What is Amateur Radio, what do radio amateurs do? Do I have to buy expensive commercial equipment, or can I build my own? Will I need massive aerials (antennas)? What kind of licence do I need? How do I get one? Do I need to pass technical exams and morse tests? Where do I start?
It can all seem a very daunting task at first.
This article is here to help you, so read on, and start to enjoy a very fascinating hobby.
Amateur ( Ham ) radio is not “CB”. Operators are strictly licenced by various governments and enjoy many more privileges than do “CB” operators.
It allows millions to communicate worldwide using speech, computer data, and morse code, just to name a few.
Radio Hams can transmit and receive using satellites, and can send TV pictures too. Some even ‘bounce’ their signals off the moon.
Radio Amateurs have contributed to the advances in technology that we all enjoy today.
Some astronauts are also amateur radio operators, and they often take amateur radio equipment with them on space shuttle missions and talk to earthbound amateurs from space.
Amateur radio has many facets. It enables you to understand electronics. Its a great way to improve your geography, make new friends and practice your language skills, although almost all ‘hams’ speak some basic English, and exchange signal reports and station details in a mix of Q-code and English.
There are many specialised aspects to the hobby and whilst one amateur may be chasing rare DX ( long distance ) countries on the short wave (HF) bands, another may be designing and building a microwave aerial / dish, or building a new transceiver.
There are those who are more interested technical aspects of the hobby, and build their own equipment, and test out different aerials (antennas) etc. They may only have occasional contacts on the air to check out their latest experiment / project, or to discuss some technical point with a like minded friend.
Radio Amateurs also provide a valuable community service, frequently providing essential emergency communications for disaster relief and in times of national emergency, as they did in the Sep. 11 disaster in New York and the Asian Tsunami.
A licence is necessary in order to transmit on the Amateur Bands, or frequencies. In most countries an Amateur Radio Licence is issued, for the purpose of self training, by the individual concerned, in the art of (all forms) of Radio Communication. A licence is not usually needed to “listen in” to Ham Radio transmissions.
Transmitting licence regulations vary in detail from country to country, but are broadly similar. Generally you will need to pass some form of technical exam. Technical Colleges and radio clubs provide the necessary training and examination centres.
Arrangements vary for different countries.
To transmit on the LF & HF short wave bands (Frequencies below 30MHz ) some countries may still require the applicant to pass some form of morse code test in addition to the technical exam.
The morse code requirement has been eliminated in many countries, and many others are expected to do the same.
To encourage newcomers to the hobby, many countries now allow access to the HF (Short Wave ) bands with minimal qualifications, but with reduced privileges, such as only using low power and certain frequencies.
These are often called Novice Licences. The UK in example, has a licence structure which has an entry level known as the Foundation Licence, which came into force in January 2002, an Intermediate Level, similar to the old Novice Licence, but with higher power, and the new Advanced Licence, which is the same as the former Full Licence with all privileges. In Italy instead there are no differences, and a single level Licence is provided.
To find out more about your country’s requirements, contact your national society. You can locate many national societies or local radio clubs here.
There are licenced radio amateurs in most countries. All are issued with a unique callsign to identify their station which begin with prefixes identifying their country, eg, G, M & 2E for England, D for Germany, I for Italy, K,W,N for USA
Frequency Allocations and QSOs
Radio amateurs can contact each other on a variety of frequencies, or bands, that are allocated for their use. The bands are usually known by their approximate wavelength, e.g. 20 metres, which is a popular band for international communications, this wavelength corresponds to a frequency of around 14MHz The most popular bands are the HF, High Frequency, or short-wave, bands. These are in the 1.8MHz to 30MHz frequency range and the VHF or Very High Frequency. 144MHz, band, often referred to as 2 metres, from its wavelength.
Amateurs can make contact with others using speech, Morse, (CW), Radio Teleprinter (RTTY), digital techniques (including Packet Radio), Television (Fast and Slow Scan), and other modes.
A contact between two stations is known as a QSO (part of the International Q Code, used, when sending morse, to reduce the number of characters that need to be sent. It also helps to cross language barriers). This is usually initiated by an amateur putting out a “CQ”, or general call, to announce that they are looking for a contact. Another amateur who hears this call can then reply, and brief exchange of station details will then probably result. The contact may consist of little more than an exchange of signal reports, or it may develop into a longer, more conversational, exchange QSL cards and awards
Some amateurs exchange “QSL” cards to confirm the contact. These are often collected and can be used as proof to claim an award for contacting so many countries, states, or having collected so many points etc. To save money, such cards are often sent via a QSL bureau staffed by volunteers, or National Society. In this way, cards can be sent in bulk for one payment of postage.
Some amateurs prefer to send their cards direct, then you get to collect the postage stamps as well as the QSL cards! Increasingly cards are being sent electronically using e-mail
To listen to amateur radio transmissions, you need a communications receiver. The normal domestic radio is not normally suitable for receiving amateur radio short wave transmissions.
Even if it is, such radios are primarily designed for listening to high power commercial stations, such as the BBC World Service, Voice of America, Radio Moscow etc., and are not sensitive enough to receive the much lower power amateur radio stations.
Commonly such receivers cannot resolve SSB (single sideband) or FM transmissions from amateurs, as most commercial broadcasts are on the older AM (amplitude modulation) system.
To receive amateur short wave transmissions, your receiver should be capable of tuning 1.8 to 30MHz, and capable of receiving AM, CW, and SSB at least.
Transmitters / Transceivers
In order to communicate via radio, you need a transmitter, or transceiver, such as the one on the right. A transceiver is simply a transmitter and receiver combined into one unit.
Transmitters range from simple low power, low cost, devices, often only capable of sending morse, to complex multipurpose high power ones, and can be home built or commercially manufactured, the latter being the more common.
You don’t have to spend a lot of money on expensive equipment to enjoy amateur radio, this is just the impression you could get from reading radio magazines!
Many ‘hams’ do not spend a lot of money on their hobby. When I first started I had lots of fun as a schoolboy buying government war surplus equipment, and converting it for amateur radio use, and you still can, although there is a lot less surplus equipment around now.
There are low cost kits so you can build up your station in easy stages.
To be able to build your own equipment, or modify existing, and use it on the air, generally you need to have a full amateur radio licence. The various kinds of novice licence usually mean you have to purchase low cost, low power commercial equipment.
As with receivers, transmitters etc., you don’t have to buy expensive aerials (also called antennas). Aerials do not have to be large and unsightly to be effective. Efficient short wave antennas can be constructed with nothing more than some ordinary thin flexible wire, at very little cost, should you have the room in a garden, or have some very accommodating neighbours.
How to become a Radio Amateur
A good way to start is to join your local club and / or National Society. There you will meet enthusiastic, like minded people, many of whom are only too willing to help you get started. Many clubs run courses to train you to pass the exams and assessments needed to gain a licence. They will also be able to help out with understanding your national requirements. You will be given the opportunity to experience amateur radio for yourself. The national society for the USA is the American Radio Relay League, ARRL. Try their website.