What is Amateur Radio?

Written by Mark Tayler - for the Norfolk Amateur Radio Club


Amateur radio is a popular technical and experimental hobby and volunteer public service that uses designated radio frequencies for non-commercial exchange of messages, wireless experimentation, self-training, and emergency communications. Amateur Radio is the only hobby governed by international treaty. As a radio amateur you are able to transmit radio signals on a number of frequency bands allocated specifically to the radio amateurs. Radio amateurs make use of their frequencies in a number of ways:

  1. Provided emergency communications during national and international emergencies.
  2. Technical experimentation - many of the leaps forward in radio technology have been initiated by radio amateurs.
  3. Contacting people all over the world by radio which often leads to developing international friendships.
  4. Competing in international competitions to test how effective their equipment is, and how good they are as an operator.
  5. Communication through amateur space satellites or with the International Space Station (which carries an amateur radio station)

Providing communications at times of emergencies and undertaking exercises to ensure you keep the capability to do so. There is no better way to explore the fascinating world of radio communications than by becoming a radio amateur. A 1910 announcement by the then HM Postmaster General licensed “experimental wireless”, which still uniquely gives radio amateurs the ability to innovate without commercial or statutory controls even in the closely regulated environment of the 21st century.

  What Sort of People Become Radio Amateurs?  
  Amateur Radio is the original high technology “social network”. Today it is regarded as a “broad church” and numbers in its ranks Kings, pop stars, public figures, the retired, schoolchildren and those at work or unemployed. Whatever your interest in radio communications, you will find others sharing that interest — from “geeky” experimenters to those just interested in communicating by radio. So as a radio amateur, you simply do not know who you might talk to “over the air”. Using call signs as identifiers, there is no status on the air, and you talk, equal to equal, to everyone you contact. Local radio clubs can help you grow and develop. And remember, Amateur Radio offers enjoyment for you and your family as well. Amateur activities like Direction Finding (similar to orienteering but with a high-tech “spin”), field days, Summits on the Air, IOTA can be “family friendly”, allowing your family to enjoy your amateur radio activities as well!  
  What can I do with Amateur Radio?  
  Whilst the Internet has brought us instant world-wide email, VOIP and video communication, it is tied to an infrastructure of enormous proportions. With Amateur Radio, you are communicating directly, “point-to-point” with no intermediate infrastructure. You are also communicating with people in their cars, on ships, on remote islands, and in under-developed parts of the world. But perhaps more importantly, Amateur Radio is not just about communicating — it’s about exploring the technology that makes radio communication work — the electronics, the antennas, the propagation characteristics of the ionosphere, and even computers that are linked to radio equipment for all sorts of purposes including specialised modes of communication, station logging, propagation prediction, etc.  
  Emergency communications  
  The provision of emergency communications is one of the fastest growing areas of amateur radio around the world. Amateur radio is so useful to emergency communications because it does not depend on any infrastructure. That means amateur radio does not rely on the electrical power grid or any cabled network. Although mobile phones and the internet have wireless capability, they are still dependent on fixed masts and cabling which can be severely disrupted by a natural or man-made disaster; so, while very useful in an emergency, mobiles and the internet cannot be relied upon completely. When the phone lines are down and the electricity is off, it is still possible to communicate worldwide with amateur radio using only battery power. This versatility has saved many lives over decades of amateur radio emergency service. Amateur radio still gets through when everything else has failed.  
  RAYNET was formed in 1953 following the East Coast floods, when radio amateurs provided emergency communications, and was administered by the (RSGB) Radio Society of Great Britain. Radio Amateurs who are willing to provide communications during emergencies are organised in autonomous local RAYNET Groups and are also members of the national organisation, RAYNET-UK. There are over 100 RAYNET Groups around the country. These Groups practice and improve their skills by taking part in exercises or by providing communications for community events. RAYNET-UK is a registered charity, affiliated to the RSGB and there is regular liaison between the two, promoting a coordinated approach to emergency communications. RAYNET-UK provides the special support which Groups need, such as specific insurance and photo ID. RAYNET-UK also liaises with the emergency services, government and other organisations at a national level. Only groups in RAYNET-UK are able to use the title RAYNET. Many RAYNET groups are affiliated to the RSGB as Clubs.  
  Getting Started in Amateur Radio.  
  Anyone can listen in to amateur radio transmissions. If you’re new to amateur radio, then listening-in for a while is a good way to get a feel for what is going on. To become a radio amateur, licensed to transmit, you will need a brief period of study, and to pass a simple practical and theory examination. The Norfolk Amateur Radio Club (NARC) provides the examinations to enable you to become a radio amateur and then to progress through the various levels of licence — three in all. Study for the first level is straightforward and can often be accomplished in a weekend.  More details about the exams can be found on the website or by contacting any member of the Club Committee.  
  What can Amateur Radio do for me?  
  Employers in the high technology industries often seek people who combine the theoretical understanding of electronics with the practical ability to “make it happen”. By becoming a radio amateur, and with the right interest, a lifetime of personal growth lies ahead in the field of electronics and radio communication. Many people today owe career development to their first steps in amateur radio. Why don’t YOU consider joining the many thousands who are developing their skills every day through this fascinating hobby?