Yes, I have an Uncle Buck, and yes, he's into "the ham," as he calls it. He's been messing about with amateur radio for about a year now and is forever peppering my husband Patrick with the stories he hears and accounts of the people he talks to over the airwaves. Patrick is more of an e-mail sort of person, but Uncle Buck has gotten him curious.Skip Cline, Vice-Chairman of the burgeoning San Diego Amateur Radio Club ( www.sandarc.net ), explained the basics to me. "With short-wave or long-wave radio, you just listen. But with ham radio -- which is just another name for amateur radio -- you can listen and talk." How you talk and who you talk to "has to do with where your interest lies. I myself like to work with Emergency Services, which helps the community. Or if I'm on the freeway and there is an accident, I get up on two of the frequencies that I monitor and notify everyone on that particular frequency to find another route. Some people are teachers who help kids to get on the radio. HFers -- that stands for 'high frequency' -- can get out there and talk to people around the world." Some hams bounce their signal off the moon and see who picks it up when it returns to earth.
Hams are amateurs, but they still need to be licensed by the FCC. "There are three classifications of license -- each involves different responsibilities and frequencies that you're allowed to go on. Technician is the entry level, then General, then Extra." HFers need a general license, which requires that users be able to produce at least five words per minute in Morse code. Cline offers the necessary classes through Sandarc. (Check website for test schedule around the county.) "I hold classes for three Saturdays, and on the third one, we give a test. The classes don't cost anything, but you need to buy an instruction book and pay $5 to take the test. The classes aren't mandatory -- you can get a book yourself and take the test. But my track record is pretty good."
Besides teaching terminology, Cline lets students know the dos and don'ts of ham radio. "You can't conduct business -- you can't call and order a pizza, you can't make a profit, you can't disburse public information. What you can do is get on there and chitchat." Once you pass the test, it takes about three days to get your license and call sign. "It's like the license plate on your car. Mine is KD6RFQ. Every district has its own number; the 6 stands for the state of California."
Then there's the matter of getting a radio. "I tell my students to talk to other hams, look at their radios, go to club meetings [dates available on website], and then get their license. I discourage them from spending $300 to $400 on a radio and antennas and all that stuff right away, because they might want to give it up in six months." But once a person is all in, Cline suggests a visit to "the candy store" -- Ham Radio Outlet on Kearny Villa Road (858-560-4900). "You can start out with a nice two-meter radio for $199 on up. Amateur radio is broken down into frequencies; you can operate only within a specific band. The newer radios are fixed so that you can't go out of band; you can listen to everything, but you can talk only on the ham frequencies. The ham band starts at 144 or 145. The most popular radios out there are tri-band radios; they let you have three different frequencies: a two-meter, a 440, and a six-meter. There are also dual-banders. You can get a tri-bander for around $230 -- but then you need to get an antenna."
Antennas are what give your radio its reach. "If you get a $.99 antenna, you're going to get $.99 worth of operation. The antenna doesn't physically sit on your radio. It sits on your roof or on a mast alongside your house. If you're in a place where you can't use a regular antenna, you can put one up in a room, as long as it's high enough where it's not going to interfere with anything. I just put up an antenna that cost me $189 , and I can talk anywhere in San Diego County. It should last me 30 years. But if you want to talk to people in San Francisco, you're looking at $250 to $300 for the antenna. Antennas can be from 15 to 35 feet off the ground, or 35 to 75 feet for high-frequency." Range can also be extended through repeaters -- sending your signal to a radio tower on a mountain, for instance, then having that tower repeat your signal to points outside your normal range.
Like Cline, Tuck Miller, the Section Emergency Coordinator for the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, got into ham work because of its public service aspect. "We work with agencies such as the California Department of Forestry and the Red Cross," he explains. If a fire takes out cell phone towers and power and telephone lines, the radio becomes the only effective form of long-range communication. But he also uses it for purely social reasons. "A lot of us have different frequencies we hang out on. If you're good enough friends, you know where they're at, and you call out their call sign. Anybody who's got a radio, or even a scanner, can hear you, but only one person can be talking at a time. When the air clears, the next person can talk."
The ham world, says Miller, is largely self-policing. Miller is an Official Observer, "which is an auxiliary of the American Radio Relay League. If someone commits a violation -- such as using foul language or talking out of band, I'll send them a note saying, 'Please don't do this.' If they continue, I'll report them to the FCC, and they could be fined or have their license revoked."