The Amateur Radio Service
Why Ham Radio ?
Most of my friends don't seem to know very much about amateur radio or what you can do
with it or why you would want to. This short description will explain some of it. It is
formally referred to as the Amateur Radio Service because of its capability and history of
providing emergency communications when conventional communications are not available,
frequently due to natural disaster. That is the primary reason why virtually every nation
on Earth supports amateur radio in some form or another. Ham radio operators are
inveterate experimenters. Even if the results are not earth shaking, they are frequently
interesting, useful, and fun. In Japan almost all of the high level engineers and
executives are amateur radio operators. They view it as a way of getting significant
technical skills that are not easily, or inexpensively obtained in other ways. Hams also
provide local, national, and global message delivery networks. You can send messages
anywhere in the world via amateur radio and there is a high degree of probability that it
will be delivered. Hams also provide sophisticated communications for community service
functions such as the bike ride across Maryland, the MS Bike Rides, and some marathons.
Typically they will provide a network of base, mobile, and personal based radios which
allow the event managers to more effectively stage and control their event. This coverage
can include data telemetry via packet communications, real time live video via amateur
radio television, as well as fixed and mobile GPS locator beacons which can be displayed
real time on digitized maps via APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System). If they had to
pay for a similar level of coverage and sophistication it would bankrupt most charitable
It is also a useful, and very inexpensive, way to test out new technology that does not
presently look attractive for commercial development. For example, all of the commercial
AM, FM, and TV broadcast frequencies used to be Amateur Radio frequencies 75 or so years
ago when the government didn't know what to do with them and radio was in its infancy.
Amateur Radio helped to demonstrate their utility. Modern cellular telephone technology is
essentially like a two meter FM hand held transceiver communicating with a repeater.
Repeaters are robot, computer controlled ham radio transceivers that are typically sited
on a mountaintop or a high tower. Ham radio operators had this technology for
approximately ten years before it was commercially available as cell phones. Amateur radio
experimentation and operation predated federal communications regulation and oversight.
To run a ham station requires a license from the Federal Communications Commission.
Prospective operators are tested on radio & electronics theory, communications
regulations, operating practices, and for all but one class of amateur license the ability
to send and receive in Morse code. Hams can communicate in a wide variety of modes: Morse
code or CW (continuous wave); AM, FM, and SSB (single side band) radiotelephone;
facsimile; RTTY (radio teletype); slow scan television; fast scan television (live real
time video); packet (digital computer to computer communication via radio); remote control
of anything from a model airplane, another remote transceiver, or your house; and finally
satellite communications. Approximately 35 satellites have been designed by engineers,
scientists, and programmers who are hams and placed in orbit.
Some interesting applications for hikers and backpackers include carrying a small hand
held transceiver (HT) which is about the size of a cell phone. From the top of a mountain,
I can cover a radius of 100+ miles with an HT. Using a linked repeater system which is
popular in both eastern and western mountainous states, it is possible to cover several
states. Its also possible to combine an HT, a terminal node controller (TNC) which is a
modem for a radio, and a GPS receiver to create an efficient GPS locator beacon. These
signals can be received by another ham transceiver which is using the APRS and display in
real time the exact location of the transmitter beacon on a digitized map. HT's typically
use the two meter (144 MHz) and/or 70 centimeter (440 MHz) bands which are very popular in
urban and suburban areas. With an HT you would have communications from most of the
Appalachian Trail for example. HT's would also be very effective at providing
communications within a group of hikers. People could split up and scout out different
areas if desired and still be in communication. For more remote areas a backpacker or
backcountry skier could carry a QRP (low power) transceiver for the lower frequency bands
such as 7, 14, or 21 MHz. These frequencies are typically used to provide world wide
coverage under good electromagnetic conditions. Communications with this light weight
battery powered equipment is typically in Morse code. Morse code is a much maligned mode
of communications by the uninitiated. It actually is the most efficient mode in many
respects. Using Morse code you can cover great geographic distances with low power, simple
antennas, and the smallest possible RF spectrum bandwidth, under poor electromagnetic
conditions. High speed CW operators, using abbreviations, and international Q signals can
actually communicate as fast as most people would with voice.
American Radio Relay League
If you are interested in getting a ham license contact the American Radio Relay League
(ARRL). They can send you an information packet on the classes of licenses, what you have
to do to get a license, and what types of activities are available. They also sell
numerous books, license exam manuals, and Morse code training tapes. Their website
contains a database of contact information for local ham radio clubs. Most of these clubs
offer courses to prepare for the license exam.
American Radio Relay League
225 Main St.
Newington, CN 06111-1494
8 - 5 EST, Monday through Friday