Friday, February 3, 2017

Guest Post: Ham Radio

by Tim Kies

I have been a ham (amateur) radio operator since I was just 12 years old. Back then, the only way that I could use my license was by using Morse code, with a very simple transmitter that ensured I didn’t accidentally interfere with any other frequencies by broadcasting my messages into my neighbors' television programs or the airport control tower's flight instructions.

Morse Code
Things have come a long way since 1972, both technologically and in the way that the FCC licenses ham radio operators. My first transmitter was one that I built myself, using hand wound coils and crystals to control the exact frequency that I could transmit on. This precision was required by the FCC for my license class (Novice), which no longer exists under the present licensing system. Novice class also only permitted continuous wave (CW), or Morse code, transmitting.

Nowadays, Morse code isn't even a requirement for amateur radio operators, although many of us do use it as a practical and sometimes desirable method of communications because it requires less power and a less stable signal to make contact. Imagine that you  can hear someone speaking, but you can’t quite make out the words that they are saying; with Morse code, you can still communicate with that person. In this manner I have contacted someone in Lima, Peru all the way from Michigan using only 3 watts of power, which is about what it takes to light a tiny light bulb. Of course, for this to happen you need a proper receiver and conditions must be very good. 

Why Preppers Need Ham Radios
First, they are so incredibly inexpensive that they could be considered a legitimate substitute for phones for those on extremely tight budgets. The Baofeng UV-5R only costs $27 dollars from Amazon; for that money, you can buy two and give one to your significant other, communicating for no monthly charges and needing only to pass a simple test.

The best part about the Baofengs is that not only can they listen to FM and weather bands, but there are also local repeaters nearly everywhere. You can set your radio up to link into these repeaters, and the repeaters then send your signal out at a significantly stronger and more efficient range. This means that your inexpensive handheld 2-5 watts radio can communicate up to several hundred miles if you get into a linked repeater system. I live in the middle of the Lower Peninsula on Lake Michigan, and I have spoken with someone driving on the Mackinac Bridge using one of these little radios and the linked repeater system. 

Ham radio is often used when all other means of communication fail. A few years ago, the FCC auctioned off some frequencies that were to be used by the cell phone industry, which brought in billions of dollars. Clearly, the air waves needed for radio signals are worth their weight in gold, so if the FCC has allowed ham radio to keep their frequencies -- there is no sense of nostalgia in Washington D.C. -- they obviously have a healthy respect for the service that hams provide. When power goes out, cell phones tend not to work, so in times of disaster, ham radio operators are often the first to set up communication into and out of an area. 

The computer age has actually improved ham radio. Hams have always been on the cutting edge of technology, and now there are radios with no dials at all, just computers to control them. Some hams are bouncing radio waves off the moon to contact other hams, and some bounce signals off meteors or comets. Anything that can be sent over the internet can also be sent over the radio, so there exists something known as slow-scan television, where hams send pictures over the radio. Ham operation a hobby that is limited only by imagination and, of course, the wallet.

A license is required, and the FCC has decided that the best way to handle the process is to let the hams take care of the whole thing themselves. The hams that do the testing are called the Amateur Radio Relay League, also known as the ARRL. They have been in existence since the early days of radio, and are a great resource for anything you could want to know about ham radio. They have lists of ham radio clubs, ham fests where they sell used equipment, and so much more than I could begin to tell you in this short article. 

Additionally, hams can obtain higher classes of licenses which grant more operation privileges, which enable you to talk to people pretty much worldwide. I have my General Class license, and so I have the ability to use more frequencies and methods of communications than Technician license class operators. In the same way, the class of license called the Amateur Extra has the all the options available to ham operators.

One thing that you of course must remember is that radio waves are not secure from anyone listening in, and it is illegal to use codes and ciphers to talk over ham radio. I doubt that it matters to most of us, but it is a consideration for some.

Hams are an important part of national emergency planning, so preppers ought to give it a look. Visit the ARRL webpage for more information, and directions on how to get started on your own ham radio adventure

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