Want to bone up on wireless tech? Try ham radio

Abundant spectrum resources and an engaged research community are drawing wireless experimenters back into a hobby that many had forgotten.

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Whatever the reason, a budding corps of innovators is now working to restore at least some of ham radio's past glory, focusing on projects ranging from satellite construction to power-line communications to testing long-range Wi-Fi links. "Ham radio provides the broadest and most powerful wireless communications capability available to any private citizen anywhere in the world," says Allen Pitts, a spokesman for the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), a national association of ham radio operators based in Newington, Conn.

Major pluses: Free radio spectrum, big transmitters and more

For experimenters, ham radio's strongest drawing card is megahertz upon megahertz of lightly used (sometimes virtually unused) radio spectrum at key locations in the LF, HF, VHF, UHF and SHF bands and beyond. Unlike their commercial counterparts, hams are free to use any of these frequencies for experimental purposes without any government authorization other than the ham license itself. "Don't underestimate the value of these frequencies -- they could fetch hundreds of millions of dollars if sold," says Hays, who views the bands as a "national resource," useful for both experimental and disaster-related communications activities.

Beyond gaining access to enough radio spectrum space to conduct their experiments in relative peace and privacy, hams can also legally use transmitters with power levels of up to 1.5 kilowatts. "That's comparable to a small AM broadcast station," Pitts says. A high-power transmitter comes in handy for applications like bouncing a radio signal off of Venus (as a group of German hams did earlier this year) or for skipping signals off of the ionosphere to communicate with someone on the other side or the world without the help of the Internet.

Although radio amateurs have long battled local governments and homeowners' associations over the right to erect antennas in their yards, a recent FCC ruling now requires planning authorities to "reasonably accommodate" a ham's need to erect the large antennas that are useful for satellite communications, radio astronomy and other types of weak-signal radio applications, as well as long-distance terrestrial communications.

Testing, testing

Yet aspiring hams still face the challenge of passing one or more written tests, depending on the class of license they are seeking. Those exams cover both technical and regulatory subjects. The entry-level Technician-class license, which provides access to nearly all VHF and higher frequencies, requires applicants to pass a 35-question, multiple-choice test. "While not difficult, it does require several hours of reading and study," Pitts says. "This initial test is designed to be sure that new licensees understand the service, can operate competently without causing disruption to others, and have a basic knowledge of the rules and capabilities of ham radio."

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