Passionate Hams Make Their Mark On The Hack Chat

Let’s be honest — there are some not very pleasant stereotypes associated with amateur radio, at least if you ask outsiders. Hams are often thought of as being in two camps: old guys who can’t figure out modern technology or conspiracy theorists who think their knowledge of radio will give them an edge after the world becomes a post-apocalyptic hellscape. We’ll leave it to you to decide which is the worse brush to be painted with.

As is often the case, the best way to fight such ignorance is with education and outreach. Events like our weekly Hack Chat are a perfect platform for that, as it allows the curious to ask questions and get answers directly from subject matter experts. This is precisely why we invited Mark Hughes and Beau Ambur to helm last week’s Chat. The fact that they’re both relatively recent licensees makes them uniquely qualified to shed some light on what it’s like to become part of the ham radio community in the 21st century. As an added bonus, they’re both sharp and articulate technologists — about as far as you can get from the mental image of the doddering old granddad who prefers the simplicity of the Morse key to those newfangled smarty-phones.

Mark Hughes

The results were, quite frankly, staggering. It was one of the most lively and productive discussions we’ve seen in recent memory, which itself is a sharp rebuttal to some of the more pervasive claims about ham radio. This wasn’t a handful of grumpy graybeards bemoaning modern tech; it was a group of passionate folks who wanted to know more about the field and how getting licensed can help them with their goals and personal projects.

At the same time, it was honest. Mark started off the Chat by stating in no uncertain terms that amateur radio is a hobby dominated by older folks, and without an infusion of younger blood, it’s in very real danger of dying off. Why is that a problem? Put simply, if nobody is using the frequencies allocated for hams, it won’t be long before the governments of the world swoop in and reallocate them for whatever they please — and once that happens, getting those frequencies back is going to be a battle that hobbyists might not be able to win.

So why become a ham? Mark came prepared for that one and busted out the following bullet points:

  • Connect with a global community: Engage with like-minded enthusiasts worldwide, forming friendships that transcend borders and cultures.
  • Sharpen your technological skills: Dive into electronics, radio wave propagation, antenna design, digital modes, satellite communication, and more.
  • Serve your community: Provide communication support during emergencies, public events, and natural disasters.
  • Unlock global travel opportunities: Participate in contests, meet fellow hams worldwide, and operate from unique locations.
  • Lifelong learning and personal growth: Pursue certifications, master Morse code, explore satellite operations, and more.

It’s a list that’s hard to argue with and exactly the kind of thing that prospective hams need to see. There’s more to amateur radio than sitting in a dimly lit room with headphones pressed up against your ears — although, to be fair, there’s a decent amount of that also.

Beau Ambur

Let’s say this list convinced you to get your license. Now what? Predictably, that’s where the Chat headed almost immediately. People wanted to know not just the why of becoming a ham but the how. The questions were what you’d expect; people wanted to know what class of license they should go for and how they should start the process of studying and taking the exam. Of course, there was perhaps the most common of all ham-related questions: do I really need to learn Morse code?

Determining which class of license you go for is going to depend on a lot of factors, but as one member of the Chat pointed out, even getting the lowest tier Technician class in the US means you can start experimenting with things like bouncing signals off the Moon and communicating with satellites. Not a bad way to spend a lazy weekend. As for the big question, no — the FCC removed the Morse code requirement for amateur operator licenses back in 2007. That said, while it’s no longer required, several in the Chat said it was still good to be familiar with.

For those still not convinced amateur radio is for them, Beau and others suggested picking up a cheap RTL-SDR device and cruising around the dial. No license is required to listen in, and there’s a whole world of fascinating signals out there that you can pick up and decode, ranging from your wireless doorbell to signals being beamed down to Earth from orbiting weather satellites. If hacking around in listen-only mode holds your attention, then getting licensed and being able to (legally) transmit will make things all the more interesting.

The modern ham rig takes many forms

Talk of software-defined radio (SDR) took over the conversation for a while, as it’s a good example of where the technology is today compared to the earlier days of ham radio. You don’t need some dusty post-war relic to get on the air anymore. A Raspberry Pi and a handful of USB gadgets can do wonders and in many cases, may even make up the bulk of the “shack” for a modern ham.

Dan Maloney pointed out posts from his excellent “$50 Ham” series where he demonstrates these sorts of low-cost, high-tech radio projects. His Pi-based Weak Signal Propagation Mode (WSPR) beacon was a perfect example, as it offers the user the ability to make contacts all over the globe with hardware that fits in the palm of their hand and doesn’t look anything like the ham rigs of yesteryear.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a “proper” radio, and a good chunk of the discussion was taken up with hardware recommendations. While they are a bit controversial in the community, several commenters said it’s hard to go wrong with a $20 Baofeng handheld to get your feet wet. Once the bug has bitten you, expect your next radio to cost somewhere in the $150 – $300 range. Others pointed out that the radio is only half of the equation and that regardless of what you spend on it, you’ve got to make sure it’s paired up with a proper antenna.

In the end, the discussion went far beyond the standard hour and covered a dizzying array of topics. As always, we’ve got a complete transcript of the discussion up on the Hack Chat page for anyone who wants to read along — which we would highly recommend if you’re even remotely interested in ham radio.

We’d like to thank Mark Hughes and Beau Ambur for taking the time to speak with the community about the modern amateur radio experience and why it’s so important that we focus on getting the next generation of hobbyists on board. While the battle certainly won’t be won overnight, we think the buzz generated by this discussion proves that it’s a cause worth fighting for.

The Hack Chat is a weekly online chat session hosted by leading experts from all corners of the hardware hacking universe. It’s a great way for hackers connect in a fun and informal way, but if you can’t make it live, these overview posts as well as the transcripts posted to make sure you don’t miss out.

63 thoughts on “Passionate Hams Make Their Mark On The Hack Chat

  1. “$20 Baofeng” and “paired up with a proper antenna.”

    Great… a radio that the 2nd harmonic is only -26db down(or worse) into a high gain antenna.
    What could go wrong.

    1. Yeah, they would be good radios, except they emit all sorts of crap for lack of proper output filters. It wouldn’t be that expensive for the manufacturer to add them, but then they couldn’t anymore advertise watts that aren’t on the fundamental.

    2. I have tested my feng’s and some of them are very good, others not so much. My IC706MKIIg is the worst offender on 2m -22db on the 2nd harmonic, but my guess is that it is because it’s 21 years old now.

      1. True, I have seen variations in the harmonic levels. Filter it?? Sure, but it would have been better for the feng’s manufacturer to get the -60dBc as the others do.
        Maybe that creates an aftermarket of “Feng Filters”

    3. Wow. If you stretched any harder, you might hurt yourself. It’s obvious the people in the chat were cautioning those who thought they could just buy a better radio without investing in antenna to go with it.

    4. High gain antennas are usually very sharp in their bandwidth. So they would work as one more PI filter at the output.
      Your point is invalid. Transmission would be better and without less spurious than with a low gain antenna.

      1. No, they don’t. This myth was put out to pasture many times with guys running CB amps on 40 and 20 meters….. With their Hi Q antennas.

        Harmonic energy wasn’t down enough to meet current requirements.

        Not to mention, no hi gain antennas on mobiles.

        Not to mention, hi gain antennas with decades of bandwidth? No, doesn’t exist. Not even a log periodic. Those are at best 4 dB gain, averaged across a decade to three decades of bandwidth.

        I speak from experience. I operated legal limit mobile, with a tuned screwdriver antenna (meaning the 2nd harmonic was being met with a half wave antenna impedance. 50 ohm feedpoint, halfwave is 2500 ohms or better) and it barely met harmonic output regulations.

        1. To be fair, if anyone actually reduced power to the minimum necessary, something that’s also part of the laws, the higher gain antennas would often cause them to reduce power and you’d get less interference despite probably not being any cleaner in relative terms.

    5. I don’t want to support that kind of thing, but I’d point out that better ht antennas are often more narrowband than the bad counterparts, so that the harmonics may well be weaker on the better antenna with any luck.

    6. Actually, according to ARRL Lab testing, earlier production of the Baofeng radios very much did have a problem with harmonics, over the past 3 years, that has improved substantially. The ARRL Lab has done testing of HTs at the annual Hamvention event in Xenia, OH and found that, other than some legacy units and the very rare “new old stock,” the current production of Baofeng radios does not seem to have the harmonic problems that plagued the older ones. ~Ed Hare, W1RFI, retired ARRL Lab Manager

  2. I guess I’m out of touch with the stereotypes, because I’ve never pictured older hams as grumpy about modern tech. To the contrary, they always seemed to embrace the latest. I’m not licensed, but I know several who are, and the worst I could say is that they can be a little nerdy on their topic… but then, lots of people fit that description.

    1. Same here. It’s the older hams who have plenty of money and always brag about having the newest transceivers. They seem to need that to feel superior or something.

      By contrast, I do find vintage equipment some what predating myself quite fascinating, partly because it’s so unusual these days and because it is so well built and has good ergonomics/haptics.

      I also like tube technology because I’m not biased and see both pros and cons. I don’t feel old or bad for integrating “obsolete” technology into my modern projects. If they work together nicely, then that’s fine, no matter the age difference.

      Sadly, though, it’s often the old ones who make fun of technology of their own day. They essentially make fun of their younger selves, telling how much they have advanced since. I find this both heartbreaking as well as discouraging to others who have an interest in classic technology.

      To tell an example, I once used a classic Trio 2200 transceiver when I operated from my father’s station (he’s licensed and has a separate teaching license).

      While the reactions were mostly positive because of nostalgia (“oh, I had this one, too. Nice it still works.”) others couldn’t avoid making comments about it being old and obsolete.

      They essentially said “oh, cool, but don’t have you any MODERN radio? You know, a cheap Baofeng is easy to get. “.

      Personally, this depresses me. Why do they always force others to use the same boring modern day tech? What’s wrong about choosing another route on purpose and enjoy using a classic radio that’s from another era? One without digital technology. It doesn’t hurt anyone, does it? As a digital native, I like having a break from all of this for a while. I enjoy using an analogue radio with crystals, knobs and mechanical meters.

      Or has it to do with egos? Do I remind them of their younger self who still had principles, dreams and interest in developing skills? Something they have lost? Their inner child? Those old radios aren’t as luxurious as modern ones, after all. They need care and must be restored over time (caps, filters etc).

      1. Problem is there are a zillion facets to radio, they are highly divergent and folks gravitate to one group of them or another. And it becomes subgroups within the hobby. For me, I like digital and public service stuff. Others like vintage gear. The hobby is broad. Do parts you like, plenty of room for everyone.

    2. I suppose I’m one of those old geezers but I don’t really fit the stereotype. I’m old so I know all about vacuum tubes but as an engineer (before I retired) my world was all FPGAs and software. In other words, I appreciate tubes, Morse code and all that in the same way as someone might appreciate an antique car or a steam locomotive. Its important to keep the expertise for historical reasons but build new kit with that technology — seriously?

      I am, like many amateurs, obsessed by antennas. Technology has changed a lot in 100 years but the physics of antennas remains the same. Most of us are stuck with too little space and human limitations such as a wife, neighbors, city council etc. that prevent us from erecting a 70′ tower with a beam on top of it. Solving the problem of the perfect antenna is the dream, one that will never be entirely fulfilled. (Anyway as soon as we get something working OK we just dial back the power and start over.)

    3. I strongly agree. In your introduction, where you describe “common opinions” of hams (esp older ones), you’re grossly misinformed… You MUST be referring to people who operate CB (esp. with amplifiers), which is:
      A, totally unlicensed;
      B, requires NO technical knowledge, only requirement is acquiring the gear;
      C. attracts people who don’t want to bother with learning the technical knowledge required to get licensed.
      I’ve personally known many hams in several states, been involved with clubs, etc and never known any like you describe.
      But I’ve known (and heard on the air) a few of the CBers that plague the airwaves.
      You need to be careful before you paint a whole group with such a wide brush, especially considering the fact that, the ones I’ve known are quite likely to come to your rescue in an emergency.
      Also, such a negative and disrespectful attitude toward groups of people is no longer in vogue these days, and is being tolerated less and less.
      I’m not kidding.
      When you damage your own reputation, you might not be able to recover it.

  3. And the ARRL pushing the ECOMM Whacker narrative does not help.

    Read my lips— You ARE NOT a emergency responder!!!
    You will NEVER do any REAL emergency comms for the gov.
    (ie,, ARES/MARS/SHARES etc..)
    Take that antenna off your hardhat and go home. Oh– burn the lime-green
    vest also.

      1. “Well with that attitude you won’t.”

        I spent almost 25 years in paid emergency communications/management at
        the local and state level.
        And was a ham(still am) and in ARES before that .
        So I know both sides.

    1. Thom, I have to disagree, while my local ARES group cannot say never activated, there were
      times when it was. It wasn’t a huge natural disaster but when we were needed we answered the call.
      ARES are emergency responders, we are not first responders. We answer the call only when needed.
      Are we needed often? No. There are those who hope every day for an activation or some sort of calamity to happen just to get to wear the vest and look important. There are those who have taken the training a served agency requires, keeps that training up to date, and work with their served agancies, not missing training exercises so the served agency knows it has people it can work with if needed. Several years ago I wrote a post called “If it were a real emergency”.
      It brought up the poiint of people who were only involved on paper only, never showing up for meetings, not keeping their training up by doing exercises. But you can be sure, if something were to happen (whatever it may be) you’d have every vest wearing multi-radio on the belt, badge wearing whacker coming out of the woodwork to “help”. Their training is out of date, they’re not up on current operating procedures, or even the latest door security codes. When Hurricane Katrina happened the local ARES folks were turning away hams who wanted to “help”. Why? No training, weren’t known to the local agencies, who self-deployed (which is a BIG no no) who would just get in the way.
      If you’re a “paper only” ARES member, do the rest of your team a favor, stay home, stay out of
      the way, and don’t bother showing up. Communications are a lot more robust since the 1970s.
      For me personally, “when all else fails” could be as little as being on a desolate road with no cell service where a ham radio can come in handy. The time, effort, and training I’ve received at least for me is time and effort well spent. That’s how I see things.

      1. “For me personally, “when all else fails” could be as little as being on a desolate road with no cell service”

        I’ve looked at some random locations in France, Germany and Poland. Even if you intentionally drove right into the middle of a large forest north of Kielce, it’s still only 5-8 km to the nearest village. In reality it’s usually less than that. It should take about 30 minutes to 1 hour to cover that distance. Hardly a reason to buy, carry and maintain amateur radio.

        1. Europe and the UK have many countries and lots of cities and towns near each other either within biking or walking distance. Here in the USA, large states like Texas or Montana you can have hundreds of miles between cities and towns. Due to the large size of the US, not everywhere has cell service. I once took Amtrak (our train service here in the US) coast to coast. I talked to a few ham radio operators during my trip.
          While my station is always ready to serve if needed, I do enjoy the hobby.
          I also enjoy broadcast band DX’ing, seeing how many AM stations I can hear at night from far away.

        2. You’d be surprised how quickly you can get into trouble even in a populated country like England if you’re out on a moor and the weather changes. (You’ve probably got cell service, though.) Now, come over here to the western US. We have huge areas of mountains and deserts where its easy to get lost, the climate can be life threatening and cell service stops a couple of hundred yards from the Interstate. A modern cellphone might save you but one alternative is a VHF radio and a network of repeaters.

    2. The UK has used RAYNET many times, for example when the Pan AM plain was blown up over Lockerbie RAYNET was one of the first calls made by the police when they realised they needed multiple services whom couldn’t interoperate together. Furthermore the members of RAYNET involved were vastly more familiar with the area involved than the various emergency services or military involved. When the going got tough, the call was made and the community worked better when communicating together.

    3. Agreed. There is a big difference between emergency response and public service. Where I live (Canada) emergency communications is not part of our official responsibility, and I think that that is a good thing. In some communities amateurs partner with local municipal and/or provincial emergency response teams, but that is much more organized than a bunch of dudes showing up uninvited with their HTs and a rotating light from Princess Auto on their rusty old truck.

      I’ve volunteered at several public service events (helping with communication for a off road bike race or similar), and I think that there is value there, but in all honesty I am in this hobby for the love of radio.

  4. Thanks so much for having us! It was a blast! If you don’t mind one teeny, tiny correction. And you don’t have to edit the article, I’ll just leave it here — I’ve been licensed since the early 90’s (almost at 3 decades now)

  5. In the article it states “As for the big question, no — the FCC removed the Morse code requirement for amateur operator licenses back in 2007.” That is not completely true. The FCC removed the code for technician class in 1999 and general and extra class in 2007. I got my tech license in 2000 because I did not want to learn code. And in response to the disaster side of operating I operated as ARES for a while. The best response I ever went on was flooding and downed trees after a storm. We blocked flooded roads in Aurora IL. It was fun. As for bigger disasters the response from the FEDS or local goobermint will usually surpass what ARES is capable of.

    1. ARES has its uses. Of course the feds and local government will have access to more resources, but sometimes, what’s needed is manpower. There are only so many fire/medical/police to go around.
      It’s not just emergencies where hams lend a helping hand. They man checkpoints during races, water stations, and using their radios let race officials know where the first and last runner is.
      Once the last runner passes a checkpoint or water station, that checkpoint or water station can be shut down. If a runner wants to drop out of the race, there are vehicles that can be summoned to pick the runner up. Hams help in their communities if they can. It’s not all doom and disaster.
      Even when I don’t participate, it’s fun to listen to as well.

  6. Anytime you are playing with radio, such as a 433 MHz keyfob or designing a replacement remote control for you now obsolete blackbox, you are a radio ham in the broad interpretation of the name. There is nothing to lose by doing the test, getting a license and understanding radio devices a lot better than the clown in a shop selling you 6 antenna wi-fi because 6 is better isn’t it /s. Learning the basics can help you in so many ways.

    1. If I get caught doing something fun with RF Uncle Charlie can’t pull my license, because I never got one. Not that the FCC can be bothered.

      Not a ham, a scoff law EE.

      1. There are a lot of people who think that the FCC can’t be bothered to enforce radio rules, because they don’t hear about HAMs or others getting in trouble. This is false. The media doesn’t publish stories about it, because most people aren’t interested. It happens quite frequently. The worst offenders are business. The type of business will depend on your location. Truckers will sometimes buy HAM band radios and use HAM bands when they are on the road. Where I live, the main problem is fishing fleets, who actually have assigned frequencies by the FCC but who prefer to use HAM bands, because there’s less traffic to compete with. Individuals don’t get in trouble much, because individuals don’t violate RF laws much. The FCC has monitoring offices in every state. They are typically active off and on throughout the year or only during certain periods of the year, but they aren’t the only ones monitoring. HAM operators do significantly more monitoring than the FCC, and they won’t hesitate to report violations. And they don’t only report on HAM band violations either. Many will report on bands near HAM bands, like weather reporting bands and such. It doesn’t matter if you have a license or not, the FCC will fine you and confiscate your radio equipment (for individuals; businesses typically don’t lose their equipment unless they are serial violators or the equipment is specifically designed for transmitting on HAM bands and not the bands they are legally allowed to use). The fines aren’t normally higher for licensed HAMs either (though they tend to have more equipment and more valuable equipment than unlicensed individuals).

        I recent took two of my kids to a Technician license class. One of the handouts was a partial list of violators in the region, along with the violation details and the amount of the fines. The majority were fishing fleets with a few trucking/cargo violations. A small handful was individuals. Most of them were identified and reported by licensed HAMs, not by FCC investigators. And when I say “identified”, I mean experienced HAMs know how to do direction finding to work out exactly where illegal signals are coming from, and they can often identify the exact individual doing it, in the case of individual violations. The FCC jumps on these reports, because it’s far easier than having to figure out exactly who the culprit is from a vaguely defined region. The abridged handout had between 30 and 50 entries over only a handful of years, and I happen to live in a region that has a very sparse population. If you live anywhere that has large towns or cities, not only will there be far more violators caught, there will be far more HAMs monitoring, making the risk that much higher.

        There may be some places in the U.S. that have fewer HAMs monitoring, but it’s not worth the risk. You’ll be looking at $10,000 or higher fines for a violation. If there’s evidence that you know better, for example comments on Hackaday that can be traced back to you by your IP address, they’ll pursue much higher fines and possibly jail time. You can’t lose your license if you don’t have one, but you can lose several years of your life and most or all of your life savings whether you have a license or not. You’ll whatever radios you have too.

    1. Teeeeechnically building one (or owning one) doesn’t require a license but above some very small transmitter power thresholds you need a license to use it. No license to receive. For various bands the minimums are different I think. I mean, a cellphone is a transceiver and you do not need a license.
      But just get your license it’s super super easy. Like study for an afternoon easy.

      1. When linears are outlawed, only outlaws will have linears!

        They’re amazingly cheap on Alibaba, attach one to your cell phone!

        Actually don’t, stepping on military, oinker or big buck commercial bands is about the only way the FCC will get off their lazy asses. Just attach your linear to a very cheap CB, preferably one you previously modded for extra power (and sidebands). Good fun for all your neighbors.

        Want to know how I know Uncle Charlie is ball-less? A friend’s neighbor has been doing the CB/kW linear thing for decades. You can hear him on anything with a speaker, and a few without…e.g. microwave oven.

        If it was my house, I’d ninja in and put a needle through his coax.

      2. Well, obtaining license is not a problem, except I’d have to go to Warsaw. I’m partially blind, and I don’t know the city. So I’ll have to wait until September to go there with my wife, while kids are in the school. Or I could try for online exam. My blind brother did that last year…

    2. I really want to build my own as well. I have my license, but all the bits needed add up, and I don’t have much budget right now. My current plan is to use a Raspberry Pi (can output up to ~1,700kHz, but very dirty) with a good filter and a power amp. It’s not as good as doing it from ICs and discrete components, but it should make a pretty solid transmitter. For a receiver I can use a cheap SDL receiver, but someday I do want to make a receiver from raw components as well. It sounds like a fun project! I really need some better measuring equipment though, so I can make predictable inductors and such.

  7. If you go to read the Hack-chat transcript, the following guide will help you read it in sequence:

    In what world does presenting the hack-chat transcript in this way, make sense?

  8. I am old,ish and sometimes grumpy. Been a Ham since 1974. My elder Elmer was a Ham back in the 30’s. Hams started out with Spark Gap stations over a hundred years ago and even managed to modulate them, moved on to vacuum tubes, transistors and IC’s. Each new electronic advancement seems to have a Ham in the mix. At my age do I understand the latest in electronic tech… No, but I support it even if I tend to keep my own circuits to the discrete transistor level. But today there are so many new and exciting directions to go that it boggles the mind. And for the emergency responders I agree, keep your training up to date. We tend to think that cell tower service is everywhere but then again a major disaster can and will take them out with no backups other than Ham Radio. Take care and 73 to all de WA4JAT

  9. “Beau and others suggested picking up a cheap RTL-SDR device and cruising around the dial. No license is required to listen in…”

    Not wanting to be a party-pooper and stop anyone’s fun, but can anyone shed any light on the situation in the UK where the Wireless Telegraphy Act sect. 48(1)(a) appears to say the opposite?

    “A person commits an offence if … he uses wireless telegraphy apparatus with intent to obtain information as to the contents, sender or addressee of a message (whether sent by means of wireless telegraphy or not) of which neither he nor a person on whose behalf he is acting is an intended recipient”

    Perhaps this means listening is ok as long as you don’t try to demodulate/decode the contents? What about direction-finding? Does that count as obtaining “information as to the sender” (i.e. their location)?

    1. If UK amateur radio is anything like U.S. amateur radio, then anyone who wants to listen, even unlicensed users who aren’t legally authorized to transmit, is legally considered an intended recipient. Note that this does not apply to transmission outside of the legally specified amateur bands though. In the U.S., it is commonly recommended to get some experience using SDRs to listen in on things like airport and airplane transmissions. That would probably be illegal in the UK, unless you are a pilot or an air traffic controller.

      It’s also worth noting that in the U.S., HAMs fall under completely different regulations from others, and this applies beyond just the HAM bands. A HAM operator transmitting on an unauthorized frequency can get in a lot more trouble than an unlicensed person committing the same violation, but there are also some limited exceptions where HAMs can transmit on unauthorized frequencies in serious emergencies or during certain government sponsored events. In some instances, U.S. HAMs can decide which regulations to operate under (for example, a HAM operator can use a wireless router under HAM regulations to transmit with much higher power but is legally obligated to prevent unlicensed people from using the router, or under unlicensed regulation for the band, which allows others to use the router but with heavily restricted transmit power). It’s entirely possible that that particular regulation does not apply to the amateur radio bands or that it does not apply to licensed amateur radio operators on those bands. (Yes, this means that you may be legally required to have an amateur radio license to legally listen in.) You would have to read the rest of the regulations concerning radio usage and amateur radio specifically to determine what exceptions or special allowances might exist. In the U.S., people generally learn this stuff during the process of studying for the HAM license exams, rather than by reading all of the relevant laws. If you are interested in amateur radio and want to learn the ropes, maybe it would be beneficial for you to find a local amateur radio group, attend their licensing classes, and ask these questions! Again, I don’t know about the UK, but HAM groups in the U.S. tend to be very happy to answer questions like this and sufficiently knowledgeable to do so.

      (Note that I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t even live in the UK, so don’t take this as legal advice. I can’t see how an amateur radio program would work though, if it wasn’t legal to listen if you weren’t already a party in the communication.)

    2. The standard always used to be that listening for your own amusement was fine, but acting on it in any way was gonna get a pile of bricks of enforcement happening. i.e. don’t post transcripts/activity online, don’t turn up to an accident in a tow truck, don’t use the information to inform other actions. Supposedly when scanners were first popular in the 80s they’d run a sting every so often, stage some “must see” event and arrest whoever turned up to gawk.

    3. Interesting point, I was loosely saying that in the context of amateur radio frequencies in the US. Regulations definitely vary by region, and there are caveats. So not all frequencies in all regions are up for grabs, even if only listening. When it comes to testing and exploring with SDRs, what actually got me started was the broadcast FM band, which is very much intentionally meant to be listened to. Beyond and “above” that you have things like 162.400 – 162.550 MHz for NOAA Weather Information.

      While we got the moniker “expert” with this, I’m certainly an amateur at heart.

  10. I got a license when I was a kid because my dad is really into ham radio. It is his main hobby. While he is older, he definitely isn’t against new technology. He runs a D-Star repeater stack and has one of the latest ICOM radios that has some sort of Bluetooth functionality. I have gone to plenty of ham fests over the years and while I agree that the stereotype of it being older individuals is certainly true, I never got the impression that anyone disliked newer technology.

    The reasons listed for why to get a license are all valid, but there are plenty of ways to go about doing those without getting a ham license. Technology like the internet, LoRa, Arduinos, Raspberry Pis, etc. have provided avenues to explore much of that without going thru the process of getting licensed. I have had this conversation with my father plenty of times, and he always brings up the talking to people around the world. My response has always been that I can do just easier via the internet which also allows me to find groups of individuals interested in very specific topics unrelated to ham radio. That is usually when he brings up the emergency communication reason. My response is that the need for that is rare and people need a reason in the non-emergency times to get into the hobby to begin with. I have said and will continue to say that if the ham radio community wants to bring in the younger generation, they need to focus less on talking to other people and focus more on talking to things. Modes like packet and RC control need to be talked about more. Produce PCBs with ham band radios on them that can easily be connected to microcontrollers for wireless communication. Do thinks that the maker community is interested in to bring them into ham radio.

    Not to discourage anyone from getting a license if they want it. Go forth, get licensed, have fun in the hobby. I am just trying to point out that people might not be interested in being licensed because the way it is marketed doesn’t show them any benefits. If they saw how beneficial it could be to the stuff they are interested in doing, then they would get the license.

    1. This. I really wish I could make a good radio with an RP2040, but the frequency is too low for anything but HF bands that require huge, expensive antennas. I’m working on making one with a Raspberry Pi, but it doesn’t have a DAC, so signals have to be produced using PWM, which requires really good filters to be useful for transmitting. It doesn’t have an ADC, so it can’t receive natively, but SDR receivers aren’t too expensive. Overall, it’s going to be a massive hack job. On the other hand, Adafruit sells microcontrollers with 900Mhz LoRa radios, which is in an unlicensed band for lower power use. That cool, but what if I want to run a weather station that needs longer range? Sorry, nothing for that, even if you do have a HAM license. If you can find a 2.4GHz device where you can control the radio directly (instead of being limited to some hardcoded protocol), and it happens to have an antenna connector, you could use that for HAM (as unlicensed 2.4GHz overlaps with a HAM band), but you won’t get very long range with that without highly directional antennas and a lot of power, and I’m not aware of any microcontrollers that fit that description anyhow.

      I can tell you, if Adafruit sold microcontrollers with 2 meter or 70 cm band radios with UF.L connectors, either allowing direct control or even having some decent kind of packet radio protocol hard coded, I’d be all over that! And if they sold that, they could probably also make some money selling ~5 watt power amps designed to attach to the UF.L connector, maybe as a “hat”. I mean, I’d buy one of those as well. (Heck, if pretty much anyone made 5v, 10 watt amp PCBs, I would buy a handful. All the ones I can find are 12 volt, which won’t work for my Raspberry Pi radio, because my power source is only 5v.)

      I think there’s a market here for HAM enable microcontroller dev boards. It’s sad that no one is even trying to serve that market. Heck, if I had the capital, I would be willing to develop and sell them. That’s how badly I want some for myself!

  11. In my own experience most HAMs aren’t opposed to or otherwise unfamiliar with newer technology. Technically I’ve had my General license since 2010 (I skipped my Technician, passing both tests in one sitting). I only recently got a radio though, and the only meetings I attended until recently were the Technician classes right before I tested and earned my General license. Earlier this year, I got my Extra license, and then a month later I bought my first radio. I haven’t used it much, because I mainly got into HAM radio for the technology rather than the community or conversation. I have a BS in Computer Science (almost done with my Masters), I started learning electronics when I was 16 or 17, I have some experience programming and otherwise working with embedded devices, and I’m fascinated by the potential of radio technology. HAM radio was originally an “inventor’s” hobby. The whole point of the FCC allowing amateur use of certain radio bands was to facilitate technological advancement in radio tech. Basically, it is most fundamentally an inventor’s hobby. Now days though, half of licensed HAMs seem to mostly be interested in using it for emergency preparedness (legitimate, and that has been added to the FCCs official purpose for the program) and the other half seem to use it mainly for personal communication and community.

    But, that’s only how it seems. Invention in HAM has gone the same direction as invention in the U.S. and developed nations in general. It has reduced substantially, to the point where real invention is extremely rare. It’s a bit more alive in HAM communities though. The culture of inventiveness is still strong in some HAM communities though, even if the individual HAMs aren’t inventing much. When new radio technology becomes available, HAM communities are often the first to look for ways of using it. My local HAM group is currently working toward a mesh network alternative based on some newer technology. It’s not really invention, but it’s at least innovation, which is better than what’s going on in most for-profit industries.

    Anyhow, I recently started attending some of the local HAM meetings, and there’s quite a bit of focus on technology. I missed the most recent meeting, but the last one was about the origins of Wifi technology. We had a speaker who was actually on the forefront of developing modern Wifi technology, and he went through some of the original technologies and how the research group he led figured out how to get multiple overlapping access points to play nice all the way up to more recent Wifi standards and the role his students played in helping to develop the technology. Sure, probably 70% to 80% of the people there were older guys, but there were also several women, some middle aged guys, and a couple of pre-teen kids (alright, all admit, the two kids were mine). The meeting was hosted by woman, a bit older than middle aged. There was another woman at the same table as me, who was a bit older than the host. And there were a couple more middle aged women. There were probably 10 to 15 older men, and 7 or 8 middle aged men. When I took my Extra exam, one of the VEs for those taking the Technician exam was a middle aged woman, who became interested in HAM when she learned about the astronomical observation potential for radio. I brought the two kids I mentioned to a month long weekly Technician course right after getting my Extra license. The teacher was an older guy, and he told us his primary interest in HAM was the technology. He’s as an electrical engineer, and like me, he found the technical aspects of radio to be fascinating, which is why he got into it. In between going over exam questions, he told us about all sorts of old and new radio technology.

    The truth is, HAMs do tend to skew older, but there are a lot of middle age and younger HAMs out there. The majority of HAMs are men, but there are also a significant number female HAMs. Some HAMs are only interested in emergency preparedness, though most of them aren’t conspiracy theory preppers. (And while I’m not that into the emergency element, it is actually very valuable. The thing that makes it seem less valuable is that the vast majority of the time HAMs aren’t needed to handle emergency communication. When they are though, it’s pretty critical, because it takes a pretty serious emergency to need to community mainly over HAM radio. It’s things on the scale of tropical storms, that aren’t very frequent but are very serious.) Some older HAMs prefer the old technology and don’t bother learning about the new stuff, but that seems to be a fairly small minority. Some HAMs are mainly there for the community, though the tests do require some work to pass, which filters out most of those who really aren’t interested in the technology. The vast majority of HAMs are at least somewhat interested in the technology, including the new technology.

    That’s my experience. I’ve also read about student HAM groups doing things with satellites and balloons. These are mainly college students in the low to mid 20s. There are also a few high school student groups doing HAM stuff. The people who tend to evangelize HAM the most probably are the older men who aren’t interested in the new technology and who are mainly there for the community and are trying to rebuilt as their other older friends die or become too disabled to continue doing HAM radio. Maybe that’s why there’s this perception of HAM operators being old guys who don’t like tech, but that’s definitely not the majority of them. HAM is a challenge to get into if you aren’t interested in technology, so most people who get HAM licenses are at least casually interested in technology whether old or new and are happy to learn more, even if only for personal entertainment.

    On top of all of that, you don’t have to attend meetings or be part of the community to get and have a HAM license. If you have some background and are interested in the technology, the Technician exam isn’t that hard, and there’s no penalty for getting the license and then not using it if you decide you aren’t interested anymore. I got my General license over 10 years before I got a radio and started participating in HAM, and even now I don’t participate that much. Even if I never got the radio or participated, I enjoyed learning everything I needed to know to pass the exam. If you enjoy learning and you are interested in technology, get your HAM license just because you can. If you discover you enjoy being part of the community or even just using the technology, awesome. If you don’t, you still got the enjoyment of learning the material and the exam is very low stakes. You can take it any number of times, and if you change your mind after failing a few times, you can just not take it again. There’s no pressure, and it can be a fun time even if you never use the license!

  12. When you want your first transceiver, please don’t buy any old Baofeng. As discussed in a number of previous comments, they are not spectrally clean and that’s not a good precedent to set as a ham of any length of time. the only 100% OK Baofeng is the GT-5R, which is available on Amazon right now for $27. That can’t be much more than the cheapest one and is really great compared to the barriers to entry for earlier generations! And as a bonus, the GT-5R will perform better in urban environments or near strong transmitters than any other Baofeng.

    Note that there are lots of handhelds available under $100 these days: Icom IC-V80, Yaesu FT-4XR, Bridgecom BCH-270, Alinco DJ-VX50T, Yaesu FT-65R – and that is only those listed on DX engineering.

    The next step may be a fair bit more expensive but also offers a big jump in performance and a lot more options: grab a used mobile 2m radio for under $100, grab a roll-up antenna from N9TAX or Ed Fong for about $30, and grab a ~14A 12V power supply from eBay or R&L for $70. Now if you’re in a semi-urban environment you can probably hit 20-40 repeaters and would be able to participate in the nets of a local club or two as you like.

  13. There is another thing about ham radio: ham spirit! And, before you click to the next comment, please take a minute so a can explain what this ham spirit is up to! Lots of ham’s think ham spirit is the way we behave between each other: polite, kind, and blablabla… This is not ham spirit, this is simply the way humans should behave.
    Ham spirit is the way hams help each other, teach them and transfer there knowledge to the fellow amateurs, its the way our knowledge is a open source, at the disposal of the amateur community. In fact, its a feeling that we love at Hackaday . So, not a big difference between hackers, ham-radio enthousiats, open-source lovers. Open is the keyword!
    Freddy, ON7VQ

  14. Never renewed my ticket because: nastyhams, sad hams, ham cops, FCC cult worship and radio Karens. Lost any desire to associate with them, went back to the kinder, gentler world of restoring old shortwave radios and AM DX.
    And I’m into the hardware first and foremost.

  15. One of the important things Amateur Radio does is whe all other communications fail it will be there. In times of disaster they provide this service. Yes, we simply talk, and there are some bad actors, but that is everywhere. Remember…when all other communications fail, there will be Amateur Radio.

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