21 Things to Do: Upgrade to General

21 Things to Do After Getting Your Amateur Radio LicenseAs soon as you pass the Tech test, you should start studying for your General Class license.   While there are certainly many fun and useful things you can do as a Technician, there are several reasons that you will have more fun as a General Class amateur radio operator.

One reason to upgrade right away is that you’re in study mode already. There’s no need to get back in the habit of studying and getting used to taking tests again. While the General Class test is more difficult than the Tech test, there are lots of good resources, both in print and on the Internet, to help you pass. These include my No-Nonsense General Class License Study Guide (http://www.kb6nu.com/tech-manual/).

Another reason upgrade to General Class is that it will make you a better ham. Seriously. Even if you memorize the answers to all of the questions in the question pool, you’re bound to learn something. That knowledge could come in handy when you want to put up a new antenna, buy a new radio, or determine the best band to use for a particular communication.

Perhaps the best reason to upgrade to General is that it gives you more privileges on the HF bands. While talking on the local repeater may be fun, let’s face it, there are only so many folks to talk to. By getting on the HF bands, you’ll be able to talk to thousands of hams all around the world, not just around the corner. That’s why many hams, including me, think that the shortwave (HF) bands are where the magic happens. As a General Class operator, you’ll get access to all the HF bands, including 20m, and you get to operate phone on them as well as CW.

Operating the HF bands literally expands your horizons. You get to meet hams from all over the world, not just around the corner. If you haven’t yet operated on the HF bands, you don’t know what you’re missing. To get a taste of HF operation, ask a ham with an HF station if you can visit him sometime and watch him operate. Chances are he’ll let you make a few contacts of your own. You may also get the opportunity to operate an HF station during Field Day or if your club has its own club station.

Another thing that you can do as a General Class licensee is become a Volunteer Examiner (VE). Becoming a Volunteer Examiner and helping others get involved in amateur radio is a great way of giving back.

A General Class license will let you do more and have more fun with amateur radio. If you haven’t yet taken the Technician test, you should be aware that you can take both the Tech and the General (and even the Extra) Class tests at the same test session. If you prepare for both tests, you could walk out of your first test session with a General Class license and skip the Technician Class altogether.

21 Things to Do: Learn Morse Code

21 Things to Do After Getting Your Amateur Radio LicenseBefore you even start reading this chapter, I’ll warn you that I’m a big fan of Morse Code (often referred to as CW, or “continuous wave”). So big, in fact, that it’s safe to say that I use Morse Code to make 95% of my contacts.

I am not, however, one of those guys that thinks you’re not a “real ham” if you didn’t pass some kind of code test. In fact, I think that eliminating the code test was a good thing for ham radio. The code test kept a lot of good people out of the hobby.

Having said that, I think there are lots of good reasons you should learn Morse Code. Please keep an open mind as I list them:

  1. Tradition. Operating CW is an amateur radio tradition. When amateur radio began, CW was the only mode. When you learn and operate CW, you’re following a very long line of hams who have operated CW.
  2. Effectiveness. Talk to a CW operator, and it’s likely that he’ll chew your ear off about how  CW is a more effective mode than voice. While the difference is probably not as much as the CW operator would like you to believe, the difference is real. When conditions are poor, you’ll be able to make CW contacts and not voice contacts.
  3. DXing. That being the case, CW operators have an advantage when it comes to contacting DX stations because their signals will get through when voice signals are unreadable. Also, if you consider that there are more voice operators than CW operators, you’ll have a better chance of contacting a much-wanted DX station because there will be fewer operators trying to contact him using CW than there will be using voice.
  4. Contesting. In most contests, you get more points for a CW contact than you do for a voice contact. Sometimes the bonus is 100%, sometimes only 50%. In either case, doesn’t it make sense to know CW if you want to be a contester? You’ll score more points for the same number of contacts.
  5. Simplicity/Efficiency. The equipment you need to operate CW is a lot simpler than the equipment needed to operate voice modes. And, because CW is more efficient, you can, in general, use a lot less power to make contacts with CW  than you need to make contacts using voice modes. This has spawned a whole sub-group of hams called QRPers, who delight in using very minimal equipment to make contacts.
    Using CW also saves bandwidth. The bandwidth of a CW signal is approximately 200 Hz, while the bandwidth of a single-sideband (SSB) voice signal is about 3 kHz. That is to say that the voice signal is 15 times wider than the CW signal. Another way to say this is that for a given amount of bandwidth, you can fit 15 times more CW signals than you can SSB signals.
  6. It’s just plain fun. Once you learn CW and start using it, it can be a lot of fun. Like any activity that requires some skill, mastering that skill can be a source of pride. Not to sound too vain about it, but I enjoy the praise I get from my fellow hams when I can display my CW operating skills.

How to Learn Morse Code
In the old days if you wanted to learn Morse Code, you went out and bought a vinyl record or maybe a cassette tape that had precrecorded lessons on them. Another approach—the approach I used—was to tune in a Morse Code signal and start to associate the patterns of dits and dahs to characters of the alphabet. Both methods had drawbacks.

Today, things are a lot easier. Not only are there free resources available, I think they are much more effective in teaching people code than the old LPs or cassette tapes. Here are the three resources that I recommend:

  1. G4FON Koch CW Trainer. Ray Goff, G4FON, has perhaps written the most popular CW training program. It runs on the PC, and is completely free! The program uses the Koch method.  The idea is that you learn to receive at the speed you would like to eventually achieve, but you learn only one character at a time. This method works very well for lots of people.
  2. K7QO Code Course. The K7QO Code Course takes a different approach. This set of .mp3 files comes on a CD-ROM and teaches you the code letter by letter. It starts out sending the letters slowly, then ramps up. The nice thing about this course is that you can use it on any device  that is capable of playing .mp3 files. To obtain a copy of the CD-ROM, send $1 per copy and a self-addressed envelope to FISTS, PO Box 47, Hadley MI 48440.
  3. Learn CW Online. LCWO uses the Koch method to teach Morse Code. Because it runs in your browser, you can use this website no matter what computer you happen to be using.

Whatever method you choose, I hope you’ll consider learning the code. See you on the CW bands!

Got a book inside you?

I just received an e-mail from one of my readers commending me on the idea for 21 Things to Do After You Get Your Amateur Radio License. When that’s ready to go, I’ll have published four books—the Tech and General study guides, the compilation Having Fun with Ham Radio: Letting my inner geek out, and 21 Things. Last month, I netted almost $400 from the sales.

Being the tech geek that I am, I do all the production myself. I compose the text in the Mac word-processing program Pages, turn it into an ePub using Calibre,  and then touch up the formatting using Sigil. It’s not hard to do, but it does take a while to get everything just right.

As I was composing the e-mail to my reader—whom I now consider a friend—it occurred to me that I could do the same thing for him, if he was interested in writing a book. And not only him, but for any of you who might be interested in writing a book. Here’s what I propose:

  1. I would do all the editing and production of the e-book.
  2. I would assign an ISBN number to the book from my stock of numbers.
  3. I would handle all the interface with Amazon and B&N, and send you reports and checks monthly or quarterly.
  4. I’d pay you 50% of the sales price and get 20% of the sales price on Amazon sales. On B&N sales, I’d get only 15% as they pay only 65%. This assumes that the book is priced at $2.99 or above. It’s probably not a great deal for either of us if your book can’t sell for at least $2.99.

So, f you think you have a book rattling around there, and are interested in this kind of proposition, let’s talk. I think that I’m actually a pretty good editor, and could even help you focus/outline a book. It doesn’t even have to be on ham radio. In fact, it might be a good thing if it’s not a ham radio book since hams are so notoriously cheap. :)

21 Things to Do: Buying your first radio

Baofeng UV-5R

This Baofeng UV-5R is made in China and costs less than $75 here in the U.S.

We all remember our first radio. I got my license back in the day when separate transmitters and receivers were more common than transceivers are today. So, my first radio was a combination of a Hammarlund HQ-101 receiver and a Heathkit DX-60B transmitter. With this combination, I was able to operate CW and AM on the 80m, 40m, 20m, 15m, and 10m bands. Of course, because I was only a Novice, I wasn’t allowed on 20m at all, and could only operate CW on the other bands.

Today, it’s more common for one’s first radio to be a VHF or VHF/UHF FM transceiver. Now that some Chinese companies have entered the amateur radio market, you can buy a handheld VHF/UHF transceiver, like the Baofeng UV-5R, shown at right, for less than $75 in the U.S. A handheld transceiver makes a good first radio, but remember that it is just your first radio. If you never buy a second (or a third or a fourth), you won’t be able to take advantage of what our great hobby offers.

The ARRL has actually done a much better job of advising new hams about buying a first radio than I can do here. So, let me point you to the ARRL Web page, “Buying Your First Radio.” On this page, there are links to several PDF files that will help you choose your first radio.

The first publication you’ll see there is the 24-page brochure, Choosing a Ham Radio. Reading this publication will get you thinking about what kind of operating you want to do, which is really the first step in choosing the right radio for you. Next, it describes features found in modern radios, and you’ll gain a good understanding of how that affects your choice of radio.

Choosing a Ham Radio also contains a lot of information about HF, or shortwave, radios. While you may start out on the VHF and UHF bands, I would encourage you to think about getting on HF, even before you upgrade to General. For me, anyway, the magic of radio is on the shortwave bands, and at the very least, you owe it to yourself to try it.

Buying Used Gear
One approach to getting your first radio is to buy used gear. In general, I would advise against doing this for your first radio. One reason not to buy a used radio is that you’re often just buying someone else’s problems, especially if you’re not in a position to evaluate the condition of a radio. Another reason is that an older radio will not have all the features and could be more difficult to operate than a newer radio.

Having said that, used equipment is not always a bad deal. You might, for example, be able to purchase an older radio from someone you trust, like your Elmer (see Chapter 1) or a fellow club member. When you purchase a radio from someone you trust, not only are you more certain that it will work properly, but you’ll have someone to go to with questions or to consult with if there are problems.

Not only that, if you ask nicely, the ham might even let you use the radio for a while before actually purchasing it. I know that I’ve lent equipment to new hams in the past. Sometimes they decide to buy the radio. Other times, they’ve decided to purchase a new radio. In either case, they were able to make their decision based on experiences they had with an actual radio.

Finally, don’t worry about making the perfect choice. First off, there’s no perfect choice, and second, you can always sell the radio and buy something else. Chances are you’ll be able to sell it for not too much less than what you paid for it, and you’ll have gained a whole lot of experience.

Amateur radio leadership

About five years ago, I joined the Rotary Club here in Ann Arbor, MI. As I had, by this time, served as president of our local amateur radio club, I began comparing how our Rotary Club operating to how our amateur radio club operated. What a huge difference! The members of the Rotary Club were committed and really got things done. The members of the ham radio club, on the other hand, showed practically no commitment at all, had to be coerced into doing much of anything, and when they did, there was all kinds of sniping and complaining. I often thought how great it would be if somehow I could get our ham radio club to act more like the Rotary Club.

About three years ago, our Rotary district started began offering the Rotary Leadership Institute (RLI) course. The RLI course is a three-day course that is designed to prepare Rotary Club members take leadership positions in their clubs. I not only took the course, but I also participated in the facilitator training. From the start, my goal was to adapt the RLI program for ham radio clubs.

So, last year, after taking the final day of RLI training, I began working on the ham radio version.I completed it about a year ago and ran it by our section manager. He thought it was an interesting concept, but never really got behind it. Last fall, he ran for vice director of the Great Lakes Division, and a new guy took his place. When I explained my program to him, he was very enthusiastic about it and helped organize our first workshop, which took place here in southeast Michigan in early March. Last Saturday, we had our first session in southwest Michigan.

Here’s a list of the sessions in the current version of the workshop:

  • Leadership: Characteristics, Team Building
  • The World of Amateur Radio
  • The Amateur Radio Club and its Activities
  • Membership: Recruiting and Retention
  • Leadership: Team Building
  • Leadership: Setting Goals
  • Evaluating Your Club
  • Moving Forward

Overall, this worked pretty well. Most of the participants found the workshop to be valuable, and now our section manager is encouraging me to offer it in other parts of our state.

I think that I can improve it, though

I had originally thought it would take about eight hours to get through these sessions, including lunches and breaks. Well, as it turned out, in both workshops, we finished earlier than I’d expected. I think the biggest reason for this is that some of the later topics were actually covered in some of the earlier session. For example, we talked about how good communications are important the “Ham Radio Club and Its Activities” session, making the latter session moot.

Here’s how I’m thinking about changing the workshop:

  • Leadership: Characteristics
  • The World of Ham Radio
  • The Ham Radio Club and its Activities
  • Membership: Recruiting and Retention
  • Leadership: Team Building
  • Leadership: Setting Goals
  • Evaluating Your Club
  • Moving Forward

For the team-building and goal-setting sessions I’ll have the participants to a class-participation thing. That is to say, actually go through a little exercise getting them to set up a team to do something and getting them to set some club goals.

For the final session, instead of just being a review session, I’ll have the participants do some blue-sky thinking about what they can do with their clubs and perhaps have each come up with a specific idea to take back to their clubs.

We’ve set up a Yahoo Group—AmateurRadioLeadership—to discuss the workshop and other issues of interest to ham radio club leaders. If you’re at all interested in these things, please feel free to join it.

QRP ARCI aims to make accessible kits

QRP ARCIIn January, the QRP Amateur Radio Club International challenged their members to come up with a kit that would be buildable by those with physical disabilities. The original deadline was this year’s Four Day’s in May, held in conjunction with the Dayton Hamvention.

Yesterday, however, they decided to extend the deadline to next year’s FDIM. In an e-mail sent to various QRP mailing lists, Ken Evans, W4DU, QRP-ARCI president says:

Since issuing the challenge, we have received feedback from a number of sources stating that a four month timeline was overly optimistic to perform all the needed steps to develop such a kit.  We have discussed various alternatives and have decided to extend the timeline.  The rules will stand as initially stated, however this will be a special category at FDIM 2013.  Thus giving a full year for the development and design effort.

Complete rules can be found on the QRP-ARCI’s Accessibility Challenge page.

More callsigns that spell words

WB6THE QSL

About a week ago, I worked WB6THE, yet another station whose callsign spells a word. When I explained my collection, he said he’d put one of his cards in the mail right away. I got the card above a couple of days later. This one was particular cool because it’s my first “THE” card.

Yesterday, I participated in the MI QSO Party for a couple of hours. In that short time, I made 76 QSOs, including ones with W8CUB and W8HOG. I’ll be putting my card in the mail to them tomorrow. There are my first “CUB” and “HOG” as well.

21 Things to Do: Go to a hamfest

Hamfest

You can often buy stuff like power cords and connectors at bargain prices at a hamfest.

When I was a kid in Michigan, we used to call a ham radio swap meet a “swap and shop.” Nowadays, they’re mostly known by the term “hamfest.” Whatever name you know them by, they’re both educational and a lot of fun.

There are a lot of reasons to go to a hamfest, including:

  • You get to see a lot of ham radio gear in one place.
  • You might be able to get a good deal on some used (or new) equipment.
  • You might find something that will be fun to play with.
  • You get to meet hams face-to-face that you’ve only talked to on the air.

You never know what you’ll find at a hamfest. If it’s a decent-sized hamfest, chances are you’ll find equipment ranging from radios made in the 1950s with vacuum tubes to modern computer-controlled transceivers. If nothing else, you’ll get an education on the wide range of amateur radio equipment that’s out there.

Can you get a good deal on a radio? Possibly, although these days so much stuff is sold on EBay and via the online ham classifieds on QRZ.Com, eHam.Net, and other sites, that getting a real “steal” is getting harder and harder. One thing is for sure, if you’re a new ham and don’t really know how to evaluate a particular piece of equipment, get your Elmer to look over a purchase before you hand over your money. What may look like a bargain, may end up costing more than a new radio.

What you can often get a good deal on are small parts, such as connectors, power cords, speakers, etc. You never know when you’ll need a 1/4-in. phone plug to put on the end of a set of headphones. A friend of mine jokes that at every hamfest he always buys a handful of different connectors. Hamfests are good places to stock up on these types of things.

You’ll find more than used equipment at a hamfest, though. Many dealers will bring new equipment to a hamfest, especially if it’s one of the big hamfests. This is your chance to look at a number of different radios that you may have only been able to look at in catalogs and compare different models. In addition, dealers often offer “hamfest prices,” so you may be able to get that radio at a slight discount.

Hamfests are also good places to connect with other hams. Quite often, you’ll meet guys that you’ve only talked to on the air. It’s a lot of fun to connect a name and callsign with a face. Sometimes, different ham groups, such as ARES/RACES groups or QRP clubs, will set up a table to promote their group. You can use this opportunity to find out more about these groups and their activities.

To find a hamfest near you, go to the ARRL Hamfests and Conventions Calendar page.

ARRL Executive Committee minutes make interesting reading

ARRLThe minutes of the March 24, 2012 ARRL Executive Committee meeting make interesting reading. On the plus side, the ARRL is very hot on defending and expanding our bands. These minutes note (section 4.1.8) that the recent World Radio Conference created a secondary allocation at 472 – 479 kHz, and that they have allocated 135.7 – 135.8 kHz to amateurs in the past. To date, neither allocation has been implemented in the U.S. and they discussed how to get the FCC to do so.

Section 4.1.9 describes a discussion of the 2300 – 2305 MHz band. Our allocation on this band is a secondary allocation, and there was some discussion of how the ARRL might get this allocation upgraded to a primary allocation.

On the down side, I note that the ARRL seems to be downplaying the necessity of strategic planning. Here’s section 8.2:

8.2. Mr. Sumner reported on his research into “state of the art” strategic planning by large membership associations. Perhaps because of the negative impact of the financial upheavals of 2008 and the revolution in electronic publishing, at this time there appears to be no consensus among associations as to the value of strategic planning or the best way for associations to go about it. The ARRL Board last updated the organization’s strategic plan in 2009 and normally would conduct an in-depth review three to five years later. The committee discussed the perceived shortcomings of past strategic planning efforts along with possible improvements. Without taking a formal decision the committee concluded that while strategic planning remains important to the ARRL, planning for a successful Centennial celebration in 2014 is the current priority. A fresh approach to strategic planning should be taken immediately afterward.

I’ll be interested to see what this “fresh approach” to strategic planning is.

21 Things to Do: Subscribe to mailing lists, blogs, and podcasts

21 Things to Do After Getting Your Amateur Radio LicenseWhen you’re just starting out in amateur radio, you want to learn as much as you can about the hobby. One way to do this is to find an Elmer (see chapter 1). In this age of the Internet, another great way to do this is to join ham radio mailing lists and subscribe to ham radio podcasts. These resources give you access to hundreds, if not thousands, of Elmers.

One mailing list that I always suggest to new hams is the HamRadioHelpGroup. The purpose of this group is to help “those who are interested in getting started in Amateur Radio or upgrading their license.” This mailing list has a good mix of beginners and experts, and most questions are answered quickly and correctly. One thing that I really like about this group is that the moderators do a good job of keeping the discussions on track, and will squelch them when they stray off topic or threaten to turn into flame wars.

In addition to the HamRadioHelpGroup, you might also want to join a more targeted mailing list. For example, if you’re interested in learning Morse Code (hint, hint), you might join the SolidCpyCW list. If you just bought a Yaesu FT-60 hand-held transceiver, you might want to join the FT-60 list. Chances are that no matter what your interest, there’s probably a mailing list to discuss that interest.

I’m subscribed to a lot of amateur radio mailing lists and could probably spend most of my day just reading and replying to them. In order to get the most out of them, without them taking away from my on-air time, I only read those threads that I am really interested in, and even then, I quit reading them once they have started to drift off-topic. I also un-subscribe myself from lists that cover topics that I’m no longer interested in.

Blogs, podcasts and videos
In addition to getting on a few mailing lists, you might want to read a few blogs and subscribe to podcasts. These are also great sources of information about amateur radio. I blog about amateur radio at www.kb6nu.com, and lots of hams find it a good source of information. You can find a list of other ham radio blogs that I’d recommend on my home page.

Podcasts are also a good source of information. One podcast that you might want to check out is the Practical Amateur Radio Podcast (www.myamateurradio.com). Since 2008, Jerry, KD0BIK, has been producing PARP, and currently has more than 50 different episodes online. For other podcasts, consult the list on Jerry’s home page.

Finally, there are literally thousands of amateur radio videos on the net. On YouTube alone, there are approximately 32,000 of them. The American Radio Relay League has its own channel, but perhaps the most popular amateur radio video channel is the K7AGE channel. K7AGE has more than 6,200 subscribers and his videos have garnered more than 2.1 million views!

Whatever source or sources of information you select, remember to not let them take up too much of your time. Ham radio is about more than just reading, listening, or watching. It’s about doing!