What is Ham Radio?
Amateur Radio, or ‘Ham Radio’ as it’s more commonly known around the world (a ‘Ham’ means ‘a licensed radio Amateur’), is a hobby shared by like minded people around the world, who communicate with each other using special frequencies, or ‘wavebands’, set aside for their use by national and international agreement. It knows no political boundaries, nor has any ‘class distinctions’. One day you may be talking to someone in the same town with the same job as you, another day to someone on a remote desert island or across the other side of the world, with a totally different lifestyle. You can, if you’re lucky, also have the chance to talk to a King, even an Astronaut on board a US Space Shuttle or a Cosmonaut on the MIR Space Station. One UK Amateur, earlier this year, was surprised to find himself taking to the Duke of Edinburgh!
Not just speech
Radio Amateurs don’t just use speech to communicate, although this is the most-often used method. If you’re interested in the Internet, then you’ll have a whale of a time on ‘packet radio’, and it’s all free, no phone bills! By using ‘spectrum efficient’ modes that get though when speech can’t, like some modern data modes linked to your computer, or more simply an uncomplicated Morse code station, you can directly communicate around the world with a low power transmitter and just a small aerial. Also, either on speech, data, or Morse code, you can even use the orbiting amateur radio satellites to help you chat around the world with!
Unlike the ‘old days’ of the hobby where ‘short wave listening’ was the starting point, many beginners nowadays start off either by overhearing their local amateurs chatting on VHF and UHF, or by ‘direct introduction’ by a friend or relative already in the hobby. Whichever way, if you have a scanner or receiver which includes VHF ‘Air band/Marine’, as many radio-interested people nowadays do, try tuning around 144MHz to 148MHz, and you’ll no doubt soon come across radio Amateurs on FM. If you have a short wave receiver (you’ll need one with a ‘BFO’ fitted, i.e., a switched position to receive either ‘SSB’ or LSB/USB on), try tuning around 3.5-3.8MHz on a weekend morning to hear amateurs around the UK, or around 14.0-14.35MHz during the day to listen in to amateurs from different countries. If your short wave receiver has these bands but no BFO, don’t worry, you can add one very easily.
Meet your local amateurs!
One of the best steps you can take is to pay a visit to your local amateur radio club. Those we feature every month in Club News are all active, go ahead clubs (because we don’t List those that aren’t!) and all these welcome newcomers with open arms. As well as meeting other like-minded folk, and learn something from the club talks and activities, you’ll often be able to ‘listen in’ using the club’s station, and maybe even pass a greetings message on this to other radio amateurs while one of the club members operates the station for you!
There are plenty of ‘Beginner’s Guides’ available, including the videos we’ve reviewed in this issue. A useful ‘basic introduction’ is the book ‘Amateur Radio for Beginners’, you can get this for $10.00 plus $1.00 postage and packing from the Amateur Radio Relay League, their Web site is listed in the Links section, and contact details follow the ‘Club News’ section each month. They’ll also be pleased to send you an information pack just for the asking. An introduction to the licensing side of getting started is the ‘Guide to Amateur Radio’ booklet and the ‘Novice Licence Information Sheet’, both free from the Radio communications Agency (details, again, in the Links section and following ‘Club News’ each month). You’ll also find your local amateur radio store is often a mine of information as well as a source of beginner’s guides, the staff there are often happy to chat to you if you call in, especially during less busy times, check the adverts in Ham Radio Today for your nearest one.If you’re thinking of getting a station together, either receiving only or transmitting as well, then as well as the monthly features in Ham Radio Today try the excellent US book ‘W1FB’s Help for New Hams’. This costs £5.75 plus p/p (but check first as prices change with currency rates), and is available from Poole Logic (49 Kingston Road, Poole, Dorset, Tel. 0202 683093), they also stock a comprehensive range of books on amateur radio for both beginners and advanced alike. ‘Setting up an Amateur Radio Station’ by Ian Poole (Babani, BP300, £3.95 plus p/p) is another you may like to obtain. Needless to say, your local amateur radio store (with leaflets etc.), as well as local amateurs, can all be a mine of information.
What does it all cost?
Quite simply, as much or as little as you like! To listen into amateurs, you don’t need a licence, just a receiver which you may already have, which effectively costs you nothing! There are, of course, some radio amateurs who have ‘monster’ stations with shelves full of expensive new gear and large aerial systems. Others, indeed the vast majority, have more modest setups, some just use a single ‘walkie talkie’ for their station. Some amateurs build all their own equipment, often combining this with ‘QRP’ (low power) operation, which gives them a ‘challenge’ in communicating that’s missing from ‘push-button black-boxes’. Using ex-PMR (surplus Private Mobile Radio) equipment which you’ve converted yourself through the regular Ham Radio Today articles, you can get on the air for less than £10, all in, and this opens up the world of local communication as well as allowing you to link your computer up to the radio via an interface for packet.
Licensing If you’d like to transmit as well as just receive, you’ll need an amateur radio licence, and for this you’ll have to pass a multiple-choice exam to show you know what you’re doing (like not transmitting on the wrong frequencies!). Contact your local club for information on this, many run courses for beginners, and you should be able to get through and pass the exam within a few months. The RSGB also publish good exam manuals and revision notes for these. One option is the ‘Novice’ licence, based on ‘hands-on’ instruction followed by a simple exam, another is the ‘full’ licence which is based on either self-study or in a class, followed by a more difficult exam but with greater operating privileges (like more frequencies and more power). Once you’ve passed the exam, if you’re under 18 a Novice licence costs you nothing each year, otherwise a ‘full’ or ‘Novice’ licence costs just £15 a year, and let you to use the relevant amateur-allocated frequencies above 30MHz (i.e., VHF and UHF) for communication. Currently, a further optional test is a practical ‘Morse code’ exam, which if you pass allows you to use allocated Short Wave frequencies (those below 30MHz) as well as the VHF and UHF ones. We hope this has given you a brief insight, and remember there’s plenty of information out here. You just need to get it, and we’ve shown you how to……..