There are some really good reasons why you need a license. Yours will be called an Amateur Radio Technician License (yes, you will become a “ham”). Your own protection is the best reason — mistakes can cause injury, or at least ruin your equipment. This license allows a lot more power, many more frequencies, and a lot of flexibility in equipment, all great advantages not available with any of the non-licensed 2-way radios available. So some basic knowledge is important.
More important, though, is the need to preserve bandwidth, because it is a finite resource: there is no way to get more. When two signals are on the same frequency, they interfere, and often nobody gets a useful message. Improper setup of a radio transmitter can easily cause interference (a bit like untrained drivers on a highway), so users need a certain amount of savvy if we are all to share the “airwaves”.
Even when tuned to a certain frequency, radios actually use a range of frequencies to send the signal. Therefore, we often refer to “channels” instead of frequencies, when considering how much space we are using.
Most of the available radio channels are already committed for commercial or government uses, and those users are always clamoring for more – which they could only get by taking over someone else’s. Our 2-meter channels are a real blessing, amazingly costing us nothing at all for permission to use. The reason for that gift is gratitude; governments the world over have understood the importance of independent, self-powered, mobile, versatile radio operators at times of emergency, so some channels are reserved only for them – by worldwide agreement! We who take the simple step of getting a license are joining that special group, by owning and maintaining our HT’s.
There are other 2-way radios on sale to the public, and some do not require a license. There is a reason for that. Not only are the operating privileges much more restricted with them, but so are their channels and their transmitting power levels, and there is almost no flexibility in altering radios or antennas. They cannot be used on the channels we are discussing. A personal safety radio needs a significant base of users and suitable channels, and there is certainly no other form of handheld radio that I could recommend for our purposes — you need one made for the amateur 2-meter band.
OK, how do you qualify for a license? There are lots of sources of information. One of the simplest is the question and answer database available from the ARRL online at no cost, even for non-members (http://www.arrl.org/exam-practice). The Technician exam is based on a bank of about 400 multiple-choice questions. This site will show you every question, let you test yourself, then gives you the right answer. You can play with it any time you like, download the questions, test again and again – and undoubtedly learn a lot. There are also online courses for as little as $30 that guarantee passing the exam, and exam-focused instruction books for those who prefer to read on their own.
The actual exam is passed by correctly answering at least 26 questions out of a set of 35. Each exam contains a different selection of 35 from the question bank. Most are so common-sense that it would be hard to choose wrongly, once one has read over the basic regulations or any study guide. Here is a sample (real) question:
T1F09. What type of amateur station simultaneously retransmits the signal of another amateur station on a different channel or channels?
- Beacon station
- Earth station
- Repeater station
- Message forwarding station
Choose any but the third item, and you will be told the correct answer (the third item).
Here’s another (real) one:
T7A02. What is a transceiver?
- A type of antenna switch
- A unit combining the functions of a transmitter and a receiver
- A component in a repeater that filters out unwanted interference
- A type of antenna matching network.
Do I really have to tell you the right answer? (The second choice, of course).
The exam itself, which is required to be in person, is more of a problem these days due to the covid restrictions, but ways are being found to conduct them as drive-in test sessions, etc. Remote exam sessions are also starting to be offered online.
Getting that ticket is your one and only hurdle to pass. It costs nothing, lasts 10 years, and is freely renewable. With that in hand, it is time to start transmitting.
By the way, you may be wondering if anyone without a license can transmit on your HT. The regulations are very specific on this. Your HT is an amateur station. When in use, every amateur station must be under the continual control of a licensed operator at the site. Under these conditions, any other person is free to transmit too. So yes, your family and guests can use your HT so long as they use it properly and you are there beside them.
And, there is one further allowance: in a true emergency situation, anyone can use your station to make known their condition and obtain assistance, or to assist some other station that is in distress. Your HT is a lifeline available for anyone to use during real emergencies. That means any person who can turn on the radio and press the Push-to-Talk button — so show everyone in the home how to do that!