How to Operate on a Radio Net

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Nets can be a great way to get used to keying up your radio and talking (or if you're hard-core, punching out CW!) And if you're not entirely new to the hobby, they're a great way to become familiar with structured communications.

Here are a few tips to make this easy:

  • LISTEN FIRST! This should actually be Tips 1 through 5 (or 10). There is no substitute for listening for a little while to get familiar with how nets work. There's very little technical challenge to operating on a net, so a bit of time listening will pay big dividends when it's time to check in.
  • Net Control is in charge. Technically, every net has a net control. (Some ragchew groups seem like nets in that they take turns and meet on a regular schedule, but these are not, strictly speaking, nets. They are round-tables, "skeds," or just organically-evolved group chats). The net control station, sometimes abbreviated NCS, runs the show. They take checkins at the beginning, or in some cases they run a roll call list. Then, as the net progresses, they invite participants to speak. The nature of what a given participant says depends on the nature of the net. For a social/ragchew net, in general the topic is not fixed, and a net participant may report in on anything they wish to share.
  • Emergency or priority traffic takes precedence over everything else. If a social net is running and then a localized or widespread emergency occurs, the NCS calls a halt to any non-essential traffic and facilitates the emergency or priority communications. If you are not part of the emergency traffic, it's time to go to listen-only mode.
  • NCS may ask for certain stations for specific reasons. For example, in a social net, the NCS may give priority to stations with weak signals, or stations that are mobile and may move out of range of the repeater soon. In a public service net (such as support for a road race or parade), the NCS will call on specific stations based on the needs of the event. If a runner needs medical help at Mile 15, the NCS is likely to call for a station close to Mile 15, for example.
  • If you check in to a net, it is good practice not to leave until the net is over. For social nets, this is more a matter of courtesy than of strict necessity. For service or emergency nets, this is crucial. If you are part of an emergency net and leave early, at best NCS may not be able to get to you when they need you, and at worst they may assume something has happened to you, and try to get help to you.
  • Related to the previous--if you're on battery power, consider how much battery life you have before you check in. If your battery is on its last legs and you don't have a backup, don't check into the net (except possibly as an "i/o" on a social net).
  • Social net "in and out:" on social/ragchew nets, it is not uncommon for some hams to give an "in and out" checkin. This is the radio equivalent of saying a quick hello without joining a conversation. The "i/o" checkin is the one exception to the practice of staying on until the net ends. For a social net, it's not expected that i/o stations will necessarily monitor through the entire net.

Pileups

This term originated on the HF bands, where a desirable station (such as a rare DX station) is running a frequency, and many other stations "pile up" on each other, vying for the desired station's attention. Pileups often occur during nets, too, especially when the NCS is calling for all checkins or comments rather than running an explicit roll call. Here are a few tips for dealing with pileups.

  • Be patient. You might not "win" the pileup, and in fact, many other stations may get called before you do. Don't be discouraged--this happens to everyone at one time or another.
  • Check for doubles. A couple of effective ways to do this are to key up, say "This is," unkey to check for a double, and then proceed with your callsign if there is no double. A similar method is to use your prefix, e.g. "N7," unkey, then if there isn't a double, proceed with your full callsign. Note: you will sometimes be "punished" for this good practice by being "beaten" by other stations who check in with their whole call. But you get Ham Radio Karma Points for checking for doubles and being patient.

You could be the NCS, too!

If you have listened to nets, and especially if you have checked in, you should consider taking a turn as the net control station. It is excellent practice, many NCS stations find it a lot of fun, and you never know when, in an emergency, you might be the most qualified person to run a net!