I made my first contacts tonight during a 2 meter net hosted on a repeater in Stillwater. I came in loud and clear once I stood up, moved to the northeast corner of my deck, and held my handheld radio steady. It was a great net, everyone welcomed me to the hobby and the net control even figured out that my call sign must have something to do with trains before I even mentioned its origins. I was told that for an HT (handheld) at my distance I was coming in quite clear (once I made location adjustments on my deck).
Now, for those that don’t follow a little ham talk, a repeater is a large antenna typically on top of a building or radio tower that takes your transmission and then rebroadcasts it at a higher power so it can reach a larger area. Suppose I wanted to talk to someone in the south metro, but I was in the north metro and I knew we were too distant to talk directly (about 30 miles). We could "meet" on a repeater geographically located between us to bridge the gap. Some repeaters can broadcast a radius of 20-30 miles or more.
A "net" is where a club or a group of people set a regular time and date (typically a day of the week) to meet on a particular frequency. One person, referred to as the "net controller" is in charge at that time and no one is to speak unless requested otherwise everyone would jam up the frequency and no one could hear anything. Unlike talking on the phone, where the other person can interrupt the speaker, or two people can talk at the same time, catch themselves, and tell the other person to go ahead, when you are communicating via radio you are typically either talking or listening, you can’t do both. The net controller holds the "talking stick" and you only speak when requested by the net controller.
At the start of the net, the net controller basically comes on the air, announces that a net is starting, does any welcome messages and then asks for check-ins. Anyone wanting to check-in then gives their call sign which the net controller records. Everyone only gives their call-sign at this point and again only responds when asked. The net controller may ask for clarification if needed ("I got Kilo Zero Romeo, but could you please repeat that?"). Still call-signs only at this point, no "hellos" or first names as you need to let other people have the chance to check-in.
When it is time for discussion the net controller will say a call-sign, and ask things like a name or location, and maybe what the ham as been up to, depending upon the format of the net. Again, hams may only speak when requested and it is important to wait their turn until called upon by the net controller. Turns are typically done round-the-horn style, moving down the line of check-ins and then starting back at the beginning of the list.
For example, I was last to check-in tonight and was at the bottom of the list. The other two guys went first and then I had my turn. After I had my turn, the net controller called on the ham who was at the beginning of the list. He talked about his projects and then had a question for me. After he was done, the net controller went on to the next guy, he did his thing, and after he was done, since it was back to me, the net controller requested me to speak. At that time I answered any questions that had been asked of me, said anything I had to contribute, and then handed the net back to the controller by saying "[controller’s call-sign] net control this is [my call-sign]."
It is important to formally hand back control in that fashion so that they know you are through plus it is an FCC requirement to say your call sign at the end of your transmission. Since this is a net with a protocol, every time you are done speaking and handing it back over to net control it is considered an end of transmission. You only have a chance to speak up again after the net controller calls on you again, or after the net has ended.
As you can see there is a set protocol when participating in a net and each net is a little different. I prepared by tuning in to several nets as I awaited my call-sign. I got a feel for the script, protocol, and topics. Some nets are formed for emergency preparedness, some for club announcements, and others just talking about what you did over the past week. Listen in, get a feel for the protocol and join in.
I find nets helpful because the net protocol is used when severe weather strikes. As a trained spotter I pay attention to when a Skywarn net becomes active and follow protocol for check-in and reporting. It is also important to figure out how to use my radio and adjust to get the best signal.
I had tried to make contact on a separate 2 meter net earlier in the evening, but I don’t think my signal got through. I could only receive their signal when I stood out by my garden in the northeast corner of my lot. I tried to check-in but they didn’t seem to hear me. That particular repeater actually happened to be located on top of the math and science building at my work so I had really hoped to be able to reach it from home. Guess I need a bigger antenna.