The oldest radio service
Amateur's have been around since the beginning of radio itself. Many individuals built, communicated and experimented with radio. They communicated using Morse code, that strange configuration of dits and dahs still holds the fascination of many operators today. Amateur's , or "hams" as we are known, have been at the forefront of radio technology. Many hams have pioneered the art of radio and provided experimentation which has led to many of today's high tech. communication capabilities. A good example of this experimentation is communicating thru a PC. Hams also communicate with computers, but instead of using the phone lines to transfer the information, we send the information over the air waves using HF or VHF/UHF radio equipment. An example of computer communication on the amateur radio bands, is called "RTTY" , which stands for Radio TeleType , better known as simply teletype. RTTY is a very fun mode of communication, and much simpler to participate in with the advent of the desk top personal computer. Another example is called "packet", whereby "packets" of information are sent at the same time, arrive at their destination, then wait for a reply. There is a whole network across the country linked together via VHF/UHF repeaters to carry messages back and forth thousands of miles away.
Who can become a "ham"
Anyone may receive an FCC Amateur Radio License, called a "ticket" by ham's. There are no age limits, you just need to demonstrate the ability to receive morse code at a minimum speed of five words per minute, as well as pass a written exam covering rules and regulations, electronic theory and good operating practices. There are six different "classes" or levels of amateur radio license's , novice, technician, technician plus, general, advanced and extra. Each class has a different requirement for obtaining that level of license. The different levels of license's allow the operator different operating privileges, the higher the class, the more privileges you obtain . Recently, the FCC has created a class of license ( technician ) that no longer requires the ability to receive morse code. Of course your operating privileges are very limited with this entry level class. I won't go into what each classes privileges are here. Check out the ARRL's home page for more information
With the proper equipment, hams can communicate with other hams around the globe, around the clock. Propagation is a fascinating aspect to radio communication, many hams study the solar activity and try to predict the best openings for a particular band at a given time of day. This helps in setting up schedules with others in different parts of the country, or world. As well as giving you a pretty good idea what part of the world you should be hearing and on what band you should be hearing it ! The sun and the rays it emits have been studied for many years, even before radio was "invented". Scientist's discovered many years ago that the sun developed spots on its face, called sunspots. They also learned that in some years the sun would develop more sunspots than in others. These sunspots are cooler area's on the sun's surface, or face. Tracking these sunspots lead to the finding that the sun goes through a cycle every eleven years ( called the solar cycle or 11 year cycle ). As each year went by , the sun would gain more spots. Then at the peak of the cycle, the spots would start to decline in numbers and start the whole process all over again. After the advent of radio, came the realization that as the solar cycle reached its peak, radio communication with distant stations became easier. Signals become very strong and communicating with someone on the other side of the world was just as easy as with someone across town ! Furthermore, communications on bands which were once thought of as worthless were providing communications on a regular basis , during these "peaks" in the cycle. It is truly amazing how far your signal can go during the peak of the solar cycle with very little power ( watts ) out ! Of course during the declining years, communications become poor, if not impossible, on some bands.
One popular activity among hams includes the exchanging of postcards, called "QSL" cards. The purpose is to confirm that two way communication was made between the two stations. These cards contain information about the operator, such as name, call sign, location, etc. As well as information about the contact, band , mode, time of day , date . Most hams have their own personal cards printed by professional printers. Some cards are very creative, some are just "plain jane", but they are always fun to receive in the mail. Some examples include: hand drawn designs, photo's of the operating station and the owner, even pictures of tropical islands with crystal blue water and white sandy beaches ! Some cards are highly sought after, hams will travel to remote islands or countries which have little or no amateur radio activity , then offer QSL cards to everyone who contacts them. It is not unusual for these "DXpeditions" , as they are called, to make many thousands of contacts with other hams around the world in a weekend ! QSL cards are a fun way of keeping track of all the different countries or places one has talked to. They are also required for many of the awards that are offered hams.
Pick a mode, any mode...
Just about every mode of communication available today is used by amateurs. Some of them include, AM, FM, SSB, CW. Hams can even send TV pictures across the country or around the world ! All forms of digital communication are used as well, computers have become a communication tool used by most of the hams today.
Through the efforts of the "AMSAT" organization, amateur satellite communications have been a reality since the early sixties. Hams enjoy satellite communication on a daily basis. Imagine the thrill and excitement of "working" other hams around the world using minimum power as the "bird" orbits overhead ! Satellite tracking is an activity in and of itself and is very challenging, just figuring it all out has its rewards. Some amateurs even bounce their signals off of the earth's biggest satellite, the MOON !
Space Shuttle Communication
There have been a number of Astronauts who are also "hams" that have been allowed to experiment, while on a Shuttle mission, with amateur radio. They have communicated with other hams on earth. Many hams have set up stations in schools to demonstrate to the students, amateur radios ability to communicate with the shuttle astronauts. The equipment usually is a simple VHF/UHF handheld "HT" running only a few watts of output power. Can you imagine talking with an astronaut who is orbiting the earth at 17k + MPH ?
Low Power (QRP) Operation
While many amateur's are allowed to run up to 1500 watts, there is a growing interest in low power operation. Commonly referred to as "QRP", individuals who find this aspect of the hobby challenging, enjoy building or "homebrewing" their own radios and receivers. There are many ham's who have made contact with others around the world using only a few watts of power, in some cases milliwatts ! The most popular mode for QRP operation is CW, due to its ability to be heard under extreme band conditions and low signal strength. The rigs sometimes can be very small in size, some have built transmitters inside of tuna fish can's ( tuna removed ) , while others have used "Altoids" tins ! Some of these radios are really creative, and can be taken just about anywhere, on camping trips, hiking, bike riding etc. Many awards are issued with the "QRP" endorsement, showing that the operator was using limited power and therefore making it harder ( more challenging ) on him/herself !
Amateur's provide emergency communications whenever the need arises. Ham's have been the sole means of communication in many instances during a catastrophe. Floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes etc. Whenever the phone lines or power is out , hams are still able to summon help to the area that is affected with the disaster. There is an annual event called "Field-Day", where hams participate in emergency type operating conditions, such as battery powered , make shift antenna's supported in trees, operating from car's, tent's, travel trailers etc. This and other event's like it, help to prepare individuals for the real thing.
Amateurs may earn various awards for different operating activities. Some of which include the "WAS" award, for Worked All States, this award is issued to ham's who make contact with other ham's in each of the fifty states. There are many endorsements available for this award, such as working fifty states on CW, SSB etc. Working fifty states on all bands, or just one band, like six meters. Most newly licensed ham's work on their WAS award as soon as they start making contacts, a new state is always fun to work and it can be quite a challenge, as some states are harder to find than others. Other awards include, DXCC, WAC and WPX to name just a few. There is even an award for working all of the counties in the U.S. ! Some radio clubs even offer operating awards for working members of the club. You could spend a lifetime trying to collect all of the awards that are out there !