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Accountability time. One of my goals at the start of the year was to earn my amateur radio license before the end of March 2019. As we approach the end of January, it’s time to get moving. As I do that, I wanted to take a minute and talk about why I think a ham radio license is a worthy pursuit and my plan for getting there.

Communications is yet another skill that I think people should add to their toolbox. It’s just such a fundamental part of modern society, that I don’t think most people could even begin to imagine what it would look like without it. For most people, secure and reliable communications during an emergency aren’t something they think about.

But it goes beyond that.

Have you ever gone camping in the middle of nowhere and realized you needed to get a hold of someone? How did that work out? Phones just aren’t always going to cut it all the time. And that’s why I want to branch out into ham radio.

The History of HAM

James Clerk Maxwell, a Scottish scientist in the field of mathematical physics, presented his theory of the electromagnetic field in 1873. Like Newton before him, Maxwell’s work unified a lot of different theories, and ultimately resulted in what we know today as the electromagnetic spectrum.

the electromagnetic spectrum, vital to understand for ham radio usage

It wasn’t until Guglielmo Marconi communicated via radio waves across the Atlantic ocean in 1901 that things began to take shape. The airways began filling up in disarray by 1911, prompting Congress passed the Radio Act of 1912. This defined amateur users as a class and restricted them to certain wavelengths with an appropriate license.

In 1914, Hiram Percy Maxim founded the American Radio Relay League (ARRL). You might have seen that name before in a different context, though. Percy was the son of Hiram Stevens Maxim, the inventor of the Maxim Machine Gun.

As a side note, Percy also invented sound suppressors for both small arms and internal combustion engines. The former, of course, is now tightly controlled by the NFA of 1934 and the other is a requirement for modern vehicles. Both devices rely on the same engineering.

The impetus for the ARRL was the discover that radio messages traveled more reliably over long distances if the stations and frequencies were organized.

The Name “Ham”

Not a lot of people are familiar with the origin of the “ham” in ham radio. That includes me, honestly, up until researching this post.

In the early days of wireless communications, the professional telegraph operators who filled the ranks used the phrase “ham” as an insult to amateurs. Everyone shared the same bandwidth and had to work around each other. The morse code skills of amateurs were noticeably “ham-fisted” and poor. Amateur radio operators were a nuisance, often blocking the transmissions of large commercial stations. So the name stuck.

It didn’t last long, though. Enthusiastic amateur radio operators reclaimed the term as a nickname and the insulting origin was forgotten.

Interestingly, morse is still something that separates the true ham radio enthusiasts from the newbies. It has its benefits. Transmitting in morse, referred to as “CW,” means messages travel longer distances for the same amount of power.

So Why Get a HAM Radio License?

ham radio operator

When I was running around the ICBM fields early in my military career, VHF communications over the radio was the standard. I never really considered it, but the value of communicating over long distances without relying on cellular service is huge.

Getting on the radio was something I just took for granted if we found ourselves in trouble. Thankfully, I never had to use it beyond scheduled check-ins and weather updates.

For many years after that time in my life, I was always interested in keeping up that ability. I casually read about different techniques, such as NVIS, homemade antennas, and other ham radio nerdery. Part of me always figured that if I really needed it, then I would just jump on the air using a found radio.

When it comes down to it, all of our “normal” communications methods aren’t very reliable in an emergency. Natural disasters might take down cellular towers, knocking out whole areas. During most major emergencies I’ve seen in the last couple of decades, the towers that remained were quickly overwhelmed by the volume of people trying to connect.

Most people I know don’t have landlines anymore, either. And even if they did, they are subject to the same system limitations as cell networks.

Radio communications are your only real remaining option for communicating over distance.

But here’s the thing I’ve learned with my reading and experience: radio operations, like marksmanship, is a skill that you must learn and practice to be any good at it. If it was as easy as “pick it up and talk,” then the military wouldn’t have produced volumes of radio communications manuals for its radiotelephone operators (RTO).

Keep in mind that I’m not talking about relatively short distance comms you get from a bubble-pack at Cabela’s. I’m talking about communicating anywhere from a few miles to states or countries away.

The key is to practice and learn how to do this stuff before you actually need it. To get that practice, you need a license.

Short-Term Alternatives to Ham Radio

I’ll throw out a quick alternative that I find interesting, the GoTenna Mesh system. In a network-down scenario, these little devices communicate with one another using 1.5 watts over MURS radio frequencies. While 1.5 watts is pretty small, maybe about a mile or so of range, each GoTenna works like a node that accepts and repeats transmissions. So if I want to get a message to my wife 20 miles away, that’s not going to work by itself. But if there are enough GoTenna nodes between us, then the message relays from node to node until received.

You can actually check the density of the devices in your area on GoTenna’s website. The Northern Virginia region looks pretty good to me, so this might be a viable alternative in an emergency.

GoTenna only works via text message, but can also include GPS coordinates in those messages. You use the antenna by pairing it with your cell phone over Bluetooth. To transmit, you type the message out on your phone, hit send, and the mesh network of GoTennas in the area carries it away to a destination.

Long-term, learning to actually use radio comms is still your best bet.

Aside from that, you always have the option of radios available at your local sporting goods store. These usually fall into the FRS, GMRS, MURS, and CB categories. All of those options are limited to a small subset of frequencies and power, so you aren’t likely to get the kind of range you would with an actual ham system. But they’ll work in a pinch.

The License Plan

All of the questions from the exam are freely available to the public, so there are a lot of study resources out there.

I signed up for a free two-day training course in March, which includes the Technician exam at the end of it. They provided a free PDF document to study ahead of time. To supplement that, I’m using an app from HamStudy.org that has every question from each exam and continuously quizzes you through them.

The Technician license is the lowest level to get your foot in the door. General is the next level up, and the one most people seem to settle at. If I’m confident in my test taking, I might try and do both at the same time.

As a side note, knowing morse code is not a requirement to pass the exam. A lot of people think it is because it used to be a requirement, but the FCC removed in 2006. A lot of people saw it as a significant barrier to entry and didn’t get into the hobby because of it.

From here out, I’ll be spending at least an hour per day studying the questions via the HamStudy app and also reading the PDF packet.

Ham Radio Equipment

I don’t actually have a radio, yet. I don’t feel pressure to get one before I actually have the license for it. But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

For planning purposes, I’m looking at a CommRadio CTX-10, which should serve me for a long time in lots of circumstances. Beyond that, I’ll consider a radio for a vehicle and perhaps a more traditional handheld that works with the rest of my gear, like a PRC-148 clone.

Privacy

Something to be aware of in this process is privacy. The FCC, who governs the radio waves, makes the callsign, name, and address of all license holders public information.  If you plan on joining me in the pursuit of a radio license, I highly suggest you get a PO Box for your registration.

Over to You

That about sums it up for this one. I’l keep you apprised of progress in the newsletter as I go. But that brings up another question.

How many of you out there are already licensed? Post your callsign in the comments if you want, perhaps we can put together an Everyday Marksman group for keeping in contact.

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Brad
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Brad

Matt, great article. Definitely something to be aware of since we forget how dependent we are on cell networks now. I wasn’t aware of the goTenna and sounds like a great idea to always have on a hike for emergency communications. As for Ham radio, I wanted to get into it a long time ago when my grandfather did it as his main hobby but I remember being discouraged by the morse code requirement. So it was interesting to learn they have removed that barrier.

Really good stuff. I find your blog always interesting. Thanks for this.

Tony
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Tony

Excellent reminder of the vulnerabilities of modern telecommunications systems.

Not living in the US, my perspective might be a tad different. For example, I was actually quite surprised at the popularity of the GoTenna system, as I had never heard of it before. Still though, I would have hoped other license-free communication systems, ones that do not require a smart phone to operate them, had been included in the section about alternatives to ham radios. Perhaps I am being old-fashioned. 🙂

Personally, I find license-free CB radio to give me plenty of communications ability. Of course we don’t have quite the same legal limitations on CB radios and their use as in the U.S. (AM, FM and SSB are all allowed, and there is no rule about how far away you are allowed to communicate.) And of course it is not a technology well suited for hand held units (although they do exist) due to the size of the antennas, so it’s more likely to be used vehicle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-home base. And of course the fact it does not require a permit enables all sorts of village idiots to have and use them. This last negative can be a positive in an emergency situation though, and is one reason why I have not pursued more restricted radios – in a situation where standard telecomms are down, the commonness of CB radios makes them the most likely communication device to work outside a tiny circle of family and friends who I might be able to persuade to pick up a license and obtain a more restricted radio device.

Of course, there is no rule that says you can’t have both…

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