Getting a Ham License for all the wrong reasons..

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Jan 21, 2014
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Coudersport, Pennsylvania
Recently a director of the ARRL came to me and asked me how to fix a large problem that amateur radio and the ARRL suffers today.

The problem stems from the lack of interest and use of VHF and UHF repeaters.

I explained to the man that the repeaters has ran their course and has been replaced by cell phones.

Not liking my answer, the ARRL representative asked me to reiterate my answer.

Amateur repeaters are a virtual newcomer to the amateur radio scene.

The first repeaters were probably built in the early 1960's and were not FM but AM.
The reason why they were AM was due to the fact that the repeaters were built by cast off old PLMRS =- Private Land Mobile Radio Service equipment.

In those days the FCC told the state governments that they could only use repeaters for emergencies.
However, some police departments used them all of the time - because everything that they did was an emergency! All voice communications had to be logged, hence they used large reel to reel tape recorders with 2 inch wide tapes that ran reeelll slow. The audio was crappy, but it met the requirements of the government. At the end of one year, the police / public safety people had to pay someone to transcribe everything that was on the tapes onto paper with a typewriter.

The first VHF radios were old Motorola and Link PLMRS radios and were not designed to operate in the ham bands. They were crystal controlled and the crystals had to be reground on a glass plate.
It didn't matter if the crystals frequency was off a little bit - because there was only one pair of frequencies that the radios would operate on. Hence every town had it's own little repeater - that wouldn't talk more then 20 miles.

The amateur radio equipment also had to be monitored 24 hours a day when in use.
Most clubs only turned theirs on for emergencies and for nets - usually on Sunday nights!

Power supplies had to be built by hand and using one in a vehicle was quite a chore.
Some radios were 6 volts - hence the tubes had to be rewired for 12 volts.
The radios draw was around 60 AMPS - hence the alternators and charging systems had to be upgraded.

It wasn't until the mid to late 1970's that rumors of good FM Amateur Radio repeaters were being built around Lynchburg VA. Eventually that technology migrated north, south, east and west until we had what we have today.

Cheap amateur radio equipment for VHF usually came from Hamfests where vendors trying to get rid of old PLMRS equipment or Civil Defense agencies - just giving away equipment to those involved in RACES - Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service...

Later the first manually tuned radio appeared, after a agreement to keep a .600 split on the frequencies as opposed to a 1 or 2 MHz split...

It wasn't until the 1980's that companies such as Yaesu, Kenwood, ICOM came along with their programmable versions - with PL boards installed and a more modern digital frequency display like we recognize today..

The first handhelds that were built were as much as 15 lbs - hardly handhelds by todays standard.

Some people might remember when Radio Shack came out with the HTX line of handhelds - a very fine radio, even by todays standards.

As the rules were relaxed and the code was dropped, more and more people sought out a amateur radio license. Usually for the purpose of finding a quiet place to talk, since their CB bands had been corrupted to the point of being unusable. Others just came because they couldn't pass the code - and that was the only thing that kept them out.

You need to remember that the first cell phones were invented by hams and the first cellular system was created in about 1982 - the same time I graduated from high school...

The first cell phones were nothing more then a type of full duplex ham radio that operated on 869 - 913 MHz and the towers were as much as 20 miles apart - if you even had a tower to operate from - once you left the major cities.

The one thing that attracted people to amateur radio - being able to communicate while mobile, over longer distances then with simplex communications - my antenna to your antenna, was the same thing that drove them away... Once you were able to subscribe to a service, the rates were low, and you had X amount of minutes a month in which you could call people on your bag phone.
When people realized that cell phones were personal communications and that no one could chase them off the cell phone - like a repeater, and they did not have to share their conversations with others, nor was it mandatory for the person you were talking to - to have a ham radio license in order to use it - people forgot about amateur radio and the world moved on.

The problem was - the world was now full of amateur radio repeaters.
Even just the jingle of the identifier every 10 minutes could keep you awake for hours if you lived in an area where there was a high population of repeaters available - a almost constant ID going off every couple of seconds. Dead air all around you and no one left to talk to anymore...

The young people left amateur radio almost as fast as they had joined it.
The old retired people kept on using amateur radio out of tradition, but other then a morning, daily, or nightly net - there was no one left to talk to anymore anyways.

Then the public service recognized that we had a almost unlimited amount of frequencies available to us as hams and their frequencies were being depleted by analog, digital and packet communications.
The next logical step was to reorganize and license as many PLMRS people as possible, so as to be able to exploit these frequencies in an emergency...

Suddenly amateur radio took a twist, it went from being a way for hams to communicate with one another to EmComm's and a SERVICE... Yes emergency communications has always been a priority of amateur radio, but NO it isn't all that we do!

All of a sudden, all of these GI Joe's that wanted to be a fireman or a policeman or a paramedic but couldn't pass the physical or the mental aptitude test were getting into amateur radio...

I think amateur radio sends the wrong message to a lot of people out there.
The truth to the matter is - the most important part about amateur radio is the learning aspect of the hobby, not the public service - EmComm side...

For those that thinks that it is a convenience to be able to use all those empty amateur radio repeaters in an emergency like a telephone - amateur radio once again drew some people back into the hobby.
The two problems is - getting everyone in the family licensed and having radios that works and knowing how to use those radios.

Instead of telling people not to use amateur radio, maybe I should devote more time towards trying to explain to them how to use amateur radio.
The more I try to explain, the more confused people gets.
This is basically due to the fact that just getting the license doesn't automatically make you a ham, and just having a handheld radio doesn't automatically make you a ham radio operator.

No one should get a ham radio license unless they have a sincere desire to be a communicator.
As amateur radio operators, we are communicators..
It's not a cell phone, it's not a call box along side of the road - used to call tow trucks in an emergency.
It is not a solution for people that wants to keep track of their kids.
And, it is not a solution for a large party of people - especially if all the people are not licensed or do not know how to use the radio properly.

There are plenty of other bands out there - that will fulfill your requirements better then amateur radio.
Options such as MURS, GMRS, FRS, even cell phones.

The next time someone in your group suggests that you all go out and obtain a amateur radio license, read this to them and explain to them that amateur radio is a hobby, it is a fraternity, a group of like minded individuals that are willing to work as a group for the common good of the radio service.

There is no ME in Amateur radio....


A True Doomsday Prepper
Aug 15, 2013
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Totally get your points, but won't stop me from getting one for a SHTF scenario. I plan to become as knowledgeable as I can, but mostly, my aim will be to have a way to communicate long distance once things settle down, and have an outlet for news during the chaos.

For group communication, we're still going to be using CB and FM radios.

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