Monday, May 9, 2011

Ham radio: The original instant messaging

By Bob Confer

The Internet has made the world a smaller place. We can log on to our email and Facebook accounts and share messages with friends and family around the globe. We can use Skype to see and talk to them from the comfort of our homes. It’s like the futuristic technology that was once a part of sci-fi movies is here now.

Even so, there’s still a place for the old-fashioned ways of doing things. There’s little that’s more exciting from a communications hobby standpoint than talking around the world with a two-way radio. The joys of amateur radio – also known as ham radio – still resonate today, even with modern, computer-driven communications being as easy and instantaneous as they are.

I recently got my radio license (KC2ZZW) from the federal government. I was a ham earlier in life, having been licensed in junior high. I inadvertently let the earlier license expire in the late-90s but nevertheless I remained a radio enthusiast, listening to the world on the police scanner and shortwave radio, while talking to it on the CB radio.

It was the limitations of latter that drove me back to amateur radio and I’m glad it did. After a long period of inactivity, the sun is becoming tempestuous again, making sunspots and solar flares, all of which affect our atmosphere and allow radio waves at lower frequencies to travel great distances, even half-way around the world (think of how your AM radio behaves in the overnight hours). In my first days on the air I talked to exotic locales like Argentina and St. Thomas with my modest low-power station. I’m one of those “radio geeks” who aspire to make contacts in all 50 states and hundreds of nations.

There’s also a whole lot of radio above those frequencies as well. A ham license will allow you to communicate in the VHF and UHF range and beyond. Those bands are more local in nature (think of your TV), but your signal can be magnified by repeaters, high-powered towers that re-broadcast your signals. You also have the chance to talk with astronauts on the International Space Station or bounce your radio signals off the moon to other stations on Earth.

Amateur radio is more than just a hobby; it’s a public service, too. Many hams provide emergency communications and coordination efforts when disasters shutdown electrical grids and phone lines. They’ve been instrumental in saving the day on many occasions. They’ve also allowed families thousands of miles away to know that their loved ones are safe and sound in affected areas (perfect recent examples being earthquake-ravaged Japan and areas of the south flattened by tornadoes).

Getting licensed is an easy task. A few years ago the Federal Communications Commission abandoned the Morse code requirements for globally-reaching entry-level permits, an obstacle that proved difficult to many (especially the young) and had prevented them from entering the hobby. Now, you just need to pass a written exam, knowing radio and electrical theory as well as the FCC’s rules and regulations. There are plenty of study guides on the market and many of them actually provide the hundreds of possible questions and answers that the 35-question exams pull from.

If you’re looking for help in getting started, the readers of this paper and its sisters have access to amateur radio clubs in Lockport, Orleans County, Lewiston and the Tonawandas (the last of which offers licensing tests on a monthly basis). These friendly men and women will help you learn the hobby, pass the exam and find the equipment you need (which can be found on the cheap thanks to Ebay and Craigslist). Information about these clubs, exams and amateur radio in general can be found at the website of the American Radio Relay League (

There’s a whole wide world that opens up before you when you turn on your radio. Give it a try.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at

This column originally ran in the 02 May 2011 Greater Niagara Newspapers

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