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Ham Radio For Dummies®

To view this book's Cheat Sheet, simply go to www.dummies.com and search for “Ham Radio For Dummies Cheat Sheet” in the Search box.

Introduction

You may have come across ham radio in any number of ways. Did you browse a ham radio website, see a Facebook page about ham radio, or watch a YouTube video? Maybe you have a teacher or professor, or a friend or relative who enjoys ham radio. You could have seen hams on the news providing communication after natural disasters like hurricanes or during wildfires. Maybe you saw them helping out with a parade or race or visited their Field Day setup, ham radio’s nation-wide “open house.” Ham radio has room for an amazing number of activities, including a mad scientist or two, and lots of hams just like you!

The traditional image of ham radio is of a room full of vacuum tubes, flicking needles, and Morse code keys, but today’s hams have many more options to try. Although the traditional shortwave bands are certainly crowded with ham signals hopping around the planet, hams use the Internet, lasers, and microwave transmitters; and travel to unusual places high and low to make contact, even to and from the International Space Station.

Simply stated, ham radio provides the broadest and most powerful wireless communications capability available to any private citizen anywhere in the world. Because the world’s citizens are craving ever-closer contact and hands-on experiences with technology of all sorts, ham radio is attracting attention from people like you. The hobby has never had more to offer and shows no sign of slowing its expansion into new wireless technologies. (Did I say wireless? Think extreme wireless!)

About This Book

Ham Radio For Dummies, 3rd Edition, is meant to get you started in ham radio and answer some of your many questions. If you’ve just become interested in ham radio, you’ll find plenty of information here on what the hobby is all about and how to go about joining the fun by discovering the basics and getting a license. Many resources on ham radio’s technical and operating specialties are available, but this book introduces them briefly so you can get up to speed as quickly as possible. It is true that a ham radio license is really a license to learn!

If you’ve already received your license, congratulations! This book helps you change from a listener to a doer. Any new hobby, particularly a technical one, can be intimidating to newcomers. By keeping Ham Radio For Dummies handy in your station, you’ll be able to quickly understand what you hear on the airwaves. I cover the basics of getting a station put together properly and the fundamentals of on-the-air behavior. Use this book as your bookshelf ham radio mentor, and soon, you’ll be making contacts with confidence.

You can read this book in any order. Feel free to browse and flip through the pages to any section that catches your interest. The sidebars and icons are there to support the main story of each chapter, but you can skip them and come back to them later.

The book has six parts. Parts 1 and 2 are for readers who are getting interested in ham radio and preparing to get a license. Parts 3 and 4 explain how to set up a station, get on the air, and make contact with other hams. Part 5 is the Part of Tens (familiar to all For Dummies readers), which presents some tips and suggestions for you to get the most out of ham radio. The appendixes consist of an extensive glossary and a handy supplement to help you with some of the basic math ham radio relies on.

Within this book, you may note that some web addresses break across two lines of text. If you’re reading this book in print and want to visit one of these web pages, simply enter the address exactly as it’s noted in the text, pretending that the line break doesn’t exist. If you’re reading this book as an e-book, you’ve got it easy; just click the web address to be taken directly to the web page.

My Assumptions about You

In writing this book, I made some assumptions about you. You don’t have to know a single thing about ham radio or its technology to enjoy Ham Radio For Dummies, 3rd Edition, and you definitely don’t need to be an electrical engineer to enjoy this book.

But I ask two things of you:

Due to the broad nature of ham radio, I couldn’t include everything in this book. (Also, if I’d done that, you wouldn’t be able to lift it.) But I steer you in the direction of additional resources, including websites, that will help you follow this book with current information and explanations.

Icons Used in This Book

While you’re reading, you’ll notice icons that point out special information. Here are the icons I use and what they mean.

tip This icon points out easier, shorter, or more direct ways of doing something.

remember This icon goes with information that helps you operate effectively and avoid technical bumps in the road.

technicalstuff This icon signals when I show my techie side. If you don’t want to know the technical details, skip paragraphs marked with this icon.

troubleshooting Whenever I could think of a common problem or “oops,” you see this icon. Before you become experienced, it’s easy to get hung up on little things.

warning This icon lets you know that some regulatory, safety, or performance issues are associated with the topic of discussion. Watch for this icon to avoid common gotchas.

Beyond the Book

In addition to what you’re reading right now, this product also comes with a free access-anywhere Cheat Sheet that discusses a summary of your Technician (and soon-to-be General) class license privileges and other stuff you’ll want in your shack or at your fingertips. To get this Cheat Sheet, simply go to www.dummies.com and search for “Ham Radio For Dummies Cheat Sheet” in the Search box.

Where to Go from Here

If you’re not yet a ham, I highly recommend that you find your most comfortable chair and read Parts 1 and 2, where you can discover the basics about ham radio and solidify your interest. If you’re a licensed ham, browse through Parts 3 and 4 to find the topics that interest you most. Take a look at the appendixes to find out what information is secreted away back there for when you need it in a hurry.

For all my readers, welcome to Ham Radio For Dummies, 3rd Edition. I hope to meet you on the air someday!

Part 1

Getting Started with Ham Radio

IN THIS PART …

Get acquainted with ham radio — what it is and how hams contact one another.

Find out about the basic technologies that form the foundation of ham radio.

Discover how hams interact with the natural world to communicate across town and around the world.

Get acquainted with the various types of ham communities: on the air, online, and in person.

Chapter 1

Getting Acquainted with Ham Radio

IN THIS CHAPTER

check Becoming part of ham radio

check Exploring ham radio

check Making contact via ham radio

check Constructing your own radio shack

Ham radio invokes a wide range of visions. Maybe you have a mental image of a ham radio operator (or ham) from a movie or website. But hams are a varied lot — from go-getter emergency communicators to casual chatters to workshop tinkerers. Everyone has a place, and you do too.

Hams employ all sorts of radios and antennas using a wide variety of signals to communicate with other hams across town and around the world. They use ham radio for personal enjoyment, for keeping in touch with friends and family, for emergency communications and public service, and for experimenting with radios and radio equipment. They communicate by using microphones, computers, cameras, lasers, Morse keys, and even their own satellites.

Hams meet on the air, online, and in person, in clubs and organizations devoted to every conceivable purpose. Hams run special flea markets and host conventions large and small. Some hams are as young as 6 years old; others are centenarians. Some have a technical background; most do not. One thing that all these diverse people share, however, is an interest in radio that can express itself in many ways.

This chapter gives you an overview of the world of ham radio and shows you how to become part of it.

Tuning into Ham Radio Today

Hams engage in three aspects of amateur radio: technology, operations, and social. Your interest in the hobby may be technical, you may want to use ham radio for public service or personal communications, or you may just want to join the fun. All are perfectly valid reasons for getting a ham radio license.

Using electronics and technology

Ham radio lets you work closely with electronics and technology (see Chapter 2). Transmitting and receiving radio signals can be as much of an electronics-intensive endeavor as you like. By opening the hood on the ham radio hobby, you’re gaining experience with everything from basic electronics to cutting-edge wireless techniques. Everything from analog electronics to the latest in digital signal processing and computing technology is available in ham radio. Whatever part of electronic and computing technology you enjoy most, it’s all used in ham radio somewhere … and sometimes, all at the same time!

In this section, I give you a quick look at what you can do with technology.

remember You don’t have to know everything that there is to know. I’ve been in the hobby for more than 40 years, and I’ve never met anyone who’s an expert on everything. A ham radio license is a license to learn!

Design and build

Just as an audiophile might, you can design and build your own equipment or assemble a station from factory-built components. All the components you need to take either path are widely available in stores and on the web. The original do-it-yourself (DIY) makers, hams delight in homebrewing, helping one another build and maintain stations. In software-defined radio (SDR) equipment, computer code is the new component, and I encourage you to experiment as much as you wish.

Create hybrid software and systems

You can write software to create brand-new types of signals. Hams also develop systems that are novel hybrids of radio and the Internet. Hams developed packet radio, for example, by adapting data communication protocols used in computer networks to operate over amateur radio links. Packet radio is now part of many commercial applications.

The combination of GPS technology with the web and amateur mobile radios resulted in the Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS), which is now widely used. For more information about these neat systems, see Parts 3 and 4 of this book.

Code yourself a radio

The newest radios are based on software-defined radio (SDR) technology, which allows the radio to adapt to new conditions or perform new functions, as I discuss in Part 4. Hams using design tools like GNU Radio (www.gnuradio.org) can experiment with all sorts of techniques to improve and customize their equipment.

Digitize your radio

Voice communication is still the most popular technology that hams use to talk to one another, but computer-based digital operation is gaining fast. The most common home station today is a combination of computer and radio. You can operate a remote-controlled station via a tablet or phone from anywhere in the world, too. All it takes is access to the Internet and some hosting software at the station.

Experiment with antennas and radio waves

Besides being students of equipment and computers, hams are students of antennas and propagation, which is the means by which radio signals bounce around from place to place. Hams take an interest in solar cycles and sunspots and in how they affect the Earth’s ionosphere. For hams, weather takes on new importance — radio signals can travel long distances along storm fronts or reflect from rain or snow. Antennas launch signals to take advantage of all this propagation, so they provide a fertile universe for station builders and experimenters.

Antenna experimentation and computer modeling is a hotbed of activity in ham radio. New designs are created every day, and hams have contributed many advances and refinements to the antenna designer’s art. Antenna systems range from small patches of printed circuit-board material to multiple towers festooned with large rotating arrays. All you need to start growing your own antenna farm are some wire or tubing, a feed line, and some basic tools. I give you the full picture in Chapter 12.

Enhance other hobbies

Hams use radio technology in support of hobbies such as radio controlled (R/C) drones, model rocketry, and ballooning. Hams have special frequencies for R/C model operation in their “6 meter” band, away from the crowded unlicensed R/C frequencies. Miniature ham radio video transmitters (described in Chapter 11) frequently fly in drones, rockets, and balloons, beaming back pictures and location information from altitudes of hundreds or thousands of feet. Ham radio data links are also used in support of astronomy, aviation, auto racing and rallies, and many other pastimes.

Joining the ham radio community

Hams like to meet in person as well as on the radio. This section discusses a few ways to get involved.

Clubs and online groups

Membership in at least one radio club or group is part of nearly every ham’s life. In fact, in some countries, you’re required to be a member of a club before you can even get a license. And there are hundreds of online groups with a variety of interests in ham radio, ranging from hiking to public service to technical specialties.

tip Chapter 3 shows you how to find and join clubs, which are great sources of information and assistance for new hams.

technicalstuff A ham radio tradition is to exchange postcards called QSLs (ham shorthand for received and understood) with their call signs, information about their stations, and (often) colorful graphics or photos. If you are a stamp collector, you can exchange QSLs directly with the other station. There are online electronic equivalents, too. Either way, your QSL is your “ham radio business card.” You can find more information about the practice of QSLing in Chapter 13.

Hamfests and conventions

Two other popular types of gatherings are hamfests and conventions. A hamfest is a ham radio flea market where hams bring their electronic treasures for sale or trade. Some hamfests are small get-togethers held in parking lots on Saturday mornings; others attract thousands of hams from all over the world and last for days, an in-person complement to eBay and Amazon.

Hams also hold conventions with a variety of themes, ranging from public service to DX (see “DXing, contests, and awards,” later in this chapter) to technical interests. Hams travel all over the world to attend conventions where they might meet friends formerly known only as voices and call signs over the crackling radio waves.

Emergency teams

Hams don’t rely on a lot of infrastructure to communicate. As a result, they bounce back quickly when a natural disaster or other emergency makes communications over normal channels impossible. Hams organize as local and regional teams that practice responding to a variety of emergency needs. They support relief organizations such as the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army, as well as police and fire departments.

tip Fall is hurricane season in North America and ham emergency teams gear up for these potentially devastating storms. These teams staff an amateur station at the National Hurricane Center in Florida (w4ehw.fiu.edu) and keep The Hurricane Watch Net busy on 14.325 MHz (www.hwn.org) when storms are active. Many hams also act as NOAA SKYWARN (www.weather.gov/skywarn) severe weather spotters in their local communities, assisting the National Weather Service.

After big storms of all types, hams are some of the first volunteers to help out. Many more operators around the country get ready to relay their messages and information. During and after hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017, for example, hams were on the job providing communications at emergency operations centers and in the field. Hams trained as emergency response teams helped government agencies by handling health-and-welfare messages, performing damage assessments, and providing point-to-point communications until normal systems came back to life. Ham radio also provided the hams themselves with personal communications in and out of the affected area. To find out more about providing emergency communications and public service, see Chapter 10.

tip On the last full weekend of June, hams across the United States engage in an annual emergency-operations exercise called Field Day, which allows hams to practice operating under emergency conditions. An amateur emergency team or station probably operates in your town or county; go visit! The American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the national association for amateur radio, provides a Field Day Station Locator web page (www.arrl.org/field-day-locator) that shows you how to find the team or station nearest you.

Community events

Hams provide assistance for more than just emergencies. Wherever you find a parade, festival, marathon, or other opportunity to provide communications services, you may find ham radio operators helping out. In fact, volunteering for community events is great training for emergencies!

Making contacts

If you were to tune a radio across the ham bands, what would you hear hams doing? They’re talking to other hams, of course. These chats, called contacts, consist of everything from simple conversations to on-the-air meetings to contesting (discussed later in this chapter). This section gives you a broad overview of contacts; for more info, see “Communicating with Ham Radio,” later in this chapter. I discuss contacts in depth in Chapter 8.

Ragchews

By far the most common type of activity for hams is casual conversation, called chewing the rag. Such contacts are ragchews. Ragchews take place via voice or keyboards or Morse code across continents or across town. You don’t have to know another ham to have a great ragchew; ham radio is a friendly hobby with little class snobbery or distinctions. Just make contact, and start talking! Find out more about ragchews in Chapter 8 and 9.

technicalstuff The origins of the word ragchew are fairly clear. The phrase chewing the rag was well known even in the late Middle Ages. Chew was slang for talk, and rag, derived from fat, was a reference to the tongue. Thus, people began to use chewing the rag to describe conversations, frequently those that took place during meals. Later, telegraph operators picked up that use, and hams picked it up from telegraphers. Because most of ham radio is in fact conversation, ragchewing has been part of radio since its earliest days.

Nets

Nets (an abbreviation for networks) are organized on-the-air meetings scheduled for hams who have a shared interest or purpose. Your club or public service team probably has a regular net on a weekly basis. These are great practice for new hams! Here are some of the types of nets you can find:

  • Public service: Under normal circumstances, these nets meet for training and practice. When disasters or other emergencies strike, hams organize using these nets to provide crucial communications into and around the stricken areas until normal services are restored. The nets are also used to provide non-emergency assistance to public events, like parades.
  • Technical assistance: These nets are like radio call-in programs; stations call in with specific questions or problems. The net control station may help, but more frequently, one of the listening stations contributes the answer. Many technical-assistance nets are designed specifically to assist new hams.
  • Swap-n-shop: Between the in-person hamfests and flea markets, in many areas a weekly local swap net allows hams to list equipment for sale or things they need. A net control station moderates the process, putting interested parties in contact with each other; the parties then complete the exchange over the phone or by email.

Digital Networks

  • Email: If you could listen to Internet systems make contact and exchange data, a “mailbox” station is what they’d sound like. Instead of transmitting ones and zeroes as voltages on wires, hams use tones. Mailbox stations monitor a single frequency all the time so that others can connect to it and send or retrieve messages via the ham radio Winlink system (www.winlink.org).
  • High-speed data: Hams share access to frequencies used by WiFi and similar services. By reprogramming common routers and other network equipment, hams have created their own high-speed networks, called Broadband-Hamnet or HSMM-MESH. The repurposed routers listen for other routers nearby and connect to them, forming an “ad hoc” network. These flexible network can also connect to the Internet and are a valuable public service tool, especially in remote areas without reliable mobile phone service.

DXing, contests, and awards

Hams like engaging in challenging activities to build their skills and station capabilities. Following are a few of the most popular activities:

  • DX: In the world of ham radio, DX stands for distance, and the allure of making contacts ever more distant from one’s home station has always been part of ham radio. Hams compete to contact faraway stations and to log contacts with every country. They especially enjoy the thrill of contacting exotic locations, such as “DXpeditions” to uninhabited islands and remote territories. Making friends in foreign countries is a longstanding ham radio tradition, too. When conditions are right and the band is full of faraway stations, succumbing to the lure of DX is easy.
  • Contests: Contests are ham radio’s version of a contact sport. The point is to make as many contacts as possible during the contest period by sending and receiving as many short contacts as possible — sometimes thousands — by sending and receiving short messages. These exchanges are related to the purpose of the contest: to contact a specific area, use a certain band, find a special station, or just contact the most people.
  • Awards: Thousands of awards are available for various operating accomplishments, such as contacting different countries or states. Awards are great incentives for improving your station and your operating skills.
  • Special-event stations: These temporary stations are on the air for a short time to commemorate or celebrate an event or location, often with a special or collectible call sign. Each December, for example, the Marconi Cape Cod Radio Club sets up a special temporary station at the location of Marconi’s Wellfleet transatlantic operations. Find out more by searching for the club’s Facebook page, KM1CC - Marconi Cape Cod Radio Club.

If you enjoy the thrill of the chase, go to Chapter 11 to find out more about all these activities.

Roaming the World of Ham Radio

Although the United States has a large population of hams, the amateur population in Europe is growing by leaps and bounds, and Japan has an even larger amateur population. With about 4 million hams worldwide, very few countries are without an amateur (see the nearby sidebar “Hams around the world”). Ham radio is alive and well around the world. Tune the bands on a busy weekend, and you’ll see what I mean!

Hams are required to have licenses, no matter where they operate. (I cover all things licensing in Part 2 of this book.) The international agency that manages radio activity is the International Telecommunication Union (ITU; www.itu.int/home). Each member country is required to have its own government agency that controls licensing inside its borders. In the United States, hams are part of the Amateur Radio Service (www.fcc.gov/wireless/bureau-divisions/mobility-division/amateur-radio-service), which is regulated and licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Outside the United States, amateur radio is governed by similar rules and regulations.

Amateur radio licenses in America are granted by the FCC, but the tests are administered by other hams acting as volunteer examiners (VEs). I discuss VEs in detail in Chapter 4. Classes and testing programs are often available through local clubs (refer to “Clubs and online groups,” earlier in this chapter).

Because radio signals know no boundaries, hams have always been in touch across political borders. Even during the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet hams made regular contact, fostering long personal friendships and international goodwill. Although the Internet makes global communications easy, chatting over the airwaves with someone in another country or participating in a planet-wide competition is exciting and creates a unique personal connection.

technicalstuff Since the adoption of international licensing regulations, hams have operated in many countries with minimal paperwork. A ham from a country that’s a party to the international license recognition agreement known as CEPT (an international treaty that enables countries to recognize one another’s amateur licenses) can use his or her home license to operate within any other CEPT country. The ARRL provides a lot of useful material about international operating at www.arrl.org/international-regulatory.

Communicating with Ham Radio

Though you make contacts for different purposes (such as a chat, an emergency, a net, or a contest), most contacts follow the same structure:

  1. You make a call to someone or respond to someone else’s call.
  2. You and the other operator exchange names, information about where you’re located, and the quality of your signal to assess conditions between your stations.
  3. If the purpose of the contact is to chat, proceed to chat.

    You might talk about how you constructed your station, what you do for a living, your family, and your job, for example.

Except for the fact that you and the other ham take turns transmitting, and except that this information is converted to radio waves that bounce off the upper atmosphere, making a contact is just like talking to someone you meet at a party or convention. You can hold the conversation by voice, by keyboard (using a computer connected to the radios), or by Morse code. The average contact satisfies a desire to meet another ham and see where your radio signal can be heard.

remember A question that I’m frequently asked about ham radio is “How do you know where to tune for a certain station?” Usually, my answer is “You don’t!” Ham radio operators don’t have specific frequency assignments or channel numbers. This situation is a good news/bad news situation. The good news is that ham radio gives you unparalleled flexibility to make and maintain communications under continually changing circumstances. The bad news is that making contact with one specific station is hard because you may not know when or on what frequency to call. As you see in Chapter 11, hams have found many work-arounds for the latter problem, however; the result is an extraordinarily powerful and adaptive communications service.

Participating in Citizen Science

Hams have supported “real science” since the earliest days of wireless when everyone was an experimenter. One of the best examples is the series of “Listening Tests” conducted in 1922–1923, in which hams supplied many of the observations that helped establish the existence of the ionosphere. Amateur radio and science have gone hand-in-hand ever since. The ARRL publication A History of QST, Volume 1: Amateur Radio Technology describes the 100-year story of collaboration between hams and scientists, discovering and inventing technologies at the foundation of our present-day wireless world. (See Figure 1-1.)

image

FIGURE 1-1: The ARRL publication A History of QST, Volume 1: Amateur Radio Technology.

Today, there are several opportunities for hams to participate in scientific research. These are just a few of the opportunities hams have to make real contributions:

Building a Ham Radio Station

Often referred to as a radio shack, the phrase conjures visions more worthy of a mad scientist’s lab than of a modern ham station. Your radio shack, however, is simply the place you keep your radio and ham equipment. The days of bulbous vacuum tubes, jumping meters, and two-handed control knobs are largely in the past.

For some hams, their entire station consists of a handheld radio or two. Other hams operate on the go in a vehicle. Cars make perfectly good places for stations, but most hams have a spot somewhere at home that they claim for a ham radio.

I discuss building and operating your own station in Part 4 of this book. For now, though, here’s what you can find in a typical ham’s “shack”:

The modern ham station is as far removed from the homebrewed lashups in a backyard shed as a late-model Tesla roadster is from a Model T. You can see examples of several stations, including mine, in Chapter 13.

technicalstuff Where did the phrase radio shack come from? Back in the early days of radio, the equipment was highly experimental and all home-built, requiring a nearby workshop. In addition, the first transmitters used a noisy spark to generate radio waves. The voltages were high, and the equipment was often a work in progress, so the radio hobbyists often found themselves banished from the house proper. For these reasons, many early stations were built in a garage or tool shed.

Chapter 2

Getting a Handle on Ham Radio Technology

IN THIS CHAPTER

check Getting familiar with ham radio gear

check Discovering radio waves

check Understanding the effects of nature on ham radio

Ham radio covers a lot of technological territory — one of its most attractive features. To get the most out of ham radio, you need to have a general understanding of the technology that makes ham radio work.

In this chapter, I cover the most common terms and ideas that form the foundation of ham radio. If you want, skip ahead to read about what hams do and how we operate our radios; then come back to this chapter when you need to explore a technical idea.