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Amateur (Ham) Radio is a diverse technical and communications hobby. Officially, the purpose is self-training in radio techniques and communications. It allows participants to experiment with radio and electronics, to chat with each other using voice or text, or even TV, and to assist with communications during disasters.
It can be a very affordable hobby, if you are willing to make your own antennas, cables, and accessories. While radios, from the budget, for under A$100, to many thousands can be purchased, some "home-brew" transmitters, from CW (Morse) ones, to simple AM voice units, up to very sophisticated systems. A newer part of the hobby are SDRs, or Software Defined Radios. These can be stand-alone units which make use of digital technology in the signal path; or they can be one of several methods of using a USB dongle, PC sound-card, or video interface to bring a section or radio spectrum into a PC or "Raspberry Pi" for processing.
The video below, from the UK, tells you more.
Each amateur operator is identified by a sequence of letters and numbers, called a callsign. A few special calls are 3 letters, but 4, 5, or 6 are normal, and 7 is used for some inane reason for Foundation licence callsigns in Australia. Callsigns can be "read" to know the location and other details of the operator. For example, in VK2MA (HADARC's Club call) the VK prefix indicates Australia or its territories, 2 New South Wales, and the two letters indicate the Advanced class. Certain "3 letter calls" are Advanced, others Standard, and this is shown by the first letter of the three in the suffix. Repeaters and beacons have an R in this position, such as VK2RNS, covering the North Shore from Hornsby. Foundation callsigns have an F and three more letters, such as VK8FRED, a Northern Territory call. In Australia it is possible to ask for initials, or to make (non-rude) words, provided the callsign complies with the standard.
Sometimes Amateurs run stations at or concurrent with celebrations and commemorations of historic events, or during major sporting events. Depending on the country, a special call in the standard style is used, or sometimes a long or short call is used, such as VI100ANZAC. In the US groups are granted short-term use if a "1x1" call, such as W7J. In other cases all amateurs in a country can vary their callsigns, such as from VK to AX on ANZAC Day (April 25), World Telecommunications Day (May 17), and for better or worse, January 26; as well as during Commonwealth and other major games.
To ensure clarity when exchanging callsigns, the use of the official ITU / NATO / ICAO Spelling Alphabet is strongly recommended. There is a link on the Learning page. "Victor Kilo Two Mike Alpha", and "Whisky One Charlie Echo November" are examples.
Taken from the code for confirming that a message was received, QSL cards confirm that a contact took place between two stations, and can be quite attractive. There are also online confirmation systems like eQSL and Logbook of the World.
Once you have cards from, say 100 entities (UN member countries, the nations and crown dependencies of the UK; and remote sub-national areas, such as Alaska, Hawaii, BOTs such as the Falklands, Norfolk Island, Antarctic bases, etc), you can apply for a DXCC - the DX Century Club certificate. There are others, such as WAS = Worked All [US] States, and an Australian version; and for working various zones, continents, etc around the world. Groups organise "DXpeditions" to remote islands, and to countries with little amateur radio operation, so people can get these contacts.
There are also awards for working islands, even if they are not DXCC entities, National Parks, Summits, Counties, Shires, etc; and again, Hams set up battery or solar powered stations in these locations, or operate from their vehicles.
There are a range of operating contests, such as working the most stations, countries, etc over a weekend; or working VHF and UHF stations over 8 or 24 hours, getting points for Gridsquares. Some are just a few hours on a Saturday evening.
There are also clubs and associations, from the very large ARRL in the US, to small clubs the suburbs or country towns. Local clubs can compete as teams in many contests. See the Clubs page.
This is highly variable. Factors include the terrain (especially at VHF & UHF), band used, antenna type, to some degree the power used, and the ionosphere (mostly on HF).
Between two hams on 2 metre (147 MHz) or 70 cm (430 MHz) band hand-helds on flat ground a few kilometres is typical. If one can get onto a hill, the range increases, but if one is down a canyon, communications over even a few hundreds of metres can be challenging. If both climb mountains, as long as the path is light-of-sight, 100 km is not hard. If both operators can access a repeater in a good location, they can be 10s, to maybe 200 km apart, and networked repeaters can greatly extend this even further. Yagi or "beam" antennas also extend range in one direction. Between cars with roof-mounted antennas, on flat ground direct signals may give you 10s of kilometres, but add a repeater, and they can be at least 100 km from the repeater. Home stations with a good location will do better again, depending on their elevation relative to the terrain. In these cases narrowband* FM is used, with a move underway towards digital voice modes such as DMR (Digital Mobile Radio), P25, Fusion, and D-Star. Using Single Sideband (SSB, specifically USB) and directional antennas can provide greater range. The longest distance contacts rely on certain, typically summertime, weather conditions often related to High pressure systems off the East Coast of Australia. Temperature inversions generate "ducts" which can channel signals over long distances.
* This term is relative, as 16 kHz wide FM currently used with 25 kHz steps, is narrower than broadcast FM, which is up to 150 kHz wide, but wider than 10.1 kHz FM, used with 12.5 kHz steps, such as on 4 metres (70 MHz) in Europe.
Six metres (50 MHz) is often called the "Magic Band", works both as a reliable local FM band, and a band which provides highly sporadic DX (long distance contacts), using the ionosphere, and the only recently understood Trans-Equatorial Propagation; the latter examples using SSB (USB) or CW.
HF bands, interleaved with the shortwave bands, and other services, can give short range, regional, or global communications, depending on band, antennas and the ionosphere. Vertical antennas, or high dipoles, among other designs, on bands such as 20 metres (14 MHz) and 40 metres (7 MHz) can allow trans-pacific and other long-range contacts. A low dipole in 80 m (3.6 MHz), 40 m (7 MHz), and the proposed 60 m (5 MHz) band can provide fairly reliable state-wide communications by sending signals to the ionosphere at a near-vertical angle, from which it is refracted or reflected. 10 metres (28-29 MHz) behaves more like 27 MHz CB, with intermittent ionosphere based DX, or "skip", often in summer.
160 metres (1.8 MHz), or top-band for its status as the longest wavelength band (until recently), can behave like the AM / MW broadcast band; giving local coverage in the daytime, and DX at dusk and into the evening. The more recently introduced 630 metres (472 to 479 kHz) and 2200 metres (135.7 to 137.8 kHz) bands tend to require some specialist equipment for transmitting, such as large loading coils, and tall towers. These two bands typically use regular or very slow (QRSS) Morse.
New rules mean learning Morse Code is no longer required to access the world-wide HF bands (but if it excites you, go right ahead, it is an important part of our history, and is effective, including using simple, even home-made, low power gear). Even with the low speed beacons, this can be generated and received using PCs.
There are a wide range of digital modes. One of the most famous is "Packet Radio", where messages and data are transmitted in bursts of data called "packets" using the AX-25 protocol. These messages can be forwarded across various networks in a system which is a combination of email and message-board. This, and other systems are designed to pass files, including images. More modern modes are designed to pass callsigns, etc using very weak signals, where 10 watts can cross the world.
Both slow-scan TV, and full-scan analogue TV are available to Advanced Amateurs in the UHF and microwave bands, including in portable operation. The term ATV, meaning Amateur Television is often used. Some groups are now building repeaters which output DVB(S) or other digital TV modes - DATV.
Not just for reheating your coffee after a long contact, but rather using portable dishes, typically between mountain tops, including during contests. Audio, video, or data can be sent, and range is an long as you can see between the mountain-tops, sometimes a few hundred km, although sometimes longer paths have been achieved. These often also use the "tropo" ducts mentioned above.
These often require a range of higher-end equipment, special techniques, and co-ordination with other participants, but VHF (including 6m), UHF, and microwave signals can be bounced off the ionised trails behind meteors (shooting stars), the underneath of aircraft and/or their condensation trails, and even off the surface of the moon, all to provide long distance contacts on these bands.
There are also a range of amateur radio satellites, which receive and retransmit voice signals in a similar way to a terrestrial repeater, noting that most are in Low Earth Orbit, meaning they pass overhead on a roughly north to south, or south to north path. Others can upload packet radio messages, and carry them around the world before downloading them to the recipient, or a nearby station. Amateur radio gear is also carried on the International Space Station, with the astronauts and cosmonauts being licensed hams.
Many amateurs, and intending amateurs, join clubs. These range from local groups to state-wide and national bodies, and include special interest groups.
This includes various forms of community service, from supporting Jamboree on the Air (JOTA), ongoing involvement with Scouts and Guides; and by joining specialised emergency communications support groups, such as WICEN.
Read more on our Clubs page.
As a minimum, an Amateur must learn some basic electronics, basic radio theory, and some regulations. For Technician the math component is quite straightforward.
You can learn more on the Learning Material page.
Julian holds two Amateur licences, the Australian "Advanced" level, with the callsign VK2YJS; and a US Extra, AG6LE. He is a Volunteer Examiner, accredited by the ARRL VEC. This means he can administer US amateur exams as part of a team, such as OZ VE. He lives in Central Western NSW, Australia.
This site was initially mainly about examinations, but has grown to include a number of pages on the maths and basic electronics knowledge needed, now covering all Technician questions. It has taken some time to create. If you find it useful, there is a "tip jar" below, using Paypal (no need for an account).
You may also want to get a Ham related shirt designed by your author: VK-73
Written by Julian Sortland, VK2YJS & AG6LE, November 2017.
Tip Jar: a Jefferson (US$2), A$3 or other amount / currency. Thanks!