N1GY- The simple Approach to Ham Radio
and My Model Railroad Hobby
How to Get Started In Ham Radio
When individuals ask me about amateur radio, one of the main threads in the conversation usually is "How do I get started?" This is a bigger question than it first appears, because it involves not only getting a license, but also what to do after one gets that license. Questions involve things like the equipment involved, the space allotted to the hobby in the home, the mounting of the antenna, etc. Each of these discussions could and has filled entire books on the subject, so here we will just skim the surface. An in-depth discussion will occur naturally as the new ham gains experience and the knowledge necessary to join the process.
Obviously, the first step in becoming a licensed amateur radio operator is to obtain the training guides. Books on each of the three license classes, Technician, General and Extra are available from the American Radio Relay League and also from several other sources. They may even be available at your local bookstore. If you are lucky enough to have a ham radio retailer in your area, they are almost always for sale there. The best advice I can give anyone interested in getting their license is to set aside a certain amount of time each day to devote to the training. These texts are not like reading a novel; they are more like learning the rudiments of a foreign language.
The best comparison I can come up with is that the process is similar to taking one of the courses offered by the Coast Guard Auxiliary to get certified as a boat operator. There is a bit of "lingo" to adapt to, a fair quantity of specific "rules of the road" to absorb, and a modicum of "the best way to accomplish this is........" When it comes to ham radio and the entry level "Technician" license, there is very little actual knowledge of electronics required. Even at the "General" stage, electronics skill is very secondary to knowledge of the rules pertaining to amateur radio and the operating practices required to be a proficient operator on the airwaves. Ascending to the "Extra" license class, therefore, one would expect that the test would be heavy with arcane questions about the inner secrets of electronic theory. One would think so, but one would be wrong. The electronic theory questions on the Extra Class license exam are there, but anyone, and I mean anyone, can learn the material necessary to answer these questions. There are Extra Class operators who got their "ticket" (as we like to call the license sometimes) when they were only 12 years old. There are Extra Class operators out there who had no experience in electronics in their daily careers, but who had no trouble at all in learning the concepts and information required to pass the exam. One important fact may influence your decision to become a "Ham" operator. There is NO Morse Code test anymore. The code is still a valid method of communication, make no mistake, and indeed is the only mode authorized for Technician Licensees on certain HF frequencies. Learning the Code is now a voluntary activity, not a requirement.
After you have "read the book" as it were, the next step is to practice taking the test. There are quite a number of sites on the Internet that offer practice exams that can be taken on-line repeatedly, and for free. Each time you take a practice exam, a new test is created from the overall question pool, so there is no sense of memorizing the test. Each test uses 35 or 50 questions, depending on the license class being tested. The question pool that those tests are built from contains over 600 questions! The chances of getting the same exam even once are pretty remote.
After you have taken enough practice exams to feel comfortable with it. The next step is to find a Test session being offered near you. Most ham radio clubs will have a testing session at least once every three months. With the many clubs that exist around the country, that means that a testing session is scheduled virtually every week within 50 miles of your home. The test is all multiple choice, no "essay" answers required. If you are going for the Technician License, all you need to bring is proof of your identity, a photo id like a drivers license or similar. If you are coming back to upgrade to General or Extra, then the only other item you will need is a copy of your current amateur radio license. The photo id will be returned to you, the copy of your current radio license goes with the paperwork after the exam that gets sent to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). You will be asked to fill out some paperwork that will be sent to the FCC as your application for a license when you pass the exam. You will also be required to pay an administrative fee that is set by the FCC to cover the costs associated with the exam session.
Each exam session is run by at least three Volunteer Examiners. These are Extra Class licensees (for the most part) who have been trained and certified by their Volunteer Examiner Coordinator (VEC) in the proper way to run the exam session. Each testee's exam answer sheet is verified and scored by three different examiners before giving a pass or fail result. Those passing the test will have their paperwork submitted by the VEC to the FCC so that the FCC can issue the license. Once the results and paperwork is submitted to them, generally, it will take from a week to ten days for the FCC to issue the license. If your name and call sign appear in the FCC database, then you have a license. The paper license that the FCC sends you is merely an indicator that your information appears in the database. If for some reason, The FCC cancels your license and it no longer appears in the database, the possession of the paper license is no help; your license is still void.
Why would the FCC cancel your license? The rules you learned about in studying for the exam are not just words. They are meant to be followed by all amateur radio operators. The penalties for egregious violation of these rules can be severe. In addition to cancellation of the license, the FCC can levy fines into the thousands of dollars. In really serious situations, where a rogue operator might repeatedly violate the FCC's regulations over a long period of time, jail time can result. The regulations are there for a purpose. They ensure that all users of the radio spectrum have reasonable access to their assigned frequencies, without interference from other users. After you receive your license from the FCC, the next question, of course, is "what now?" You have a license, now you need equipment to utilize that privilege. The ARRL is a fountain of information on the radio equipment that ham operators use. There are many ways to approach the purchase of amateur radio equipment. New, used, fancy, simple, the choices may seem endless. With a little thought about your purpose in getting your "ticket", you will quickly narrow your choices down to a manageable level. I will say only a few things about your first transceiver.
If your budget permits, get a dual-band unit. That is a radio that operates on both two meters (144 MHz to 148 MHz) and 70 centimeters (430 MHz to 450 MHz). I say this because in many areas of the US, virtually all of the available two meter repeater frequency sets have already been assigned. This means that any new repeaters will be 70 centimeter units. Having the dual-band capability will increase the possible options for you to operate on.
Depending on your own situation, the choice of a hand-held radio (walky-talky) or a vehicle or home mounted mobile radio will be up to you. Eventually you probably will have both, since the ham radio hobby is no different than any other, we all acquire more gear as we progress within the hobby. This is true no matter what the field, just ask any golfer, or boat owner. For your first radio, however, the choice should be tied to your location, your needs, and what repeater facilities are around you. If the available repeaters are distant from where you will be using the radio, the extra transmit power of the mobile rig may be vital. If the repeaters are close and the extra power is not needed, then a hand held radio probably will suffice. Joining a local ham radio club and asking your fellow club members will guide you here.
Once you have purchased a radio (and an antenna and the coax that joins the whole thing together, in the case of a mobile rig, and the power supply to operate it if you plan to operate from your home) the next step is to program the radio with the frequencies of interest in your locality. Read the manual that came with your rig carefully, almost all of the answers you need are in there. If you need more help, ask your fellow club members who may own a similar radio, for help. Another neat source of assistance is the Yahoo Groups at Yahoo.com. There are specific groups for almost any kind of amateur radio gear ever made. Many of these groups have files and information that will answer almost any question you can think of. If the files are of no help, then the other major aspect of the Groups comes into play. As a member of a group, you have the ability to post your question on the group web page, and any other member who has an answer for you can post his or her answer. In addition to the posting, the members response will be emailed to you directly.
Some radios manufactured now even have the ability to be programmed from your PC. A computer program on a disc and an interface cable not unlike the one that came with your digital camera, allows you to preset all the frequencies, repeater offsets, tones and even power levels on the computer, and then download them into the radio with one or two keystrokes. You can actually save these files in your computer and create different files for different situations. If you go elsewhere in the country to vacation, or visit family, you can create a file that reflects the radio spectrum available in that area and load that into your radio before you go. When you come back home, another download and your radio is back home too.
BY far the most important things to do after you get your amateur radio license are: Join the ARRL, and join your local amateur radio club.
The ARRL because the member benefits are truly outstanding and the ARRL is our voice to the FCC, other governmental agencies, and the many other agencies that ham radio assists, like the Red Cross and Salvation Army Disaster Relief Organizations. The ARRL can even renew your license for you (for free) when that time comes. They produce a truly amazing range of publications on amateur radio and the ARRL Handbook is truly an industry standard across all radio modes, even the commercial and military applications. The ARRL monthly magazine, "QST" is the "bible" for ham radio and makes ARRL membership worth it, even if that was the only benefit. There are many other benefits, however, so check the ARRL out at www.arrl.org and see what I mean.
Your local club, because anyone in any hobby needs fellow hobbyists to learn from and perhaps impart information to. We all want to associate with others who share our interests and who can provide a measure of support when involved in new activities. A local club provides that comfortable spot where we socialize with others who share our interests. The learning that results is compounded by the mutual interest in the hobby, whether it be amateur radio or canoeing.
If you have ever considered becoming an amateur radio operator, now is the time to act on that thought. Whether for the hobby itself, or for the tools it brings to the assistance of others in times of disaster, or for the opportunity to learn more about others and indeed yourself, ham radio is a hobby with aspects to fascinate anyone. From radios to computers to television to satellites in space, the ham radio hobby has it all.