Ok, you got my attention but…. what’s so hot about amateur radio in the modern day and age where anyone has a cell phone to talk around the globe and every continent is just one mouse click away?

Agreed, ham radio can seem almost archaic in today’s high-tech saturated world. Hey, even a child can chat via IM with their pen pals continents apart (and I won’t even get into why that can be a very bad thing…). There’s one pessimistic and also a few optimistic answers to what motivates me in ham radio:

  • When All Else Fails…
    This is the motto of amateur radio you even might have heard of before. When disaster strikes (as simple as a prolonged power outage or as serious as hurricanes, earthquake or other major catastrophies), one of the first things to go out are regular phone and cell phone services. Most of our high-tech communication gizmos need power and can be overwhelmed during disasters. Many public agencies like police, fire department, Red Cross etc. all do have their own wireless radio infrastructure. But their infrastructure can also be affected by the outages and sometimes their regular staff is overburdened by the massive assistance requests. Ever since the very early days of amateur radio, fellow ham operators volunteer their time and equipment to support those crucial crisis agencies by providing them with public service communications. Today, in the US, much of that emergency communication (emcomm for short) by amateur radio operators is organized under ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) or RACES. This service organizes itself also locally, see e.g. the ARES page of my local county.
  • An “excuse” to understand and tinker with electronics
    Amateur radio is as old as radio itself is, The early pioneers in the late 19th century (Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi, just to name a few), for obvious reasons, did build their early radios as part of their wireless experiments. That spirit has carried on until today: Many hams still build their own complete radios or add and modify components like amplifiers or power supplies. Many modern electronic commodities we take for granted (e.g. TV, wireless LAN etc) spent their childhood days in amateur radio and owe their sophistication to engineering contributions of many hams.
  • Sense of accomplishment
    To operate amateur radio, pretty much every country requires a prospective ham to learn for and pass a amateur radio license exam. Amateur radio licenses typically are issued by the national communication administration, for the US, a license is issued by the FCC. The exam questions are around service and frequency band regulations, operator privileges and duties, operation procedures on the air, radio electronics, propagation and even HF emission esposure to avoid health risk for operators and environment. Depending on ones background and technical understanding, it takes a few days to several weeks of reading and learning to be prepared for the exam. There are various amateur radio clubs that offer weekend classes to learn for and get tested for the Technician entry level license. There are also online sites to practice for those exams, e.g. http://www.qrz.com/testing.html/, http://www.eham.net/exams/, http://www.aa9pw.com/radio/
    Up until very recently, to pass for a General or Extra class, a future ham was also tested in Morse code proficiency. Last summer, I did still have to pass a Morse code test with 5 WPM speed. I understand the reasons why this requirement was lifted but looking I am sort of proud I had to pass this additional hurdle.
  • Learn a new language
    I mainly intend to operate in CW, with Morse code. I’m nowhere of being good or fluent at it. Once one gets past to just hearing dits and dahs, learning Morse code eventually is like learning a new language. With increasing speed (typically above ~15-20 word per minute), the letters and words form their own and characteristic sounds. Similar to learning e.g. French, eventually the human brains stops merely translating but actually directly understands and correlates the sound patterns to their proper meaning. Fascinating!!