Friday, August 1, 2008

Bootleggers on the VHF Business Band!

Bootleggers on the business band! That's the subject of the next Random Access Thought coming up for the week ending August 2nd. In a relatively rare appearance, it is I who will host this edition. Download TWIARi #184, TWIAR #799 or get the individual Random Access Thought by going to: http://www.twiar.org/n2fnh/RATParts

Look under file number RAT080731_1584_BCQ.cab or RAT080731_1584_HAM.cab. Right click on the file name and "save target as...". Use your WinZip or IZAarc to extract the segment. In the meantime, what follows is the text copy written for this week's episode:

Oh hello there!
When you think of Pirate Radio, you may consider the activities often heard over international shortwave radio. Publications such as Monitoring Times and Popular Communications offer extensive monthly detail on how and where such pirates may be received across the high frequency spectrum. In-the-field stations such as WBNY or Kracker Radio International continue to pump out their unique program formats for any listener to hear.

Pirate Radio may also bring to mind the crazy taxi cab drivers in New York City whizzing around the five boroughs, belting out their foreign language transmissions that can be copied worldwide in the basement of the ten meter amateur band. Frequencies legally reserved for us hams light up with Russian, Arabic and Farsi where Dits and Dahs would normally show.

And to be sure, there have been pirates on both AM and FM radio dials since the birth of broadcasting and these too are heavily documented in the hobby media. But recently, I came across what appears to be another sort of radio pirate, a specimen not so commonly heard. For the sake of a little melodrama, let's title this episode: "The Mystery at 158 point 4".

It turns out that 158 point 4 Megahertz is just one of a fleet of VHF channels assigned by the Federal Communications Commission for local business use. Plug this frequency into your scanner and you may indeed intercept business radio activity in your hometown. I have a Motorola XTN VHF business band handheld which I got at Sam's Club. Like all of Sam's Club stuff, the radio came cheap. I discovered that both Sam's Club and WalMart use these radios in all their stores. The radio is fairly rugged, a one channel, 27 frequency device, which at various times I would program, then park on the dining room table and listen.

When I punched in 158 point 4 Megahertz, I soon heard this: (FX1)
And I heard this: (FX2)
Also...this: (FX3)
In addition to all these ring-a-ding signals, there was also a voice repeater
to boot. (FX4)
Here was a channel banging and clanging with all sorts of radiophonic sound effects, so of course I immediately recorded them and stored them away. I soon realized that I heard no identification of any sort: no CW IDs. The population on the repeater used unit numbers and first names only. No legal IDs verbally given either. The transmissions copied were mostly small talk. Street names were heard from time to time but places like 2nd Avenue or 3rd Street could match several localities. No city names were ever mentioned. They knew where they were, but I did not. And...there were often technical issues with the repeater, but the "Alert Zone 1" guy, the "Blip Blip Blips" and the Radio Shack "Ding-Dong" doorbell played on through out the day into the late evening. I could only guess that these signals might be some sort of proximity alarm

At some point, the entire operation ceased communication. The frequency went dead. No Alerts. No Ding-Dongs. No repeaters. I checked online at http://www.nf2g.com/ Dave Stark runs an excellent web page dedicated to scanner activities for New York State. Sure enough, the latest reports showed the bang-clang circus had shifted down range to 158.385 MHz. Dave had documented the station as an unknown illegal and unlicensed repeater which was now causing interference to another legal user in nearby Greene county.

And then, at some point, the entire operation ceased communication. The frequency went dead. I wondered...Did the FCC respond to complaints? Had the FCC shut down the repeater and pulled the plug on its alarming alarm system as well? I asked Dave if he knew, but unfortunately there was no additional information.

It appeared the business band pirates had finally made the fade. In the meantime, their sonic footprints had been carefully preserved and filed away deep within the vaults of the N2FNH Sound Effects Library. These simple sound bites have already been morphed from this: (FX5) into this: (FX6).

But, in the end...it may just be...that the bootleggers on 158.4 have returned. As I was preparing this edition of the Random Access Thought, a "Ding Dong Doorbell", a "Blip Blip Blip" and an "Alert Zone One" suddenly materialized on channel. Not as often as before...once or twice in the morning hours, maybe once or twice at night. No one's talking, (FX7) at least not yet.

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