Two of the most highly adopted means of communications are FRS/GMRS (family radio service/general mobile radio service) two-way radios and the CB (citizens’ band) radio. Both are relatively cheap, need little to no installation, and do not require licensing (except for GMRS). Whereas these two forms of communication satisfy the most basic needs for in-group transmission, they severely lack in range and can be rendered utterly useless when out of range in remote areas.
Enter amateur radio, or ham radio as it is more affectionately referred to. Ham radio, as it is used today, has been in use since the early 20th century compared to FRS/GMRS (1996) and CB (1945). Ham radio operation requires a license, which can be obtained by passing an exam.
The most elementary level of FCC (USA) licensing is the Technician Class. “Technician Class operators are restricted in some of the different bands they can operate in and the amount of power they can use, but these are not particularly onerous and many operators are perfectly happy with the Technician Class and never upgrade their license,” states Lee Petersen (N5MUD). “Technician Class grants privileges in 17 different frequency bands, but most 4WD'ers will only use one or two, the 2-meter band and sometimes the 70-centimeter band.” Petersen, a ham operator since 2008, is an active member of FJ Cruiser Forums and maintains many popular discussion threads surrounding ham radio, including a ham radio primer and his APRS-tracked journeys.
Advanced levels of FCC licensing are also attainable though. “Upgrading your license to General or Amateur Extra (usually just abbreviated as "Extra") Class allows you access to more bands and frequencies and more transmitting power, mostly in the High Frequency (HF) bands.” Petersen continues, “The HF bands are used for longer-range contacts than most 4WD folks will need to make, i.e. around the world.” Yes, that’s right, around the world. Ham radio enthusiast, Alessio Sangalli (KE7JDE/IZ2GMV) once contacted from Italy a fellow ham in Australia using a handheld radio unit in his car. In fact, he had to prove to his counterpart that he was transmitting from his car by honking the horn.
Begin the Begin: The Exam
So, where does one begin his/her journey on the way to becoming an amateur radio operator you ask? As with any other learnable skill, research always helps and should be the first step considered. “The American Radio Relay League (ARRL), a local HAM club, 4x4ham.com – even talk to a friend that is a HAM,” states Josh Hoffman (KD6WJX), an 18 year ham radio operator and manager of the NorCal FJ Comms Group. “There are more of us out there than people think.”
Many of these resources provide enough information to paint an accurate picture of what to expect when it comes to obtaining your amateur radio license, from study guides to examination dates, as well as what to expect once you get your “ticket.” And many, such as the ARRL, even host a variety of practice exams. In fact, there are even iPhone apps available for testing your knowledge prior to taking the actual exam.
So, contrary to the myths surrounding the difficulty of obtaining a license, it is a relatively simple and painless process. The Technician Class exam itself consists of 35 multiple choice questions and 26 correct answers are required to pass. The pool of questions rarely, if ever, changes, so there is a strong chance that you will see some of the same questions you answered in the practice exams.
Oftentimes, studying the material in advance and taking a few online practice exams is all it takes to increase one’s odds of passing the Technician Class exam with flying colors. Ham cram courses are also an alternate way to prepare for and take the exam all in one seating. “Originally, reading the licensing manual made the testing and prep seem difficult and I thought about giving up on the license,” said Paul Boothby (KJ6CYM). “Glad I kept looking and found out about the ham cram course. No real frustration after finding the ham cram and of the four of us that took it, all passed with high scores.”
To some, the course and practice exams merely serve as a form of validating their command of the subject matter at hand. And if you happen to be an engineer like, Bill Croyle (KJ6NFT), then the exam could very well be a walk in the park. “Being an engineer, the Technician Class exam was straightforward and easy, but you really do need to go to class, read the book and take the practice exams. We had 22 people I work with take the class and all but two passed the first time. The two who did not pass did not do the homework or practice exams.” Croyle also recommends that prospective ham radio operators make the entire process fun by taking courses and exams with friends, colleagues, and even a significant other.
Cheap is Fine: The Equipment
Another myth surrounding the adoption of ham radio is the cost associated with the equipment required to get up and running. Although, on average, the cost may be slightly higher than, say, equipment associated with CB radio, it is not that much greater. On the opposite end of the spectrum, no pun intended, high-end ham equipment can be significantly more expensive than “high-end” CB equipment, but you also receive a lot more range (pending advanced licensing) and functionality for your investment.
Also, contrary to “cheap” CB radio equipment, cheap ham radio equipment does not sacrifice much in the way of transmission quality. Erik Gudmundson (KB3UNU), of the FJ Bruisers, researched in advance ham radio equipment to ensure its affordability and quality. “Getting started with amateur radio does not need to consume all of your annual mod budget,” states the 13-month licensed Technician Class operator. “New and used equipment are widely available online and in retail shops. A basic radio that can transmit and receive on 2-meter and 70-centimeter bands is sufficient for offroad use as well as assisting local ARES/RACES volunteers.” ARES (amateur radio emergency service) and RACES (radio amateur communications emergency service) are regional teams of volunteer amateur radio operators dedicated to providing emergency communications support to local, county and state governments during disasters and other emergencies.
Although a majority of new operators may be overwhelmed by the number of choices and features available on the market, simple multi-band handheld units are a great way to start and do not require the installation of any equipment.
Practice by Having Fun
As with any newly acquired skill, practice and camaraderie go a long way in developing a deeper understanding of the technology and its usage. Hoffman recommends reaching out to your new peers to familiarize yourself with the new lingo, etiquette and other ham-related issues.
“Hang out with hip hams,” states Hoffman. “Find hams in your area by finding a local ham club or group that has like-minded individuals. I have found 4x4ham.com is a good forum that has 4x4-oriented hams all over the place.” Hoffman continues, “The other thing is to just listen to repeaters and start talking to folks, just avoid all the trucker slang and police ten-codes. If you don’t use the radio you don’t get used to it.”
18 year veteran ham, Seth Sinclair (AG6I), encourages newbies to learn on-air etiquette and to “key up and just start talking.” Unlike CB radio, ham radio is very civilized and has rules. In fact, most will find the ham community very helpful. “The old way of doing things is that a new ham, after joining a club, will find himself/herself what we call an Elmer. The Elmer is an experienced ham who will help guide a new ham.” Sinclair also suggests joining a club to learn from the wealth of information available to them from such organizations.
However, be warned. Joining a club has been known to stir fanatical behavior that can best be equivilated to the mod addiction that FJ Cruiser owners experience. The availability and wealth of knowledge combined with the cool factor will certainly entice anyone to spend more time on the airwaves, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
15 year ham veteran, Sangalli has learned and taught valuable skills through the use of ham radio. “We used [ham radio] to learn how to program, how to use CAD, and a myriad of other technical things,” states the Northern Italian native and mountaineering enthusiast. Sangalli and his circle of ham friends would even incorporate ham radio and APRS (automatic packet reporting system) into their mountaineering activities. “We would ‘activate’ peaks participating in QRP (lower power transmitter) contests that followed the guidelines of the Summits On The Air (SOTA) community. We would head to the mountaintops on a predetermined date and try to contact as many people as possible with the lowest RF power and at a very long distance away.”
Sangalli’s enthusiasm for the hobby led him to become the technical manager of a repeater tower over the mountains in his region, installing many radios, antennas, and wireless bridges for high-speed data. In addition, he even received a job opportunity as a result of some of the conversations he had over the airwaves. All this in what Sangalli refers to as the “experimental spirit of the ham operators.”
Ham operators are also very active in emergency response situations oftentimes lending a hand with communications in remote areas. They have been actively involved in some of the large natural disasters around the world and have been an invaluable resource to emergency responders like Croyle. “Since I work in the emergency response field I wanted to better understand the incorporation of ham volunteers in operations to maintain communication with remote or field response teams.” Opportunities to contribute in various states of emergency is appreciated and encouraged and another reason why an abundance of active ham operators is never a bad thing.
As illustrated, the additional time and investment required to become a licensed ham radio operator is extremely minimal when it comes to the amount you receive in return by going the extra yard to obtain your ticket. It also opens up opportunities to meet fellow hams and to contribute your skills to assist others and vice versa. And who could turn down the opportunity to transmit farther and clearer (even into space)! Hmph, as if you needed another excuse to socialize with your FJC friends around the world!
• ARRL practice exams (link: http://www.arrl.org/exam-practice)
• ARRL Amateur Ham Radio License Exam Locator (link: http://www.arrl.org/finding-an-exam-session)
• Ham Test Online (link: http://www.hamradiolicenseexam.com/
• Ham Radio Primer (link: http://www.fjcruiserforums.com/forums/stereo-electronics-electrical/86523-ham-radio-trail-use-primer-radio-buyers-guide.html)
• QRZ Ham Radio Practice Tests (link: http://www.qrz.com/testing.html)
• 4x4 Ham Radio Operators Forum (link: http://www.4x4ham.com/content.php)
• APRS: Automatic Packet Reporting System (link: http://www.aprs.org/)
• NorCal FJs Comms Group (link: http://norcalfjs.com/group/comms)
• AZFJ Ham Radio/Amateur Radio Info Thread (link: http://www.azfj.org/index.php?name=Forums&file=viewtopic&t=679)
• The Road to Becoming a Ham – An Addendum (available July 18, 2011) (link: http://norcalfjs.com/profiles/blogs/the-road-to-becoming-a-ham)
• Guide to Choosing Your First Radio (link: http://www.eham.net/newham/firstradio)