For about eight years now I’ve worked in marine electronics and communications sales and consultations. I have been branching out our business to include a variety of stock in radio equipment including GMRS, CB and satellite communications. Recently I have been selling a very popular handheld transceiver, which operates in the 2-metre band of the Amateur Radio Service. This of course has raised a question lately amongst my co-workers and some clientele: What is Amateur radio? I sometimes struggle to explain what Amateur radio is because it is such a vast community accomplishing many wonderful things or just simply having fun. I am going to attempt, as briefly as possible, to explain what exactly Amateur radio is and what Amateur radio operators accomplish.
Amateur Radio or “Ham Radio” (a term I do not like) is a very old wireless activity. Amateur radio experimenters have been advancing the state-of-the-art in radio, television and all forms of electronic achievements since the days of Tesla and Marconi and continue to do so today. In the United States it is estimated around 700,000 licensed Amateurs are active and on the “air” and are part and parcel of a greater community of millions worldwide. Amateur radio like all other forms of radio in the United States is administered and monitored by the Federal Communications Commission more commonly known amongst American radio enthusiasts as the Commission or simply the FCC. The Amateur Radio Service came to life in the mid 1930s for the purpose of developing electronics and nurturing radio experimentation, providing emergency communications, encouraging citizens to practise radio operation and maintenance and to spread good will over the radio waves throughout the nation and across the globe.
Anyone can be an Amateur or “Ham” (once again I prefer not to refer to myself as a Ham as I find it a bit derogatory). In the United States there are no age limits or physical requirements; Amateur radio does not discriminate. You simply have to pass a written examination on radio operations, rules, procedures, good conduct and engineering and a depending on the exam, a decent amount of radio theory. In the United States there are three licenses: Technician Class which is your entry level license giving you access to around 17 radio bands above 50MHz and limited use of 4 HF frequency bands; General Class which is for your HF enthusiasts and grants you access to all 27 or so Amateur radio bands; and Extra Class which is the top tier of the Amateur Radio Service in the USA giving you a few more “special” extensions inside the Amateur bands where only the Extras are free to roam and communicate. At the time of typing this I am General Class license holder and am working on my Extra Class exam, which I hope to take in the not so distant future.
Once you get involved in Amateur radio you will discover a large range of capabilities, activities and interests. Some Amateurs are involved largely in “emcomm” or Emergency Communications for reliable communications during National or State emergencies, natural disasters, acts of terrorism or war, or just about any time our regular form of communication has been impaired. Some do Public Service communications for charities or during special events within their local communities. Many are “ragchewers” who just enjoy a good chat or “ragchew” over the radio with fellow Amateur operators. Some are CW (Morse Code) fanatics tapping away on their respective keys helping keep the radio language alive and on the air. There is a smaller community of experimenters who are “home-brewing” or designing and engineering their own equipment and trying to improve the world of radio communications and radio navigation and continue to advance it into an even more modern and often times futuristic age of technology.
Some Amateurs are into newer SDR (Software-Defined Radio) equipment, “writing code” and digital modes of communications whilst others are purists and work with the old reliable analogue modes of radio. There are minimalist or QRP operators trying to DX or communicate long distance on low-power transmission with the bear minimum of equipment. There are “Big Guns” who have some serious gear and serious antenna equipment and there isn’t a spot on the globe to which they couldn’t communicate. There are others who are working with “weak signal” or VHF/UHF/SHF and microwave frequencies and trying to prove their reliability not only on a short range but also on a longer range. Some are more scientific-minded or physics-minded and are using radio for ionospheric studies, sky-mapping, radio propagation studies including meteor scatter, rain scatter, Earth-Moon-Earth propagation and many other intriguing subjects.
One thing every Amateur has in common is their operation, experimentation, engineering and practise is completely non-commercial. They are not paid, therefore they are not “Professionals” but do not ever think that “Amateur” indicates a lower grade of performance or lower level of understanding of radio. Amateurs pursue radio for personal enjoyment and to advance their own skills and the entirety of the radio world. They are quite serious and often more experienced and “professional” than most of the paid commercial operators out there. Once again Amateur just indicates that they do it for free, so think about that before you commercial radio operators or military radios operators start to knock them down. But like all things in life Amateur radio takes in all kinds so don’t expect every Amateur radio enthusiast and licensee you meet to be Stephen Hawking, believe me many are not, but their heart and mind are in radio and that, to me, is a beautiful thing.
When I think of Amateur Radio I think of Heinrich Hertz, Nikola Tesla, Guglielmo Marconi, Karl F. Braun and so many others. My original interest in Amateur radio, coming from a background in Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) communications and marine radio operations, was the use of Amateur radio for emergency communications worldwide. As I dug deeper into the Amateur Radio Service it awoke my inner-scientist and I spend much of my time now reading and researching the use of radio in multiple forms of sciences, absorbing the world of radio-physics, and the construction of antennas. Radio propagation is a huge interest of mine as of late as well as the physics behind it all. There are so many inexplicable and unknown radio phenomena it really peaks my interest. Radio is also an integral part of research into our atmosphere and ionosphere and is helping us understanding global climate change amongst many other things important to nature and humanity. As a licensed Amateur radio operator I am able to perform my own studies or contribute to the greater studies already in place. My newest quest is to study and learn and utilise the art of radiotelegraphy. So what is Amateur radio? It is what you want it to be and what you choose to put into it or take away from it. I encourage you, if the world of radio interests you, to go get your license in your respective nation and join our community. I’ll “see” you on the waves. – Packie, KY3I