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About Ham Radio

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.

Why Ham?

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.

What's the Appeal of Ham Radio?

Some hams are attracted by the ability to communicate across the country, around the globe, or even with astronauts on space missions. Others may like to build and experiment with electronics. Computer hobbyists enjoy using Amateur Radio's digital communications opportunities. Those with a competitive streak enjoy "DX contests," where the object is to see how many hams in distant locations they can contact in a short period of time, often competing with people from all over the world at the same time. Some like the convenience of a technology that gives them portable communication. Mostly we use it to open the door to new friendships over the air or through participation in an radio club.

What Hams Do

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:

  • Talking with friends within the local community using a hand-held transceiver (HT) on VHF (2 meters) or UHF (70 cm.). You can extend your HT range up to 50 miles or more by transmitting through a local repeater.
  • DXing. DX means distance communication and with the right equipment worldwide communication on the HF bands (10 through 160 meters) is a regular possibility. See the section Amateur Radio Bands for a more complete description of the band plans.
  • Assisting with emergency and disaster communication. Organizations in the amateur community such as the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) and the National Traffic System (NTS) prepare amateurs with the training needed to assist in emergency situations.
  • Technical experimenting. Hams come from all walks of life ranging from technicians to engineers, teachers to scientists, and students to retirees. For many of them the attraction to the hobby is to build their own equipment whether it is just a simple antenna, something as complex as a transmitter, or an interface between their radio and a computer.
  • Contesting. Contesting is often called the "sport" of ham radio. Almost every weekend there is some form of amateur radio contest. Hams get on the air and compete to see who can make the most contacts in a limited period of time.
  • Talk to an astronaut. Yes, it is really possible. Space stations do have ham radio equipment and licensed ham astronauts take the time to make contacts with amateurs on earth. Hams also have satellites where you can bounce a signal to communicate with other hams on earth.
  • Use digital communication. Connect a computer to your radio and install some software and you can be communicating digitally over the air. Some of these digital modes can be more effective in marginal transmission conditions and some even sport error free transmission.
  • Internet communication. Using some of the latest technologies hams can supplement a modest station with Internet connections. Using features such as URL or IRLP on a local repeater a ham in Toronto can talk to one in Vancouver or even Australia using a simple hand-held transceiver.

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.

 Band (meter)MHzUse*
HF1601.8 - 2.0night
803.5 - 4.0night and local day
407.0 - 7.3night and local day
3010.1 - 10.15CW and digital
2014.0 - 14.350world wide day and night
1718.068 - 18.168world wide day and night
1521.0 - 21.450primarily a daytime band
1224.890 - 24.990primarily a daytime band
1028.0 - 29.70daytime during sunspot highs
VHF650 - 54local to world-wide
2144 - 148local and medium distance
UHF70 cm430 - 440local


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.

Getting Licensed

Check out the "Getting Licensed" page for more information on how you can get your Amateur Radio License.