Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Getting My Amateur Radio Ticket

I am a late bloomer so to speak. I have operated my ICOM M-710 SSB radio on my sailboat for several years. But it wasn't until late 2016 that I took the plunge to get my Amateur Radio ticket. Perhaps like many other people I was perhaps a bit intimidated by the morse code requirements for licensing. And, so rather than buckle down and learn morse code my interest in getting my ticket waned.

Today, there is no longer the requirement to be proficient in morse code. In 2003 international communities dropped the requirement for morse code, and in 2006 the FCC in America caught up to the rest of the world. Of course it was not without debate. I get it! I am an old software guy who once believed that programming computer games was a waste of time. (Boy, did I call that wrong or what?) But, in hindsight dropping the morse code proficiency opened the door to many more potential newcomers into the hobby; including myself.

Currently there are 3 Amateur Radio licenses or 'tickets.' There is the Technician class, the General class, and the Amateur Extra class. Today, the only real differences between the 3 licenses are the operating privileges within the allocated Amateur Radio frequency bands. For a description of each license see ARRL HAM Radio Licenses.

In order to pass the exam you must correctly answer 26 out of 35 questions for the technician exam. There are a few options to study for the exam such as instructor led classes, YouTube lectures, self-study books, and online practice exams. There are benefits and drawbacks to each approach and the value depends greatly on your commitment and learning style. I will be brutally honest here...for the most part, instructor led courses, books and many online resources are designed for one thing...to help you pass the exam by memorizing the answers. Passing the exam does not prepare you to operate the radio or go into depth on the how's and why's of radio operations.

And so, my journey began. I was a little impetuous and jumped right into exploring the online exams on the QRZ.com and the HAM Exam websites. Even without studying I answered about 50% of the questions correctly. Maybe it was just luck and a little commonsense. I decided to buy a book. The book essentially contained the question and the answer in bold letters. Then I looked at a few YouTube videos. Some were OK, some were similar to the book, and some...well...OK...let's move on.

In the end I sat down at the computer 2 times a day and took the practice exams on QRZ and HAM Exam websites. Within about 2 weeks I had pretty much memorized the answers to over 95% of the questions to the technician license and was passing the online exams with a >90% passing score. HAM Exam tracks progress really well, and shows you what percentage of the pool of all possible questions you could be asked. So, I felt pretty confident in my ability to correctly answer 26 out of 35 questions, and did so.

Even before passing the Technician exam I knew that I wanted at least a General license. The Technician class license is pretty limited especially on the bands I wanted to operate. So, I went back to QRZ and HAM Exam websites taking the practice exams and memorizing the questions and answers to the exam for the General license. As soon as my FCC call sign was issued I found the next available exam session and passed the General License exam with ease.

Here is a hint...many of the questions on the Technician exam are also on the General exam. It is possible, and some people do elect to take both exams in one sitting. Doing this will also save you $15. The test fee is per testing session, not per test taken.

Some people are against an approach of simply memorizing the answers on these exams. But, in all honesty...these exams are really just about memorizing bits of information. There is very little in the exams or in the study material that teaches you what a notch filter is, or what ALC is and how to set it properly. And in all seriousness, how often will a modern Amateur Radio operator need to convert picofarads to microfarads?

So my advice if you're interested in getting your ticket...

  1. Don't buy any equipment upfront! Focus on passing the exam first, not on comparing features to rigs, antennas, etc. you may or may not understand completely. I know...there is the impulse to get on the air as soon as you get your ticket...but patience will pay off in the long run and potentially save you lots of money.
  2. Take a class if it fits your schedule. I know I didn't go this route, but classes will help you build a network of peers in the hobby, possibly familiarize yourself with the makeup of the hosting club, and get you in touch with an 'elmer.' 
  3. Use online resources. Don't waste your money on "exam" or study guide type books. Everything in those books is available online for free.
  4. Practice the online exams. Take the online practice exams at least daily. When you are consistently passing the online exams by > 80% AND you have seen more than 90% of the total population of possible questions...go take the exam.
  5. Get your General ticket ASAP! Unless your only aspiration is to communicate on repeaters for local nets and such take the General exam at the same time as the Technician exam, or as soon as you feel comfortable with the exam questions.