Radio Ramblings (26 January 2024)

Radio Ramblings (26 January 2024)
Photo by Andrea De Santis / Unsplash

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It's actually been a hot minute since I've written more about the current deep dive into Amateur Radio. The previous two articles are available here, if you're curious. I was caught up in a bit of paralysis over the whole Substack-and-Nazis thing, which is one reason that only the already-scheduled story posts have really been getting done. Now that the transition is over, it's time to actually start writing about my enthusiasms again!

Getting Technical

When last I wrote, I had just taken my examination for the Technical Class License. I knew I'd passed, and was at that point expecting to receive my callsign at any minute. However, I had taken my exam with a local group of Volunteer Examiners, who were pretty old-school. They not only did the exams on paper, they actually mail them to the ARRL (which then submits them electronically to the FCC). Taking the exam on 13 December meant the packet got caught up in the Last Minute Christmas Mail Rushtm, along with presumably the receiving folks over at the ARRL being off for the holiday. In the end, I was not licensed until 30 December, when I was issued the callsign KF0OOH.

Going General

By that time, I was already well along studying for the next class up, General Class, not so much out of any sense of urgency to be able to do more (about which, more in a moment), as wanting to strike while the iron was hot. General builds upon what's learned for Technical, so it makes sense to just go directly from one to another. Some people just take both tests simultaneously.

This time, I used not just the book ARRL provides to learn the concepts, but a flash-card based system at to drill them. This worked remarkably well. By early January, I was ready, and tested for General.

I went with an online team of VEs based on the Ham Radio Crash Course Discord. If you have even the remotest interest in Amateur Radio, and you have time to follow Yet Another Chat Server, I strongly recommend both that Discord, and that testing team. The spirit of what Amateur Radio is supposed to be about---experimentation, learning, and mentoring others---is fully on display there. Yes, there's some trash-talking. This is the Internet. But the overall feel of the place is incredibly supportive.

I tested on 14 January, and because everything about this was done online, my upgrade had processed by 16 January. It might well have processed immediately, but the testing was on a Sunday and the next day was a Federal holiday!

Technician Class can actually do a lot

As a Technician, one gains fairly complete privileges on bands that are "mostly harmless" because they tend not to propagate very far. The most common places to operate as a Technician are from 144-148 MHz (the 2-meter band) and 420-450 MHz (the 70-centimeter band), and the most common mode is FM[1].

By itself, this would be an extremely short-range form of communication, akin to run-of-the-mill walkie-talkies[2], purely line-of-sight stuff, were it not for repeaters, which allow a single, higher power station to relay contacts over a larger area. I'll talk more about repeaters another time. Point is, these bands and modes are actually pretty good for metropolitan or regional communication. Link repeaters together, and you can go even further.

In addition to these privileges, a Technician Class ham has full access to 50-54 MHz (6-meter), which is considered the lower end of VHF; and a slice of the 10-meter band from 28.3 to 28.5 MHz, which is considered the high end of HF or shortwave. Techs also have access to bands in VHF and UHF that are less commonly used, in some cases because they're relatively recent allocations. Finally, a Technician also has limited privileges on the "lower"[3] bands

In short, on paper, Techs can actually do a lot. Especially living, as I do, in a metropolitan area rich in repeaters. If I put out a call, there's a fair chance someone will answer, if not on one repeater, then another. There are "nets" of one sort or another almost daily.

Add in the networked DMR digital modes that run on those bands, and you can reach the world. It's not nearly the challenge that it will be on HF, so some people think of it as cheating. Myself, I view it as practice. By the time I'm doing HF regularly, I'll already have some idea of the rhythm of a contact.

General Class can do a lot more

While I'm not set up for it yet, as a General Class licensee, I gain wide, but not yet complete, access to the amateur HF bands. Most of these bands have segments carved out for non-voice modes, like CW using Morse code, RTTY, and other digital modes. I can use almost all of those. Some bands also carve out segments where only the higher Amateur Extra licensees, and holders of the obsolete but still valid Advanced license that used to sit in between, can play.

This is where some of the more challenging, world-spanning activities come in. The best FM propagation in the world will still only get a VHF signal about 300 miles. Single sideband signals on HF can travel right around the world under circumstances that are extremely common.

The key word, there, is "can". There are dozens of variables involved in how far your signal actually will go, including things you can't control, like solar activity, geomagnetic activity, and more mundane weather; and things you can control, like how much power you're putting out, what kind of antenna you're using, how it's set up, and so on. A skilled operator on a good day can reach half-way 'round the world with 10 watts and a vertical whip set up in a park. A skilled operator on a bad day might be no more likely than a newbie to get as far as the next state over. The 20 meter band might be wide open, while the 10 meter band is mostly noise.

If consistency and predictabily is something you prefer in your hobbies, this is not the one for you, that's for certain!

So what am I actually doing?

A lot of reading. I'm still working up to my Amateur Extra upgrade. I'm not rushing into it, but I've decided not to wait, either. The way these exams are structured, there's surprisingly little need to have practical experience of operating at one level to succeed in learning the principles of the next one. I'm not sure if I think that's a good thing or a bad thing, but it is the way it works.

A lot of listening. With my VHF/UHF/DMR handheld, I can pick up quite a few repeaters in my area. I scan them, and sometimes they're empty, but sometimes, I'll catch something. There's nothing illicit or weird about this. The amaeteur airwaves are open bands. You can have an ostensibly private conversation, but you also have to accept from the outset that people can, and probably will, hear you.

A little talking. Sometimes I call out to the local repeaters. I try to participate in the Richfield Radio Club weekly net. Surprisingly, I'm finding I am mic-shy, and some of that is that I have a neurospicy nerd's aversion to small talk, which makes contacts feel awkward.

But the dopamine hit in this hobby is not necessarily from deep conversations, although those do happen. It's simply from being able to say, "I talked to someone new." Once a person gets deeper in to HF bands, which propagate widely, it becomes, "I talked to someone from a place I've never been and probably never will go, on the other side of the world."

And, for good or ill, I'm sort of obsessively watching YouTubers and chasing articles, trying to decide where I want to actually go, next. Being General Class already means I could do a lot of different things, but the equipment costs money. As an amateur, I'm empowered to build a lot of things myself, if I knew how, but there are additional skills I need to obtain.

For example, I don't know how to solder. I've never needed to, and as a klutz, I never fancied burning myself. But if I learn to solder, suddenly I have the ability to make my own antennas and cables, and potentially to repair my equipment if it fails. Far from voiding warranties, amateurs are expected to open their stuff up, at least to know what the insides look like!

This weekend, I'll be attending my first "group" activity---Winter Field Day. This will be an opportunity to see a wider variety of operating, up close and personal and not just on YouTube, as well as getting to meet more hams in person. I'm looking greatly forward to it!

  1. "No static, no static, no static at all! FM!" -- Steely Dan ↩︎

  2. Growing up, walkie-talkies were basically hand-held, low-powered things doubling up on the Citizen's Band (11 meters) AM. Since then, unlicensed or barely-licensed hand-held radios, like FRS and GMRS radios, have proliferated. These tend to operate on bands close to the Amateur Bands, often using similar technology, such that there's a trade in radios that can essentially do both GMRS and ham given different firmware. ↩︎

  3. As frequency goes up, wavelength goes down, so "lower" is a tricky term, but most hams seem to orient "upper" and "lower" to frequency. So 80 meters (3.5-4 MHz) is a lower band than 40 meters (7-7.3 MHz). ↩︎