Ham Radio Explained, Sort Of
applications for Amateur Radio (HAM) Licenses have skyrocketed in
recent years (I wonder why!) and theres been a lot of talk
of using it for communications in a post Fan Event.
a Ham operator, off and on, for the past fifty years and a NAVY
Radioman for twenty of em. There are so many different areas
of interest within the hobby that it would take many books to cover
them. There are nets where HAMs gather on the same frequency
to talk about their favorite subjects or just B.S. late into the
night. Some HAMs like to do nothing but make phone patches (*1)
for ships at sea; others like to experiment with different antenna
configurations or just like to see how much distance (DX) they can
achieve. Then, O.M.G., the contests! I know thereve been divorces
(or at least, fights) over the old man (OM) spending whole weekends
on the air trying to make the most contest contacts with other stations/countries
in a specified time. (Make me a sandwich, Im busy here!) (*2)
I can talk
to anywhere in the world IF I have a transmitter of sufficient output
power and a good receiver, IF Ive chosen the correct frequency
range for the distance, time of day, year, sunspot cycle, IF my
antenna is designed for that frequency range and oriented in the
right direction, IF propagation is good, IF natural (static) and
man-made interference isnt too bad, IF someone happens to
be listening on the same frequency, and IF the guy on the other
end speaks English (*3). I want to try to illustrate that there
is a little more to it than the YouTube videos imply. What the video
usually doesnt show is that big honkin antenna on a
tower out in the back yard (Not exactly low-profile for your BOI.).
We can make stealth (*4) antennas or vertical antennas
of various configuration but they all sacrifice efficiency for size.
(And bigger really is better.)
go out and pay over a Kilobuck for that Sooper-Dooper Freq-Scooper
there are a few things you need to know.
1. Some knowledge
of radio wave propagation (*4) at different frequencies (Whats
a frequency?) would be helpful. Some newbies seem to get hung up
on this frequency thing but its really pretty
simple. Frequency is the number of times something happens
in a given period of time; She goes to church at a frequency of
once per week. A frequency is a specific point in the
Electromagnetic Frequency Spectrum (*4); Tune to such-and-such
frequency and listen for me there. (*5)
Let me bloviate
(*4). If we take a length of insulated wire, coil it around an iron
rod and attach each end of the wire to a battery, well have
made an electromagnet. The battery current through the wire creates
a magnetic field that the coils and rod tend to concentrate. If
we reverse the wires on the battery terminals, the field collapses
and then builds up again when current flows in the opposite direction.
Well call this one cycle of reversals. If we reverse
the wires at a speed of, say, 60 times per second, we will have
reached a frequency of 60 reversals, or cycles, per second, or,
60Hz (Hertz) (sound familiar?)
lay that wire out straight, attach one end to one battery terminal
and connect the other battery terminal to an earth ground (*4).
The instant the battery is connected the magnetic field around the
wire builds and then collapses because the other end of the wire
is not connected. When we reverse the battery terminals, the same
thing happens. As we increase the frequency of reversals, reversing
them faster and faster, we reach a point where there isnt
enough time for the magnetic field to fully collapse before the
next cycle begins. This is the beginning, or lower end, of the Radio
Frequency (RF) portion of the EM Spectrum(*6); the point at which
the expanding and collapsing magnetic field around the wire, acting
against the earth ground sends electromagnetic waves radiating away
from the wire in all directions, like a stone dropped in a still
pool of water. (Voila!) On the receiving end, the electromagnetic
waves crossing the wire of a similar antenna cause a small voltage
to be generated and sensed by the receiver.
hummin along, reversing these wires at, oh, one million times,
or cycles, per second; we are radiating a continuous wave (CW) at
a frequency of one Mega-Hertz (1MHz) that can be detected by a receiver
tuned to the same frequency. Only, theres no information,
no intelligence on this signal; its just a steady tone in
the receiver. There are many ways to place information on it; the
simplest being to interrupt it using some sort of coding the guy
on the other end understands (Morse Code). We can modulate (*4)
the signal by varying the transmitter output strength, (amplitude
modulation or AM); we can vary the base frequency up or down a few
KHz (frequency modulation or FM) and in many more ways that go beyond
the scope of this article. (In other words, I know what they are
but cant explain em easily.)
2. Some knowledge
of matching your antenna to the transmitter at the frequency youre
operating on would also be nice. (Transmitters can be destroyed
by a mismatch.). Antennas come in all shapes and sizes and almost
NONE of them are the correct length for the frequency youre
trying to use. Basically, an antenna coupler electrically fools
the transmitter into thinking the antenna length is correct; they
are simple and generally inexpensive.
3. A lightning
arrestor between your antenna and coupler helps you sleep better
4. The license
classes are in ascending order of the amount of technical knowledge
you need to pass the exam and speeds at which you used to have to
be able to send and receive Morse code (no longer required but impresses
the heck out of visitors to your shack (*7)).
Class License replaced the discontinued Novice Class as the entry-level
class of license. It pretty much allows someone to get their feet
wet in the hobby without spending a ton of money to get on the air
and see if they want to go further. Theyre somewhat limited
in operating frequencies and transmitter output power. Equipment
that operates in the Very High Frequency and Ultra High Frequency
(VHF/UHF) sections of the RF portion of the EM Spectrum (*4) are
pretty much plug-and-play and only line-of-sight. Sometimes theyll
reach over the horizon, but not reliably. Many ham clubs sponsor
a repeater (*8) located on a tall building or mountain top for wider
coverage that may provide local telephone access, be networked with
other repeaters across several States or even provide internet access
by interfacing your computer to your radio. Usually the club requires
you to become a member to help defray maintenance costs through
dues. If this is all you might be interested in, then the Technician
License is all you need.
If you really
want to reach out and touch someone or listen to someone on
the other side
of the globe, youre going to have to use the Ham Bands (*9)
in the High Frequency (HF, A.K.A. Shortwave) section of the RF portion
of the EM Spectrum (Ya keepin up with this?). The General,
and Extra classes have the most frequencies and the highest output
power allocated here. (The Extra class is generally the over-achievers
who really get in to this electronic stuff.)
So, what is
it Im trying to say here? If you think youre going to
use a HAM radio to replace your cell-phone, youre going to
be Way disappointed. Its really not a viable solution for
the average Prepper starting from zero. If you just want to find
out whats going on around the country all you need is a length
of wire dropped out a window or tossed over a tree, (*10) AWAY FROM
POWER LINES, a grounded general coverage or all
band receiver and a little of the above-mentioned knowledge.
Using just a seven foot steel rod out in the yard and knowing what
frequencies to listen on, I routinely hear stations all over the
world and in the U.S.; HAMs talking about the heat in the East,
gas prices in the Pacific Northwest, drought and crop problems in
the Midwest and any number of other things you wont hear on
the News. That, by itself, would alleviate the sense of isolation
you would have in a SHTF situation. AND
you dont need
If you feel
you must be able to transmit, then, as much as I hate to say it,
a Citizens Band (CB) radio with a good antenna would be a
better alternative in the short term. Theyre inexpensive and
simple to hook up and operate (A.K.A. Sailor-proof) and if enough
people had them and used a little operator courtesy, theyd
create a network covering an enormous area.
HAM Radio is
a great hobby but it takes time to learn and gain the on-air experience
you need to communicate the way you want (and some would tell us
time is at a premium). As far as what to get, I highly recommend
you contact a HAM or HAM club in your area (phone book). Theyll
be more than happy to talk your ear off with recommendations (see:
patch: communicate over a long distance with an operator who then
connects you to his phone line to make a local call. It allowed
me to talk with my family from overseas when a parent died and it
allowed me to let them know I was OK after a major accident on my
ship in the Western Pacific. The best phone patch I ever ran was
at sea off the East Coast. A young crewmembers wife was overdue
with their first child and he was going nuts. I found a station
in the Midwest to run the patch and the first thing we heard was
his wife asking Are you glad its a girl? The poor
kid was speechless; I had to chit-chat with his wife until he got
it under control.
(*2) My personal
interest is low-power CW (a dying art) to see how far I can get
with the least amount of transmitter power.
(*3) Not so
much on that last one; HAMs use generic Q-signals (*4)
to exchange basic information, but you get the idea.
it, Bing it; whatever search engine you use.
(*5) HAMs never,
ever use the term channel, unless they want to sound
like a CBer (a lower life-form).
(*6) you really
should have Googled this by now.
(*7) As in
radio shack: 1) literally a structure added to early merchant ships
as an afterthought to house that new-fangled wireless thing, usually
placed somewhere high on the superstructure to facilitate access
to the wire antennas strung between masts or 2) a shed or addition
to the garage out in the back yard because the wife (XYL) wasnt
going to have all that junk in her living room, an early form of
man-cave that also facilitates access to antennas.
Unit that receives your transmission on one frequency and re-transmits
it on another frequency at the same time.
portion of the EM Spectrum is divided, by International Agreement,
into various bands of frequencies allocated for specific
purposes; the HAM bands, Commercial Broadcast bands, military, aircraft,
had excellent results from a long length of wire and a box kite
trailed behind a ship in the Pacific; good Sea-story there.
1. HAM: I have
no idea where that originated, nor do I know why its often
in capital letters.
2. YL: young
lady, usually single; XYL: self explanatory.
For those of
you who already know this stuff, Ive used a little Poetic
License to try to make some of the theory easier to understand.
If you feel Ive grossly misstated something, I welcome your
comments. (Nitpickers will be ignored.)
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him mail] is a full-time blogger and preparedness consultant.
He currently lives completely off-grid somewhere in the Appalachian
mountains and is the author of 31
Days to Survival and The
Dirt Cheap Survival Retreat both published by Paladin Press.
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