What is Amateur Radio ?
Since the very earliest days of people like Marconi & Hertz there have been enthusiastic amateur experimenters and hobbyists that used two-way radios to chat to each other across the airwaves.
Originally, Morse Code was used on the short-wave bands, but as the technologies improved, Radio Amateurs adopted other means of communication. Nowadays we have access to the short-wave bands and vhf, microwave, internet linking, and a host of modern facilities.
Something for everyone
People from all sorts of backgrounds and all ages take up the hobby. There are professional engineers and scientists as well as people who were in the military and there are more young people joining in every year. You don’t need to be a brainbox or a PhD to enjoy Amateur Radio.
There are several categories of licence, from Foundation to Intermediate through to Advanced ‘something for everyone.’ There are now many hundreds of thousands of radio hams around the world, in almost all countries, and over 60,000 in the UK alone.
Amateur Radio has many facets: electronics, engineering, physics, construction and computing are at the core, plus the more social skills that help us to make friends around the world.
Many radio hams join clubs where they find a wealth of practical advice, training, organised on-the-air activities as well as an opportunity to make friends on the air and off.
To become a radio ham in the United Kingdom you need to study for an exam. The exam is conducted by local radio clubs on behalf of Ofcom (part of the UK Government).
Every radio ham has a unique callsign. These are like car number plates & personal to each operator. They identify the country or region where a radio ham lives and a few other things.
Callsigns are often published on a website or in printed directories known as callbooks.
This is so other hams can look up each others details if they wish.
UK callsigns begin with the letters ‘G’, ‘M’ or ‘2’. A second letter is used when operating in different zones of the UK. Wales, Scotland, N. Ireland, Guernsey etc –
for example GW in Wales and GI for Northern Ireland etc.
Regulations require a callsign to be given at the start of every contact and “as often as is frequently practicable”.
The Riviera Amateur Radio Club has a callsign in its own right (M0RIV). When we operate as a club radio station, we can add a second letter “X” to our callsign so we become MX0RIV
‘X’ identifies us as an English club.
This can attract a high number of callers, all fervently trying to make contact. This is informally referred to as a ‘ pile-up ‘.
For special events, such as historic commemorations, we can apply for permission for a Special Event Station Call Sign to be used, such as GB8AFD, recently used by our group to celebrate Armed Forces Day.
Conversations between radio hams are called a “QSO” – this term was originally used in the days of Morse Code.
QSOs can be heard by any radio ham – they are not ‘private’ – but they are not broadcasts that are aimed at a casual radio listener, so you will not find us on your domestic radio.
Generally, QSOs could be quite short, and start with an exchange of call signs (e.g. MX0RIV) and a reception report which confirms the signal strengths and clarity. Abbreviations (usually Q-Codes) are widely used, and these are especially helpful in overcoming language obstacles.
These too originated in the days of Morse Code, but are still used in spoken form.
Some radio hams like to discuss a topic in depth, this is referred ‘rag-chewing’, while others are keen country-spotters and there are even some who do on-air ‘ contests ‘ to see who can contact the most countries. Obscure countries and islands can be highly sought after.
Some people like to receive confirmation of a QSO by means of a paper or electronic postcard (a QSL card). Riviera ARC produces different designs of cards for each event we operate.
Some ham pass messages and other traffic to help co-ordinate relief work in the event of major disasters such as the Japanese tsunami, earthquakes and the such like.
Home Construction and ‘ Rigs ‘
In “the olden days”, radio hams often built their own transmitters and receivers and other equipment (see photo). Some radio hams still ‘home-brew’ equipment, but commercially made equipment is usually more reliable and has modern features like digital signal processing and computerised control functions – but it is more expensive and possibly less fun.
RARC members use modern radio-communications transceivers (‘ rigs ‘) which can produce sufficient power to be heard around the world. However that also depends on the type of antenna used and on conditions in the ionosphere.
Modern transceivers can be expensive, but there is a lot of ‘affordable’ secondhand equipment around, and some items are given away by radio hams when they ‘upgrade’ their gear.
Colloquially hams tend to refer to where they operate from as a ‘ shack ‘ although it most likely will be a part of a building or home.
Radios need good antennas (aerials), especially for transmitters. For radio hams this is a big subject with much scope for experimentation.
The antenna most suitable for general use is a wire dipole which can be erected horizontally between a house and a tree. However, these antennas do need to be quite long – potentially up to 80m in length – but they are usually almost invisible from a distance.
Vertical antennas take up less space, but they may not be quite as efficient, and they may be very visible.
Some radio hams have much larger antennas at their home ‘shacks‘. These are sometimes complex multiple ‘arrays’ mounted on masts or towers which may be 60ft (18m) high. Such systems are usually directional and the towers can be raised and lowered.
While really large antenna systems may require planning permission, small antennas which do not cause annoyance to neighbours are not difficult to erect. Also, interference with TVs is now also largely a thing of the past, due to better equipment and the change to digital tv modes.
No matter where you live, city or country, flat or mansion, you will likely be able to find an antenna system that fits your own personal criteria.
Local clubs can be an excellent source of information and assistance.
The right conditions
Radio waves can travel very long distances, especially through space; but here on earth their strength generally reduces with distance due to many factors. They are affected by natural conditions, being bent or absorbed by the ground (hills and mountains), the atmosphere (troposphere) or the ionosphere.
The weather on earth normally doesn’t have a major effect on the shortwave bands, but it can affect the very high frequency (vhf) bands.
However, the sun’s activities such as sun spots solar flares and x-rays, can have good and bad effects on radiocommunications from shortwave right up to microwave frequencies and beyond. At the best, sunspot activity can lead to exceptionally good ‘propagation’ which may permit easy two-way contacts around the world; but equally, communications and even electricity lines and global positioning systems may be badly disrupted and suffer ‘blackouts’.
Propagation studies are of major importance to commercial and scientific users, from international radio stations through to GPS systems a well as radio hams.
Information about the current radio propagation conditions is available on-line and may help us to plan our activities.
There is also a world-wide ‘spotting’ network in which news of unusual or ‘rare’ amateur radio stations is posted on the internet, plus a network of beacons which give out continuous signals that inform us about radio wave propagation conditions.
So now you know a little about what Amateur Radio is all about, why not get in contact with your local club to start your own journey into the amazing world of Amateur Radio.