hold the mayo, extra pickles – ham radio 101

What exactly is ham radio? Ham (or amateur) radio is an awesome hobby that brings together people and technology through the use of wireless communication. Think of ham radio like using your cell phone, but instead of dialing a specific number, you are talking with whoever happens to be out there on the other end.

What all can you do as a ham operator? Honestly, the sky is the limit. These are a few common applications.

  • Talk with your neighbors – You can use short distance frequencies (UHF & VHF) to talk locally. Direct communication radio to radio (called simplex) is possible on most common affordable radios and covers a distance of roughly a mile or two. Broadcast distance is limited by power. By using centralized local repeaters, hams can use the more powerful broadcast signal of a repeater to talk to each other over longer distances. My metropolitan area has several repeaters throughout town.

  • Talk like a spy – People still use the old reliable standard of morse code. Morse code allows you to broadcast information (the dots and dashes) at a lower power which travels farther. By not having to worry about the technical complexities of voice communication, morse code can be heard across the globe. Lower power CW (CW is the abbreviation for morse code) signals are common on higher frequency transmissions.

  • Use your computer to get fancy – The world has grown since the advent of morse code. Computers now offer more complex digital modes to send messages. These digital modes work on the same principle as morse code and use the same higher frequencies to reach around the world.

  • Social media, ham style – A popular digital mode is APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System). APRS is used to get real-time information about your local surroundings. Data can include GPS coordinates, repeater info, weather station updates, and tons of other items of local interest. APRS info is also available online to anyone, ham or not.

  • Talk across the globe – The true backbone of ham radio is the ability to talk with others all around the world. By using high frequencies (called HF), you can contact people all over the planet. HF can be a bit more finicky than talking over local repeaters, but that challenge is part of the fun. Beginners in the hobby can work HF but are typically limited to CW and digital modes at the start. HF uses different equipment than VHF/UHF, and can run more expensive.

  • Talk to outer space – Satellites in orbit also have repeaters in them. By using a directional antenna to better focus the radio waves, you can use the same gear you use to talk over local repeaters, except over much larger distances. Even the International Space Station has a ham radio!!

  • Serve your community in an emergency – Ham radio is not just a fun hobby, it has real world applications as well. When SHTF (I’ll let you Google that one); knocking out phone lines, interenet, and other modern utilites; hams can still talk. Specific groups of hams take pride in their ability to step up during an emergency. Ham radio can also be used to coordinate communications during large scale events, such as marathons, or similar decentralized events.

I’ve dabbled in some of these topics more than others. I know about them all because of the testing requirements of the hobby. For most ham radio uses, you will need to be licensed by the fcc (or your country’s governing body). I’ll dive more into that whole process in a future post.

This only just scratches the surface of the world of ham radio. Your imagination is the only true limit.

I hope you learned something and will stick around to hear more. As always, thanks for reading.


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