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How to become a radio ‘ham’ in the digital era

By Nick Sinanis, Study Group Advisor and Head of ITU Radio Station 4U1ITU

Being passionate for electronic technology at the age of 10 is not unusual nowadays.

But at the end of ‘70s, it was tough to find any technical information, other than waiting for printed journals to arrive by post. Opposite my childhood window in a remote town in southern Greece, a neighbour had a roof antenna like those atop the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Varembé building in Geneva, Switzerland.

That was it!

Curiosity and passion came together, motivating me to obtain an advanced amateur radio operator certificate when I was fifteen. I was thrilled to be able to reach the world without travelling, talking to faraway radio amateurs – also known as hams*- for hours. From Europe by day to the Americas by night, I enjoyed fantastic imaginary voyages to each calling station!

The ionospheric propagation of radio waves enables long-distance contacts. I still remember the amazing feeling as a newbie radio amateur in Europe listening to broadcasts from places as far away as Australia’s Norfolk Island or the Republic of Nauru.

How to become a radio amateur

A certificate of capacity is required to become an amateur radio operator – and eventually possess a radio station. A specialized exam is offered by national authorities.

Regional radio clubs are the easiest starting point to prepare for the exam, but also to exchange ideas, share experiences and make your first contacts over the air. Basic equipment like a handheld radio is affordable and sufficient to make local contacts, while more expensive, larger antennas enable more distant communications. Still, tinkering with a rooftop long wire connected to a software-defined radio module can deliver the joy of a long-distance call at a reasonable cost.

Another hallmark of amateur radio is its unique combination of knowledge in telecommunications, electronic engineering, physics and tinkering of all sorts. This magic mix can help you recognize a ham even in a data centre! Moreover, radio science plays an important role in scientific and technological innovation.

Above all, amateur radio is a social hobby that still attracts the interest of the young, through social networking apps or challenges, like copying high-speed Morse code.

The passion of radio amateurs and their community have also provided crucial assistance in the form of emergency communications.

ITU’s role in amateur radio

ITU plays a key role in amateur radio by overseeing the standardization and regulatory processes of the radiocommunication sector (ITU-R), with special emphasis on its utility in emergency communications.

ITU-R study cycles provide the vehicle for the evolution of amateur radio spectrum.

Through the International Amateur Radio Union (IARU), an ITU member, the radio amateur community makes important contributions to the preparatory studies for each World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC). These studies help optimize radio spectrum sharing and ensure avoidance of harmful interference to and from other radiocommunication services. The upcoming WRC-23 will consider operational and technical measures that ensure the protection of the radionavigation satellite service operating in the same frequency band (1 240 – 1 300 MHz) as the amateur service.

The ITU radio station, also known as 4U1ITU, is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. Radio societies and renowned awards have attributed a special status to the station, with which contacts are highly solicited. 

At the same time, the Varembé building that houses the station at ITU’s Geneva headquarters, will soon be dismantled to make space for a new one.  For six decades, the 4U1ITU station has been a landmark for many ITU delegates who contacted it as radio hams, or used it to contact other radio amateurs.

In its future home at the top of the ITU’s new headquarters this long history and special status will keep 4U1ITU active for many years to come.

*Editor’s note: Amateur radio operators are also known as radio amateurs or hams. According to the American Legion, the term “ham” as a pejorative nickname for amateur radio operators was first heard in 1909 by operators in commercial and professional radio communities. The word was subsequently embraced by the operators, and stuck.

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