Get your call signs at the ready and let’s delve into the intriguing world of Amateur radio!
Have you ever thought about what it would be like to broadcast on your own radio station or even TV channel?! Or perhaps you have a love of tinkering and experimenting with electronics for hours on end and want to put your inventing skills to good use.
If you enjoy communicating but need a respite from the continual digital saturation that comes with smartphones and the internet, why not earn your connectivity by the wavelength through taking up Amateur radio?
In this comprehensive guide, we will equip you with everything you need to know to make your first forays into the world of Ham radio a resounding success!
By the time we have finished, you will know your Boat Anchors from your Homebrews and hopefully how to remain on the right side of the law. Enjoy!
So, what exactly is Ham radio?
Amateur radio, which is also known as Ham radio is the non-commercial, recreational use of specifically allocated licensed and unlicensed portions of the radio frequency spectrum. Amateur radio communication is used for:
- Data exchange
- Voice messaging
- Television broadcasting
- Wireless experiment
- Satellite communication
This means that there is plenty that you can get into. Ham radio is distinct from the CB radio you may have seen truckers using or two-way radio communication used by the emergency services or maritime or aviation crews.
It can be undertaken as a private recreation or a sport with contests. The emphasis is always on amateur; it should not be being undertaken for any kind of commercial gain or profit.
With amateur radio, the radio spectrum is your playground
All communications are undertaken wirelessly using the VHF and UHF parts of the radio spectrum – a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that spans 30 Hz (a very low frequency) to 300 GHz (a super-high frequency).
The Internation Telecommunications Union, a Swiss-based branch of the UN, oversees the allocation of amateur frequencies which are regulated by national governments. We explore the main amateur radio bands further on.
Amateur radio does have some ground rules
Domestic regulation means you can just rig up a homemade hanger antenna to the mains and get going. Governmental departments like the Federal Communications Commission in the US and OfCom in the UK will specify how the amateur radio bands are to be used.
They will also expect you to identify yourself with a unique call sign for your transmitter station. Local bodies also provide amateur radio licenses which require that you can demonstrate the technical and legal knowledge needed to use the amateur frequencies safely and lawfully.
Why the name Ham?
Interestingly enough, the term Ham has nothing to do with luncheon meats. Ham appears to be a nickname acquired by US amateur radio operators by the 1920s.
Before that, it was a rather disparaging term used by telegraph linemen to describe operators who were ham-fisted or lacking ability in radiocommunications.
Why we think Amateur radio is a great hobby!
With over 3 million enthusiastic amateur radio participants worldwide (and at least 700,000 in the US alone), Ham radio provides a burgeoning community to become a part of!
Whether you want to make overseas friends or hone your technical and operational skills, you should be able to find a stream of amateur radio that works for you. Many people wonder why there is any need for Amateur radio with the internet providing all the connectivity you could want.
But there is much more to amateur radio than instant high-speed connectivity.
Here are 5 great reasons to take up amateur radio:
- Because there is nothing more satisfying than mastering a new skill!
Amateur radio operators are anything but Ham-fisted. They are amateur engineers, and over time gain real experience and mastery of electronics and the various technologies involved in communicating wirelessly.
You will certainly gain an in-depth and ongoing understanding of how telecommunications work, especially in the digital and satellite age.
It’s common for Hams to gain proficiency in one-area of broadcasting and expand and develop their interests from there, aided by an international community of enthusiasts who are effervescent with advice, ideas, and handy troubleshooting tips. Great for the lifelong learner.
- Be equipped for emergencies.
You may be aware of how the Amateur radio community has been proven indispensable time and time again in times of emergency. This is because major incidents and disasters can overwhelm and damage cellular and landline networks.
Amateur radio does not use the existing telecommunications infrastructure and so, as a user, your humble transceiver may be the only means for sending critical communications or raising the alarm in an emergency.
In the US, the Amateur Radio Emergency Service is run by trained radio operators who assist in emergency communications and were notable for their participation in the response to 9/11.
- Where else can you have a chat with astronauts?
It sounds pretty out there, but yes Hams can communicate with the International Space Station (ISS)! Of all the places to stow an old Ham radio, they had to choose the orbiting cabana in the sky, and as part of the Amateur Radio International Space Station (ARISS) program, you can tune in to crew members on-board over 40 times per year!
If you are interested you’ll find that satellites, space stations, and even the odd asteroid are great for bouncing your signal off!
- Put morse code to good use!
Morse code remains an amateur radio staple and can be used for wireless telegraphy also known as Continuous Wave (CW). Before 2003, aptitude in Morse was required as part of licensing for some frequencies.
It still is relevant as a long-range, low power means of basic communication and the transmitters are cheap and easy to build.
- Younger users can boost their STEM skillset.
If you are trying to engage youngsters with their science and math, amateur radio could be a great way of getting stale subjects off the page, while extending their knowledge base and practical skills. To get to grips with Amateur radio a child or young person will be getting up to speed with:
- Design and Technology
- Computer programming
- Public service and citizenship
Not to mention the practical skills, spatial awareness, dexterity, and non-verbal reasoning needed as you start to broadcast. Grandads old transceiver may not seem too trendy but how about the latest chipset or Raspberry Pi?
Many of the skills gained by developing an interest in Ham radio just can’t be taught in the 9 to 3 school day, so Amateur radio makes a great investment for the future.
Types of Ham radio activity
Below we’ve outlined some of the most common transmission modes used to exchange voice messages, coded signals, images, and data by amateur radio enthusiasts.
Ham radio users are often using thin slivers of larger frequency bands or sharing them with the traffic of other users.
The restrictions on bandwidth and the power supplied to transmitting and receiving antennas mean that Amateur radio users have to be shrewd about the transmission modes and methods they use.
- Frequency Modulation (FM) is a method of encoding transmitted messages on a carrier signal by varying the frequency in line with the modulated information. It is used mainly in the Very High Frequency (VHF) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF) bands explored further on. It is a popular means of broadcasting because transmissions are resilient against noise and variation in signal strength. It can be used with anything from walkie talkies, to more sophisticated broadcasts.
- Amplitude Modulation (AM) differs from FM as the amplitude of the carrier waves varies in line with the transmitted message. It is one of the first modulation techniques used in broadcasting but has endured despite its relatively high consumption of power and bandwidth.
- Single Sideband (SSB) is a popular high-frequency Amateur radio modulation technique that supports two-way voice and even television broadcasting. It is a variant of amplitude modulation (AM) that uses power and bandwidth more efficiently. The audio signal to be transmitted is modulated or mixed with the carrier signal in a way that removes certain elements of the AM signal to improve its efficiency.
- Continuous Wave (CW) or Morse transmission is the earliest form of amateur radio and is still going strong over a century later. It is essentially a continuous signal or wave that uses interruptions to encode the transmitted message. Equipment is cheap and easy to build. The signal interruptions, tapped out on mechanical or digital Morse keys, are used to send messages, while computer software is now available to translate received Morse code.
- Digital modes of transmission are also gaining ground with Ham radio users. Digital transmission makes efficient use of the radio spectrum and can utilize frequencies above 1 Gigahertz where there is more available bandwidth. Internet repeaters and radio nodes are used to provide the necessary coverage. Data packets can be exchanged using wireless local area networks and frequency shift keying and even Voice over IP (VoIP) and Radio over IP (RoIP) internet-based applications are being adapted and developed by inquisitive minds.
- Amateur Television involves the broadcast of remarkably high-quality audiovisual presentations over the Ham radio frequency bands. To view a television can be set to cable input and connected to a suitable outdoor antenna. ATV or Fast Scan TV, as it is known, is very diverse with broadcasts ranging from public service programming to technical experimentation with test cards.
- Repeaters are the backbone of Amateur radio networking. They consist of an antenna that captures an existing signal and feeds it to an amplifier that boosts the signal. The boosted signal is then transmitted onwards, for other users to access with their radio devices. Erected on hills or tall buildings, can repeaters relay transmitted signals over hundreds of miles.
- Amateur radio satellites are launched satellites with amateur radio equipment which can be accessed by Ham operators using hand-held transceivers or larger mounted antennas. Many countries have launched these satellites over the years and they have provided a significant contribution to understanding satellite communication.
Frequency bands you need to know to as an Amateur radio operator
To transmit lawfully, you will need to know the parts of the radio spectrum that have been set aside for amateur operators. Bands will vary from country to country so it is prudent to check-in with the local Amateur radio association or body for your nation or locality.
Typical allocations in Europe and the Americas span Low Frequency (LF) through Very High (VHF) and Ultra High Frequencies (UHF). Specific allocations within frequency bands can be very narrow, with only a few megahertz to utilize.
Here are some of the most commonly used Ham radio frequency bands which are usually named after the wavelength of the center frequency in centimeters or meters:
- 2200 meters (135.7–137.8 kHz ) is a longwave band for long-distance communications. It requires large antennas and mostly custom-built equipment for experimentation.
- 630 meters (472–479 kHz) is a medium frequency band that lies just below the maritime band. It also is used for distance transmissions (DX).
- 160 meters (1800–2000 kHz) is just above the commercial AM band. Old-time hams call this band the Top Band or Gentlemans band.
- 80 meters (3500–4000 kHz) is a long-range frequency that is affected by atmospheric conditions, meaning its longest ranges can only be achieved at night.
- 60 meters this 5 MHz band is only available in certain countries (the US and the UK, Ireland, Norway, and Iceland). The frequency allocation is usually broken into 5 channels which will affect how it is used.
- 40 meters spans 7 to 7.3 MHz and is rated as a distance communication band with good all-season performance.
- 30 meters (10.1–10.15 MHz) is a World Administrative Radio Conference band, introduced in 1979.
- 20 meters (14.0–14.35 MHz) is a popular DX band for daytime transmissions.
- 10 meters is a short-wave radio frequency band spanning (28–29.7 MHz) and can achieve cross-ocean transmissions depending on solar conditions.
- 6 meters is a VHF frequency and spans (50–54 MHz). It is of interest to amateur enthusiasts as it has many of the signal propagation characteristics of HF band (e.g. influence by solar activity and propagation over significant distances). It is not allocated for amateur use in every country.
- 1.25 meters (222–225 MHz) can be used by amateur users as a shared band that is primarily used for local communications. It is predominantly used in North America.
- 70 centimeters (433 MHz) is an amateur band that is quite accessible due to smaller sized antennas and good indoor penetration though it can be affected by being scattered or reflected off solid objects, leading to the generation of alternate versions of the transmitted signal which can cause interference and fading.
- 33 centimeters (915 MHz) is noted for supporting Amateur Television (ATV), with several manufacturers producing equipment for this purpose. In some regions, amateur radio operators share this band with Industrial, Scientific, and Medical use
- 23 centimeters (1240–1300 MHz) is used for amateur satellite communication as well as amateur radio.
- 13 centimeters (2300–2310 MHz and 2390–2450 MHz) is another amateur satellite band, though it is vulnerable to interference from devices that use the 2.4 GHz frequency band for WiFi.
Gear and swag for amateur radio operators
Sourcing the correct equipment is key to making a success of your Ham radio hobby. Experimentation is fun, but having the correct operational components will mean that you are less likely to get bored or disillusioned from equipment not working.
Tools of the trade will vary with the type of transmissions you want to undertake. Buying used can keep costs down, but be sure to have the equipment tested or demonstrated before purchase.
Here is a list of 7 key items of ham radio equipment you will need:
- License: we cannot emphasize enough the fine line between a genuine and legitimate hobby and illegal broadcasting. Ensure that you are properly registered with the relevant local or national authority to avoid any unexpected knocks at the door.
- Transceivers are radio devices that both transmit (TX) and receive (RX) on Ham radio frequencies. They are also known as Amateur or Ham radios and are the core piece of equipment for communicating with other hobbyists. Depending on the type of radio you choose and its capabilities, you can use your transceiver for personal or even emergency communications. You may have seen portable transceivers that look very much like a walkie talkie. Other mobile transceivers can be vehicle-mounted or strapped to the body. An alternative type of radio is the fixed or mounted transceivers that sit on your tabletop and are more powerful, with greater functionality. If you want to exercise your prowess in electronics, you can have a go at building one yourself.
- Ham radio antennas are another priority purchase and for maximum experimentation, and you are likely to need more than one. Not everyone has the land rights or access to erect a base station on their nearest hill so you will have to be creative in rigging an antenna setup that will meet your requirements. Yagi antennas (like the old-fashioned TV antennas) are highly focused and deliver good transmission and receiving power. For portable or handheld devices in the VHF/UHF range, rubber duck antennas, helix, and whip antennas are popular upgrades.
- Antenna analyzers / Standing Wave Ratio (SWR) meters are a technical piece of kit that allows you to analyze the transmission power of your antennas. It can be used to hone your transceiver setup to ensure that the power supplied is transmitted correctly.
- DC power supply is useful for powering a portable, mobile of fixed transceiver in a range of settings. A portable power supply can be used to supply power to a temporary base station or antenna setups for field experiments.
- Coaxial cable is a Ham’s best friend. Coax is a type of antenna cable that has a special shielded design for conducting radio frequency energy with little to no interference and loss. It is designed to be attached to antennas and radio equipment via coaxial cable connectors and adapters.
- Log books are great for keeping a log of your contacts and their call handles. Frequency experiments can cause interference and if you do get a dreaded knock at the door from the FCC, you can provide records of the frequencies you have used and demonstrate compliance in the way your equipment has been set up.
Why not give radio shack a run for their money by building your own transceivers!
If the idea of tinkering in your workshop with solder, PCB, and resistors excites you, you may want to look into building your own radio devices. Amateur radio is unique in that you can build your own radio, hook it up to the antennas you want and broadcast around the world – LEGALLY!
Homebrew radio gear, as it is called, is favored by Hams who want to learn more about the electronics involved in broadcasting and see if they can build a functional radio with enhanced performance.
If you have the right equipment for home-build radio projects the costs of building your own Ham radio can be less than buying new.
Tips and links to help you on your way
Resources for learning about Ham radio
- Radio Society of Great Britain
- American Radio Relay League
- Japan Amateur Radio League
- The Federal Communications Commission – Amateur Radio Service
- OFCOM – Amateur Radio
- Fun comic strip about getting into Ham radio
Great sites for curating sweet homebrew projects
Immerse yourself in the world of Amateur radio with these great YouTube channels
Some last-minute lingo to give your broadcasts an air of authenticity!
You’ve only got bandwidth for a few words at a time, so make sure that they are the right ones.
- Antenna Party: this is where fellow Hams get together to rig antennas or set up a base station.
- Barefoot: not running in the street with your shoes off, but rather running your antenna without hooking it up to an amplifier.
- CTCSS: stands for Continuous Tone-Coded Squelch System this is a tone that is transmitted along with your signal to alert a fellow Hams receiver to pick up!
- Dipole: a bare-bones antenna made from two conducting elements and a coax feedline. A great homebrew antenna project.
- Eyeball: Meeting up with a fellow Ham.
- FB: short for “Fine Business”, a compliment for a great antenna or radio setup.
- Fist: denotes the sending style of a particular CW operator.
- Gain: is a measure of an antenna’s ability to direct its power effectively. High gain antennas are preferred for greater transmitting power but national regulators place limits on the transmission power Hams can achieve.
- Lowfer: someone who experiments with extremely low (sub-190 kHz) frequencies.
- Medfer: a Ham who experiments with frequencies that are at the edges of the AM band.
- OM: “Old Man” a friendly term for a fellow operator.
- OO: Official Observers; members of the US American Radio Relay League (ARRL) who volunteer to monitor the airwaves for violations of FCC regulations.
- Pink ticket: notice of a rules violation from the FCC.
- QSL cards: also known as QSLs, these postcard-sized certificates provide evidence of successful two-way communication between two amateur radio stations. At least one of the stations should be managed and able to issue the card. The issuing station fills out the details of the date and time of the contact and the frequency used.
- RF: short for radio frequency.
- Rig: Your radio setup.
- Rubber duckie: A rubber coated helix antenna that is usually found on top of handheld transceivers.
- XYL: Ham short-hand for a wife, or unlicensed woman operator (usually a wife).
- YF: also means wife.
- YL: means Young Lady and is used to refer to female operators.
- Zed: means the letter “Z” as pronounced by the British.
Amateur Radio as a hobby round up
We hope you have enjoyed this whistle-stop tour of the amazing world of Amateur radio!
It is a great choice of hobby for not only those who love science and electronics, but also those who appreciate learning about new places and people and enjoying the great sense of adventure that comes with making a long-distance connection over the airwaves.
Budgets of every size should be able to get a basic rig up and running quickly as classifieds, thrift stores and other online and specialist retailers carry the range of equipment needed.
Over and out!