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Amateur radio

Amateur radio, commonly called "ham radio", is a hobby enjoyed by many people throughout the world (as of 2004 about 3 million worldwide, 70,000 in Germany, 5,000 in Norway, 57,000 in Canada, and 700,000 in the USA). A holder of an Amateur Radio licence has studied and passed required tests in his or her country and been issued a call sign by its government. This call sign is unique to the operator and is often a source of pride. The holder of a call sign uses it on the air to legally identify all voice and data communications. Amateur Radio should not be confused with CB radio, General Mobile Radio Service or Family Radio Service which are limited to voice operation, allowed lower power limits, fewer frequency allocations, and are unlicensed in most countries.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that regulates radio and telecommunications in the United States, amateur radio serves the following purposes:

  • Promotion and enhancement of the Amateur Radio Service as a voluntary noncommercial public communications service.
  • Continual advancement of the art of radio communication.
  • Expansion of the reservoir of trained radio operators and electronic experts.
  • Enhancement of international goodwill at the grass roots level.

Governance and amateur radio societies

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) governs the allocation of communications frequencies world-wide, with participation by each nation by representation from their communications regulation authority. IARU member nations may choose to further limit specific frequency allocations within IARU guidelines.

Many countries have their own national Amateur Radio society that coordinates with the communications regulation authority for the benefit of all Amateurs. The oldest of these societies is the Wireless Institute of Australia (WIA), formed in 1910; other notable early societies are the Radio Society of Great Britain founded in 1913 the American Radio Relay League created in 1914 and Radio Amateurs of Canada. National societies also cooperate through the International Amateur Radio Union (IARU).

Band plans and frequency allocations

Through ITU agreement bandwidth has been set aside for amateur transmissions. Amateurs use a variety of transmission modes, including Morse code, radio teletype, data, and voice. Specific frequency allocations are a matter of record and vary from country to country and region to region, but the frequency allocations in the USA are:

  • Medium Frequency (MF) (300 kHz to 3 MHz)
    • 160 metres (1.8 - 2.0 MHz)
  • High Frequency (HF) (3.0 - 30.0 MHz)
    • 80 metres (3.5 - 4.0 MHz)
    • 60 metres (five USB voice channels: 5.332, 5.348, 5.368, 5.373, 5.405 MHz)
    • 40 metres (7.0 - 7.3 MHz)
    • 30 metres (10.100 - 10.150 MHz)
    • 20 metres (14.000 - 14.350 MHz)
    • 17 metres (18.068 - 18.168 MHz)
    • 15 metres (21.000 - 21.450 MHz)
    • 12 metres (24.890 - 24.990 MHz)
    • 10 metres (28.0 - 29.7 MHz)
  • Very High Frequency (VHF) (30 to 300 MHz)
    • 6 metres (50 - 54 MHz)
    • 2 metres (144 - 148 MHz)
    • 1.25 metres (222 - 225 MHz)
  • Ultra High Frequency (UHF) (300 MHz to 3 GHz)
    • 70 centimetres (420 - 450 MHz)
    • 33 centimetres (902 - 928 MHz)
    • 23 centimeters (1.24 - 1.3 GHz)
    • 13 centimeters (2.30 - 2.31 GHz and 2.39 - 2.45 GHz)
  • Super High Frequency (SHF) (3 to 30 GHz)
    • 9 centimetres (3.3 - 3.5 GHz)
    • 5 centimetres (5.65 - 5.925 GHz)
    • 3 centimetres (10.0 - 10.5 GHz)
    • 1.2 centimetres (24.00 - 24.25 GHz)
  • Extremely High Frequency (EHF) (30 to 300 GHz)
    • 6 millimetres (47.0 - 47.2 GHz)
    • 4 millimetres (75.5 - 81.0 GHz)
    • 2.5 millimetres (119.98 - 120.02 GHz)
    • 2 millimetres (142 - 149 GHz)
    • 1 millimetre (241 - 250 GHz)

The ARRL has a detailed band plan on their website. For ITU region 2, RSGB's band plan (PDF) will be more definitive.

Use and available activities

Licensed Amateur Radio operators enjoy personal two-way communications with friends, family members, and complete strangers, all of whom must also be licensed. They support the larger public community with emergency and disaster communications. Increasing a person's knowledge of electronics and radio theory as well as radio contesting are also popular aspects of this radio service. A good way to get started in Ham Radio is to find a club in your area to answer your questions and provide information on getting licensed and then getting on the air!

Ham Radio offers the licensed operators a variety of radio modes that help to ensure reliable communications during and after disasters. Many of these rely on the "simplex" mode, that is direct, radio-to-radio, avoiding the problems associated with networks that might fail. In Ham Radio simplex communications would allow skilled radio operators to talk across town on VHF or UHF frequencies, or across the world on the HF (shortwave) bands of frequencies . Hams also have another powerful tool available, repeaters. Repeaters are radio relay devices usually located on the top of a mountain or tall building. A repeater allows the licensed Ham to have radio coverage for hundreds of miles from just a small handheld or mobile two-way radio.

Within amateur radio, one can pursue interests such as providing communications for a community emergency response team; antenna theory; satellite communication (see AMSAT and OSCAR series satellites); disaster response ; Skywarn; packet radio (using data transmission protocols similar to that used on the Internet, but via radio links); DX communication over thousands of miles using the ionosphere to refract radio waves; Internet Radio Linking Project (IRLP) which is a composite network of radio signals and the Internet; Automated Position Reporting System (APRS), which is a radio-to-radio network of amateur radio and the Global Positioning Sysytem, radio contests and super low-power or QRP operation.

QSL cards, awards, and contesting

One of the many exciting activities of ham radio is the DX-pedition. Radio amateurs collect QSL cards from other stations, indicating the continents and regions which they have contacted. Certain zones of the world have very few radio amateurs. As a result, when a station with a rare ID comes on the air, radio amateurs flock to communicate with it. To take advantage of this phenomenon, groups of hams transport radio equipment into a remote country or island (such as normally uninhabited Bouvet Island, which has the rare callsign prefix 3Y). These expeditions can help hams quickly achieve a communication award such as a DXCC. To obtain the DXCC award a ham needs confirming QSL cards from hams in 100 countries around the world.

Many other awards are also available. Some, such as working 100 islands, including at least one from every continent, or contacting the 40 radio "zones" that the world is unofficially divided into, are fairly difficult. While working every U.S. state can be done in a few months of casual operation, confirming every county can take a decade or more. Others awards, such as contacting all 10 U.S. radio districts, are quite easy. In addition, every year there are many special event stations on the air. Set up to commemorate special occurrences, they often issue distinctive QSLs or certificates. Some use unusual prefixes, such as the call signs with "96" that Georgians could use during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. (Collecting prefixes is another aspect of the hobby.) Many amateurs decorate their radio "shacks" with these certificates. Not surprisingly, they are called "wallpaper."

Contesting is another activity which has garnered interest in the ham community. During a period of time (normally 24 to 48 hours) a ham tries to successfully communicate with as many other hams as possible. In the U.S., one such event is Field Day, held in the fourth full weekend in June. The contesting amateur may concentrate on just DX stations, or only on stations powered by emergency generation equipment or running on batteries, which is meant to simulate hurricane or other emergency disaster conditions. Some contests may or may not be limited in allowable modes of transmission.

Weak-signal and low-power activities

Some hams use VHF or UHF frequencies to bounce their signals off the moon. The return signal is heard by many other hams who also do EME (earth-moon-earth). The antenna arrays are massive so a lot of real estate is needed. Other hams transmit with very low power. Signals on the order of 5 watts or less are heard all over the world by these QRP (low power) operators.

Maritime mobile, mobile and portable operations

Licensed amateurs often take portable equipment with them when travelling, whether in their luggage or fitted into their cruising yachts, caravans, or other vehicles. On long-distance expeditions and adventures such equipment allows them to stay in touch with other amateurs, reporting progress, arrival and sometimes exchanging safety messages along the way. Many static-based hams are very pleased to hear directly from such travellers. From in a yacht in mid-ocean or a 4x4 inside the Arctic Circle, a friendly voice and the chance of a kind fellow-enthusiast sending an e-mail home is very well received.

Past, present, and future

Despite all these exciting specialties, many hams enjoy the informal contacts, long discussions or "rag-chews", or round table "nets", whether by voice transmission (SSB, AM, or FM), CW (morse telegraphy), or one of the digital modes (RTTY, PSK31, and others).

Even with the advent of the Internet (offering email, music, broadcast audio, video, voice over IP (VoIP)) ham radio is not diminishing in countries with advanced communications infrastructure. Amateur radio remains strong even today, as figures from the American Radio Relay League will prove. This may be partly because Hams enjoy communicating using the most minimalist simple hardware possible as well as finding the most technically advanced way, advancing the art of radio communication at both ends, frequently beyond what professionals are willing to try and risk.

Voice over IP (VoIP) is also finding its way into Amateur Radio. Programs like Echolink tie hams with computers into ham radio repeaters across the globe. The Internet Radio Linking Project (IRLP) utilizes VoIP to tie repeaters together directly by user command. This nascent use is finding applications in emergency services as well, as an alternative to expensive (and sometime fallable) trunking systems.

In times of crisis and natural disasters, ham radio may be the only surviving means of communication. It has been found all too often that both wire and cellular telephone systems either fail or are overloaded in times of crisis and radios dedicated to emergency services fare little better. In the United States, two organizations of amateur radio operators exist nationally for disaster communications. They are the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) and the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES). Typically a local radio club will have information on joining either or both. In areas where known disaster problems exist, amateur radio has a long-standing tradition of cooperation with local emergency services. Los Angeles County and the Disaster Communications Service exists as an example and a model.

On March 18, 1909, Einar Dessau used a short-wave radio transmitter which made him the first to broadcast as a ham radio operator.

More recently as of September 2, 2004, ham radio has been used to inform weather forcasters with information on hurricane Frances live from the Bahamas.

Amateur radio and innovation in telecommunications technology

Throughout its history, amateur radio has made significant contributions to science, industry, and the social services. The economic and social benefit derived from amateur radio research has founded new industries, built economies, empowered nations, and saved lives.

Amateur radio represents a unique research and development (R&D) environment that cannot be duplicated in the labs or research parks of either industry or the government. Existing at the intersection of the social, economic, cultural and scientific spheres, amateur radio leverages this position to invent and innovate from a unique perspective. Many now-commonplace communication technologies have their genesis in amateur radio.

However, the amateur radio service, or more specifically, the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum allocated to the activity, is under extreme pressure from the telecommunications industry. Recent exponential growth in commercial wireless communication systems has taxed existing commercial spectrum allocations, and industry is eager for expansion. Amateur radio spectrum is threatened. Ironically, many of the communication technologies used by these firms were initially developed within the field of amateur radio.

To justify their quest for additional spectrum, industry lobbyists portray amateur radio as an anachronism, and characterize amateur bands, particularly in the UHF and microwave region, as underutilized. On the contrary, innovative communications research within the hobby is alive and well, and many of these new amateur projects utilize the higher-frequency bands sought after by industry. There is commercial interest in some of the new technologies currently under development within amateur radio, and amateur radio continues to contribute to the state of the radio art.

Therefore, amateur radio must be supported by government and the telecommunications industry it helped create, so that it may continue to innovate and serve as a source of creativity for both technological and social change as we move forward into the twenty-first century.

See for a comprehensive discussion of this topic.

Amateur radio on the screen

Censored page's 1960 BBC TV episode "The Radio Ham", in which he plays an incompetent ham radio operator, has remained popular in the U.K. and has played a small part in keeping the memory of ham radio's heyday alive.

Hollywood movies have also used Amateur Radio as a convenient and often fanciful part of their plot:

  • Contact (1997) starring Jodie Foster playing Dr. Eleanor Ann 'Ellie' Arroway, has the heroine learning to listen to radio frequency transmissions as a child, and later participating in SETI.
  • Frequency (2000) starring Jim Caviezel playing 'John Sullivan', and Dennis Quaid playing 'Frank Sullivan', has the fanciful plot of a father ('Frank') and son ('John') using Amateur Radio to communicate after the father has died.
  • Phenomenon (1996) starring John Travolta playing 'George Malley', has the hero's friend (Forest Whitaker playing 'Nate Pope') relaxing from his concerns by talking to friends on his radio.
  • The French Atlantic Affair (1979) A 3-part ABC miniseries from the Ernest Lehman novel (1977). A hijacked cruise ship story where a smuggled-aboard ham radio is the only independent contact with the outside world.
  • Star Wars (1977) during the battle of the death star, the pilots communicate with each other over the radio using what sounds like SSB modulation, which is frequently used in the Amateur HF band. This is particularly obvious if you listen for the voice distortion characteristic of SSB when flipping between one character speaking and a character listening in another location over the radio.
  • The Sweet Hereafter (1997) starring Ian Holm playing 'Mitchel Stephens', features a scene where a man is sitting at a table, holding a pair of communication headphones up to one ear. On the wall is a plastic QSL card holder full of cards.
  • Men of Boys Town (1941), is the sequel of Boys Town (1938), starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. In this movie Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney) has frequent conversations with his friend Pee Wee (Bobs Watson) over the amateur radio waves. Whitey transmits from the home of his adoptive parents, while Pee Wee is at the amateur radio club in Boys Town.
  • If All the Guys in the World (original title "Si tous les gars du monde..." (1957), is a French film largely devoted to the Art of Amateur Radio. Jean Louis, a young radio enthusiast who lives in Paris, receives an SOS message sent from a ship in the high seas. Through his modest radio station, and with the help of fellow radio amateurs around the world he tries to prevent a major catastrophe from happening. This is the first movie appearance of the celebrated French actor Jean Louis Trintignant.
  • Bob's Christmas Movie (nnnn) Bob the Builder and his brother Tom use ham radio to communicate. Bob has an antenna on the side of his yard's office, which is not seen in the series. Tom lives in the Arctic.

Tools and appliances

See also

Morse code, electromagnetism, Electromagnetic radiation, Q Code, SSTV, country codes, callsigns, PSK31, ARISS, APRS

Major clubs, societies, and associations

External links

  • Amateur Radio Directory
  • International Amateur Radio Society
  • ARRL - Information on ham radio.
  • U.S. Amateur Radio Frequency Allocation Chart - a one-page color chart showing the frequencies available to amateurs in the United States.
  • Canadian Amateur Bands - a chart showing the frequencies available to amateurs in Canada.
  • Amateur Radio and call signs information. Canadians may wish to visit the Radio Amateurs of Canada site.
  • An example of a base station
  • Learn about the repeater system that a Ham Radio club sponsors in Utah.
  • Glossary of amateur radio terms.
  • Ham Radio Ham Radio Startpage.
  • For the etymology of 'ham', see ham(2) or "Why ham ?"
  • QRZ.COM - One of the worlds most popular amateur radio sites

Finding a club

  • Locate a club in your country or in your state.
  • Contact information for on the Amateur Radio society of your country. They will provide all information on licensing terms and put you in touch with radio amateurs in your own town.
  • If you are in Canada, find a club near you .
  • If you are in Finland, find a club near you.
  • If you are in Belgium, find a club near you.
  • If you are in Germany, find a club near you.
  • If you are in Norway, find a club near you.
  • If you are in Spain, find a club near you.
  • If you are in Switzerland, find a club near you.
  • If you are in United Kingdom, find a club near you.
  • If you are in the USA, find a club near you .
  • If you are in India, check this website

Club links

  • Beaumanor & Garats HaY Amateur Radio Society (B&GHARS) With links to the Y Services & Bletchley Park
  • Irish Radio Transmitters Society (IRTS) - The Society for Radio Amateurs in Ireland.
  • Wireless Institute of Australia (WIA)
  • In the UK, Radio Society of Great Britain (RSGB)

Last updated: 01-28-2005 06:15:48
Last updated: 02-09-2005 15:28:51