New hams listening in on a local net are likely to hear the net control station begin the session by asking for stations with traffic. Seems like there never is traffic, so what’s that all about?
Traffic is ham-speak for passing messages, usually via regular radio nets.
Messages are almost always formal, written on a form with bureaucratic detail.
Even friendly, casual messages (“happy birthday, Aunt Edna”) are typically passed this way.
Such messages (traffic) resemble the old telegram format. They go back to the very early days of amateur radio when passing messages was a primary function. In fact, this is from where the US Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) derives its name.
Nowadays traffic is mainly an emergency communications (EmComm) function, although the occasional casual message is passed on. Purpose-specific traffic nets meet regularly to pass messages to stay in practice for when they are really needed, like when there is a local or regional communication outage. Likewise, local nets support traffic to maintain readiness.
The general traffic flow is from an originating station to a local net where the message is transcribed and read back for accuracy. That net passes it onto another section, region, or area net in the same way. From there it goes national if need be until it arrives in the general geographic location of the recipient. Area, region, and section nets pass it along until it arrives in the local destination. A ham nearby the recipient finally delivers the message by phone or in person, depending on handling requirements.
A message from Wisconsin to California would be routed something like this:
Standing traffic nets operate nearly every day but it could take several days to deliver a message. Urgent messages are likely to be passed much more quickly, as in a disaster situation when more operators are involved and there are more active nets.
So when you hear a local FM repeater net asking for traffic, it is essentially a formal offer to pass messages as needed. Unless the message is urgent, the transaction would likely happen after normal net business. It also assumes that somebody on the net has the experience and ability to pass such traffic onto a section, region, or area traffic net.
There are several traffic nets that meet most days at fixed times for passing messages. These are typically on HF bands where they can reach hundreds of miles distant. It is interesting to listen in on these and another good reason for US hams to upgrade to the General class license so you can participate.
Even with a technician ticket you could help relay messages locally. Anybody can send or receive a message; they don’t have to be a licensed radio amateur. Try sending a message some time; it’s fun.
There are traffic nets all over the USA and most other countries.
Some helpful internet references to ham radio traffic: