Of course, with the arrival of the Internet and subsequently, lightning-speed broadband Web access, ham radio has become somewhat archaic, with the number of ham radio operators (or 'hams') dwindling with each passing year. However, as rare as hams are as a collective breed presently, a smattering of them still do exist. Not just existing, but ironically, also thriving and keeping their beloved pastime very much alive.
One of the few hams left on this planet is Bil Paul, 59, who makes a living as a public-relations officer for a biotech company when he is not on the air. Bil's interest in ham radio started when he was in high school in the 1950s, when he developed an interest in short-wave listening, receiving aural missives from shortwave stations on the other side of the planet like Radio Moscow. He also got his first ham licence when he was only 12 years old. Bil enlightens us, via email from San Mateo, California, USA on what exactly is it that ham radio operators do, and also talks about the fascination in talking to strangers a continent away.
Bil with his portable ham radio set
What exactly is ham radio, and how did it come about?
Ham radio, or amateur radio, is simply a way of global communication using relatively simple radio sets. It is a world-wide hobby that began at the same time radio was invented early in the nineteenth century. The first radio stations were set up by innovators such as Guglielmo Marconi, widely known as the Father of Radio. Several years later, commercial broadcast stations were set up, but non-commercial operators (hams) continued to experiment and establish personal radio stations.
After a time, in the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission was set up to regulate radio transmissions. It granted operating licences to commercial stations, and also to ham radio operators. In order to receive a licence, an aspiring ham radio operator has to pass a written test and a Morse code sending and receiving test.
How does ham radio differentiate from commercial radio?
Early commercial radio stations used low frequencies (the AM band of 600 to 1600 kilohertz) to broadcast, and their range was considerably short (several hundred miles) except at night. But radio hams discovered that the higher frequencies that they were allowed to operate on (called the shortwave frequencies - anything from 3 megahertz to 50 megahertz) often allowed them to broadcast world-wide with modest amounts of power, because their signals bounced off the ionosphere and back to earth (a process dubbed "the skip"). With several skips, American hams could talk to Europe, Asia, and so on.
What does being a ham radio operator mean to you? To me, the most important and enjoyable thing about being a ham radio operator is being able to send radio waves through the air (and even into space) with a great deal of freedom. I enjoy the challenge of using relatively low power to talk to people everywhere - whether they are the CEOs of companies or students in high school. It's a form of ultimate freedom for me. Being a ham also means that I can operate my radio from almost anywhere - at home, in cars, boats and ships, and even from airplanes. Radios can be so large as to occupy an entire desk, or small enough to fit into one's pocket. Hams most often buy their equipment ready-made, but some still build most of their equipment.
Are there any specific reasons why some people get into ham radio? It's a very good way to learn about electronics and radio operations. But more importantly, it's a terrific way to get over any shyness one might have, since hams will often be talking to total strangers, maybe even someone from another continent. It's also a fantastic way to learn about other countries and meet people from other countries. Ham radio operators form a fraternity of sorts, and there are ham clubs all around the world; in the US, the "umbrella" ham organisation is the Amateur Radio Relay League www.arrl.org. However, there is currently a worry that not enough young people are becoming hams. There is a general belief that the Internet has demystified some of the allure of talking to people in other parts of the world.
What is the appeal about ham radio, or to put it another way, what goes on on the air amongst the ham community? People always ask me what we hams talk about on the air! Well, we talk about anything, but most commonly about the kind of equipment we're using, the weather, our families, and our occupations. More often than not, the other hams we connect with are total strangers. And at other times, we keep to a schedule with another ham - maybe a relative or longtime friend - say every day, or once a week. There are also times when groups of hams who know each other will talk to one another at the same time. This is known as a "net" - something like an Internet chat room, I suppose!
What are some of the activities that a ham radio operator can pursue? There are many activities that hams can pursue. The thing is, you might come to ham radio with a certain activity in mind, but once you spend more time on the air, you'll find new things to do. Many hams like to participate in contests to see how many stations they can contact in a day or so. "Contesting" is actually one activity that has more participation than any other sport in the world! A skilled ham can reach literally hundreds and even thousands of stations in a given period of time.
Others may go on ham expeditions to remote places, often islands, and make long-distance contact with hams from around the world, from that location. These expeditions are called "DXpeditions", because in ham language, DX means "distance communication", or contacting countries beyond your own continent.
Some hams like to try to reach as many other countries they can. A common goal to to obtain DXCC - or to contact over 200 other countries. Hams are doing a lot of experimentation with extremely high radio frequencies these days.
Other hams collect old, vintage radios, and some may even enjoy designing and building their own equipment. This can be as simple as an antenna, or as complex as a transmitter.
But I have to say, the most common activity that a ham can do on the air is to just "chew the rag", or talk endlessly to their friends and contacts.
How does one go about being a ham radio operator, as in what sort of qualifications or licences do you need? Every country has a licensing system for their hams, and licence requirements differ from country to country. In the U.S., there is an "entry-level" licence called the Technician's licence, which is very easy to obtain. However, it doesn't allow access to all of the ham-radio frequencies. The most common licence is the General Class, which is the one I have. For both the Technician and General, one needs to pass a written test containing a series of questions on basic regulations, operating practices and electronic theory. Your knowledge of Morse code is also tested if you wish to obtain a General Class licence.
Then there are the more difficult classes, the Advanced and Extra Classes, which give one all the possible frequency privileges. Again, you need to pass a written test and a Morse code test. The speed of the Morse code increases with the more difficult tests.
What kind of equipment do ham radio operators use, and what forms of transmission are usually used? The average ham radio operator uses a combination receiver and transmitter (this is usually of Japanese manufacture, such as Yaesu/Standard or ICOM), running at around 100 watts output (some advanced users use transmitters running at 1,500 watts). The ham also uses an antenna tuner which "matches" the radio to the antenna. The average ham uses either a home-made wire antenna (of which there are many varieties), or a factory-built "Yagi" antenna made of aluminum, which is large, has drooping arms and sits at the top of a tower or on top of a mast on a rooftop.
The most common form of transmission is voice transmission, using a mode called single sideband. It provides the best voice signal at the lowest power. The next most common mode of transmission is Morse code. Even though Morse code is rather old, many people still use it and can send and receive it very fast (about 20 or 30 words per minute). As for me, I use an electronic device which can read Morse code, translate it automatically, and display the letters on a TV screen.
What is a call sign, and what is its importance to a ham radio operator? A call sign for a ham is like a licence plate on a car. It is unique to the ham and it identifies him or her, what part of the country he or she is in, and the Class of licence he or she holds. In my call, "KD6JUI", the "KD" represents the U.S. and my General Class licence, the "6" means that I live in the state of California, and the rest identifies me as an individual. When I was growing up in Wisconsin and operating from there, I had the call "W9KSJ".
What is the significance of a radio band to a ham radio operator? A radio band is a range of frequencies that a ham is allowed to operate on. For example, the 20 meter band (one of the most popular) stretches from 14.0 megahertz to 14.35 megahertz. Portions of that band (the lower portion) are devoted to Morse code only. Other portions are devoted to voice transmissions. Unlike commercial radio and TV stations, which can only operate on one frequency or channel, ham stations can change frequencies within a band. There are many bands that are available to use, from high frequency or shortwave, to VHF (very high frequency) to UHF (ultra high frequency). Hams are constantly lobbying politicians and governing bodies to protect their ham frequency allotments, since many other commercial users would like to have the ham bands to use.
There are also satellites circling the earth which hams can use to communicate with one another. Some hams have also built repeaters in areas which offer local communications; this works much like cellphone networks. On a regular basis, hams also communicate with each other by sending signals to the moon, which reflects them back to earth. This is called a "moonbounce".
Have you made many friends abroad with your ham radio pastime? I regret to say that I haven't made any ham radio friends abroad. Since I'm still working, I don't have the time to operate a great deal. Plus I am a father with three children, so family comes first! But in ham radio, it seems when you meet another ham on the air, you become instant friends. When I was a student in high school, I used to talk every morning before school to another ham my age in the next state. I actually met him one time at a national Boy Scout Jamboree.
What are the advantages of being a ham radio operator, and what do you enjoy most about being a ham radio operator? To the public, hams are often best known for being the only means of communication out of an area devastated by a natural disaster such as a typhoon, hurricane, tornado or earthquake. Hams also operate out of war zones, when communication lines are down or it's too dangerous to get a message out by conventional means.
My specialties in ham radio - the things I enjoy doing the most - are building and designing antennas and experimenting with them, building electronic equipment, and operating in natural surroundings (state parks, the forest, the mountains or on long bicycle trips), using very small radios with low power (5 watts or less). Sometimes, I use solar power to charge the batteries I use to power my radio. Someday, when I'm retired, I want to try bouncing signals off the moon (a "moonbounce") and creating and publishing my own book on antennas. When I am on long bicycle trips (lasting over a week) with my friends, the ham radio is rather handy to have along, just in case there should be a medical emergency and we need to call for help - when our cellphones are out of range. We actually had to do that one time, when a group of us was bicycling in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, and a woman got sick. We managed to use our portable ham radios to get medical help for her.
Ham radio in Malaysia Malaysia also has its fair share of ham radio operators - in fact, there are several active ham radio clubs in this country, the most notable and largest one being the Malaysian Amateur Radio Transmitters Society. Ham radio as a hobby in Malaysia has been around since 1952, and there are about 1,000 licensed amateur radio operators here. Licences are issued by the Malaysian Communications Multimedia Commission, who also supervise the activities of ham radio operators here.
A prominent ham radio club in Malaysia is based in Penang, the YMCA Amateur Radio Club, which has its roots as a hobby and computer club way back in 1983. In 1994, the club became more involved in ham radio, and became one of the flagship societies promoting and organising ham radio activities in Malaysia. Aw Kean-Chin, Webmaster for the official YMCA ARC website, tells us more about the state of ham radio here in Malaysia.
Members of the Penang YMCA Amateur Radio Club.
What is the level of ham radio involvement in Malaysia?
I have to say that it's not very high, but ham radio is starting to gain some popularity. Since the demise of Jabatan Telekom Malaysia in 1999, no new licences have been issued. However, since the Malaysian Communications Multimedia Commission took over in 2001, there has been an increase in new licences issued, due to the interim inactivity. By the way, the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission or MCMC is the governing body that supervises ham radio activities in Malaysia.
How does one go about obtaining a ham radio operating licence in Malaysia? You need to pass the Radio Amateur Examination conducted by the MCMC to secure a Class B licence (this licence allows you to operate on limited frequencies). If you want a full Class A licence, you must pass the RAE together with a Morse code test of 12 words per minute.
As mentioned earlier, the MCMC which supersedes the JTM, did not issue any new licences from 1999 to 2001, the reason being there was no examination conducted. The MCMC had to seek the help of MARTS to re-establish ham radio exam procedures, and the latter helped to draft the examination syllabus and questions.
What are the some of the activities pursued by ham radio operators in Malaysia? Like hams elsewhere, hams in Malaysia primarily make friends through their hobby. Radio contacts can be local, regional or worldwide. In addition, many hams are experimenting and designing new circuits, equipment and even antennas to evaluate how far and how well their signal can reach the other end. There are some who are more adventurous by communicating with satellites, international space stations,etc. There are also some who experiment with different digital transmission modes. Besides all that, ham radio operators are expected to provide emergency communication facilities during disaster.
What is the future of ham radio in Malaysia? The growth of ham radio in Malaysia is being hampered by the inability of the MCMC to conduct the RAE and Morse code tests. Since 2001, two RAEs have been conducted, but there has not been any Morse code test, which allows Class B licence holders to upgrade to a Class A licence. If this trend continues, the future of ham radio here will be jeopardised, as many hams have been waiting for many years to sit for the test. In Western countries, the RAE and Morse code test are conducted by volunteers, and can be done anytime upon request.