...Why Would I Be Interested?
The Amateur Radio Service, also known as "Ham" radio, is composed of individuals interested in radio communication who posses an Amateur Radio Operator license, issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The license is earned by passing a "knowledge test", considered necessary because of the broad privileges conferred to the Licensee. The license is required to operate any radio transmitter on Amateur frequencies. More on the license requirements later...
There is no longer any Morse Code requirement for any class of Amateur Radio license.
Most radio services are quite narrowly restricted as to what a user may do on the air. For example, in the Fire Radio Service, the radio channel(s) may be used only to conduct Fire Department business. The Fire Radio may be used for dispatch, coordination or fire-ground communications directly related to fire prevention and suppression activities. The FCC grants the Fire Department a license to operate their radios with a very short list of allowable uses. Any other use, is not permitted.
Another familiar example is the Marine VHF radio, which may only be used to talk from one vessel to another, or between a vessel and a shore station. Idle chit-chat is discouraged. Marine VHF may not be used in a vehicle at all, and its use from a fixed shore station is regulated as well. Again, the FCC has a very short list of acceptable uses, and anything not on that list is prohibited.
Similar restrictions apply to the un-licensed services as well. A Citizen Band (CB) radio or Family Radio Service (FRS) walkie-talkie may only be used for short-range voice communications. There are limitations on output power that tend to restrict range, and a limited number of channels. There are restrictions on the content of communications, and no modifications may be made to the equipment. These services are intended for casual, short range use.
The Amateur Radio Service is unique in that the FCC gives us a short list of things we may not do. Anything not on the list is fair game. If the FCC decides they don't want Hams to do something, they will add it to the list. The Amateur Radio Service has power limitations, as do all radio activities, but they are much less restrictive than other services, allowing better range. Importantly, Amateurs are allowed to operate repeaters, sophisticated equipment that extends the range of hand-held and mobile stations. Hams are also allowed to interconnect their radios with the telephone and Internet, creating new possibilities for interesting contacts. Just about anything that is done using radio can be done by an Amateur Operator.
In addition, the frequency access is quite generous, with "Ham Bands" in several segments of the MF, HF, VHF, and UHF parts of the radio spectrum. Amateurs use these slices of the radio spectrum to communicate with each other. Some portions are set aside for the exclusive use by Hams, while other bands are shared with other radio services. Each "band" has different characteristics, and may be more or less suitable for particular uses. The VHF and UHF bands are popular for local contacts within a hundred miles or so, while the MF and HF bands are more long range with distances of hundreds or thousands of miles. With access to a variety of spectrum segments, all sorts of on-the-air activities are possible.
Voice communication is usually the first thing a person thinks about when hearing the word "Radio." Amateur Operators do use voice in a lot of forms. Perhaps the most popular activity is FM Voice. This includes using repeaters to extend the range of otherwise line-of-sight VHF and UHF signals. Many Hams have walkie-talkies, mobile vehicular radios or base stations that can operate within various networks to provide reliable personal communications over distances of 100-miles or more. Here in Pacific County, that means a rough rectangle bounded by Seaside, OR on the southwest, to Kalaloch, WA (north boundary of Grays Harbor County) on the northwest, to Tacoma, WA on the northeast and Longview, WA on the southeast. Certainly these are not hard boundaries, but they represent the normal "solidly covered" area. This area could be accessed using a modest base or mobile station, or from favorable locations, a hand-held radio. The entry-level Technician Class license is all that is required to operate this equipment.
Another popular Voice communication method is Single-Sideband Voice on the HF (Shortwave) bands. This allows long range contacts over hundreds or thousands of miles without the use of intervening infrastructure. Only the radios at the two ends of the contact are required. This is very popular with cruising sailors and RV enthusiasts, as their travels can take them far from civilization. Operation on the HF bands requires at least a General Class Amateur license.
Hams don't just use voice, however. Many still enjoy using Morse Code, which although not required, is alive and well on Amateur frequencies. When asked why someone would use Morse, the usual answers are, "It gets through when nothing else will," or "It's fun!"
In addition there are a host of "Digital Modes" that can be used to send text over the radio, connecting two computers together. On VHF, "Packet Radio" is popular, while on HF, "Pactor" or "PSK31" are quite common. In addition to letting Hams chat keyboard-to-keyboard, these methods allow store-and-forward messaging. In fact, one popular network activity, Winlink2000, enables sending and receiving messages over Ham radio, that are automatically delivered as regular Internet email.
Other on-the-air activities include Television, both the full-color, fast-scan, full-motion studio quality TV we are all used to watching, and Slow-Scan TV that is more like a "slide show". There is a well-developed Automatic Position Reporting System (APRS) that allows a Ham to combine a GPS receiver with a radio transceiver to allow others to track their location on a publicly-accessible website. Hams use satellites to communicate with other Hams hundreds of miles away. The satellites are built by Hams for Hams to use.
Amateur operators may build, or modify their own equipment, a privilege unique to the Amateur Service. Sure, there is a lot of nifty gear available ready to go, off the shelf from the manufacturers, but what if you want to experiment with something "different"? As long as it isn't on the "FCC's short list", it's fair game. In fact many major developments in the radio art have been made by Hams. The equipment still needs to meet technical standards, but there is nothing keeping a Ham from "homebrewing" equipment, or modifying commercial equipment to operate on the Ham Bands.
It is for these reasons that the Amateur Service has always maintained a close relationship with their communities. Many Counties and States actively engage Amateurs as part of the official Emergency Plan to provide "last ditch" communications. Here in Pacific County, the Amateurs have provided back-up communications between the various communities within the County and the Emergency Operating Center in South Bend. Information flows in from the outlying areas as to conditions, and information flows out again as to the situation in the County and what is being done. In addition, Hams provide a vital link between the County and the Washington State Emergency Command Center, when all other forms of communication fail.
Personal Communications within a family are certainly possible with Amateur radio. Many husbands and wives use Ham radio to stay in touch while on the go. Interestingly, because it is a licensed service, most states include exceptions in their laws restricting cell phone use, making it perfectly legal to operate an Amateur radio set while driving. When telephones become inoperative in a disaster, the individual Ham has the option to use his or her equipment to contact their friends and family outside the affected area to assure them things are alright and not to worry. They can also use their equipment to stay in touch within an affected area, if all such participants are licensed. This can, in itself, be a reason to enter the hobby, although most Hams are always willing to pass such "Welfare" messages on behalf of others when they can.
There is no longer any Morse Code requirement for any class of Amateur Radio license.
The Technician is the entry-level license, and allows "full Amateur privileges above 30 Megahertz". This translates to the VHF and UHF (and Microwave) Amateur frequency allocations, and includes some of the most popular bands. For communications out to 100-miles or more, including emergency communications, this is all that is necessary. The only requirement to earn a Technician Class license, receive an official FCC-issued unique callsign, and get on the air is to answer at least 26 questions correctly out of 35, on a multiple-choice exam. The 35 questions on your test will be selected randomly, by computer, from a master "Question Pool" which contains approximately 10 alternates for each question on your exam. The entire Question Pool (350+ questions, with the answers) is available in the form of study guides or on-line. By law, all questions on your exam must be exactly as they appear in the Pool, however the order of the answers may change. Pacific County Amateur Radio Club teaches classes to help smooth the way to successfully earning a Technician Class license. For more information, please click on the "Training/Classes" button in the left column on this page.
The General Class license adds the magic of long range Medium Frequency (MF) and High Frequency (HF) communications. With ten different bands, the General confers privileges on every Amateur allocation, with only a few slivers of spectrum excluded. There is almost always someone to talk with, somewhere in the USA or elsewhere in the world. The General exam is similar to the Technician, although somewhat more difficult, being both "wider" and "deeper". The exam is also 35 questions, the Question Pool, although different from the Technician Pool, is also available in the form of study guides and on-line. Pacific County Amateur Radio Club conducts a General Upgrade Class at least once a year for those who would like this study format.
The Amateur Extra license exam is 50 questions long, and quite a bit more difficult than either of the other Classes. It has been called the "Engineering Exam", and not all Hams feel the need to obtain this license. The additional privileges are fairly slim (although "prime") segments of four HF bands. As with the other steps on the exam ladder, the entire Question Pool is available, as are study materials.
To put this in perspective, modern radio gear will last for decades, and a serious Ham operator assembles a station carefully and thoughtfully over many years of happy operating. It is no more expensive than classic car restoration, serious photography or astronomy, to name a few.
Called "Amateur" radio operators because they are prohibited from accepting money or other gain for their on-the-air activities, most are very skilled and many have professional knowledge. In fact, many radio professionals are also Amateurs, and a number of them acquired their skill by "playing with radios" on the Ham bands. If you have any interest in Amateur radio, please contact one of the officers or members of the Pacific County Amateur Radio Club. We would be happy to help you enter, advance within or simply enjoy the hobby. If you want to "eavesdrop" on your Ham neighbors, all that is necessary is a "police scanner" receiver. All the regularly used local frequencies are elsewhere on this website, but to start off, try 147.340 in North Pacific County, 147.180 in South Pacific County, or 147.020 in the Naselle area.