A very short introduction to Amateur Radio . . . . . . .
Amateur Radio is a public service (and a hobby) regulated internationally by the International Telecommunications Union (a U.N. body) and licenced in the UK by Ofcom. It allows radio experimenters and enthusiasts to undertake two-way, person-to-person communications with like-minded people throughout the UK and around the world.
Since the very earliest days of 'wireless', enthusiastic amateur experimenters and hobbyists have used two-way radios to chat to each other across the ether. Originally, Morse Code was used on the short-wave bands, but as the technologies improved, Radio Amateurs adopted other means of communication. Nowadays we have access to the short-wave bands and vhf, microwave, internet linking, and a host of modern facilities.
Something for everyone
People from all sorts of backgrounds take up the hobby - and all ages. There are professional engineers and scientists as well as people who were in the military - and there are more young people joining in every year. There are several categories of licence, from foundation through to advanced - "something for everyone. There are now many hundreds of thousands of radio hams around the world, in almost all countries, and over 60,000 in the UK alone.
Amateur Radio has many facets: electronics, engineering, physics and computing are at the core, plus the more social skills that help us to make friends around the world.
Many radio hams join clubs where they find a wealth of practical advice, training, organised on-the-air activities as well as an opportunity to make friends on the air and off.
Because Amateur Radio is a service, there are standards that must be maintained. This is done through exams and licences. The 'entry level' is the Foundation Licence which involves passing a straight-forward exam and practical tests. These permit the Foundation Licence holder to use many Amateur Radio bands but with limitations. The Intermediate Licence involves a more difficult exam but is well within the capabilities of most teenagers; it also gives more privileges. The highest level is the Advanced - or 'Full' - Licence which involves around 3 months part-ime study; it gaves access to all of the Amateur bands.
Every radio ham has a unique callsign. These are like car number plates - they identify the country or region where a radio ham lives and a few other things. Callsigns are published on a website so we can look up details if we wish.
UK callsigns begin with 'G', 'M' or '2'. A second letter is used when operating in Wales, Scotland, N. Ireland, etc - for example GW in Wales. Regulations require a callsign to be given at the start and end of each contact.
The Phoenix Radio Group also has a 'club callsign' (M0PHX). We can add a second letter 'X' into the prefix which identifies us as a club in England. This usually attracts a high number of callers, resulting in a 'pile-up'. For special events, such as historic commemorations, a 'Special Event Station' callsign may be used, such as GB1STG, used by our group to celebrate St George's Day.
Conversations between radio hams are called a "QSO" - this term was originally used in the days of Morse Code.
QSOs can be heard by any radio ham - they are not 'private' - but they are not broadcasts that are aimed at a casual radio listener, so you will not find us on your domestic radio.
Generally, QSOs are quite short, and start with an exchange of call signs (e.g. M0PHX) and a reception report which confirms the signal strengths and clarity. Abbreviations (usually Q-Codes) are widely used, and these are especially helpful in overcoming language obstacles - these too originated in the days of Morse Code, but are still used in spoken form. Most QSOs are in English.
Some radio hams like to 'rag-chew' about nothing in particular, while others are keen country-spotters and there are even some who do on-air 'contests'.
Some people like to receive confirmation of a QSO by means of a paper or electronic postcard (a QSL card). Phoenix Radio Group produces different designs of e-QSL cards for each event we operate.
Home Construction and 'Rigs'
In "the olden days", radio hams often built their own transmitters and receivers and other equipment (see photo). Some radio hams still 'home-brew' equipment, but commercially made equipment is usually more reliable and has modern features like digital signal processing and computerised control functions - but it is more expensive and possibly less fun.
PRG members use modern radio-communications transceivers ('rigs') which can produce sufficient power to be heard around the world. However that also depends on the type of antenna (aerial) used and on conditions in the ionosphere. Modern transceivers tend to be very expensive, but there is a lot of 'affordable' secondhand equipment around, and some items are given away by radio hams when they 'upgrade' their shacks.
Radios need good antennas (aerials), especially for transmitters. For radio hams this is a big subject with much scope for experimentation.
The antenna most suitable for general use is a wire dipole which can be erected horizontally between a house and a tree. However, these antennas do need to be quite long - up to 80m in length - but they are usually almost invisible from a distance.
Vertical antennas take up less space, but they may not be quite as efficient, and they may be very visible.
Some radio hams have much larger antennas at their home 'shacks'. These are sometimes complex multiple 'arrays' mounted on masts or towers which may be 60ft (18m) high. Such systems are usually directional and the towers can be raised and lowered.
While really large antenna systems may require planning permission, small antennas which do not cause annoyance to neighbours are not difficult to erect. Also, interference with TVs (etc) is now also a thing of the past, due to better equipment and the change to digital tv modes.
The right conditions
Radio waves can travel very long distances, especially through space; but here on earth their strength generally reduces with distance due to many factors. They are are affected by natural conditions, being bent or absorbed by the ground (hills and mountains), the atmosphere (troposphere) or the ionosphere.
The weather on earth normally doesn't have a major effect on the shortwave bands, but it can affect the very high frequency (vhf) bands. However, the sun's activity - sun spots and x-rays, etc, - can have good and bad effects on radiocommunications from shortwave right up to microwave frequencies and beyond. At the best, sunspot activity can lead to exceptionally good 'propagation' which may permit easy two-way contacts around the world; but equally, communications - and even electricity lines and global positioning systems - may be badly disrupted and suffer 'blackouts'.
Propagation studies are of major importance to commercial and scientific users, from international radio stations through to GPS systems as well as radio hams. Information about the current radio propagation conditions is available on-line and may help us to plan our activities.
There is also a world-wide 'spotting' network in which news of unusual or 'rare' amateur radio stations is posted on the internet, plus a network of beacons which give out continuous signals that inform us about radio wave propagation conditions.