HAM Radio 101

What Does It Mean to be a Ham? An Overview of Rules, Regulations, and Responsibilities.

From its early days in the 1900s, Amateur Radio has grown to become a treasured and invaluable communication tool for men and women throughout the U.S. and around the world. More than just a beloved hobby, it has reliably served in times of disaster when other means of communications have failed. For many, their early interest in Ham Radio led to careers in science and the development of new technologies that have benefited us all.

The millions of modern-day Hams represent the full range of the hobby: contesters, EMCOMM and public service operators, rag-chewers, experimenters, and goodwill ambassadors, reaching out to fellow operators who may speak different languages but all understand what “73” means at the end of a transmission.  

One of the reasons Ham Radio has endured for more than 100 years and continues to thrive is because of our mutual understanding of the responsibilities we share as licensed operators. Let’s take a look at how some of these responsibilities took shape, how radio frequencies are assigned, the rights and restrictions of being a Ham Radio operator, and the importance of getting your license.

First Privileges: Below 200 Meters

Developed in the 1890s, wireless telegraphy was subject to little government regulation, which led some less-than-scrupulous amateur operators to interfere with Naval and other transmissions. Held in Berlin, the 1906 Radiotelegraph Convention called for countries to license their stations in an attempt to derail rogue operators. While the U.S. signed the treaty, it was not ratified by the Senate. The U.S. was told it would not be invited to the 1912 Radiotelegraph Convention in London unless it accepted the provisions of the 1906 conference. To comply, the Radio Act of 1912 went into effect December 13, 1912—the first legislation to require licenses of radio stations. Confirmation of the Act was further spurred by the sinking of the RMS Titanic, which highlighted the need to regulate radio transmissions. To the dismay of the growing number of amateur operators at the time, the Act restricted most stations to wavelengths below 200 meters.

From that point on, much of the history of Ham Radio is marked by the addition and subtraction of allowable frequencies, the changing of frequency privileges within licensing classes, and the struggle to fight for space on the air. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL), established in 1914, has been serving as Ham Radio’s strong legislative advocate for decades.

FCC’s Roll

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was created in 1934 to replace the Federal Radio Commission. In part, the FCC was established “for the purpose of the national defense” and “promoting safety of life and property through the use of wire and radio communications.”

Amateur Radio licensing is governed by the FCC. Over the years, the names and details of license classes have dramatically changed. Today, the three available licenses are Technician, General, and Amateur Extra. Grandfathered license classes are Novice, Advanced, and Technician Plus. To obtain an entry-level Technician license, General, or Amateur Extra, applicants must demonstrate an understanding of FCC regulations and radio operating principles by passing a multiple choice test. Each operating class affords the license holder specific, and progressively more expansive, band operating privileges:

  • Technician: full operating privileges on all amateur bands above 30 MHz and limited privileges in portions of the HF bands
  • General: privileges on portions of all amateur bands, with access to over 83% of all amateur HF bandwidth
  • Amateur Extra: privileges on all U.S. amateur bands.

You can view current licensing privileges here.

There are no age requirements to earn an Amateur Radio license. U.S. licenses are good for 10 years before renewal. Those seeking a Technician license or an upgrade to a higher class can benefit from up-to-date study guides, which include sample test questions. These comprehensive and easy-to-understand guides also make great refresher courses for Hams who have been out of the hobby for a number of years. If that applies to you, read this OnAllBands blog post, A Guide to Getting Back into the Hobby.

Once you have passed the test, the FCC will issue you a unique callsign, which is how you must identify yourself on the air when contacting or responding to another station. Amateurs are required by the FCC to transmit their assigned callsign at the end of each communication and at least every 10 minutes during a communication. For more details on proper Ham Radio practices and etiquette, check out these OnAllBands articles:

How are Amateur Radio Frequencies Assigned?

Allocation of frequencies is done globally by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an agency of the United Nations which oversees how much of the radio spectrum is assigned to Ham Radio operators. Each nation controls licensing of Hams in their respective countries. Allowable transmission modes (CW, RTTY, SSB, etc.) and frequency allocations will vary among countries and ITU regions. While requirements and privileges granted to license holders may be different from country to country, they generally follow the international regulations and standards established by the ITU and the World Radiocommunication Conference. World Radiocommunication Conferences are held every three or four years to review and revise radio regulations and the international treaty governing use of the radio frequency spectrum. They are set to meet again in 2023.

What types of Amateur Radio transmissions are prohibited by the FCC?

Under Section 97.113 of FCC rules, with some exceptions, stations may not transmit…

  • Communications for hire or for material compensation
  • Communications in which the station licensee or control operator has a pecuniary interest, including communications on behalf of an employer
  • Music using a phone emission
  • Communications intended to facilitate a criminal act
  • Obscene or indecent words or language
  • Messages in codes or ciphers intended to obscure the meaning thereof, except as provided for space telecommand
  • False or deceptive messages, signals, or identification
  • Communications, on a regular basis, which could reasonably be furnished alternatively through other radio services

Under Section 97.111 of FCC rules, Amateur Radio stations are permitted to send two-way transmissions in order to…

  • Exchange messages with other stations in the amateur service, except those in any country whose administration has notified the ITU that it objects to such communications. The FCC will issue public notices of current arrangements for international communications.
  • Meet essential communication needs and to facilitate relief actions
  • Exchange messages with a station in another FCC-regulated service while providing emergency communications
  • Exchange messages with a United States government station, necessary to providing communications in RACES (The Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service)
  • Exchange messages with a station in a service not regulated by the FCC, but authorized by the FCC to communicate with amateur stations. An amateur station may exchange messages with a participating United States military station during an Armed Forces Day Communications Test.

Allowable one-way transmissions include brief transmissions necessary to make adjustments to the station; brief transmissions necessary to establishing two-way communications with other stations; telecommand; transmissions necessary to providing emergency communications; transmissions necessary to assisting persons learning, or improving proficiency in, the international Morse code; transmissions necessary to disseminate information bulletins; and transmissions of telemetry.

For more details, check out these frequently asked questions from the FCC official website.

Why Do you Need a License?

First, it is the law. Sending transmissions using a Ham radio without a valid FCC license can be punishable by fine, confiscation of your radio equipment, and other penalties. Get the whole story by clicking on this link to Unauthorized Radio Operation from the FCC’s website.

Beyond this, getting a license tells your fellow operators that you’ve put in the work to earn the privilege of being called a Ham (unless you’ve simply memorized the entire test pool of questions—not a smart idea). It is important to know the rules, regulations, responsibilities, and best practices of safely operating a Ham radio before getting on the air and joining the community of operators. But getting a license is only the beginning. New Hams should seek guidance from a knowledgeable Elmer—an experienced operator and mentor—to help them set up their stations, begin to make QSOs (contacts), and adhere to respectful and lawful operating practices.

Have questions? You’ll find friendly support from our active team of Elmers and the gear you need to become a first-rate operator at DXEngineering.com.

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