A case for amateur radio

The other day I was chatting with a co-worker and the conversation ended up turning to Wi-Fi and for some reason I ended up explaining what “dBi” meant, what an isotropic radiator was, and how antennas basically worked.  At the end of the conversation he asked me where I had learned all that stuff – he was curious if it had been part of some Wi-Fi training I had undergone.  He knew it wasn’t college because I make it clear to folks that my major was Computer Science – not EE or some hybrid.  (And I work in a company with a lot of EEs.)


Nope, I told him.  My training in RF fundamentals came from amateur radio.


Several years ago I was reading about the emergency response to the Loma Prieta earthquake and it included some recordings of amateur radio traffic.  (I remember the Loma Prieta quake well – it was so powerful that it caused the light fixtures to sway all way in my parents’ home in Sacramento.) This lead to learning more about amateur radio and its role in disaster response.  Living in the San Francisco Bay Area I’m well aware of the need to be ready.  I have a disaster kit, I have non-perishable food stores, but this got me interested in being able to communicate in a disaster.


This story will be familiar to most “hams”.  Disaster communications is sort of the gateway drug to amateur radio.  It starts there, then you do your first Field Day and make your first DX contacts, and then you’re wondering if you have room in the back yard for a tower.  You might fall in with a group of contesters and get that bug. They prey on your civic responsibility and then the next thing you know you’re hanging out at HRO Sunnyvale (RIP) thinking that the shiny radio isn’t THAT expensive…


But I digress.


Part of becoming an amateur radio operator is getting licensed.  And the studying you do for that is a pretty good introduction to how radio waves work, how antennas work, and many of the other things that tend to be important in Wi-Fi.  Yes, the frequencies are very different but all of the concepts carry over.  Amateur radio is nice because it’s very “hands on”.  You build and test things yourself, you find out what works and what doesn’t (and sometimes why).  This mostly happens around the dark art of antenna building.


I was pretty far along in my career as a network engineer when I “fell into” Wi-Fi.  And as I started doing more and more work in that area I became more aware of how much of a head start my amateur radio experience had given me.  It’s not only a fun hobby (with lots of cool toys) but it’s also provides a lot of very valuable professional education for wireless network engineers.  And as a side bonus it will help with your qualifications for a CWNE certification!

Studying for an Amateur Radio license in the US is pretty easy. There are 3 different classes of license: Technician, General, and Extra. As you get licensed for a more advanced class you get access to more and more spectrum that you can use to try and talk to folks. The question pools are all public so there should be no surprises on the exam. I used HamTestOnline as a study tool back when I was getting licensed.

If you want to get started look for a local radio club. They have been, in my experience, very welcoming to new people who are interested in the hobby and mentoring is part of that. A good resource for finding a club is the ARRL Club Finder. You’ll be able to find out about testing opportunities as well as club events where you can get a chance to operate and practice without having to invest in equipment yourself. It can’t get any easier than that.

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