By Louis E. Frenzel (W5LEF), Communications/Networking Editor
You would probably guess that an editor like me who covers wireless and all manner of communications subjects would be a ham. I have, in fact, been involved in amateur radio for most of my natural life. My first ticket was a novice license (WN5TOM) when I was 13 years old. And since then I have been on and off the air numerous times. Recently, after a major absence, I decided to reacquaint myself with this interesting hobby.
Luckily my Extra Class license was still good, so I could jump right in if only I had some equipment. My editorial colleague David Maliniak (AD2A), also a ham, tried to talk me into one of those popular Elecraft transceiver kits. I wasn’t ready for that, but I did go the kit route and bought a cheap receiver and transmitter from kit-maker Ramsey Electronics. The receiver is a direct-conversion type for 30 meters (10.108 MHz), a band I had never worked before. The transmitter put out about 1 watt, but I bought the accessory push-pull amplifier that boosted that power to about 20 watts. Using these kits and a simple half-wave dipole, I was back.
It has taken me a while to get my CW speed up to where it should be. I have listened a great deal, and that helps. But what really helps is to make some contacts and have real conversation. Overall, this initial experience was fun—building the kits and making some new contacts. But while this simple equipment works well, I wanted more. So my next step was to take the full plunge with a high-ticket transceiver.
I didn’t particularly want a kit. Earlier in my career I worked at Heath Company for eight years and built enough Heathkits to last me a life time. I wonder sometime if I didn’t actually get brain damaged from breathing too much rosin smoke from all the soldering. Probably not. Anyway, after looking at what was available and my budget, I selected a Yaesu FT-897D all-band transceiver. It’s a tiny thing that covers all the high-frequency ham bands from 80 to 10 meters and puts out 100 watts on CW and SSB. It also includes a section that provides coverage of the 2-meter and 70-cm ham bands. What a deal.
This transceiver is a great unit, but I must say that it has been challenging to learn its operation. In the Heathkit days, each transceiver had a full complement of front panel dials, switches, and readouts. It was easy to figure out what to do. The modern transceiver is fully controlled by an embedded processor that lets you do almost anything, including changing the LCD backlight color. But changing modes, bands, and doing other things that I used to do with a dial or switch requires that you know the special code and punch it in with tiny buttons. What a pain. Anyway, I am learning.
My next hurdle was the antenna. I had forgotten what a key requirement this is and what a total nuisance it is to build one and put it up. I finally bought a commercial G5RV antenna, which is a unique wire antenna that uses open-wire transmission line. It manages to be resonant on most of the regular ham bands because of their harmonic relationship to one another (3.5, 7, 14, 21, and 28 MHz). I mounted it low in my trees so as not to disturb the neighbors and get the local covenant police from the homeowners association on my case. It works okay, but I needed a tuner to operate on the 30-meter band. I got the automatic antenna tuner accessory from Yaesu. It’s an L-matching network with capacitors and inductors switched in and out automatically with relays to adjust for lowest SWR on the band of operation. Not bad and definitely worth the price. Anyway, I am having fun getting back to radio.
Reflecting on ham radio, I have to wonder why some of the newer wireless technologies have not been adopted within the hobby. There are so many better ways to communicate today, and these technologies are incorporated into our cell phones, wireless LANs, and other products. For example, it seems as though some form of spread spectrum (SS) would be a super technology for ham radio. With spectrum space so limited, SS would multiply the number of users in a given band. But the FCC rules and regulations prevent that. That is why ham radio is stuck in the olden days of wireless. It’s not that regulations can’t be changed, but it isn’t that easy.
The FCC does permit special modes like packet radio using a very narrowband scheme called PSK31. And it does permit hams to use TV. An even more challenging pursuit is communications through one of the available ham satellites. So there is enough there to keep the interest of technically minded individuals. But it is fun to contemplate what else might be possible. With the cell phone, CB radio, and the family radio service (FRS) providing numerous cheap and easy ways to communicate, it’s a wonder we have any hams left. But if you have ever experienced making a contact with a person on the other side of the world using a piece of equipment you built, you will understand the eureka thrill of it all.