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As if I didn’t need yet another hobby that assumes a relatively high amount of disposable income, as of July 17th, 2023 (ignore the date this goes out), I am now a licensed amateur radio operator. As of the 31st, I passed the element 4 exam,1 granting me the highest class of license available in the US: Amateur Extra. But, why? Well, why not?
The direct answer is, actually, cosplay, for a friend. No, really. Even though what that friend wants to do is way past the amateur space at this point in time (and I’ll get into commercial licensing later), that’s what at least got me started. Unfortunately, a desire for some forbidden features for amateurs (like encryption), and the (valid) privacy concerns of some of his friends. mean that that project isn’t within range for amateur radio, anymore.
So, basics, if you don’t know. Amateur radio, or ham radio2 is, fundamentally, people communicating over radio for non-commercial purposes (so, communications without a monetary incentive). That’s really all there is to it as the basic level, and it encompasses everything from basic voice communications to more advanced digital systems, some of which I’ll talk about another day. Licensing itself is pretty simple, just a 35 question test (though, do study if you intend to).3
I am, license aside, really not the person to talk to if you want someone to explain the history and possibilities here, go ask Ham Radio Crash Course for that.
However, I will say that of course, a new hobby means more opportunities for
gear pictures explaining the minutiae of systems that nobody cares about at lengths that nobody understands, so I might as well, right?
Unfortunately, there’s not too much I can do in this space at the moment. Radios are expensive, antennas are expensive, and the ones that have the cooler features are even more expensive, naturally. This, however, is ham radio, and rest assured that we have found plenty of ways to redneck things into existing that really shouldn’t.
A “Brief” Terminology Lesson
Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, I’m going to dedicate the rest of this space to being a “quick” list of most of the terms and abbreviations that you might see me use. Some make sense, some don’t. I’d recommend bookmarking this if you want, makes things easier to search that way.
Q Codes and Other Shorthand
There’s a whole plethora of abbreviations that stem from Morse code, most of which are 3-letter groups starting with Q. Because Morse isn’t the fastest thing in the world, it turns out that routine procedural phrases being reduced to a known character group makes it much quicker to pass a message. Morse also has a thing called prosigns (“pro” as in procedural) which is a group of letters transmitted without spaces. The traditional way to do this is with an overbar, like so: SK. I’ll be following that convention.
Morse Code Abbreviations
ANT: Antenna (yes, this one is actually a Morse abbreviation)
.-.-., also the sequence for the
+character) : End of transmission
&) : Wait
BK: Break, momentary pause in transmission
CQ: Calling all stations / calling any stations. “CQ” sounds like “seek you” when pronounced.
DE: From (as in,
K7XYZ DE W1ABCis a transmission from
DX: Long distance, attempting to make contacts from foreign countries or continents
FB: Short for “Fine Business” but generally used as shorthand to mean “good.”
K: Any station invited to transmit and reply
() : Only the named station invited to transmit and reply
- LID : Poor operator. Yes, this is derogatory, and yes, it’s used commonly outside of Morse code here.
OM: Old Man, male radio operator
...-.-) : “Out,” end of contact, this conversation is finished
SK: Silent Key, deceased operator
TU: Thank You
YL: Young Lady, female radio operator
73: Best regards
88: Love and kisses
161: Best regards, love and kisses (73 + 88 = 161)
Each Q-code has two meanings: one when asked (
QSL?), and one when not (
While most of them are rooted in Morse code shorthand, a number of them are used in voice communications, such as QRM, QSY, QSL, QRT, and QRZ.
QRA: What is your callsign / my callsign is
QRG: What is my exact frequency / your exact frequency is
QRL: Are you busy? / I am busy, please hold
QRM: (is there) man-made interference
QRN: (is there) other non-man-made static
QRO: Should I increase power? / please increase power (also used to refer to high-power operation, running as much wattage through your setup as you can)
QRP: Should I decrease power / please decrease power (also used to refer to low-power operation, running as little wattage as needed to make contacts)
QRS: Should I send slower / please send slower
QRT: Should I cease operation / I am shutting down the radio for now
QRZ: Who is calling me? / Someone is calling you (also used on HF to mean “This contact is finished, ready for next contact”)
QSL: Can you acknowledge? / I acknowledge (also used to mean confirmation of a contact by both stations submitting matching log entries)
QSO: Can you communicate with? / I can communicate with (also used to mean a contact, actually reaching someone on the radio)
QSR: Do I need to repeat my callsign / please repeat your callsign
QST: Broadcast message to all amateurs (not really seen from what I’ve picked up, minus the magazine title)
QSY: Should we change to a different frequency / I am changing frequency
QTH: What is your location / my location is
We measure what frequency band (range) we’re on by its wavelength in meters, such as the 2-meter band, the 80-meter band, or the 70-centimeter band. Here’s the list of them:
|Band name||Frequency range|
|1.25m||219–220 MHz, 222-225 MHz|
|13cm||2.30–2.31 GHz, 2.39–2.45 GHz|
Frequency Range Names
We also assign certain names to certain entire ranges of frequencies, by wave length, and by… frequency.
|Name||Frequency||Notes and usage|
|Long Wave (LW)||Generally anything below 300 kHz5||Time signals, aviation NDBs, submarine communications|
|Medium Wave (MW)||530–1,700 kHz||AM broadcasting|
|Shortwave (SW)||Generally anything above 1,500 kHz||Everything else|
Of course this is a rather old standard, as almost all of our usage is just “shortwave” by that definition. Good thing there’s a second system in place:
|Extremely Low Frequency (ELF)||3–30 Hz||100,000–10,000 km|
|Super Low Frequency (SLF)||30–300 Hz||10,000–1,000 km|
|Ultra Low Frequency (ULF)||0.3–3 kHz||1,000–100 km|
|Very Low Frequency (VLF)||3–30 kHz||100–10 km|
|Low Frequency (LF)||30–300 kHz||10–1 km|
|Medium Frequency (MF)||300–3,000 kHz||1,000–100 m|
|High Frequency (HF)||3–30 MHz||100–10 m|
|Very High Frequency (VHF)||30–300 MHz||10–1 m|
|Ultra High Frequency (UHF)||300–3,000 MHz||100–10 cm|
|Super High Frequency (SHF)||3–30 GHz||10–1 cm|
|Extremely High Frequency (EHF)||30–300 GHz||10–1 mm|
|Tremendously High Frequency (THF)||300–3,000 GHz||1–0.1 mm|
- AM : Amplitude Modulation, changing the strength of your carrier frequency to encode and transmit sound
- ASK : Amplitude Shift Keying, changing the strength of your carrier frequency to encode digital data
- FM : Frequency Modulation, changing the frequency of your carrier frequency to encode and transmit sound
- FSK : Frequency Shift Keying, changing the frequency of some part of your transmission to encode digital data (Audio FSK changes the encoded sound, Direct FSK changes the carrier itself)
- SSB : Single SideBand, an AM signal with the center carrier and one half of the signal removed before transmission for better power and bandwidth (AM signals carry two redundant copies of the sound because of how the math works out). SSB can remove either sideband, giving us either upper sideband (USB) or lower sideband (LSB). USB is used above 10 MHz, LSB is used below. Almost all digital modes use SSB.
- PM : Phase modulation, changing the phase of your carrier to encode sound. (According to the FCC, PM and FM are close enough that you can use FM even when your emission identifier says PM).
- PSK : Phase Shift Keying, changing the phase of your carrier to encode digital data
- Phone : Short for radiotelephone, means transmitting the human voice over radio
- CW : Continuous Wave, another name for Morse code.
- SSTV : Slow-Scan TV, sending an image using regular sounds over the course of seconds or minutes
- FSTV / ATV : Fast-Scan TV / Amateur TV, sending video and audio over amateur radio, with multiple pictures per second like broadcast TV
- RTTY : Radio TeleTYpe, Effectively turning your radios into a long-range serial port
- Packet Radio : Sending digital data over the radio in discrete bursts, usually using the AX.25 or FX.25 protocols,6 or PACTOR (Packet AMTOR, AMateur Teleprinting Over Radio)
- Digital Radio : Usually, sending your voice over the radio using some digital transmission mode, such as D-STAR, DMR, NXDN, M17, or P25.
- APRS : Automatic Packet Reporting System, sometimes called Automatic Position Reporting System erroneously. A digital infrastructure that allows devices to periodically transmit and discover the coordinates of other nearby radios, report on weather conditions and other tracked objects, and exchange short text messages.
- ARC : Amateur Radio Club
- ARES : Amateur Radio Emergency Service. Hams are basically the last line of communication in emergency and disaster situations in the US here, you know.
- ARRL : The American Radio Relay League… they’re not really the best in terms of public reception at the time of writing.
- Balun : BALanced-to-UNbalanced, a device to connect a balanced (both conductors having a nonzero electrical potential) to an unbalanced line.
- Barefoot : Transmitting without an amplifier.
- Call : As a noun, short for callsign. As a verb, attempt(ing) to contact another station.
- Calling frequency : A frequency reserved for initially making contact with stations. After contact is established, the stations should QSY to a different frequency.
- Carrier : A wave at a given frequency that is modulated in some fashion to transmit data over radio.
- CSCE : Certificate of Successful Completion of Exam, what the FCC will hand out when an exam is passed before the license entry can be updated.
- CTCSS : Continuous Tone-Coded Squelch System, adding a sub-audible tone to your transmission, and only breaking squelch when the same tone is heard from the other side, allowing for multiple conversations to use a frequency without hearing each other, or for repeaters and the like to operate without receiving spurious noise. Also called Private Line (PL).
- DCS : Digital Coded Squelch, using sub-audible tones to digitally transmit a number along with your voice, for the same purpose as CTCSS.
- Dipole : An antenna made from two parts. Remember those old TV rabbit ears?
- DXCC : DX Century Club, award for making contact with 100 different countries.
- Elmer : Experienced ham that tutors new operators.
- EME : Earth-Moon-Earth, aka moonbounce, reflecting signals off the moon to make contacts.
- ERP : Effective Radiated Power, the power that actually comes out of your antenna.
- Field Day : An ARRL event held in June to practice emergency communications.
- HT : Handheld Transceiver. You know, a walkie-talkie. Or abouts.
- Net : A group of hams meeting together at a specified time and frequency. There’s varying levels of formality here.
- PEP : Peak Envelope Power. For most intents and purposes, this is “power from your transmitter,” as compared to ERP which if affected by antenna loss and gain.
- Pileup : Multiple stations all attempting to contact one station at the same time.
- PTT : Push-To-Talk, the button you press to stop listening and start talking.
- QSL Manager : One person that handles the sending and receiving of QSL cards for another station.
- Ragchewing : Chatting informally, an extended conversation.
- RDF : Radio Direction Finding. Attempting to triangulate the position of a transmitter.
- Repeater : A radio device that listens to transmissions (usually on one frequency) and re-broadcasts them (usually on a different frequency).
- RF : Radio Frequency, either the actual frequencies that can be transmitted through the air, or AC voltage at radio frequencies being sent to an antenna to be broadcast. Take it from me, touching RF is not something you will want to do.
- Rig : Your setup, your radio, what you’re using.
- Shack : Your radio room, where everything resides.
- Splatter : Interference on nearby frequencies from an improperly filtered transmission
- Squelch (SQL) : Muting the speaker output of a radio until a signal with a sufficiently high power is received, barring special squelch modes like CTCSS or DCS.
- SWL : Short Wave Listener, someone who listens to amateur signals, maybe even reports them (“spotting,” as in “I can hear X station from here”), but does not transmit.
- SWR : Standing Wave Ratio, basically a measure of how well an antenna is working. The worse an antenna is tuned to the frequency you’re using, the worse your SWR, and the more power is being reflected back into your radio instead of being sent out (hint: transistors really don’t like that).
- Ticket : Amateur license
- TNC : Terminal Node Controller, the thing that sits between a computer and a radio, and knows how to translate what the computer wants to send into the correct framing for radio communications, and the correct sounds to transmit over the air, and vice-versa.
- VFO : Variable Frequency Oscillator, the thing that you actually change to “tune” a radio. Putting a radio in VFO mode means it’ll let you more or less free-form enter frequencies, as compared to pre-programmed channels.
I think that’s almost anything I could possibly end up saying and forget to put an explanation tag on. But if there’s something important, let me know. And seriously, bookmark this, in case you need to come back and Ctrl-F it later.
Final word: No, I don’t really plan on giving out my callsign, I’m one of those weird people that cares about privacy, and I’m not really into the whole “publish a 5 character string that is permanently tied to your full legal name, address, and phone number” thing. Sorry everyone.
There’s three classes of license, but yet the third one needs you to pass the element 4 exam. It’s weird. The “element 1” exam doesn’t really exist anymore, so the first one is actually element 2. ↩︎
Commonly and erroneously called “HAM radio,” though “ham” is short for “ham-fisted” and is not an acronym. ↩︎
This isn’t a guide on getting your license, but, there’s three classes, in ascending order: Technician (35 questions multiple choice), General (35 questions multiple choice), and Amateur Extra (50 questions multiple choice). Tech limits you to the higher frequencies and lower power output, General raises your power limit to the max and gives you most of the frequencies, and Extra gives you… a shorter callsign (4 characters), a slight bit more frequency space to play with, and the ability to administer the exams themselves at all levels. But it’s basically bragging rights. ↩︎
The 60-meter band has exactly 5 channels you can use, it’s not a frequency range: 5,332 kHz, 5,348 kHz, 5,358.5 kHz, 5,373 kHz, and 5,405 kHz. Though that’s for Morse code, for voice (USB only), shift 1.5 kHz down from the listed frequencies. ↩︎
Or if you ask the Longwave Club of America, below 520 kHz. ↩︎
AX.25 is Amateur X.25, FX.25 is AX.25 that adds forward error correction, meaning you no longer have the issue of failing to decode if even one bit is incorrect. AX.25 usually runs at 1200 baud or 9600 baud, in this case that’s bits per second, as an AFSK signal. ↩︎