Introduction To Amateur Radio

Page title graphic: a circuit board, by Andrew Westcott M0WAN

By Andrew Westcott: M0WAN

Index Of Sub-pages:
Contact And Location Info
80m Antenna On A Postage Stamp
40 & 80m combined inverted V
Receiving VLF Signals
PLT Interference

 What's Amateur Radio All About? 

A rabbit with exceptionally long ears

"You're 5 and 9 old man"Sorry, what? You'll have to speak up

Amateur radio is a technical hobby where an individual is permitted to operate radio transmitting (and receiving) equipment on any of a vast range of allocated frequencies, for the purpose of enjoyment and self-education. Those involved tend to have a good understanding of electronics and a fascination with radio generally. The hobby as a whole is pretty darned diverse, and can range from chatting to a friend a few miles away to bouncing signals off the moon, communicating using satellites and anything radio-related in between. For far more information on this absorbing occupation, visit the Radio Society Of Great Britain.

Obviously such privileges and freedom to transmit radio signals are not just given away, you have to earn them by passing examinations to prove you have the necessary technical knowledge and operating skills to operate the equipment correctly. Here in the UK we are fortunate in that we have a 3-tier licensing system, comprising the Foundation, Intermediate and Full licences. The higher the level of knowledge you are able to prove, the more freedom and power you are permitted. The Foundation course and exam is not too difficult and is intended this way to allow people easier access to the hobby, although at this level the power output and other privileges are somewhat restricted. With further exams, extra privileges can be earned, up to those permitted by the Full licence. Once one of the exams have been passed here in the UK, Ofcom (on behalf of the government) grant you a unique identifying call sign which is used to identify yourself on-air.

In my case the call sign I have been granted is 'M0WAN'. In print this looks like a rather odd word but is in fact made up of the letter 'M' followed by a zero. The last 3 letters are generally issued in alphabetical sequence although you can choose from available callsigns, mine happen to be W, A and N. I would have liked M0OSE, but some rat had already taken it. Normally the call sign would be spelt out on air using the phonetic alphabet to ensure no letters were misheard.

I have been asked many times in the past why I bother with all that gear when I could just send an e-mail, go on Facebook or send a text message. Sensible questions really, but asked by people who do not understand the magic of making a contact with someone in another country using a radio transmitter feeding a home-made antenna system in the back garden - a completely self-contained communication setup, entirely independent of the internet or telephone lines. Part of the fun is that conditions are a quite variable, so a well-designed antenna and knowledge of propagation variables is helpful.

"But I can get to Australia on my mobile phone, why do you need all that stuff?"
Blimey, that's a goodun, how the heck do you explain that to a non-technical person?
The phone is of course only making contact with a cell mast a few hundred metres away, the rest of the distance is covered using wires, microwave links, satellites, and goodness knows what, until the data stream finds the remote cell mast whereupon the signal is transmitted a few hundred metres to the phone on the other end. This system works, but relies on one heck of a lot of communications infrastructure, any single part of which is susceptible to the gremlins or terrorism. Plus, it's no fun, is it?

The hobby of amateur radio is an old one, and many of the technical advances in radio were as a direct result of experiments conducted by the early pioneers. Despite the advances in just about every sphere of electronics, some radio amateurs are still developing ideas and conducting research into such things as various digital modes of transmission and propagation. The comedy image of an old, fat and bearded eccentric shouting into a box the size of a small car is as invalid now as it ever was; I used to be one of the instructors at my local radio club, and was pleased to see a healthy stream of young people passing the Foundation exam and entering the hobby.

One other point about amateur radio is that in the event of a major national or international disaster, chances are that the phone networks would be down as would the internet and possibly even the power grid, bringing our normal communications to a stand-still. In this event, radio amateurs may well be asked to establish an emergency communications network, as they have the gear, antennas and know-how to get such communications up and running for the emergency services. As such, amateur radio is recognised as a volunteer public service and here in the UK a group, Raynet, has been established for the purpose of practising setting up temporary communication bases just in case such an emergency were to happen, and who knows what's around the corner?

Mobile phones are pretty useful gadgets, I suppose, but pretty useless when the local tower is out.

 A Bit About Me And My Radio Station 

OK, by now you have probably gathered this much, but for completeness this is me: My name is Andrew Westcott, also known as Andy on the radio, and I am a fully licensed radio amateur, using the call sign 'M0WAN'. A little more info about me can be found on my contact page.

My main areas of interest are the shortwave or 'HF' bands and I have no particular interest in VHF or UHF. I am more interested in the technicalities of amateur radio than conversation for the sake of it, but this may be down to me being utterly socially inept. I do dislike the 'long overs' I hear so much on the ham bands, especially 80 metres; for goodness' sake, microphones have a PTT button on them these days! Also, I would rather engage in antenna discussions than discuss how my tomato plants are growing, not that I grow tomato plants but I do have a fair rash of spuds growing in the rabbits' dirt patch, presumably growing from the half-inch thick bits of spud peel the ex-missus used to bung out there. Funny how a decent-sized teddy can be reduced to the size of a conker in seconds.

Now, where was I?
Oh yes: Partly because I'm not a fan of listening to another ham's 15-minute broadcast I find I quite enjoy contests as the exchanges are nice and short but the contact still gets made. Future station refinements revolve around improving layout and antennae in an attempt to improve performance but to be honest, as my back garden could, on a foggy day, pass for GCHQ, there's not a lot more I can put 'out back' without possibly invoking the wrath of the neighbours or the local council planning orifice.

Radio amateurs have dragged the hobby screaming and kicking into the 21st century by the use of digital transmissions. I like messing about with digital modes and spend most of my time on the radio engaging in conversations using digital transmissions. For those not familiar with this, it usually involves the transmission and reception of text, sent via the computer keyboard and decoded by feeding the received audio tones into the computer's sound card, which displays the received text on the screen as in the screenshot below.

Screenshot of psk31 transmission being decoded on screen

A screenshot showing a digital transmission (BPSK31) being decoded into text

I also have a firm interest in Morse Code.
A very old form of transmission and some would say it is now redundant, but legs are a very old form of transport - have these been made redundant by modern technology? Not entirely, as sometimes the original is still the simplest and most effective in a given set of circumstances and this is entirely true of Morse Code. I am currently practising to improve my read speed, 9 words a minute being about the fastest I can do without too many copy errors, I have hit the proverbial 'wall' and have now been beating my head against it for a while. All in good time I suppose, but I'm getting impatient! Maybe as I hurtle headlong towards retirement I'm now too old to attain a good speed? Perhaps I need more motivation.

 Station Equipment 

My radio station

My radio station in the corner of the kitchen. De M0WAN

I currently own 4 commercially made transceivers - three Kenwood TS-430Ss and a Kenwood TS-520SE some of which are set up in the kitchen. I use a computer for contact logging and for encoding and decoding digital modes, my preferred modes at the moment. I also use a Kenwood AT-230 antenna matcher to ensure my radios see the correct load and to give a reasonable power indication, although the antennas I use present a good match natively. The matcher is only used if I wish to attempt operation on frequencies for which the antennae were not designed, and although this means inefficiencies and is considered poor practice, it is my only option if I wish to occasionally operate on a band for which I have not built an antenna.

Due to severe space limitations I have only three physical antennas available - one being a ground mounted 10.5 metre high vertical for 40 and 20 metres, an inverted L for 160, 80 and 60 metres and a pole mounted vertical half wave for 10m. The vertical and inverted L share the same feedpoint and ground radial system, which due to good neighbourly relations I have been able to extend beyond the confines of my postage stamp of a garden.

40m, 20m and 15m:
The vertical antenna is a 1/4 wave on 40m and will also function after a fashion on 15m as a 3/4 wave antenna. I have constructed an antenna base matcher to allow this element to also operate effectively as a 1/2 wave on 20m. Being able to operate 3 bands using the same physical element is efficient use of metal in my opinion.

60m, 80m and 160m:
The inverted L has as its vertical component a 9 metre 'roach pole' with the remainder of the antenna stretching towards the roof of the property. This antenna can be deployed fairly quickly and is therefore only erected when there is a need to operate on one of these bands. For 80m operation I use a remotely controlled matcher as described in my '80m Antenna' page, and a similar setup is used to enable operation on the 60m band, where this antenna then presents the high current region mainly in the horizontal element, ideal for NVIS experiments. For 160m I can fit a loading coil at the base of the inverted L to enable a mediocre signal to be radiated.

10m and CB:
The 10 metre antenna is actually a cheap CB antenna of the GP27 variety but is surprisingly effective and resistant to wind damage. I occasionally have a listen around the lower end of the 10m allocation, and now that cycle 25 is well underway, this can be interesting. The CB antenna is also used for its intended role of CB, So yes, I own and use a CB and refuse to apologise for it despite some odd attitudes towards CB generally from a few members of the radio amateur community. Whilst on my soap box, I think Citizen's Band Radio is an excellent way for younger people to be introduced to the radio hobby without the formality of exams and call signs, and I know many new radio amateurs are still entering the hobby after gaining their first experiences of two-way radio through CB.

  73 de M0WAN.

 Related And Possibly Interesting Links 

The Laughing Policeman Wireless Society
An amusing and slightly naughty site, poking (occasionally justified) fun at amateur radio stereotypes.
Unfortunately somewhat out-of date.

G4NSJ's Web Site
A personal site with a wealth of information and comments on amateur radio,
written in what I consider to be an amusing manner.

Torbay Amateur Radio Society
The web site of my 'local' amateur radio club.

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I can be contacted at this address: