Wednesday, March 14, 2012

If I can become a Ham, so can YOU!

Over on our APN Facebook Group page, a good question came up..."We are looking into getting a couple of HAM radios. One for my parents and one for us. Which one is a decent one that can reach over 200 miles, but not something that costs an arm and a leg to get?" Of which I posted an answer which, while totally long winded, may be handy to post here...

It's the conditions and circumstances that determine how far a radio can communicate. For instance, using a 2 meter handheld radio with 5 watts of power, I've talked from my back yard in South Carolina, to a Ham in Great Falls Montana. Quite a feat since 2 meter UHF range is usually line of sight, (meaning, on average 30 miles at sea level).
In this case, I made my contact using the International Space Station's Ham radio acting as a repeater, it relayed my signal from Montana & back. Since the ISS is 250 miles up in orbit, it's location allowed "line of sight" communication much further than here on the ground. BTW, I've talked often with the astronauts up there too.



When not in use, your hamshack makes a wonderful end table.

For reliable long range communications, you have several options with Ham Radios, but we'll focus mostly on radios that operate in the HF (High Frequency) bands...from 160 meters to 6 meters. It's this range of frequencies that radio signals are commonly reflected by ionized layers of the upper atmosphere and reflect back to earth, or "skip" around the globe. Depending on conditions & the time of day, world wide communications is possible at power levels as low as 3 watts to as high as 1.5 kilowatts... the legal operating limit in Ham Radio. The make & models of these types of radios run the gamut of functionality as well as run the gamut in price, from hundreds, to thousands of dollars.

I'm a "rule of thumb" kinda guy...I tend to advise in general rule of thumb guidelines. In this case, given that you would need not only a radio, but a decent antenna, a antenna tuner, and perhaps a power supply, you should expect anywhere from $200-$500 would get you set up nicely with a older used HF radio, a antenna tuner and a good wire antenna that can be tuned for the bands your radio can operate. This is a investment on equipment that would greatly fit your needs.

First things first... get your "ticket"

Lizzie L. shows off her new Tech License
But first, before all that, you will need to get licensed. And it's so simple now thanks to the internet. Without the need to know Morse code, anyone can get a Ham Radio License today that allows them access to the majority of the HF Ham Bands.

A General Class License opens up most of the privileges into HF and is the most common license class. What makes it so simple to get that license is that with a few websites on the internet, you can take free practice tests using the same questions from the question pool used for the real test.  My favorite is QRZ.com. They have a great practice test matrix that offers instant feedback to your answers.  Make a game of taking the 35 question multiple-choice test, and you will be getting passing scores within a week. First, take the Technician tests, start scoring consistently 80% or better, then start on the General Class test. Once you can ace both, find a local Ham Club that administers the real tests, pay the $14 processing fee, and take the Tech test first. Pass that, and you can immediately take the General Class test. If you feel really bold, you can even study for the more technical Extra Class License, I often seen folk walk in to a test session and pass all three tests in one sitting, attaining the highest class radio operator license, giving them full privileges on all the Ham Bands. So what are you waiting for? Check out QRZ's practice tests... and I'll be seeing you on the air!   -'73 from KI4HEE

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