Getting Started in Amateur Radio

Last year, I decided to become involved in the hobby of Amateur radio, and to start volunteering my time to the local amateur radio club.  It was a decision that has resulted in a tremendous learning experience, a way of meeting new people, and a means of giving back to the community in which I live.  You may be reading this article, thinking about joining this old hobby and tradition of tinkering, building, and volunteering.  You probably have many questions about what’s involved, what you can and cannot do, and the different modes and technologies that exist with amateur radio.  Having recently acquired my Basic operating ticket (and earning my callsign of VA3POR), allow me to share with you the road I took to becoming an amateur radio operator.

First off, the Internet is a great way to pull together information on how to become a licensed amateur radio operator (commonly referred to as hams).  It is important to realize, that to TRANSMIT, you must be licensed.  No if, ands, or buts.  The authorities that oversee the amateur radio service (Industry Canada in Canada, the FCC in the US) take a very dim view of unauthorized communications on license only bands.  That being said, when you get your license, you are privy to a wide spectrum of modes – analog and digital.  But again, you still may not be sure that you want to persue this, and that you need the opportunity to see what ham radio is all about.  There are ways to get a feel for the hobby without having to be licensed first, and thus make an intelligent decision on whether to undertake this unique hobby.  So, here are some things that you can do to get a feel for amateur radio.

Internet Resources
If you live in Canada, then visit the Radio Amateurs of Canada website www.rac.ca.  This body of amateur radio operators has many resources about the hobby and what’s involved.  If you are from the US, then visit ARRL – a very detailed and rich site on all aspects of amateur radio.  Another great source is YouTube.  Here, you can see people operating equipment, using their computers and radios in digital modes, and get a “first hand” feel for whats involved.

Field Day
Many of the local Amateur Radio clubs have what are called ARES sections.  ARES – the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, is a group of amateur radio operators that train and participate in exercises that prepare them to assist their communities during times of emergency.  Field Day is a massive exercise that amateur radio operators in different regions around the world set up in the middle of an open field, and operate their equipment on battery power for a 24 hr period.  One of the stations is what is called a “Get On the Air” station.  This station takes on the call sign of an amateur radio who was not licensed the year before (a contest requirement).  Yours truly will be a GOTA station with my call sign (VA3POR).  GOTA stations allow anyone in the general public to get on the air for the first time, and try to make contacts with people on the air.  If you are interested, follow me on Twitter, or visit the www.peelarc.org site for announcements on Field Day, which is slated for June 25th – 26th of 2011.

Listening

The licensing requirement is for TRANSMIT only (unless you are using GOTA, or you have a licensed ham allow you to operate his/her radio).  You can, however, use a scanner to listen to amateur radio stations on all it’s bands, and also start receiving digital transmissions.  This was something that I did to really whet the appetite for getting into ham radio.  After seeing some of the things one could do with a radio and a computer, I purchased a handheld scanner (Yaesu VR-500) and a telescoping antenna (MFJ-1314 – 2 metre). Using a computer’s sound card, an audio cable, and the handheld scanner, I was able to receive all sorts of digital transmissions and get a feel for operating digitally.  This kind of setup is a great exercise in becoming familiar with the practical ideas involved without having to worry about licensing.

Local Amateur Radio Clubs
The local clubs are a fantastic source of information.  Here, you get to meet individuals that are highly experienced, and are more than willing to answer any questions you may have about the hobby.  When you feel that you want to acquire your license, the clubs usually have courses to assist people in acquiring their operating ticket.  This is what I have done ultimately.  You can visit the RAC website www.rac.ca to see which clubs exist in your area.  Those within the West GTA (Greater Toronto Area) may wish to consider the Peel Amateur Radio Club at www.peelarc.org.

Amateur Radio is a rich field of exploration.  It engages the technical mind and appeals to the sense of civic service.  It has traditions and practices that span generations, but yet experiments with modern ideas and technology.  There a few hobbies that possess such a unique set of properties.  I encourage anyone reading this to take the time to know what amateur radio is about, and to understand why it’s such a great pursuit.

 

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