Ham General Class

Today I passed the test to upgrade my FCC Amateur Radio License from Technician class to General class. It was a pretty dense exam with such beautiful questions as:

What is the simplest combination of stages that implement a superheterodyne receiver?

A. RF amplifier, detector, audio amplifier
B. HF oscillator, pre-scaler, audio amplifier
C. RF amplifier, mixer, IF discriminator
D. HF oscillator, mixer, detector

… and many other gems covering electronics, radio propagation, regulations, and even some astronomy.

This license upgrade gives us access to more of the radio spectrum including the 20-meter band where long distance communication between people on remote sailboats and those on land is done. In fact, there’s a regular ‘radio net’ – a type of scheduled roll call and conversation – called the Pacific Seafarer’s Net which is done daily on 14.300MHz.


Apparently communication is possible over distances as great as 2,500 miles given the right conditions! Sailors sometimes use their entire backstay as an antenna and transmit using a mode called Single Sideband (SSB). With the radio transmitting and receiving it is possible to connect it to a kind of modem and send data such as emails and weather information. Bandwidth is severely restricted so you can’t really send more than very short email messages at best.

sailboat by flickr user fritzmb

At the moment my call-sign is KJ6VWO but I think it will be changed once this upgrade hits the FCC.

Interestingly, most of the people taking the test today were off-roaders or extreme travelers, who use amateur radio for emergency communications. One was a 70-year old woman who had driven her VW bus all the way up to Alaska multiple times, as well as spent months on sailboats and power boats off Mexico. She uses amateur radio as emergency communication on her extreme trips.

Another guy participates in off-road rallies and trips in his tricked-out Land Rover and uses amateur radio for communication when outside of cell range.

It really went against the image I have in my mind of the amateur radio nerd with a reverse tan from sitting in his ‘ham shack’ all day long – amateur radio people are out there pushing the boundaries.

Moving up to General class feels like an achievement, even though I’ve done exactly zero communication using my Technician class license. It’s not really sailing but we have no boat and no realistic access to one and so it’s at least a step in the general direction and it will have to do for now…..!

(header image is Radio Antenna, Creative Commons by flickr user marcel030nl and can be found here)