It's cool to learn about radio waves!
I've always wanted to get my ham radio license. The hobby seemed to have an
alluring culture full of electronic technical whiz kids and grizzled old
tinkerers. These are guys who know Morse code and wear huge closed ear
headphones on their tractor. They listen to the radio signals generated by
cosmic rays entering the atmosphere. Despite this I never really knew how to get
started and it seemed like a big commitment. It's not like I know anyone else
involved, which makes it seem awfully exclusive.
Eventually I decided I was just going to go take the dang exam even if I had no
idea what I was doing. Once I made the choice to look up a study guide and find
out where and when a test session would occur, it was only a few more days
before I jumped in the car and headed down to The Red Rock Search and Rescue
Training Center in Las Vegas to get my license. The Las Vegas Radio Amateur Club
reserves this room once a month to administer the exam on behalf of the FCC. All
you have to do is just show up, pay twenty five dollars, and take the thirty
five question multiple choice exam.
When I arrived it was obvious I was at the right place because the entire street
was lined with pick up trucks and motorcycles covered with a forest of antennas
and Vietnam Veteran bumper stickers. Inside the classroom there were about 12
volunteer examiners seated at a table in the front of the room. Their job was to
collect the test fee, check everyone's ID, grade the completed tests, and fill
out the FCC paperwork that makes up your actual application. After a few minutes
they called us up, gave us our test booklets and the test was begun. Once
finished and handed in to the earnest tribunal of volunteer examiners they will
ask you to step outside while three separate people score the exam for
redundancy purposes I guess.
After a few minutes, someone comes out and pulls you aside to solemnly inform
you your score, if you pass, congratulations you are a licensed amateur radio
operator. A few weeks later I was issued a call sign, and was ready to go. It's
really that easy.
Why get involved with amateur radio?
Virtually everyone who lives in a developed country operates a sophisticated
radio device every day. Cell phones are nothing more than fun sized computers,
attached to a hand held radio, and connected to a network of radio repeaters.
Beyond that, satellites are constantly broadcasting music, positioning signals,
and all kinds of things all around us. Most of us know how to use these devices,
but don't have any idea how they work. Why shouldn't we want to know how they
It can be very rewarding to explore and even experiment with the technologies
which make wireless communication possible. As a programmer I've found the
insight in to radio very beneficial in a practical sense as well since it
applies directly to network protocols and behavior. Radio technology is one of
the foundational technologies of the modern world and honestly it's just really
cool. Isn't it amazing that there are all these beacons of invisible light
transmitting the entirety of human culture around the world and into space
literally 24/7? Now of course you can learn about these things without being a
licensed radio operator, but you really can't practically experiment with any of
the ideas. With a license you can actually build your own radio, you can see how
the length of an antenna actually performs differently depending on the
wavelength of the signal and the resonance, you gain real practical knowledge in
how radio works on a physical level. You can try different methods of encoding
signals like SSB(single sideband), or CW(Morse Code), Fast Scan TV, or packet
based digital modes. You start to get a feel for the pros and cons of different
radio technologies and why we do things the way we do in commercial radio
If practical reasons are not good enough, then here are a few less practical
- You can communicate with the International Space Station.
- You can learn cool lingo like QSO and QRT.
- Possibly the only hobby shared by nerds, farmers, and bikers.
- You might be the youngest person at the club meetings if you join a club.
- Talk to someone in Taiwan by bouncing radio signals off the damned ionosphere
or idk maybe the moon if you feel like it(yeah you can do that).
- Casually bring up space weather in conversation with other operators. "Man the
10 Meter band is wide open tonight! Ground wave propagation is insane during
this solar maximum!"
- If society comes to an end you will have the skills to be a valuable
contributor on any wasteland survival gang, provided they do not cultivate a
violent and primitive anti technology religion with which to demonize the
modern avarice that lead to the downfall of mankind.
- According to movies, learning Morse code will almost definitely save your life
at some point.
Oh radio, you are so interesting, tell me your secrets bb.
Passing the exam and getting licensed
There are three levels of amateur radio license: technician, general, and extra.
Each class you gain must be achieved in order, you can't just skip, and each one
you pass opens up additional frequency bands for you to transmit on. This is
important because the FCC can and will fine you if you are transmitting
illegally. It's super easy to triangulate a radio signal. The idea of taking an
exam to get licensed for anything can sound a little daunting, but honestly
there is nothing to worry about and the entry level license class can be
prepared for in as little as a few days with some light reading. This is
because all of the questions on the exam are multiple choice, and come from a
freely available pool of questions. That means if you just read over the
question pool a few times you'll basically just recognize the answers word for
word on the test. It almost feels like cheating, but just remember the real
learning is going to happen once you already have your license and start trying
- 35 question exam
- Can broadcast on UHF and VHF Bands
- Must pass Technician exam first.
- 35 question exam
- All VHF/UHF Amateur bands and most HF privileges (10 through 160 meters).
- Must pass Technician and General exam first
- 50 question exam
- All Amateur band privileges.
Before you go and take your exam you should decide which class you want to go
for. The easiest and first class is technician, then general, and then extra. To
progress to the next class you first need to pass all of the exams before it.
Luckily you can take all three exams at once if you like, and you will only have
to pay the examination fee once. You can also retake an exam if you fail it. The
important thing is that you know how far you want to go and study for the
questions that will appear in all the exams required to get to your desired
Getting your license and call sign
After completing the exam you will get a signed piece of paper indicating that
you have passed the test and the paperwork for your license will be filed with
the FCC by your examiners. Unfortunately if this is your first license you will
have to wait until the FCC verifies and issues your license. They no longer send
you a paper document, but rather when approved your new call sign and
information will be added to their license database which you can check on line.
This can take anywhere from one to a few weeks depending on how backed up they
are. You just have to keep checking.
FCC License Search
Once you have been issued a call sign and license you are approved to get on the
air for all the bands approved for your class!