Ham radio is an amateur radio system with a long and exciting history. There are well over 600,000 ham radio operators in the U.S. and 2 ½ million around the world. Despite its name, Ham radio is much more than a hobby. Ham operators have advanced the science of radio and electronics, provided emergency communications during countless disasters, and even worked with NASA. If you’re interested in Ham radio, you can begin with a modest setup and increase your investment of time and resources as your interest grows. There is more than enough going on in the field to keep your attention for a lifetime. This guide will explain just what being a ham operator entails, what you need to know about radios and antennas, how to get started, and where to find resources for education and licensing.
The Early Days Of Amateur Radio Operators
At the very beginning of the 20th century, people began building “wireless” radio sets from plans published in magazines and books. Interestingly, teenagers were among the earliest fans of the new technology. Not only was radio communication a novelty, but it was also easy for young people to get involved because of the low cost of building a basic radio.
Those early amateur radios were used mostly for entertainment. Being able to chat back and forth with someone in the next town or even one state over was exciting. Before the advent of amateur radio, telegraph offices were the only way to communicate over distances, and they charged by the word. Ham radio let people communicate for free from the comfort of home; however, on the earliest Ham radio sets Morse Code was the only available type of communication.
More advanced radio technology that made voice communication possible arrived just a few years later. The number of amateur radio operators grew, and eventually, problems arose with interference. At this point, the Federal Communications Commission stepped in and began requiring licensing to operate an amateur radio. They also restricted amateur radios to certain frequency ranges and introduced call signs to give each operator a unique identity on the air.
The Different Types of Ham Radio
There are three basic types of ham radio, each with its own strengths and drawbacks.
Handheld radios are easily portable and resemble large walkie-talkies. They have a short, rubber-covered antenna known as a “stubby” or “rubber ducky”. Handhelds are common at large public events, or in emergency situations when amateur radio service is needed for communication. Disaster situations wreak havoc on cell phone networks, either because everyone is trying to use their phone at once, or because power loss takes down the service. Because they run on batteries, handheld radios are ideal for emergency services. Even though the small antenna provides a limited range, the lower frequencies allow the signal to propagate further than other radios could.
Mobile ham radios are the nearest equivalent to CB radios. These book-sized units are typically mounted under a dashboard in a vehicle. Their control interface is designed to be simple enough for beginning radio operators, and most importantly, for drivers. Mobile radios use handheld push-to-talk microphones and often operate specifically in the 10-meter band, where they’re tailored for use on the road. They all have standard antenna jacks, and a variety of antennas can be used with them. This gives them a significantly longer range than other popular types of mobile radio. Mobile ham radios can transmit with up to 200 watts of power across the high-frequency band.
Base station radios are considerably larger than mobile radios, are installed in a stationary location, and are more complex to use. They provide communication in multiple ham bands and can handle both analog and digital modes; they may be combined with computers for digital communication. Base station radios are often connected to more than one antenna to accommodate both the VHF and UHF bands. Some of those antennas are quite large and are usually mounted to small towers.
Base stations are a lot of fun once you know what you’re doing. Using these amateur stations, operators can talk around the world by bouncing radio waves off either the ionosphere or satellites. They present an endless set of challenges and opportunities for operators. Unsurprisingly, the most technically-inclined ham operators often use base station radios. They have the additional training and experience needed to get the best performance out of the equipment.
How To Choose A Ham Radio
Once you decide to become a ham radio operator, you’ll be shopping for equipment. The features you choose for your radio will depend on how you plan to use your new license. Because ham radio has a learning curve, it doesn’t make sense to buy a more advanced radio than you’ll need at the beginning.
If you’re not sure about your level of interest, handheld radios are the least expensive option and make a great point of entry. Because of their limited range and somewhat specialized use, handheld models will only connect over short distances. If your main interest is contributing to emergency services, a handheld radio is ideal. If you want to communicate over a wider range, a mobile radio might be a better choice. Mobile radios are a cost-effective option because you can disconnect the radio from your vehicle antenna and use the radio at home as a base station, connected to a larger antenna. It’s important to make sure that any mobile radio you purchase has a built-in antenna tuner.
At Stryker Radios, we’ve streamlined the user interface on our mobile radios to make them easier and safer to use in a vehicle. Stryker also makes antenna selection easy, with radio antennas and accessories ideal for mobile ham radios.
Experienced ham radio operators may want to set up a base station so they can transit over long distances. However, true base station radio sets can be quite expensive. They are also more complicated to use, and using them improperly can cause problems for other operators. The features and capabilities of base station radios are beyond the scope of a single article; if you’re just starting out as a ham radio hobbyist, a base station is probably not the best choice.
Ham Radio Licensing
In order to use a ham radio, amateur radio operators are now required by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to obtain a ham radio license. There are three levels of licensing for ham operators. The introductory level is known as a technician license. The 35-question license exam is easy for most people to pass with a little studying, especially since they removed the requirement to learn Morse Code. Once you pass the test, your ham radio license is mailed to you, along with your amateur radio call sign.
The three amateur radio licenses have increasingly difficult qualifications:
- Technician Class: an entry-level license that grants transmitting privileges on the VHF and UHF bands used for local communication, and limited Ham bands for global transmissions
- General Class: expands transmitting privileges to long-distance, international communication via signal propagation, and increased voice operation on Ham bands
- Extra Class: provides access to the full range of Ham bands allocated to the Amateur Radio Service
Many beginners never feel the need to apply for a higher-level license because they enjoy operating a ham radio station with a technician’s license alone. For example, a growing number of people are moving from CB radios to 10-meter mobile radios in their vehicles. While CB radios have long been a mainstay for long-haul truckers, they are limited to a range of about seven miles. A Ham operator in the 10-meter band has more power and a range of 30 miles; having a technician’s license allows CB radio operators to use Ham radio as well.