in Call Signs, Exam, Uncategorized

Ham Radio – Beginners Guide For & By A Beginner

I recently attended a tech conference in Phoenix, Arizona and as is my usual modus operandi I took every freaking opportunity to show off my radio gear, strutting around the conference grounds with my Baofeng F8HP on full display. This is not out of the ordinary for me. Pretty much any time you see me in public – on a bus, in a coffee shop, in a park – I’ll be openly carrying.

Rocking the Anthuor horns next to my Baofeng HT radio.

Only in those moments where I require two hands do I resign myself to clipping the thing to my back pocket, letting the obnoxious Nagoya antenna flap around like Morrissey with a bouquet of flowers dangling from his jeans.

Bigmouth Strikes Again. Can’t stop, won’t stop talking about my radio….

I want people to ask me what the hell I’ve got there! I’m not afraid to admit I want to evangelize for the hobby. Just the other day some teenagers on the street asked me point blank what  I was doing with a device that looked like “something those guys used in Jurassic Park“. I couldn’t convince these youngsters that they should ditch their smartphones (and their $80/month data plans) for a Amateur Radio License, but you better believe I’ll be back to fight the good fight another day.

Though I’m having less than stellar success rates, I still believe that this approach at ham proselytization is worth the effort. And not like it’s all been for nothing – I have had several strangers reach out to me to get more information/indoctrination. For instance, after #RailsConf I had someone reach out on twitter:

Finally! Oh, how long my heart has yearned for this day….

So, in furtherance of our goal of helping to inspire #1000newhams, we here at SCAN THE PLANET  are going to offer some tips for how one can go about getting a license and start transmitting on the air.

Basic steps for getting your Amateur Radio license

1) There is no getting around this: If you want to be legal, you need a license. Being licensed will give you the authority to broadcast on the amateur radio bands. Also, it’s just cool to be able to have our own call letters for a station unto yourself. For instance: I am WI5HER. I get to fully embody that call sign and I can feel it beginning to merge with my identity…

With websites like you can even research to apply for a ‘vanity’ call sign (that’s what I did with WI5HER, and hint hint, as of this writing WO4HHH and WO0WOO are both totally still available!)

2) What does a license give you? Well, just like your favorite FM radio station has been granted authority via the FCC to broadcast on a frequency somewhere between 87.5 to 108.0 MHz, ham radio operators have been entrusted with a whole chunk of spectrum in which they can experiment with their communications. Within that allocated spectrum, there are conventions on the type of communications allowed (like these frequencies are for voice communication, these are CW / Morse code, those are for digital modes, etc). The key is that you need a license so that you hop on one of those allocated frequencies, identify yourself, and make contacts! There are also some rules that you need to know around what your transmissions should look like (no music, no ‘broadcasting’ like a shock jock to the public, regular identification every 10 minutes, etc).

3) Lucky for you, it’s remarkably easy to acquire a license! If you’re in the United States, you can use the ARRL website to look up where you can take an exam. If the thought of an exam gives you the cold sweats, you should relax knowing that there will only be 35 questions on the test and you can miss up to 9 of them and still qualify for a Technician class license. Though it’s a ‘closed book’ test,  every possible question and answer is available to you before taking the test so you have every opportunity to become familiar with the material.

4) The ARRL also has a book that is a good study guide with all the questions and answers and introductory explanations behind the answers. If you want to actually “know” what’s going on and not just pass the test with your incredibly sharp memory, this is a great resource. I also found the flash cards on to be invaluable and my preferred way for learning the material.

That’s it.

Contrary to prior versions of the test, you no longer need to demonstrate even a small amount of proficiency in Morse Code (CW). I can’t imagine having to do that – it seems like a huge barrier to entry and I’m glad they got rid of that part of the test.

Photography of an old version of the test being administered …. probably

I personally think the examination should be made even more concise (a test focusing on the legal and basic technical aspects only). Wouldn’t it be great if more people could have a fast track to get licensed – something that would allow more people to transmit on the local “repeaters” in their region with an out-of-the-box solution like a $30 HT (handie-talkie). Something that would require no knowledge of antenna design, no futzing with knowing the details of the internal parts of a radio. Just getting on the air and feeling the magic of talking with strangers. If later someone wants to to learn about slightly more technical things, there could be a way to level up from there. But I digress…

Bottom line – if you are wondering if you should do this the answer IS YES RIGHT NOW DO IT PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE. That’s my pitch more or less.

Because really, I’ll think you’ll find it’s a lot easier than you expect. I know for me, it has opened up a whole world of fun and accessible technology and also some engagement with people, spectrum, and worlds that were always there swirling around me, but hitherto invisible.

And if you’re already involved in ham radio, what path did you take?                
Do you have any resources that might help someone who is just beginning?         
Let us know in the comments!

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    • @VA2SFX

      I got rid of my cellphone and do not have a phone number where people can reliably reach me. I did this for a couple of reasons (smartphone addiction, annoyed with phone carriers for charging me ridiculous prices, annoyed with same carriers also willy nilly spying on their customers). I was done with it.

      At the same time, I learned about how by passing a licensing exam one could have the ability to contact people all over the world FOR FREE. I don’t have a particular need for privacy (you’re not even really getting it with the telecoms anyway), so why not just convert everyone over to this technology and we can “ragchew” out in the open.

      Not only that: This spectrum belongs to us. We should utilize it. I scan around with my Baofeng and I notice that there are ton of repeaters that just sit empty and unused for a significant part of the day. We could be ditching Facebook and Twitter and our cellphones and chatting it up on local repeaters and having a grand old time.

      Not to mention: I think there is something cool and magic about the technology, how I have to sometimes go outside and get in the perfect position so that I am in direct line of sight of the repeater to get a clear signal. The hobby has drawn me outside to witness the International Space Station going by… and introduced me to a bunch of interesting technologies / sounds / signals that had previously been invisible to me. I think there’s a lot there to investigate and seek out and interact with…

      Plus, who doesn’t love the opportunity to talk to aliens?
      Those are the main reasons, I guess?