Radio communication may sound like a thing of the past. But believe it or not, it’s still an integral part of today’s society.
Although radio communication has been largely replaced by newer, more advanced technologies, amateur radio, also known as ham radio, remains popular to this day.
What makes ham radio possible is the efforts of ham radio operators, also referred to as radio amateurs or hams.
Besides building and operating many different kinds of amateur radio stations, such as mobile stations and even space stations, ham radio operators also communicate important information in emergency situations, such as natural disasters.
Currently, there are around 3 million ham radio operators around the world, including over 700,000 operators in the US.
Below, we’ll be providing more information about ham radio operators, including some of their history and how exactly they contribute to society.
Table of Contents
- What is amateur, or ham, radio?
- Where did the term “ham” and “amateur” come from?
- Requirements to become a ham radio operator
- How ham radio helps in times of crisis
- Can ham radio operators provide effective disaster radio communication?
- Who regulates ham radio?
- Why people choose to become ham radio operators
Governments in almost all countries allow certain portions of the radio spectrum to be used non-commercially by citizens, and this opportunity is available through amateur radio, also known as ham radio.
However, individuals who want to operate ham radio stations still have to demonstrate their knowledge and ability to properly use the spectrum, and amateur radio is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the same government branch that oversees broadcast station licensing and other radio spectrum users.
Unlike most other spectrum users, ham radio operators are only authorized for non-commercial use of radio frequencies and equipment.
Because of the fairly low barriers to entry, several hundred thousand people of all ages and walks of life have gotten their ham licenses.
Their topic interests also greatly vary, and while some are “on the air” daily, others only operate occasionally.
And there are some operators who are currently inactive.
The term “ham” was first used in 1909 by operators who were working in professional and commercial radio communities.
The term, which was at first considered a pejorative nickname, was eventually embraced by the ham operators, and it stuck.
But it wasn’t until around 1920 that the term spread across the US. After that, it slowly spread to other countries in the English-speaking world.
The word “amateur” in “amateur radio” is used very similarly to the way it’s used in “amateur athlete.”
Radio amateurs (another name for ham radio operators), like amateur athletes, are forbidden by law to accept monetary payment or any form of compensation for any activities they perform in their role.
But despite what the name may suggest, radio amateurs have led the advancement of radio communication science for more than 100 years.
We largely owe innovations in television, satellite communications, cell phones, digital communications, and broadband to the technical expertise of ham radio operators.
Ham radio differs from other popular radio services, like Family Radio Service, Citizens Band, and General Mobile Radio Service.
In order to become a ham operator, an individual must pass an exam on radio operating practices, government regulations, and electronic theory.
Those pursuing licensure as ham operators generally have to work harder than those who want to work for popular radio services, but the extra amount of effort to obtain the ham radio license leads to more privileges.
For example, radio operators can enjoy specialized antennas, higher power limits, a vast array of operating modes (digital, voice, video, etc.), and a wide range of assigned frequencies, from short wave all the way to microwave.
Government agencies are hugely invested in advanced technology equipment that they use on a daily basis.
And almost everybody today takes advantage of cellular and landline services, which are generally very cost-effective and reliable.
Of course, just like any other kind of technology, communication technology can fail, usually due to infrastructure failure and overload, and sometimes it can happen during the worst possible times.
Fortunately, ham radio makes up for overload and infrastructure limitations.
Most communication systems are only able to handle a certain amount of load. For example, telephones can only work if no more than a certain number of customers are using the telephones at any one time.
And the equipment that makes cellular phone calls possible can only process, at any one time, a tiny percentage of their subscribers making calls.
If there are too many calls at any given time, the equipment likely won’t be able to function at its full capacity.
Similarly, the majority of public agency radio systems are limited in the number of discrete frequencies, also known as channels, that users can share.
Because of this limitation, only a certain number of conversations can be supported simultaneously.
During disasters, excessive demand can push communication systems into overload and thereby shut out a large number of users.
Because ham radio operators have a large selection of available frequencies they can choose from, they can find an appropriate frequency to make a specific communication path possible.
And because of their extensive technical training, they can more efficiently use their portion of the radio spectrum.
Thanks to their expertise and continuum of available frequencies, ham operators don’t experience overload the way agency systems do.
All ham radio operators are licensed to operate disaster radio communication systems, but they don’t all have the same knowledge, training, or equipment to do so.
Ham operators who are called to serve usually work together in formal groups that collaborate in an organized setting designed to improve their efficiency and effectiveness in times of emergency.
Some may even get together to support a certain agency, like the American Red Cross, the local sheriff’s department, or an agency group, like a collection of hospitals.
Other operators may offer their services to relief or governmental/non-governmental response organizations that are in need of assistance.
The largest group of this kind is the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), a national service operating under the umbrella of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), which is the amateur radio national association in the US.
Different countries have different regulating bodies. In the US, ham radio is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is also responsible for overseeing the broadcast station licensing and other radio spectrum users.
People decide to become ham radio operators for a variety of reasons.
- High-tech communication is one of the main reasons people are drawn to ham radio. When they possess a ham radio license, ham operators are able to communicate with a large global community free of charge. While some operators tune into frequencies to get themselves on “the net” and casually communicate with other operators, others are committed to more specific purposes, like relaying important messages.
- For many, operating a ham radio system is an excellent way to provide community service. As we’ve mentioned, ham radio can make up for failures in other communication technologies, and it can also help during times of crisis. When necessary, ham operators collaborate with public service agencies to assist in relief efforts, such as disaster relief efforts.
- Although ham radio originated from the oldest radio technology, this part of the radio spectrum has embraced the digital age’s advancements. Therefore, radio operators can learn new technological skills by experimenting with electronics and communicating with others over high-frequency digital bands. Ham radios can also be combined with other technologies, such as computers, to transmit data over radio frequencies. Additionally, ham radio operators have the opportunity to learn Morse Code, which is a popular skill within the radio community to this day.