Technical Articles

So You Still Have Your License but Haven’t Operated in Years: A Guide to Getting Back into the Hobby

One of the problems of writing an article like this is that Hams who have not been active for years probably don’t know about “OnAllBands” and won’t find this article. So I’m asking for your help. Please dig out that old club roster, find the Hams who have not been active, and email them the link to this article. If you don’t have an email address for them, print out a copy, jot down “www.onallbands.com” on it, and mail it to them. You might just make an old friend’s day and reawaken a dormant Ham.

To the inactive Hams out there, I would like to welcome you back on the air. It’s time to dust the cobwebs off that old equipment or acquire new gear to replace what you sold or gave away. Much about the hobby is still the same, but a few things have changed thanks to computerization, online activities, and other advances in the world of telecommunications. As you will notice, many of the changes involve three-letter Acronyms or Initialisms, such as DMR, SDR, and FT8.

VHF/UHF FM and Repeaters

Let’s start with 2M, 440 MHz, and your local repeaters. Most of the repeaters are still there, but you may find four big changes:

For more information on Digital FM, here are a few resources:

  • Repeaters are not as busy as they used to be, mainly due to cellphone use. Previously they were one of the only ways to keep in touch with other Hams when we were out of the house or in the car.
  • Most repeaters no longer have Autopatch. This connection to a phone line allowed us to phone home via the repeater to non-Ham family or friends. Again, you can thank cell phones for this.
  • Some repeaters have switched from analog to Digital FM or added digital to existing analog setups. D-STAR, DMR, C4FM, and other digital protocols have become very popular. These systems allow repeaters around the world to be linked, so that VK4ABCD callsign from Australia you heard on the local 2M repeater was real!
  • EchoLink uses VoIP (Voice Over IP) and allows voice QSOs between Hams. When coupled with a repeater, it allows operators from around the world to access and use a local repeater. EchoLink operates in one of two modes. In Single User mode, EchoLink provides point-to-point communications over the Internet between two Hams using computers. In Sysop mode, a VHF or UHF radio is interfaced with the computer and used to connect to a local repeater, just as anyone using an HT or base station would.

Digital FM requires radios that have these modes. You cannot simply use that old

IC-02AT HT in your junk drawer. DX Engineering has a variety of VHF/UHF handhelds, mobile radios, and base stations capable of operating D-STAR, C4FM, and DMR. Another option is to use a “hot spot” to connect your analog HT, via the Internet, to these modes. Here’s a video on hot spots from Ken, KA8ODA: Establishing Hot Spots for Your D-STAR Radio.

HF Bands

A returning Ham will find many familiar signals and types of operation on the HF bands. You’ll also find major changes, including these:

  • New Amateur Radio bands: Depending on how long you have been off the air, the so-called WARC bands, on 30, 17, and 12M, might be new to you. Same goes for allocations at 60M (5.3 MHz), 2,200 meters (135 kHz), and 630M (472 kHz). For the complete rundown of all Amateur Radio allocations, visit the ARRL Graphical Frequency Allocations page.
  • New modes by the dozens: Often called Digital Sound Card Modes (DSCM), many new modes have been developed for HF bands. These include PSK, PACTOR, CLOVER, HELLSCHREIBER, JT65, and more. These modes require a computer to both modulate and demodulate the signals on the radio.
  • Two of these modes have become dominant. FT8 and FT4, part of the WSJT-X suite, are giving CW and SSB a run for many Ham’s total on-air time. The big advantage of these modes is the ability to make contacts with very weak signal levels. This means that bands that seem dead can now support contacts. Hams with suboptimal antennas, such as those facing homeowner restrictions or other impediments, still have an opportunity to make contacts on HF bands. Here are three articles with details on FT8 and FT4:
  • With CW proficiency no longer required to get your license, you might think that Morse code transmissions have dwindled to a mere trickle. You would be wrong, as there are still lots of CW signals filling the bands. There are a few trends in CW, though, because many still using this mode or learning it seem to be focusing on:
    • Fewer rag-chew QSOs
    • Fewer slow-speed QSOs
    • More CW contesting entries
    • Trying to work that rare one for multiple modes
    • Using a keyboard to send CW
    • Taking advantage of technology for decoding CW, including multiple signals at one time with software like CW Skimmer
  • DX spots used to come via friends’ phone calls or packet-based DX clusters. Today, most spots come via Internet-based sources. Many CW and digital spots are actually collected automatically by receivers with software-based decoding. The Reverse Beacon Network and PSK Reporter are two examples of these. For more on spotting and propagation visit www.k8zt.com/propagation.

HF Radios

Radios for HF (and in many cases UHF/VHF) have had a few big changes in the last ten years.

  • Software Defined Radios (SDR): Whether they are run through an attached computer interface as in the Flex series or built into a stand-alone radio with buttons and knobs, as with the extremely popular ICOM 7300, SDRs have drastically changed radio technology.
  • Many of today’s transceivers feature multicolor LCD displays that include band scopes. Also known as spectrum scopes or waterfall displays, band scopes allow you to see signals on adjacent frequencies without moving your tuning knob.
  • Adjustable filtering is built into most new rigs. Previously there was a significant post-purchase cost associated with adding additional filters to your new radio.
  • Built-in sound cards: As explained above, Digital Sound Card Modes have become very popular. Manufacturers have responded by installing a sound card in the radio. This allows easy access to these modes with a simple USB cable between the radio and your computer. This single USB cable has replaced the older RS-232 or proprietary interfacing cables required to connect your radio to your computer.
  • Most HF radios include 6M and some even have 2M and 70cm.
  • Some radios now have built-in CW and/or RTTY decoding.

DX Engineering has a wide variety of HF Radios, from budget-minded to full-featured. Below is a table comparing some of the most popular rigs.

Activities to Try

As you get back on the air, it’s important to have support and resources when learning how to operate new modes or new equipment. I suggest a multi-pronged approach:

  • Join and attend your local Amateur Radio Club’s meetings. You can meet Hams using the new modes and equipment, get advice on purchasing new equipment, and find Elmers who can help with station setup or operation. To locate a local group, you can search for ARRL-affiliated clubs here.
  • Join the ARRL, the national organization for Amateur Radio in the U.S. One recent change is that members now have access to all four of ARRL’s major publications—QST Magazine, On the Air (publication for new Hams), QEX, and National Contest Journal.
  • If you are interested in specific areas of Amateur Radio, consider joining a special interest club. There are groups for DXing, Contesting, VHF, QRP, and other branches of the hobby that can provide support for these activities.
  • Get in the know by plugging into Amateur Radio News—“Keeping Up with Amateur Radio News and Events.

On-air activities to try:

  • New modes: FT8 and FT4 are good candidates, especially if you have a limited antenna.
  • Try a contest: State QSO Parties are great low-key contests for newer contesters. This year there is also a composite competition, the State QSO Party Challenge.
  • Get on HF and try to work all 50 states and 100 DX countries, even if you already have your WAS and DXCC awards. The challenge of doing it again (especially on a new band or mode) can be invigorating! Read “Top Secret: Techniques for Working 50 States and 100 Countries” for a little encouragement and some tips.

QSLing

Our last topic is QSLing. Traditionally, Hams have exchanged paper postcards acknowledging contacts with other stations. Many awards require these as proof for applicants. In the past, there were two ways to exchange cards—directly via mail or via the ARRL QSL Bureau. Logbook of The World (LoTW) from the ARRL is an online paperless QSLing system. Another system is eQSL. In addition, many DX stations are accepting a hybrid type of QSL exchange called OQRS. For more information on all of these QSLing changes and more, read “QSLing in an Online World.”

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