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BMOW Tries Amateur Radio

How do older electronics nerds have fun? With an amateur radio license, of course! Some recent conversations with friends spurred me to learn more about ham radio operation, and I threw myself into studying. I’m now scheduled to take the technician and general class license exams back-to-back on March 19, and if I pass I’ll receive a call sign and can get on the air. Watch out, world.

What exactly do amateur radio operators do? Until recently, I only knew what I’d seen in movies, where hams working at night try to make voice contact with other radio operators on the opposite side of the planet, using huge antennas. This is called DXing and it’s certainly a big part of the hobby, but now I’ve learned there’s much more. Many hams begin with simple handheld radios operating on VHF and UHF frequencies, where they can talk to others in their local area. Most cities have repeaters on hilltops and tall buildings that can rebroadcast these low-power transmissions, effectively increasing the coverage area. Where I live in California’s San Mateo County, there are over 50 such repeaters available for amateur radio use!

Other fun things to try: talking to the International Space Station, bouncing signals off the moon, and patching communications through amateur radio satellites. There are also radio-internet gateways that can stream radio traffic across the internet for part of its journey. And beyond voice communications, there’s all manner of digital radio communication too. Packet radio, RTTY, image and video transmission, you name it.

Much of the hobby revolves around building and tinkering with the radio equipment and antennas, in order to get the best performance. For people who enjoy experimenting with electronics, this is a good challenge.

To broadcast on an amateur radio frequency, you must be licensed. This theoretically prevents inexperienced people from accidentally screwing-up the EM spectrum for everybody else through improper operation of their radio. There are currently three levels of license, from the beginner-level technician license, to the general license, and the top-tier amateur extra license. Your license class determines what frequency bands you’re permitted to broadcast on, and the maximum permitted power level. Technicians are mostly restricted to VHF and UHF frequencies (with a few exceptions), while the general license opens up more lower frequency bands that propagate further and are better suited for chatting with people 10 time zones away. Amateur extra licensees can broadcast in any amateur band and are also eligible to get shorter, more-memorable call signs.

Before I knew anything, I assumed the amateur radio license exams would be quite difficult. “Difficult” is a relative idea, but now that I’m familiar with the tests, I’d say practically anyone could pass the technician exam with about 5-10 hours of study. If you already have some background in basic electronics and physics, like most readers of the BMOW blog likely do, then you’ll find it easier. The technician exam is roughly one-third electronics and radio theory basics, one-third practical radio operation skills, and one-third FCC regulations. The general exam goes deeper into the theory, but it’s nothing too scary. All the tests are multiple choice, and knowledge of Morse Code isn’t needed.

Initially I’d planned to study for the technician license, but after I realized I already knew about half the material on the general license exam, I decided to double-up and do them both at once. This seems to be a fairly common path for people who already have some electronics and physics background.

See you on the airwaves! If you’re in the SF Bay Area, hit me up after the 19th if you’d like to try some on-air conversation.

Read 7 comments and join the conversation 

7 Comments so far

  1. Peter Neubauer - March 8th, 2022 3:09 pm

    I’m interested in amateur radio with my Apple II — mostly digital modes like RTTY and packet using 1980s hardware. If you have HF capability, perhaps we could try making contact. – KD0QXJ

  2. Grant R. - March 8th, 2022 9:55 pm

    Excellent work, sir.
    Due to unavoidable obstacles, I can only operate using a ThumbDV™. It’s been an excellent option to get connected.

  3. John Van Walleghen - March 12th, 2022 3:11 pm

    Welcome to Amateur Radio. There are many facets to the hobby that can mix with Apple II, packet, digital, etc. Enjoy! John N0UBQ

  4. syd - March 16th, 2022 5:03 am

    have fun – the test isn’t all that hard – just will take a while… Syd k3syd

  5. Rodney - March 19th, 2022 1:32 pm

    Steve, Welcome, I watched my father on the radio for years before I decided to surprise him and get my License. He was surprised when I called him and asked him to turn on the radio. I also thought the tests would be “hard” but my family owned a Radio and TV shop when I was growing up and I spent a lot of time there, some must have sunk in. I walked into the exam with no ticket and walked out with my Extra class. My daughter now has her technician license, I try to tell her about the 80’s with BBS’s and packet BBS’s both in our town, All using apple machines. With the things you have learned, and your new hobby, hopefully you will have a great time. 73 AC8RN.

  6. Steve - March 19th, 2022 1:56 pm

    I passed my Tech and General exams this morning, now I need to wait for the FCC to give me a call sign. I’ve been scoping out the house and yard for potential HF antenna placements. Anything vertical is probably out – my neighbors and family would both murder me if I put up even a modest height mast above the roof line. I’m not a big fan of the ground mounted vertical antenna, since it needs some way to prevent people from walking up and touching the antenna while it’s transmitting. So it will probably have to be a horizontal dipole or something similar.

    It’s not easy finding a spot to run a 66 ft horizontal wire (assuming half-wavelength antenna on the 40m band) where it will be high off the ground, not be a major eyesore, and avoid too much scrambling on the roof. My lot is steeply sloped with a complicated roof geometry, and several different roof pitches that don’t all line up with each other. There are some oak trees but they’re not very tall. Maybe I should create a 3D model of the house and yard to get feedback on antenna placement. A 33 ft wire would be much easier, but as I understand that would only get me on the 20m band. Maybe that’s a good place to start though, and save the more difficult antenna projects for later.

    One thing I’m unsure about: If I can’t get a 66ft antenna for the 20m, is there any point in going longer than 33ft? I know there are also 17m, 15m, and 12m bands, but I don’t think they’re used much. I’m trying to keep things simple for this first antenna, and not bite off too much.

  7. Brian Lewis - April 5th, 2022 3:57 pm

    I saw your video and sent you an email on it. Not sure if you saw that yet. Welcome to ham radio. if you have a lot that might not support a wire antenna, consider a vertical. GAP, Comet, Cushcraft all make some nice verticals. For one thing, you don’t want to go “horizontal” with a wire. You will create a Near Incident Vertical Skywave (NVIS) antenna and only get out about 500 miles. Using a vertical you can save space and talk the world on 100 watts.
    I just did a Parks On the Air (POTA) here in TN and used my Yeasu 991A and a Chameleon vertical and made over 115 contacts in two hours. Farthest was Slovenia but got stations all over South America and even Alaska. All on 100 watts and a vertical.

    Hope you enjoy the hobby.

    73 de AF1US


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