Amateur (Ham) Radio

How is “amateur radio” or “ham radio” different than other radios?

Radios are used everyday by all sorts of industries, groups and organizations.

  • Industrial radios in logging, mining, warehousing, trucking, etc
  • Marine radios at sea.
  • Military radios, law enforcement radios, fire fighter radios, ambulances/paramedic radios, security service radios.
  • Commercial broadcast radio (like radio stations you listen to in your car).

Distinct from all these uses, some radio frequencies are set aside for “amateur radio”. This means non-commercial use for fun or for community welfare, chatting with friends, etc. You are explicitly not allowed to use amateur radio for any kind business, advertising, broadcast entertainment, etc.

A Formal Definition of Amateur Radio

Amateur Radio is an avocation, which is intended […] to promote technical self training, international goodwill, and non-commercial communication service (particularly with respect to emergency communications).

Why do I need a license, can’t I just grab a cheap radio from Costco?

So if its just for fun, why not use those cheap FRS radios you see at every big box store around town? Well a radio that does not require a license has a number of limitations imposed on it in order to keep it safe to use and unlikely to cause serious interference for others. That means its pretty low power output, has a fixed non-removable antenna, a fixed set of “channels” or frequencies, etc. By getting an amateur radio license, you get privileges to use much higher powered equipment, changeable antennas and a wide array of radio frequencies that have different strengths and weaknesses (some are good for longer distances, some better for shorter distances, etc). This does require a little bit of skill as the radios tend to be a little more complex with more features and capabilities, but that’s where the benefits are found in increased capabilities.

Ok so practically speaking, is there really any use for ham radio?

You betcha. Granted some of the allure of amateur radio has been lost in the generation where 12 year-olds have smart phones and can send text messages across the continent in mere seconds. However, cell service is dependent on service providers, costs money all the time, and service may be unavailable in certain geographic areas, during special events (all circuits busy) or after a natural disaster (earthquakes, forest fires, floods, tornado, etc). Likewise the internet has similar dependencies on service providers, monthly costs and is subject to loss of service in an emergency or other types of service disruptions and downtime.

Ham radio on the other hand has no central service provider dependency. It is explicitly non-commercial and no one can charge you money to talk on a radio, send a message, etc. (Although most governments have a modest licensing fee, it is generally to cover costs only and not nearly as high as what our commercial counter parts will be paying for commercial use of radios).

Common uses for ham radio:

  • Offroad enthusiasts with jeeps, 4runners, tacomas, fj cruisers, land cruisers, hummers, etc. Can be used to communicate between vehicles when “in the backcountry” off-road. Outdoor sports like skiing, snowboarding, hiking, kayaking, canoeing. Can be used to co-ordinate between different groups or to help find each other when split up. (Those cheap FRS radios get pretty jammed up on popular ski hills and have limited power, a nice little amateur “handie-talkie” will be rather impressive to most skiers/snowboarders).
  • Community event co-ordination: most marathons, half-marathons, 10ks, bike races, etc. will make use of local amateur radio operators as volunteers to help communicate between various points along the route. For example the Vancouver Sun Run is facilitated by amateur radio volunteers.
  • Emergency preparedness: amateur radio is frequently used to facilitate during natural disasters and pass messages between various areas of relief efforts. Where I live there is considerable chance of a major earthquake in my lifetime. (The once in a few hundred years size earthquake).
  • For “sport”, yah it may be geeky, but lots of people just enjoy the thrill of trying to talk to someone across the planet with nothing more than an armful of wires and a radio. Many amateurs collect up “QSL cards” which are something like passport stamps showing the trail of your travels. Trying to achieve something like talking to someone in every country in the world, or making challenging contacts like someone in the Arctic, satellite communication or contacting the international space station can be a fun and rewarding hobby.