Ham basics #1: What is ham radio?

Amateur radio, or ham radio, is a hobby as old as radio itself. The earliest pioneers in wireless communications, like Guglielmo Marconi, Heinrich Hertz, Nikola Tesla, and others, did what they did because they believed in what radio could do. Today, radio waves are ubiquitous and used in many ways commercially – think about your cellular phone, your car radio, etc. But for some that’s not enough – they want more. Hams look for that “something more” in radio. What all hams have in common is a common base of knowledge about radio communication (evidenced by a license exam), and a common love of making contacts with other hams via the different bands and modes that ham radio offers. In short, hams do radio for radio’s sake.

And there are a lot of different ways you can make contacts. Here are just a few interesting ways.

Talk to your neighbors.

All hams are able to talk with their fellow hams around them using the VHF and UHF spectrum, either directly to each other or via automatic relay stations known as repeaters. These are also the bands most used for emergency communications.

Talk in dits and dahs.

Some may consider it a lost art, but Morse Code is still alive, well, and kicking on the amateur radio bands. In fact, in some situations it’s the best way to make a radio contact – CW (continuous wave – the ham synonym for Morse code) can reach places that voice cannot. Morse code proficiency used to be a requirement to get a ham radio license (until 1991) or to upgrade to higher levels (until 2007). However, this is no longer the case. You can get a ham radio license, and upgrade to higher levels, without needing to take any Morse Code tests. (I’m a beneficiary of that phase-out.) However, it’s worth it to gain a familiarity with the code, and there are ways that you can teach yourself the code, if you so desire.

Talk in zeroes and ones.

You can send your signal out and talk using a computer in real-time with other hams around the world, using specially designed digital modes. A lot of these digital modes can be just as efficient as Morse code. Some others, while not quite as bandwidth-efficient, enable you to send a message, quickly and accurately, in a noisy environment, merely by holding your radio’s mic to your laptop’s speaker. (I got on digital modes in late February 2011. If I had a specialty in ham radio, this would be one of them.)

Tell people where you are (without Foursquare).

Through technology known as Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS), you can use a GPS receiver and a transmitter and have it transmit your latitude and longitude, and anyone with an Internet connection can track your position in real-time.

Talk around the world.

One of the backbones of amateur radio is the high-frequency (HF or shortwave) bands. Those are the radio frequencies that have the potential to reach halfway around the world. Your author made contact with two stations from South Africa, almost at the point on the planet opposite Hawaii, with nothing more than his radio and a cooperating ionosphere. Many hams take pleasure in making contacts with stations across oceans, and across continents.

However, that ability is also available to new hams as well. You can also take a walkie-talkie, talk into it, and thanks to the wonders of the Internet, have your voice come out the other end in a far-off land as well.

Talk to outer space.

There are numerous satellites orbiting the earth that are capable of relaying amateur radio signals, enabling hams to have a conversation by bouncing a signal off the satellite. Plus, there’s an even bigger satellite with astronauts on board. You can have a conversation with astronauts on the International Space Station, many of whom are licensed hams as well.

And one can even have a conversation with a far-off ham by bouncing a signal off the biggest satellite in these parts – the moon.

Most importantly, talk to serve your community.

With all the ways to have fun, ham radio does have its serious side. It’s a “when all else fails” type of communication method, when landlines, cell phones, and other means of communication fail. Many hams are trained and equipped to provide essential communications support in an emergency. Outside of emergencies, hams also provide communication support to large-scale events, such as charity walks and sporting events like the Honolulu Marathon. Many a life has been saved thanks in part to the quick communication capability of ham radio.

Emergency preparedness is an important part of ham culture, and rightfully so. You cannot be an effective emergency communications volunteer without first tending to your own emergency needs and the needs of your family.

If any of these appeal to you, ham radio may be for you. But you may be wondering why you need to be licensed to be a ham. Here’s why.

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