Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Get on the Air Part 1 - Technician License

Congratulations on your first ham radio license. This is an intimidating hobby and I hope this will be a rough guide to what to do on the bands. I'll talk about my first few years in the hobby, my renewed interest, and then my third and current activity.

There are a couple of paths you can go down, decided by your current license, budget, available real estate, comfort with a soldering iron, the phase of the moon, etc. I'll break down the path to success here for both the VHF/UHF Technician parts, and HF. My preference is HF, because who doesn't like talking to their neighbors in the next state over about their heart conditions after having a few too many cold ones?


This is what you'll need to get started. It's only the minimal, low-cost way to get on the air. You can obviously go nuts here. I'll save building your own radios for a later blog post.

  1. Get a handy-talkie, handheld, or whatever the kids call them today. My first HT was a Radio Shack HTX-101 and it ran on 32 AA batteries (exaggerating only slightly). It was roughly the size of a European brick (which is smaller than a standard American brick, and probably doens't exist), and had a BNC antenna connector on it. Later in life I had a Yaesu VX-6R, mid 2000's variant. The VX-6R was built by a brick. Unfortunately by the time I acquired it I was A) living in a small town with an inactive ham community B) More interested in HF work and C) I didn't really want to sit in the rain watching runners pass by. Be careful about any radio sold on Amazon. They are either extremely low quality, or knock-offs. Work directly with Ham Radio Outlet, DX Engineering, or other reputable dealers.
  2. Connect your new radio to the antenna, power supply, microphone, or any other accessory you want to use
  3. Figure out what the local repeaters are in your area. Once you've got them, program it into your radio and then you're ready to go. Remember repeater's have offsets, tones, and other things that require setup.
  4. Marvel at how wonderfully and universally bad all radio documentation is. Give up and go to Google to figure out how to program it.
  5. Make your first call! I will talk about how to do this later.
Making Your First Call

First start by listening. If someone else is using the repeater, and just happens to be pausing to take a pull off of a Cold One, don't be the noob that interrupts. I recommend listening for 30 seconds or so before assuming the channel is clear. Identify, saying something like "URCALLSIGN". In my case I would say "K1HYL". Then listen for someone to say the frequency is in use. If you don't hear anything you're ready to tell everyone you're listening and willing to talk.

VHF, UHF, and other non-HF bands all have a different way of signalling an intention to initiate a contact. Here in the United States, the convention is to say "K1HYL, monitoring" every 5-10 minutes until someone comes back. If you're wondering whether or not your radio is working say, "K1HYL can anyone give me a radio check?" You should here substantive critique of your audio, signal, and operating technique shortly afterwards.

If someone calls back, answer them with their callsign, your call-sign phonetically if you don't know the person, your name, and what radio you're using. After the other person tells you their name, then talk about when you were licensed, what antenna you're using, or other general conversational points. It's traditional to not engage in political conversation, or in general anything controversial in the slightest. 

Then you can jibber-jabber back and forth until you're finished. If you're conversation runs long, be sure to remember to ID. When the repeater, or your other person IDs, do it then.

Ideas for What To Do Next

Try making a digital call, setting up APRS, or talking with the International Space Station. Personally I like the HF bands more. I'll talk about that in a later post. Technicians get access to the old Novice areas of the HF bands. This is a great time to study for your next test.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What Does the 'Ham' in Ham Radio Mean?

A common question that rears its ugly head periodically is: "What does the 'ham' in ham radio stand for?" Gentle reader, I'm here to answer this question authoritatively for all time in memoriam. It stands for nothing. As near as I can tell the sole purpose of it is to aggrandize the amateur populace into waxing philosophical to no end.

Oh sure there are lots of people free-associating on the meaning of it, there are even stories in the well tread pages of QST and other amateur radio scandal rags. Much ink, and whatever the internet is made of, (puppy blood for the record) has been spilled on this topic.

According to me, here are the candidates:

  1. Ham it up, jerkface! -- This is an old-timey way of saying talk to random people about nothing in a jovial manner. You see this around periodically, with Mr. G. West being the prime offender. I can say with some authority that this is not the correct answer.
  2. Hamateur radio operator -- My personal favorite, but only useful for trolling
  3. Ham handed -- Maybe this refers to the morse code straight key
  4. Someone just likes pork products -- I'm going to chalk this up as the most likely answer.
73 Hamateurs

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Ham Radio: A Nuanced and Subtle Look Into the Depravity of Nerds

Ham Radio, the nerds who other nerds give swirlies to, the nerds that get their heads slammed into lockers by other nerds, that's me. That's what I do for fun. In high school I made the socially adept move of listening to morse code practice tapes during my free time. I enjoy tickling electrons in the upper atmosphere, get them to change their orbits, then have those electrons change orbits again, perhaps reflecting back to the earth, but most likely just annoying my neighbors.

My Grandpa was a ham, and his callsign was K1HYL. When he slipped the surly bonds of earth, I took up his callsign through the FCC's vanity callsign program. I had a pretty cool callsign myself, KC5KGB, but I decided to take his. When I was a nerdling of 16, he took me to Field Day in Keene New Hampshire. Field Day is where you sit with other nerds under a picnic table and awkwardly explain how important your hobby will be in the case of nuclear winter.

Field day is practice for the nuclear winter. Mostly you take your radios that you don't care that much about, haul them into some park, and sweat your butt off while talking to as many people as you can. The idea is that you should use batteries, solar panels, generators, temporary antennas, etc. to make as many contacts as you can.

Me, seated on the left, Field Day 1999 New Mexico Tech Amateur Radio Association

During my first Field Day with my grandpa, I helped to put up antennas. Once, one of the towers had gone up in a park my grandpa proudly said, as loud as he could, "That's the first erection I've had in years!" I loved that guy. I want to be him when I grow up. At this Field Day I came to understand the true unbridled power of a horizontal loop antenna, which I will discuss in a later post.

I was quickly put to work entering stations into a logging program because I could touch type. The laptops (remember this was 1994) were connected through a 100 foot serial cable to another computer in a trailer. Using this, we were able to tell whether a contact was made or not. I was hooked. I wanted more. That's how I got into this hobby.

I'm going to use this page as a way to talk about some of the things that I've learned, the hard way, and to hopefully make things useful for other people. This is a silly hobby that people take way too seriously. I'll make fun of that.

Postscript: I made a JT65 contact with K0STK in North Dakota while writing this post. As near as I can tell Stephen T Kostecke, III is one of four amateur radio operators in North Dakota.

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