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Why Get Involved in Amatuer Radio?

I am frequently asked, "Why bother with radios? Don't you have cellphones? VOIP? Skype?"

And, well, yes I do have those things. But there are still plenty of reasons to get involved in amateur radio. I used to think the above things, too, and am really kicking myself that I didn't give it more serious thought until 2010.

I eventually realized that the above question was framing it the wrong way. I think the better question would be, "What makes amateur radio fun and a good way to spend your time?"

The Fun Of It All

There is a lot of fun in amateur radio. It was quite exciting the first time I talked to someone out of state, realizing that the piece of wire in my trees, and 100W of transmitter power, were all it took to get a message 700 miles away. And even more exciting when I talked to a person in Kazakhstan the same way. No satellites, no phone lines, no undersea cables - just my antenna, his, and radio waves.

Then there’s the fun in talking to somewhat random people. It’s not completely random, as I’m only talking to people that have passed a test - there are about a million of us in the USA. (And for the long-distance HF communication, a more rigorous exam is required, so the number is probably less than that.) But when I call "CQ" - an invitation for anyone listening to reply - I never know who will reply. I’ve talked to a retired Canadian museum curator, a Mississippi farmer, a resident of Long Island, Russians participating in a contest, two Hawaiians participating in a different contest, and the list goes on. Some of these have been brief contacts lasting only seconds, while others have been conversations that stretch on towards an hour.

I liken amateur radio to buying my first iPod. I had never owned a portable MP3 player. I had always figured, "Why bother? How often am I away from a computer or a CD player?" But once I got one, I realized how nice it was. It was convenient to just store my entire library on there and not have to try to sync it across multiple devices. It was convenient to not have to carry CDs with me in the car, and to listen to music at places I hadn’t tried to before. The same sort of thing applied to getting a Kindle, and to amateur radio. I didn’t realize how much fun it would be until I tried.

Community

One thing I’ve discovered is that the amateur radio community has an amazing sense of community. Hams, almost universally, seem to love helping out each other, whatever the task may be: setting up antennas, learning how to operate a radio, even fixing a flat tire. I’ve seen this directly, and heard about it from others, time and time again. There’s an excellent article out there by Nate Bargmann called Why I consider Amateur Radio an asset in my life that makes for good reading.

Utility / Emergency

If you stop and think for a minute, you'll realize there are quite a few benefits to having your very own wireless link, completely independent of outside infrastructure. For instance, groups of people traveling in several cars can contact each other even when they go through an area without cellphone coverage -- which are common in many parts of the country. If the power goes out, Internet or even phones may go down. I've seen at least two instances where important telephone cables have been cut, completely cutting off entire towns from any outside calls -- even with cell phones. And of course there are always natural disasters and other incidents that can overwhelm traditional infrastructure.

Hams (amateur radio operators) have a special place with these. Some choose to take emergency communications training and join volunteer emergency response groups. Thousands of them went to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to assist there, as there was often no other way to get messages out. They also often help out with major events, festivals, etc. It is often very nice to be able to have everyone involved hear the communications that are happening, whereas cellphones are private channels between two people.

I've experienced this myself once. We lost power one evening, and it had been out for awhile. I called the electric company, but their phone just rang and rang -- no answer. Living out in the country, there are no neighbors near enough to see if they are without power as well, or to know if it's just us or some larger problem.

So, I got on the radio. (I have a generator, but also a battery-operated handheld; either works in this situation.) I asked if anybody around happened to know what was happening. Sure enough, someone driving in his truck hopped on and said that much of the county was without power. He had also heard on his police scanner that there were reports of power outages elsewhere and that the power company was working on it, but it would take a few hours.

Memorable Moments

Towards the end of showing you some things that have been exciting, here are a few memorable moments from my ham radio experience so far.

Some other things I haven't tried yet, but many others have:

Next Steps

Move on to the GettingStartedWithAmateurRadio page.

See Also


CategoryAmateurRadio

WikiCompleteOrg: WhyAmateurRadio (last edited July 14, 2011 by JohnGoerzen)