What is Ham Radio?

What is the Amateur Radio Service?

Most of the time, it's the most fun you can have with a radio. It's a way to talk with people around the world, or even orbiting the world; to send e-mail without any sort of internet connection and to keep in touch with friends across town or across the country. But it is called the "Amateur Radio Service" because it also has a serious face. It's also a very important emergency communications system. When cell phones, regular phones, the internet and other systems are down or overloaded, ham radio still gets the message through. Ham radio is a “hobby” – that’s the fun part. But it's also a “service” – a vital service that has saved lives again and again when regular communication systems failed.

On September 11th, it was ham radio that kept New York City agencies in touch with each other after their command center was destroyed. When hurricanes like Katrina, Rita and Wilma knocked out other communications, ham radio provided vital life-and-death capabilities. Countless lives have been saved where skilled hobbyists act as emergency communicators to render aid, whether it's during an earthquake in China or a tornado in the U.S. But most of the time, hams do what they do because it's just plain fun.

Who are these Hams?

There are 779,000+ Amateur Radio operators in the USA and over two million in nearly every country in the world. They come from all walks of life – movie stars, missionaries, doctors, students, politicians, truck drivers and just plain folks. They are all ages, sexes and income levels linked by their interest in wireless communications technologies.

Although hams get involved in the hobby for many reasons, they all have in common a basic knowledge of today’s wireless technologies, regulations and operating principles. In the U.S., this is demonstrated by passing an examination for a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license to operate on radio frequencies known as the "Amateur Bands." These are reserved by the FCC for use by hams at intervals from just above the AM broadcast band all the way up into extremely high microwave frequencies.

What Are the Amateur Radio Bands?

Look at the dial on an AM radio and you will see frequencies marked from 540 to 1700 kilohertz (thousands of cycles per second). That’s the AM broadcast band – and it’s just a tiny sliver of the useful radio spectrum that extends all the way to tens of gigahertz (billions of cycles per second). There you will find aircraft, ship, fire and police communications, as well as the so-called "shortwave" stations which are worldwide along with government broadcast stations from the U.S. and overseas. Amateurs are allocated the use of ten basic "bands" (i.e. groups of frequencies) in the High Frequency (HF) range between 1800 and 29,700 kilohertz, and another seven bands in the Very High Frequency (VHF) bands and Ultra High Frequency (UHF) ranges, as well as Super High Frequency (SHF) bands.

Why a License?

Amateur Radio is as old as radio itself and has been a licensed service for nearly a century, offering a pool of self-trained experts able to provide backup emergency communications. While license application requirements vary by country, the Amateur Radio Service is also controlled by international law and agreements. Radio waves do not stop for international borders, and the FCC acknowledges the ability of the hobby not only to advance radio communication and technical skills, but also to enhance international goodwill.

What's the Appeal of Ham Radio?

Some hams are attracted by the ability to communicate across the country, around the globe, even with astronauts on the International Space Station. For some it opens the door to new friendships over the air or through participation in one of more than 2000 Amateur Radio clubs throughout the U.S.

Others build and experiment with electronics. Hams are at the cutting edge of many technologies. Computer hobbyists enjoy experimenting in wireless digital communications, software defined radios (SDR), long-distance digital and image transmissions. ‘Off the grid’ power sources and other concepts undreamed of just a few years ago are common in the ham community.

While a Morse code key may still be on the desk, it is probably next to a modern, computerized radio communications system capable of operating, with or without supportive infrastructure, under the most extreme conditions.

Amateur Radio Licensing Information

Technician Class: The FCC Technician License exam covers basic regulations, operating practices and electronics theory, with a focus on VHF and UHF applications. Morse code is not required for this license. With a Technician Class license, you will have all ham radio privileges above 30 MHz. These privileges include the very popular 2-meter band. Many Technician licensees enjoy using small (2 meter) hand-held radios to stay in touch with other hams in their area. Technicians may operate FM voice, digital packet (computers), television, single-sideband voice and several other interesting modes. You can even make international radio contacts via satellites, using relatively simple station equipment. Technician licensees now also have additional privileges on certain HF frequencies. Technicians may also operate on the 80, 40 and 15 meter bands using CW, and on the 10 meter band using CW, voice and digital modes.

General Class: The General Class license is the second of three US Amateur Radio licenses. To upgrade to General Class, you must already hold a Technician Class license (or have recently passed the Technician license exam). Upgrading to a General license--which conveys extensive HF privileges—only requires passing a written examination. Once you do, the entire range of operating modes and the majority of the amateur spectrum below 30 MHz become available to you. The FCC grants exam Element 3 credit to individuals that previously held certain older types of licenses.

Amateur Extra Class: General or Advanced licensees may upgrade to Extra Class by passing a 50-question multiple-choice examination. No Morse code test is required. In addition to some of the more obscure regulations, the test covers specialized operating practices, advanced electronics theory and radio equipment design. Non-licensed individuals must pass Element 2, Element 3 and Element 4 written exams to earn an Extra License. The FCC grants exam element 3 credit to individuals that previously held certain older types of licenses.The HF bands can be awfully crowded, particularly at the top of the solar cycle. Once one earns HF privileges, one may quickly yearn for more room. The Extra Class license is the answer. Extra Class licensees are authorized to operate on all frequencies allocated to the Amateur Service.
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(all information courtesy of and property of the ARRL)