type of radio propagation is called Near-Vertical Incident Skywave, and it’s ideally suited when communications are needed in steep mountainous terrain.

The 40-meter (7.1 MHz) wire dipole kits we built fit into a gallon Ziploc bag and with all accessories, including the pull-up ropes used to set them up, they weigh less than 2.2 pounds. We sent them to Nepal, aiming to distribute them to remote areas as soon as we can get at least one person from a village trained and licensed in amateur radio. But the difficulty of travel — especially among residents of villages disrupted by the quake — makes studying, coaching, and licensing difficult. The antennas are still sitting at Tribhuvan University, waiting.

Photo: David Witkowski
Photo: David Witkowski

Already there are a few highly portable high-frequency (HF) transceivers, donated by individuals and companies. The transceivers translate the audio to radio signals and back, and a United Nations aid organization donated solar panels to power the radios.

Panday and his students worked in Kathmandu to set up and leverage these tools, deploying additional radio systems and helping to provide communications support to the community and aid agencies. Mirroring a commonly used amateur radio communications model, his students have created a “Hospital Net” in which students go to hospitals and aid centers to test radio communications and determine how problems can be corrected.

Photo: Tribhuvan University
Photo: Tribhuvan University

“In addition to our local amateurs, some of the rescue teams from Nepal NGOs were using the repeater to coordinate their search and rescue operations,” says Panday. “Some amateur radio operators were communicating internationally via shortwave frequencies and passing the information about foreigners who were missing. My students and I were passing traffic on shortwave to a U.S. Army military auxiliary radio system operator in Afghanistan every day.”

The first repeater installed in Nepal operates in a “cross-band” configuration for simplicity and cost-reduction — that is, each operator broadcasts on one band and listens on another, avoiding the need for expensive RF feedback filters. The repeater was in place before the earthquake and has been in constant use since. A second repeater that replicates the Bay-Net repeater network was in customs during the earthquake. Panday and his team installed the system on the roof of the Institute of Engineering. In the middle of that work, on May 15, a 7.3 Mw aftershock hit; fortunately, Panday and his team were indoors.

Photo: Tribhuvan University
Photo: Tribhuvan University

“Life in Kathmandu was slowly returning back to normal,” says Panday. “We were working nearly 80 feet high from the ground and to be quite honest, even without the risk of earthquake all of us were very scared working at that height. We didn’t know what we would do if there was another major aftershock.”

“When the shaking started I immediately told everyone to get out of the building,” he says. “As soon as we got out it was very hard to stand still on the ground because of the violent shaking. We could see rapid movement of wire antenna and solar panels on the roof from the ground. We were scared to death imagining what would have happened if we’d been on the roof instead of inside the building.”

But they got the system installed. Like Bay-Net, it uses repurposed commercial vehicle radios to transmit and receive. Repeaters like this are very easy to maintain because they’re inexpensive enough that having pre-programmed spares is possible – if a radio fails it can be swapped out in minutes and later repaired offsite. The repeater controller hardware and firmware was designed by a couple of Bay-Net’s lead members and are built to order by the company they founded (Sierra Radio Systems) using low-quantity PCB services. The most expensive components of the Bay-Net system are the antenna duplexer/filter, coax, connectors, and VHF or UHF antennas (“very” and “ultra” high frequency) — and we try to use scavenged and repurposed parts whenever possible.

Photo: Tribhuvan University
Photo: Tribhuvan University

In addition to the local repeater network, there are a few stations in Nepal capable of operating on the HF bands (3–30 MHz) that are used for long-distance and international communications. In the aftermath of the earthquake, amateur operators around the world established communications with Nepal on the 20 meter and 15 meter (14 MHz and 21 MHz) bands.

Using an HF radio donated by Radio Mala, Panday and crew sent photos of affected areas in Kathmandu, and relayed news and information about relief efforts, needed equipment, and charity projects via operators in Israel and Europe to amateurs around the world.

Since the earthquake, Radio Mala has expanded its goals and scope. We distributed about 26 VHF/UHF handheld radios, and accelerated our efforts to deploy more repeaters in the Kathmandu Valley and to link those repeaters together into a wide-area system like we have in the Bay Area. On the way are 42 handheld radios, along with 3 desktop-size radios for use in hospitals.

Another goal is to use amateur radio to help connect remote villages in the valleys of the Himalayan Mountains with each other, and with the lowland cities. These villages are in the valleys between very high peaks and ranges. Even before the earthquake, travel was challenging. In areas like the Tsum Valley, Nubri, and Ripchet, there are no roads, and telephone service (if it exists) is usually via expensive satellite phones. To get from one village to another you walk up a mountain and back down the other side.

After the earthquake, many remote villages were cut off by landslides, and in some cases news and damage reports took more than a week to get passed along. Our vision is to see amateur radio become a lifeline between these villages, and to be a tool to help Nepal recover from this unimaginable disaster.

Photo: Tribhuvan University
Photo: Tribhuvan University

Editor’s note: If you’re interested in donating or getting involved, visit the Radio Mala website.

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David Witkowski

At the age of two, David Witkowski climbed out of his crib, fell, and was rushed to the hospital in his father’s police car. Seated in front, his earliest memory is of the car’s radio console, and since then he’s had a (some say unhealthy) fascination with all things radio.

David has worked in wireless communications for over 30 years and has held positions of leadership at companies ranging from Fortune 500 multi-nationals to early-stage startups. He obtained his BSEE (with a focus on wireless and microwave systems design) from the University of California at Davis.

David serves as President of the Wireless Communications Alliance, as an advisor on Dean's Council for the Carnegie Institute of Technology at Carnegie Mellon University, and as a member of the Wireless Communications Initiative at Joint Venture Silicon Valley. David is a Senior Member in both the IEEE and the Radio Club of America, and holds an Extra Class license (W6DTW) in the Amateur Radio Service.

View more articles by David Witkowski


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