What is Ham Radio?
The ARRL (The national association for AMATEUR RADIO) describes Ham Radio as follows:
Amateur Radio (ham radio) is a popular hobby and service that brings people, electronics and communication together. People use ham radio to talk across town, around the world, or even into space, all without the Internet or cell phones. It's fun, social, educational, and can be a lifeline during times of need.
You can set up a ham radio station anywhere!
In a field...
...or at home.
Although Amateur Radio operators get involved for many reasons, they all have in common a basic knowledge of radio technology and operating principles, and pass an examination for the FCC license to operate on radio frequencies known as the "Amateur Bands." These bands are radio frequencies allocated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for use by ham radio operators.
Why Ham Radio?
You can communicate from the top of a mountain, your home or behind the wheel of your car, all without relying on the Internet or a cell phone network You can take radio wherever you go! In times of disaster, when regular communications channels fail, hams can swing into action assisting emergency communications efforts and working with public service agencies. For instance, the Amateur Radio Service kept New York City agencies in touch with each other after their command center was destroyed during the 9/11 tragedy. Ham radio also came to the rescue during Hurricane Katrina, where all other communications failed, and the devastating flooding in Colorado in 2013.
You can communicate with other hams using your voice and a microphone, interface a radio with your computer or tablet to send data, text or images, or Morse code, which remains incredibly popular. You can even talk to astronauts aboard the International Space Station, talk to other hams through one of several satellites in space, or bounce signals off the moon and back to Earth!
Some hams like to build and experiment with electronics. Computer hobbyists enjoy using Amateur Radio's digital communications opportunities. Others compete in "DX contests," where the object is to see how many hams in distant locations they can contact. Mostly we use ham radio to form friendships over the air or through participation in one of more than 2000 Amateur Radio clubs throughout the country. There are over 600,000 radio amateurs in the United States and over 2,000,000 worldwide.
Different facets of Ham Radio
Ham radio has grown through the years. It encompasses many different areas of interest drawing individuals with varying thoughts and goals. Here are a few areas of our hobby that may be of interest to you:
Ragchewing is probably the simplest and without a doubt, most common use of Ham Radio. It is simply a conversation over the radio. Some might call it “shooting the breeze” or “shooting the bull” or whatever. The conversation may be one-on-one or a roundtable conversation between a number of radio operators.
It may be a conversation related to a specific topic, Ham related or otherwise, or simply open discussion about whatever “ails” you. Ragchewing can be found across all radio bands, modes, and forms of communications. This is where you make friends and learn “a whole lot about things you didn’t think you cared about”.
DXing (by Glen Sage, N4DN). Talking with people worldwide is also known as working DX. Hams also refer to this as talking across the pond. Being able to do this is a goal of many ham radio operators but to some there is little interest in this activity. It can be done with just a basis ham station consisting of transceiver (a transmitter and receiver in one unit). It also requires a feedline that may be coax cable or what is called twin-lead. It then needs an antenna at the other end of the feedline. This may be as simple as a wire or two pieces of wire. One of the basic awards that people may earn is called DXCC. That means that you have talked with a hundred different countries and have received a card that confirms you have talked with the DX station and exchanged basic information.
Talking to my first 100 different counties, I used 100 watts or less and an antenna made from two pieces of wire. Later I purchased a beam antenna and an amplifier and have now talked with people in over 250 different countries. Most hams in other counties can speak and understand English well enough to carry on a basis conversation and many have an excellent command of the English language.
We are entering a period of solar activity that for the next 4 or five years you will be able to talk with these DX stations easier and easier. The 11-year solar cycle has a great influence on signals that can be transmitted and heard across the ocean.
Contesting (by Glen Sage, N4DN) is for those with the competitive spirit. If you can’t play a game without “going for the throat”, then contesting is for you. For some it is very serious while for others it is a casual endeavor. In contesting you are generally looking to make contacts of a certain type or location. Sometimes there is a defined time frame, and for other contests you can spend your entire life trying to complete the task. There are far too many contests to discuss here, but be assured, if you want competition….you will find it on the air!
Most of the popular contests involves making contact with stations outside the United States. By participating in contests is also is a great way to build on your national number count. These contests involve a number of different modes or methods of operation. I really do not attempt to win contests but use it as a way of working different counties. Some of the stations that are on the air during contest are not on at any other time of the year.
Many stations also work on making confirmed contacts with each of the 50 states (Worked All States Award). Each of the states have a state contest once per year. Virginia has theirs in April. During this weekend people from across the nation and some DX stations are looking to talk with stations in Virginia and the different cities and counties within the state. There is another award named, “Worked All Counties”. There are over 4000 counties in America. It takes many years, but a number of Hams have worked every county in America.
Community Service (by Dee Amsler, KJ4VVL) is something Hams take great pride in. There are many organizations, both local and national, that are specific to Ham radio that rely on communications skill and operator reliability.
EmComm (Emergency Communications) and AuxComm (Auxiliary Communications) both deal with Amateur Radio Emergency Communication and how Amateur Radio Operators operate during disaster situations.
What do Amateur Radio operators do during and after disasters? Amateur Radio Operators set up and operate organized communication networks to assist local governmental and emergency officials, as well as non-commercial communication for private citizens affected by a disaster. Amateur radio operators volunteer to provide backup radio communications support to public safety agencies. Additionally, in times of emergency or natural disaster organizations such as the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, and Federal Emergency Management Agency call on Hams to augment or replace traditional communications when phone lines are down. Amateur Radio operators are also likely to be active after disasters that damage regular lines of communications due to power outages and destruction of telephone, cellular and other infrastructure-dependent systems.
How do Amateur Radio operators help local officials? Many radio amateurs are active as communications volunteers with local public safety organizations. In addition, in some disasters, radio frequencies are not coordinated among relief officials; Amateur Radio operators coordinate communication when radio towers and other elements in the communications infrastructure are damaged.
What are the major Amateur Radio emergency organizations? Amateur Radio operators have informal and formal groups to co-ordinate communication during emergencies. At the local level, hams may participate in local emergency organizations, or organize local "traffic nets" using frequencies that work well for local communication.
At the state level, hams are often involved with state emergency management operations. In addition, hams operate at the national level through the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES), which is coordinated through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and through the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), which is coordinated through the American Radio Relay League and its field volunteers. Many hams are also involved in Skywarn, operating under the National Weather Service and provide emergency weather information to the NWS for analysis and dissemination to the public.
Experimenters and Kit Builders enjoy the challenge of building their own equipment and pushing the limits of current Ham technology. Many technologies found in everyday life began as a Ham’s vision and work completed in their garage or workshop. This journey typically begins with building an antenna of your own design and may well end up in the assembly of a radio from a kit purchased online. Building your equipment, whether from a kit or from your own design, is one way to significantly reduce costs.
Amateur Radio has been about experimentation from its infancy in the early 20th century. Initially Amateur Radio operators could only build their equipment and relied heavily on publications to show them how. Magazines such as the November 1901 issue of Amateur Work, showing how to build a simple system based on Hertz' early experiments. Such magazines demonstrated a continued progress by amateurs who would share their experience and newly developed knowledge with other HAMSs in such publications. In the US, the first commercially produced wireless telegraphy transmitter / receiver systems became available to experimenters and amateurs in 1905 but due to their very high cost most amateurs continued to build their own.
Most of our progress in radio technologies ride on the back of Amateur Radio operators exploring new methods of communication. Amateur Radio operators moved radio from Spark Gap to controlled oscillators, From Morse code to Audio, Single Side Band Radio (no carrier means more power in the working signal and were instrumental in getting FM radio technology advanced. Amateurs are still experimenting, primarily in developing new digital modes and using computers to control all aspects of the radios, not just the frequency.
Kit building is an exciting part of Amateur Radio in that you are taking a pile of parts and put them together to build a working item. Radio kits started out as simple radio receivers but in 1956 the Heath company started selling amateur radio kits. Several other manufacturers followed suit. You are now able to, following the kit instructions, build almost any part of an amateur radio system. Building from a kit is a rewarding experience and helps to build a better understanding of the electronics behind the operation of the equipment. Kit built radios are on par with commercially made radios (if you follow the instructions properly).
Video Streaming and Drones. This is one of the newest and most exciting developments in Ham radio in quite some time. If flying drones is your passion (or maybe just your dream) and you want to stream video over radio frequency (RF) then a Ham license is a must. For additional information or to learn more about Ham radio and drones, see the following link: https://hamradioprep.com/fpv-drones-using-a-ham-radio-license/
Do I need a license?
Yes, you will need a license. That is the bad news. The good news is that the license is good for 10 years and there is no FCC fee as of this writing. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is expected to begin charging a fee to cover administrative costs ($35) sometime in late 2021. The testing process is done locally by other Ham’s known as Volunteer Examiners. This process is low key and not at all stressful. Some examiners charge a small fee to administer the test. In the Twin County area testing is conducted by members of the Briarpatch Amateur Radio Club (BARC) at no cost to you. Your license, often referred to as your “ticket” is something to be proud of. It differentiates you from almost everyone else you know. Your ticket opens the door and gives you access to all that Ham Radio has to offer!
Is Ham Radio an expensive hobby?
I always love this question. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t so simple. Ham Radio is what you make of it. Yes, it can be expensive, but it definitely doesn’t have to be. You can get started with as little as $25 to purchase an HT (handie-talkie sometimes referred to as a walkie-talkie). From that inexpensive start, you can spend thousands if you so choose to purchase equipment. But remember, you can also build much of the equipment yourself if that is where you want the hobby to take you. Doing so will allow you to enjoy all the same capabilities at a fraction of the cost.
Where can I get more information and how do I get started?
Amateur Radio clubs can be found all across the country and around the world. A good starting point is likely an online search for local clubs in your area. Find out where and when they meet an plan to attend a meeting. This will give you a chance to get a feel for the atmosphere and to see if it feels like a good fit for you. In the end, your success in getting started in Ham Radio is dependent on your comfort with those you will be “sharing the air” with. Look for a club that is both welcoming and shows an interest in helping you on the journey. You are likely to be introduced to a mentor that will take a special interest in helping you get started. This individual will be your “Elmer”. Elmer’s are an indispensable asset to you and are ambassadors of our hobby.
Who is the typical Ham?
Amateur Radio operators come from all walks of life -- doctors, students, kids, politicians, truck drivers, movie stars, missionaries and even your average neighbor next door. They are of all ages, sexes, income levels and nationalities. Whether through Morse Code on an old brass telegraph key, voice communication on a hand-held radio or computerized messages transmitted via satellite, all hams use radio to reach out to the world. If this sounds like you, come join us and discover what Amateur Radio has to offer to you!
Amateur Radio has so many facets and you can spend a lifetime exploring them without ever getting bored. There is slow and fast scan TV, CW (using Morse Code), various digital modes, radio telegraph, pubic service, disaster response, moon bounce, satellite, National Parks contacts, Islands on the Air and working light houses just to name a few.
Earn your Amateur Radio license and begin to enjoy these activities and learn the satisfaction of serving your fellow man.
Thoughts from a new Ham!
“Some years ago, my wife and I talked with an enthusiastic Ham operator at our local county fair. He had a mobile Ham radio inside his truck with a smaller 'Handie-Talkie' attached to his side. He was very helpful introducing us to what Ham operators provide for the local community and described some of the local Ham radio club activities. With our other home projects, the challenge of learning about this new field, and the thought of a test - Yikes! - we decided to put off pursuing our licenses.
Fast forward to 2020, and we began to reassess our priorities. Ham radio was once again discussed, and after a little research we were able to reach out to the local Ham radio club. They extended an invitation to the next club meeting even though we did not have licenses. There were no fees to attend, and in short order we were introduced to a warm crowd of area folks with a few things in common; Ham radio, sharing their knowledge and helping others. These unknown neighbors came from just about every walk of life. Young, older, men, women, technicians, farmers, business owners, college students and graduates.
In short order, we were provided info on what the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC) requires to operate - specifically broadcast, since anyone can listen - a Ham radio. Tests. Yikes - again! Three different tests for three levels of operating privileges; Technician, General & Extra. At first, we were intimidated. We hadn't taken tests in quite a while. However, we were shown easy to obtain test guides from several sites on the world wide web. Some are free, but we opted to purchase American Radio Relay League (ARRL) study guides. ARRL is America's go-to source for all things Ham radio. They have the latest version of test materials available, with the entire bank of test questions and answers. Yep - You have every Q & A that could appear on your test(s) at your disposal! Now, these tests are not open book, but if you apply yourself just a little bit, you will master the Q & A's with a passing proficiency. And I almost forgot - there are also free Ham challenge tests that you can take online to help increase your testing proficiency. My wife and I utilized these free tests after putting in some study time, and yes, these practice tests really help to identifying stronger and weaker areas that you might want to brush up on before finally taking your first license test.
These Ham operator testing sessions are operated by Volunteer Examiners (VE's) who are Ham radio operators. They've been in your shoes, and although they cannot give you answers, they don't bite and might even provide suggestions to help you if you need to retake an exam. There is no penalty for not passing. And if you pass your first test for Technician, you are often allowed to challenge the 2nd and 3rd tests for General and Extra licensing. If you do not pass any test, you simply choose to retake your exam when you feel comfortable, when a test session is made available. The session might be in the location where you first tested, or it might be at a Hamfest or a
different club in a different county, city or state. FCC test rules are the same across the USA for Ham operators. Be sure to have everything that the VE's require such as pre registration, a FCC Registration Number (FRN) and photo ID. Call or email your local point of contact to be sure you're all set.
So how did we do? Well, my wife outscored me on the Technician test. She scored a perfect 100%, and hasn't let me live that little fact down. We both passed, though, and I went on to pass the General exam, later. Currently I am studying for the Extra exam, and look forward to passing it. Why? Because once you pass any exam, the real learning begins!
Chris / K5EKR”
Information for this article has been prepared by members of the Briarpatch Amateur Radio Club (BARC) with information from the ARRL web site (ARRL.org) and other sources.
Briarpatch Amateur Radio Club
On the Air: Weekly net each Tuesday evening at 8pm local on 147.090 MHz, +600 offset, 103.5 tone (if this information looks foreign to you, don’t worry you will learn about Nets, frequencies, offsets, and tones as you discover Ham Radio)
In Person: Monthly meetings on the 4th Thursday of the month. With the current health and safety requirements, the location varies. Look online at our calendar for up-to-date information.