Last week , I covered the ridiculously low barriers to entry to amateur radio, both in terms of financial outlay and the process of studying for and passing the FCC examination. You’ve had seven days, so I assume that you’ve taken the plunge and are a freshly minted amateur radio operator. The next big question may be: Now what?
We briefly mentioned the image that ham radio is a rich old person’s hobby, and that reputation is somewhat deserved. For ham gear, there really is no upper limit on what you can spend. Glossy brochures and slick web pages hawk transceiver bristling with knobs and switches and loaded with the latest features, all of which will probably be obsolete within a few years when the Next Big Thing comes along and manufacturers respond with new, must-have models – looking at you, ICOM IC-7300. It’s no different than any other technology market, and enough people fall for that marketing to make it a going concern.
But thankfully, while there is no apparent ceiling on what you can spend on ham gear, there certainly is a floor, and it can be very, very low. Our $50 budget can go quite a long way to getting a new Technician on the air, if you’re willing to make some compromises and can forego the latest and greatest for a while.
Better Than Nothing
Like seemingly every other class of electronic device, there has been a flood of cheap ham transceivers aimed at newly licensed Technicians lately. And just like with TVs and computers and everything else, there’s a good side and a bad side to these cheap imports. On the good side is the benefit to consumers who couldn’t otherwise afford such devices. Such cheap devices also tend to push the manufacturers of higher-end gear to adjust their pricing strategies lest their lunch be eaten; competition is always good for the consumer, especially in niche markets like ham radio gear that have comparatively few manufacturers.
The bad aspects of cheap import electronics have been hashed over many times, and we won’t belabor those points here except to say that in many cases, you get what you pay for. You can’t expect as much from a radio you spent $25 on as one that cost a couple of hundred bucks. It’s up to the consumer to evaluate the value proposition of the purchase; some people need the quality and features offered by an expensive device, others can get by with the cheap one.
That said, a hue and a cry always arises at the mere suggestion that anyone should purchase one of the cheap Chinese radios as their first ham rig. Older hams scoff at these radios and deride not only the technology but those that would deign to use something like that. Some particularly recalcitrant hams will flatly refuse to talk to anyone using a cheap Chinese handy-talkie (HT).
They have a point – Baofengs particularly are known for their spurious off-band emissions – but personally, I find this to be boorish and exclusive behavior. I’d think anyone interested in growing the hobby would take such QSOs (contacts) as teachable moments rather than leaving a newbie with feeling bad about their choice of gear.
But if you think you can suffer the slings and arrows, your first radio is only $25 away. The Baofeng UV-5R dual-band HT is one way for the newly minted Technician to exercise his or her privileges on both the 2-meter VHF band and the 70-centimeter UHF band. The radio is impossibly small and lightweight, has decent battery life, and has a maximum transmit power of four watts. It’s programmable from the front keypad, although that’s tedious enough that getting a programming cable and an open-source programming app is not a bad idea. It allows the Technician to make contacts both in simplex mode (short range, radio-to-radio on the same frequency) or duplex (longer range contacts using two different frequencies and a remote repeater; we’ll cover repeaters in more depth in the next article).
Obviously a $25 radio has plenty of compromises, and chief among these for the Baofeng is the antenna. The stock rubber ducky antenna is, simply put, pathetic. A teardown reveals there’s not much in there but a coil of wire and a simple matching network inside the flexible plastic covering. Luckily there are better antennas available, also on the cheap. The Nagoya antennas are a good choice and will only set you back $15 or so. And nothing prevents you from building an even more elaborate antenna, like a quarter-wave ground-plane antenna or a Yagi, both of which we’ll cover in future installments of this series.
Even with the better antenna, your whole first “rig” can be had for well under our magic $50 limit. However, if you have the means, investing a little more is probably wise. My first HT was a Wouxun KG-UV6G, another dual-band HT that goes for about four times the cost of a Baofeng. It feels like it too – heftier, more solid and less plastic feeling, with a better stock antenna. Some will still knock it as a cheap import, but I haven’t had any trouble with it over the years. Still, “real” dual-band HTs from manufacturers such a Yaesu and ICOM can be had for not much more than that, and deals on used high-quality gear can be found if you’re patient.
Regarding Baofengs and their inexpensive cousins, the FCC recently issued an advisory prohibiting the import or sale of devices that don’t comply with their rules. The sticking point with these radios is their ability to transmit outside of the ham bands, particularly in the public service bands. With the (im)proper programming, these HTs can be set up to not only receive police and fire calls, but could be used to transmit on those channels. Listening to the folks in blue and red can be interesting and is completely legal, but even accidentally blocking public safety services is a serious problem. However it seems to me like the FCC is going about this the wrong way. Banning the radios outright seem drastic when it would be possible to reflash the firmware of these radios to prevent transmitting on anything but the ham bands.
It’s hard to tell what the FCC is going to do with their advisory, or how they plan to enforce it. Will they forbid future import of these radios? Will they fine anyone found using them? Or worse, will they try to confiscate your new rig? If you’re transmitting legally, I very much doubt any of that will happen, but even if your new Baofeng ends up outlawed, you’ll only be out $25. To my way of thinking, dropping a few bucks on one of these import HTs is probably a solid investment if it gets you on the air and jump-starts the learning process.
Are there other ways for the new Technician to get on the air? Absolutely! Homebrewing is always an option; I’d love to build a 2-meter rig from scratch for this series. There are UHF and VHF kits out there, and some people have even found ways to modify old CB radios, which operate on what used to be the 11-meter ham band, for use as single-sideband (SSB) radios for the narrow slice of the 10-meter band that Technicians have phone privileges on. CB radios are basically e-waste these days, so that might make a cheap and interesting project.
But for just getting on the air and at least listening to what’s going on, you can’t beat the cheap HTs.
In the next installment, we’ll discuss what to do once you’ve got a radio: checking in on the local repeater, finding other hams in your area, and participating in networks.