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), over 800,000 (as of 2016) licensed operators in the U.S. are able to transmit powerful radio signals to and from all over the world—and even outer space. Ham operators (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": 1) Technician class, 2) General class, and 3) 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 (Nov 2016)
(Click for live, zoomable 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 handheld radio. Building your first station is lots of 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 many new friends will be eager 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 privileges 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—licensed or not! And immediate family members of a Full Member can be a part of the Club as a Family Member, again, licensed or not. All levels of HOTARC members are added to our Club mailing list ("in the loop" for newsletters, announcements, invitations, equipment auctions, etc.) and given full access to our web site (member directory, Club library, etc.). For detailed information about our Club operations, see links to our Club bylaws, current officers, and so forth on our About HOTARC page.
The steps to becoming a HOTARC member are:
- Complete a HOTARC Membership Application and mail it to one of the HOTARC Directors, or submit it to the presiding Officer at the next HOTARC meeting.
- Board of Directors votes to recommend the application to the Members (or not).
- Full Members vote to accept the application (or not).
- If the application is accepted (almost a sure thing!), pay the appropriate membership dues (as noted on the application form). And you're in!
What are typical HOTARC activities?
HOTARC meets once a month (our next meeting) to conduct a little Club business, and then enjoy a short program on a technical or entertaining topic—usually related to an amateur radio topic, or a special event where we can share our radio skills with the community. 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 several "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.)
- Build and operate ham radio/GPS trackers that transmit one's position and speed. The tracks can be uploaded automatically and seen on national APRS maps and web sites, such as aprs.fi.
- 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 we try to locate a hidden radio transmitter—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 and video via amateur radio.
- Modify equipment, like commercial wi-fi routers, to utilize amateur radio privileges to establish county-wide communications networks. (See our HamNet (Mesh) page.)
- 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 an annual 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 as possible. Conducted as a contest with thousands of other clubs and hams across the country, this is our favorite annual event! (See HOTARC Field Day Archive for evidence of that!)
- Install, repair, and upgrade Club equipment, including communications trailers, repeaters, antennas, and so forth. Our Club operates several repeaters that allow us to easily communicate using handheld radios and other low-powered radios.
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). Emergency personnel handling large disasters know to call upon amateur radio operators. However, to be allowed to help at a disaster scene now, you MUST HAVE proper identification and training. To this end, it is imperative that you:
As you can tell, being prepared before the threat arrives is key. For example, during an emergency is not the time to be learning how to use your radio's features and functions! So, start working on the checklist above today!
- Complete and submit an ARES application—before the emergency comes!
- Complete the following four required (but 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.
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
To learn more about making space contacts, visit our Satellites page.
Current ISS Position
How do I renew my ham license?
Of course, your new license is good for 10 years! But the older we get, the faster those ten years fly by!! So, here's some info straight from the FCC web site for renewing your license. The good news is IT'S FREE if you do it yourself, either by mail or online. You can pay others to help you (e.g., W5YI, QRZ), if you like. Or, if you're an ARRL member, just mail them a completed Form 605, and they will handle it for you—also for free!
You will need your FCC Registration Number (FRN) and password at the login screen (step 1 below). Don't know your FRN? You can find that by simply looking up your call sign. If you forgot your password, you'll have to go through the Password Reset routine. If you're not yet registered, see the ARRL web site for a step-by-step how to get registered and "File Electronically with FCC."
The Universal Licensing System
You may renew your license through the Universal Licensing System (ULS) at any time within 90 days of the expiration date and up to two years after the license expires.
To get started, go to the ULS Home page, click Log In under Online Filing, and follow the instructions below.
- Login to the ULS License Manager with your FCC Registration Number (FRN) and password.
- From your License At A Glance page, choose the Renew link in the right-hand Work on This License menu. If you're eligible to renew, the Renew link will appear.
- On the Select Updates page, review the licensee information, supplying any missing or out of date data, and then click Continue.
- Answer the questions on the Applicant Questions page, and click Continue when ready.
- On the Licensee Information page, review, update, or make any corrections that are necessary. Click Continue.
- On the Summary page review your information. To make further corrections, click the appropriate Edit button, make your changes, then click Return to Summary.
- To submit your updates, click the Continue to Certify button. After reading the certification, "sign" by typing your first and last names in the boxes at the bottom of the page, and click Submit Application.
From the ULS Confirmation screen, you should print a copy of your application and/or the Confirmation screen itself from your web browser. The FCC will NOT automatically send you a new license document or other confirmation. For a nice printable version, view your license info, and click the link for a Reference Copy, and print the resulting PDF file.
NOTE: The address and contact information entered in this CORES registration will not be automatically associated with your license(s). To change your license address and contact info, you must update your information in ULS, or submit a Form 605 manually.