Introduction to Amateur Radio
Amateur radio is a hobby that involves experimenting with radio (and related technologies like television or radar) for fun and education. It is also known as “Ham Radio” and radio amateurs are sometimes referred to as “hams”. Like most hobbies, there are many different activities that fall under its umbrella.
Communicating With Other Amateurs
Using radio to communicate with other amateurs is one of the foundations of the hobby. Most amateurs have a radio station of their own, which can range from a simple single-band handheld transceiver (a combination of a transmitter and a receiver is known as a transceiver) for talking to others in the same town, to a sophisticated station that is capable of worldwide communication. Many clubs also have club stations that are available for use by club members.
Radio amateurs communicate in many different modes. The most common are by voice(known as phone although it does not use the telephone system), Morse code (also referred to a CW) and various digital modes including slow-scan television. The contents of an amateur communication (known as a QSO) range from the briefest exchange of name and location, up to long conversations (known as rag-chews) that may last an hour or more.
Amateur radio is not like the phone system since you generally can’t dial a particular station.
If you want to speak to a particular person, then you must agree a time and a frequency where you will meet – this is known as a schedule, or “sked” for short. Otherwise you can just speak to whoever happens to be listening and is interested in a chat, which is a great way to make new friends. There are also some regularly scheduled networks (or “nets”) where operators who share a common interest get together at a particular time and frequency to exchange ideas.
Collecting QSL Cards
After communicating with another amateur (especially one in a foreign country) it is
customary to send a QSL Card, which is a postcard-sized card with information about yourself and your station, and details of the QSO such as the date, time, frequency, mode and the callsign of the station worked. Many amateurs take a great deal of pride in their QSL Cards, which are works of art. As well as being something to display and a nice reminder of the contact, QSL Cards are often required if you wish to claim a contact for an award (see here).
Building Radio and Electronics Equipment
Many amateurs build at least some of their equipment. Some build equipment from purchased kits or from plans found in amateur radio magazines. Others build their equipment from scratch, doing all the necessary design and sourcing the components themselves. The complexity ranges from simple projects, such as a computer soundcard interface that can be built in an evening to complete radio transmitters and receivers that may take months or years of work. Today microprocessors and digital signal processing (DSP) is an increasingly important part of the hobby, so building equipment may also involve writing the necessary micro-controller or DSP programs. Of course if you do not enjoy electronics, then everything you need to participate in the hobby can be purchased off the shelf.
Most amateurs build at least some of their own antennas. Antennas may range from a simple wire antenna suspended from a tree, to a complex multi-element beam sitting on top of a large tower. Antenna projects can be very rewarding as good results may be obtained from fairly simple designs. There are a number of software packages available that allow you to design an antenna and model its performance before you invest in the construction of the antenna.
Public Service and Emergency Communications
Radio amateurs have a proud history of making their skills and equipment available for public service and emergency communications. On the public service side, amateurs provide communications for many sporting events such as rallies, marathons and cycle tours where their ability to communicate effectively from remote places is of great assistance to the organizers.
Many amateurs also ensure that their radio stations have some alternative power source (which could be batteries, a generator, or solar power) so that they can continue to provide communications in the event that a natural disaster disrupts the telephone and power distribution systems. In South Africa, Hamnet, a special interest group of the South African Radio League, coordinates amateur emergency communications.
“DXing” means communicating with as many different places as possible, often in order to qualify for certificates and awards. (The term comes from the use of “DX” as an abbreviation for “long distance”.) There are many different awards, including:
- The DXCC (DX Century Club) certificate, which you qualify for by communicating with 100 or more different countries.
- The Worked All ZS award, for contacting 100 stations in the various regions of South Africa (the award’s name comes from the fact that “ZS” is one of the callsign prefixes assigned to South African radio stations).
- The Islands on the Air (IOTA) awards, which are given for communicating with stations located on islands.
- The Summits on the Air (SOTA) awards for communicating with mountaintop stations.
Because DXers are always on the lookout for countries, islands, mountains or provinces that they have not worked before, there is often a flurry of interest and activity when a rare country or island is “activated” by some intrepid radio amateur setting up a station.
Expeditions to unusual places for the purpose of setting up and operating a radio station there are called “DXpeditions”, and participating in DXpeditions is itself a very rewarding and challenging activity.
Contests bring out the competitive nature of some radio amateurs, who enjoy the challenge to contact as many different stations as possible over a predetermined period of anything from an hour or two up to 48 hours. Contests may be run on a local, national, regional or international basis and may attract anything from 10 to 5,000 contestants. Many contests have several entry categories to allow similarly equipped stations to compete among each other.
The amateur community has successfully launched a number of small communications
satellites for the use of radio amateurs around the world. Communicating with other amateurs via satellite (or via the earth’s natural satellite, the moon) gives radio amateurs an unparalleled opportunity to learn about the technology that underlies much of the modern era of communications. Because amateurs themselves develop these satellites as a cooperative, non-profit venture, those who are interested in the design and construction of satellites also have the opportunity to study the designs and may eventually be able to contribute to new amateur satellite projects.
Maritime and Off-Road Communications
The maritime and off-road communities are increasingly turning to amateur radio for their communication needs. Thousands of small craft such as yachts make use of the services provided by maritime nets which pass on weather reports and crucial safety information, allow mariners to access email and assist in the search for missing boats. “Off-Roaders” who venture into uninhabited areas can also benefit from amateur communications, both between vehicles within a party and also back to a “home base” or to summon assistance in an emergency.
License Requirements in South Africa
In order to operate an amateur radio station you must have a license issued by the
Independent Communications Authority of South Africa, ICASA. When you are issued with a license you will also be given a unique callsign. Every amateur has a callsign, which is used to identify him or her on the air. South African amateur callsigns consist of the letters “ZU”, “ZR” or “ZS” followed by a single digit indicating the region of the country in which you are located, followed by one to three letters. For example, “ZS1AN”. The “ZS” indicates that it is an Unrestricted license, the “1” shows that the operator resides in the Western Cape, and the letters “AN” distinguishes it from all the other holders of an unrestricted license in the Western Cape. Every time you make a transmission from an amateur radio station you are required to identify yourself using your callsign. There are three different classes of license:
1. The Novice (ZU) License
The Novice license is a simple entry point into the hobby. It has restricted privileges in the High Frequency (HF) and Very High Frequency (VHF) bands, with a maximum power output of 20W for single sideband (voice) transmissions. In order to obtain a Novice license you must pass a simplified (Class B) Radio Amateurs’ Examination and a Morse Test at 5 words per minute. However the South African Radio League (SARL) has asked the government to change the regulations so that in future no Morse test will be required for the Novice license. Novice licenses have callsigns beginning with “ZU”. The minimum age for a Novice license is 10 years.
2. The Restricted (ZR) License
The Restricted license has full privileges on the Very High Frequency (VHF) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF) bands, which are typically used for short-range communication and for communication via satellite. At present the Restricted license does not have any privileges in the High Frequency (HF) bands that are used for point-to-point worldwide communications without the use of satellites. However the SARL has asked the government to change the regulations to give the restricted license limited privileges on some of the HF bands, with a maximum power of 100W.
To obtain a Restricted (ZR) license you must pass the full (Class A) Radio Amateur’s
Examination. No Morse test is required. This is the study material for the Class A
examination, so if you pass the examination at the end of the course you will be entitled to a Restricted license. Restricted licenses have callsigns beginning with “ZR”. The minimum age for a Restricted license is 12 years.
3. The Unrestricted (ZS) License
The Unrestricted license has full privileges on all the bands allocated for use by radio
amateurs. In most cases the maximum power output is 400W for single sideband (voice)
transmissions. To obtain an Unrestricted license you must pass the full (Class A) Radio
Amateurs’ Examination, as well as a Morse test at 12 words per minute. Since this is the
study material for the Class A examination, once you have passed the examination you will only need to pass the 12 words per minute Morse test in order to obtain an Unrestricted license. Unrestricted licenses have callsigns beginning with “ZS”. The minimum age for an Unrestricted license is 12 years.
The SARL has asked the government to change the regulations to reduce the Morse
requirement for the Unrestricted license from 12 w.p.m. to 5 w.p.m. and to allow for other qualifications for the Unrestricted license for those who do not wish to learn Morse code.
The Radio Amateurs’ Examination
The Radio Amateur’s Examination is held twice each year, in May and October. It consists of two papers: Regulations and Operating Procedures and Technical.
The examination is set and administered by the South African Radio League, the national
organization representing radio amateurs in South Africa. ICASA is the Independent
Communications Authority of South Africa, a statutory body that regulates the
communications industry. The examination fee changes from time to time, so ask your course instructor what the current fee is, or consult the website of the South African Radio League, http://www.sarl.org.za.
Restrictions on the Use of an Amateur Radio Station
The Radio Regulations include some restrictions on the use of an amateur radio station. It is important that you understand these in case you find that what you had planned to do with your amateur radio license is not permitted!
1. Amateur radio stations may not be used for broadcasting. Amateur radio is intended for direct “one-on-one” communications with other amateurs, and not as a community broadcasting service.
2. Amateur radio stations may only transmit music under very specific conditions, which are intended to ensure that they do not become pirate broadcast stations.
3. No products or services may be advertised on amateur radio.
4. Amateur radio stations may not transmit messages for reward.
5. Amateur radio stations may not be used to transmit business messages that could be
sent using the public telecommunications service.
6. Amateur radio stations may not be used to transmit indecent, offensive, obscene,
threatening or racist comments.
7. Amateur radio stations may not be used to pass third-party traffic (in other words,
messages that originate from anyone other than the amateur who is operating the
station) except during an emergency.
This page was intended to give you an idea of what amateur radio is all about, what the
license requirements are, and what legal restrictions there are on what can be transmitted by amateur radio stations. I hope this will have helped you to decide that amateur radio is a hobby that you wish to participate in. I would like to take this opportunity to welcome you to the amateur community and to hope that you will find this Blog interesting and worthwhile.