Frequent “networks” provide space for users to talk, educate and entertain.

Facetime, Zoom, Google Meets – and amateur radio.

Video conferencing may have come to the fore during the coronavirus pandemic as part of efforts to stay connected. But unlike the online virtual rooms where many gather, some Central Ohioans go on the air instead.

The Madison County’s Amateur Radio Club has expanded its weekly “networks” – a channel for multiple radios to communicate – to nearly every night to provide room for entertainment, education, and conversation for its members. The radio club, made up of some 60 licensed amateur radio operators in Madison County and central Ohio, expanded its “networks” in late March following the first appointment from Governor Mike DeWine to stay at home.

“It is important for me to be in contact with the outside world, and I expect that other people will too,” said Mark Erbaugh, the club’s secretary who led the expanded program.

Erbaugh, 65, who lives in London, west of Columbus, particularly realized the importance of the increasing wireless networks when it was found that the club’s monthly face-to-face meetings would be postponed indefinitely.

Prior to ordering at home, the club’s weekly “networks” attracted a dozen or so members who checked in mainly to discuss issues related to the operation of amateur radios. The nightly offer – affectionately known as “the cabin fever networks” – now attracts more than 20 listeners who register for wireless moderation discussions on various topics.

Each ham operator sends from his home station. The club’s repeater system allows Ham to travel 30 to 45 miles from the transmitter location using handheld radios with low power consumption.

Many of the topics of discussion concerned the radio: the use of amateur radio software, meteor scatter communications, storage battery technology, and the Ohio antenna law. More often, however, the presentations – which can last an hour or more – switch to topics ranging from astronomy to model railways and 3D printing.

For a week, 78-year-old Nick Pittner was particularly happy about a presentation on the history of chess.

Each club member can volunteer to prepare and host a presentation on a topic of their choice. Those who tune in can also ask questions and bring in their own thoughts.

Pittner, who has been a club member for 26 years, said the focus will be on giving presentations on topics that appeal to members’ diverse ages and educational backgrounds.

“It’s a wide range of backgrounds and interests so we’re trying to make it interesting for as many as possible,” said Pittner of West Jefferson. “All of these things broaden your horizons.”

Of course, the socialization aspect of amateur radio is hardly its most pressing function.

According to Scott Yonally, the manager of the Ohio section of the American Radio Relay League, there are 27,955 licensed amateur radio operators in Ohio.

Since they can be operated without the Internet or even without a power grid, amateur radio operators are essential when establishing communication in emergencies, if either the normal communication lines are overloaded or not available. Many operators also support the National Weather Service with severe weather observations across the state.

“Ham radio has traditionally been in the background, doing the work that needs to be done in silence for our communities,” Yonally said.

In times of isolation like now, it can nonetheless serve as an important link in keeping people in contact with others.

“I thought it was really important that we try to keep in touch,” said Erbaugh. I think we bonded as a group. We really learned from each other. “