Geeking out with O-Scopes and Ham Radio

I have been seriously geeking out lately. The majority of my videos over the past month or so have been about electronics:

In “Arduino or No? An Old Fogey’s Perspective,” I consider the relative merits of starting your kids out with the Arduino system vice starting them out with a basic electronics kit (this from someone who has failed to get his kids interested in his hobbies). In “Messing Around with the Hantek 6022BE PC-Based Oscilloscope,” I share my discovery that prices have come WAY down for entry into oscilloscope ownership, providing you’re willing to go the PC-based route. I followed that up with some ‘scope experimentation in Part 2 of that series, and since in Part 3 I decided to check out some inverter waveforms, I wound up paying a visit to the ‘ol Solar Shed. So, yes, much geekiness of late.

Just when I thought I my interest level might be peaking in this latest adventure in dilettantism, I happened, on a whim, to do some searching on “beginning ham radio.” It wasn’t entirely a whimsical move because, when searching the web on electronics topics, I often found myself directed to videos and websites related to ham radio. The two pursuits just go together naturally–many of the old hams built their own equipment.

Now, since I was a kid, I’ve always thought that ham radio would be a hoot, but two barriers stood in the way of its pursuit:

  • First, you used to have to learn Morse Code to get a license.
  • Second, you used to need thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment to get started.

The first barrier dropped ten years ago: Morse Code is no longer a requirement for an amateur license. I knew that. Now I began to wonder whether, in a world of $60 oscilloscopes, that second barrier might have fallen. Thus my “whimsical” internet search.

As you may have guessed, the answer is, “Yes, it has.” But I doubt you would predict just how low the price for an entry-level amateur radio has dropped.

How about $25?

Yeah, that second barrier has been pretty much obliterated.

The unit to which I’m referring is the Baofeng UV-5R, and it has become the darling of entry-level amateurs, Doomsday preppers, and even some seasoned hams who like the idea of a cheap walk-around radio that, if dropped or dunked, will not make them cry.

No, you’re not going to reach around the globe with this little hand-held radio. But I’ll bet you can reach a few local repeaters. I’ve found five or six in my area.

Now, anyone can legally buy one of these radios and listen to their heart’s content. Just don’t transmit without first getting your license. Fear not, however, since getting the license is a piece of cake these days. Visit the website of the American Radio Relay League to get the ins-and-outs of testing: Where and when tests are being administered, plus links to study materials. The test costs $15 to take.

So let’s look at the math: Today, for $40 ($25 radio plus $15 test cost), you can become a licensed and equipped amateur radio operator. Why would one NOT do it, assuming one had even the slightest bit of geekiness in their DNA?

One study guide that can be useful is the ARRL’s Ham Radio License Manual. To be honest, while waiting for the book to be delivered I found all the information contained within it elsewhere on the web, and in some instances the explanatory material found on the web was better than what I found in the book. So it is up to you whether the roughly $27 purchase price is worth having an actual, hold-it-in-your-hand, piece of reference material. I’m not too sad that I have my copy, and I’ll be lending it to my mom when we take the course together.

Yep, even though I successfully crammed for and aced the most recent local test, I plan to sit through the next course offering in order to learn the material more thoroughly and to encourage my mom’s participation. I’m looking forward to establishing a little family comms network. I’m honing my salesman skills to see if I can get more members of the clan to get licensed. Much of the motivation is “just for fun,” but I’m also thinking of scenarios like hurricanes (we’re due for a bad one) in which the other comms modalities might fail.

To sum up: With the barriers to entry as low as they are today, anyone with the slightest interest in electronics, communications, or preparedness ought to become a Ham operator. Do it!

Oh, and I posted a video saying pretty much the same thing here. 73!

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