Been gone again. Am now home. While gone, I decided to get into amateur radio and acquired my technician class license. The interval between those events was four days, which tells you a few things. First, I’m really good at memorization without comprehension (Thanks, Army!). Second, the test is not terribly difficult.
Why get into amateur radio? My dad was into it when I was a kid and it always interested me, but it was fairly expensive to get into and there was that pesky Morse code requirement. All of those things have changed (to include my dad being into it, though he’s perhaps considering starting again). With the ridiculous advances in technology, the latest thing is no longer really expensive hardware, but software defined radio, which brings the bar to entry down dramatically. In fact, you can employ a pretty cheap ($25ish) USB dongle and some free software to turn any computer (and many tablets) into a poor man’s SDR. Even much nicer, more capable units can be had for just a few hundred dollars. (No FCC license required for receiving only, of course.)
On the more active side, cheap (heavily subsidized) transceivers have been flooding the market from China, to the point where you can get a decent handheld for less than $50. No, not the finest electronics ever produced, but perfect for just getting into the field.
The FCC (and most equivalent global agencies) did away with the Morse requirement in 2007. The current test for the basic (technician) license draws 35 multiple choice questions from a pool of about 400. They are freely available from the FCC and there are scores (if not hundreds) of sites and apps and books to help you study for it. I did fine after four days, and I’m not exactly a rocket scientist.
So aside from not being expensive or difficult any longer, why bother? Doesn’t the Internet and ubiquitous cell connectivity nullify any value of plain old radio?
No. First, Internet access is not nearly as ubiquitous as we tend to think, particularly when you are away from home. I spent most of the month of June depending on occasional coffee shop wi-fi spots or (more often) tethered to my cell phone with poor reception; it’s amazing how much of the modern web doesn’t work well at all when you have low bandwidth. (Which got me back into text-based Internet applications; another discussion for another time.)
Second, if you’ve ever been present for an earthquake or other disruptive event, the cell networks tend to immediately go to hell for hours or days as everyone suddenly decides to start making calls at once. If you have flooding, heavy snow, ice, or other extreme weather events, you can easily lose power, Internet, and the cell network all at once. For sheer reliability and independence from civil infrastructure, it’s pretty hard to beat radio technology.
Third, it’s no longer just old guys with scary beards and antennas sticking out all over their cars talking to each other using cryptic three-letter codes. Much of the communication done over the radio is digital, employing the same network protocols and systems we used back in the 80s and 90s when bandwidth was still measured in baud. Sure, a bulletin board system (BBS) over the Internet is cool in a retro sort of way, but how much cooler would it be to access via radio waves bounced off a satellite? For sheer nerdery, you just don’t get better than bouncing radio off ionized meteor trails using a homemade 5-watt rig. (Yes, people do this. Crazy people. Awesome people.)
Anyway, the possibilities for amusing myself are huge and the (initial) investment is small. There are three amateur radio clubs in my county (one less than 3 miles away), and half a dozen more between my house and my job. The next step (while waiting for the hardware I already ordered to arrive) is to make contact with some of these people and start picking brains to find out what I want to do and what I will need to do it. Also, I need some more books; as I noted before, I’m good at memorization without comprehension, and while I get a fair bit of it, there’s quite a bit more I don’t fully grok.
As though I really needed another potentially expensive hobby… Also, I can’t help but notice a theme with my hobbies and possessions: I like old teknolojee. Anyway, watch this space.
Getting one’s license:
Baofeng UV-5R+ handheld
Software Defined Radio
- Hackaday.com: Getting Started With Software Defined Radio
- SDRTouch for Android
- SDR.osmocom.org pages on the most common chipset in use for USB dongle SDRs, the Realtek RTL2832U