- What is a radio amateur?
Somebody who has a licence to talk to other radio amateurs
- What do radio amateurs talk about?
We mainly just chat to each other and exchange codes and callsigns to enable us to win contests or gain another certificate. Our licences do not allow us to broadcast any music, speeches or anything of a religious or political nature. What do radio amateurs talk about?
- So it's just like CB?
Not really – CBers are only allowed to transmit speech (in this country, at least) with small, low power transmitters (so the distances covered are relatively short) and with approved equipment. Radio Amateurs, or ‘hams’ are allowed to transmit almost anything (Television, Speech, Computer Data, Facsimiles, Morse Code…) with much higher power licences and we are allowed to build and use our own equipment – great for sciences students! We also get a wider range of frequencies than CBers, so we can experiment with long wave and microwave radio with the same licence.
- How far away can you talk?
Using the HF frequency allocations (ie 1.8 – 30MHz), literally worldwide. We regularly make contacts with Australia, New Zealand and the south Pacific and you can’t get much further than that! Radio Amateurs can also increase their range using OSCARs (Orbital Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio), including a newly-launched geostationary amateur radio transponder on QO-100.
- What's the catch?
Because radio amateurs have so many privileges, we have to know what we are doing. To get a licence, therefore, we have to pass examinations, which have been standardised internationally. The examination structure currently consists of a choice of theory and practical elements leading to different classes of licence with different privileges. The theory isn’t hard (we have had many non-science students pass and the foundation exam is well below GCSE Physics level), it’s multiple-choice and you only have to do it once.
- How much does all this cost?
Basically as much as you want it to or can afford. From October 2006, licences are issued on a lifetime basis with the only requirement being confirming your details every five years. Licences are free if applied for online. Most radio amateurs also belong to the national society, the RSGB. As for the equipment, because we are allowed to build our own and to convert old radios (particularly old taxi radios, etc., commonly known as PMR), anybody who can solder can get on the air quite cheaply. You can also buy ‘kits’ – all the bits but you just have to solder them together. You can also, of course, spend larger sums and get very advanced, expensive ‘black-box’ radios that have been professionally built. These typically start at around £200 and can exceed £2000
- Where can I find out more?
The Radio Society of Great Britain publishes details on starting amateur radio on its website. In addition, you are strongly advised to read How to become a radio amateur in the UK (PDF), published by OfCom (who license us)s.
Finally, remember that you won’t only hear speech in the amateur bands. Other common modes are:
- Morse Code
- Slow-scan television
- Computer Data (such as Frequency and Phase Shift Keying)
(This page is based on one which I originally wrote for the Cambridge University Wireless Society website. ©2002 CUWS. Updated by myself in 2004, and again by CUWS in 2007, and again by myself in 2019.)