I am frequently asked, “Why bother with radios? Don’t you have cellphones? VOIP? Skype?”
And, well, yes I do have those things. But there are still plenty of reasons to get involved in Amateur Radio. I used to think the above things, too, and am really kicking myself that I didn’t give it more serious thought until 2010.
I eventually realized that the above question was framing it the wrong way. I think the better question would be, “What makes amateur radio fun and a good way to spend your time?”
The Fun Of It All
There is a lot of fun in amateur radio. It was quite exciting the first time I talked to someone out of state, realizing that the piece of wire in my trees, and 100W of transmitter power, were all it took to get a message 700 miles away. And even more exciting when I talked to a person in Kazakhstan the same way. No satellites, no phone lines, no undersea cables - just my antenna, his, and radio waves.
Then there’s the fun in talking to somewhat random people. It’s not completely random, as I’m only talking to people that have passed a test - there are about a million of us in the USA. (And for the long-distance HF communication, a more rigorous exam is required, so the number is probably less than that.) But when I call “CQ” - an invitation for anyone listening to reply - I never know who will reply. I’ve talked to a retired Canadian museum curator, a Mississippi farmer, a resident of Long Island, Russians participating in a contest, two Hawaiians participating in a different contest, and the list goes on. Some of these have been brief contacts lasting only seconds, while others have been conversations that stretch on towards an hour.
I liken amateur radio to buying my first iPod. I had never owned a portable MP3 player. I had always figured, “Why bother? How often am I away from a computer or a CD player?” But once I got one, I realized how nice it was. It was convenient to just store my entire library on there and not have to try to sync it across multiple devices. It was convenient to not have to carry CDs with me in the car, and to listen to music at places I hadn’t tried to before. The same sort of thing applied to getting a Kindle, and to amateur radio. I didn’t realize how much fun it would be until I tried.
One thing I’ve discovered is that the amateur radio community has an amazing sense of community. Hams, almost universally, seem to love helping out each other, whatever the task may be: setting up antennas, learning how to operate a radio, even fixing a flat tire. I’ve seen this directly, and heard about it from others, time and time again. There’s an excellent article out there by Nate Bargmann called Why I consider Amateur Radio an asset in my life that makes for good reading.
If you stop and think for a minute, you’ll realize there are quite a few benefits to having your very own wireless link, completely independent of outside infrastructure. For instance, groups of people traveling in several cars can contact each other even when they go through an area without cellphone coverage – which are common in many parts of the country. If the power goes out, Internet or even phones may go down. I’ve seen at least two instances where important telephone cables have been cut, completely cutting off entire towns from any outside calls – even with cell phones. And of course there are always natural disasters and other incidents that can overwhelm traditional infrastructure.
Hams (amateur radio operators) have a special place with these. Some choose to take emergency communications training and join volunteer emergency response groups. Thousands of them went to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to assist there, as there was often no other way to get messages out. They also often help out with major events, festivals, etc. It is often very nice to be able to have everyone involved hear the communications that are happening, whereas cellphones are private channels between two people.
I’ve experienced this myself once. We lost power one evening, and it had been out for awhile. I called the electric company, but their phone just rang and rang – no answer. Living out in the country, there are no neighbors near enough to see if they are without power as well, or to know if it’s just us or some larger problem.
So, I got on the radio. (I have a generator, but also a battery-operated handheld; either works in this situation.) I asked if anybody around happened to know what was happening. Sure enough, someone driving in his truck hopped on and said that much of the county was without power. He had also heard on his police scanner that there were reports of power outages elsewhere and that the power company was working on it, but it would take a few hours.
Towards the end of showing you some things that have been exciting, here are a few memorable moments from my ham radio experience so far.
- One evening, I was tuning around the HF bands listening for people to talk to. I heard some people calling CQ in heavy accents. I eventually realized that the All-Asia contest was going on, and figured out how to participate. I made my first voice-mode contact with people on a different continent - and it was with Kazakhstan! Within a few minutes, I also talked with three stations in Russia. I hadn’t expected that!
- I’ve made contact with several stations in the Indianapolis area, where I used to live. It was particularly fun to talk to W9IMS, located at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which operates around race times only. Again I discovered that station simply by tuning around on the band.
- I took a 5W handheld radio with me to New York City during my trip there for Debconf. It was a lot of fun to talk to random New Yorkers while visiting, and they were all very interested in my impression of the city, what I’ve done so far, and what they thought I ought to do. Some offered specific tips (such as which train from Manhattan to Brooklyn offers a good view while elevated).
- A local ham, W0BH, gave me some basic training on how to operate during amateur radio contests. During these contests, hams try to make contact with as many other hams in as many places as they can. I didn’t think this sounded like a lot of fun. Until I tried it. It was indeed a lot of fun, and interesting being occasionally that rare Kansas station that a bunch of people are trying to talk to at once.
Some other things I haven’t tried yet, but many others have:
- There are often hams aboard the International Space Station and they make contact with people on the ground.
- There are amateur radio satellites that can be used to make contacts with people far away – for free – and some even can store email-like messages
- It’s also possible to bounce a radio signal off the surface of the moon, a meteor trail, or the aurora borealis (northern lights) to make contact with distant people
Move on to the Getting Started With Amateur Radio page.
- My blog post about this
- Ham Radio Hangs On, an excellent newspaper article about the fun and usefulness of it all.
Links to this note
Amateur Radio really a very interesting hobby. It is the most versatile radio service available in many ways. Users of amateur radio get to choose their own radios and antennas, and can even design and build these things themselves if they like. They can operate with a surprising amount of power in many situations, and can work with all sorts of modes including CW (morse code), voice, and digital. Most other types of radio restrict people to only government-approved radios, certain specific channels, etc.
So, you may have read the material on the Why Get Involved With Amateur Radio? and are wondering how to get started. This has two main components: licensing and equipment.
Amateur radio is a radio service in which people are allowed and encouraged to build their own radios, antennas, and so forth. It can be used to communicate all around the globe without any intervening infrastructure such as satellites or cables.
Most of us carry cell phones with us almost everywhere we go. So much so that we often forget not just the usefulness, but even the joy, of having our own radios. For instance: