HAM Radio 101 / Technical Articles

CB Versus Ham Radio: Three Reasons They Aren’t the Same

1. Licensing or Lack Thereof

Ham Radio requires operators to be licensed. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for regulating the airwaves. Without a license, you do not have  the authority to transmit on Amateur Radio frequencies.

Hams are privy to three licensing certifications that are obtained with progressive testing that evaluates understanding of radio regulations, principles of radio theory, and how to operate on a wide range of frequencies without causing interference to other radio users or electronics.

The certifications are Technician class, General class, and Amateur Extra class and are designed to increase in difficulty as Hams advance. Leveling up in licensure can be a demanding undertaking, but the end result is access to a wider range of frequencies and more opportunities to make long-distance contacts.

Dissimilarly, CB or Citizen’s Band Radio, requires no testing or certification. Instead, CB radio provides a readily usable mode of communication for the general public to use at will. It’s loosely regulated by the government and only requires licensing for those interested in operating a station. Anyone, regardless of age or experience, can pick up the hobby—and there’s no need to stress about testing—that is, unless you’re a foreign government, representative of a foreign government, federal government agency, or the bearer of a current FCC cease-and-desist order. But for the average Joe, the hobby is virtually hassle free.

2. Battle of the Bands

When it comes to hardware, Ham Radio is hard to beat. CB radios are limited by law to operate at low power (4 watts on AM, or 12 watts on SSB), with 40 channelized frequencies for use on the 11-meter band. By comparison, Hams have power capabilities ranging from a few watts to 1,500 watts—which is a pretty big deal in terms of usage.

Power levels translate directly to range of use, enabling Ham radios to be used for global communication while CB radios are only able to transmit a few miles and are limited to voice communication on the 11-meter band.

Of course, with great power comes great responsibility, which is why Amateur Radio operators are required to obtain a license to operate. Worldwide communication is possible on many Ham Radio bands, with most HF bands using an extensive range of frequencies for contact instead of the channelized system of CB radio.

While CB radio is limited to local use, Ham Radio bands cover a broad spectrum of applications including AM, FM, SSB, CW, several types of digital transmissions, and even a slow scan TV mode. Ham Radio can also be used to communicate with astronauts and to relay signals from amateur satellites in planetary orbit. It can be a great asset during natural disasters to meet emergency communication needs, and the multitude of bands available to FCC- licensed operators is expansive compared to CB radio.

3. Modifications

Ham pundits will be quick to tell you that unlike CB radio, there’s more to Amateur Radio than chewing the rag. Many mechanically-minded Hams enjoy building just as much as making contact, and that’s something you just can’t get from a CB radio.

CB radio users are restricted from modifying their equipment. Failure to adhere to power limit regulations can lead to hefty fines from the FCC, confiscation of equipment, and even imprisonment. Since anyone, of any age, can pick up a CB radio and throw out a handle, usage limitations exist to keep the airwaves protected.

Hams, on the other hand, not only encourage enthusiasts to build and repair systems—they extol the pursuit with events like the FDIM Homebrew Contest and Show-N-Tell, reference books you can find at DX Engineering, and assembly kits with everything you need to start building your station.

But it’s not all fun and games. Amateur Radio is also used during natural disasters as a preferred method of communication to connect displaced persons with loved ones and to relay messages. In unpredictable outdoor environments it’s common for things to go awry, and when they do, having a handy Ham on your rescue team who can repair and rebuild damaged systems can save time—and lives.

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