Ham radio: A hobby still alive and thriving

An operator at the Plimoth Plantation special station event on November 30, 2019. Photo by Lillian Eden/ BU News Service

By Lillian Eden
BU News Service

BOSTON – Alan Lewis pledged to do two things when he retired: learn to weld and get an amateur radio license. He did both, and then took his amateur radio license one step further.  

Almost immediately after getting his license, Lewis said he started getting involved in the public service aspects of amateur radio, including emergency communication. 

Amateur radio, or ham radio, for a very long time was the only federally licensed hobby. The word ham refers to amateur radio operators.

The Federal Communications Commission considers amateur radio a service to the public, to be pursued for the sake of advancing the art of radio and providing emergency communication. All frequencies allocated to amateur radio are shared among operators, according to the FCC. 

On a large scale, the amateur radio service was called into action as recently as 2017 following Hurricane Irma and Maria, according to the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL), a national association for amateur radio. Amateur radio operators were tracking the progress of the storms and helping to communicate needs for supplies and coordinate rescues across the Caribbean. 

After the storm, hams, as they call themselves, also helped to set up a communication network across Puerto Rico, according to the ARRL. Groups of amateur radio operators on the air, called nets, helped before, during and after the hurricanes in various ways.

Lewis is the manager of the morning session of a regular emergency net, during which he and other hams check in at a certain frequency to prepare for receiving emergency traffic every day, such as maydays for boats in distress and to help coordinate rescues. 

Alan Lewis’ radio setup in his basement. The power supply is on the ground, not pictured, a refurbished piece that he bought used from another ham. Exchanging and selling refurbished or used equipment allows people to enter the hobby at different price points. Photo by Lillian Eden/ BU News Service

Operators on emergency nets don’t just sit there and listen, he said. They talk and check in with each other, so it’s a social activity as well as a service. Lewis thought that no one would come back on the net every day if they were just sitting there and listening. 

“That’s how we get people to keep it going,” he said. 

Even someone with the most basic license can provide a public service. Amateur radio operators volunteer for races and events such as the Boston Marathon and the Head of the Charles, said Jim Wilber, a ham enthusiast. This allows for seamless and easy communication along the entire course or event.

Wilber explained that it’s easy to have operators all listening to the same frequency. 

“It would be so difficult to keep track of 20 cell phone numbers,” he said. 

Ham radio operators are locally, nationally and internationally organized in clubs and by the Amateur Radio Relay League, although being part of a club is not required to operate. Amateur radio is a community, and there’s a precedent for operators to guide and mentor each other, Wilber said.

Operators at the 2019 plimoth plantation special station made contacts from 8:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. the weekend after thanksgiving. Photo by Lillian Eden/ BU News Service

Seasoned operators sometimes help newly certified hams set up their first antennas at his local club. 

“That’s recognized, universally, as a function of ham radio, is to bring up the next generation of hams,” he said. 

Wilber got involved in ham radio after stumbling across something called a “Field Day” operation while hiking on conservation land in Pepperell in June 2014. 

There was a small encampment of radio operators, tents, trailers and a half dozen parked cars, he said. Wilber, who now coordinates his club’s Field Day operations, summarized the event as a full 24 hours of operating, eating and educating. This includes explaining what they’re doing to curious passersby, as Wilber was in 2014.  

Field Day is a yearly event for operators intended to be a casual, relaxing environment that helps hams gain more experience. In 2019, 36,420 people participated across the country, making more than a million contacts in a 24 hour period according to the ARRL. 

“Communications will go down at some point but we will still be able to operate,” Lewis said. 

Field Day is one way for hams to practice for that possibility. 

Over one million contacts were made in a 24 hour period by amateur radio operators across the U.S in the 2019 Field Day Operation, which occurs annually in June. Wilber explained that digital contacts are becoming increasingly popular, with almost a three-fold increase from 2018. Source: https://contests.arrl.org/ContestResults/2019/Field-Day-2019-FinalQSTResults.pdf

Besides Field Day, clubs will also host special event stations throughout the year. Every year, the Whitman Amateur Radio Club organizes a special event station at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts the weekend after Thanksgiving. 

To commemorate successfully making contact with the special station, operators can receive an event certificate, according to the event website. The website also included information on what frequencies on which to look for them to make contact. 

On an average day, hams contacting each other can exchange information and something called QSL cards. QSL is morse code shorthand for “I receive you,”  Lewis said, and can be exchanged as proof of contact. 

Lewis said if he and the person he contacts both input location, time and frequency information into an online, worldwide logbook, the contact is confirmed. 

Confirmed contacts can count towards earning certificates for milestones for operators. For example, when a ham operator successfully contacts 100 countries, they can receive a certificate for doing so. There are many types of certificates that amateur radio operators can pursue by making contacts nationally and worldwide. 

“The ham community knows no geographic, political, or social barrier,” wrote Gordon West in his study guide handbook for general class operators. 

There are three levels of certification for operators: ascending from technician, general and extra. Each level has their own test and their own set of privileges. 

Call signs typically reflect where hams were first certified and can reflect their level of certification if they decide to change it as they increase the tiers of the license. 

“Hams amongst themselves are known by their call signs. Everyone’s call signs are unique,” said Bruce Blain, call sign K1BG. 

Emergency communication and volunteering are only one aspect of ham radio, which has a little bit of everything for everyone, Blain said. Blain has had his license for more than 50 years and is passionate about getting more people involved in the hobby. 

Asking if people are still interested in ham radio is like asking if people are still talking on telephones, Blain explained. 

After licensing, operators can enter the hobby at many different price points, Lewis said. There’s even a phone app. From a handheld radio that looks like a walkie-talkie for less than $100, to pieces of equipment exceeding $1,000. 

“You can go hog wild,” Lewis said. 

Clubs also organize swap events, where operators can meet up, sell and exchange equipment. You can save money by buying used or refurbished equipment, he said. Unlicensed individuals are free to purchase equipment and listen to frequencies, but in order to transmit they need a license.  

From building equipment to competitions and collecting QSL cards, the hobby is very versatile, and those involved said there’s always more to learn. 


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