Amateur Radio (often called Ham Radio) is a quintessentially geeky hobby. Essentially, it involves radio operators (called “hams”) talking to each other around improbably complex equipment over VHF and UHF frequencies.
This is a hobby that has an unfashionable reputation. But that’s totally undeserved, as becoming a “ham” has some serious practical advantages. Here’s why you should consider learning all about it.
Being Aware Of Local Emergencies
Knowing about a local emergency, like a multi-car pile up, can often mean the difference between spending hours stuck in a line of traffic or not. But finding out about them in time can be hard.
Ham Radio is different. It’s both fast and reliable. You’ll be hearing about events from people who live near where they’re taking place, or are witnessing it from their automobiles, as many ham operators carry in-car handsets.
This is news you can generally depend upon, as it’s coming directly from people in your own community, who you’ll be able to trust.
But that’s just one side of it. Many government agencies use the same UHF and VHF frequencies used by amateur radio equipment in order to let people know about disaster and extreme weather situations.
The most famous one is run by the National Weather Service, which transmits automated weather alerts. You can learn more about it in the video above.
Stay Connected When Disaster Strikes
When Hurricane Sandy struck the Eastern seaboard of the United States, it caused an unfathomable amount of damage to the infrastructure.
Homes were without power for weeks, and communications were severely disrupted. Some who found themselves in trouble were unable to contact the emergency services to summon assistance.
But one thing that the hurricane wasn’t able to disrupt was radio broadcasts. It is for this reason ham radio operators were so vital in keeping people safe during the worst of the storm.
In Connecticut, operators worked around the clock to protect their communities and liaise with emergency services, shelters, and the local Red Cross. Many left their homes and placed themselves in these places, in order to keep communications flowing.
Any licensed amateur radio operator can join groups whose job is to assist during emergency situations. One of the largest is the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, which operates in Canada and the United States.
But it’s not the only one, and it’s not just the United States that has them. Wikipedia has a pretty comprehensive list of active groups you could consider joining.
It’s A Skill To Learn and Maintain
You can’t just buy a radio set and become an amateur radio operator. Not legally, at least. Before you can start transmitting across the airwaves, you’ve got to get yourself certified and licensed. In the US, that’s with the Federal Communications Commission.
To do that, you’ve got to take some classes, or do some self-studying. These cover the essentials, like the laws in your country surrounding amateur radio broadcasts. But others are much more exciting, and explore the math and physics of ham radio, as well as basic electronics.
The entry-level FCC license (called a Technician Class License) is earned after the successful completion of a 35-question written exam. Exams are usually administered by local volunteer examiners. The cost can range from free, to a nominal fee that shouldn’t exceed $15.
If you love finding out how stuff works, and long to go back to learning about math and science in a classroom environment, becoming an amateur radio operator might just be for you.
There’s A Community
It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But amateur radio is an incredibly social endeavor. I’m not just talking about talking to people over your radio, although that’s a huge part of being a ham.
There are also radio meet-up groups and social events you can attend in your area, as well as online communities that bustle with activity. The Amateur Radio subreddit, for example, has almost fifteen thousand users, and is full of people sharing their expertise, and bragging about their accomplishments.
Many tech-oriented communities can be toxic wastelands, full of internal conflict and politics. But the Ham one is different. They’re open to newcomers, and generally happy to help. This is something that’s cemented in The Ham’s Code:
“The ham is friendly. Slow and patient sending when requested, friendly advice and counsel to the beginner, kindly assistance, co-operation and consideration for the interests of other; these are the mark of the ham spirit.”
It’s Cheaper Than You Think
If you’re put off by the potential costs of becoming a “ham”, you’re going to want to pay attention here. In recent years, it’s become a much more affordable hobby. This is largely thanks to the deluge of cheap handsets that have flooded the market from the factories of Shenzhen and Guangzhou.
One Chinese maker of amateur radio handsets is Baofeng. They’ve done for ham radio what Huawei and Xiomi did for smartphones, essentially lowering the cost to make them affordable for all. You can now get a hand-held radio for under $30.
Admittedly, this lacks the features, customizability, and power of other, more expensive models. Indeed, many complain about the poor build quality of these devices. Despite that, they’re a great, affordable way for newcomers to enter the field.
Incremental steps forward in equipment won’t break the bank, either. You can get a much more potent radio for just under $200, and there’s a thriving secondary market of devices on eBay.
Are You Tempted?
Ham Radio is a great hobby to learn. It’ll introduce you to new groups of people, and will serve you well in times of need. Plus, it’s cheaper than you think.
Are you a ham? Are you considering becoming a ham? Let me know in the comments below, and tell me all about it!