What is Ham Radio?
When I tell people that I am into ham radio the first question I usually get is: isn't this retro and why would anybody need ham radio in a world of Skype and cell phones? The stereotype of ham radio is usually some old dude with a beard sitting in front of a huge wooden box with glowing tubes and a Morse key connected to large antennas. If you would ask some older folks they probably would tell you it is about being prepared for that disaster, in Europe older folks are usually scared of when the Russian invade, when the Internet or cell phone networks are no longer available. Yeah, these are both aspects of ham radio, although probably quiet minor ones today and on the second topic luckily not that relevant today in the US. Although ham radio regularly plays a role during disasters such as Katrina...
Defining Ham Radio
I prefer the following definition: Ham radio gives you access to spectrum from the low waves into the high millimeter spectrum to freely use and experiment for private use with very little constraints. The FCC basically says: here have this spectrum and do whatever you want with it as long as it is not commercial. There are 28 slices of spectrum allocated to ham radio in the FCC regulatory domain. There are some rules mainly around avoiding interference and efficient utilization, but generally, a licensed ham radio operator is free to do whatever he or she likes. The big difference to any other radio service is that the operator is licensed but the equipment does not have to. A licensed ham radio operator can purchase any kind of radio gear whether type licensed for ham radio or any other service or not licensed at all and change it in whatever way he/she likes or build something homebrewed from scratch because only the radio operator needs to be licensed. In any other radio service, including Wifi gear, cell phones, R/C models, walkie-talkies or even business land mobile, the operator is required to purchase a equipment type licensed for that particular service and is not allowed to change it in any way. With many radio services, the operator is not even allowed to make simple alterations such as connecting a different antenna. Let's explore what you can all do with ham radio:
You like to stay in Touch while Mobile
You probably have seen and may perhaps even own one of those 27 miles reach walkie talkies which are sold in blister packs at Wallmart or Costco for under $100 a pair. 27 miles should be sufficient to talk to my friends you may think. Well, let's put that claim into perspective: Walkie talkies in the US are using mostly the Family Radio Service. The maximum allowed power on FRS is 0.5W. I suppose you could get 27 miles with a high gain antenna and a clear point of view but I suppose you unlikely would have a high antenna tower at your disposal while mobile or are on top of a mountain talking to another guy across a valley. Legally, you are not even allowed to connect a different antenna. Your 27 miles radio, you will find out, gets you about a few hundred yards. Quiet useless when you want to stay in contact while traveling on a freeway or hiking and want to stay in touch in the event that you get separated from your group. You may say, well truckers can talk with their CBs up and down the highway. True, CB has a legal power limit of 4W (for standard AM) and with their comparably efficient antennas, which make those semi trucks look like insects with feelers, a trucker can reach a two or three miles up and down the freeway. But then, a big Firestick antenna probably looks kinda ugly on your brand new BMWer.
In contrast, the FCC regulates ham radio with an emission limited to 1,500W at the exit of the final and there is no limit to antenna gain. It would be permissive by law to operate a station blasting 1MW (this is 1,000,000 Watts ) through a directive antenna which would give you an equivalent reach to those cold war radio stations blasting from outside Munich deep into the Soviet Union. Let's stay serious for a moment, unless you have a nuclear power station at your disposal, or at least a 30A 240V circuit, you will not use anywhere close to this in a mobile setup.
With ham radio a typical mobile station would be a 5W HT (we call a walkie talky handy talky for some reason) or a 35-50W car mobile installation. But this is not all. There is more: unless you are in a very remote area, you would use a repeater. A repeater has an antenna with high gain mounted up very high which is able to receive weak signals and broadcasts them back amplified over a wide area. A single repeater might cover an area of 25 miles around the repeater. Reflectors, clusters of repeaters, may cover most parts of a state. This is similar technology used by police, fire departments, and some commercial users, and in fact traditionally, ham gear shares the same towers with public services. There would not be much doubt whether you can reach your friends you lost during a hiking trip or to catch up with your buddies 20 miles ahead of you on the highway while you were stuck at Mc Donald's. Since ham radio and public services are using the same technology, a ham radio operator could talk to let's say a ranger. A ranger, due to their type licensed gear, may not have the same technical possibility to initiate a contact to a ham radio operator, but a ham radio operator could call the sheriff or even translate between different agencies such as happening during Katrina. Such cross service communication is only allowerd during emergencies, though.
Mobile use is today the most common application for ham radio. Many hams have radios in their cars which allows them to keep in touch with friends and family while commuting or be reachable in rural areas with little cell phone coverage. Outdoor use is another common application while hiking, biking, skiing, or camping. Many modern mobile ham radios have GPS receivers built in, and if you permit that, other ham radio operators can track you even on Google maps.
The beauty is while there are many rules about permissible cell phone use, ham radio is federally regulated and state laws usually do not apply. You may not use a cell phone while driving but you can use a ham radio while driving. (This of course does not release you from driving responsibly and not engaging in distractions which can cause an accident.)
You are a Tinkerer
Tinkering has always been at the core of ham radio. In fact, many innovations, such as long distance telecommunication or even digital data communication, were the result of innovations and inventions by ham radio operators. Even today, ham radio operators drive innovation, for instance in areas such as Software Defined Radio, or hotspot technology. Here are some examples:
You always wondered what happened if you hacked into the firmware of your Linksys access points to try something really new such as meshed networks. Unless you have the proper FCC license, you are not allowed to do this and may get into some serious trouble, in particular if you bring down government or commercial services while you play around. Even a vendor of gear would need a type license each time they tinker around. As a ham radio operator, you are free to do whatever you want: change the link layer protocol, change the coding, change the antenna, put a beefy amplifier behind it, change the channel, shift it to an entirely different band. Whatever you desire as long as you stay in the spectrum allocated for ham radio. Luckily the slices of spectrum allocated to ham radio are next to or overlapping even with government and commercial users so that it usually quiet simple to make commercial gear work on ham radio bands.
Another application I always admire is building a drone - one of those which the CIA uses to hunt down terrorists. A remote controlled R/C flying object which sends back video. Or even a simplified version such a weather balloon flying up into the stratosphere and sending back pictures via radio showing the curvature of a blue earth - pictures like you know from the space shuttle. With ham radio, you are allowed to do this. In fact, the space shuttle had, back when it was still flying, a ham radio station on board and so does the ISS still today. Staying on the topic, there are numerous satellites with ham radio transceivers on board which can be freely used by a licensed ham radio operators. There are ham radio folks actually developing satellites which are launched into space.
A subject I am personally particularly interested in is Software Defined Radio. SDR will revolutionize the way radio receivers and transmitters are built. In the past, the cost and size limiting factor for a radio was always its analog components. Analog components are difficult to produce with precision and require manually tuning. With SDR, the amount of analog components is greatly reduced. The signal is received by an analog front end, heterodyned (hence mixed down) into usable chunks of typical 50 to 500 kHz and then entirely processed in software. The cost of a radio exponentially increases with the use of filtering particularly important for weak or distorted signal recovery. On the other hand, making a filter digitally does not depend on cost at all. You can make a digital filter in any way or shape you want with the click of a mouse button. SDR applications also would allow cell phone vendors for instance to sell one model which can be reprogrammed for whatever system the service provider deployed, or allow roaming between previously incompatible technologies, which greatly would reduces development cost and even enable novel business models. SDR also would permit the introduction of new digital coding schemes with a simple firmware update.
Well, you actually like the Stereotypical Ham Radio Guy
There is of course still the classic way of ham radio, communicating with people thousands of miles away. You do not have to be old and in fact many young folks enjoy classic DXing. But you are no longer limited to grandpas Morse code wooden box running of 3,000 Volts with big tubes heating up your entire residence. You can do this if you like, and there are people who enjoy vintage gear. In fact, there is a lot of vintage gear now on the market, coming from retired Russian and Chinese military surplus. But you can utilize a modern communication transceiver and use state of the art technology. In particular SDR technology is very promising because of its ability to recover very weak signals which makes it possible to communicate with very low powered transmitters across the globe. You also could communicate via satellite or use a VoIP route via the Internet, like Skype only that you can talk to people on radios. It is possible to talk with a hiker using an HT in the Alps while hiking with an HT in the Rockies, linked via VoIP over the Internet. Although, Morse code which ham radio people call CW (Continuous Wave) is still very popular because it is the simplest of all forms of digital coding schemes working with very simply built transceivers which fit into an Altoids or tuna can running on AA batteries. CW can be coded by computers, eg an iPhone, or the classic way by a skilled human fist. Of course, there is any possible way of digital communication possible. War ships for instance today apply a technology called PACTOR - another invention by a ham radio operator - to send text messages around the globe even if satellites should fail. Imagine Twitter from anywhere you are or sending and receiving email while being on a small sailing boat in the middle of the Pacific (Satellite radios usually do not like the role of a small boat which is irrelevant to HF.) You can even use ham radio from the air if you are flying private (as you know, the FAA has strict rules against potentially interfering radio sources on public flights).
Ham radio is anything you want it to be. It depends on what you are interested in. The FCC merely sets a framework and gives you slices of spectrum distributed from the low to the high bands.
Schedule an exam with your local ham radio club. The license fee is less than $10. There are no mandatory annual or monthly fees. There is a voluntary membership to the ARRL roof organization and the local club which cost you around $60/year and is highly recommended. For this amount, you also receive the QST Magazine. The Technician license gets you on the air and allows you to do pretty much anything you need to do with mobile communication and tinkering around with Wifi and any service 6m and up. The Technician license takes about a week of studying.