Radio amateur activities
How to become an amateur radio ? (I), by LX4SKY
Welcome to the world of amateur radio ! Do you know that if you switch on the transceiver of an amateur radio - at the condition to work in HF bands and to connect it to an antenna - you can hear amateurs located... on the other side of the world, in America, in Asia or even in Antarctica ! It is amazing ! If you are fascinated by this activity, become an amateur radio !
Amateur radio is surely the only activity that allows you to travel in real-time all through the world while staying at home or from any other location !
HF bands (160-10 m or 1.8-30 MHz) are the most interesting and have always be prized by amateurs and other services (radiobroadcasts, military, etc) as they are the most suited to intercontinental traffic. It is for this reason that the access to HF bands is very controlled and is subject to so much covetousnesses.
I still remember how I felt sometimes frustration when, as short waves listener - SWL for short - I heard a remote station calling "CQ DX" to whom nobody replied or only a few takers. I really wanted to answer him !
The activity of an SWL is mainly passive, scanning and listening bands in search of calls or QSOs but to which (s)he is not allowed to answer or participate...
If you understand what I mean and if you want to become an active amateur radio, you can change this status ! As many licensed hams who were SWL during some years, I am a living proof of this change, Hi !
For the reader fanatic of shortwaves and who wishes to become a SWL rather than an amateur radio, contrarily to what we sometimes read on forums or hear here and there, today, in most if not all countries any people interested in listening shortwaves can use freely any kind of receiver, including a scanner, to listen ham bands as well as CB and radiobroadcasting stations. However there are restrictions, and you are not allowed to listen to bands reserved to maritime, aviation, policy or military communications to name a few. This rule also applies to hams. Like using a car, even if it can run over 120 km/h, the law does not allow you to exceed some speeds or to drive while using a cell phone. Similar rules apply to the holding of ham equipment, emission frequencies, and to the content of communications.
Of course whatever your status - ham or listener - nobody will probably never visit you to check if you are well tuned on a ham band or on the frequency of an AM broadcasting station, or the fact that you record or not some "prohibited" military communications for your personal usage. We do not belong to a policy state yet and the authorities rely on your self-control and your sense of responsibilities.
As SWL you are also allowed to install a directive antenna in respect with the rules edicted by your municipality administration or your householder, but you cannot buy a transceiver, a linear amplifier or a SWR-meter, what 'd mean that you intend to emit although you do not hold an full privilege license.
At last, to exchange QSLs with licensed hams you need of an SWL callsign to ask to your P&T national administration or to the equivalent telecommunication ministry. Then join your national radio association to get their magazine and the QSL service "via buro" and be a member of your nearest radioclub to share your passion with other amateurs and exchange your QSLs. If this activity interest you I suggest you to read my other pages dealing with amateur activities.
Unfortunately - or hopefully depending on your point of view - to use the amateur service as defined below and transmit on the air, you must succeed examinations dealing with the regulation, radioelectricity and, in some countries with the Morse code, to become a full privilege licensed amateur radio. At only this condition you can work this ham calling CQ DX and practice many other activities on the air.
This exciting activity is open to all people, including kids (from 13 years old in Belgium), without the least discrimination. Depending on the country you live in, you will have to pass one or more examinations, some more or less difficult to succeed, but all countries try to align their difficulty level.
Depending on your interest for radioelectricy and amateur radio activities you can pass several kinds of examinations, usually in the offices of your national telecommunication institution (FCC, OFTEL, WIA, IBPT, MPФ, etc) :
- The full license (full privileges or "Extra" as it is called in the U.S.A.), all bands, all modes with a power up to 1 kW PEP in HF, sometimes more. Some european countries have however a tendancy to reduce the maximum power. Note that there is a tendancy in the U.S.A. to "alleviate" the difficulty level of the full privilege license.
- In some countries like the U.S.A. there is a "General" and "Advanced" licenses for amateurs wishing to access to all bands but with restricted privileges; there are not allowed to transmit on some prized segments of HF bands.
- The "Technician" license, (V/UHF, 144 MHz and up), all modes, with a power limited to 1 kW PEP. It disappeared in many countries after WRC 2003 conference (see next page) to the benefit of a new "all bands" license.
- Some countries offer an all bands license to beginners (called Novice, Foundation or Base license). The emission power is limited to 10 or 50 W PEP. In fact the amateur can only transmit on segments of HF bands as well as on VHF and microwaves. This license prepares the amateur to the HAREC full privilege license.
- In some countries the mastering of Morse code is still mandatory to get the full privilege license (e.g. in completing a Novice or Technician license). However, as US FCC suppressed the Morse code examination on December 15, 2006, the seldom concerned countries will probably follow this action, and we will never more hear about a Morse code examination in any country (as there is no examination to work in SSTV). We will come back on the Morse code in the next page.
Contrary to the US FCC regulation where ham licenses count various privileges, in most european countries there are only two classes of licenses as defined by CEPT (Conférence Européenne des administrations des Postes et Télécommunications) and supervised by the European Commission : CEPT class 1 and class 2. The first allows you to get the full privilege license. It is subordinated to the success to exam B (regulation and radioelectricity) and, in some seldom countries, to exam A, telegraphy.
In other regions of the world, these rules are supervised by another telecommunication commissions, e.g. CITEL (Inter-American Telecommunications Commission) in America, and ATU (African Telecommunications Union) in Africa.
To get your full privilege license you need to succeed with an average of 66% of points for regulation and radioelectricity. This percentage means that if you made an excellent score in regulation, that you can learn by heart, you only need to win a few percents to succeed the theory.
If you are concerned by the Morse code examination (by pure interest now rather than by obligation!), note that nowadays the speed of receive is fixed to 5 words per minute, a very low value to open this activity to the largest audience. In fact words are emitted at 12-13 WPM but with large space between words.
When it is required, usually you can pass the Morse code exam in the same time as the theory or later once you feel you are ready. If you made less than 4 errors you succeed the Morse examination. But at 5 WPM in receive (there are not real speed for transmission), everybody should succeed after some months of drill.
For each class of license you succeed you can receive a specific callsign. Each ham receives a unique callsign constituted of a random suffix (the characters after the number) in two or three characters. In the U.S.A if you move from one state to another you will receive a new callsign. Some countries accept also to assign personal suffixes to hams (like mine, ON4 "SKY") or to celebrate special events (e.g. WRC 2003, TM5SC). So many radio clubs and YL make this choice with the hope that the requested suffix (e.g. YL for these latter) is always available. The other solution is to request a vanity call, the possibility of using an old callign that expired and that is no more used. Take care, because in many countries if you do no pay your license you will lost your callsign several months or years later and it could be reassigned to another ham.
Once licensed, if you want to emit from another country you can usually add the prefix or the foreign country to your callsign (e.g. LX/ON4SKY if I work from Luxembourg). The other way is to get the license of that country (LX1SKY, and to pay it) by providing to this authority a certified copy of your national certificate (HAREC or other) and some technical data about your equipment. This procedure respects the CEPT T/R 61-01 recommendation signed by 26 european countries and some third countries like the U.S.A., Canada, Israël, etc.
All you need to know to emit from abroad
The possibility to use a custom callsign explains why some hams regularly use a suffix containing e.g. an "X" (e.g. 5U7X) each time they move to another country for their job or for holidays, or use "OGA" when emitting from Ogazawara island. But this means that you paid the license of that country. Another solution, cheaper, is to keep your default callsign and add the prefix of the country from which you want to emit from.
Indeed, the CEPT recommendation T/R 61-02 states that during 3 months you can work from another country without requesting a national license, using simply your callsign with the prefix of the foreign country. This is specially attracting when you are abroad for the holidays or for professional reasons and want to work DX (e.g. 8Q/ON4SKY from Maldives islands or YI/K1ABC for an US military in Iraq).
There are, however, some exceptions. No amateur radio license will be released to foreigners working in the Arab Emirates (at Dubai for example, A6 prefix). As licensed amateur you can only transmit using the callsign of an emirati amateur radio. Salam alei kum !
In Europe, if you succeed all examinations, after some days or weeks of impatience and anxiety you will get a certificate of class A from HAREC (your true license to never loose because it is valid worldwide) and, if you paid it, your national license, both being issued by your Telecom administration. Together they will allow you to emit in all the spectrum of frequencies primarily and secundarily allocated to the ham service, doing SSTV, RTTY, packet and digimodes, including satellite activities according to your interests.
This procedure is the only way to become an amateur radio and actively participate in local QSO, regional or international contests and other DX pile-ups in place of sitting down in front of a microphone that will never hear the sound of your voice...
Examinations : easier and more accessible
Today, and contrary to the past, everyone can easily become amateur radio. Time have changed since the time not so far ago (until 1980 or so) where you needed to be expert in radioelectricity or telecom engineer, and a keen CWer to get the privilege to practice this activity and work in the HF bands.
To prepare successfully these examinations many radio clubs can help you in providing syllabi and cursus dealing with the national regulation and radioelectricity. If required, they can help you learning the Morse code as well.
If there is no radio club near you, don't worry ! You can easily learn the matter by yourself too. You only need some material (books or multiples choices questions) and some time left, and goodwill. You can also buy the appropriated cursus on CD-ROM or DVD (see on ARRL or QRZ website), buy some books or cheaper, download the related HTML or PDF files from the website of any representative national ham association, as well as various Morse training programs to run on your computer. In this way you can learn the matter at home at the rate of 15 minutes each day during a few months.
If you cannot find this information in your city or on Internet, contact your national radio club or post the question on a hamradio forum to request more information.
Usually there is one or two national examinations yearly in the various classes of licenses but many pretenders try to past the full examination at once (regulation and theory of the full privilege class and, if required, Morse code). If you are well trained you must succeed. Usually 60 to 80% of candidates success the theory at first trial.
If you need the Morse code, know that most amateurs fail at the examen by a lack of practice. So a drill is recommanded; e.g. to work in CW 15 minutes each day during one or two months to reach easily 5 WPM.
Good news, once you succeeded an exam and it's worth for live. There is no expiration date of your amateur radio certificate (but only of your license), it is personal and not transferable.
Once your certificate and your license in hands, you are allow to buy your RTX and antenna, go on the air and calling CQ... When someone will answer to your call for the first time I bet you will feel a great excitment !