Thinking about Amateur Radio?


Mar 12, 2001
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From Ham Radio Outlet (HRO)

The first step in making amateur radio part of your safety and survival kit is to examine what your communication needs are. We all have lots of different needs at different times, but you need to ask yourself some basic questions:

Who do I want to communicate with using this tool? Family? A small group of friends? Church congregation members? Friends and associates widely scattered around the country or world?

What kind of communications needs do I have? Simply checking on status and well being of a few people? A need to carry on extended conversations? A need to pass detailed data between people? A need to send pictures and graphics?

How reliable should the communications link be? Successful 75% of the time? 85%? 95%?

How many people in my immediate group are going to use the link and what will they use it for? Lots of people using it in a very simple way? A few people using it? Only one or two using it in a sophisticated fashion?

Where do I want to communicate from? My home and/or office? My vehicle or vehicles? My hand when I’m away from home and vehicle?

This may seem like a lot of effort, but amateur radio and reliable communications are made up of many different facets. In order to make the right decisions, THE FIRST TIME, about what you need in the way of skills and equipment, the answers to these questions are really important.

As soon as you begin talking to people about amateur radio, you’ll feel overwhelmed by the seeming complexity of it and the mountain of jargon. But never fear, it’s really pretty simple. First of all, keep in mind that communication requirements usually break down into some simple categories:
  • Distance to be covered. Usually three categories: Local -- up to 10 or so miles apart; Medium – between 10 and 100 miles; and Long Distance – from 100 miles out to thousands of miles. Amateur radio operators usually think of these categories in terms of the frequencies (or wavelengths) to be used since different frequencies are best at different distances. LOCAL = VHF/UHF, MEDIUM = High power VHF/UHF, and LONG DISTANCE = HF.
  • Open ended communication versus "point to point" links. These two aren’t mutually exclusive, but often the new amateur radio operator will be interested primarily in one or the other. The distinguishing factor is whether or not you are interested in talking to (Hams call it "working" ) anyone who happens to be available, or whether you wish to establish reliable links between specific pairs of stations. The major differences in station equipment and setup between these two is primarily in antennas and associated accessories.
Communication Modes. There are three general categories of modes, Voice, Digital, and CW (or Morse code). The first two have several sub-modes, but for our purposes, all the sub-modes are equal. "Voice" means exactly what it says. You speak, the other operator hears your voice, and vice-versa. "Digital" refers to encoded, relatively high speed transfer via radio of text messages. It has two advantages. First, a permanent record of the communication can be kept, and second, what is sent is exactly what is received. A significant disadvantage however, is that additional equipment beyond a radio and antennas is required. "CW" or Morse code is really just a special version of a digital mode. It’s major advantages are that the language used is largely international in nature and therefore transcends language barriers; and for a given setup this mode maximizes the distance over which reliable communication can be carried out. Its disadvantages are that it is relatively slow and its use requires the development and practice of some "manual" skills.

So to make an informed choice about how to select equipment for your communication resource, you need to decide the answers to the five questions listed above and then choose appropriately. Let’s look at a couple of examples of this being done:

  • Jim and Mary Matthews live in the Mid-West in a medium sized city. They both have family living within about 50 miles of their home. Jim commutes to work in a nearby town and spends about 45 minutes each way in travel time. They have three children all under the age of 12 and Mary spends her time as a caregiver and "keeper of the hearth". Their objectives for communications are two fold: First, Jim wants to be sure that should any emergency arise while he is at work or commuting, he will be able to reach Mary and of course Mary wants the same thing. Second, Mary’s Mom and Dad live on a small farm about 35 miles from the Matthews. Jim and Mary want to know that if needed, they can reliably communicate with Mary’s folks without depending on phones and other infrastructure based methods.

    To satisfy these requirements, the following equipment would be needed: A mobile radio for Jim’s vehicle and a high performance antenna for the vehicle; A "base station" radio and power supply for the Matthews’ home with a good, high performance antenna mounted on the roof of their house; For Mary’s parents, a similar "base station" radio and power supply, but with the addition of a directional ("beam" ) antenna pointed toward the Matthews’ home. Since all the communication would be taking place within a range of about 50 miles maximum, VHF/UHF radios satisfy the requirements.
  • Helen Wright is a nurse who returned to work after her husband was killed in an industrial accident. She lives in a small city in the South, and has relatively few family members nearby. She has traveled extensively overseas and has several close friends in other parts of the world. In addition, her older brother runs a sailboat charter business in the Caribbean and they now talk on the phone once or twice a week. Helen’s communication requirements are also dual in nature. Since she lives alone and also travels quite a distance to work, she would like some way to communicate with "the outside world" both when she is at home and when she is driving to and from work. In addition however, she would like to reliably check in with her brother in the Caribbean and while he is on various boat trips. She would also like to be able to send email via radio if her Internet connection is not available.

    One the one hand Helen’s requirements are simpler than the Matthews’ but also more complex when it comes to staying on touch with her brother. For Helen the following equipment would be needed: First a "handheld" transceiver which works on VHF and UHF frequencies. This one radio, combined with a good antenna for her car and a good "base antenna" for her house will enable her to use local repeaters (think of them as remote amplifiers which extend the range of the radio) to stay in touch with friends and emergency services whether she is at home or on the road. Second, to stay in contact with her brother Helen will need an "HF" radio to allow her to consistently communicate over the thousand or so miles between them. To go along with that radio, she’ll need a good, multi-frequency (they’re called "multi-band" ) antenna at home. In order to preserve the email link, she’ll also need one specialized piece of equipment that translates data into radio signals and probably a computer as well.

All this may seem much more complex than you want to deal with, but just keep in mind what you are getting as the benefits of becoming an amateur radio operator: A dedicated personal communications system that YOU control and which is not dependent on any infrastructure; A personal communications system that is designed and selected to meet YOUR requirements; A communications system that is cost free once you have made the original investment in equipment.

(Edited by Marty at 9:31 am on Mar. 27, 2002)

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