Here is a long over­due write-up on ham radio… I have quite a few friends that need help get­ting start­ed and with­out a direc­tion or some back­ground knowl­edge, its daunt­ing.  Keep in mind, this isn’t com­pre­hen­sive, but it’s a good start.  I may expand this write-up in the future….any changes or addi­tions I make will be pub­lished in future arti­cles.

The first thing you need to con­sid­er to become a Ham radio oper­a­tor is licens­ing.  There are three cat­e­gories of license so let me explain each.  The technician’s class is the eas­i­est to get, the exam only cov­ers basic radio the­o­ry, FCC reg­u­la­tions, and safe­ty; it is an intro­duc­to­ry license to many but for peo­ple that want to only use their equip­ment for local com­mo (it allows for VHF and UHF trans­mis­sion only), it’s the only license they need.  The next step up is the gen­er­al class license; it allows for com­mo on all ama­teur radio bands (exclu­sions apply) which will give you world­wide capa­bil­i­ties.  As you would expect, the exam is more dif­fi­cult; it cov­ers more advanced radio the­o­ry, anten­na designs, radio wave prop­a­ga­tion, but thank­ful­ly they have delet­ed the Morse code por­tion of the test and it is no longer a require­ment.  With a few weeks prac­tice how­ev­er, you can pass the exam no prob­lem.  The final license is the extra class; this license is for seri­ous Ham radio enthu­si­asts and as you would expect, the test is much more dif­fi­cult.  Extra class oper­a­tors often com­pete in ham con­tests and col­lect QSO cards from around the world.  I would com­pare the three lev­els of license to a high school diplo­ma (tech­ni­cians class), a col­lege degree (gen­er­al class), and a PHD (extra class). If you’re look­ing to use your ham equip­ment casu­al­ly but want the capa­bil­i­ties to talk to some­one across the coun­try (espe­cial­ly in a cri­sis sit­u­a­tion), the gen­er­al class is the way to go.   I hold a gen­er­al class license and I can trans­mit on all bands, but spe­cif­ic fre­quen­cies with­in those bands have been set aside for extra class license hold­ers only.

Sev­er­al books you may want to con­sid­er buy­ing in prepa­ra­tion for your test are study books writ­ten by Gor­don West.  He writes books  for each cat­e­go­ry of license and each text includes actu­al test bank ques­tions.  These books how­ev­er, don’t do an excel­lent job of explain­ing radio the­o­ry, dif­fer­ent anten­na designs, or oth­er top­ics you may want to know as a ham… they cov­er test prep mate­r­i­al almost exclu­sive­ly.  If you’re look­ing to enhance your knowl­edge, you’ll want tothZZSNZ9M4 expand your library… and believe it or not, there is a book Ham radio for dum­mies.  The test ques­tions and prac­tice tests are avail­able online as well.  If you go on the ARRL web­site, you’ll find prac­tice exams, local test dates, and local ham clubs… and hams are a very friend­ly bunch over­all, you will have no trou­ble find­ing peo­ple help you get start­ed.

Now that you know what the licens­ing require­ments are, let me explain the dif­fer­ent bands so you know which license you should strive for.  There are two basic cat­e­gories, HF or high fre­quen­cy, and VHF/UHF or very high frequency/ultra high fre­quen­cy.   The HF bands have the abil­i­ty to “skip” off of dif­fer­ent lay­ers of the atmos­phere and trans­mit over very long dis­tances.  The VHF bands are pri­mar­i­ly line of sight trans­mis­sion but have the abil­i­ty to use repeaters to extend the range of your sig­nal.  The fol­low­ing is a list of the most com­mon­ly used bands and a brief expla­na­tion of each:

High fre­quen­cy bands: Gen­er­al and Extra class have priv­i­leges

160 meter – Fre­quen­cy lim­its: 1.8–2.0 MHz.  This is a night owl band, mean­ing the radio wave prop­a­ga­tion is best at night.  If you think about the AM radio in your car, the best recep­tion is at night… and those fre­quen­cies are around 1.0 MHz.

75/80 meter – Fre­quen­cy lim­its: 3.5–4.0 MHz.  This band is best evenings and nights.  The patri­ot net is run at 8pm cen­tral time on this band because it can be heard from across the coun­ty quite eas­i­ly.

40 meter – Fre­quen­cy lim­its: 7.0–7.3 MHz.  This band is best best days and evenings although I’ve had good suc­cess with it at night as well.

20 meter – Fre­quen­cy lim­its: 14.0–14.350 MHz.  This band is best days and nights.  My longest con­tact to date was a sta­tion in Lon­don, Eng­land from my home on the east coast of the US.  I reg­u­lar­ly make con­tact with sta­tions in the Mid­west, Flori­da, Texas, etc. on this band.

15 meter – Fre­quen­cy lim­its: 21.0–21.450.  This band is best days.  You may notice that the short­er the radio wave, the bet­ter it is for use dur­ing day­time oper­a­tion.  Longer waves are unable to skip because of atmos­pher­ic inter­fer­ence caused by the sun… where­as at night, the inter­fer­ence is gone; short­er waves as a rule pass right through.

11meter – Fre­quen­cy lim­its on this band are not even a con­sid­er­a­tion.  The 11 meter band is des­ig­nat­ed as for Cit­i­zen Band (CB) radio trans­mis­sion.  You need sep­a­rate equip­ment to trans­mit on these fre­quen­cies and the equip­ment has chan­nels assigned to spe­cif­ic fre­quen­cies.

10 meter – Fre­quen­cy lim­its: 28.0–29.700 MHz.  This band is best days but in my expe­ri­ence, real­ly noisy at night.

VHF/UHF bands: Tech­ni­cian, Gen­er­al, and Extra class have priv­i­leges

6 meter – Fre­quen­cy lim­its: 50.0–54.0 MHz.

2 meter – Fre­quen­cy lim­its: 144.0–148.0 MHz

70 cm (often called the 440 band)– Fre­quen­cy lim­its: 420.0–450.0

The VHF/UHF bands are good any time of the day since they are line of sight trans­mis­sion (they nor­mal­ly don’t allow for atmos­pher­ic skip but anom­alies can hap­pen where win­dows open up for longer range trans­mis­sion).  The range can be extend­ed on each band by using repeaters.  To explain what a repeater is, imag­ine anoth­er radio that accepts your 2x_baofeng_bf_uv5r_radio_transceiver_dual_band_ham_radio_talkies_walkies_1_lgwsig­nal (encrypt­ed with a fre­quen­cy off­set and PL tone that you pro­gram into your radio) and then broad­casts it again on the select­ed fre­quen­cy so it can be heard over a larg­er area.  I sug­gest pur­chas­ing a repeater direc­to­ry from ARRL so you know which fre­quen­cies and PL tones to use for the repeaters in your AO.  Keep in mind the list of fre­quen­cies above is not com­pre­hen­sive.  Oth­er bands do exist but these bands list­ed are most com­mon­ly used (atleast by me any­way).  The bands I’ve exclud­ed from this list fill in the fre­quen­cy gaps quite a bit but there are still some fre­quen­cies off lim­its to ama­teur radio; for exam­ple, emer­gency com­mu­ni­ca­tions are around 150MHz, FM radio is around 100MHz, and there are oth­ers used by rail­road, GMRS radio, etc. that hams can­not trans­mit on.

The next con­sid­er­a­tion is equip­ment.  I have a write up on a bud­get hand­ie talkie that can be found here.  For any­one look­ing for more than local com­mo, lets take a look at longer range equip­ment.  If you have a lim­it­ed bud­get (and lets Ham Radio Equipmentbe hon­est, who doesn’t) I would sug­gest get­ting a radio that is an “all band” trans­ceiv­er.  The advan­tage here is you buy one radio and you can trans­mit on all bands… the draw­back is, if that radio goes down, your unable to trans­mit on any bands.  An all band mod­el I would sug­gest is the Yae­su FT857D.  I have a Yae­su FT100D and love it… but it is not with­out it’s faults; it has a small face (as does the FT857D) with lim­it­ed but­tons, this means there are lots of hid­den menus and you need to have the man­u­al handy until you get used to its oper­a­tion… and it has a max­i­mum of 100 watt out­put but I rarely have a prob­lem talk­ing to hams sev­er­al thou­sand miles away.  The FT100D is no longer made but I believe the FT857D is the replace­ment in the Yae­su line.  It should cost you under $1000 for the unit… when you think about the cost of an HF unit plus a VHF/UHF unit togeth­er; $1000 doesn’t seem too bad.  If you want to spend more mon­ey, you can get much big­ger units that are more user friend­ly and capa­ble of putting out more watts… but in my expe­ri­ence, it’s real­ly not nec­es­sary.  There are oth­er units out there you may find more appeal­ing or may come rec­om­mend­ed from anoth­er ham, but regard­less of what you buy, stick with a decent name brand like Icom, Ken­wood, or Yae­su.

In addi­tion to the basic trans­ceiv­er, you will also need anten­nas.  Again, I would sug­gest get­ting a multi­band anten­na.  I would sug­gest some­thing along the lines of a Chal­lenger DX… it is light­weight (just over 20 pds), has decent height (just over 30 ft), and is capa­ble of trans­mit­ting on bands from 2m up to 80m.  You can also look into buy­ing a multi­band for HF (like a But­ter­nut HF6V) and a multi­band for VHF (like a Hus­tler G6-270R).  You will then have a thded­i­cat­ed anten­na for each.  The multi­band approach saves you the trou­ble of hav­ing an “anten­na farm” set up on your prop­er­ty and less ini­tial out­lay in equip­ment.  The draw­backs to this approach are decreased trans­mis­sion range and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of need­ing an anten­na tuner.  The anten­nas I list­ed above are omni­di­rec­tion­al mean­ing they trans­mit in all direc­tions instead of focus­ing your sig­nal in one spe­cif­ic direc­tion… when a direc­tion­al anten­na is used, the sig­nal is trans­mit­ted and received from one direc­tion pri­mar­i­ly and the pow­er is focused in that direc­tion…. they are much more expen­sive, but also much more efficient/effective.  The oth­er draw­back is an anten­na tuner may be need­ed since these are multi­band anten­nas; a tuner tricks your radio into accept­ing the sig­nal and giv­ing a decent SWR read­ing.  SWR is short for stand­ing wave ratio.  Essen­tial­ly it is a mea­sure­ment of the radios abil­i­ty to trans­mit with a giv­en anten­na.  The clos­er the SWR is to 1:1, the bet­ter the sig­nal will be.  With a multi­band anten­na, the radio may not be read­ing a decent SWR because of mul­ti­ple wire lengths on the anten­na dis­tort­ing the sig­nal, so it needs to be tricked into accept­ing the sig­nal you want for a spe­cif­ic fre­quen­cy… which requires a tuner.  Decent tuners can be pur­chased for sev­er­al hun­dred dol­lars… still cheap­er than pur­chas­ing an anten­na for each band you want to trans­mit on.

I rec­om­mend this equip­ment because I’ve either dealt with it myself of have read good reviews.  All told, this equip­ment should run you in the $2000 range… and that includes all the odds and ends you’ll find your­self pick­ing up from time to time like anten­na duplex­ers, coax­i­al cable, PL259 con­nec­tors, etc.  You can pur­chase all of the items I’ve men­tioned from places like

Ham radio out­let www.hamradio.com

Texas tow­ers www.texastowers.com

Ama­teur elec­tron­ic sup­ply www.aesham.com

Well, that is Ham radio in a nut­shell… there is much much more info that could be includ­ed in this write­up but this is real­ly just a primer.  I’m sure I haven’t answered all or your ques­tions but this is a start.  One thing I pur­pose­ly left off is instal­la­tion… that is a whole dif­fer­ent ball game… it’s sim­ple but ground­ing con­sid­er­a­tions need to be adhered to (for pow­er and light­ning) or you’ll be spend­ing mon­ey on new equip­ment real­ly quick.  As I men­tioned ear­li­er, best to start a library on ham radio resources and tech­niques and learn as you go.

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