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Hamming it up
Adventures in Amateur Radio
Even though I have been hanging around amateur radio (ham radio) enthusiasts since the mid-1970s, I only recently had any major interest in actually getting on the air. I was not a ham myself, rather, I was part of a community of hobbyists who constructed their own home computers years before IBM PCs or Apple IIs were available for purchase.
There were a lot of similarities and cross-pollination between the home-brew computer and amateur radio culture. Both communities were passionate about their hobbies and enjoyed building their own equipment, and we often ran into each other.
At one point, I even managed to acquire an amateur radio license. However, I was way too preoccupied with hacking home computers and never bothered to do anything interesting with amateur radio.
Like many of my fellow hobbyists, I acquired a diverse set of skills such as electronics and mechanical fabrication that proved useful in my professional and personal life.
That was then, this is now.
Recently, my participation in Search and Rescue and its emergency communications systems has reacquainted me with the Amateur radio community. And, yes, they have the same geeky enthusiasm that I initially encountered almost 50 years ago.
But this article isn’t about a bunch of greybeards squawking in their radio shacks or even the doomsday preppers anticipating the next grid failure. Those groups certainly exist, but allow me to suggest a different perspective.
Rather, what I am noticing these days is that a number of young folks, particularly young women, are embracing the STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and discovering the captivating world of electronics and radio.
Some of the noteworthy individuals who come to mind are, Limor Fried, the founder of Adafruit Industries. or Sophie Jones, Director of Breakthrough Innovation at RS Group, as well as Becky Schoenfeld, who holds the position of Director of Publications at The American Radio Relay League (ARRL).
Amateur radio offers an excellent way to not only venture into the STEM world but also acquire the practical skills that are often absent in contemporary academic settings.
As you delve into the world of radio, this hobby will inspire you to roll up your sleeves like so many other “makers” and create some awesome things. It is particularly true in this day and age where radio has overlapped with the digital world. A prime illustration of this can be seen in my project, the Raspberry Pi Car Radio.
It's worth noting that getting into ham is no longer a pricey undertaking. The BaoFeng UV-5R, which costs approximately $20 each, is a great option for beginners. Personally, I use the BaoFeng UV-82HP during rescue operations, which I purchased for around $70 on Amazon.
And while it may not be essential for a STEM career, obtaining an amateur radio license can certainly enhance your resume and demonstrate your technical proficiency and enthusiasm.
An amazing learning opportunity
Compared to CB, FRS, or other personal radio services which have a limited range, Amateur radio offers a wider range of frequency bands that are allocated and shared globally throughout the radio spectrum.
Moreover, the FCC acknowledges the remarkable educational opportunities that Amateur radio offers:
The amateur and amateur satellite services are for qualified persons of any age who are interested in radio technique solely with a personal aim and without pecuniary interest. These services present an opportunity for self-training, intercommunication, and technical investigations.
As you will notice in the chart above, it mentions operator license classes. Currently, in the US, there are only three classes of licenses: Technician, General, and Amateur Extra. The Novice, Advanced, and Technician Plus classes are grandfathered.
The FCC also states:
The class for which each licensee is qualified is determined by the degree of skill and knowledge in operating a station that the licensee demonstrates during an examination to volunteer examiners (VEs) in his or her community.
The catch is, to get a license for a specific class, you need to pass a multiple-choice written exam. The good news is that there is no need to learn Morse code anymore.
Back in the saddle again
As I mentioned above, my involvement in public service re-sparked my interest in amateur radio. As a result, I decided to upgrade my license to a higher level. To my dismay, I discovered that not only did my FCC license expire but I had missed the grace period. Sigh, I had to retake the license test.
This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. While preparing for relicensing, I rediscovered my passion for electronics and was also pleasantly surprised to find that the steps to obtain an amateur radio license had greatly improved.
In a span of a couple of months, I dedicated myself to studying, and testing, and I successfully obtained licenses for Technician, General, and Amateur Extra classes.
In addition to my amateur radio license, I also obtained a General Radiotelephone Operator (GROL) license with a Ship Radar Endorsement from the FCC. This allows me to work on aviation and maritime equipment. But that’s another article.
Through my testing experience, I have found another meaningful way to serve my community by helping others begin their journey into amateur radio. I applied and was accredited as a volunteer examiner (VE) with the AARL.
But I hate tests
It’s really not that big a deal.
Firstly, the exams consist of multiple-choice questions drawn from a pool of questions maintained by the National Conference of Volunteer Examiner Coordinators (NCVEC). These volunteers are fellow ham radio enthusiasts who are eager to help others join the hobby. In order to keep up with advances in technology, the tests are updated every four years.
The exams consist of questions from a published question bank, so it’s easy to study for. To pass, you must attain a minimum score of 74%. For the Technician and General classes, this amounts to answering at least 26 out of the 35 multiple-choice questions correctly. So you can afford to get 9 questions wrong and still pass the test. In case it’s not obvious yet, they want you to pass the test.
The Extra Class test is naturally a bit more challenging, featuring 50 multiple-choice questions with a greater focus on practical circuits. However, it is not at all insurmountable.
It gets better. The test pool is not a random selection, but rather a weighted sample from multiple sections. For all three classes of license, there are 10 topics, each with a number of subelements. But you will only get one question from each subelement.
As an example, let’s look at the first few questions and correct answers of the test pool.
Learning about amateur radio is not too challenging once you understand its basics, and only a handful of items (mostly numbers) demand memorization. Personally, I find it helpful to create a study guide with answers to questions I am unsure about and refer to it as needed.
As I said earlier, it’s not that hard to get started. For most folks without any electrical engineering background, the Technician License Exam usually takes about 10 hours of studying.
How to study for the test
I am not suggesting that you game the test but let me offer a few suggestions that work for most people. With a multiple-choice test where you have access to the question pool, it is advisable to program your brain to recognize the correct answer and ignore any distracting incorrect answer.
If you prefer studying from a physical copy, you can use a highlighter to mark the correct answers. As you review the material, simply skip over the incorrect answers.
Although I strongly suggest that you make use of preparation apps like Ham Study. The app can be accessed through its web version or can be downloaded on macOS, iPhone, and Google Play Store With all versions, make use of the “Hide Distractors” option when you review the question pool.
Even if you have a good grasp of the technology, it's still a good idea to quickly look through the question banks and jot down the question numbers as well as the correct answers for any unfamiliar items.
Then go through each section in “Quiz” mode flashcards until you have mastered that section. You can further enhance your understanding by utilizing the "Explain" button, which often, but not always, provides a helpful explanation of the material.
By using the flashcards correctly, you will eventually see and learn every question in the pool. The flashcards are designed to repeat the questions that you need to learn, making it a highly efficient study tool. The problem with just running the randomly selected Practice Exams is that you might still not see all the questions.
After I got a good grasp of things I ran the Practice Exams until I consistently scored in the high 90%.
But I really want to learn it
If you aim to gain a thorough understanding of the subject matter instead of just memorizing answers, utilizing test apps can still be a beneficial strategy.
I highly recommend a hybrid approach to studying methods. Along with test preparation apps, I would invest time watching some of the better amateur radio preparation classes available on YouTube. You will find that in the spirit of amateur radio, the best ones are available for free!
I particularly liked the Amateur Radio Licensing classes that Gary Wise W4EEY and Dave Ivey KE4EA posted on YouTube. They created playlists for Technician, General, and Extra as well as plenty of study material on Dropbox. The videos were fun, easy to understand, and completely relevant to the tests. When combined alongside the Ham Study app, I believe they render purchasing the Ham Radio License Manuals from AARL unnecessary.
So how do I do this?
Once you feel confident and prepared, it's time to choose where to take your exam. Depending on the administering group, the test can be taken in person or online. To find an exam session, you can use AARL’s helpful tool.
The exams are administered by other hams who have signed up to be Volunteer Examiners (VEs). The groups giving the exam usually charge between zero to $15, to cover their costs.
Note that it is required to register with the FCC and obtain an FCC Registration Number (FRN) prior to taking the exam. After successfully passing the Technician exam, you will be required to pay a $35 license fee to the FCC. However, upgrading your license to a higher class does not require any additional fees.
While some teams may allow you to take multiple exams on the same day, such as obtaining your Technician license and then proceeding to the General exam, I am not a fan of this approach. I found it better to take small bites.
Personally, I took my exams remotely with the Silicon Valley VE Group using Zoom, they provided clear instructions and the whole process went smoothly. And, you don't need to be a member of their club or reside in Silicon Valley to use their service.
After the FCC issues your license, it remains valid for 10 years before requiring renewal.