I got my ham radio license back in February. I’m one of the freaks that studies my heart out for a while and takes the whole set of tests in one go. I guess I’m a masochist, but that’s another post. Just two weeks ago En got her license too — just the tech license, but it’s still enough to get on the air.

Why

The question I get asked most often is: “Why bother? I have the internet and cell phones, what the heck does it do for me?”

This has a couple of different answers coming from very different directions.

First from a purely person growth thing, it’s good to learn something new. Most of us don’t dabble in radio any more than to turn it on when we’re driving in the car. How’s it work? It’s good to take the magic out of the things around us. It’s just like I was saying about working on my bike, knowing how things work on a deeper level removes the veil of mystery. I was learning and re-learning a bunch of things getting ready to take the test, from ionospheric effects to how a transistor works on a fairly detailed level. (Though I’m sure not nearly as detailed as my coworker who has a degree in semiconductor physics. ! )

Second, it’s a good way to meet people — both on the air and in person. From everything that I’ve experienced up to this point hams are some of the friendliest folks out there. Yes, there are some cantankerous ones on some of the bands (I understand 80m is quite a pain at times), but everyone I’ve met are cool people. I’ve not really explored the HF bands (I still need to get a radio and an antenna for those) but that’s where you really start going far. It’s not unheard of to make contacts half-way around the planet with only minimal power output. Most modern radios put out 100W of power, but you don’t need a lot to go far.

Last — and this point was really driven home last night — is that in emergencies, some times amateur radio is one of the only systems that can keep up and running. George, N1EZZ, was volunteered after the Haiti earthquake of January. He went down there with MARS, the Military Affiliate Radio Service. He was giving a talk down at the PCARS meeting with pictures of the devastation that happened. Interestingly, even with all the satellite and computer gear the military and UN brings to bear on the problem, there were times when it wasn’t working. The only way that the hospital camp was able to get to contact the mainland was on the amateur radio bands. There’s lots of other cases where this plays out that are a lot smaller. Check out the ARRL site for more info on that though.

How

A lot of information exists on the net about how to get your license. I’m just going to go over what I did to get mine in case it helps anyone else out.

First I got the three ARRL books:


These books might not be for everyone though. Ennie found them way too dry and boring. I attached to them quite well though. Of course I have a lot more of a technical background than she does. Everyone learns differently though, and there’s no right way to do the learning. But that’s another post too.

The book that she was a lot more fond of is the Gordon West Technician Book. I’ve honestly not looked at it in too much detail and Ennie was quite happy with that purchase.

If I had to make a generalization, the ARRL books I used focused more on the theory and then tested you on the Q&A parts while the West book was starting with the questions and doing some explaining around them. I have less of an issue attaching to abstract theory than most people, so the ARRL books worked well for me. Similarly I tend to find very focused “when you get this question, here’s how to answer it” less fulfilling — I want to know even more of the back-story.

Regardless of how you study, you really should take practice tests. I tried a few and the one I found the most useful was the one over at KB0MGA’s site. (BTW: in case that link doesn’t work in a while go to his regular site the main link I gave was to his beta site) What I like is that you have a couple of different ways of interacting with it. You can take full practice test with the right number of questions (and the right number of the right type in fact), or you can just look at flash cards to do them one at a time. The thing that’s awesome about it though is that it remembers what you get right and what you get wrong. It’ll start to hammer you on the ones you don’t know! For a while it might start to make you depressed if you keep on just squeaking by — you’ll feel dumb. It’ll pay off in the end though. The real test is far easier than the one that’s chock full of the ones you don’t know. Just trust me on this one!

Once you’re comfortable, find someplace that’s giving the test, drop by (you might want to email first just in case), and pass it! Typically the test costs around $15 — make sure you bring a bit of cash or a check to pay for it. You’ll also need a photo ID to take it as well.

If you ever hear me — AC8FS — give me a shout! See you on the air!