I and my 16-year old son just passed the amateur radio Extra Class license examination. The exam consists of 50 multiple choice questions covering topics including FCC rules, electrical principles, components, circuits, measurements, protocols, antennas, and radio propagation. We spent about two months working our way through the ARRL Extra Class License Manual—and it paid off.
It might seem like amateur (“ham”) radio is a dying hobby. Once upon a time, hams were privileged to make mobile phone calls. Now everyone has cell phones. In the old days, hams communicated around the world using shortwave radio. Now everyone has the Internet. When I earned my first license in the 1960s, hams had to learn the Morse code. In 2007, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) eliminated Morse code proficiency requirements.
Despite these seismic technological and cultural changes, amateur radio has managed to survive. Why? First and foremost, the ham radio community is a bastion of acceptance, camaraderie, and public service. (You may meet better dressed people, but you probably won’t meet nicer people.) Second, the hobby has evolved in step with technology. Personal computers, digital transmission, the Internet, and space communications are now thriving aspects of amateur radio.
PSK31, one of the new digital modes, permits text chat between amateur radio operators worldwide. It uses just 31.25 Hertz of bandwidth, so several PSK31 channels can fit within a conventional (single sideband) voice channel. Hams can start using PSK31 by connecting a PC’s sound card to the microphone input of a high frequency (HF) transceiver and downloading the appropriate software.
Echolink enables amateur radio operators to communicate through the Internet using voice over IP. Hams may make contacts either directly through their PCs or via a VHF or UHF radio to an Internet-connected PC. The Internet Radio Linking Project (IRLP) connects amateur radio stations via the Internet using voice over IP. Using these two systems in tandem, amateur radio operators can communicate worldwide from almost anywhere.
Hams can also communicate via OSCAR (Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio) and with the International Space Station (ISS). While a sophisticated antenna capable of tracking orbiting stations is preferable, it’s possible to (briefly) contact an orbiting station with just a handheld radio.
According to the International Amateur Radio Union, there are currently about 3 million amateur radio operators worldwide. The number of hams in the U.S. has more than doubled since 1970. However, not all of the news is good. The number of hams in the U.S. has been slowly declining in recent years, and the U.S. ham population appears to be aging.
I suspect that in the future amateur radio will enjoy the support of two different types of participants. One group will concentrate on keeping the old radio arts alive: Morse code, antenna design and construction, and so forth. The other group will continue to integrate amateur radio with the latest technologies to create new and unique capabilities such as echolink and IRLP.