Getting on the Air
Once you obtain your Amateur Radio Technician license, the next major hurdle you have to overcome is getting on the air for the first time. Who do you talk to? What do do you say? What frequency and settings do you need to select? Are other people listening to me? Are just a few of the questions running through your mind.
While studying for the Technician license you learn about all kinds of ways that you can connect and communicate with other Hams via the radio but the two most common are Simplex and Repeaters.
Simplex communications are where you connect directly to another Ham on the same frequency and carry on a conversation. You can think of simplex like the paper cups and string you used as a kid, but instead of a string connecting the paper cups you’re using radio waves.
You each take turns talking as you transmit and then listen to the response. Simplex communication is generally the most limited in terms of range since both stations need to be within radio line of sight of each other, which is normally limited to a few miles in most locations. But, it’s also the most flexible since there is no other infrastructure needed between your radio and the person who you want to communicate with. If you are within radio range of each other, Simplex is the most reliable form of communication.
Repeaters on the other hand are Radios maintained by fellow Hams, that listen for signals on one frequency and then automatically retransmit those signals on another frequency. Repeaters offer the ability to communicate at much longer distances since both parties only need to be within radio range of the repeater and not necessarily each other. Repeaters are often placed in high places such as hill tops, mountains, on buildings or on radio towers giving them a much larger area of coverage.
Repeaters can also be networked together so a signal transmitted to one repeater can be simultaneously retransmitted out of other repeaters. There are two primary ways of creating these repeater networks, either direct line of sight from one repeater to the next or by linking each repeater to the internet to increase the distance between the repeaters to quite literally a global communication network. The two methods work equally well but linking via the internet requires that a live link to the internet exists at some of the repeater locations.
These basic concepts of communicating via simplex or repeaters can then be adapted in dozens of ways to suit your specific communication needs. For instance it’s possible to greatly extend the range of your simplex signal by bouncing the signal off of things such as buildings, mountains, the upper atmosphere, rain clouds, the aurora, meteors, air planes or even the Moon. As you study for your license you learn about all of these options but the choices can quickly feel overwhelming.
Add to this that repeaters that can be placed in your own home, vehicle, in hot air balloons, flown on a kite, or even placed in orbit on amateur satellites and you quickly wonder do I really need to use and think about all of these options? The quick answer is no, you don’t need to use all of these options, but you have to know about them to pass the test in order to get your license. The real take home message is that all of these forms of communication are possible and you are empowered to use any or all of them but they are not required.
So how do you get on the air for the first time? For me it was fairly simple. I purchased my hand held (HT) radio from a local Ham Radio Outlet and simply asked them to program in a bunch of the local repeaters for me. Then for about a week or so I simply listened to the frequencies that had been programmed into the radio for me. I learned how to have the radio scan through all of the programmed frequencies and it would stop whenever it would hear a signal and I could simply listen. This worked well for getting my feet wet and starting to find other Hams to talk to.
Listening in on other Hams conversations was incredibly helpful in learning how conversations on the radio were actually carried out. In the books and classes you learn the theory and protocols, but hearing the conversations unfold in real time over the air was quite a different experience.
I should also mention that growing up we had CB radios in our cars and since my father was a truck driver I was quite accustomed to hearing and talking on the radio from a fairly young age. When I worked at a Scout Camp as a teenager we regularly used handheld CB radios to stay in touch across the entire Broad Creek Memorial Scout Reservation. I’ve also had to use commercial hand held radios on a regular basis for large events I’ve worked at in order to coordinate the staffing of the event.
I’ve also used Marine Radios from a very early age. Growing up on the Chesapeake Bay we always had a boat and when I moved to Southern California, living aboard a sailboat seemed like a perfectly natural solution to the high cost of housing I encountered. Therefore, using Marine VHF radios to communicate at sea has always been part of my life to some extent. So I’m already fairly familiar with talking on a radio, in all of these situations, but somehow Ham Radio seemed a bit different, after all I had to have a license to use these frequencies.
I also spend much of my day talking into a microphone as I create video based training, but just as nearly all new Hams, I too experienced a bit of mic fright. I wasn’t quite sure what to say, or who talk to, or which repeater system I should try out first. I’m quite fortunate that in Southern California there are a variety of repeater networks such as: The PAPA System, WIN System, the DARN System, CLARA, and many others. Again, this became a game of analysis paralysis from too many options.
From my location in LA, I found myself able to listen most reliably to the WIN System, so that’s where I focused my attention. I knew that being in direct line of sight with the repeater was helpful and so with no real experience in talking through a repeater I figured I’d head to the top of a nearby hill where my signal would likely have the best chance of hitting the nearby repeater. I parked the car, tuned into the repeater an listened. A few minutes later I hear another new Ham that had also just gotten their call sign, call out and ask if anyone could hear them. Their call sign was KM6POS. I hesitated for a second and then pressed the push to talk button, and simply said KM6POS, this is KM6PVT, I’m also new Ham, do you copy me?
The conversation only lasted a few minutes but we had both gotten on the air. It felt good to make that first contact and even better that it was with another brand new Ham operator.