Archive for the 'Ham radio' Category

My first night of amateur radio

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

I got my dual-band transceiver earlier today (a Yaesu FT-7800R, if you must know) and I just spent several hours tonight playing with it. I made my first contact in short order after listening in on some local repeater bands and getting the hang of how a typical ham radio conversation works. The nice thing about being a ham in the Washington D.C. metropolitan region is that there’s no shortage of people to talk to, even at weird hours of the night. As I type this it’s just before midnight and I’m listening to three people out of Virginia talking about guns and the military (yeah, stereotypical, eh?).

As I listened to a conversation earlier in the evening I heard one guy identify himself as KB3QNY. I immediately had to break in and point out the coincidence, because my callsign is KB3QNZ! How often do you meet one of the two people who’s off your callsign by a single character? And what were the odds of running into said person within my first hour of ham radio? He was talking with a ham veteran trying to get his antenna set up correctly (apparently setting a bacon pan underneath the antenna indoors helped to establish a ground plane). Callsigns are handed out sequentially, so I know he got his license on the same day I did.

Then I called up my friend Greg, who I took the ham radio exam with, and within very short order we were talking to each other on a 2 meter band repeater out of Bluemont, Virginia. We needed the repeater because he only has a handheld radio, so while he might be able to hear me in simplex mode, it’s unlikely I would be able to hear him back. And then, as we were talking, a young woman named Stephanie broke into the conversation. She was transmitting mobile from a car her grandmother was driving. She has a bit more experience than us, so she got us into a simple round robin order after Greg and I accidentally transmitted over one another.

Thus, one of the most important distinctions between ham radio and Internet chat was immediately made clear to me: with ham radio, at least on the UHF/VHF bands, you’re only talking with people in the nearby area. Even if you never end up meeting those people in person, it’s still significant that they’re nearby. You can talk about the same places, the same local events, even that old standby of boring conversations, the weather. You simply don’t get anything like that in global Internet chat rooms (be they text or voice chat). The Internet has brought the entire world together, but at the expense of so many of the meaningful realities of place. I’m told that ham radio has a much similar feel to the local BBSes of yore than to today’s Internet. I believe it. There’s something pretty unique in this hobby that I’m only just discovering. I can see why so many people like it.


Monday, March 10th, 2008

Yaesu FT-7800R dual-band radioOn 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.

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