Surprisingly, ham radio is something that has not been entirely messed up by state action. As a matter of fact, it has avoided most of the crazy rules that have affected commercial broadcasting and commercial two-way radio in recent years.
The ruinous policy of converting all over-the-air broadcast TV to digital transmission has greatly reduced signal coverage. On the eve of that grand edict taking effect several years ago, many historic stations went out of business rather than spending the money to convert to less effective technology that would reduce their broadcast range. The pay satellite and cable TV lobby won out on that one over the free providers. Digital doesn’t always mean better. The same thing applies to cell phones. Remember when cell phones used to sound clear, with fuller audio fidelity, and very little signal lag? That was back when 3-watt transmitters and broader band analog signals were an option. Regulators have caused the robust quality of cell phone communication to degenerate over time. Your current cell phone emanates a very low powered, very narrow band digital signal which is also plagued with multiple other state-caused unintended consequences like poor hybridization (the ability of both sides to interact at the same time) over the extremely narrow digital signal, low quality compressed audio, and latency delays in the digital stream (when you both keep interrupting each other because you think there is silence when your friend is actually talking).
Another policy change within the past year that has negatively affected users of two-way commercial radio is a new FCC requirement to use a more “narrow band” FM radio signal. This reduces audio fidelity and effective transmission distance. Hams are exempt from this requirement even though they use identical technology for two-way FM voice communication in their walkie-talkies, vehicle mounted radios, and base radios. They can continue to use the much more effective wider band FM signals.
Such requirements like mandatory usage of less effective digital signals or reduced radio signal bandwidth have not been applied significantly to ham radio. Since ham radio is largely considered an experimental amateur (unpaid) medium, most transmission modes are allowed. Ham radio operators use many diverse forms of communication including ham satellites; digital or analog transmissions; FM/AM and other modes; and a choice of bands ranging from worldwide high frequency bands to more local VHF, UHF, and microwave bands. Ham operators also send TV signals, digital facsimile images, and re-transmitted signals from unmanned mountaintop and tower repeaters over long distances. There are many linked repeater systems (most having solar or generator power back-up) that connect multi-state regions throughout the U.S. These repeaters are accessible via a small walkie-talkie like this compact full featured dual band VHF/UHF handheld radio for $114 or this one for $40. The radio and repeater technology is the same as used by many police departments for wide area coverage via handheld or vehicle mounted radios.
In many cases, hams have fewer government imposed antenna restrictions than commercial radio operators. This is due to the experimental nature of the hobby and the government acknowledged concept that hams perform a public service by providing alternate communications in emergencies.
Government allowed power limits are much higher for hams than most other non-commercial and commercial radio categories. The familiar Citizen’s Band (CB) is allowed a 4 watt signal and the Family Radio Service (FRS) is limited to half a watt. Ham radio, on the other hand, is allowed 1,500 watts on most bands. Most modern state regulated cellular phones have a maximum power output well under one watt (they are allowed up to two watts) and they self-adjust to power outputs down to 20 milliwatts (20/1,000 of a watt).
One of the best characteristics of ham radio is related to privacy. It is impractical for a government snooper to easily grab data about ham communications. The state goes for the low hanging fruit. It has become so easy to snoop en masse that the government rarely monitors anything that is not connected to a grid in this country. The extent of government domestic radio monitoring is usually limited to some review of general radio frequency activity, not usually hard-targeting any individuals. It is much easier to require Google to search for key words in stored gmails. It is very easy to do the same with Verizon wireless for text messages. It is easy to require a cooperating cell phone company to tap a cell phone from a thousand miles away and cause the Electronic Serial Number (ESN) tracked device to route all of its data and communications to a central government repository. There is practically no legwork for these mass intercepts and they are required of, and facilitated by, private communications providers under laws like the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). It is near impossible to grab stored communications content through a grid for most ham radio communications.
There is no longer a logging requirement for ham radio, so there will not be the possibility of an audit of personal logs that were previously mandated regarding your historical communications. The frequencies and modes are so varied that it would require a team to try to understand the vagaries of the communications of one small group of radio operators. There is no ESN assigned to your device that allows the government to track you. The common usage of directional antennas in ham radio would require an interceptor to not only know the band, frequency, mode, and time of the transmission but, to effectively calculate angles and azimuths and place himself in the path of the signal with suitable equipment. Too close or too far from a transmitter would cause an interceptor to miss the communication entirely when ionospheric bounces are involved in international communications. Most ham communications immediately vanish into the ether after the conversation and it would require an old school recorder, a pair of headphones, and a real-time dedicated team of government operators spinning the dial to try to grab a snapshot of your specific communications. The truth of the matter is that this is cost prohibitive and is not often attempted on a domestic level. Why would law enforcement agencies bother trying to mobilize a bunch of unionized, carpal tunnel, flexitime, flexiplace, overtime-seeking, perdiem-seeking teams for one-off targeted intercepts anyway when Americans have given up gazillions of bits of data that only require a contractor-provided computer system to profile, slice, dice, sort, and spit out the desired results.
The ham operators in your region spend lots of their own money on free access equipment like repeaters and digital radio bulletin board systems (like email sent over the radio). These ventures are usually free for any ham to use. It is very much a self-organizing activity using privately procured equipment. There is a lot of plug-and-play equipment available that requires very little technical knowledge to set up. If you have very little money, it is a perfect hobby and a perfect way to talk to your family while you are on the road because you will be able to access lots of strategically placedcommunications equipment belonging to others with no monthly access charges. A hundred dollar handheld radio will allow you to communicate back to your family via repeaters over a large area at no cost to yourself. China produces a fantastic array of compact full frequency products. Many ham radios can be modified to operate in other bands. Google “ham radio mods” and you will see many step-by-step articles describing how to get the most out of your radios.
Another nice feature of ham radio is that it furthers the Jeffersonian ideal of friendly relations with foreign countries that are so often demonized by the state. Ham radio operators collect proofs of contact (called QSL cards) from many countries around the world. They learn that these foreigners are normal people just like they are. The government cannot simply turn off or block access to certain countries or certain individuals like they can when the internet or a cell phone is used.
A present day positive aspect of ham radio is an improvement in international signals during the peak of the 11-year solar cycle (which we are experiencing right now). Although you have heard on the main stream media about the current negative effects of these solar flares on communications, hams eagerly look forward to this predictable point in the cycle. The almost fully digitized, feeble, weak-signal world of satellite entertainment and communications dreads this 11-year atrocity. Hams love it. The ionization of the ionosphere by heavy solar activity actually improves the ability of high frequency signals to bounce (“skip”) within the atmosphere to other distant parts of the earth allowing better communications with persons thousands of miles away.
Study for licensing in the U.S. is still easy. The main reason the system works so well is that it is privately operated by volunteer hams called “Voluntary Examiners.” Some charge a nominal fee to administer the test but, only about $10 to recoup some of their expenses for mileage, etc. Study for the license used to require a preparation book which you can still use but, all of the question pool is now available on line at qrz.com for free. You can take as many practice tests as you desire using a test generator on qrz that creates endless numbers of tests using the real questions. The question pool stays the same for a few years, so it is a memorized multiple choice gig (in case you thought the FCC would require real learning; remember the government set this up). Nine members of my family have passed the radio theory tests and obtained their licenses, some advancing to higher license classes, usually doing so as part of their homeschooling when they get to about 10 to 14 years of age.
Reciprocal usage of your U.S. license is allowed while you are travelling in many countries with no additional licensing requirements. Many foreign countries will grant you a license if you simply show them your U.S. license and pay a fee. In reality, residents of many third world countries use modern ham radio equipment for short and long distance communication as commonly as Americans use telephones and no licenses are applied for and no fees paid.
Hope to hear you on the air. 73’s from KK6HG / CP6XZ.