The many facets of amateur radio attract practitioners with a wide range of interests. Many amateurs begin with a fascination with radio communication and then combine other personal interests to make the pursuit of the hobby rewarding. Some of the focal areas amateurs pursue include radio contesting, radio propagation study, public service communication, technical experimentation, and computer networking.
Amateur radio operators use various modes of transmission to communicate. The two most common modes for voice transmissions are frequency modulation (FM) and single sideband (SSB). FM offers high-quality audio signals, while SSB is better at long-distance communication when bandwidth is restricted.
Radiotelegraphy using Morse code, also known as “CW” from “continuous wave”, is the wireless extension of landline (wired) telegraphy developed by Samuel Morse and dates to the earliest days of radio. Although computer-based (digital) modes and methods have largely replaced CW for commercial and military applications, many amateur radio operators still enjoy using the CW mode – particularly on the shortwave bands and for experimental work, such as earth-moon-earth communication, because of its inherent signal-to-noise ratio advantages. Morse, using internationally agreed message encodings such as the Q code, enables the communication between amateurs who speak different languages. It is also popular with homebrewers and in particular with “QRP” or very-low-power enthusiasts, as CW-only transmitters are simpler to construct, and the human ear-brain signal processing system can pull weak CW signals out of the noise where voice signals would be totally inaudible. A similar “legacy” mode popular with home constructors is amplitude modulation (AM), pursued by many vintage amateur radio enthusiasts and aficionados of vacuum tube technology.
Demonstrating proficiency in Morse code was for many years a requirement to obtain an amateur license to transmit on frequencies below 30 MHz. Following changes in international regulations in 2003, countries are no longer required to demand proficiency. The United States Federal Communications Commission, for example, phased out this requirement for all license classes on February 23, 2007. In India, for a General Grade license, you need to know Morse Code. However, recently, the Government of India has abolished the requirement of a Police Verification for the issue of Amateur Radio Licences
Modern personal computers have encouraged the use of digital modes such as radioteletype (RTTY) which previously required cumbersome mechanical equipment. Hams led the development of packet radio in the 1970s, which employed protocols such as AX.25 and TCP/IP. Specialized digital modes such as PSK31 allow real-time, low-power communications on the shortwave bands. Echolink using Voice over IP technology has enabled amateurs to communicate through local Internet-connected repeaters and radio nodes, while IRLP has allowed the linking of repeaters to provide a greater coverage area. Automatic link establishment (ALE) has enabled continuous amateur radio networks to operate on high-frequency bands with global coverage. Other modes, such as FSK441 using software such as WSJT is used for weak signal modes including meteor scatter and moonbounce communications.
Fast scan amateur television has gained popularity as hobbyists adapt inexpensive consumer video electronics like camcorders and video cards to PCs. Because of the wide bandwidth and stable signals required, amateur television is typically found in the 70 cm (420 MHz–450 MHz) frequency range, though there is also limited use on 33 cm (902 MHz–928 MHz), 23 cm (1240 MHz–1300 MHz) and higher. These requirements also effectively limit the signal range to between 20 and 60 miles (30 km–100 km).
Linked repeater systems, however, can allow transmissions of VHF and higher frequencies across hundreds of miles. Repeaters are usually located on heights of land or tall structures and allow operators to communicate over hundreds of miles using a hand-held or mobile transceivers. Repeaters can also be linked together by using other amateur radio bands, landlines, or the Internet.
NASA astronaut Col. Doug Wheelock, KF5BOC, Expedition 24 flight engineer, operates the NA1SS ham radio station in the Zvezda Service Module of the International Space Station. The equipment is a Kenwood TM-D700E transceiver
Amateur radio satellites can be accessed, some using a hand-held transceiver (HT), even, at times, using the factory “rubber duck” antenna. Hams also use the moon, the aurora borealis, and the ionized trails of meteors as reflectors of radio waves. Hams can also contact the International Space Station (ISS) because many astronauts and cosmonauts are licensed as amateur radio operators.
Amateur radio operators use their amateur radio station to make contacts with individual hams as well as to participate in round table discussion groups or “rag chew sessions” on the air. Some join in regularly scheduled on-air meetings with other amateur radio operators, called “nets” (as in “networks”), which are moderated by a station referred to as “Net Control”. Nets can allow operators to learn procedures for emergencies, be an informal round table, or cover specific interests shared by a group.
Amateur radio operators, using battery or generator-powered equipment, often provide essential communications services when regular channels are unavailable due to natural disasters or other disruptive events.
Many amateur radio operators participate in radio contests, during which an individual or team of operators typically seek to contact and exchange information with as many other amateur radio stations as possible in a given period of time. In addition to contests, a number of Amateur radio operating award schemes exist, sometimes suffixed with “on the Air”, such as Summits on the Air, Islands on the Air, Worked All States, and Jamboree on the Air.