On Saturday I took the amateur radio license exam. I passed. As of today, I am an official FCC-licensed ham radio control operator. My callsign is KB3QNZ. I can legally transmit in a variety of radio frequencies up to a maximum power of 1,500 Watts (depending on the frequency). Unfortunately, I don’t have a transceiver just yet, but I ordered $300 worth of radio equipment (a mobile transceiver and magnetic mount antenna) over the weekend, and I shall start transmitting as soon as it arrives.
I’ve been interested in ham radio for a long time. My dad owns all sorts of radio equipment (unfortunately, only for receiving) that I’ve been playing with since I was young. He’s wanted to become a ham for a long time, but never quite got around to it. So when two of my friends recently informed me that they were going to do it and wondered if I would join them, I couldn’t say no. The exam wasn’t particularly hard. I just studied these study guides and took practice exam after practice exam until I was getting every question right (and you only need something like 75% to pass). If you’re interested in ham radio and feel like taking a few hours to get licensed, you should go for it. Six year olds have passed, so you will too. You don’t need any equipment to take the exam (indeed, you should probably wait until after you’re licensed to buy anything, as eBay is full of transceivers people can’t use because they never ended up getting licensed).
The exam was held in an activity room of a church in Alexandria, Virginia. I was surprised by the large number (over fifty) and diversity (many women and some minorities) of the people involved. I went in there with preconceptions that were quickly blown away. There were even some teenage girls there, a demographic I never thought would be interested in ham radio (but I’m glad to be proven wrong). Everyone there was very cordial, and the older man who welcomed me into the ham community after I passed the exam was especially congratulatory. I could tell he loved the hobby, and he was glad more people were getting into it, especially young people.
After we finished the exam we went out to lunch with the local ARRL club. These people better conformed with my stereotype of ham radio enthusiasts (older white men). My friend’s friend demonstrated the HF mobile rig he had in his car. It was quite impressive. He had his transceiver hooked up to an external sound card which was connected to his laptop, and he was using the PSK31 protocol to text chat with people hundreds of miles away. Now you may be thinking “big whoop, I can do that with WiFi on my laptop”, but you’d be missing the point. He had everything in his car that was necessary to carry out that communication. He didn’t rely on WiFi routers, or the Internet, or the power grid. In a large scale emergency his communications will be unaffected, but yours will go down hard. He can transmit from the deepest bush, far away from all the infrastructure you’d be relying on. That’s why ham radio is so appealing to Heinleinian survivalists.
So I’m very excited. My rig is coming soon and I’ll be able to use it at home and in my car. Even my callsign (they are assigned sequentially) worked out pretty well. KB3QNZ has a nice rhythm to it. It also rhymes. You could do a lot worse. And I’m surprised I got it so quickly; I took the exam Saturday morning and I got it Monday morning before I headed off to work, and I seriously doubt that the government employees over at the FCC are working weekends.
There’s a whole world of radio waves out there whizzing through your body at every instant, and I’m finally going to not only be able to intercept and interpret them, but make some of my own!