Ham Radio: Autopatch

Autopatch Header

If you have any knowledge of ham radio, you may be aware of the ability to use autopatch.  For those who are unfamiliar with what autopatch is and what it does, it is a function of amateur radio where one can use a ham radio to access the local phone lines and place an ordinary phone call.

In this day and age, when just about everyone has a cell phone, you may wonder why anyone would need to do such a thing.

However, just like many other facets of preparedness, it all comes down to having options available to you if you were to ever have the need.

The usefulness of auto patch still exists.

First of all, what is autopatch?

Autopatch is the ham radio ability to make an outgoing phone call via a repeater which has special radio equipment which is tied into the phone system.  How a person does this is by using a transceiver which is capable of making the dial-tone noises which are recognized by the phone system.  Special access codes are required along with the phone number to alert the repeater that an autopatch call is being made. Once the repeater recognizes the access code given, a phone call is placed by the repeater.

The first step in using autopatch is to make sure that the repeater you wish to use is available and not currently in use.  Repeaters with autopatch are considered either open or closed.  Open autopatch repeaters are available for hams to use, while closed autopatch repeaters are restricted to the owners or to the members of the club operating the repeater.  As for open repeaters, you would still need to verify that no one else is currently using the repeater.  (If you have an emergency and the repeater is being used by others, you could still try to cut in and ask permission to use the repeater.  Just state your call sign and request to use the repeater to place an emergency autopatch call.)  After confirming that the repeater is available, you would use your ham radio to send an access code and the phone number you are trying to dial to the repeater. These codes are usually obtained from the owners or clubs who operate the repeaters in question.  (Some autopatch codes are published in repeater directories. However, it is still best to contact the owners of the repeaters to verify that the published codes are indeed correct.) Once the call is made, you would speak as you normally would when using ham radio. All the rules of amateur radio still apply! Importantly, you and the party receiving the call must understand that the call is not private since it is being broadcasted by the repeater being used.  Additionally, you need to understand that the call usually has a time limit of only 3 to 4 minutes, and that the equipment is typically preset to only allow local (or perhaps maybe even toll-free calls) in order to avoid long-distance charges and phone company regulations.  After the call, you would need to key in another code to the repeater to disconnect the call, and, of course, you would need to then end the transmission by stating your call sign.

Sounds like a bother, huh?

So why go through the trouble of using it?

Now, just so you know, autopatch was not designed nor intended to replace your landline or your cell phone.  It is meant to be used only occasionally.  But what if your phone wasn’t working?  What if you found yourself in an emergency where the phone lines were down, the cell towers were overloaded, or your phone battery was out?  This is when an autopatch call would be useful.  With a ham radio, you could still place that call!  This is especially useful when the other party you are trying to reach is not a ham radio operator.  Think of the possibilities this opens up in your emergency communications plan!

To review why hams still use autopatch in an age of smartphones, here is a quote from a ham which sums it up nicely:

I am treasurer of a local repeater association which owns four repeaters. We maintain an autopatch on one of our repeaters which is connected to a land line. Yes, it’s old fashioned. No, it doesn’t get used much. Why do we keep it? When the day comes that the cell phone towers are so overloaded that nobody can get a call through (by the way, that day happened one evening back in August do to a mass casualty incident at a public gathering), we believe that we’ll still be able to use the autopatch to place a phone call.1

While it should be apparent that the one thing autopatch is good for is for emergency communications, it should also be noted that this access should not be abused.  Amateur radio has faced challenges in maintaining its rights to use autopatch from sources such as the telephone companies, commercial radio service companies, and even the FCC.  Care must be taken when choosing to use autopatch.  In order to keep this emergency communications option available, one must use it wisely and with consideration of others.

According to the ARRL’s website2, there are some general guidelines one should follow when using autopatch:

  • International phone patches must only be used if a third-party phone patch/radio communications agreement exists with that country. (Exceptions would include a life-threatening emergency or possibly if the recipient of the call is a licensed ham.)  One should research the regulations and restrictions regarding contact with any particular country before one would attempt an autopatch internationally.
  • Autopatch must not be used for pecuniary interest.   The same rule applies to all of amateur radio.
  • All autopatches must be made subject to the rules and tariffs of the local telephone company.
  • No autopatch should be made in order to avoid toll fees.
  • The control operator must explain to all involved with the call of the nature of autopatch and ham radio. No music, profanity, or any other communication may be transmitted that is against the regulations of amateur radio.  Also, if the ham who places the autopatch (the control operator) turns over communications to a third party,  the ham is still responsible and must still be in control of the call. The ham operator must also be able to understand the language spoken if a foreign language is being used.
  • Make sure all who are involved understand that the communications are not private.
  • If any rules are broken, the call must be terminated immediately.
  • Autopatch, just like all of amateur radio, is not for broadcasting. Even though anyone who is tuned into the repeater’s frequency could hear the call, the point of the call should be to communicate with a particular party, not to “broadcast” information to all who may be listening to the repeater.
  • You must use station identification just as you would with any other ham radio communication.
  • Autopatches should be restricted to the parts of the bands that have been agreed on for that purpose.
  • Autopatch calls should be as brief as possible. Please be considerate to other hams using the bands, and others who intend on also using that particular repeater. Autopatch was never intended for lengthy conversations.
  • And lastly, according to the ARRL: If you have any doubt as to the legality or advisability of a patch, don’t make it.

Autopatch was never intended to replace much easier ways to communicate.  However, it usefulness is still apparent in an emergency when regular forms of communication fail.  It is a good option to be aware of, and one that is worth safeguarding.

  1. http://forums.radioreference.com/amateur-radio-general-discussion/229347-how-use-open-autopatch.html
  2. http://www.arrl.org/phone-patch-guidelines

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