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About Amateur Radio

What is Amateur Radio?
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Amateur radio is a hobby and a service. Going back to the early 20th century, people have been intrigued by the magic of wireless communication. Amateur radio is increasing in popularity--there are more than 700,000 amateur radio operators in the United States, and more are added every month.

The term "amateur" does not mean unprofessional--it is simply a way to signify volunteer radio communicators who cannot be paid for their service under federal regulations (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etymology_of_ham_radio).

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recognizes the impact that amateur radio communications can have on international goodwill as well as support in times of crisis. Becoming an amateur radio operator, or "ham"* as they are sometimes called, comes with great responsibility. Amateur operators have access to wide swaths of radio spectrum that allow them to communicate across town or around the world. Combined with the ability to construct antenna towers and power radios on some bands up to 1500 watts, use of amateur radio frequencies requires some basic knowledge and goodwill to avoid interference. 

Because of the unique characteristics of the amateur radio service, testing is required to become an amateur radio operator. It's not terribly difficult--the FCC removed the Morse Code testing requirement several years ago. Currently, the FCC issues three levels of new licenses (although some former license classes are grandfathered in and continue to be renewed):
  • Technician - requires passing a 35-question exam about basic radio practices and theory; grants access to all frequencies above 50 MHz and limited options on the 80, 40, 15, and 10 meter bands
  • General - requires passing an additional 35-question exam about more advanced radio practices and theory; grants access to all levels accessible to technicians as well as nearly all HF frequencies
  • Amateur Extra - the highest level; requires passing a 50-question exam about advanced radio practices as well as highly advanced radio and electronics design and theory; grants access to all available amateur radio frequencies
Upon receiving a license, every amateur radio operator worldwide receives a "call sign," a combination of letters and numbers that identifies the individual. A call sign is like a fingerprint--each one is unique and identifies the owner. It is an on-air identifier that allows amateur radio operators to verify contact with one another and determine the operating privileges of the person with whom they are speaking. An amateur radio operator is required by federal regulation to announce his/her call sign every ten minutes during a transmission, and again at the end of the transmission.

In the United States, amateur radio licenses are overseen by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). You can look up any US amateur radio operator's license information with the FCC at this address: http://wireless.fcc.gov/uls/index.htm?job=home

How do amateur radio operators communicate?

Amateur operators have several options at their disposal, including:
  • VHF and UHF communication - Typically, hams communicate using voice in this mode. People are most familiar with the idea of "walkie talkies" or mobile radios such as you would see in a police car or taxi cab, and these are the types of radios used by hams in VHF and UHF. Hams can communicate directly radio-to-radio by transmitting and receiving on the same frequency (simplex mode). Consumer-grade FRS/GMRS radios, such as the popular Motorola Talkabouts, operate in this manner. However, amateur radio operators also can use repeaters to extend their signal. A repeater is a radio system that receives a signal on one frequency and transmits it on another frequency at a much higher power, sometimes as much as 50 watts or more. This enables amateur radio operators to use small, 5 watt walkie talkies (what we call handheld transceivers, or HTs) on two frequencies to communicate over distances of many miles.
  • DX - DX stands for "distant communications." It involves the use of high-frequency (HF) bands to communicate around the globe.
  • CW - CW stands for "continuous wave." It is more commonly known as Morse Code. CW is often understandable in circumstances where voice traffic would be lost in background noise.
  • Digital Modes - This is quickly becoming a popular area of amateur radio. Amateur radio operators can connect computers to their radios and send emails or other computer files over-the-air from one radio to another radio, where the information is downloaded by another computer. This is all done without any use of the Internet, so even when all communications and commercial power are down, amateur radio operators can continue to send information back and forth. 
  • Amateur Television - With the right equipment, amateur radio operators can send video files over-the-air, which can be particularly helpful in circumstances such as wildfires, natural disasters, and so on.
Amateur radio is NOT:
FRS/GMRS radios such as the Motorola Talkabouts can be bought at numerous discount retailers and often boast a range of 25 miles or more. However, power limitations, weak antennas, and the nature of radio propagation make this impossible under any practical circumstance. In an urban environment, such a radio may be useful for several blocks to half a mile. Amateur radio operators use radios with higher power, better antennas, and repeater systems to extend their communications to several miles or more.
  • Citizen's Band (CB) - limited to 4 watts; vulnerable to atmospheric conditions
  • Family Radio Service (FRS) - limited to 500 milliwatts; detachable antennas not allowed; UHF band
  • General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) - limited to 5 or 50 watts, depending on channel; UHF band; requires purchase of an FCC license
  • Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS) - limited to 2 watts; VHF band
  • Business band or public safety band radios - practical and legal considerations dictate use of radios in these frequencies; limited to particular frequencies by FCC licenses
Amateur radio operators are thoroughly familiar with all of the above modes of radio communication. They often own radios for each of the services above and may use them in their work to support the public. Amateur radio, however, is significantly broader than any of these options due to its flexibility of operating modes, use of high power and higher quality antennas, and the vast radio spectrum available.

How can amateur radio support your agency or non-profit organization?

Warren County ARES can provide:
  • Trained amateur radio communicators
  • Portable or fixed-location communications capability (we provide all of our own equipment)
  • Coordination with amateur radio operations in surrounding counties 
  • Tested and reliable VHF/UHF radio communication from anywhere within Warren County, and the ability to link to amateur radio systems in other surrounding counties
  • Communication that is independent of the power grid (through use of batteries and generators)
  • Relief on strained public service channels through the use of varied amateur radio frequencies and modes

What is the cost?

Services are always provided free of charge. FCC rules prohibit compensation to amateur radio operators for their work.

How can I find out more?

To learn more about Warren County ARES and:
  • how amateur radio can provide a primary or secondary communications link for your nonprofit event or public safety agency;
  • how Warren County ARES is organized and members are trained; or
  • how amateur radio works,
contact Brad Proctor, Warren County ARES Emergency Coordinator, at kd0wfx@gmail.com.

*OK... why are they called "hams?"

In the early 20th century, radios were unsophisticated and amateur radio enthusiasts experimenting with their own equipment would occasionally interfere with transmissions of professional stations or radio services. The term "ham" was developed as an unkind term to describe these amateur hobbyists. Over time, the amateur radio community adopted the term as one of endearment, and today the term "ham" is used with pride. 

Note: Information on this page is adapted from a handout by Johnson County, IA ARES/RACES.