Friday, November 2, 2018
Foundations of Amateur Radio
Get on air and make some noise ...
Get on air and make some noise is a phrase I use often to encourage amateurs to be active on-air and use the bands that are available to us.
One thing that's often glossed over is how to actually make that noise. It can be scary to make that first contact.
If you've got your radio installed, your antenna erected, your operating position set-up just right and you're ready to actually key your microphone, how do you do that and how do you get the attention of those around you?
First things first.
You need to establish if your radio is actually working as expected. If you're using a UHF or VHF radio, often the simplest way is to find a local repeater, key-up your radio and give your callsign. The result should be at least a carrier, a beep or a callsign in Morse-code. Some repeaters even have a voice ident, so you can hear that your action of keying the push-to-talk had an effect. If that isn't working, then there are lots of things you can troubleshoot, but that's for another day.
If you want to do the same on HF, unless you happen to be in a position that there is a repeater within propagation distance, generally only on the 6m and 10m bands, then you're essentially out of luck. There isn't a beep, or a carrier, or a voice-ident to be found. This means we have to solve the problem in a different way.
First of all, if you cannot hear any stations, the chances of someone hearing you are slim. So, the first thing to do is to check that the squelch on your radio is set to allow all signals to arrive at your speaker. Then find a band where it's noisy. When I say noisy, find one where there is lots of hiss. Generally speaking an open band, one where propagation is getting a signal to you, makes noise, lots of noise. There are exceptions to this, but for now, find the noise.
Depending on how you have your antenna set-up, you need to make sure that you're using the right antenna for the band you're using. Some antennas work on multiple bands, others only on one, it depends entirely on what you have got hanging off the end of your radio.
Once you've found the noisiest band, go hunting for beeps, as-in Morse-code beeps, or voices, or digital sounds. Find a signal, find evidence of activity. If you have multiple noisy bands, check them all.
You might recall that this is all dependent on the ionosphere, so depending on what's going on with the sun, things will change, sometimes within a minute, an hour, or weeks. Generally there is a difference between day and night and sunrise and sunset, so experiment.
Once you've found some activity, you need to find someone to talk to. If the voice you hear is weak, look for a strong one. The stronger the better. While this isn't universally true, it's a good starting experience. Every radio and antenna combination has a sweet spot on where you know that they can hear you, but you don't know yet what that sweet spot is, so trial and error is the way to go.
HF is not like the local repeater. The people on HF can be anywhere on the planet. They might be there for the first time, or for the third time that day having been on air for sixty years, it's hard to tell.
A good analogy is to think of a sport stadium with a hundred thousand people in it. There are people all around you and you're trying to make contact with one of them. You can pick their frequency, but they're likely to be talking to someone else. You might be interrupting a daily chat, a regular net, or happen upon a contest or a special event station. You don't know which one it is and sometimes you can't hear both sides of the conversation. So, before you key your microphone and make some noise, listen to what is going on.
Once you've figured out that the station you're hearing might be amenable to talking, wait for a break in the conversation, key your microphone and just say your callsign phonetically, once. If there's no break, that's a good indication that the other station doesn't want to talk to you, unless there is an endless stream of stations, in which case the going might be tough and you might be there for a while.
If the other station acknowledges your call, great, you just made contact. Confirm that you have their callsign and that they have yours, write it down with the time and frequency, then start with exchanging information, start with a signal report. In the beginning, less is more. Your first name and city is often more than enough.
All we're doing is establishing that we can talk to someone and that they can talk to us. Don't overdo it, get a feeling for what's going on.
Then do it again.
Before long you'll have some experience on how to get on air and make some noise and you can start learning about improving your skills, becoming familiar with your radio and being an active amateur.
Hopefully that wasn't so scary, and remember, every amateur had to make their first contact one day, even those who have been on-air for longer than you've been alive.