What is Amateur Radio?
Amateur radio, often called ham radio, is both a hobby and a service in which participants, called “hams,” use various types of radio communications equipment to communicate with other radio amateurs for public service, recreation and self-training.
Amateur radio operators enjoy personal (and often worldwide) wireless communications with each other and are able to support their communities with emergency and disaster communications if necessary, while increasing their personal knowledge of electronics and radio theory. An estimated six million people throughout the world are regularly involved with amateur radio.
The term “amateur” is not a reflection on the skills of the participants, which are often quite advanced; rather, “amateur” indicates that amateur radio communications are not allowed to be made for commercial or money-making purposes.
Activities and Practices
Amateur radio operators use various modes of transmission to communicate. Voice transmissions are most common.
Radiotelegraphy using Morse Code is an activity dating to the earliest days of radio. Technology has moved past the use of telegraphy in nearly all other communications, and a code test is no longer part of most national licensing exams for amateur radio. Many amateur radio operators continue to make use of the mode. Morse, using internationally agreed code groups, also allows communications between amateurs who speak different languages.
Modern personal computers have encouraged the use of digital modes such as radioteletype (RTTY), which previously required cumbersome mechanical equipment. Hams led the development of packet radio, which has employed protocols such as TCP/IP since the 1970s. Specialized digital modes such as PSK31 allow real-time, low-power communications on the shortwave bands. Echolink using Voice over IP technology has enabled amateurs to communicate through local Internet-connected repeaters and radio nodes, while IRLP has allowed the linking of repeaters to provide greater coverage area.
Fast scan amateur television has gained popularity as hobbyists adapt inexpensive consumer video electronics like camcorders and video cards in home computers. Because of the wide bandwidth and stable signals required, amateur television is typically found in the 70 cm (420 MHz–450 MHz) frequency range, though there is also limited use on 33 cm (902 MHz–928 MHz), 23 cm (1240 MHz–1300 MHz) and higher. These requirements also effectively limit the signal range to between 20 and 60 miles (30 km–100 km), however, the use of linked repeater systems can allow transmissions across hundreds of miles.
These repeaters, or automated relay stations, are used on VHF and higher frequencies to increase signal range. Repeaters are usually located on top of a mountain, hill or tall building, and allow operators to communicate over hundreds of square miles using a low power hand-held transceiver. Repeaters can also be linked together by use of other amateur radio bands, landline or the Internet.
Communication satellites called OSCARs (Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio) can be accessed, some using a hand-held transceiver (HT) with a stock “rubber duck” antenna. Hams also use the moon, the aurora borealis, and the ionized trails of meteors as reflectors of radio waves. Hams are also often able to make contact with the International Space Station (ISS), as many astronauts and cosmonauts are licensed as Amateur Radio Operators.
Amateur radio operators use their amateur radio station to make contacts with individual hams as well as participating in round table discussion groups or “rag chew sessions” on the air. Some join in regularly scheduled on-air meetings with other amateur radio operators, called “Nets” (as in “networks”) which are moderated by a station referred to as “Net Control”. Nets can allow operators to learn procedures for emergencies, be an informal round table or be topical, covering specific interests shared by a group.
In all countries, amateur radio operators are required to pass a licensing exam displaying knowledge and understanding of key concepts. In response, hams are granted operating privileges in larger segments of the radio frequency spectrum using a wide variety of communication techniques with higher power levels permitted. This practice is in contrast to unlicensed personal radio services such as CB radio, Multi-Use Radio Service, or Family Radio Service that require type-approved equipment restricted in frequency range and power.
Amateur radio licensing in the United States serves as an example of the way some countries award different levels of amateur radio licenses based on technical knowledge. Three sequential levels of licensing exams (Technician Class, General Class and Amateur Extra Class) are currently offered, which allow operators who pass them access to larger portions of the Amateur Radio spectrum and more desirable callsigns.
Many people start their involvement in amateur radio by finding a local club. Clubs provide information about licensing, local operating practices and technical advice. Newcomers also often study independently by purchasing books or other materials, sometimes with the help of a mentor, teacher or friend. Established amateurs who help newcomers are often referred to as “Elmers” within the ham community.
Upon licensing, a radio amateur’s national government issues a unique callsign to the radio amateur. The holder of a callsign uses it on the air to legally identify the operator or station during any and all radio communication. In certain jurisdictions, an operator may also select a “vanity” callsign. Some jurisdictions, such as the U.S., require that a fee be paid to obtain such a vanity callsign; in others, such as the UK, a fee is not required and the vanity callsign may be selected when the license is applied for.
Unlike all other spectrum users, radio amateurs are allowed to build or modify transmitting equipment, and do not need to obtain type-approval for it. Licensed amateurs can also use any frequency in their bands (rather than being allocated fixed frequencies or channels) and can operate medium to high-powered equipment on a wide range of frequencies so long as they meet spurious emission standards.
As noted, radio amateurs have access to frequency allocations throughout the RF spectrum, enabling choice of frequency to enable effective communication whether across a city, a region, a country, a continent or the whole world regardless of season or time day or night. The shortwave bands, or HF, can allow worldwide communication, the VHF and UHF bands offer excellent regional communication, and the broad microwave bands have enough space, or bandwidth, for television (known as SSTV and FSTV) transmissions and high-speed data networks.
Although allowable power levels are moderate by commercial standards, they are sufficient to enable global communication. Power limits vary from country to country and between license classes within a country. Lower license classes usually have lower power limits. Amateur radio operators are encouraged both by regulations and tradition of respectful use of the spectrum to use as little power as possible to accomplish the communication.
When traveling abroad, visiting amateur operators must follow the rules of the country in which they wish to operate. Some countries have reciprocal international operating agreements allowing hams from other countries to operate within their borders with just their home country license. Other host countries require that the visiting ham apply for a formal permit, or even a new host country-issued license, in advance.
Many jurisdictions issue speciality vehicle registration plates to amateur radio operators who provide proof of an amateur radio license. The fees for application and renewal are usually less than standard plates.Please contact us for more information regarding how to become an amatuer radio operator or to learn more about amateur radio.