What is Amateur Radio?

(Philippine context)



So much has been written about Amateur or Ham Radio and this article would be no different except perhaps that it attempts to explain and discuss Amateur Radio in the context of Philippine conditions. As in other countries, the general public’s perception comes from its exposure to Amateur Radio during disasters and calamities when regular commercial communication systems break down.

The emergence of Radio Civic Action Groups (RCAGs) in the Philippines who likewise use radio communications, to assist in vehicular traffic, operate radio communications during emergencies, and relay information to law enforcement or government agencies contributed to more confusion. The general public and perhaps to an extent some radio users themselves, need to differentiate Hams from RCAG members. By so doing we hope not only to clarify the confusion but likewise guide radio users. Civic action radio members with deep interests in communications and electronics might opt to become Hams while Hams whose interests and practice lie entirely in civic action might elect to join civic action groups.

In the foregoing discussion I am drawing from my experience not only as a Ham but also as a former member of a RCAG. The opinions expressed herein are entirely my own and does not reflect those of the organizations I belong or have belonged to.

Amateur or Ham Radio

Amateur Radio is an international hobby enjoyed by millions of private individuals and clubs for the purpose of communicating with each other worldwide. Ham radio’s more famous members include King Hussien of Jordan, JY1and his queen JY2, King Bhumiphol Adulayadej of Thailand HS1A, King Carlos of Spain, EA0JC, Senator Barry Goldwater K7UGA/K3UIG, the late Premier Rajiv Gandhi VU2RG and his wife Sonia VU2SON, actor Marlon Brando FO5GJ, Astronauts Yuri Gagarin UA1LO, Cliff Richard W2JOF, Cardinal Roger Mahoney W6QYI, among others.

The term amateur usually connotes a casual, unqualified, unofficial, if not illegal user of radio communications equipment. The truly advanced Radio Amateur or Ham is exactly the opposite of this perception. Some Hams know as much if not more than what commercial radio operators do or electronics engineers know even if they are not formally trained as such. The Ham may personally own and operates equipment that can communicate with satellites, transmit slow scan TV, and apply digital technology in communications.

We have to look beyond our usual paradigm of the word amateur. We are amateurs and not professionals because our use of the radio is for personal satisfaction and community service without any monetary compensation. Amateur here does not mean somebody who is not serious or dedicated with what he is doing. Amateur comes from the word Amatore, to love. Hams love their hobby so much that they go beyond knowing just how to use their radios. They learn the principles and theory, construct and experiment to improve its operations

The start of Amateur Radio is usually credited to Marconi who started his first experiments on wireless communications. Radio enthusiasts and experimenters were latter called Hams and organized themselves into the American Radio Relay League. The Philippine equivalent is the Philippine Amateur Radio Association that is more than fifty years old. During these early days all legal radio users were radio amateurs or Hams. I am seriously tempted to discuss the growth of Amateur Radio, the origin of the word Ham, and the PARA but is beyond the scope of this article.

Other Radio Groups

The popularity of CB radio in the early eighties gave rise to radio groups that were not Radio Amateur clubs. CB means Citizen's Band. In the 80s, several individuals and groups operated radios under a government provision that permitted this operation. With their base and mobile operations these groups have assisted the community and performed civic action work. Permits for CB have since been discontinued by the NTC.

CB is a different radio service from Amateur Radio service. They operate on different frequencies and different equipment. CB operators are not necessarily Hams. CB operates on 27 MHz range or the 11 meter band and power was legally limited to 5 watts basically on AM or SSB modes. Hams operate at different and more frequency bands.

While there may still be some CB practitioners, some users and groups migrated to the two-meter band using amateur equipment and continued their civic action work. New radio groups were also organized in the 2-meter or 144 MHz band. Both Hams and these radio groups use the normally same equipment and oftentimes the same 144-146 MHz segment. This contributed to the public perception that Hams and RCAG are one and the same. CB terminology migrated to the Ham bands as well as the 10-codes.

Key Differences

There are however differences in legal requirements between Hams and RCAGs. They should legally operate on different frequencies and use different equipment. Ham frequency bands are for the use of Hams hence other radio users should operate outside the band. For example, in the VHF band, Hams can operate legally from 144.00 to 146.00 MHz. RCAG users on this band should therefore operate outside these frequencies. Ham equipment have normally variable frequency coverage since they can operate at any frequency within the band, while RCAGs are supposed to operate on an NTC assigned frequency, hence their units are legally fixed in frequency.

In terms of fundamentals, Hams use the radio because of their love of the hobby. They may enjoy the thrill of talking with other Hams halfway around the globe, experimenting with newer technology like digital modes in Packet radio or AMTOR, or homebrewing their equipment and antenna. Of course, they are capable and do provide communications service during emergencies or community events like elections, etc.,

RCAGs exist for service to the community. The rationale of civic groups per definition is community service and "love of neighbor". Their use of the radio is secondary and only because they need radio communications in carrying out their activities. Civic action, however, do not per se require radio communications. There are civic groups that do not use the radio to meet its mission such as the Jaycees, Rotarians, Church, school and professional organizations undertaking medical missions, volunteer work, etc. Civic radio groups therefore tend to conduct civic action activities around the use of radios such as parades, crime watch, traffic, or those related to law enforcement agencies.

During one orientation seminar on Ham radio, I compared the Commercial Radio Operator, the Ham, and the RCAG member roughly to a professional driver, the automotive hobbyist, and a motorist respectively. The Commercial Radio Operator like the professional driver uses the radio for a living. He trains for it and knows basic operation and maintenance.

The automobile hobbyist enjoys driving his cars, participating in car rallies and improving and modifying his car to keep it in top conditions. The Ham like the car hobbyist enjoys operating his radio, joining contests, and improving and experimenting with his antenna and radios. Both are very technically conversant on their equipment and share company with other hobbyists. They are generally self-trained in their hobby.

The average motorist like the RCAG user is more interested in the functional aspects of the car or the radio. The motorist’s interests in his car or driving skills are to commute from one place to another at the safest and fastest way. The RCAG user communicates over radio to conduct his service to the community. There need not be any interest in the technical aspects. This does not preclude however motorists or RCAG users who are also genuinely interested and qualified in the technical aspects of their car or radio.

What then is your choice?

The above presentation gives the basic facts about the Amateur Radio Service and the RCAGs. I avoided discussing the benefits of each type of radio user because your choice should be dictated by the nature of your purpose rather than the benefits. If your purpose is basically limited to community service and proximity to law enforcement agencies then be a RCAG member. You should then enjoy the constant availability of a paid operator at your control frequency that can do phone calls for you or act as your message center. If your primary interests are long range (DX) communications, meeting people on the airwaves and the technical aspects of equipment then go to Amateur Radio.

The worst scenario is to become a Ham legally but not in spirit just to avail of its privileges like a wider frequency band, cheaper equipment, and ease of operation. Yes Virginia, we have unfortunately "Hams " of this type who obtained their license just to avail of its privileges but then use the radio for commercial and non-Amateur Radio purposes. One only needs to monitor the VHF and sometimes in the 40 meter bands and hear "licensed" Hams operate like CBers. Some of these "Hams" also operate their amateur equipment outside the Ham bands to talk to their "good buddies".

Another reason why radio users join non-Ham radio groups is to find security and the semblance of legitimacy in operating without a license and with an unregistered radio. Some of these RCAGs (and "Ham" clubs too) implicitly tolerate unlicensed operators and radios. This may also explain why some groups tend to be close with law enforcement agencies. The legal aspect of these groups range from a group affiliated with the Baranggay or local police unit using unregistered hand held radios, to groups using MRs (Memorandum Receipts) for their radios, to more formal organizations whose members have a Restricted Land Mobile (RLM) permit and an NTC licensed base station.

Sometimes the prospective radio user simply has no choice. He or she does not know any legitimate Ham who can lead him properly into the hobby and most of his contacts are with unlicensed stations and the RCAGs. This last area is the responsibility of every Ham, their clubs and the national organization.

What then does it take to be a Ham?

There should be the "heart" of the Ham or that spirit of curiosity and adventure that drives one to learn, experiment and experience radio communications without thinking about business returns and practical applications.

His Government must license him because he uses the national resource of radio spectrum and his activities extend beyond the boundaries of his country. In the Philippines, we have the National Telecommunications Commission or NTC, while in the United States they have the Federal Communications Commission or the FCC. He also becomes a member of an international community of Hams under the International Amateur Radio Union or IARU, an international group recognized by the International Telecommunication Union or ITU.

The specific licensing requirements and category of licenses are beyond the scope of this article.

Discussing the advantages and disadvantages of either user group is not relevant because of the divergence of its basic purposes and mission. The range of VHF & UHF frequencies including HF available for Hams is not an issue for the RCAG members whose interests are purely local. One advantage of the well organized RCAG is a manned base station operating 24 hours by a Commercial Radio operator who can relay messages by radio and telephone upon request. There are also members he can count on who would readily respond with adventure to his calls for distress.

Amateur Radio clubs are not prohibited from using their facilities for civic action activities. They are only constrained in using their facilities for commercial or business traffic. As a service, Amateur Radio can and does assist in emergencies especially when commercial communication systems cannot handle the needs of the community. The very nature of their expertise and equipment capability gives them an advantage over the usual RCAG in communications work.

As part of the international community and the nature of the hobby, Hams talk with other hams in the national and international level. They pass third party messages to countries like the US where we have agreements. During calamities, they can pass messages of victims to relatives and friends locally and in countries where we have a third party agreement like the US. In case they travel abroad, they may even operate as Hams in countries where we have reciprocal agreements.

Since RCAG are assigned a specific frequencies and should use commercial type radios that do not normally permit frequency changes, it is legally not possible and theoretically impossible for them to contact RCAG stations or Hams outside their operating frequency. I am not also aware of other countries with RCAG as practiced in the Philippines.


I trust that this article clarifies the confusion about Amateur Radio and RCAG in the Philippines. Hams are radio lovers while RCAG members are radio users. There are no conflicts or inconsistencies between the two groups as long as the distinction is known by both and the public including the government. The community needs both groups. The problem starts when RCAG members use Ham equipment and operate in the Amateur bands or when "licensed" Hams lose the Ham spirit and operate like RCAG members.

Government policy may have contributed to the situation when they decided to close the Citizen’s Band. The need for public service communications and semi-commercial or business communications did not go away and found itself in the RCAG at the VHF bands. Ordinary citizen’s who need to use the radio on a casual basis without the hassle of getting a commercial license, or without interest in Amateur Radio have to resort to joining RCAG. The government should consider opening again the Citizen's Band Service to accommodate these users.

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