Radio ga-ga - an introduction to the world of amateur radio

I like radio. Audiobooks too, of course, but radio is special. The magic of the transmission, from antenna to receiver in an instant. The closeness of it and the memories it can create. It's quite a unique experience, listening to the radio. I then realised at some point that the airwaves are constantly full of people connected across vast distances. Invisibly, with no infrastructure. After playing with radio waves at home with wireless networks and mobile phones (antennas, interference, power levels), curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to really understand how it all worked. How do these tiny devices communicate so efficiently? What are radio waves and how can I use them to talk around the world?

I decided to do something about it, read up on the world of amateur radio and bought a cheap HT (handy-talky in amateur-speak) to listen in. That was in 2013. The chatter of boaters in marinas came alive from the beach, bus drivers as they shared traffic updates across London and local amateurs using 'repeaters' to chat in a 30-50 mile radius. Most large towns and areas have one; it basically takes your weak signal and puts it out at a higher power, giving your £20 handheld a very useful range beyond line of sight. All very basic, but still enough to keep me interested in unveiling the hidden world of radio. Then came a visit to a local radio club, but I wasn't convinced by the membership. It's an old-boys club at the best of times, unfortunately, and attitudes are hardly what you'd call progressive in the smaller clubs. I might talk about prejudice and -isms in radio another time, but it might also be one of those things that's best left to wither away on its own.

So I sought out another club and came across Nunsfield House in Derby in late 2015, signed up for the Foundation licence and started to attend classes. Several months later I gained that licence, allowing me to operate radios of up to 10 watts power. My first callsign was M6GXX - I could choose the last 3 letters, the first part being an international allocation for this level of licence. 10 watts is plenty to get started with, and some people communicate across continents at this level, but you can't operate any self-built equipment, the technical level is relatively low and you can't operate internationally. So onwards and upwards!

In early 2016 the Intermediate course started and by March we were done and exams were passed. My second and current callsign is 2E0GRL - again choosing the last 3 letters, with the first part being the UK's 2nd level allocation and an E for England. I still can't operate internationally, that comes next, but can use radios with up to 50W power within the UK for now. This can be boosted by using special antennas, but the radio can only put out 50W at this stage. The last licence is called the Full or Advanced and is the only internationally accepted credential for operating around the world when travelling. It also allows for up to 400W transmission power. Considering most people can speak to the other side of the world on 10-100W, depending on the 'mode' (morse, data, voice), 400W is a hefty amount to have access to. But as we learn on the courses, it's not all about power...

I currently have a choice of whether to pay around £90 to be able to take the Full exam sooner, thus being able to operate abroad later this year, or take a distance course for just the cost of the exam (£37.50) but not complete until December. I'm leaning towards the latter for now, as I have another exam to take in the summer (for a certain belt that is black, yes I'm really rounding out the nerd creds here) and that will require a fair bit of training in itself.

Gear

It can feel like this is 90% of what radio hams talk about. The remaining 10% being the weather. I kid, in truth the discussions can vary wildly, but they aren't really the main point. Experimenting, logging distances and making contacts on the air is more the spirit of it.

Anyway, I have the cheap HT I mentioned above, a Baofeng UV-5R+, a 4 watt-wonder, peeling back the curtain of the world of radio just a little. A nice intro to local radio listening, as it operates on VHF/UHF which goes basically as far as the horizon, by line of sight, unless you can use a nearby repeater and even further if that repeater has Echolink (see below). Some time in 2015 I picked up a shortwave radio (a Tecsun PL 660) to listen in to the international frequencies 'on the go'. I've heard Pyongyang's warped and childlike broadcasts, picked up plenty of free Chinese language lessons (it seems the Chinese have a radio 'hearts and minds' strategy, perhaps for the African continent, or beyond?), listen regularly to French language broadcasts and catch the odd radio amateurs chatting. It's fun to switch on and fall asleep to at night.

Then on passing the intermediate I picked up a HF (high-frequency - the waves that are longest and go around the world) radio, the Yaesu 857d, and have so far only used it for local contacts on VHF/UHF (very and ultra high frequencies - shorter waves that 'fizzle out', as mentioned above), but at 50W with a directional antenna I'm getting much further than before. I'm in the process of building the HF antenna which ought to then open up the real reason I started down this path. I could just plug in a store-bought antenna, but then it'd need tuning it every time it was used, with tuners costing £100-200. I'd much rather take the time to build this design I've heard of called a Cobwebb. It needs no tuning in daily use and works extremely well, by all accounts. Time will tell.

So that's a quick intro to what's been keeping me busy in my spare time these last few years, but particularly these last few months. I know it's probably a bit obscure, but hopefully of interest if you've read this far! I encourage you to look up your local club. You'll find them most welcoming, I'm sure. I'll leave you with a few other tidbits that have captured my imagination over time. Enjoy!

  • You can listen to astronauts speaking to Earth via a cheap HT (no licence required, but training to set it up would help). Hearing Tim Peake talk from space always brings a smile to the face.
  • You can connect an antenna to a HF (high frequency, which confusingly is actually near the lowest end of the amateur frequencies) radio and talk to other amateurs, who are generally smart and courteous people, anywhere in the world. This was much more impressive before the internet, but if you consider what's happening and what is involved, it is still just as impressive. And it still brings a smile to the face in a way the internet cannot. There is no commercial content and you feel a real connection to the world, more viscerally than through a screen and keyboard.
  • Understanding some of the science and physics behind radio waves makes the cloud of noise we walk through every day almost visible.
  • You can combine internet and radio via Echolink, pressing spacebar to talk and having your voice emerge in Hawaii to a contact walking their dog on the beach, describing the sunrise on their HT. True story!
  • You can do this without a computer if your local repeater is Echolink (or IRLP) enabled.
  • As internet infrastructure becomes ever more entrenched, with fibre-optic cables being laid in every town in the country, it is also becoming less entrenched as 3G and 4G networks provide connectivity wirelessly for miles around at fibre speeds. It's this potential shift in direction of internet infrastructure that also interests me. Imagine a world where we have internet antennas on top of our houses instead of TV antennas. They'd be much more attractive (short vertical poles) and it's not such a stretch of the imagination to see it happening.
  • Plenty of surprising people are radio amateurs - such as Jim Lee, the Radio 4 news and shipping forecast reader, a.k.a. G4AEH, and many tend to come out of the woodwork when you mention it out and about.
  • Translators and language learners get to practice their languages! I jumped straight into contacts with Sweden, Canada and France after signing up to Echolink. This must certainly qualify for CPD, particularly if one of your area of expertise is radio, RF, antenna design etc.

 

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