Saturday, November 19, 2011

Amateur Radio is Contagious

A little over a week ago I stopped in at a local Radio Shack to pick up some connectors. My supply of 1/8" phono connectors was running low, I keep some on hand for off-the-cuff projects and I'd recently pulled out the last one and used it.

While I was getting rung up, I chatted with the fellow behind the counter. He was another electronics enthusiast, and we shared our laments over Radio Shack's diminished stock of electronic components for hobbyists. He mentioned that he's a ham as well, and commented on how easy it is to get a license these days.

Well, that got me to thinking. So I had a look online. No Morse code requirements at any level, plenty of tests nearby on a regular basis. I wondered how I might do on a test. So, just for the heck of it, I found an online practice test and took it at Technician level (the lowest level.)

I passed!

How about that? So I tried the next level up. A General class license test. I passed that, too. But I missed a few more questions. Fortunately the test was pretty generous about how many questions you can miss. What next? Well, there's the highest level test. Amateur Extra class.

It's just an online test, what have I got to lose?

Apparently nothing. I dove in. This one was more difficult, but I was getting lots of questions on areas I'm already pretty good at, like video and amplifier circuits.

I passed it, too. Register shock and a little bit of horror at the back of the mind. I stared at the result at the bottom of the page saying "You Passed!" It didn't seem possible that maybe...maybe...I could get an Amateur Extra class license.

Well, life is busy and all that so I laid it aside for a day. But the results kept nagging at me. After another day I was back on, repeating the tests. I'd just gotten lucky, there's no way I could pass all three tests cold. So I tried again.

Extra-fail. Aha! I knew it. I missed One lousy question?

Where was I weakest? OK, operational procedures and rules and regs. No surprise. I'd just been making my best guesses all they way through those questions any way. How am I supposed to know what treaty does what or which part of what band I could send transmission X in? Some of the band questions weren't so bad--they'd ask something like "What part of the X meter band can you..." and only one of the frequencies listed in the answers were in that band. No problemo. But if they listed more than one frequency in the correct band it was "pin the tail on the donkey" time for me.

So I went out to the FCC website and pulled a copy of CFR, Part 97 and gave it a read. I got through about 1/3 before my forehead hit the keyboard (actually I'm pretty used to reading dry stuff, and it wasn't that bad. I just couldn't wait to try another practice test.)

Then I went back and tried the tests again. Tech: pass. General: pass. Extra: fail by one. Argh! Off to the ARRL website to look up information on current frequency allocations. I ran into a whole bunch of those questions on the last round of online tests.

Repeat: Pass, pass, and...pass! Woot!

But those scores weren't all that great. Let's work on that...
I've been studying in all my free time over the past several days. I picked up a book to make it go easier. The time it saved me in web searches alone made it worth the price:

Today, just over a week after a short stop for five dollars worth of parts at Radio Shack, I went in for the real test:
Certificate of Successful Completion of Exam, I passed all three exams at once!

I passed all three exams!

What I haven't mentioned is that this interest of mine started a long time ago:


  1. Mark, welcome to the ham radio fraternity.

    For those who might be reading this that haven't had such a life-long interest in radio and electronics, and might need a little help to pass the tests, let me recommend my study guides. You'll find them at

    73, Dan KB6NU

  2. Thanks, Dan!

    The amateur radio community is one of the friendliest and most helpful groups around. And it's a growing group. I dug up an old Ham Call book from 1991, it showed that there were about 450,000 U.S. licensed amateurs at that time. Current number is about 700,000! Not bad for a hobby that was on "deathwatch" back in the 90s.