Around 750,000 Americans have an amateur radio license, or as it’s colloquially known, a “ham” radio license. Among those who get licensed are technologists, disaster preppers, emergency responders, engineers, off-roaders, boaters, survivalists, and more.
Ham radio has been around since the early days of communications, and it is more relevant now than ever, with a huge increase in new licenses in recent months. At American Radio Club, we’ve helped thousands of Americans study for and pass their amateur radio license exam, so we decided to take a deep-dive into the primary reasons and benefits of finally getting your “ticket” (ham slang for license).
A ham radio license allows you to communicate over long distances without the internet or cell towers
For many enthusiasts, ham radio is all about independent communication and self-reliance. All you need is a battery, a radio, and a little knowledge and you can communicate across the country or the world without depending on big tech companies, internet access and infrastructure.
Amateur radio gives you control over your own communications.
Don’t have cell service? No problem, you can chat with friends and family on a handheld radio like a Baofeng (think of it like a walkie-talkie on steroids). Internet went out? Amateur radio operators can easily send an email via Winlink, across the entire country or world, just with some simple equipment from their home.
Amateur radio operators are leading the charge in independent, decentralized communications across the country, and with your amateur radio license, you can join in on the fun.
But why should you care? Why is ham radio still relevant in a world with cell phones and internet?
Cell phones and the internet rely on a massive network of cables and giant data centers
The internet often feels like magic – it is just everywhere, automatically. Especially with WiFi hotspots, many people mistakenly believe the internet travels across the country via radio waves.
In reality, the internet consists of hundreds of thousands of miles of underground cables that carry signals across the country. WiFi or cell phone towers only carry data for the very last part of the transmission.
Additionally, up to 97% of all intercontinental internet traffic passes through underwater cables. Just the underwater cables add up to 550,000 miles of cables that require tedious maintenance to stay in working order. Your local government or a company like Google Fiber maintain the last mile cable to your home or place of business.
These cables deliver data into and out of large data centers, like the Switch SuperNAP in Las Vegas that occupies a 3.5 million square foot warehouse or the 6.3 million square foot data center in Langfang, China.
Just like how a tree can fall on a limb and knock out the internet near your home, a natural disaster or attack to any of these cables can cause communication outages on a massive scale. And if you have experienced an outage yourself, you know the feeling of helplessness while waiting on a bureaucrat or big tech support team to fix the issue.
For example, when Hurricane Katrina hit the American South in 2005, it caused a massive communications blackout leaving citizens stranded in disaster zones. And there wasn’t time to wait on cell phone and internet companies to go in and repair cables and towers.
That’s when volunteer ham radio operators mobilized around the country and executed dozens of search and rescue missions, assisting the Coast Guard and other organizations like the Red Cross in saving lives in Louisiana and Mississippi.
We saw a very similar situation with Hurricane Maria in 2017, when nearly all public communication systems were wiped out for the entire island of Puerto Rico. Amateur radio operators answered the call of the Red Cross to help establish communications needed to get critical, lifesaving resources like food, water, and medicine as well as coordinate rescue missions. These amateur radio heroes worked from their homes in the United States or even traveled to the island to help with local communications operations.
Similar outages have been caused by wildfires in California, earthquakes around the world, and a litany of other natural disasters.
But this is only half the story, the hardware infrastructure. The internet also relies on software infrastructure to relay information, which is an additional point where communications can fail.
Software Infrastructure: How communication can fail due to hacking, bugs, and other software failures
With how many hands touch the data in transit, it’s completely reasonable to question how these companies deliver your information from point A to point B and how that information is protected in transit.
The Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, is the government agency responsible for holding these companies accountable for managing the internet, as well as amateur radio. Currently, the FCC offers partial enforcement of a free and open internet. There has been much debate over implementing a more sweeping net neutrality, which would treat internet traffic as an essential utility like electricity and not allow any manipulation of the traffic. But further regulation has cons as well, and could cause even more problems.
So as it stands, the internet is not a “neutral” place. In order to send and receive data from the websites you visit, or send messages via cell towers or internet to friends/family, your data must pass through software systems owned by big tech companies like AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, Google, and others. In addition, if you are using a social network like Facebook or Twitter, they have their own software that controls how messages are routed.
Amateur radio is not going to replace a social network anytime soon (interesting idea) – but amateur radio operators at least have the ability to communicate without dependence on Internet Service Providers or social media networks.
Communications systems are also vulnerable to hacking. When hackers are able to gain access and run malicious code like the hackers who successfully took out the power grid in the Ukraine in 2016 with malware known as BlackEnergy, which then caused a ripple effect of transportation and communication failures.
And sometimes it’s just good old fashioned incompetence and human error that causes massive communications outages. An innocent employee could make a mistake that could cause a blackout, as occurred in the Northeast black out 2003 when a software bug in the alarm system control room of FirstEnergy in Ohio caused a 3,500 megawatt power surge to wipe out communications from the Midwest into Canada almost completely for several hours.
More recently in November of 2020, Amazon Web Services suffered a major outage that affected 23 geographic regions for hours due to unintentional software issues.
There are also phenomena like mass call events, or MCEs, when an extraordinarily high volume of telephone calls are attempted simultaneously in the same area, that can overwhelm the network software and lead to complete or partial cellular outages.
If you had been in New York City during the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, or in Boston during the Boston Marathon in 2013, you would have likely found it impossible to use a cell phone to contact anyone. So many individuals were trying to use their phones simultaneously, that the networks failed. That’s when volunteers, First Responders, police departments, fire and EMS all moved to Ultra High Frequency (UHF) and Very High Frequency (VHF) channels, such as those used in amateur radio, to coordinate emergency response efforts.
All of this is not to say that the Internet is terrible and you should never use it. Quite the contrary. What it does mean is that every American citizen should be informed about the risks and not be dependent on the government and private interests to deliver messages to your friends and family.
A direct line of communication in case of emergency
With ham radio, you own the hardware AND the software, which gives you a direct line of communication when needed in case of an emergency. Important caveat – amateur radio is regulated by the FCC, so you still have to get your license and follow all the rules while using amateur radio!
The only hardware required to transmit and receive on amateur radio are:
- Power source – which can easily be disconnected from the grid, via battery or generator power, even solar
- Transmitter/receiver – often combined into a single “transceiver”. This is the electronic unit responsible for handling messages
- Antenna – the device responsible for transforming electrical signals into electromagnetic waves to transmit and receive signals.
There are a wide variety of combinations of types of antennas, modes of communication, and bands that amateur radio operators use, which is beyond the scope of this piece. Many operators start with a simple handheld like a Baofeng UV-5R, which is great for local communications, and then move into High Frequency (HF) for longer range communications. To communicate via HF over long distances, you will probably need to get the Level 2 of the license (General License).
Amateur radio is the one of the best lifelong hobbies you can have
If you decide to study and pass your amateur radio license exam, you’ll find quickly that there is a large community of amateur radio operators who are active talk groups. Among the most popular hobbies:
- Off-Roading – Amateur radio is the go-to choice for off-roaders because it provides communications when cell phone service may not be available.
- Aviation – Many pilots / aviation enthusiasts receive their amateur radio licenses to extend their radio skills to ground communications.
- Hiking/ hunting/ outdoorsman – Amateur radio is the communication method of choice for outdoor enthusiasts who may be “off the grid” because of its reliability and long range.
- Amateur radio hobbyists – This is a broad category – but amateur radio hobbyists include those who build custom radio hardware/software, DXing (talking to distant stations), amateur radio competitions, and more.
You can use your amateur radio license to volunteer and assist during an emergency
Even beyond protecting yourself and your family, once you receive your amateur radio license, you will have the opportunity to help others, even from your own home, during a communication outage. Communication is one of the most valuable skills for any emergency response team.
The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) created by FEMA encourages their members to get certified in amateur radio. As a licensed amateur radio operator, you immediately become a value add to your local CERT team.
The Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES)
Amateur radio operators are invaluable for local emergency response teams or can join amateur radio emergency groups like RACES and ARES to contribute back to their communities.
Learn a new skill to add to your resume
Learning a new skill like amateur radio can unlock unused areas of the brain and help with longevity and alertness. Quite literally, learning ham radio is like food for your brain, as was proven in the study conducted by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), titled “Learning Morse Code Alters Microstructural Properties [of the brain]”
This study took a group of 16 subjects and monitored their brains while they studied Morse code, just one of many aspects of amateur radio. And the results are astounding. They reported that learning Morse code led to “higher cognitive (and language related)…pathways that connect regions within this network [and] show learning related changes in terms of white matter plasticity.” In other words, simply learning Morse Code, can increase learning abilities in the same ways as mastering a language or a new instrument.
For the younger generation, amateur radio is a great learning tool for STEM education and can be a pathway to careers in electrical engineering, communications, or computer science. For those who have already started their careers, many of the skills you learn while studying for your amateur radio license are transferable to career skills. The knowledge of electronics, antennas, and radio propagation could be valuable launching points to a career in:
- Electrical engineering / circuit design
- Consumer electronics
- Computer science
- Broadcast radio or television
- Medical technology such as X-Rays or MRI technicians
- Space exploration and technology
- Cell phone tower network design, assembly and repair
Amateur radio education is also extremely affordable on a budget. While comparable education programs can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, you can study for and get certified with your amateur radio license all for less than $50. With the low cost involved, the return on investment you will get when investing in your own amateur radio education makes it a no-brainer.
Remember! A license is required to transmit
It’s important to remember that you can’t enjoy any of these benefits if you don’t pass the exam and get your license.
You may be asking yourself – “Can’t I just pick up a pair of walkie-talkies and call it a day?” Well, it wouldn’t be a bad first step. But walkie-talkies operate on what is known as Citizens Band (aka CB radio), which are frequencies allocated for use by American citizens without the need for a license. CB radio is short range and is extremely limited and is best suited for truckers or for kids playing in the woods.
Amateur radio is regulated in the United States by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). The specific part of the FCC guidelines that regulate amateur radio are called the Part 97 rules. If you transmit on amateur radio frequencies without a license or break the Part 97 rules, you could be subject to massive fines. For example, some individuals have been fined as much as $17,000 for intentional interference.
Certain groups online, especially “prepper” groups, often try to argue against licensing or any regulation of amateur radio. They argue that in a true emergency situation, it doesn’t matter if you have a license or not. However, this argument falls apart for a few main reasons. For one, it is completely necessary that amateur radio is regulated to make sure that it is still usable by thousands of amateurs. Without rules and guidelines, then amateurs could interfere with military communication networks, cellular networks, WiFi networks and more, and the amateur radio bands could easily become unusable due to unregulated, high-powered transmissions by individuals with bad intentions.This could destroy amateur radio as we know it.
In a life or death situation, it is also important that you are able to use an amateur radio, and the only way to learn effectively is through getting your license and practicing. If a cellular network goes out, you aren’t going to be able to watch a YouTube video to learn how to operate a radio! You need to start planning ahead. While studying for your amateur radio license, you will learn the concepts you need to know to effectively use amateur radio. Then once you have your license, you can begin to practice transmitting and you will be able to take advantage of all the benefits of amateur radio.