Firstly, welcome to Amateur Radio!
I've been putting together a few thoughts over the last few days. I really hope to assist any and all of you to become active, competent radio operators. Last year showed us the need, now is the time to get ready. And have fun while doing it!
While getting your license is a necessary first step, learning to use your radio and getting to know the hams in your area is far more important. Otherwise when the time comes that you need to use the radio it will be about as useful as a paperweight. It isn't hard but it does take some practice. One of the great strengths of amateur radio is that it is decentralized. Individual stations maintain and practice with their equipment which means that unlike centralized communications infrastructure it can't be wiped out in a flash. It does mean that each station must keep themselves ready and able should the need arise. Many small pieces of knowledge and experience may make the difference between a successful communication and no communication at all. The only way to gain this knowledge and experience is to USE YOUR RADIO! However, it doesn't take constant use, even just once or twice a week for a few minutes will make a large difference. Put extra time in at first until you reach a level of proficiency and then use your radio regularly to maintain your skills.
As you learned while studying for the test, hams often use repeaters to extend the range of their transmissions. As a new ham these are great places to meet other hams and use your radio in a casual setting. Many hams monitor repeaters and so you can often find people to chat with. If you are listening and hear something like “KK6XXX mobile on county-wide” or “KK6XXX monitoring on the .82” feel free to respond to the station and have a conversation. Likewise, feel free to do the same to let people know that you are on the frequency and open to having a conversation. If you are testing a radio or location, ask for a radio check.
The county wide linked repeater system:
The Mendocino linked repeater system is an invaluable and important resource in case of an emergency or disaster. It consists of six repeaters in various locations that are all linked together. This means if you talk on any one of the repeaters it is almost instantly re-broadcast on the other five. This gives this system a very wide coverage area, including northern Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino and southern Humboldt counties. In case of a disaster or emergency, this is where official emergency traffic will be passed. The rest of the time it is open for hams to use. If all you have is a hand held radio, this is the most likely place for you to hear useful information in case of disaster or emergency. In general, limit casual conversation to 10-15 minutes or so on this system and be mindful that many stations in a very wide area can hear you. This outstanding linked repeater system is owned and maintained by WA6RQX.
There is a pair of linked repeaters out on the coast, the 147.03 and the 146.82. The .03 is located in Fort Bragg and the .82 up on Mathison Peak. Between the two we have excellent coverage on the coast. The .82 repeater covers most of highway 20 and 128 up to about Yorkville, as well as south along the coast to at least Point Arena. The .03 covers from about Caspar to past Cleone. This repeater pair is perfect for contacting other hams out here on the coast.
First and foremost, be polite and helpful. Foul language and poor behavior is not to be tolerated. Our local radio community is remarkably nice and it is rare to hear anything untoward. If you do, don't reply or confront the offender. Simply ignore them. Politics, religion and other controversial topics are not appropriate for the air. Especially on repeaters, be conscious of how widely your signal can be heard.
It is good operating practice to identify what frequency you are transmitting on. If another ham happens to hear your call but is not looking at their radio at that moment their radio may go back to scan mode before they can see what frequency you are calling on. If that happens they won't know what frequency to answer you on. Let's say you are trying to call your friend, KK6XXX. Listen on the frequency you want to use for a minute to make sure that no other stations are using the frequency. Push the press to talk (PTT) button and say something like “KK6XXX, this is KK6YYY calling on 146.82”.
When operating on a repeater it is important to wait for a moment after pushing the PTT before beginning to talk, This allows the repeater to receive your signal and activate its own transmitter. If you do not, the first syllable or word of your transmission will be cut off. On a linked repeater system such as the county wide system it takes a full second for all of the repeaters in the system to respond.
Nets are on air meetings of hams. They are oriented towards various purposes and present a great opportunity to use your radio. Equally important, they are a way for you to get to know the other hams in the area and become familiar with their voices and station capabilities. Nets are usually officiated by one station, known as “net control”. This station directs the traffic on the net so that it doesn't descend into chaos. Some nets are more formal (emergency nets for example) and others are quite relaxed (local simplex nets for example).
Most nets start with an announcement of some sort by the net control station. This will generally have some information on the net's purpose and any information needed to participate. If it makes you feel more comfortable, you can always listen to some nets without participating and get an idea of how the net works. In any case, don't be afraid of making mistakes. Everyone will be glad to have you there regardless and you will get the hang of how it works quickly enough.
Repeater nets and Simplex nets:
As the name implies, repeater nets are conducted through repeaters which means they are generally heard in a fairly wide area. In the case of linked repeater systems the area covered can be quite wide.
Many areas have what are called “simplex” nets. Simplex means that no repeaters are involved, just one radio to another. Simplex nets are quite important for emergency preparedness as well as getting to know the other local hams. Repeaters can be occupied with emergency traffic or can even go down in a disaster. When all else fails you always have simplex. When operating simplex it is a good idea to have your squelch set low and your output power set to high. This will allow you to hear weak signals as best you can and give other stations their best chance to hear you.
Simplex nets can require a little patience as you will likely not be able to hear all stations and so there will be periods of silence. It can be easy to become frustrated and turn your radio off. However if you stick with it you will begin to create a mental map of where your station can reach, invaluable knowledge in case of an emergency. If you are not hearing the net control station or they cannot hear you, call “relay” or give your call sign occasionally until another station picks you up and relays you in to net control.
Many areas have a local simplex net. Here on the coast we have the North Coast Simplex net, Wednesday evening at 7pm on 146.55. It is usually run as a “round table” net, which means that the net control will take check ins and then run through the list of stations and give everyone a chance to say hello. This is a good place to get to know the locals or ask for help and advice. It is a very casual net and so is a great place to get your feet wet.
The MCARCS county wide net:
This net takes place on Wednesday evenings, starting at 7:30 PM. You can use any of the county wide linked repeaters to listen and check in. This net is generally oriented towards emergency preparedness but it is also used to tie all of the local nets together and for announcements of general interest to hams in the area. After opening the net the control operator will ask for the weekly check in totals from the various nets. After that the net control will take check ins from individual stations. Feel free to check in when your call sign suffix is called.
Monday Noon Net:
This net is held on the 146.82 and the 147.03 on Mondays at 12PM. The 145.13 repeaters is also called, although it is not linked to the other repeaters. This net is a check in net for all amateur operators although many of the participants are from the Coast.
Meets on the county wide system on Tuesdays at 7PM. This is a great place to ask technical questions related to amateur radio.
The YL net:
This net is for female operators only and meets on Thursday evening at 7PM on the country wide system. The term YL stands for "young lady". While it is a quite outdated term it is used as a nod to the past and is meant respectfully. This net is a wide ranging conversation on all sorts of topics.
The Swap Net:
As the name implies, this net is a great place to look for and sell amateur radio gear. The swap net meets on the county wide system around 7:30PM on Thursday after the YL net wraps up. It is also a good place to ask for advice or help.
This is a wide area simplex net operating on a frequency of 145.555, starting at 8PM on Wednesday evenings. This net, like all simplex nets, can require a little patience as you may not hear all or even most of the stations. However, it is a great place to learn what areas and stations you can hear and will teach you much about propagation and good operating practices. As well, if you can listen to UHF you may be able to hear many of the stations using a repeater usually referred to as "the remote" The frequency for the remote is 433.175.
Radios, Antennas and setting up your first station:
It is a legal requirement that every new ham agonizes over which radio to purchase for their first station. It is mandated that a new ham spend at least 10 hours researching and debating the various qualities and defects of different radios before finally making a purchase. The time between ordering and receiving your radio should be spent having second thoughts and bouts of buyer's remorse. However, it is up to the individual ham whether or not to agonize over subsequent radio purchases, although it is generally considered good practice.
OK, seriously. Much of the following is my personal opinion. It is important to consider what your goals are in ham radio. For example, you may just want to be able to listen and get information during a disaster. Or you may want to be able to assist your community in times of need. Maybe you often drive through or are in areas that have no cell phone coverage and you'd like to be able to get some help. Or perhaps like me you are a boondocker and like to get out in the middle of nowhere.
VHF and UHF:
Out here on the coast and in most rural areas there is very little UHF activity. This is because UHF does not travel as far as VHF. Out here in the sticks since we often have long distance we want to cover, VHF is most commonly used. In an urban environment with lots of buildings, UHF can sometimes propagate better as the higher frequency radio waves can scatter and reflect more easily. I am not aware of any UHF disaster/emergency resources in our area. So it is possible to keep costs down by selecting a radio with VHF only. I run a VHF only radio in my car and have never regretted not having UHF.
Many hams start with a hand held radio, sometimes called a "handy talkie" or HT. These are a great place to start and will continue to be useful even if you upgrade your equipment. With the correct adapter HT's can be connected to an external antenna that will greatly increase your range. However, your output power will still be limited. Still, as a bare-bones station, an HT and an external antenna can work.
Another option is a mobile only set up. Mobile radios have generally 10X the output power of an HT and even the most humble of mobile antennas is better than the one on an HT. It also is available when on the road. As most of us are usually close to the car it is likely to be nearby and the battery charged when needed. Installing a radio in a car can take a little work to do properly and the coax for the antenna either needs to be snuck out a window or a hole or two drilled in the car. It is also possible to connect an HT to a mobile antenna.
Yet another option is a home station. Typically a mobile radio with a 12V power supply or battery is used. Not only do you have the output power of the mobile but you can put up an antenna that will substantially increase your coverage. A very common arrangement is to attach an antenna to the eve or high point of your house and feed the coax in through a window.
To me, antennas are one of the most interesting aspects of amateur radio. They are of course essential as even the best radio hears nothing without them. A properly made and placed antenna is the single best investment you can make.
For an HT, I like a Nagoya NA-771. They are a little long and ungainly though and like to tip over your radio when you try to set it down. They are an improvement however.
For mobile, there are mag mount antennas which are handy because they require no permanent installation and can be quickly placed on the roof of your car and the coax fed through a window. They are not as effective an antenna as something like a Larsen 2/70 but do not require drilling a hole in the car. There are also various brackets and other possible mounting configurations depending on the vehicle.
For home use, a good working and fun to build antenna is the j-pole, also sometimes called a “copper cactus”. This is because they can easily be made from copper pipe and fittings from the hardware store for about $40. There has been some interest expressed in getting a group build together, so please let me know if you might like to participate. A step up from the j-pole is something like a Diamond X-50 which costs about $100 and comes ready to install and use.
The upcoming VHF radio email system:
As you will recall, last fall during the fires there was a failure of the cell phone and internet systems even though the fire was geographically fairly far from us. We have been working on a local email and cell phone text messaging system that would have remained functional. We have the first gateways up and are working on testing the system and adding a digipeater (a digital radio repeater) to increase coverage area. If you would be possibly interested in being able to access the system when it is fully functional, please let me know.
OK, this got away from me and got longer than I had intended. If you have made it this far and are still awake, feel free to ask questions! If you care to make the trek to Albion you are welcome to come and check out my station.
Jonathan - KK6RPX