Type “HAM Radio is” into Google and the first word that pops up to complete your search is “dead”. When many of us think of Amateur radio, we think of the crabby guy in his “radio shack” in the basement surrounded by glowing boxes calling out “CQ…CQ” trying to talk with other radio operators in far flung places like Russia or South America. Or, possibly the pickup parked next to the diner with a multitude of antennas, and stacks of mobile radios mounting on the cab and an ARES emergency radio operator sticker on the rear bumper along with those for he local Fire Department, possibly police and maybe a CERT emergency team sticker as well. HAM appears even in popular culture. Tim Allen, in Last Man Standing has a very typical HAM base station. Maybe you’d remember the character Jodie Foster played in Contact as a young girl trying to reach other operators “DXing’ as it’s called. Or, this gets rather obscure, Sandra Bullock in Gravity had a short conversation with a HAM operator in Iceland when she was in the International Space Station. Ironically, NASA has tried to make sure there is at least one HAM operator in the ISS for HAM operators to contact.
In this day of universal Cell Phone access, Skyping across the globe, and satellite communications, HAM seems rather…well..quaint and definitely out of place. It’s a plaything for older guys who don’t have anything better to do with their free time and like to tinker.
To a point, I pretty much agree with this view of it if you are talking of HAM base stations and trying to see how many long distance contacts you can make. But, there’s a new development, thanks to he Chinese, that shows real promise to re-energize this dying art. A company, Baofeng, currently sells a perfectly acceptable hand held radio which can be used for HAM communications for about $30 on Amazon. Though you can’t call long distance directly, which requires a full tilt base station radio which can runs thousands, along with a large antenna and a slew of other equipment, with the aid of repeaters, that are everywhere and take the low wattage signal from an HT radio, boast it, then retransmitt it, it’s easy to speak to other operators all over your region and even state. Some systems even use internet connections to send your connection to other repeaters all over the world. Plus, if you remember Gravity and the HAM operator there, HT radios, LIKE THE 30$ BAOFENG are the most popular to talking to the ISS or one of the hundred of amateur satellites in orbit. The result is, you can get into HAM for under $50.
Then, if you check for your local HAM club (the best place to start this is the National Association for Amateur Radio website (http://www.arrl.com) which as lists, you can drop by their meetings. Often they hold evens where you can get classroom lessons in the morning, then take the test in the afternoon and earn your Technician level license which gets you a callsign and allows you to do basically 90% of what you can do on HAM radio. In fact, many operators never go beyond the basic license.
Now, you may wonder, in al honest, WHY WOULD I EVERY HAVE ANY INTEREST IN THIS!! Well, you may have seen a previous posting of mine abut CERT emergency aid. One group that is absolutely indepsensable in dealing with Emergencies is Amateur Radio operators. Often times, the power is out, phones lines are down, cell towers are offline and the only way to communicate is through radio. The fact that HAM repeaters are pretty low tech and often have battery backups means that they usually survive disasters. Though the local fire and police have their own radios, HAMs are key to handling many of the communications they often don’t have time to handle. Yes, cell companies often truck in portable transmitters and get the set up, but this often takes a day or more. And, if you live on an island, like I do, which will probably lose all means of connecting with the mainland in the base of our most likely disaster, and earthquake, HAM will be key means of communications.
Plus, if you are a gadget nut like me, and you’re looking for a whole new world to explore, HAM may be the ticket. You might think that radios and computers could not be more different but several members of the original Home Brew Computer club, the birthplace of the PC, were HAM operators looking for something new.