For our lesson this week on ham radio, I asked my good friend John Stevens to help out. John has been a ham for many years and is very knowledgeable on the subject. I recently sat down with him and asked him a few questions about getting started with ham radio.
Ham radio operators are an important key components in survival communications. Quite often, they may be the only source of information during a disaster. Most ham operators are networked in with emergency responders and assist with communicating information between agencies and such.
Before we go into the interview, let’s talk briefly about licensing. It is required by law that you have a license before you are able to broadcast on ham frequencies. There is an argument out there that says that during and after a catastrophe, enforcement officers won’t be looking for unlicensed radio operators. While that may be true, proficiency with ham radio isn’t something you can really pick up quickly on the fly. You need practice to truly understand how it all works and how to get the best use of your equipment. That practice entails actually using your gear, which requires the license.
Further to that point, while most ham operators are exceedingly generous with their time and experience when it comes to helping someone new, they have very little regard for unlicensed operators. Ham operators may be your single best link to reliable information during a major event and you’ll not want to get on their bad side by broadcasting without having first obtained the proper license.
Getting your license costs very little and basically just requires you to pass a test. There are tons of books and websites to help you study for the test. It used to be that one of the requirements was to memorize Morse code but that is no longer necessary.
Ok, with that out of the way, let’s learn about ham radios.
What is the difference between a shortwave receiver and a ham radio set up?
Shortwave is generally considered to be frequencies between 1.8 and 30 Mhz. “Modes” (signal types) of operation are varied. They can be AM voice, FM voice, SSB voice, data, TV and many others. Radio broadcasts (propaganda, news, music, etc) from other countries are also in this range.
A shortwave receiver is just that..a receiver only. A ham set up can be a separate receiver and transmitter or an all in one transceiver. The shortwave receiver can (usually), be continuously tuned from 1.8 to 30 Mhz, while some older and dedicated ham set ups can only receive/transmit only the ham bands in this range of frequencies.
What are the absolute basics people should be looking for in equipment to get started?
I would look at getting a “mobile” radio. It operates off 12 volts DC, so it can be installed in a vehicle or, with a power supply or set up with a battery and solar, a home or retreat station. Output is normally around 100 watts and some units can have the power “turned down”. This radio should be capable of covering all the shortwave ham frequencies on transmit, plus 2 meters (144 to 148 Mhz, ham repeaters) and the 70cm band (420 to 450 Mhz). The receiver section, while covering all the above ham frequencies, should be “general coverage” type. Meaning it will also receive (but not transmit), on non ham frequencies between 1.0 and 30 Mhz. This radio covers shortwave and ham frequencies on receive.
A second alternative is the hand held unit. Almost always they are single or dual band (frequency) radios. Such as 2 meters (144 to 148 Mhz) and 70 cm (420 to 450 Mhz). Some even have general coverage receivers as standard.
Can you explain the difference between 2 meters (144 to 148 Mhz, ham repeaters) and the 70cm band (420 to 450 Mhz)? Is one better than the other for certain applications?
As you correctly stated, the 2 meter ham band is 144 to 148 Mhz. Notice the 2 meter band is only 4 Mhz wide. This means that there will only be x amount of available frequencies, depending on what “mode” (AM, FM, CW, SSB etc) that you are operating with. 2 meters is VHF (Very High Frequency)
As a simple example is the typical 2 meter repeater. Don’t worry about tone and other fancy stuff yet. If you want to talk to the wife thru a 2 meter repeater…The repeater has a fixed input frequency, we will use 144.000 Mhz for this.. Anything between 144 and 148 Mhz. is usually ok, but they have a coordination team in most areas to help with selecting the frequencies for the repeaters so they minimize effects on each other. A repeater has to be licensed same as getting a ham license. Except no test. Most repeaters are are owned and operated by ham clubs. Mainly to generate revenue to purchase equipment, upkeep etc.
You would set your transmitter to, say 144.000. Because a regular repeater will receive and transmit at the same time, the receive frequency is usually 600 Khz different than the transmit frequency. So its you transmit on 144.000 Mhz the wife receives on 144.600 Mhz. When she talks back to you, she transmits on 144.000 Mhz and you receive on 144.600 Mhz.
This “offset” is typical and most radio’s have the capability or either this offset being fixed and not changeable or the newer radios can be programmed with different “offsets”. Some repeaters require a sub-audible “tone” to activate them for use.
70cm (420 to 450 Mhz is considered UHF (Ultra High Frequency). As you can see, the 70cm band is 30 Mhz wide compared to the 4 Mhz for 2 meter. Because of this additional “band width”, operating modes are the same as 2 meters, but it also allows modes that require more bandwidth.
With this added bandwidth, data transmissions, TV and other wide bandwidth modes are used. This leads to more evolved emergency communications thru ham radio. 2 meters and 70 cm are common for satalite work, moon bounce etc.
Repeaters are set up the same as the 2 meter repeaters, just a higher frequency.
A lot of hand held radios (walki-talki’s) are on the market as dedicated single band 2m or 70cm, or have both band capabilities and even cross band use. Transmit on 2 Meters and receive on 70 cm.
One important note on the 70cm band. Parts of this band are “shared” with other countries and and other commercial users. This means the commercial users have priority of usage over ham radio, plus some countries don’t have the same frequencies as we do.
How much should one budget for a basic rig?
This question gets sticky. In reality, the sky is the limit. The radio as described above can usually be found used for around $400 to $600. This is not counting the antenna, coax etc. Total costs for the radio, antenna (both for base station and mobile, and coax will be about $1500.
The hand-held unit, dual frequency (band) and general coverage receiver can be as little as $50 to several hundred dollars.
Are there any common pitfalls one should watch for when buying used equipment?
Unless you are somewhat experienced in basic electronics and have the test equipment (or better yet, a ham friend), you have to check the operation of every aspect of the radio. Don’t take a person’s word that its “like new”, never had a problem, etc. Easy way to spend lots of money and have an expensive paper weight.
A lot of the newer radios can be programmed with a cable, computer and the software. Check if this comes with the radio, or if not, is it still available?
Make sure it has the power cord and microphone. Be surprised how many don’t have power cords. See if it has the manual.
I prefer a non-smoker seller. A radio that has been around a smoker for a long time will attract the smoke and it leaves a deposit on all exposed parts of the radio. Plus it just plain smells bad.
When it comes to ham radio transmitters, let’s say the user wants to be able to talk to someone in the next town as well as across the globe. Would one transmitter do the job or should the user have different ones for each use? Would a typical handheld unit work for this or would a base unit be ideal?
This is a tough one. Lots of possible variables to it. Lets pick 2 typical “what-if” variables.
1) Normal day to day living, no emergencies etc. A small 2 meter hand held, working thru a single repeater or linked repeaters can be used across town or around the world. I have worked Australia with a 5 watt 2 meter handheld. Course it was tied to repeaters, Internet to get the job done. 70cm has the same benefits this way.
2) The end of normal times, no grid power, no phones of any type, no Internet. A typical 2 meter handheld, on a good day and optimum conditions, you can get several miles, possible 10 or more and have reliable communications. This can change so plan for shorter distances.
70cm is a different story. Slightly lower in frequency than FRS or GMRS (420 to 450 Mhz compared to 460 Mhz). This means maybe 2 to 3 miles max on a good day.
**Note** Most handheld are FM only for both 2 meters and 70 cm.
Set-up is the same for both situations 1 and 2.
For me and the family, I would have a dual band hand-held for each, plus a mobile unit being used as a base station.
The base station set up (simple) is the mobile radio, 12VDC power supply, with battery back up, and stealth dual band antenna.
I have an older mobile I use. Yaesu FT-100D. Reason? covers all HF amateur bands plus 2 Meters, 6 meters and 70cm. Big plus is that it also has a general coverage receiver (100 Khz to 970 Mhz. CW, AM, LSB/USB, FM, 1200 and 9600 baud packet (data mode). USA version is cell phone blocked (mods available) Of course you can only transmit on ham bands (wink).
Just unplug power and antenna and you can install it as a back pack or vehicle radio.
Are there any particular sources you would recommend for purchasing inexpensive equipment?
Some good deals can be had on ebay, but watch out. No way to check the radio out and descriptions are not what they should be. Plus you have the shipping charges.
www.eham.com usually has for sale items. It is also a great place to check for reviews on gear.
http://www.craigslist.com Depending on size of town or city, listings vary in size.
Local ham club. Do a google search for local clubs
One nice site is http://www.rigpix.com/ Doesn’t offer items for sale, but has listings for most older radios by brand. You can see a picture of the radio and get the description also.
Back to the license requirements, are there portions of the test that you’ve found many people struggle with?
There are currently 3 license classes for Amateur Radio (ham). Technician, General and Extra. All require no code test, are good for 10 years and renewable. Multiple choice type exams of 35 to 50 questions.
There is some memory required, such as frequencies for the bands for each class, some basic math for antenna lengths etc. Plus there is the terminology. Its like any occupation, sport etc. it has its own “buzz” words that at times, be a bit confusing. Think of the exam like a drivers license exam. Some memory, such as stopping distances, speed limits etc. These are the areas that most people have trouble in.
In general, what are some of the common mistakes people make when they’re starting out with ham radio?
Planning. Getting the license is easy. Lots of new hams just jump right into the hobby with both feet. Get bad advice, spend lots of money and all of a sudden its a burden and they drop out and sell everything. I’ve seen it happen numerous times over the years.
Can’t say enough about the planning. Set realistic goals for your communications needs. Do LOTS of research on equipment available, does it fit the immediate needs? What about future needs? Radio is changing all the time and you might need to change with it.
What specific brands would you recommend?
Yaesu, icom, Kenwood, Alinco are all still being made today — base stations to mobiles and hand helds. Great radios, but not in current production are Drake, Collins.
Some of the China hand helds are inexpensive and have good reviews. BaoFeng, Wouxon (spelling) are just two that are nice and if they fail, they are inexpensive enough that just throw them away.
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