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Amateur Radio - Frequently Asked Questions

by Don, G3XTT and Ed, GU3SQX

What is Amateur Radio?
Amateur Radio is a combination of technical expertise, operating skill, practical electronics and international camaraderie, which has fascinated and interested people for a hundred years. It’s one of the few hobbies that is regulated internationally -- necessary because radio signals do not stop at national boundaries, and many services share the radio waves.

Governments worldwide place a high value on Amateur Radio, encouraging enthusiasts to learn about electronics and to use radio allocations at low cost. This is despite the fact that they could sell the airwaves to companies who are prepared to pay substantial sums for access. They are aware that Radio Amateurs have always been a valuable source of operating skill and technical expertise in times of crisis.

From an individual point of view, Amateur Radio is a stepping stone to a successful career in radio or electronics. And radio amateurs have pioneered technical advances in the use of communications radio which are in day-to-day use. Naturally, we claim Guglielmo Marconi himself as the very first radio amateur!

Why Amateur Radio?
You learn as you go along, and have a lot of fun! Amateur radio is an international hobby, which allows enthusiasts to speak with each other across boundaries of nationality, race, colour or religion. In a significant and personal way, Radio Amateurs are helping to break down barriers between nations.

The hobby is officially recognised as offering “self training in the art of radio communication”, and is a valuable complement to science courses in schools and colleges. These often leave little time for practical work among all the coursework that needs to be prepared and submitted. Amateur radio can also lead to career opportunities, which is one of the reasons the UK’s Radiocommunications Agency is so keen to support youth entry into the hobby.

How can I get started?
Amateur Radio has a structured series of qualifications which allow progressive access to the various facilities. The more you learn, the more you can do. The Foundation Licence is the first step, needing just a weekend’s study. This lets you talk to the world with a carefully controlled approach. You won’t know enough to design your own equipment, but you can use commercial gear or pre-designed kits as you begin to learn about radio and electronics.

The Intermediate Licence builds on what you have learnt, allowing you to use higher power with more options. Finally, the Full licence gives all the privileges available to Radio Amateurs: high power, and the knowledge and experience to build all your own equipment if you want to.

Why do I need a licence?
A system of licensing is necessary because Radio Amateurs are allowed (actually encouraged) to experiment. But experimentation without knowledge can lead to problems for other services -- interference to aircraft radio, for example, would obviously be very hazardous. But apart from that, there is a great deal of satisfaction in accomplishing the various steps towards the highest level of amateur radio licence.

To give some idea of the standard involved, the examination for a Full Licence is somewhere between GCSE and A level. But the course of study is progressive and practical, and is often gained by people who left school without any qualifications, and who haven’t been in a classroom for several decades! Many local radio clubs run classes and offer the necessary testing facilities for the various grades of Amateur Radio licence.

Is Amateur Radio the same as CB?
No. Citizen’s Band radio is a short-range service using approved low-power equipment. No qualifications are necessary to operate CB radios, because their usage is tightly controlled. CB operators often become interested in Amateur Radio when they realise that they want to learn more and communicate over longer distances.

What equipment do Radio Amateurs use?
Many radio amateurs enjoy the technical challenge of building their own equipment. Indeed, this  is one of the most interesting aspects of Amateur Radio. Other radio services may only use approved commercially-manufactured equipment.

The ready availability of suitable components and ready-to-build kits means that building your own equipment is well within the means and ability of newcomers to the hobby. There is huge excitement in making your first two-way contact with equipment you have constructed yourself. For the less adventurous there is a large range of excellent commercial equipment available. To set up a station, you can spend anything from a few pounds for second-hand gear, to thousands of pounds if you go for the top of the range.

What about aerials?
All radio equipment needs an aerial -- think of your mobile phone or TV set. The height and size will vary depending on the sort of contacts you want to make. Short-wave aerials, of the sort used for long-distance work, can be quite large, though many amateurs are able to make them very discreet. More ambitious installations may require planning permission, but remarkable results can be obtained with quite modest aerials. But as Marconi discovered, the higher the better!

What do Radio Amateurs do?
The simple answer is that they design and build equipment, and communicate by means of radio waves. This covers a very wide variety of activities. Some of them extend the range of their signals by using hilltop repeater stations, orbiting satellites or even by bouncing signals off the moon! Amateurs communicate with astronauts, and several of the books about the MIR space station, for example, praise the way in which amateur radio has supplemented the official communication channels.

Other specialisations include amateur television and data communication (similar to the Internet, but using a radio link instead of a telephone line). On the short-wave bands, where great distances can be achieved by bouncing signals off the ionised layers in the upper atmosphere, the main interest is in real-time conversations with other radio amateurs throughout the world.

Many amateurs like to maintain the tradition of communicating in Morse code, even though this is no longer in widespread commercial use. For amateurs in different countries, it provides a way of communicating ideas across language boundaries. Morse proficiency is a skill that is widely admired, and is still very popular.

What do Radio Amateurs talk about?
Amateurs are often asked what their conversations involve. They’re not too different from those you might hear in the pub or at a party. Radio amateurs also use their communications capability for specific purposes. For example, they supply communications in support of major events such as a marathon run or charity event and, in extreme cases, to support the emergency services. US Radio Amateurs provided significant back-up to official communications after the tragic events of September 11th 2001.

Like other hobbyists such as yachting enthusiasts and chess players, Radio Amateurs can be quite competitive. Amateurs may pit their skills against one another in organised competitions. For example, they will see who can use their radio stations to make contact with the maximum number of different countries in a defined time, or who can show the greatest level of accomplishment with the Morse code or data communication. As you become more involved in Amateur Radio, you will find areas that you want to specialise in.