Sunday, September 13, 2020

A Ham Radio Series 13 – What Do You Do With Ham Radio?

I thought I’d switch gears here from being fairly deep into the technical side to the general side.  I see regular references to clubs putting together programs to help new hams out.  There’s a perception that “too many” new hams get a license and never get active on the air because nobody helps them get started.  I don't know how many that is, but it seems to be a shame.  

Let me start by saying I sure can’t tell you how every radio you could possibly buy will work, but I can offer some help about ham radio in general.  

So let’s begin with what do you do with ham radio?  I refer to ham radio as a thousand hobbies with the same name and only one thing in common: communications.  

By communications, I mean generally meeting and talking with other people; the really old ham term for talking is rag-chewing, which you can see if you can visualize how your jaw might move chewing on an old, tough rag.  The chats can be local or across the world.  Worldwide contacts tend to be more or less exchanging signal reports and fairly formulaic bits of information.  This is partly because of language differences, if there are any, partly because stations from “rare” countries (rare is defined as any country you personally haven’t worked (contacted) and want to) tend to attract crowds (pileups) of guys calling rudely and partly because of an international regulation that says contacts between hams in different countries should be about things so trivial that recourse to commercial communication isn’t necessary.  That law is because in many countries, the government controls the phone, telegraph and internet and doesn’t want to lose revenue.  

I’ve never heard of anyone being prosecuted for violating that but maybe it happens overseas.  
Basic contacts, are kind of formulaic; there’s the exchange of callsigns, so that each side is sure whom they’re talking with, signal reports of readability and strength, or for Morse code (CW) Readability, Strength and Tone (RST), then usually location (QTH) and name.  The same basic contact exchanges are used for every mode, from voice to the most exotic digital modes.  There are common abbreviations and prosigns in ham radio that are helpful to know.  You may see a long table of abbreviations beginning with a Q such as QSL, QTH, QRP and more.  Some of them are far more common than others but it's helpful to keep a list near your radio when you're getting started, to minimize confusion.  

There are many digital modes in ham radio; some are more suited to this casual conversation than others.  Some radios only require a USB connection to the computer to use any of these modes; others might require analog sound in and out of the computer so many ham shacks have a computer in them these days.  Those radios that require an analog interface generally use a small piece of hardware to connect them; things like the SignaLink USB or RigBlasters.  

Last year, during repairs of the lightning damage to my station, I wanted to be able to get my backup radio working quickly.  The main station radio would do digital modes by USB, while the backup required analog audio.  My modification involved getting one SignaLink USB and two cables for the radios, so that I could change one cable that plugs into the SignaLink and switch radios.  

The conversational modes include radioteletype (RTTY), the oldest keyboard mode in ham radio, PSK31 and other Phase Shift Keying modes, FSK (frequency shift keying) modes including Multiple Frequency Shift Keying (MFSK) modes and those mentioned in this seven year old post.  In these keyboard modes, conversation is in free form text and you can type messages as long as you want.  The modern digital modes that allow copying very far below the noise level (of the entire audio bandwidth), like WSJT FT8 are much more restrictive of the number of characters sent because they limit the times of each side of a contact. There are many programs that will decode these modes for you (other than FT8). A very popular program is called fldigi which I've used a few times in the past.  For the last several years, I've been using one called DM780 that comes with Ham Radio Deluxe, but that's not a free app.

It’s not uncommon to try to listen for these modes and not hear anyone.  Sometimes you can try to call a CQ with one of these modes – if everyone is listening for someone else, nobody is calling.  I just tried to find a current and detailed list of frequencies for all digital modes, with no luck.  I would suggest if you want to find where to listen (or call) in some mode that you search the web by the mode name.  For example, if you want to search for PSK31, don't search "digital modes", search "PSK31 frequencies", or even more specifically, such as "PSK31 40m frequency." 

A sub-branch of just plain communications is certificate chasing or “wallpaper collecting” (the certificates are on paper, after all).  There are very common and popular awards, such as working 100 recognized foreign countries (DX Century Club or DXCC with endorsements for certain bands or modes), Worked All States, VHF/UHF Century Club (100 Maidenhead grid squares) and other certificates that show some accomplishment.  The range of certificates to collect go from these "Major Awards" to very small, very limited areas, like working some number of hams in one small area of an overseas country.

The second main branch of communication is doing it for public service and disaster communications.  In addition to running out of space in this post, I’m rather ignorant of the details of this because it’s one of those aspects I’ve not done anything with.  I’d start with the American Radio Relay League’s page and start looking around.  

Screen capture of fldigi demodulating psk31 by Tony, EI2KC.


  1. If you have any interest in public service/disaster assistance a good place to hang your hat is to join a CERT (community emergency response team) group and they would greatly appreciate your help with emergency communications especially because you are in a hurricane zone. They even support local event communication needs. Most CERT groups are affiliated with the local county emergency management people.

  2. I am peripherally involved with the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES). They do a lot of preparation for providing communications under emergency conditions. Like having a personal go kit for 72 hour or longer term deployments (radios, computers, clothes, medications, and even food). What to do when deployed.

    I am in the South Texas ARES group and they did deploy some folks out of Houston during the recent Hurricane Laura.

  3. The communication security situation doesn't appear to have changed since the seven year old post. Nobody will openly build a crypto add-on gadget, because too many hams will spend too much effort snitching on them. Hams won't quite push you into the ovens with their very own hands, but they will alert the enforcers if you try to get out of the line to the ovens.

    1. I think you're missing the picture here, but it's long enough that I'll dedicate another post to that.

  4. I got my General 5 years ago; I've done nothing with it since, except the occasional CQ on 2 meters.

    I've used 80cm around my place; but, my UV5Rs are gathering dust. My all-frequency hand-me-down is sitting on my desk, dormant.

    Part of my problem is, I'm not one for small talk. So the idea of rag chew just leaves me cold.
    I wanted comms for emergency situations- beyond that, I've no strong interest.

    Having said that, I did just make a portable rig with a Radioddity quad band, and a portable battery charger, in a knapsack. And, I've asked my Elmer to come over to help me set up my shack properly.
    But it's more out of preps than passion. Again- just not into chit-chat, or wallpaper collecting.

    I believe part of my problem is I failed to study enough with my Elmer; Ham is an area where a guiding hand is really important.
    I got busy, and failed to do the follow-up work. Mea Culpa.

    And, reading the other commenters,I think I need to get into ARES or CERT, in order to stimulate my pragmatic drives. Without a real purpose, I'm not there.

    I suspect I'm not alone in this.

    1. Not just a guiding hand, but a guiding hand experienced at the things you want to do. There's a lot of sites that talk about go-bags and the things hams do for preparedness.

      I think you're right in saying you should check out the local CERT or ARES service, for hands-on help and practice.

      At the most basic level, starting out in ham radio is easy; you need a radio, an antenna. You choose the radio based on what you want to do or what part of the spectrum you want to use. There are some additional aspects that might require records of some sort, but those are in the FCC rules.

      I'm not much for rag-chewing these days, but I suppose I get the mood now and then. I think there is such a thing as "the gift of gab" and I don't have it. Some years ago, a student in a class I was teaching said something to me that stuck. They spent their life being told not to talk with strangers and that's the essence of the hobby to many people. I would say, "yes, but" talking to strangers on the radio is inherently safer than in person which was what they were teaching kids was all about.

    2. I'm with Homesteader here, but haven't gone even that far. I do have tech manuals on the subject, but as for equipment I would like to know if there is anything NOT made in China. I just passed a Google ad for BaoFeng, and I'm pretty sure that is something I don't want. Are there any alternatives?

    3. Absolutely. For handheld radios, the other brands are Japanese. Depending on what bands you want to cover, I'd say to look at the offerings from Yaesu and Alinco. The other major brands, Kenwood and Icom, seem to only have one HT on the market now. Yes, they're likely to be more expensive than the BaoFengs, but there was an issue with the BaoFengs not meeting FCC requirements and some being banned from importation.

      For example, if you're looking for a 2m/440 HT, the Yaesu FT-4XR is competitively priced and I've never read of them having issues with meeting certification. There are others not that far different in price.

      There's a movement to digital voice going on, with a handful of modes. If your local club repeaters are digital, you'll need to find out if they only accept one mode vs. others. The names to look for are D-Star (Icom), Fusion (Yaesu), DMR (Motorola) and P25/APCO. There are still (mostly?) analog voice repeaters.

  5. My problem is that there are so many facets to ham radio I can't settle down. I've had a license for years; got into it for the emergency comms aspect. That didn't work out so well. In my area, no government agency has the time to consider their precious state-wide system might break (again).

    So I was dormant for a while and then got back into it. First SSB, then some mild contesting. But, o-o-oh shiny, DMR! Look, FT8! Wow, weak signal VHF! Look up there, satellites! And the Heathkit setup of my teenage wants!

    If this keeps up, I'm going to have to dig more basement to put all this stuff in. And Mrs. Freeholder has warned of the danger to our marriage if the place starts looking like an antenna farm. :-)

    1. If this keeps up, I'm going to have to dig more basement to put all this stuff in. And Mrs. Freeholder has warned of the danger to our marriage if the place starts looking like an antenna farm. :-)
      There is that drawback, for sure!

      The thing about antenna seeds is that they lie dormant for long times, then suddenly are full-sized. It would be easier for her to get used to if they started small and grew slowly.