It seems to me that a number of readers through the years I have been doing this column have somehow come to consider me the “answer man”, that is, they figure that when they have a question or concern they can turn to me for information, assistance, or an explanation. That’s a pretty difficult position, but I try to respond even if I have to admit I can’t help. Well, it’s happening again – this time brought about by the upcoming Hamvention here in our county and the tens of thousands of amateur radio operators (or Hams) who will be attending. I’ve been asked to explain more about who Hams are and what they do.
Most everybody knows amateur radio operators must have a license issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) but how does a person get such a license? For many years, in addition to passing written tests, candidates had to pass a Morse code test with each higher “class” of license requiring greater skill in the code. Well, about 20 years or so ago this changed with the establishment of a “no-code” entry level license – which proved to be very popular and brought lotsa folks into amateur radio. Then about ten years or so ago the Morse code requirement was eliminated entirely for all classes of amateur licenses – but candidates must still successfully pass written tests – which increase in difficulty for each higher level license.
Getting started in amateur radio is not very costly because not only is free classroom instruction provided by local amateur radio organizations, but free testing is also, and free paperwork processing for successful candidates to get their entry level or upgraded licenses. The only cost is for the instruction manual which also has a study guide and, – now get this – a good-sized pool of multiple choice questions illustrating actual test questions. How about them apples.
Classes are usually conducted by teams of instructors, that is, several experienced Hams work together to ensure the material is covered well with sufficient time for individuals to get assistance if needed. The standardized tests are administered by a team of certified examiners which includes: multiple monitors in the test area; multiple test graders whose accuracy is double checked; and, multiple processors who prepare the necessary certification for successful candidates to receive their entry level or upgraded licenses. Very professional for a bunch of “amateurs” – and all volunteers at that. Okay, moving on.
Amateur radio is allocated specific frequencies for operation in the same way AM and FM radio have a range of frequencies for their broadcasts. In general, there are two “bands” where amateur radio has exclusive use of specified frequencies – one provides relatively short range communications while the other affords contact over hundreds or even thousands of miles. All Hams, including those with entry level licenses, have access to the shorter range frequencies with the long range ones reserved for Hams with higher level licenses.
Hams frequently access short range communications with a “handy-talky” or HT radio that resembles a cell phone. These emit a low power signal in the range of five watts or so – about the same power as a bathroom night light. This signal is received by an automated radio-club-provided “repeater” which then retransmits the signal at a slightly different frequency with much greater power – 100 watts is not uncommon. The antennas for these repeaters are usually paced high, such as, by agreement, on water towers or “piggy-backed” on commercial or government antenna towers. The combination of increased power and high antenna location results in a fairly large coverage area or “footprint”.
Couple of more things on this subject. These HT radios are programmed to transmit on one frequency and receive on another – and certain desktop or mobile Ham radios may also operate the same way. To ensure reliability, the repeaters commonly have auxiliary generators that kick in if commercial power is lost and HT’s operate on rechargeable or even dry cell batteries. And, by the way, there are hundreds of these repeaters across the country – maintained by local amateur radio clubs and available to Hams who come within their range.
Well, there’s a peek into amateur radio and a bit about Hams, but there’s lots more about this fascinating world and I’ll address some additional stuff next time. Just don’t be alarmed that thousands of Hams are coming. They’re really nice people. At least that’s how it seems to me.
Bill Taylor, Greene County Daily columnist and licensed Ham, may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.