Ham Radio for Beginners, part 1

occupations_ham_radioI’ve decided to write a series of posts that explains the basics of Amateur Radio; how to get started, the terms used, explanations of the hobby and why it is still so popular, etc. If you have any basic questions, feel free to comment on this post or any subsequent posts.

The main question I’m often asked is, “What is the difference between CB and Ham Radio? Why do you need a license for Ham Radio?”

The most basic answer to the question of why you need a license, in my opinion, is to keep out all the jokers and pranksters you hear on CB radio. Have you ever listened to channel 19? It isn’t used nearly as much as it used to be, but many truckers still use channel 19 on the CB for communications while driving. I myself have a CB that I will put in the truck for road trips so that I can also listen to this channel. It is good to have if you find yourself in a traffic jam due to an accident or construction. But have you ever noticed all the noise and people being rude and making noises on this channel? This is because they are all anonymous and no one is held accountable. In Ham Radio, we rarely have this problem. The general consensus is: If you are going to take the time to learn the material and pass the test, you probably aren’t going to get on the air and act like a jackass. If you do, there are other Hams who will report you and it could result in license revocation or being fined. But 99% of the time it is very civil and friendly over ham radio, without a hundred people all talking over each other at the same time.

The difference between CB and Ham Radio, other than what I listed above, is the versatility, options and permissions you have on Ham frequencies. There are serious companies like Kenwood and Icom who make Ham Radios, unlike many of the CB companies that make inferior radios for CB. CB radios transmit on 40 channels, between 26.965MHz for channel 1 and 27.405MHz for channel 40. They usually transmit on AM. Some CBs will also transmit on Upper or Lower Sideband, but if you are talking on channel 19 to truckers, you are on AM. There is no FM, CW (morse code) or data transmissions allowed on CB.

CBs are also limited to 4 watts of transmit power, while Ham radios can range up to 1500 watts, depending on which band you are on. Some yahoos will run amps or “linears” on CB, driving their output power up, but this isn’t legal. It is very hard to regulate, so people who do it will usually continue for years and years, but if they ever do get caught, they can be fined a fee. With Ham radio, you have legal limits, but most of them are much, much higher, allowing you to communicate over longer areas. But more important than raw power is the quality of radio and antenna you have. As stated already, the manufacturers of Ham equipment are more quality controlled than anything made for CB radio.

CB is limited to 1 band, sometimes referred to as “11 meters”. I’ll explain more about “meters” in a later post. Ham Radio has 15 bands, plus 4 more in the higher frequency region (2GHz and above) These higher ones do not get used much, but they are available to us as Hams. What this means, in a nutshell, is that we have more bands to transmit on, depending on where we want to communicate. The VHF and UHF bands are mainly used for local operations, so that you can talk to other operators in your city or metroplex area. The Lower HF (high frequency) bands are used to transmit across the state or country. I know many Hams who have made contact overseas on the HF bands while using only 100 watts of power.

Many times people will think that Ham Radio is to “communicate across the world” and this is true – but with VHF and UHF, we have the ability to transmit from mobile units or HTs (handie-talkies, or held-held units) via repeaters. Repeaters are setup around the city and retransmit your signal across a larger area, making it possible for you to reach out all over the metroplex on either 5 or 10 watts. And most repeaters transmit on FM, which is a much cleaner, clearer and easier type of transmision to hear and also to use. Think of the difference between AM and FM on your car stereo. Most new hams start out with a VHF radio, or a dual-band VHF/UHF radio for their first unit. This is helpful to meet other people in your area who are interested in the hobby, hookup with local groups and clubs, and expand your knowledge of radio or just electronics in general.

Please post any questions here on this post as a comment. I answer all comments. I’ll be continuing this post in part 2 soon.