Topics and Resources for the New Amateur Radio Operator
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This guide is intended as a reference resource for newly-licensed Technican-class Amateur Radio operators ("hams") in California's San Francisco Bay Area, but most of it applies to hams everywhere in the United States.
- Regulations: The regulations governing Amateur Radio in the United States are contained in 47 CFR, mostly in Part 97.
- Courtesy: The culture of Amateur Radio, supported by Part 97, stresses courtesy and cooperation among operators and with the general public around the world. See 97.1(e) and the Radio Amateur's Code
- Operating Ethics and Operating Procedures
- Good Amateur Practice: This phrase comes from Subpart B of our regulations, "Station Operation Standards", 97.101: "In all respects not specifically covered by FCC Rules each amateur station must be operated in accordance with good engineering and good amateur practice." Good amateur practice is not defined in the regulations, but it can be learned by perceptive reading and listening.
The ARRL (American Radio Relay League) is the national association for Amateur Radio™.
- A 501(c)(3) non-profit based in Connecticut and founded in 1914
- Most of its resources are available to all hams
- Web site
- Books for purchase
- ARRL sections: members elect a Section Manager who appoints other leaders
- ARRL sections in or near the San Francisco Bay Area include East Bay, San Francisco, Santa Clara Valley, San Joaquin Valley, and Sacramento Valley. In California, ARRL sections are groups of entire counties.
- ARRL divisions: groups of sections
- Membership offers additional resources
- Handheld transceivers
- Most new hams buy a "handheld transceiver" or "HT" as a first transceiver
- Easily carried, detachable antenna, low transmit power, limited external connections
- Mobile transceivers
- More expensive than HTs
- Higher transmit power, more features
- Require a 12vDC power supply or battery, power cable, antenna, coaxial cable
- Can be mounted in a vehicle, installed at home, or lugged (portable) to a temporary installation site
- Most new hams use 2m and 70cm only
- Technican-class hams can use...
- all Amateur frequencies 50 MHz and up in frequency (includes 6m, 2m, 1.25m, 70cm, 33cm, 23cm, and on into the microwave spectrum)
- a portion of the 10m band with SSB only
- portions of the 15m, 40m, and 80m bands with CW only
- The ARRL national band plan shows regulations applying to all bands
- Local band plans show "gentlepersons' agreements" by band. Locally, the Northern Amateur Relay Council of California (NARCC) holds itself out as the Amateur Radio coordinating body for the northern portion of California. NARCC coordinates repeaters and also seeks agreement on local band plans.
- Usages that comply with the regulations but not with the local band plan are discouraged, but they are not violations.
- Most new hams use the FM mode only
- Digital modes
- These require only a computer and an interface
- Include packet/APRS, PSK31, and dozens more
- Single sideband (SSB) requires more expensive gear. Techs can use SSB on part of the 10m band and without restriction above 50MHz
- CW ("Morse code") can be used anywhere on the ham bands
- AM is seldom used but is accommodated on some higher bands
- Most new licensees use the stock antennas on their HTs (often called "rubber duckies")
- Better antennas for HTs can be purchased or made
- A better antenna is usually the most effective way to spend additional funds
- More-capable whip antenna for your HT
- Rollup J-pole (portable and can be used with an HT or mobile transceiver)
- Magnetically-mounted or permanently-mounted antenna for the vehicle roof (can be used with an HT or mobile transceiver)
- Permanently-mounted antenna at your home (can be used with an HT or mobile transceiver)
- Coaxial cable ("coax")
- Ham transceivers are made to work with 50-ohm coax.
- The higher the frequency, the more signal loss (attenuation) per foot of coax, assuming the same coax. This begins to matter at 2m and becomes significant at 70cm. Some coax is designed for less loss at higher frequency.
Simplex: transmit and receive on the same frequency
- Follow the national and local band plan in choosing your frequency
- Keep a band-plan simplex frequency in mind as your personal default
- Calling frequencies:
- Example: 146.520 MHz on the 2m band (this is the national 2m calling frequency)
- These are intended for use in initiating contact with a ham (any ham) who is unknown to you
- To continue that contact, move to a different band-plan simplex frequency
- For planned contacts, do not use a calling frequency
- Repeaters generally receive on one frequency (the input) and simultaneously repeat (retransmit) on another (the output). Listen to the repeater on its output frequency.
- The input frequency minus the output frequency is the offset. By convention, on 2 meters the offset is either plus 600 KHz or minus 600 KHz; on 70cm the offset is always plus 5 MHz
- Modern transceivers are factory-set to handle the offset automatically when you tune to the output frequency
- Open repeaters are available for use by any licensed ham. Closed repeaters may be used only with explicit permission from the repeater's trustee.
- All repeater use is at the pleasure of the repeater trustee.
- Tones (low volume, low pitch) are often used to limit interference to repeaters from transmissions on the repeater's input frequency that are not intended to activate that repeater
- CTCSS is the most widely-used type. CTCSS tones are specified in Hz.
- The repeater is activated (it will retransmit) when the specified tone is received on the input frequency
- If the specified tone is present, the repeater repeats everything it hears on the input frequency, not just the transmission from the transmitter that is sending the tone
- To use a repeater, you must tune to its output frequency, confirm that the offset is correct, set the correct tone, and make sure your transmitter is transmitting the tone.
- Modern transceivers will filter out the tones so you don't hear them
- Tones also have their uses on simplex ... but use caution, because careless use may prevent you from noticing that you are interfering with another user on the same frequency
VFO mode vs. memory mode
- Modern transceivers offer a memory mode and VFO mode
- VFO mode: "tuning around" by frequency
- Memory mode: moving among numbered channels (frequencies and associated settings) that you have saved
- To save a channel in most transceivers, set the frequency and all settings as you want them in VFO mode, then save them into a numbered channel that you choose
- Warning: the VFO will remain as you have left it, with all associated settings
- Squelch off: you hear transmissions and lots of noise
- Squelch on and increasing: noise and weak signals disappear first, then even strong signals disappear
- "Tone squelch": Squelch is on at full strength unless the specified tone is present
- Setting tone squelch in the VFO (be careful!)
Accessories and settings
- An earbud and microphone combo can be useful. Warning: the Yaesu FT-60 can be a problem when used with this accessory, because dislodging the jack just slightly will put the device into transmit.
- The Timeout Timer setting can prevent you from causing a problem. Set your transceiver's Timeout Timer to 2 minutes or maybe only 1 minute. If you transmit (intentionally or accidentally) for longer than that time, the transceiver will automatically stop transmitting.
- Listen! Spend a lot of time listening.
- Try to distinguish good practice from bad
- Listen to conversations between/among operators (e.g. nets)
- Listen to operators inviting contacts ("calling")
- On VHF/UHF the practice varies but always ends with the FCC call sign
- On HF it is usually "CQ" followed by the FCC call sign
- Before transmitting, stop and think about what you are going to say
- Avoid interrupting! Listen first, then "ask for the frequency": "Is this frequency in use?" followed by your FCC call sign.
- Answering a call
- Be brief; reply with your call sign alone
- Wait for a response
- When you receive a response, you and the other party know you can hear each other and are ready for conversation. At this point, transmissions can be longer.
- Calling (initiating a contact). On VHF and UHF, your call sign alone is OK, but something like "Anyone on frequency for a contact? This is [your call sign]" may meet with more success.
Spelling and phonetic alphabets
- When every word, or every character in a word or other "group" of characters, is critical, be prepared to take steps to make yourself understood (or to understand the other station)
- Example 1: the word "freeze"
- Example 2: the FCC call sign KA0XTT
- The first attempt in transmitting an ordinary word is usually done by pronouncing the word normally. For "freeze", just say it. But there is no "normal pronunciation" for an FCC call sign because it is not a word.
- In Example 1, the other party may not be sure she is hearing "freeze", "fleas", "trees", "sneeze", or "sieze". Maybe "knees"?
- The next attempt may be to spell the "group" by saying the conventional name of each letter. Exception: Amateurs conventionally use the British-English "zed", not "zee", as the name of letter "Z", to avoid confusion with many other similar-sounding letters.
- Example 1: "Eff Arr Ee Ee Zed Ee"
- Example 2: "Kay Ay Zero Eks Tee Tee"
- The other party may not be sure she is hearing "freeze" or "srcbzt", "KA0XTT" or "AK0SPE".
- The ultimate attempt is to spell the "group" by using phonetics. It is recommended to use the standard ITU phonetic alphabet, but this is not required.
- Example 1: "Foxtrot Romeo Echo Echo Zulu Echo"
- Example 2: "Kilo Alpha Zero X-Ray Tango Tango"
- The ARRL National Traffic System (NTS) has published an excellent document, "Sending Messages on Voice", that sets out precise procedures for use on that system. Many of this document's techniques can be applied generally.
- Station identification
- State your FCC callsign in English at the end of each communication. This is required without any ambiguity [Part 97.119(a)].
- It is generally understood that a back-and-forth conversation is a single "communication"
- If your communication (conversation) is longer than 10 minutes, also state your FCC callsign at least every ten minutes
- Tactical call signs may be used where it is helpful for stations participating in the net to address each other by their functions (such as in a public service event or a disaster response) rather than by their personal FCC call signs. "Net Control", "Aid Station One", and "Finish Line" are examples of tactical call signs that might be used during a foot or bicycle race. However, stations must still identify with their FCC call signs as required.
- When calling another station, state the other station's FCC (or tactical) call sign first followed by your own. This syntax is used across virtually all radio services -- amateur, public safety, aviation, marine, military -- and thus serves to minimize confusion. You may wish to add the words "this is" before your own call sign, both for clarity and to help you remember the syntax. ("This is [your call sign].")
- If there is no response and you then decide not to try again, you have complied with the station-ID regulation by ending your communication with your call sign
- Broadcasting (a one-way transmission intended for reception by the general public) or other one-way communication, with certain exceptions, is prohibited [Part 97.113(b)]
- Amateur Radio operators "transmit" rather than "broadcast". Our transmissions are intended only for other individual hams or hams in small groups.
Ham radio uses more jargon than it should. The effect can be to make those who don't understand it feel excluded. Keep jargon to a minimum, but you should know some of it so you understand what other hams are saying.
Q signals are intended for CW (Morse code) use only, but some have crept into voice use.
|QSL||I understood what you just said|
|QSL?||Do you understand what I just said?|
|QRM||Operator-caused interference (intentional or not)|
|QRT||Stop transmitting, or, I am stopping|
|QSO||A contact or conversation between two operators|
|QTH||Location. Sometimes used to mean location of one's residence. |
|QRP||Reduce your power, or, at very low power|
Other common ham radio terms
|73||best regards (to you, another radio operator)|
|CW||Morse code (from "continuous wave")|
|rig||a transmitter, receiver, or both (transceiver)|
|to work||to complete a loggable contact with (e.g., "Today I worked a station in Gilroy on two meters simplex"|
|traffic||a message or exchange of messages|
|up, down, above, below||In the context of tuning a transceiver, these terms refer to frequency, not to wavelength. Moving from 2 meters to 6 meters is going down, not up! Exception: 160m is sometimes called the "top band".|
See also the ARRL's Ham Radio Glossary.
One ham may ask another how well he or she is being received. A reply like "loud and clear" or "I understand you but your signal is weak" is always acceptable. Otherwise there are, sad to say, two numerical systems in use for this purpose, at least in the San Francisco Bay Area, and they are easily confused. (Many hams don't even realize that there are two distinct such systems!)
- The RS(T) (or RS) system. This system has long been used and promoted by the ARRL. Format: Two digits, voiced separately (e.g., "five nine", never "fifty-nine"). The first digit measures readability on a scale of 1 (unreadable) to 5 (perfectly readable). The second digit measures signal strength on a scale of 1 (barely perceptible) to 9 (extremely strong).
- The S-by-R system. This system is apparently derived from law-enforcement and military radio usage. Format: Two digits separated by the word "by". The first digit measures signal strength on a scale of 1 (barely perceptible) to 5 (extremely strong). The second digit measures readability on a scale of 1 (unreadable) to 5 (perfectly readable).
|Perfectly readable and extremely strong ("loud and clear")
|Readable with practically no difficulty but weak in strength
|Barely readable but fairly good in strength
If you are in doubt about which system the other party is using, or if you suspect that the other party is confusing the two systems or using one of them incorrectly (which is quite possible), do not hesitate to ask the other party to explain using "plain text".
Transmissions in an Emergency or Disaster
Regulations governing Amateur Radio are in effect at all times, including at times of emergency or disaster. Nothing in any regulation or law governing Amateur Radio says "In an emergency, anything goes." Part 97 provides the following instruction about what constitutes an emergency and how Part 97 itself is to be interpreted when an emergency exists:
97.403 Safety of life and protection of property.
No provision of these rules prevents the use by an amateur station of any means of radiocommunication at its disposal to provide essential communication needs in connection with the immediate safety of human life and immediate protection of property when normal communication systems are not available.
97.405 Station in distress.
(a) No provision of these rules prevents the use by an amateur station in distress of any means at its disposal to attract attention, make known its condition and location, and obtain assistance.
(b) No provision of these rules prevents the use by a station, in the exceptional circumstances described in paragraph (a) of this section, of any means of radiocommunications at its disposal to assist a station in distress.
It has been pointed out that the language of 97.403 contains three clear conditions, each of which must be met before that paragraph might be effective:
- ... to provide essential communication needs ...
- ... in connection with the immediate safety of human life and immediate protection of property ...
- ... when normal communication systems are not available.
Meanwhile, others in the Amateur Radio community may be handling urgent radio traffic for government and non-government agencies who are responding to a critical incident to assist and protect the public, respecting the provisions of Part 97. Those Amateurs are relying upon the discipline of all other Amateurs to keep frequencies clear of unnecessary or interfering radio traffic.
Things To Do in Amateur Radio
Participating in nets provides basic operating practice.
- Club and program nets: usually weekday evenings
- Special-interest nets
- The 9 am Talk Net (weekdays beginning at 9:00 am on a repeater in Palo Alto) explicitly welcomes and encourages new hams
- Basic types of nets
- Open net: Any participant may speak, and a handoff from one to the next is handled informally. Participants may join and leave the net as the net proceeds.
- Directed net: there is a Net Control Station (NCS) who conducts the net and who may, as the net begins, state the procedures under which the net will operate. In some nets at some times, the NCS will require that all net traffic go through the NCS; in others, the NCS will allow net members to exchange traffic without notice to the NCS unless and until the NCS perceives that the situation calls for the NCS to take full control of net traffic.
- In short, where there is a NCS, the NCS should assume the authority to direct the net in a manner that he or she perceives best serves the purpose of the net.
Disaster Response / Emergency Communications
Part 97 provides explicit recognition of Amateur Radio's role in supporting disaster relief operations in the United States:
97.1 Basis and purpose.
The rules and regulations in this part are designed to provide an amateur radio service having a fundamental purpose as expressed in the following principles:
(a) Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications. ...
Disaster Response Training
- The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
- Other agencies
Amateur Radio disaster communications
- ARRL Amateur Radio Emergency Service® (ARES®) program
- Government agency support programs ("RACES" / "ACS")
- Non-government agency support programs (Red Cross, Salvation Army)
- Local club or other group
- FEMA: ICS forms
- ICS 205: Incident Radio Communications Plan
- ICS 213: General Message Form
Public Service Events: in-the-field communications practice
- "Public service events" (PSEs) include bicycle and foot races, equestrian rides, parades, and team athletic events at which Amateur Radio works with the event organizer to help preserve the safety of the public (the participants, the spectators, or both)
- Calendar of PSEs in the ARRL East Bay Section
- Amateur Radio provides a public service that is very visible to and valued by the public
- Amateur Radio leaders gain experience working with a "served agency" and planning a complex activity
- Amateur Radio operators gain experience handling messages and working with equipment in the field at an activity that is not scripted and has unpredictable outcomes (and is therefore not a drill or exercise)
- Planning: poor planning can lead to poor or even catastrophic results
- Operator training: Some participating operators may use frequent or long, rambling transmissions to say what no one needs to know, or may choose words poorly to describe what others do need to know
- Tactical call signs: Operators must be trained to use tactical call signs appropriately and to continue to use FCC call signs as required
- Employees: Amateur Radio operators are not permitted to transmit communications on behalf of an employer or any other communications in which the Amateur has a financial interest [Part 97.113(a)(2-3)]. Therefore, a licensed operator who is an employee of any entity involved in the event should not transmit on Amateur Radio, whether or not that employee is "on the clock" at the time. (There is a limited exception for drills and exercises.)
- ARRL Field Day: Held across the US and Canada the fourth full weekend of June by clubs and other local groups. Has characteristics of a disaster response, a public demonstration of Amateur Radio, a contest, and often a weekend campout.
- EchoLink and IRLP: linking stations and repeaters via the Internet
- Satellites: Amateur Radio satellite resources:
- Contesting (also known as "radiosport")
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John Rabold KS6M