I focused. I studied. I took practice tests. When I consistently scored safely above passing day after day, I scheduled an exam at a volunteer location an hour and a half away. I prepared. I kept reviewing. I memorized equations (and made sure I could at least take a basic calculator because I suck – SUCK – at math). It was worth it. I passed on my first try. Lots of people don’t – it’s not as easy as getting your driver’s license but I passed in one go. I’m now an FCC-licensed amateur radio operator.
It’s my latest strategy for avoiding burn-out as a software engineer. What used to be a hobby has turned into a far-more-than-full-time job and I’ll be honest – life is conspiring to burn me out. I need a new hobby but love technology. What to do, what to do? I turned to a desire I had when I was a kid: I decided to become an amateur radio operator (a “ham”).
At any given moment, there are countless radio signals piercing through the low roar coming from the cosmos. These signals are artificial and many (but not all) are intentional transmissions.
Some of the purposeful information passing comes from cell phones, WiFi routers, and wireless Xbox game controllers and are usually very limited in range so as not to interfere with others who have the same devices (ever fight with your neighbors’ WiFi routers in an apartment complex?). These don’t need distance, they just need to take the place of wires running every which way.
Other signals come from the two-way radios of businesses, government, and licensed amateur operators. Some come from beacons (fixed radio stations that broadcast their call signs, time, weather, etc.) that tell you the time, weather, radio propagation conditions, and more. If you’ve used GPS, you’re using several fixed radio beacons at once to compute your position relative to theirs and probably to orient your position on a local copy of a map. Some conversations take place using nothing more than an on-off-on-on-off signal called “continuous wave” (CW), which is synonymous with “Morse Code” and is still alive and well (and VERY useful when you have limited power or metorological conditions aren’t favorable to bandwidth-intensive voice communications).
We rely on radio frequency (RF) emissions for so many things it’s a wonder more people don’t understand the basics of how it works. After all, many people don’t care exactly how the lights work, so long as they’re there when we flick the switch … yet most of us can explain the basics of electricity and how closing a circuit with a switch makes a lightbulb’s filament glow. We’ve all heard of fuel-powered generators, solar panels, wind and water turbines, and nuclear reactors (which are just another kind of fuel-powered steam turbine generator). Most of us have heard “AC” and “DC” and have at least a vague idea of what “alternating” (A) and “direct” (C) means in this context from science class. You’d be surprised how much more most people know about electricity and its applications versus RF.
I think this is an unintentional hole in modern education. We ought to know more about this important technology. It shouldn’t be a magical force, wielded only by cell phone and computer makers. More “normal folks” ought to be able to use a basic radio with reasonable confidence and those of us who are interested enough should keep tinkering and making new discoveries.
What Is Amateur Radio?
The world’s governments divide up the radio-frequency portion of the electromagnetic spectrum into “bands” and “sub-bands” of frequency ranges. These ranges are licensed to broadcast stations, businesses, and commercial radio product manufacturers. Want to certify and sell your own WiFi router in the US? Talk to the FCC and make DAMN SURE your device radiates in exactly the prescribed frequency range for its purpose at NO MORE than the prescribed strength (so you’re not “talking over” people sixty or six thousand miles away).
Amateur radio (known as “ham radio” because amateurs were called “hams” since they were “just hamming around”) is a service provided by many world governments. It’s essentially several reserved bands for any LICENSED person to use. With a few watts of power and a good antenna, you can bounce signals off the ionosphere (versus direct line-of-site like walkie-talkies and cell phones to towers) and talk to the other side of the planet.
Amateur radio is an international, self-policed set of RF bands that allow communications in a number of atmospheric conditions. Hams have their own amateur satellites that can be used to bounce signals. You can even do a “moon bounce” (use the moon as a giant reflector to reach much farther than atmospheric conditions allow … and for bragging rights).
Errr … CB?
Isn’t that CB? No.
Many amateur operators will give you a stern look if not an outright attitude for confusing Citizens Band (CB) radio for amateur. CB is relatively unregulated and full of “colorful personalities”. Though you’re not supposed to, you can get away with swearing on the CB. You can also get away with using “handles” (fake user names for you Internet-only kiddies) on the CB.
On the amateur radio bands, you MUST identify yourself with your FCC-assigned call sign (for which you MUST hold a license to transmit). You will be laughed off the air and shunned if you say something like, “Breaker breaker, goooood buddy!” or use 10-codes “10-4, good buddy, what’s yer 20?” (I received your message, friend, where are you located?).
CB users are thought of as “appliance users” – they plug it in, turn it on, and start yapping. Because CB radios can only be so powerful by law, some guy in Richmond, Virginia won’t be “talking over” someone in Encino, California. Since power is limited, you won’t achieve “sky-wave propagation” (your signal won’t bounce off the atmosphere and keep going much farther). Technically, this is also because of the specific range of frequencies the FCC designated for CB – those frequencies don’t tend to go very far naturally, even if someone is using an illegal amplifier.
Finally, as an easy-to-use “appliance”, CB is “channelized” like television and FM radio signals. That is, a given channel is a specific frequency with a specific bandwidth (how “wide” the signal deviates from the tuned frequency to pass voice modulations without overlapping another channel). Amateur radio has no such restrictions beyond what bands you’re allowed to transmit on. You can tune to any frequency you’re allowed. Slight interference? Move “up ten” or “down five” (kilohertz) or tighten your filters to exclude the outer edge of someone else’s encroaching signal. You can’t do that with CB because most CB operators wouldn’t have the first clue how to take that tinny, chipmunk-sounding voice and tune it so that it sounds normal. It takes practice and isn’t practical when you’re a-drivin’ down the road in yer big rig.
Consider “the wide-open, unregulated Internet” and the usual quality you see in forums and news comment areas. There SHOULD be an unregulated “appliance user” area. But there should also be a regulated area where you’re required to take responsibility for your statements. I’d spend most of my time on THAT part of the internet, personally, because people are less likely to be such unbelievable ass-hats when they can be looked up by address and reported to the FCC (or equivalent government agency) for what they say or do.
Is This Ham Expired?
Back to the issue of a struggling hobby. Most amateur radio operators tend to be retired men. Many in the US tend to be conservatives, ex-military, technology purists, and permutations thereof. They’re all, however, “proto-geeks”. On some of the phone (voice) frequencies, you can hear them talking about one of two things: radio technology or their latest health concerns.
I’m not making fun. Really. But it emphasizes that, until recently, the ham population is aging and is seeing attrition due to the natural end of the mortal coil. Although there’s been a resurgence of younger people taking an interest and getting licensed to transmit (listen all you want, but don’t dare transmit without a license), it’s not been until the last year that the hobby is no longer in a steep decline.
Not to go all “soylent green” or anything, but this has an up-side and a down-side. The down-side, obviously, is that skilled veterans are aging and passing away without as many younger people to take up the skill and continue developing it. The up-side is that, if we fix the down-side, we’re left with the ability to stand on the shoulders of what our forebears worked hard to build and continue reaching for the sky with new technology and technique. Sure, Grandpa would never have approved of changing this or that decades-old traditional technique, but nature makes “it’s our world now” an inevitability. If it weren’t for old ideas going to the grave with their generations, we’d likely still have slavery, debtor’s prisons, and working conditions that would make OSHA cry tears of blood.
But Why YOU?
I’m interested in signal analysis. I’m interested in developing new, open communications techniques using the same old radio. There’s more to it than “AM/FM” (amplitude versus frequency modulation). Shift the phase of your carrier wave by some known amount and you have “phase shift keying” – another popular way of sending information with as little power and bandwidth as possible while allowing for “error correction” (the sum of the characters in the word “the” might be 215, so after every so many characters, send what the sum is supposed to be and the receiver knows they received the last few characters correctly … or can ask for a retransmit – computer geeks will recognize this as a “checksum”).
More than that, my interest in microcontrollers (Arduino development platform, etc.) and software engineering overlaps nicely. One thing I wish I had when spec’ing out my radio station was more of an appliance approach as my first radio. Even though I wouldn’t be satisfied as an “appliance operator”, there’s a lot of important matching (more so than building your own computer) that MUST be done or you WILL fry something – likely your transceiver and quite possibly yourself with “RF burns.” That said, I’d have paid good money for a self-contained antenna-and-transceiver-and-power-supply-and-antenna-tuner package that you feed power and can control from whatever room you damn well please. As it stands, I’ve tried several antennas, put several holes in my house, and am still afraid to transmit from my base station because I can’t quite match the transmitter to the antenna (which could overheat the transmitter).
If all I had to do were to dig a 6-inch trench and have an electrician run a buried line out to a “flag-pole antenna” (an antenna that looks like an ordinary flag pole but achieves the heights and polarization necessary for general amateur radio communications on all bands), I’d have gladly done so. Using yet another set of radios (like your Bluetooth keyboard), a wireless (direct or over WiFi) control panel could be placed wirelessly wherever you want it without punching holes in your house and running the risk of “RF in the shack” (your transmission line accidentally becoming part of the antenna and radiating RIGHT BESIDE YOU when you transmit). All the actual heavy-duty equipment would be OUTSIDE and controlled from an easily-passcode-protected control panel in your den (or bathroom if you choose). Dedicated control panel? Even that’s not necessary – it could all be an iOS (or Android or Mac or Windows) app on your computer, too.
How about a handheld digital text message interface. A wireless plug-in module for your iPhone or iPad that listens-and-decodes or encodes-and-uses-your-radio-to-transmit Morse, PSK31, RTTY, or other popular digital text modes would help a lot of fledgling hams by making digital modes a LOT easier to use than they are now.
I’d pay good money for either of these nonexistent devices I mentioned and I’ll bet many other hams who are just starting out would too. Best of all, it’d make the manufacturer money while making it easier for more people to get licensed and get started. I will end up building prototypes. I guarantee it. I may end up selling them, too.
What About Fun?
I’m very interested in a kind of sport where the goal is to make rare-ish long-distance contacts and obtain physical proof in the form of a postcard from the other station. This is called a “QSL card” and is like a paper trophy for your skywave propagation skills. Bonus points if they heard you but you didn’t hear them respond because a few weeks later, you get a surprise by international mail from someone who heard you calling in the distance. They happened to be listening at the right time, on the right frequency, with the right equipment in the right conditions and copied your call sign clearly enough to look you up and send you a QSL card. That to me is far more interesting than e-mail because it’s tangible and you did it without a global network of interconnected message-passing technology; you did it directly with your own equipment. You vibrated the ether and made a contact on the other side of the world (or with the Antarctica station or the International Space Station if they happened to be listening on their free time).
I also want to do a “moon bounce” (mentioned above) and use some satellites. Just to be able to say I’ve done it. I’d love to create an even faster, more reliable RF communication mode (think TCP/IP, computer geek friends) that fully addresses the entire UTF-64 character set with full error correction. This would allow non-lossy text messages in any language and on-the-fly “say this last part one more time” error correction just as we’ve had in dialup modems.
What Radio Do You Have?
My first radio is a FLEX-1500 software-defined radio. This means it’s a tiny box with the transceiver assembly that plugs into a computer via a control cable (USB in this case) and the computer acts as the signal processor and control mechanism. I have a power supply (required) and an antenna tuner (to match the antenna impedance for transmitting). This is what gave me the idea for the remote-controlled “everything in one small box outside” system I mentioned above. I’d have bought that instead if it were commercially available.
How Can I Reach You by RF?
Of course I’ll still primarily use the Internet for reliable, conventional communication. If you’re reading this, you already know how to send me a quick message even if you don’t remember my e-mail address. Use my site’s main menu or Google me – I’m definitely reachable. What about RF, though?
My automatically-assigned call sign is KK4OTS but I’ve applied for a “vanity” sign. Like vanity license plates, you can’t pick just anything and expect to get it, so I have little or no control over the first half of the call sign. I hope, however, to become W4JLN (the last three letters are my initials) since that call has been available since 2008. My application is pending. Hopefully by the time you read this, it’ll be approved. For now, feel free to seek me out on the designated calling frequency for whatever given band you’re using. I might just be listening.
Might this be a new career? Perhaps. Maybe it’ll always just be a hobby. Either way, I’m as fascinated with this as I was with software engineering and THAT was just a hobby to me not too long ago. Now it pays the bills and buys me new techno-toys.
Keep challenging yourself.