Amateur radio, or Ham radio is the use of the radio frequency spectrum for strictly non-commercial (mostly local) communications, like message exchange, experimentation, a way to teach and learn, etcetera, so it’s one of the best and most widely known activities of tech-savvies.
The first amateur radio service was introduced in the late 19th century and is still in use today. It’s a great way for enthusiasts, hobbyists, and experimenters to gain knowledge of radio technology, and put it to good use.
Amateur radio is also used in the classroom to teach sciences, computer skills, and even languages. People who are starting out in amateur radio as a form of self-training can use Ham radio as a fun way to communicate, and it’s the best way to gain insight into the workings of these devices. It is important to note that there are two different types of ham radios – mobile ham radios that are usually stationary positioned in a vehicle and portable ham radios that you can carry around. This article will cover the basic practices of amateur radio, and how to get a Ham radio license.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been in charge of radio licensing ever since 1905 when the first licenses were granted as “License to use Wireless Telegraphy Equipment for Experimental Purposes”. This is known today as the “Technician license”, the most basic Ham radio license. By 1906, 68 people had been made licensed radio operators thanks to the FCC.
Today the FCC is known as an independent agency of the U.S. government with the purpose of regulating communications via satellite, radio, television, wire, and cable across the country. The FCC is still responsible for granting radio licenses.
A radio license (or broadcasting license) is similar to any other kind of license. Applicants have to study both theory and practice and present their knowledge in the form of a thorough oral examination and tests in front of a committee. A basic radio license grants licensees access and permission to use a specific portion of the radio frequency spectrum. These licenses also come with restrictions, so when an individual uses a radio device without a license or oversteps their boundaries, they can be reported to the FCC.
Ham Radio – How it Works
Licensed Amateur radio operators can access and use radio frequencies allocated by the FCC. These frequencies are known as “Amateur Air Bands”, and licensees are typically granted privileges in the 420-450 MHz frequency range. Ham radios can typically reach a range of 2-20 miles unless the user has built an especially powerful base station capable of long-distance broadcasting, meaning it’s mostly used for local communications.
Some Ham radios can receive various signals outside of the amateur radio bands, in some cases even including the police or other emergency services. Listening to such frequencies while staying in your own amateur bands is not considered illegal, but transmitting distress signals can only be used in actual emergency situations, using the universally accepted distress frequency.
All Ham radio devices use radio waves to communicate sounds, whether it’s Morse Code through a telegraph key or voice communications on a hand-held device. In AM and FM radio, a disk jockey transmits and can reach thousands if not more people. Amateur devices like Ham carry a two-way conversation with other amateur radio users.
How to get a Ham Radio License
While just listening to a Ham radio doesn’t require any paperwork, transmitting and broadcasting do. Any person who wants to transmit using a Ham radio and its frequencies needs a license to do so, which means successfully completing at least one test.
Each Ham radio is assigned a “call sign” and must use it when contacting any amateur radio station. This call sign is obtained through a license. The only way to operate a device without a Ham radio license is to use a made-up or possibly stolen call, and actions like this can be reported to the FCC. Operating without a license or breaking any of the rules can result in a $10,000 fine, confiscation of the radio equipment, and possible jail time.
After obtaining the right license by completing the test, licensees will gain access to the amateur band, and Ham devices can be used from anywhere in the world, from behind the wheel (not recommended), to a mountaintop without using a cell phone service or the internet. Such devices can be life-saving in case of a natural disaster, or any emergency. For instance, Ham radios have played vital roles in various emergencies, used by NYC agencies during the 9/11 tragedy, and during the devastating disasters of Hurricane Katrina.
Anyone who is interested in radio technology, and aspires to gain more insight into this world considers obtaining a ham radio license to be a crucial step. As it not only can serve those in need but is used as a way to learn and self-train. People start with the most “basic” of the three classes, which is the Technician license. You can read about the two other classes in the upcoming paragraph.
A Ham radio license is given out by the Federal Communications Commission after completing at least one test – for all three classes, you’ll need 3 tests. Any ordinary person must appear before the Volunteer Examiners and the FCC. A volunteer examiner is a licensed radio operator. As with any license, it takes a lot of time and effort to study for these exams.
To get licensed, applicants must pass an official exam, demonstrating their knowledge and abilities in the area of Ham radio. There are three classes of Ham radio licenses (known as license class or level): Technician license, General license, and Amateur Extra license. Licensing is done in “exam sessions”, which can be found online according to place and time.
Technician Class License
The Technician license is considered to be the “beginner’s license”, therefore it serves as the first “entry-level” step for operating any type of radio. A Technician license gives the privileges of broadcasting on all amateur radio frequencies and a few privileges for broadcasting over HF (also called short wave) radio bands.
The Technician Class license and its exam sessions consist of one test with 35 questions on theory, regulations, and operation. While most believe it’s a crucial part of the exams, this test requires no proof of knowledge in Morse Code from the applicant, therefore the examination can be passed without it. However, this exam requires thorough knowledge of the theoretical workings of amateur radio service from prospective operators. After completing this examination, licensees will receive their FCC license numbers.
General Class License
The next level is the General license. The General license will grant the privileges of accessing portions of all amateur bands and all operating modes. General Class licensees can also have access to over 80% of all amateur HF bandwidth. To get your license, you need to pass the aforementioned Technician license’s test and a 35-question multiple-choice General exam in the chosen exam session.
Amateur Extra License
The top U.S. license class is the Amateur Extra Class. The Amateur Extra class license contains all available U.S. Amateur Radio privileges on all radio bands and operating modes. This classification requires licensees to pass both the General Class and Technician Class exams, and a 50-question multiple-choice theory exam.
All study materials regarding the oral examination and written test can be found online, and going through these study materials plus trial exams can take as long as 10-30 hours, depending on the class of the license and the applicant. A Ham radio license is valid for 10 years from the date of issuance and can be renewed also online. To do so, licensees must log in to the ULS License Manager with their FCC license number, and search for the renewal option.
After obtaining your Ham radio license, you can seek more advice and contact more radio savvies by joining the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the largest national association for amateur radio service users in the U.S.
Amateur associations like ARRL can be useful when it comes to technical advice, simple training, or just as a way to communicate with other Ham radio license holders, all online in the warmth of your home.