Category Archives: CW

The Future of Amateur Radio

children are the futureGoing through Yahoo group posts this morning I came across something on the Ham Instructors group that caught my attention, a discussion on the demographics of new hams and whether or not the focus for recruiting should continue to be centered on the idea that children are the future of ham radio.

Many hams, maybe even most hams, share a basic story line. They got interested in radio as a pre-teen or teen, usually exposed to radio by family, friends, or social event. Most drift away from radio as they go through various stages of life when they are swamped with the normal stuff life tends to throw at us all, school, marriage, having kids, career, the usual. Later on as things settle down radio creeps back into their life. Some manage to get licensed during that early exposure, some end up waiting several decades before getting a ticket.

In my opinion, providing the young an opportunity to catch the radio bug is the best bet. They may never actually get an amateur radio license and their attention may turn down many different paths. But the likelyhood of that exposure being beneficial to the amateur radio community down the road in some other form is immense. They would at least have some understanding and appreciation for amateur radio and its benefits to the community at large.

While I think the positions presented in the Yahoo group and associated blog posts K0NR and KB6NU are certainly worth looking into in greater depth, I think there is a more pressing matter that may affect the future of amateur radio.

Why is amateur radio experiencing a huge upswing? Basic statistics show the upswing began in 2008 shortly after the FCC dropped the code requirement for all amateur licenses. Wheather or not that decision was good for the service I will leave alone for now.

My ham path followed a derivation the one I described above. I got interested in radio as a teen back in the 80s but didn’t get my license until I was 46, only in part because of the code requirement. My reasons for finally getting my license were centered on personal emergency preparedness, serving the community, and to have fun experimenting and building RF electronics.

As a Volunteer Examiner I participate in license exam sessions and it seems that the predominant reasons for taking the license exams generally follow along with the age ranges:

Retirees & Pre-retirees are either upgrading an existing  license, had a licence but it expired and are getting back into the hobby, or always wanted to but hadn’t gotten around to it till now. Or you could say, the story we are so familiar with.

20s & 30s seem to be engineering students or engineers, Makers who have projects that require a license, or preppers.

Teens and under seem to either be in a social program like a school club or scouting. A few come from dedicated ham families.

Pretty much what you might expect, but there are a couple that might have an effect on the ham future landscape. Two categories that could pose concern.

I’ll start with Makers. By in large these are folks who embody the early spirit of amateur radio, they like to build stuff. While they bring to the table that early spirit of radio, how many of them participate in the radio community? Are they here because of one project they might need to be licensed for, or are they going to keep renewing their license and play radio alongside other Maker pursuits? Either way, I am glad they are here now. They do indeed advance the science and art of radio. Down the road however the passing interest MakerHam may drop the Ham part altogether.

The other group is of particular interest, preppers. My hats off to them if they actually get licensed, many more don’t. It is common practice for prepper groups to buy cheap Chinese ham-band radios and use them regularly on FRS/GMRS radio frequencies which is illegal, at least when it is not an emergency, but they are much less likely to get busted for that than using amateur frequencies without a callsign.

One thing to consider is the term prepper. There is a massive range of people who consider themselves preppers that covers the entire spectrum from keeping some extra food and water along with a flashlight, first aid kit, and blanket, something we all should have at a minimum by the way, to the massive underground hords and compounds guarded by paramilitary groups.

Another consideration is, do they further the science and art? Do they participate? If so, welcome aboard.

I mention these two groups of people not to place judgement, but rather to ask if they are a part of the ham community. The reason for asking is, what happens if they don’t renew their licenses? There was concern that the ham community was dwindling away, leading to a loss of tribal knowledge. What happens when non-invested license holders don’t see the benefit of keeping an unused license? Or just forget about it?

Amateure radio has been experiencing an unprecidented growth spurt over the last 8 years. We still have two years to go before the early no-code era hams begin to cycle for renewal. I would imagine the first few years after the start of the second ten-year cycle won’t see much of an effect either way, but what happens in 2020? Will we start to see a roll-off?

In general, we seem to be more focused on recruiting rather than retention. Back in the day, the code requirement acted as a filter. People with only a casual interest in amateur radio were less likely to pursue it. While it worked fairly well as such, it also filtered out people interested in radio, just not cw. Now we have no filter at all. The only impediment to getting licensed is $15 and some time studying the relatively small question pool. You can be a Technician class licensee in short order.

In life, most things are more valuable when you have to pay for them, monetarily or by blood, sweat, and tears. Personal commitment to seeing it through establishes the value. This basic principle would indicate that removal of the code requirement and as some would say, lowering the bar on the knowledge test, the sweat equity has been removed or at least lessened thereby the value, at least the perceived value for the licensee.

So now we have several issues to contend with; keeping the number of licensees up, ensuring that they keep their licenses renewed, and keeping some level of commitment to the hobby and community at large.

Frankly, I have no idea how to accomplish any of these. I don’t think we have enough data. Too many things have changed in the hobby in the last decade and we still don’t have any results from what I think may be the most impacting factor, the dropping of the code requirement. In all honesty, I doubt if we can even begin to answer these questions until 2020 and the effects can be quantified.

In the meantime, we should continue to do as we have always done, inspire and encourage the youth, at any age. Encourage fellowship among the community, Elmer whenever possible, maintain the highest personal standards, and reach out and engage the radio community and the general community at large.

The Amateur Radio preservation mantra,
“Engage, Inspire, Encourage, Educate, Participate”


Commercial Radio Exams

fcc-seal_rgb_emboss-largeIn the continuing saga of studying for my commercial radio license exams I spent much of the long weekend reviewing, quizzing, and taking practice tests.

I am quite confident that I can take the Element 1 (E1) exam at any time. Passing the E1 exam by itself qualifies you for the MROP or Marine Radio Operator Permit (MP).

With all of the practice tests I am averaging in the high 90s for at least the last 10 consecutive tests. E1 is a short test of only 24 questions from a pool of 144 covering rules and regulations, communications procedures, equipment operations, and marine radio frequencies.

While the name of the license and topics favor maritime activities it is also an aviation radio license. For pilots who regularly fly oceanic routs, or off shore and coastal operations, knowing marine communications and being licensed to operate on those frequencies is important.

Along with E1, E3 is also required for the GROL or General Radiotelephone Operators License (PG). I am studying E3 now, 100 questions from a pool of 600. This is the license the FCC requires for anyone working on marine or aviation radios. The FAA and Coast Guard have additional requirements for their respective services, but this is the starting point. There are also separate requirements for the radiotelegraph (T1) license (E6 100/600), the GMDSS Global Maritime Distress & Safety System (DO, RG, DM) licenses, and the RADAR endorsement (E8 50/300).

717549main_ED11-0184-16-cropped2Once I have completed my GROL license I plan on adding the RADAR endorsement by taking the E8 exam which is specifically for RADAR operations and maintenance. Radar is used in many application on aircraft such as collision avoidance, weather avoidance, and ground proximity systems so this is a useful endorsement for an A&P mechanic with an interest in working on aviation radio systems and avionics.

As a ham I am also interested in working for my Radiotelegraph Operators license. I signed up for a class on CW (Continuous Wave or Morse Code) for January/February 2016. If I do reasonably well with learning the code I will need to get my copy speed up to 16 code groups and 20 words per minute to pass the two FCC Telegraphy Code tests and study for the E6 written, another 100 question exam from a pool of 612 questions. No real need for getting this license, but it would be a nice feather in my cap.

The remaining commercial licenses center on the GMDSS requirements for operators and maintainers in the maritime services. Since I don’t see myself being shipboard any time soon I’m not too concerned with this license.

It’s been a while since the FCC dropped the requirements for land base and mobile stations or service technicians in those services to be licensed. With the prodigious growth of wireless technologies it would be nearly impossible for them to manage all of the licensing needs of industry. There would have to be an system not unlike a national Department of Motor Vehicles but for wireless devices, operators and techs. A massive system in place to manage the licensing and testing of everyone who works on or with wireless equipment.

Just sitting here at my desk typing this post I  have 7 wireless devices within 10 feet of me, my laptop, my wife’s lap top with a dongle for another device, my phone, a printer, a tablet, and a router connecting them all. Our society is crammed full of wireless devices all around us. Just think about all of the devices you run across in a day that use wireless technologies. Even the gas pumps use wireless technology to connect to the controller in the stations office, just look for the little antenna on top of the pump pedestal.

Our world is a wireless world. Just some food for thought. For me, it’s back to study time.


Package Pending

shopping-cart-blur-hiI have some tap and dies on order that I need to finish the 40 meter vertical antenna. I also have some parts  in transit that I need to get started on the antenna tuner which is the next project on deck. As well as the project parts I ordered a couple of items for stock.

One acquisition I have been needing is an LC meter to test inductors and capacitors.The one I ordered measures inductance (L), capacitance (C), resistance (R), and it also checks transistors. A very handy piece of equipment. I have several meters, digital and analog, nearly all measure resistance and voltage, a couple can check transistors, and one can test capacitance in a very limited range.

Since I am planning on making my own air dielectric capacitors, and a variety of inductors and transformers, having a wide scale LC meter will make this work much easier. It will also be a lot of help at flea markets and garage sales to check out components that I am interested in.

With all of this in transit I have some time to get some administrative stuff done. The main thing is to plan out the next few projects. The basic 40 meter direct conversion receiver is done, the antenna is almost done, and the antenna tuner is next with most of the parts enroute, so it makes sense to build a transmitter for 40 meters, I am leaning towards a CW/SSB transmitter.

One of the reasons I want to build CW/SSB is that it will add several other digital modes as well. Many of the digies can be connected straight throught the audio in/out ports on a computer or a handheld device. Leaving only the need to provide a key  or key signal to switch between the receiver and transmitter which could be done manualy or by serial connection to a RT swiching circuit in the radio.

It sounds a lot more complicated that it really is. With a little planning and some experimentation setting up a cable with a couple of connecters on each end will do the job nicely.

I will need to add a couple of circuits to the receiver at some point in the near future as well. An second stage audio amplifier is a must, and a switchable audio filters with bandwidths for CW, SSB, and something in the middle for digi, between first and second stage audio amplification. Neither of these should be all that dificult.

Once I get the 40 meter station all put together I will start work on building another station in another band. By this time I will have figured out a lot of the kinks and bugs and beable to build the second station much more efficiently.

At this point I’m not sure what the next band will be. There are 16 amateur bands currently with the potential of two more that I can gain access to under an experimental license so it is wide open. Each band presents new challenges, ether in technique or materials.

VHF and UHF present strictor tolerances and microwave (UHF-SHF) presents even more challenges. Most bands in HF will be about the same requirements as 40 meter since it is about the miiddle of the HF band. MF presents some challenges in radiators (antennas) because the wavelength is so long. LF presents more challenges in power and radiaors, not to mention the need for that experimental licence.

Fortunatly ist’s all about the fun and learning. As long as I am learning new things, honing skills, and having fun it’s all good.

Until next time, 73

Radio Goals

I tend to view “goals” as an intermediary point, even a starting point in many cases. They are rarely endpoints, and when they are it’s usually only an end in an administrative sense, like earning my Amateur Extra license. Administratively I reached an endpoint because it is the highest level in the Amateur Service, but in reality it’s a beginning. There is so much to learn that requires I earn the license first.

My current goals in radio are much the same. They are the getting-to-the-starting-line kinds of goals. I started studying for my commercial radio license shortly after I earned my amateur Technician class license. Well, that is to say I bought the study guide and began reading it. I also purchased some test prep software. While I have been poking at it off and on, I hadn’t made any serious efforts to study until this week.

Earning the GROL (General Radio Operators License) has been a goal since I started studying for my Technician, I just hadn’t set a hard date for it. I am still refining the hard date, but it will be this year before the end of June. I also have a goal to get the RADAR endorsement added to the GROL license, this year.

Another goal is to get on-the-air using CW (Morse Code) at 10-15 wpm (words per minute) by the end of the year. This is most definitely a starting point. It is the lead in to getting my commercial Radiotelegraph license.

GROL and RADAR are personal goals that also have a pragmatic side. With these licenses I am authorized to work on most marine and aviation radios and RADAR. This includes mobile (in the craft) and land based comm, RADAR, and navigation radios. A big boon for the aviation pilot/mechanic/instructor. This also opens up some doors in the commercial and government radio services.

Learning CW is purely personal. The CW requirement for an amatuer radio licenses went away entirely in 2007 but it was one of the factors that kept me away from ham for 30 years. Now that it is gone from amateur radio requirements my only way to concor that obstacle is to learn it, practice it, become proficient in it, and get the only class of license that still requires it; a commercial Radiotelegraph license.

The Radiotelegraph license process has four components, two written test elements, one of which I will have already passed with my GROL, and two code test elements. The code tests are 16 code groups per minute, and 20 wpm at 100% copy accuracy.

Like some other commercial licenses there used to be different classes of license, now there is only one radiotelegraph license and this consolidation happened relatively recently. I want to be sure and do this before the class goes away altogether; so my goal for this license is to take the code exam elements before the end of summer 2016. This should give me plenty of time to build speed and proficiency.

Fortunately the amateure radio service has lots of room for code practice and plenty of cw hams to keep practicing and improving the skill. I am looking forward to learning the code well enough to get on the air soon!


CW Practice Oscillator

Mark I – Transistor Based Oscillator

Mark I protoboard and schematic
Mark I protoboard and schematic

(2015-04-03 This page has been copied to projects)

This was the first attempt at an oscillator for practicing CW. I don’t remember where I found this particular schematic but there are a ton of oscillator circuit designs available online.  Click here for a Google search that will result in a lot of options (over a half million hits!) The image results are a good place to start.

I committed to protoboarding this design because I wanted to play around with it some more. At the time I built it I was planning on getting an O-Scope but I didn’t have one yet.  Now that I have one I can revisit the circuit.

Mark I Oscillator - simple to build and only a few components. Not real stable though.
Mark I Oscillator – simple to build and only a few components. Not real stable though.

The AF (Audio Frequency) tone is unstable to say the least. It varies from 3kHz to about 200Hz . The wave form resembles a square wave, but only loosely.  It is very spiky and irregular.

While this is a simple circuit to build, uses only a few components, can be built very inexpensively, was a fun basic electronics project, and would be good as a beginners circuit / soldering project, I wouldn’t plan on using it for much more.

I would avoid it for a CW practice oscillator. If you are serious about learning CW, do it with a stable oscillator that will be pleasant to listen to. This thing can squeal at times.

Mark II – 555 IC Based Oscillator

The 555 IC oscillator is much more stable than the transistor based one
The 555 IC oscillator is much more stable than the transistor based one

As the section title above says, this oscillator is based on the 555 timer integrated circuit, a much more stable oscillator, also with few parts.

I documented the build on Flickr but the focus was more on the cabinet build and less on the electronics.

This circuit makes a good CW practice oscillator. Still a very easy build for beginners and fun. I was going for a steampunk look with the cabinet build. There are many things I think I would do differently in the cabinet build to make it easier, and smaller, but the oscillator works just fine as is.

The waveform is a pritty clean and produces a consistent 724.8 – 725.2 Hz tone. This circuit does consume more energy then the other. I put a fresh battery in the oscillator, had done a week of cw practice 20 minutes a day when life called and shelved it in May 2014. I just took it down and did some testing when the battery died.

Thing two I might change, a positive power cut off switch to completely lift the battery from the circuit. Just a thought.

Here is a short video of the cabinet and the oscillator in action with a CW key. There is no additional AF amplifier which brings up the one thing I might change. It my be a good idea to add a variable resistor on the output to adjust the volume.

Learning CW Online

Cheap USB mouse
Cheap USB mouse cost $7 new from Amazon or any spare junk drawer mouse will do.

There is a neat site Learning CW Online or I am just starting with.  Since I am just starting with them I don’t have a whole lot to say about the site, but, it did spark a short project idea.

LCWO has different sections for copying code and for transmitting code. The copy side is easy, just listen through the speakers on the computer or headphones. Transmit requires action, you need to key something, usually the left mouse button. I have a touch pad and not a mouse. Besides, a mouse doesn’t have the feel of a straight key (SK) and that’s what I will be using on the radio…

Enter the idea… a USB cw key! I’m cheap and more homebrew so I came up with an incredably simple USB mouse mod that allows me to use the key with any site or program that will allow you to key by clicking on a virtual key.

All I did was open up the mouse ans solder two wires to the left mouse switch and run those wires out the side of the mouse case and tie them down to the binding posts on the straight key. Now the key is parallel to the switch. You can still use the mouse, and you can use the key too.

I still need to do one thing before this project is done. I need to install a jack in mouse so I can easily unplug the key when I just need a mouse.

Helpful Hint: If the mouse keep sliding around while you are trying to use the key, just line it up with the on-screen button and slowly pick it up and turn it on its back. This will stop it from tracking.

Here is a link to my progress shots on Flickr.

ETA: The jack has been installed and it works great. USB mouse/cw key with jack