What Is Amateur Radio?

Amateur radio (sometimes called ham radio) is one of the most exciting technical hobbies today and is enjoyed by over a million people all over the world. Its origins date back to the beginning of the last century when the first experimenters started exploring the generation and reception of radio waves. The term ‘amateur’ refers to the non-commercial aspect of the hobby.

What can you do with amateur radio?

There is certainly plenty to do with the hobby. Despite the arrival of mobile phones and the internet, amateur radio is still very popular and remains relevant and at the cutting edge of communications. Every amateur has different interests and it is said the hobby is a broad-church.

  • HF Operating and DXing:

    Frequencies up to 30 MHz (the High Frequency, or HF spectrum) ‘propagate’ around the world under certain conditions. The earth’s ionosphere reflects these signals back down to earth, sometimes several times, resulting in them being heard in far away destinations and sometimes all the way around the world. You don’t need to live on a hill or have large aerials to enjoy HF propagation.

  • VHF, UHF and Microwaves

    The frequencies above 30 MHz don’t usually get returned to earth by the ionosphere, but they still have interesting properties. They can be used to bounce signals off the moon, communicate via satellites orbiting the earth or simply to chat locally. Some amateurs operate ‘repeaters’ allowing people who wouldn’t normally be able to reach each other to communicate via a system which is usually on a high location with a sensitive receive capability and then re-transmits the signal from its high vantage point. Repeaters are commonly used by mobile users while driving cars and the signals can also be routed between repeaters through the internet allowing worldwide communications.

  • Computers and Data Communications

    Not everything in amateur radio involves the transmission of voice. Computers can control radios to send text, pictures and video as well as being key to controlling aerials, understanding propagation conditions and logging your contacts.

  • Construction

    Radio amateurs are the only persons legally allowed to design, build and modify radio transmitters without them being approved by regulatory bodies. Whilst you can purchase all the equipment you may need ready built, some people enjoy the challenge and sense of achievement when they make their first contact using their creation.

  • Aerials

    No radio can function without an aerial of some sort and this is a great area to experiment. Whether you want to build a hidden aerial system in trees, inside your loft or on a balcony using simple wire, or build a large scale directional aerial installation, the topic of aerials is of interest to many.

  • Scientific Studies

    Much of today’s radio knowledge was discovered by the amateurs of the past. However, there is still much to learn and the large number of operational amateurs means that natural phenomena such as propagation can be studied using the widescale resources of worldwide amateurs.

  • Emergency Communications

    There are dedicated amateur radio groups that maintain equipment and train for emergencies where the statutory emergency services require assistance. The UK amateur radio licence makes provision for emergency communications on behalf of category 1 and 2 responders as defined by the Civil Contingencies Act 2004.

  • Contesting

    Radio contesting involves making as many contacts with other amateurs as possible within a given time frame. Contests are very popular and contesters are known to be extremely competitive!

  • Friendship

    Radio amateurs naturally communicate with each other over the air offering friendship opportunities to all from the comfort of their own home. Of course, organisations like Bromsgrove & DIstrict Amateur Radio Club add a personal, face-to-face dimension to this dynamic.

  • Much, much more!

    There are far more aspects to the hobby than described above, so why not come along to our weekly club night and find out more?

Do you have to learn Morse code?

The requirement to learn Morse code was removed in 2003 but Morse is still alive on the bands. Not only is it the simplest way to generate a radio signal, it is far more powerful than voice communications and will often get through when other modes fail.

What’s the difference between amateur radio and CB radio?

Citizen’s Band (CB) Radio was made available in the UK in 1981 and uses a small portion of frequencies in the upper part of the HF spectrum (27 MHz). It is available to use by anyone without a licence or formal callsign but is restricted to low power levels (4 watts vs. up to 400 watts available with a full amateur licence) and users can only operate with approved radios.

While CB frequencies can and do propagate around the world, their propagation is unreliable at best. The most common ‘DX’ frequencies used actually fall outside of the CB allocation and users are often breaking the law by transmitting on them.

It is generally believed that there is no place for ‘CB slang’ in amateur radio, with amateurs preferring to use amateur specific terms and abbreviations that are recognised worldwide.

Why is it sometimes called ‘ham radio’?

The term ‘ham radio’ is somewhat of an Americanism and its true origin is unclear. The generally accepted etymology of the term originates from professional telegraphists of the early 20th century who described untrained radio amateurs as ‘ham fisted’ in their ability to send Morse code.

Initially considered a pejorative term, it was in regular use amongst the amateur community by the 1920s. The popularity of American television programming in the UK seems to have popularised its use here.

Is amateur radio expensive?

It is no secret that amateur radio equipment can be expensive. In recent years, however, there has been an influx of cheaper equipment produced to a high standard by various manufacturers in China. While this kit may not always be produced to the same standards or have the same feature set as the traditional manufacturers, it is functional and a great start to the hobby. Fellow amateurs will often lend or even gift equipment to newcomers to the hobby and there is always a competitive second-hand market for amateur radio equipment.

Are the exams difficult?

There are three levels of amateur radio licence; Foundation, Intermediate and Full (sometimes referred to as Advanced).

As the names suggest, the content within each level gets progressively more difficult. However, although most amateurs do progress through the three levels and are rewarded for doing so with greater operating privileges, there is no obligation to ‘upgrade’ a licence at Foundation or Intermediate levels. Whilst some electronics and mathematical knowledge is useful, most people start from the very beginning.

How much does the licence cost?

Amateur radio licences are completely free of charge and are issued by The Office of Communications, commonly known as Ofcom. This is the UK government-approved regulatory and competition authority for the broadcasting, telecommunications and postal industries in the UK and adminster amateur radio at a regulatory level.

The examinations required to obtain a licence are administered by individual clubs on behalf of the Radio Society of Great Britain (RSGB). There is a charge payable to the RSGB for each exam, the current list can be found here.