If you were to ask a dozen different amateurs what ham radio meant to them chances are you would get 12 different answers. Radio amateurs have discovered a richly rewarding high-tech hobby that has many different appeals to different people. Whether it is the ability to talk to local friends over the radio waves using a hand-held transceiver (HT), communicating digitally with packet radio to exchange personal messages or vital information in an emergency, talking to other hams anywhere in the world, or engaging in contests with other Radio Amateurs over the airwaves there is something for everyone.
Amateurs are often affectionately called hams or ham radio operators and frequently the public is more familiar with this term than with the legal term Radio Amateur. The source of the name ham is not known but it has been around almost from the beginning of amateur radio radio in the early 1900s. The name amateur has nothing to do with skill or knowledge but rather implies that ham radio cannot be used for commercial or revenue generating purposes. It is truly a hobby but often one that makes a difference especially in emergency or disaster situations.
Modes of communication
Amateur radio operators generally use radio transmitters and receivers to communicate with each other. As you will discover in these pages there are many forms of communication although voice (also known as phone) is still the most widely used. Some of the other forms of transmission are Radioteletype (RTTY), Morse code (CW), television transmission, and digital modes such as Packet, Pactor and PSK-31. A recent survey shows that phone is the most widely used with CW standing a firm second.
Whether you would like to chat with your friends on the way to work or school, check into a net to discuss topics of a mutual interest, or volunteer for emergency services, amateur radio is first and foremost about communication. With hams that means two way communication by radio. Radios can be hand-held transceivers similar to a walkie talkie, a mobile unit for use in a car or other vehicle, or a base station with an outdoor antenna used for local or distance communication. Regardless of the type of equipment radio amateurs have a wide range of activities they can pursue. Some of these are:
What are the Amateur Radio Bands?
Look at the dial on an old AM radio and you'll see frequencies marked from 535 to 1605 kilohertz. This is one radio "band." There are other bands of radio spectrum for amateur, government, military and commercial radio uses. If you could hear the many different bands, you would find aircraft, ship, fire and police communication, as well as the so-called "shortwave" stations, which are worldwide commercial and government broadcast stations from the U.S. and overseas. Amateurs are allocated 26 bands (i.e., specific groups of frequencies) spaced from 1.8 Megahertz, which is just above the broadcast radio frequencies, all the way up to 275 Gigahertz! Depending on which band we use, we can talk across town, around the world, or out to satellites in space. Hams can even bounce signals off the moon!
So what are the bands that most Radio Amateurs use? The table below shows bands that are relatively common and how and when they are in use. Again your license will determine which bands and what portions you are eligible to use.
Why Do You Need a License?
Although the main purpose of Amateur Radio is fun, it is called the "Amateur Radio Service" because it also has a serious face. The FCC created this "Service" to fill the need for a pool of experts who could provide backup during emergencies. In addition, the FCC acknowledged the ability of the hobby to advance the communication and technical skills of radio, and to enhance international goodwill. This philosophy has paid off. Countless lives have been saved where skilled hobbyists act as emergency communicators to render aid, whether it's during an earthquake in Italy or a hurricane in the U.S.
Check out the "Getting Licensed" page for more information on how you can get your Amateur Radio License.