This article was also posted on the San Mateo Radio Club monthly news letter.
In California, the majority of new hams come from an EmComm1 group. In this article, I am not going to talk about EmComm. It is a vast subject and your EmComm group is better suited to talk about all the things you can do in that area. I am going to talk about what else you can do with your tech license.
With your tech license, you can use a Walkie-Talkie2 to speak to your neighbor on the other side of your yard fence. You can also use a fancier radio and antenna to talk to someone on the other side of the earth by bouncing your signal on the moon3, and you can do everything in between.
I am going to focus more on what you can do as a beginner in the hobby and leave the EME3 for another article.
When it comes to buying a radio, the advice I always give to newcomers is to not spend too much money on a first radio, but to buy an HT that is capable of working FM and digital. An increasing number of hams are switching to digital. As of now, more than two-thirds of my activity on VHF/UHF is digital. A radio capable of working analog and digital will broaden your horizons as soon as you feel comfortable with local communications.
In the beginning, avoid getting a DMR radio if possible. The DMR radios come from the professional world and can be complex to program, especially for a beginner. You often need to reprogram the entire transceiver to go on a new repeater or a new frequency. Also, these radios are specialized and are built to operate mainly in DMR mode, and they don't make the best analog FM radios.
Now that you have your new HT, you will want to make a QSO4. In the beginning, the easiest way is to find a nice repeater with friendly people and to listen in. After a while, you get a feel for how people talk on that repeater. Once you understand how things work, make your call. The ARRL website has an excellent web page on how to make your first contact. You can also look at the article Ham radio Jargon for Beginner.
On a repeater, if you don't have to call CQ, you can say something like "This is [your-call] listening", or "This is [your-call] monitoring". It is repeater parlance to say that you are ready to talk. Someone will come back by giving you their call sign to start the conversation. If you don't know what to talk about, remember that you are both hams so you already share the same hobby. Ask about what radio they currently use, when they were licensed. ... Ham radio operators love to talk about their gear and their experience. During your QSO, don't forget to throw your call sign at regular intervals (every 10 minutes). You also need to give your call sign at the end of the QSO as required by the FCC.
It is ok to make mistakes, the people you will find on a repeater are forgiving. If you say you are new to the hobby, they will welcome you and give you bits of advice on how to operate.
The Win System has a helpful page explaining how to make a QSO on their repeaters. This is useful advice you can apply to any QSO you make on a repeater.
On weekends, you can listen to the 2-meter frequency of 146.520 MHz. It is the national call frequency for the USA5. Here you will hear the people doing SOTA activations. SOTA is a ham radio operator who likes to operate their radio while hiking. They go on top of a mountain and earn points for making calls from a mountain top. The higher and inaccessible a summit is, the higher the points rewarded.
You can be a SOTA activator by climbing on a top of a hill or mountain or a SOTA chaser by contacting SOTA activators. Visit the SOTA website to learn more about it.
The national call frequency is not exclusively used by SOTA activators. If you are patient, you will hear someone calling on that frequency. Also, don't hesitate to call CQ and give your callsign. In a place with high population density like the bay area, chances are someone will talk to you.
Your EmComm group has probably provided you with a list of interesting repeaters in your area. Don't hesitate to give your call sign to any repeater outside your EmComm activities. These activities usually have a specific format, talking to random hams outside the framework of the exercises will help you practice your radio skills, get better and more efficient.
Here is a list of repeaters for the bay-area that I find appealing, either because of the people on them or because of how they are setup. This list is not exhaustive and you can always look at the online repeater book to find repeaters close to where you live.
145.230 MHz, Offset -0.6 MHz, PL 100.0, located next to the Stanford dish, this repeater has good coverage of the bay. It is probably the most active repeater in the region. Every morning on weekdays, from 9 AM to sometimes noon, you can listen in and check the 9 AM Talk Net. This Net has no topics and any ham can call to get help with any computer or radio-related issues.
145.390 MHz, Offset -0.6, PL 100.0, The Bay-Net group is interesting because of its excellent coverage of the entire bay area. They have two repeater sites, one on the north of the east bay, the second one on Black Mountain behind Palo Alto. The two sites are linked and are accessible on 2-meter and .70cm. WW6BAY has a coverage from Marin County to the north to Morgan Hill to the south. Bay-Net also offers digital repeaters for D-Star, DMR, and Yaesu Fusion, allowing you to talk to the world.
CARLA6 is a network of repeaters providing coverage across California and Western Nevada. Carla is interesting because it has two ways to access the repeater. When you access the repeater with a particular PL tone, you are only talking on your local repeater. When you use the second PL tone, all the repeaters within the network get linked together and you can speak with hams throughout California. I often use that repeater network to talk to a friend in Orange County.
Carla is also a great technological achievement because the repeaters are linked using radio links. You can find more information on the location, frequencies, and PL tomes for each repeater on the Carla radio website.
The Win System K6JSI
442.900 MHz, Offset +5000, PL 162.2 The Win System7 is the oldest network of interconnected repeaters and probably the biggest one. They have over a hundred linked repeaters throughout the United States and other counties. When you use one of their repeaters, you can have a QSO with someone in California, but also in Florida, Canada, Australia, UK, etc. If you are a night owl, you can also check out the Insomniac Trivia Net, which starts at 11 PM and goes on well after midnight. This Net has been around for thirty-eight years and runs every day, even on Christmas and New Year's eve.
If your radio is capable of working one of the digital modes, you can consult the online repeater book to find the list of digital repeaters in the bay area. These repeaters allow you to make contacts locally or connect to a specific room where you can meet people who share the same interests as you. Usually, rooms have topics. The topic can be a country, region, specific location, a club, or any subject —for example, San Francisco Bay, or Italy, QuadNet, or AmSat for amateur satellites.
I have written another article titled: Going digital with the FT-70D. It will help you learn how to go on digital networks with your Yaesu Fusion Radio.
As of now, the most popular digital modes are: D-Star, DMR, and Yeasu Fusion.
Ham Radio Nets
A ham Net is a gathering of amateur radio operators. Most Nets meet on a regular schedule and a specific repeater. They organize around a common purpose, such as relaying messages, discussing a particular topic of interest, or as a regular gathering of friends for conversation.
Most of the repeaters have a website with the schedule of their Nets. On some Nets, you just check-in. Others are more conversational. For example, the WinSystem hosts a TechNet every Friday at 19:00 PST, where a handful of RF engineers will answer your questions. By just listening to the Net, you will learn a lot about how to operate, configure your radio, or set up your antenna.
Over the last forty years, the ham radio community has launched more than seventy Amateur Radio Satellites. These satellites can be used by ham radio operators to make long-distance contacts and get pictures from space or telemetry. Any ham with a tech license can use these satellites to make contacts.
For contacting some satellites, you will need a more expensive radio that is capable of operating in SSB8. Some satellites have a repeater that allows you to make FM contacts. AO-91 is one of the easiest satellites to work with a cheap HT radio. In the right conditions, I have made a couple of QSOs using the rubber duck antenna of my HT. You should consider buying or building a small yagi antenna. It will improve your ability to make contacts with one of these birds.
These satellites are in low orbit. Each pass lasts for about 10 minutes. To make a QSO, you need to operate quickly. And since you are not the only one who wants to make a contact, don't expect to have a long conversation.
When you make a QSO on a satellite, you only exchange your call sign and the Maidenhead grid square locator. You will find what your location is online. There are also iPhone or Android apps that will use your phone's GPS to provide your current Maidenhead grid locator. These applications are useful for satellite, mobile operation, and also for SOTA activations.
Before you can make a QSO using a satellite, you need to predict when a satellite will be above your head. To do that, look at the N2YO website. This website tracks hundreds of birds and gives you their position in real-time. This website can even send you an SMS or an email a few minutes before the satellite of your choice is above you.
50 MHz and above contests
Twice a year, the ARRL organize a VHF/UHF contest. The goal is to work as many amateur stations in as many different Maidenhead grid squares as possible. All legal modes are permitted. FM-Only has been gaining popularity in the last few years.
Hang out around the national call frequency 146.520 MHz for VHF and 440.000 MHz for UHF and try to make as many contacts as possible. During contests, you need to give your call sign, your signal report, and the exchange. The exchange for that contest is your Maidenhead grid square locator.
The ARRL VHF/UHF contest is popular, easy, and laid back. It is an excellent opportunity for a new ham to experience radiosport with a simple HT. Investing or building a better antenna will also give you an advantage. A j-pole or a ground plane antenna on top of a painter's pole or a tree will work wonders.
This article is a quick overview of things you can do with your Tech license. Ham radio touches a lot of subjects from emergency communication, analog or digital communication, packet, to satellite communications. The common denominator in all of that is communication. Once in a while, pick your radio, press on the PTT, give your call sign and say, " I just want to wish everyone a good day". Someone will come back to you with good wishes and you might make a new friend.
Emergency Communication ↩
From now on, you need to call it a handheld radio or HT ↩
Earth-Moon-Earth: Bouncing radio signal on the surface of the moon ↩↩
A radio contact is called a QSO ↩
This frequency is a radio frequency that is widely accepted and understood to be a place to start communicating with other hams. ↩
California Amateur Radio Linking Association ↩
Western Intertie Network ↩
Single Side Band ↩