I have been interested in ham (amateur) radio for as long as I can remember. Before the days of internet being available to anyone in their own homes the idea of being able to talk with people from anywhere in the world – and beyond – has always held massive appeal to me.
As a teenager I dabbled a little in CB radio but that didn’t hold my interest for long purely due to the amount of “pottymouthed” people out there who seemed to relish in the idea of using profanities rather than hold a decent conversation.
My overriding interest has to be digital modes. I refer to digital modes such as SSTV (slow scan television), FT8 and packet radio rather than the likes of D-STAR which is digitally encoded speech. I can’t really see the challenge of contacting a digital repeater a few miles away and the repeater sending your message via the internet to another repeater – this is basically Skype by any other name.
Which leads me up to today.
I have recently started to learn about Ham Radio in earnest with a view to getting qualified to the top level. In the UK there are three levels, each with their own benefits and restrictions:
- Foundation level:
- Basic level
- up to 10 Watts output depending on the band
- restricted transmission bands
- only commercially available radios may be used
- communication with amateur satellites on allowed frequencies
- minimum knowledge level required
- basic familiarity with Morse code
- basic familiarity with radio control and usage
- Intermediate level:
- mid-range level
- up to 50 Watts power output depending on the band
- many more transmission bands than Foundation level
- “homebrew” (DIY) radios may be constructed and used
- microwave communications allowed
- communication with satellites on allowed frequencies
- knowledge of soldering and basic electricity required
- Full level:
- most advanced level
- up to 400 Watts power output depending on the band
- ability to construct and run a repeater for the local area
- high level of radio knowledge expected
- licence valid worldwide allowing transmission from any country that allows amateur radio (certain exclusions apply)
Although getting to Advanced level would give me much of the capabilities of Full level I see no real reason not to progress to Full as a matter of course.
So what fun can be had with Amateur Radio? Right now a new digital mode, FT8, is making big waves on the scene (see what I did there?).
FT8 is a weak propagation mode meaning that you may not be able to hear the message or even see it on your waterfall for software on your computer to be able to decode it and it is a much faster system than other similar digital modes.
Each message takes a maximum of 15 seconds to transmit, then a receiving station (or numerous simultaneous stations) reply for 15 seconds, the first station sends out a response to one of the stations for 15 seconds and finally the contacted station closes. Over the course of a minute two stations have communicated, logged the contact and are looking for new contacts automatically.
While I have been typing this post I have had FT8 running in the background in receive only mode through my radio and into the PC via a cheap USB soundcard. I am in England and have listened to contacts from the following countries:
Austria, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Denmark, Fed. Rep. of Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, England, Estonia, Finland, France, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Asiatic Russia, European Russia, Slovak Republic, Spain, Ukraine
Currently the International Space Station is transmitting SSTV images on a regular basis. SSTV is a way to send a picture in limited bandwidth similar to a fax machine, except that the transmitted images are in full colour.
Another current event that Amateur Radio has is that Santa Claus comes out of hiding for the month of December and transmits from his holiday home in Lapland using his unique callsign OJ9X (try 3.916 MHz), tell him I sent you – I need to top up my Nice List points :)
I have just passed my Foundation level examination but I am stuck in limbo – I am qualified to transmit but can’t until I have my callsign which will take up to two weeks (one week has already passed so hopefully before Christmas I can get on the air and ask Santa for lots of new radio equipment).
My current equipment is a Yaesu FT-847 WorldStation radio which covers all the HF bands 160-10 metres, 2 metres and 70cms, Yaesu FC-20 Antenna Tuner (which has issues when I want to control my radio using the PC so that won’t last long), Maas SPS-50 II switching power supply, Yaesu MD-100 desk microphone and a 7 band equaliser/compressor for audio correction when I am using the microphone.
For antennas I have a 50 metre long random wire attached to a 9:1 unun which covers up to 50MHz, a 2 Meter antenna for the 2 metre band and a generic cheap little multiband antenna for 70CMs. That won’t last long either.
For my computer I am using an old scrapper Dell laptop, USB soundcard and a USB serial connector.
Software wise I am using MMSSTV for SSTV decoding (and encoding when the time comes), FLDigi for decoding data modes and CW (Morse code), FLRig for controlling my radio using the serial port, WSJT/X and FLRig for decoding FT8 and WSPR messages.
I am enjoying the hobby but I really can’t wait until I can transmit and put all I have learned into practice.
Stay tuned as I explore this fascinating hobby, upgrade my parts and generally tinker around.
Oh and just so you know, I have managed to receive signals from the geographically opposite side of the world, which technically for me is in the sea between Australia and New Zealand, although the signal was from Australia itself I count that as a win.