Frequently Asked Questions
What is amateur radio?
Amateur radio, or "ham radio" as it is often called, is a hobby that can actually save lives. Using privileges granted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), about 680,000 licensed operators in the U.S. are able to transmit powerful radio signals to and from all over the world—and even outer space. Amateur radio operators, or "hams" (as they are often called), use their radio skills and equipment to serve the public during severe weather events and other emergencies when there is a need for backup communications. Following severe storms and other disasters, hams are often the first to be able to communicate when cell phone towers and police/fire communications systems may falter.
To maintain a state of readiness, hams typically volunteer to provide free communications for non-emergency events like marathons and walk-a-thons, bike and boat races, festivals and fairs, and so forth. For these events, hams practice communicating over a wide area without relying on the Internet, cell phones, text messaging, or even commercial electricity.
And, as part of the fun of the hobby, hams can also participate in many contests and other challenges to practice their skills and test their equipment. One such example is the annual ARRL Field Day, when radio clubs all over the nation will "go portable" and operate from picnic tables, tents, and trailers for 24 hours, usually using only battery-, solar-, or generated-power for the communications. For more details and facts, the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the principal advocate for the interests of FCC-licensed Amateur Radio operators in the United States, offers this excellent summary of amateur radio. Or, for students and others interested in a historical perspective, the FCC has published this very nice short history of radio, as it leads up to the modern cellphone era.
How do I get an amateur radio license?
In the United States, you can earn of three license levels, or "classes": Technician class, General class, and Extra class. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) grants these licenses, and specifies what privileges come with each license class. Check the links here to compare the three levels of licenses available in the U.S. As of 2014, there are more than 725,000 licensed radio amateurs in the U.S. alone!
To "get your foot in the door" earn the Technician Class Amateur Radio license by passing a short 35-question multiple-choice exam. No Morse code is required! This entry-level exam is designed to ensure you understand the spirit of the rules for amateur radio, how to operate safely, and know a little electronics theory that you will use as a Technician operator.
Our recommended method is to take several minutes a day over a few weeks to study for the test. You can attend a training class (like our two-weekend classes) where the answers to each test question are discussed, and clarified—often with live radio demonstrations. Or, you can just do it on your own. Really—it's not a hard test. Anybody who can learn a few rules about radio, whether young or old, male or female, can pass the FCC test and earn their license.
If you score 75% or better, you pass! You'll have your new call sign a couple weeks later. Maybe a new radio. And then most of those facts covered on the test will begin to make sense!
- We recommend getting a copy of Gordon West's Technician Class Study Manual—gives every question (and brief explanations) that might be on the test, as well as a rich CD.
- Use a yellow-highlighter to mark every correct answer in the book.
- Read through the book 2 or 3 times (looking only at the right answers, and then they will look familiar on the test). With Gordon's explanations you can understand alot. Some facts you will just have to memorize (as best you can), but usually you'll find that the right answer just "looks right." But relax: the test will only have 35 questions from the whole book, and you only need to get 26 of those right!
- To check your readiness, you can try some practice tests (as often as you like).
- Find a date/place and go take the test!
If the above approach doesn't fit your learning style, there is a lot of material available. (Do your own web search to find much more.)
Map of Waco-area hams
(Click for live, larger version.)
HOTARC usually offers a two-Saturday test-prep class (around February-March) to help a fresh group of prospective hams understand the material, discuss the questions with real folks, and operate some real radio equipment. You can contact one of the Club Officers for further information about the next session. (NOTE: The FCC updates the test banks periodically, so beware of old study materials.)
- Our favorite: Gordon West's Technician Class Study Manual (available from the W5YI store or Amazon.com)
- Several study aides available at the ARRL book store, such as the ARRL Ham Radio License Manual, the ARRL's Tech Q&A, Getting Started with Ham Radio, and many more.
- Online courses. Of course, you can use your computer to prepare for the exam, such as the HamClass multimedia site, or ARRL's several online courses.
- Practice tests. Not the best way to prepare for the exam, but a great way to build your confidence as you study. When you can consistently score above 80%, you're probably ready for the real exam. For example: QRZ site, AA9PW site, eHam site, QRZ site, HamExam site, or a Google search for even more.
So, in summary, to get started in amateur radio:
- Learn about the FCC ham radio rules, radio safety, and a tiny amount of electronics theory.
- Pass a written test and receive your ham-radio license.
- Buy/borrow a radio and get on the air.
- Join a local ham radio Club, meet lots of nice folks, and use your radio skills to help others. (Hint: Make this Step #1, and the rest will be a lot easier!)
And after I get my license...what then?
Well, get on the air, of course! Your first on-air contacts can be pretty exciting—even if it is only talking with local hams on a VHF frequency. Assembling your station is half the fun, as you beg, borrow, or buy equipment, and get it all working together. However, this can be rather intimidating for the new ham, so we recommend you quickly connect with a local ham radio club, where you'll find dozens of new friends to help and encourage you.
HOTARC is very pleased to welcome hams from the central Texas area. We have three ways to join our Club. A Full Member of HOTARC must have a valid Amateur Radio License, and has the privilege of voting at Club business meetings and holding elected offices and other leadership roles. An Associate Member can be anyone with an interest in Amateur Radio—you don't even need a radio license to be an Associate Member! And immediate family members of a Full Member can be a part of the Club as a Family Member. All levels of HOTARC members are added to our Club mailing list ("in the loop" for newsletters, announcements, invitations, etc.) and given full access to our web site (member directory, Club library, etc.). For more information about the Club, see our Club bylaws, current officers, and so forth.
The steps to becoming a HOTARC member are:
- Applicant completes a HOTARC Membership Application and mails it to one of the HOTARC Directors, or submits it to the presiding Officer at the next HOTARC meeting.
- Board of Directors votes whether to recommend the application to the Members.
- Full Members vote whether to accept the application.
- If the application is accepted (almost a sure thing!), the applicant pays the appropriate membership dues (as noted on the application form).
What are typical HOTARC activities?
HOTARC meets once a month to conduct a little Club business, and then enjoy a short program on a technical or entertaining topic—usually related to amateur radio. In addition to these monthly gatherings, we also
- Provide emergency communications, as needed, for area Emergency Management officials and the National Weather Service office in Fort Worth, TX (i.e., storm spotting).
- Conduct weekly on-the-air training "nets" to keep our skills honed for emergency communications during actual disasters. (See ARES.)
- Participate in four to six "special events" each year, where our members provide radio communications for the event organizers. These special events are great practice for real emergencies, and also fun opportunities to use our radios! (See Club Events.)
- Offer instructional classes, presentations, and other educational programs for scouts, students, and other interested groups, upon request.
- Conduct radio-direction-finding (RDF) exercises, called "fox hunts," where the participants try to locate a hidden radio transmitter. These exercises are great practice for locating a transmitter that is accidentally stuck "On," or an illegal transmitter.
- Conduct amateur television (ATV) meetings, both "fast scan" and "slow scan," to practice the exchange of images via amateur radio.
- Modify equipment, like commercial wi-fi routers, to utilize amateur radio privileges to establish county-wide communications networks. (See HamNet (Mesh).)
- Organize group activities to explore new, interesting, and challenging aspects of ham radio, such as frequency measuring tests, space shuttle landings, new digital modes, and so forth.
- Participate in a 24-hour emergency communications drill known as "Field Day," when we operate our radios without commercial power from a location away from our homes (e.g., a public park), and contact as many other stations around the world as possible. Treating it as a contest with other clubs around the nation, this is one of our most fun annual Club events! (See HOTARC Field Day Archive.)
- Install, repair, and upgrade Club equipment, including communications trailers, repeaters, antennas, and so forth.
How can I use my radios to help during emergencies?
The FCC expects amateur radio operators to use their skills and equipment to help their community in emergency situations. One of the best ways to prepare for this is to register and practice with the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES). With the rising number and severity of national-scale disasters, the need for adequate preparation and identification of amateur radio operators has risen dramatically. It is now imperative for those wanting to really contribute to service and have access to restricted emergency sites to register with their local ARES organization, and complete required training courses (see below). We now see that large disasters know to call upon amateur radio operators more than ever before. However, to help at a disaster scene now, you must have proper identification and training. To this end, it is imperative that you:
- Complete and submit an ARES application—before the emergency comes!
- Complete at least the following four free online training courses available from FEMA:
IS-200.b (ICS), and
- Though not required, you are strongly encouraged to complete at least one (and preferably all) of the online Emergency Communications training courses available from the ARRL:
EC-001, EC-002, and EC-003.
- Check in to the weekly training nets and ARES activations (e.g., storm spotting). The central Texas ARES training net currently meets every Monday at 8:00 PM on the HOTARC 145.15 MHz repeater.
- Upon registering with ARES, a list of local repeaters will be provided to you. Program your radio(s) with these area repeaters and know how to use them. During an emergency is not the time to be learning how to use your radio's features and functions!
Can I really contact the International Space Station?!
Yes!! Hams are the only civilians allowed to directly contact the astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). And we can do it with the mobile 2-meter radios most of us have installed at home or in our vehicles. It helps to have a directional antenna to aim at the station as it makes its overhead pass. And, of course, the astronauts must be listening on the radio during one of their non-working periods. Talking to a station that is zipping past you at about 5 miles per second will require a little extra effort and probably more than one attempt. Here's an excellent article from the June 2010 QST Magazine with tips on making that first contact. And below is some valuable reference information on the frequencies used by the ISS, and the times when it will pass over our area (change the settings to find your area).
ISS passes over our area. (best are Highest Point Alt > 30°)
ARISS general QSO frequencies:
- Downlink (listen) for Voice, Packet,
and Cross-band repeater: 145.80 MHz
- Uplink for Voice: 144.49 MHz (Region 2, USA)
- Uplink for Packet: 145.825 MHz
- Uplink for Cross-band repeater: 437.80 MHz
NOTE: Adjust frequencies with this Doppler table
Station ID: NA1SS (current expedition)
Crew's Daily Timelines (Use UTC!)
For more info, to listen to actual contacts, upcoming events, and much more visit the ISS Fan Club page.
Station Tours by Suni Williams: 1 2 3 4
Current ISS Position