On the matter of Amateur Radio.
On these pages, I am going to collect some notes about activities and other Amateur Radio related things that I hope spark interest in others and motivate some people to start venturing into the world of Amateur Radio.
I started getting interested in Amateur Radio sometime in 2016, and got my Technician Class license in January 2017. I upgraded the license to General and later to Extra Class so that I could use what is called HF (High Frequency) which allows to cover larger distances but requires a little more dedication. Amateur Radio is a hobby and a service. As a hobby, it is a source of a lot of joy and an opportunity for everyone with enough interest to learn new things. As a service, it is meant as a backup means of communication to support in times of need, such as when natural disasters happen or if for any reason other means of communication should fail. For both the hobby and the service, it is good to have as many radio operators as possible — for education about technology, and for service to the community. If you are interested to take a closer look or get involved, take a look at the Amateur Radio organizations in your country. In the US, that is predominantly the ARRL.
Summits On The Air
Summits on the air is a program that originated from the UK. The idea is that you walk up a mountain, which can range from a local hill that’s easily accessible, to a several thousand meters high summit that requires much more preparation. On the summit, you make a minimum of 4 contacts via Amateur Radio, and you gather points by doing so. It’s somewhat like geocaching, just with radios. The above picture is from a hike I made while in the Lake Tahoe area in California. It was a pleasant 1-hour hike, and already got me 10 points. I talked to a group of very nice people who turned out to be located on other peaks around the area. I did bring my portable HF radio, but made all my contacts on that peak on my handheld VHF radio, which everyone holding a Technician Class License in the US can operate. If you like activities like geocaching, or just hiking and the outdoors, and want to try something new, this is a great opportunity. If you don’t have an Amateur Radio license yet, the Technician class license is very accessible; search online, study, get your license and get started with Summits On The Air!
I normally take at least handheld radios when we go camping. My wife is licensed as a Technician Class operator also. Sometimes when we go camping, we don’t really use the radios a lot. When we have the opportunity though, we like using them and they have been really useful. Last time camping, I was on a hike on my own, and the rest of the family was doing something else. Since cell phone service was spotty at best, that was a really nice chance to make use of our radios. I took one with me and left it on for the whole hike; now and then, we would make contact. Just checking in that everything is alright, but we also updated each other on where and when we would meet (go to the lake? Go straight to the camp site? Bring firewood?). When there is a clear path with no obstructions like mountains in between, we have bridged distances of 60 miles with our low power handheld VHF radios. In other situations, the reach is much less than that, but when you are at the top of a mountain and there is not much in the way that is blocking the radio waves, then you can get surprisingly far.
Radio contests are for the most part following, very roughly, this pattern: In a certain time span, for example over a specific weekend, make as many contacts as you possibly can. Compute points from those contacts and send the results to a person or organization that is organizing the contest, and see how well you’ve done. There are many variations, but just to have a general idea, I think this explanation covers a lot of it in a coarse way. There is a multitude of contests with all kinds of variations on the above scheme. If you are interested in dates and links to many contests, check out the WA7BNM contest calendar: https://contestcalendar.com/.
ARRL Field Day
The ARRL Field Day is an event that is happening every year, on the 4th full weekend in June. Check out the link for all of the details. Roughly speaking, it is somewhat like a contest, but it is not really a contest. The ARRL web page says it is more like “ham radio’s open house”. Many clubs and operators are setting up Amateur Radio stations in publicly accessible locations, like in parks, on campgrounds, or hilltops. Everyone is invited to swing by and learn more about the Amateur Radio service. It’s also a great chance to try out operating a radio yourself, since most clubs will gladly let interested visitors try to make some contacts. You don’t need to be licensed to come and try it out. Check out http://www.arrl.org/field-day, which usually has a list of known Field Day locations before Field Day happens. Find one close to you and just swing by!
So How Do I Get Licensed?
In order to legally operate a transmitter in the frequency ranges that have been allocated to the Amateur Radio service, you will need a license. Depending on the country you live in, the process may vary quite a bit. In the US, the authority that oversees radio services is the FCC. I can only describe how it worked for me in the US, I have not obtained a license in another country.
Getting started with a license is much easier than some people might think. First, you will need to get a so called FRN (which is just a number) from the FCC. You can get one online, by going to the FCC web site that explains the process. To get a license, you have to pass a multiple choice exam (don’t worry, it is really not too hard!). Once you have that number, you can find a local exam session. Exams are not done by the FCC themselves, but by volunteer examiners (VE). The ARRL has a web page that helps you search for exam sessions. Also, in addition to a whole lot of other very useful information, https://hamstudy.org/ keeps a list of sessions that also include some online sessions. There is an exam fee, which usually is about $15. Yes, fifteen dollars; not a lot for a whole new world of communication, right?
There are three levels of licenses in the US, called
- Technician Class
- General Class
- Extra Class
The Technician Class exam requires the least amount of studying for most people, and the next two classes are adding some amount of questions that cover the additional things you can legally do with these licenses. Very roughly, the General and Extra class licenses allow you to use additional frequencies that are not legal to use for Technician Class license holders. The difference between the license exams is basically just the area of knowledge covered by the questions. For me, that meant that for General I had to study a bit more than for Technician, and for Extra I had to study a bit more than for General. To me personally, the General Class license has added a whole new world of fun to the Technician Class, which was already fun for me. Again, very roughly speaking, these are the main benefits of each license type, as they stood out to me:
- Technician: local communications
- General: adding frequencies that allow world-wide communications
- Extra: same as General, just adding a few more frequency ranges
So you decided you want to give it a go? For me personally, what helped a lot were practice tests. Since all possible questions are published, these tests contain questions from the actual question pool, which is very helpful to get a feeling for the type of questions asked. Here is a list of study materials that I have used:
- https://www.kb6nu.com/study-guides/ has one PDF for each of the license classes. The one for Technician Class was still free at the time of this writing. I used it for the Technician Class license, and it got me through the exam very well. Note however that the author of these guides does not claim they teach you how things work, but how to answer the questions right. I learned a whole lot after I got the Technician license, but if you have the time before the exam, you could also check out the next resources:
- http://www.arrl.org/studying-for-a-technician-license will point you to the study guides from the ARRL, which are a bit more comprehensive. I used their Extra Class license manual to study for my last license exam, and it contains a whole lot of useful information.
- https://hamexam.org/ lets you do practice exams for all three license classes. This is the thing that I think helped me most. Whenever I had a few minutes of time to spare, I did a quick exam on my phone.
- The already mentioned https://hamstudy.org/ has a good amount of very useful information, including practice exams.
I Got My License — What Now?
Congratulations! Once you find your callsign in the FCC’s online database, it’s time to get on the air. The time it took for my own callsign to appear in the FCC database after my exam was only a few days. An easy way to make contact is using repeaters. They act as relay stations that greatly enhance your reach even with simple and low power radios. There is great material that explains the basics at Bay-Net: http://www.bay-net.org/resources.html. They also have great advice for getting some gear to start with. Many repeaters have regular meetings on the air, called nets. Just say hello, even if it feels weird at first. You can also listen in for a while to get the hang of how it is like, but I feel it’s best to just jump in. When participating in a net, wait for the net control operator to call for check-ins. Say your callsign loud and clear, and wait for them to acknowledge your check-in. Some nets will ask people one by one to say something subsequently if they like, others are just taking note of people checking in. If it’s not a net, and if nobody else is talking on the repeater at the moment, you can just say something like “this is <your callsign goes here>; I just got licensed and I am wondering if anyone can hear me on this repeater.” If anyone is listening, you will likely have someone come back and say hello. I found that Amateur Radio operators are for an overwhelmingly large part very nice people and very welcoming to newcomers. I can’t think of an occasion where anyone had been rejecting or rude to me on the air, quite the opposite.