What Is A Utility Station?
The term utility station is used to describe fixed radio broadcasters disseminating signals that are not intended for reception by the general public (but are not prohibited from receiving). Utility stations (often referred to as UTEs), as the name suggests, broadcast signals that have an immediate practical use, by means of analog or digital modes; most often utility transmissions are of a “point-to-point” nature, intended for a specific receiving station. Utility stations are most prevalent on shortwave frequencies, though they are not restricted to the shortwave frequencies. There are scores of government, military, commercial, and private utility stations to be heard on the bands. Everything from law enforcement to personal communications takes place on the shortwave bands. This page will cover some of the most popular listening targets.
The governments of many countries around the world use the shortwave bands for communications. Since I happen to live in the United States, I like to hunt down U.S. Government stations, but there are government stations from all over the world. Personally, I’ve spent some time listening to Customs/DEA communications on HF. The FBI also has an extensive HF network. FEMA is also quite active here as are a host of other alphabet agencies. Various nations intelligence agencies including the CIA are active in the SW bands as well. NASA can be heard here too. If you’re a fan of space exploration, this is the place to be during a space shuttle launch or landing!
Good communications being vital to the success of any nation’s military, it should come as no surprise that there is lots and lots of military traffic on the HF bands. You can find the U.S. Coast Guard, Navy, Army, and Air Force active duty forces, USAF reserve and ANG, Civil Air Patrol, USAF MARS, Army MARS, and NAVMARCORP MARS, the German air force, the Canadian coast guard and air force, Britain’s RAF, Bermuda Self Defense Force, Japanese navy, Australian navy, Dutch navy, and the Jordanian air force, and many more.
Military communications (Milcom for short) on HF comes from aircraft, seagoing vessels (ships and submarines), and land-based permanent or temporary installations. The U.S. Air Force operates a worldwide HF network (The High Frequency Global Communications System) used by the armed forces of the U.S. and many of its allies. Comms heard ranges from routine “We need fuel when we land” messages from aircraft to full-up SIOP (Single Integrated Operations Plan) exercises involving our nation’s strategic defense forces (the guys with the nukes). There isn’t as much to be heard as there was, during the height of the Cold War, but HF Milcom is far from being a thing of the past, as a night or two of listening will quickly prove.
Commercial HF Stations (And Private Ones Too)
No, I’m not talking about domestic shortwave broadcasters, or stations that play a lot of commercials. I’m talking about oil drilling rigs, aviation (airplanes talking to other airplanes and to folks on the ground), maritime HF radio, and other services where the purpose of the communications is basically to make money. Additionally, there are folks on HF just for the fun of it, sailing on boats or yachts or sailboats and keeping in touch with marine HF rigs aboard their vessels. In years gone by most of this traffic was in Morse code, but that’s no longer the case, other digital modes (along with simple HF Phone, or voice over radio) have taken its place. Using a decent receiver and antenna will enable you to copy lots of interesting voice traffic. The digital stuff requires a computer and sound card interfaced to a radio. Don’t despair, if you’re already set up for ham SSTV, PSK31, or similar modes on HF you’re also ready to go on a number of digital modes the commercial stations use – it’s just a matter of installing the right software. Check around the web and you’ll find many web sites to help you get started. Of course, if you have an HF ham station and your rig has general coverage receive, you’re already there, just check around for helpful lists of frequencies to help you find out where to tune.
You’d be surprised who you’ll find on HF. Here in New York State, there’s a public utility called the Niagara Mohawk Power Company (NMPC) that provides electricity to much of the state. Any good scanner book will tell you where to find these guys on VHF/UHF, but what a lot of folks aren’t ware of is that NMPC also has an active network on HF, using a relatively new technology called ALE, which stands for Automatic Link Establishment and which you’ll be hearing plenty more about in the future if you spend any time in the hobby.
UTE monitoring is a whole different animal when compared to shortwave broadcast listening. A broadcaster fires up the transmitter and goes on and on, sometimes for hours at a time. Utility stations fire up the transmitter only when they need to communicate with someone. It’s more like scanner listening than SWBC listening, in that you park on a frequency (or start scanning a group of frequencies), then wait for it to become active. Sometimes the activity happens in a few seconds, and other times it’s hours before you’ll hear anything but static crashes. It’s not a facet of the hobby that appeals to everyone. However, it does appeal to many, many radio hobbyists because of the wide variety of targets, and because often the comms heard are associated with important world events. Others just get a kick out of turning the tables on old Uncle Sam by eavesdropping on him for awhile – you keeping tabs on the “gummint” instead of vice-versa. The point is, you have to spend some time listening in order to hear UTEs…they don’t come looking for you like the broadcasters do, you have to go looking for them, and keep looking until you happen to be looking for ’em when they’re actually on the radios having a chat with someone.
Knowing where to listen is paramount. Fortunately, there are a number of sources for good information in this respect on the Internet, which is a veritable fountain of information about the radio hobby.
Keeping a log of what you have heard – and where and when you heard it – is an excellent idea…I’m glad you thought of it! I’ve included some tips on keeping a log on my page dealing with shortwave broadcast listening. If you haven’t read that material, allow me to suggest that you do so before leaving this site. The longer you enjoy the hobby and keep a good detailed log of your activities, the more valuable your logbook becomes as reference material. Every time you make a log entry, your logbook becomes a better resource – so keep a notebook and a few sharp pencils or good quality pens handy near your rig, and make use of them often.
Here’s an important thing to remember: the overwhelming majority of voice utility communications on HF is conducted in upper sideband mode (USB). This is the case regardless of frequency – UTEs don’t switch to LSB below 10 mHz like we hams do. If you’re rig can’t tune SSB signals, you just got a good excuse to explain to your spouse why you need a new rig!
In addition to voice comms and the aforementioned CW and ALE, other digital modes in use on HF includes ACARS, NAVTEX, facsimile (FAX), RTTY, and various forms of TOR (telex over radio, similar to AMTOR and PACTOR that are familiar to hams). It’s also worth mentioning that often these comms are encrypted – so when you try to tune a RTTY signal and you seem to get nothing but gibberish, it might not be your fault or the fault of your equipment: you may be getting gibberish because the person sending the message intended for you (and everyone else but the intended recipient) to get gibberish!
This last caveat applies to voice comms as well, so don’t waste a lot of time trying different modes on your rig in a futile attempt to understand an ANDVT* transmission. Instead, just sit patiently until the participants switch back to normal SSB mode, and forget their not in ANDVT anymore and let slip something they shouldn’t be saying “in the red” (you’d be surprised what you can learn this way).
(* ANDVT = Advanced Narrowband Digital Voice Terminal, which is a method of placing digital encryption on a voice signal. Unless your radio is programmed with the same encryption “key” as the sending station, your chances of “decoding” these transmissions are about the same as those of Monica Lewinsky being invited to Hillary Clinton’s next birthday party.)
KC2HMZ’s Favorite HF Utility Frequencies
5696.0 8983.0 USCG Safety Of Flight
11175.0 8993.0 13200.0 15016.0 6739.0 4724.0 USAF HF-GCS System Primaries
11232.0 Canadian Forces (Equivalent to USAF HF-GCS’s 11175.0)
6761.0 USAF Air Refueling Common
7535.0 USN SESEF
6604.0 Gander VOLMET and New York VOLMET
2500.0 5000.0 10000.0 15000.0 20000.0 WWV and/or WWVH
These and other excellent frequencies are available from the WUN website at: