the demographics of repeaters

One of the new features on the amateur landscape in the 1970’s was repeaters.  We used them all over the 2-meter band and elsewhere, like on sunsoaked 10 meters.  This was to extend our range in bands where propagation was normally short, and also to overcome dampened atmospherics do to solar activity, and partly to make reasonable use of an accessable new technology.  Part of the repeater’s cachet was that we used them in space.  The Oscar 6 amateur satellite used 144 megahertz for uplink, and 27 megahertz for downlink.  At the American Radio Relay League’s national convention in Denver, in July of ’76, the kickoff event was the launch of a balloon-borne repeater on 146.16.  It was going to hit 100,000 feet.  That meant a range of several hundred miles, which was exciting on two meters.  Three co-channel repeaters agreed to shut down for the event.

There were fancy ways to use your repeater, too.  There was the autopatch, for one.  It worked by touch-tone keypad.  You’d connect with the public phone system, and make calls from your car.  Everyone could hear your conversations, of course.  And you weren’t supposed to make business calls or run personal errands.  Nor was it good form to use the system to circumnavigate long-distance tariffs.  Autopatch managers thought of this as bootlegging.  They were known to identify offenders by taping and analysing their tones.  Touch-tones were also a way to lock down your repeater.  Late in the ‘seventies, repeater group offered homemade tone-burst generators for their members, to use like on-air keys.  Simple crowding was another reason for touch-tone access.  In some cities repeaters were so dense that keying your microphone could activate more than one machine at a time, which was a chaotic situation on the air.

Repeater clubs, being local affairs, were hugely social.  What were they like?  The BRATS, or the 225 members of the Baltimore Radio Amateur Television Society, who ran W3DID/R, were a mid-sized example.  They encouraged participation from the technically-minded, so their repeater community got the reputation of guys in the know, and people flocked to join.  Their equipment, mostly homebrew, worked on 440 mhz., 2-meters, and 2.3Ghz., and could handle ATV and packet radio digital signals.  They held discussion nets every evening, with subjects rotating nightly among equipment-trading, message traffic, radioteletype, radiotelephone, some ham reading for the visually impaired, photography, DX, and general technical answer-man sessions.  They didn’t solicit new membership, but just answered when spontaneous inquiries came.  They stayed in synch with local club meetings, public service events, and local hamfests.  The point of the net was to have a little fun, promote local achievement, and just get friends talking.  I remember accessing Rocky Mountain repeaters variously from WA7SLG, the University of Utah’s amateur radio club.  Fun it was, and very buzzy.  It was an FM signal, so the fidelity was stereo-like.

Repeaters were numerous enough late in the ‘70’s that they warranted their own directory, and a whole new specialty publication from the League as well.  They were also powerful enough that the FCC wasn’t sure how to handle their legality.  We insisted, and so did amateur division chief, W4BW, luckily, that the machines generally ought to be allowed to function freely, that their every action need not be logged, that the periodic transmitter identification signal could be automatic, and that there be no reduction to power limits.  And repeaters were so immediately critical to the communications needs of entire communities of hams that whole municipalities, even metropolitan New York, set up repeater councils to manage them right.  The self-policing worked, much as the QRM agreements among clubs had cleaned up a lot of interference in the 1920’s.  People were surprised by the maturing effect of setting up a frivolous repeater and then finding huge numbers of operators relying on the machine.  In 20 years owners of servers and websites would pass through the same sobering moment.

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