Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Ham Radio

image from Wikimedia Commons
Every summer I try to have a project of some sort to work on. Sometimes these have an emergency preparedness focus, though not always. Not because I'm a big "prepper" per se, but because it's only common sense to prepare for bad weather, power outages, and natural disasters.

For the past several summers I have worked on learning more about pectin choices and how to can food so I can have more food on hand that doesn't have to be refrigerated (and to preserve the bounties of my garden!).

I have also worked on building up readiness kits, improving our fire safety, emergency water supplies, and lighting and heating options if power outages occur, etc. We still have a ways to go on all these goals, but it's all about making progress, not being perfect.

This year, I decided to get my ham radio license. So today I'm going to blog about that in honor of National Preparedness Month, which is coming up soon.

What is Ham Radio?

"Ham" Radio is a hobby where amateurs (as opposed to broadcast professionals) communicate with each other via radio waves.

Although most hams use voice communication, ham radio can include other types of communication, including Morse code, digital communication (emails and the like), and even some analog television.

From the ARRL website:
Amateur Radio (Ham Radio) is a popular hobby and a service in which licensed participants operate communications equipment. Although hams get involved for many reasons, they all have in common a basic knowledge of radio technology and operating principles, and pass an examination for the FCC license to operate on radio frequencies known as the "Amateur Bands." These bands are radio frequencies reserved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for use by hams at intervals from just above the AM broadcast band all the way up into extremely high microwave frequencies.
So basically, a ham radio is a radio that allows you to broadcast and receive in frequencies that the FCC has designed for amateur radio operators. The website explains this further:
Look at the dial on an old AM radio and you'll see frequencies marked from 535 to 1605 kilohertz. This is one radio "band." There are other bands of radio spectrum for amateur, government, military and commercial radio uses. If you could hear the many different bands, you would find aircraft, ship, fire and police communication, as well as the so-called "shortwave" stations, which are worldwide commercial and government broadcast stations from the U.S. and overseas. Amateurs are allocated 26 bands (i.e., specific groups of frequencies) spaced from 1.8 Megahertz, which is just above the broadcast radio frequencies, all the way up to 275 Gigahertz! Depending on which band we use, we can talk across town, around the world, or out to satellites in space. Hams can even bounce signals off the moon!
In other words, the electromagnetic spectrum involves an extremely wide range of frequencies. Some are used for public broadcast, like on the radio or the TV.  Some bands are reserved for military use, government use, or for police and fire personnel.

However, the government has reserved 26 bands of frequencies for the use of amateur radio enthusiasts (hams). On these bands, we can communicate via voice, Morse code, radio teletype, email and other data transmissions, and even via TV. However, before you can use these bands, you have to become licensed in order to ensure that you use them safely and responsibly.

Ham radio can be done in any country that offers licensure. However, each country has its own rules about access and licensure. The following information is about U.S. licensure. Information about Canadian licensure can be found here. For other countries, google the country's name and "ham radio" to get the rules for licensure.

Why Get Involved with Ham Radio?

One of the first things ham radio operators get asked is why they do it. Frankly, people get involved with ham radio for many reasons, but there are three reasons that are the most common.

Some do it because they are interested in electronics and this is a good way to pursue that interest. I would say that's the story of the majority of hams, especially the old-timers in the field. There are a lot of engineers who are hams, and a lot of geeky-minded folk who just like to fiddle with electronic stuff. Ham radio offers the perfect hobby for them.

However, that's not me; I knew nothing about electronics before now and don't have any special interest in it.  I find the field somewhat interesting in theory, but I have many other interests that are more compelling. So while having an electronics hobby is a motivator for a lot of people, it wasn't for me.

Some get involved in ham radio because of its potential for communication and making friends. The cool thing about ham radio is that you can make contact with people all over the world, even including astronauts on the Space Station! How cool is that? I have to be honest; I like that part.

Ham radio is like having instant gratification pen pals. No need to wait for a letter to wind its snail-mail way to you; you just press the button and talk. However, although this aspect is cool and I hope to help promote an increased awareness of geography with my kids via ham radio, making new contacts is not my main motivation. Having lived all over the country and visited a few places around the world, I've got plenty of friends and contacts.

No, for me, the appeal of ham radio is its usefulness in an emergency. No, I'm not worried about a zombie apocalypse and I'm not a conspiracy-minded end-of-the-world prepper. However, I have lived through or near a couple of natural disasters and am more aware of the challenges of such scenarios than most people, and am disappointed in how unprepared most people are for such a possibility.

My area of the country is prone to certain types of natural disasters and I want to be more prepared for that possibility, that's all. And Ham radios are extremely useful during emergencies:
In times of disaster, when regular communications channels fail, hams can swing into action assisting emergency communications efforts and working with public service agencies. For instance, it was the Amateur Radio Service which kept New York City agencies in touch with each other after their command center was destroyed during the 9/11 attack. Ham Radio came to the rescue during Hurricane Katrina, where all other communications failed.
I took CERT (Community Emergency Response Training) classes a few years ago, which is where I learned more about the usefulness of ham radios in an emergency.  And I thought, Hey, I could do that.

After a car accident a few years ago ruined my knee, I had to come to terms with the fact that I'll be of limited use in some ways during emergencies. I won't be able to help with Search and Rescue at all, so I wondered what I could even do to help. But the CERT instructor pointed out that I can do first aid, I can help with triage, I can help coordinate emergency services, and I can help distribute emergency supplies. Those are all important roles in a disaster.

In addition, I realized that I could help even more in emergencies if I became a licensed ham radio operator. This is a critical role in a large-scale disaster, yet it's one I could do without further ruining my knee. So I decided that when I got the chance, I would get my ham radio license.

But I've been putting it off.  It's hard to find time when you are so busy!  But when my local ham radio club advertised that it was giving classes towards licensure this summer, I signed up, and also signed up my youngest son. I decided that this would be my big summer project this year.


Many people think about becoming a ham but hesitate because they think it costs a lot to get started. The truth is that the cost varies, but it can be done pretty cheaply if you are careful.

You can buy a book and other study materials to help you prepare for the technician's license, but honestly, everything's on the internet already.  You don't have to buy a book if you don't want to.

You can take a class too.  Most are offered for free through local ham clubs, though I'm sure there are classes somewhere that cost too.  But again, all the material is available for free on the internet.

Taking the test cost $15.  I recommend studying heavily before you take the test so you can pass it at the first testing session. The test isn't that hard, but you do have to really know your FCC rules, ham radio specs, some basic electronics, basic safety rules, and some simple math formulas (easy algebra, nothing hard). Most people wouldn't pass it without at least some studying, but once you put that effort in, the test is not hard to pass because you can find all the questions online and study up ahead of time.

The actual radio itself is the part that costs. You can spend as much or as little as you'd like. Most beginners start out with small hand-held 2 meter band radios.  Brand new, they cost somewhere between $100 to $200. However, you can find used hand-held 2 meter radios much cheaper than that at ham radio flea markets and online.

The experts recommend starting with a simple unit and then investing in more equipment once you are more familiar with the field and decide you'd like to upgrade. But many people stay with a simple 2 meter hand-held radio and don't upgrade much at all.

So yeah, there is a little bit of investment, mostly in getting the actual radio itself.  But if you get a used unit and do your studying online, it can be pretty affordable.

Levels of Licensure

There are three classes of ham radio licensure in the United States:
  1. Technician
  2. General 
  3. Extra
These levels are sequential. You have to pass them in the above order.  However, if you're feeling ambitious, you can test for multiple levels at one test session (pay the testing fee once and pass the Technician level, then take the General test at the same test session without having to pay more, etc.).

Each class of licensure has different levels of responsibility and privileges.  Basically, the higher your licensure, the wider the range of frequencies you get to access.

However, it's important to note that NO class of U.S. licensure requires learning Morse Code anymore! 

This is the biggest thing that keeps most people from pursuing ham radio. Until 2007, Morse Code (abbreviated as CW for "Carrier Wave") was required for licensure, but it was eventually recognized that this requirement was keeping many people away from licensure and was not really a vital skill for amateur radio anymore. So while learning Morse Code is strongly encouraged at some point, it's definitely not a requirement for ANY class of licensure in the U.S. anymore.

Technician-class operators have to take a 35-question test (and get at least 26 right) to pass. The test is on radio theory, basic electronics, RF safety, FCC regulations, and operating practices. Once the test is passed and a call sign received, Technicians get access to bands that allow local communications and often national communications, as well as the possibility of some limited international communication on a few high frequency ("short wave") bands.

General-class operators get access to a wider range of bands that allow greater ease in long-distance communications, including international communications. This test also involves 35 questions.  You have to have passed your Technician class test in order to take the General test.

Extra-class operators get privileges on all U.S. Amateur Radio bands and in all modes.  This is a harder class of license; there are 50 questions and the test is reputed to be much more difficult than the previous two classes. Questions are on FCC regulations, specialized operating practices, advanced electronics theory, and radio equipment design

The following summary of which modes, bands, and frequencies are allowed with each class of licensure can be found here:
With a Technician Class license, you will have all ham radio privileges above 30 megahertz (MHz) including the 2-meter band. Technicians may operate FM voice, digital packet (computers), television, single-sideband voice and several other modes. Technicians may also operate on the 80, 40, and 15 meter HF bands using CW, and on the 10 meter band using CW, voice, and digital modes.
In addition to Technician Class [privileges], General Class operators may use high power transmitters and have access to the 160, 30, 17, 12, and 10 meter bands and access to major parts of the 80, 40, 20, and 15 meter bands. 
Extra Class [operators...have] the privilege of operating on all authorized Amateur Radio frequencies.
Licensure lasts for 10 years before you have to renew.  And as long as you renew within that period (or a 2-year grace period afterwards), you don't have to re-take any test. You don't have to take any more tests or go for any additional license levels if you don't want to, as long as you keep your current licensure active.

Many people become a Technician and never go any further, but ham clubs really encourage people to go for at least their General.

When I took my Technician's test recently, I did so well on the test that they strongly encouraged me to take the General, but I know that I'm such a newbie to the field that I'd need a lot more time to study for that. But it certainly did encourage me to consider it.

My Path to Licensure

I started my path to licensure with a Ham Radio course, presented by our local Ham Radio club. Hams have a passion to see the hobby spread to other people, so many take pride in mentoring others. Sometimes this takes the path of a formal class, sometimes it's informal mentoring, but there is usually some sort of path to licensing available through your local ham club.

My younger son and I took the class. It was a 3-week class, once a week for about 3 hours. My son missed one of the classes because he was away Scouting, but I went to all three. (I'll help him get caught up on what he missed later on; he and his brother have both expressed an interest in getting their radio merit badge.)

The classes were good (if a little boring at times), but they went a little fast for me as a total newbie to the subject. There were a number of folks there who had an engineering or electronics background, so our teacher tended to give short shrift to basic concepts. (Engineers often forget that the rest of us don't know their jargon and need a primer to get up to speed.) I was able to keep up reasonably well but it all made a lot more sense to me after I studied the basic concepts on my own.

I studied via a book I purchased at the class (for $20). I probably could have done it easily without the book. I mostly bought it because I thought it would be a good idea to have a hard copy of ham principles for the long term, since in an emergency the internet probably wouldn't be available.

I also did a lot of online studying, which was INVALUABLE.  Can't recommend it highly enough. That's what really helped turn the corner for me on understanding the material. I might not have passed the test without it, honestly. It allowed me to work at my own non-geek speed through the basic electronics concepts and terminology.

I still feel the class was important, though. I tend to get a bit intimidated or overwhelmed when learning a new subject; I get frustrated with all I don't know, I worry about "doing it wrong" (typical perfectionist stuff), or I want to know it all now. I do best watching or listening to someone explaining it first, getting a basic understanding of something, and then doing the book learning.  If I hadn't taken the class first, I'm not sure I would have really "gotten" the material, even with online help.

So for me, the course was important in getting me through my intimidation factor and helping me see that even a total non-geek like me could become a ham. But in terms of mastering the material, the online study was what helped the most.  So I recommend both.  However, everyone learns differently, and some people do very well with just the online materials.  YMMV.

There are any number of websites devoted to taking practice tests for the licensing.  The good news is that there is a pool of around 400 questions that are used for the technician's license, and all are available online.  Many sites have them available to peruse, and will generate sample tests for you so you can see how you'd do taking the test.

This is SO helpful because you never know which 35 questions out of the nearly 400 available will be randomly selected for your test. You might be fine one time and totally bomb the next time. It all depends on which questions you get.  Some areas I was very comfortable with, and some areas I was totally clueless on.  Taking multiple practice tests helped me shore up my weak areas.

I found one study site particularly handy;

This site gives you the test questions via virtual flashcards. You can see the question and its choices; if you get the answer wrong, you can "turn over" the flashcard and get a written explanation of the question and the right answer.  On other practice test sites, they give you the question and tell you when you're wrong, but don't tell you why you were wrong.  This one helps you work on your weak areas more easily, right there as part of the practice test instead of having to search all over the site. So while there are many sites out there you can use, this was the one that helped me the most as a newbie.

I kept taking the practice tests until I could consistently not only pass the test, but get 90% or better. I also took the time to go over all 394 possible questions and their explanations. Eventually I got to the point where I could pass with 100%.  On my actual licensing test, I didn't quite get 100%; I missed one question (on a stupid error, oops).  But I did better than many of the people around me.

So much depends on which test you get with the luck of the draw. I recommend taking them over and over until you consistently get high marks, and reviewing your wrong answers each time so you can fix the problem and get it right. That's the best way to nearly guarantee passing your real test the first time out.

The formal test is offered once a month in my area, at a local fire station. You have to find out what the schedule is in your area. A whole bunch of Volunteer Exam Coordinators (VECs) from the local ham club gave and proctored the test. The actual test doesn't take very long (although you can take as long as you like on it), but be prepared to wait for a while afterwards. Three separate people have to check your test and verify you passed it, and then there's paperwork to be filled out. So allow at least an hour to two hours for the test process.  It might not take that long, but better to allow for it just in case.

I also recommend getting a Federal Registration Number (FRN) ahead of time. Otherwise, you have to put your Social Security Number on the ham licensing form you fill out that day, and I'm not a fan of giving out Social Security Numbers casually. But you can do that online securely ahead of time, and then just use the FRN at the actual test.

The test session costs $15, and you can take the test as often as you'd like for that $15. There was a 12 year-old boy who took the Ham Radio class with my son and I; he didn't pass the first time he took the formal written test, but he was able to re-take it that day for the same $15. That's cool. Also, the tests for Technician, General, and Extra licensure are offered at the same time; if you feel confident in your material, you can pass the technician test and then move on and take the general directly afterwards, all for that same $15.  So that's a nice option for those who want to kill two birds with one stone.

Personally, I decided I needed time to study for the next level, since this field is so new to me.  I'll look online at how hard the material is for the general license and then decide if I'll pursue it. My son still needs to take his Technician's license test, so maybe I'll study up and take the General test about the time he's taking his Technician's test.  We'll see.

Final Thoughts

The process to get my ham radio license was both harder and easier than I thought it would be.

It was harder in that I had to learn a lot of technical terms, electronics theory, and FCC regulations that were all very new to me. For someone who knew nothing about electronics, that was a bit of a learning curve.

But it was easier in that all the questions were available online, there were tons of resources for taking practice tests ahead of time, and once you learned the basics, most of the questions were really not hard at all.

I'm sure there are some people who just memorize the answer to the question, but I found it way more helpful to try to understand the principles behind the question and get it right that way. Then you can apply the knowledge more uniformly in other questions.

I haven't gotten on the radio yet; I have to wait for my official call sign first. In the meantime, I'm going to check out my local ham radio club's monthly meeting, just to get more comfortable with the process and to see what new info I can pick up. I'll also take my kids at some point in the future so they can learn about ham radio too.

Anyone else out there a ham?  Ever considered becoming one?

Good Ham Radio Links

General Ham Radio Links
Practice Tests for Your Technician's License
Taking Your Technician's License


Mich said...

Having a ham would've been useful during the recent AB floods, as my district was one that lost power (we weren't evacuated though). I did fine however, with a regular radio. I found the local news station and just listened to that. Also the stores down the hill were still operating, so I was able to get some fire logs.

Russell Roberts said...

Congratulations, Pamela. You'll find that Amateur Radio is a life-long learning experience. Emergency communications is a good way to put your Amateur Radio License to work for your community. Stick with it. I've been a ham for 36 wonderful years...enjoyed every minute of it. Aloha, Russ Roberts, KH6JRM.

Richard Bateman, KD7BBC said...

Congratulations on getting your call from the HamStudy team as well! We're glad you found our site helpful!