Amateur Radio – Part 1 (What is it?)

For one reason or another, you have landed on my little known page on the web. Most likely, you have some sort of interest in ham radio. This is the first part of a short series on getting started in the popular hobby and service of amateur radio.

What is amateur radio?

Excerpt from Wikipedia on Amateur Radio. “Amateur radio, also known as ham radio, is the use of radio frequency spectrum for purposes of non-commercial exchange of messages, wireless experimentation, self-training, private recreation, radiosport, contesting, and emergency communication.”

What can I do with amateur radio?

There are many things that you can do with ham radio. The following is a shortlist of activities:

  1. Local and worldwide communication 
  2. Contesting
  3. Emergency communication (ARES/RACES, Skywarn, Search and Rescue)
  4. Public Service
  5. Satellite communications
  6. Portable operations (SOTA, POTA)  
  7. Digital modes (PSK-31, RTTY, FT8, WINMOR)
  8. DX-pedetions
  9. Electronics Experimentation
  10. SWL (Listening, tracking beacons or aircraft)

Local and worldwide communication

Amateur radio will allow you to communicate with people around the world. Whether it is a block away, or thousands of kilometers, it is all possible. The contact can be short or it can be long and informal, also known as rag chewing.  

Contesting

Also known as radiosport, it is an activity that operators seek to contact as many other amateur radio stations as possible in a given period and exchange information. Every contest has rules such as which bands can be used, dates and times, the information that is required to be exchanged, or other operating configurations. The ARRL has an article on contest basics.

Emergency Communications

Amateur radio can be used as a means of emergency communications when traditional means of communications fail. Additionally, it can be used in the form of “nets” where many operators are exchanging information regularly.  

ARES and RACES are the government arms of emergency amateur radio services.

Skywarn is a program of the National Weather Service. Its objective is to collect reports of severe weather. The reports are used to assist forecasters in issuing and verifying severe weather watches and warnings. 

Public Service

Opposite from the emergency service side of ham radio, public service events are planned events such as marathons, large gatherings, bike rides, etc. Radio operators assist with communications in regards to many aspects of these events including requests for medical aid and passing messages.

Satellite Communications

One of the more interesting concepts of communication is the utilization of satellites to facilitate contacts. More information can be obtained from the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation.  

Portable Operations

Portable operations are increasing in popularity. Essentially, taking a station to a remote location and making contacts. Typically, these stations are low power (100 watts or less) and are powered off-grid via battery or solar power. Some popular groups that do this are SOTA (Summits on the Air) and POTA (Parks on the Air.)

Digital Modes

Another method that can be used to make contacts regionally and globally is digital. The concept behind this is to use a computer hooked up to your station to transmit and receive messages digitally. There are many different digital modes available and they each have their purpose such as chatting, contesting, and sending emails over HF. Some modes include:

DX-pedetions

A DX-pedition is an excursion to what is considered an unusual location by amateur radio operators. These locations are considered or exotic because of its remoteness, access limitations or because there are very few radio amateurs active from that place. This could be an island, a country, or even a particular spot on a geographical grid. DX-pedetions typically takes months on planning and preparation from multiple individuals.  

Electronics Experimentation

Experimentation is a large part of the hobby. If you want to learn electronics and component fundamentals or practice with station operations, there are plenty of options to explore.  

SWL

SWLing is listening to short wave broadcasts. Listeners range from casual users that seek news and information to hobbyists that are exploring technical aspects of radio reception. There are other fun things to explore just by listening to radio transmissions. This includes beacon transmissions to predict radio propagation, to tracking aircraft in real-time.