Amateur Radio 102: Basic Usage

This is how we operate

Welcome back to the shack! Last time, in Amateur Radio 101, we covered some of the basics of what amateur radio is all about, and what you can do with it. Today, we’re going to get down to the details of how to get on the air and make your first conversations.

We’ll be talking about VHF simplex, how to use repeaters, and of course the rules of legal and courteous operation. Read on to learn some cool stuff!

Basic Rule: Listen Before You Speak

This is important enough to mention right at the outset. Aside from being a big part of courteous operation, it’s a great way to learn how things are done. Later on in this article we’ll talk more about the laws and generally accepted rules of amateur radio use.

Simplex Operation

As mentioned in the previous article, this is the simplest way to get on the air and converse. After all, the word ‘simple’ is right there in the name!

All you need to get started is a basic VHF (2-meter) handheld or mobile radio, and a bit of knowledge I’m about to give you. As a side note, UHF (70-centimeter) simplex operation is also possible. It’s just not nearly as popular, at least in my area.

Finding someone to talk to

There is a nationally recognized calling frequency for VHF simplex; 146.52 MHz, sometimes just referred to as ’52’. Just tune your radio to 146.52 and make a call, you might find someone listening.

There’s a few different styles people use to make a call, and it can vary by area. Remember that first rule? If 146.52 is reasonably active in your area, you can listen to a few conversations first to figure out what kind of procedures everyone else is using.

If I know that the calling frequency is pretty active, I might just say my callsign, and see if anyone replies. A longer call is more likely to catch someone who has their radio set on ‘scan’, only monitoring the call channel every few seconds. A typical exchange would go something like this:

Me: This is K0MCG, is anyone listening out there?
Reply: K0MCG, this is KA0XTT. The name here is Mike. How's it going?

Proceed with your conversation from there, remembering to identify with your callsign at least every 10 minutes, and take a quick pause between transmissions in case someone else is waiting to break in. 146.52 is really only meant for calling, though, and you should move to a different frequency to chat. Different areas can be more or less strict about this.

Also, different areas can have different frequencies designated for 2-meter simplex. In Minnesota, these frequency assignments are made by the Minnesota Repeater Council, and spelled out at the bottom of the 2-meter band plan here.

Repeater Operation

This is where most of the action is. As I mentioned in the previous article, repeaters are the social hub of any given locality. Find a nearby repeater, program your radio, and pick up the mic. You’ll be chatting with someone in no time.

Programming your radio

First, a quick refresher:

  • Repeaters use two frequencies; an input frequency and an output frequency.
  • The repeater is ‘listening’ on its input frequency, so that’s the frequency your radio must transmit on.
  • The repeater transmits on its output frequency, so that’s the frequency your radio must be listening to.
  • The difference in frequency between the repeater’s input and output is known as the ‘offset’.

While it’s possible to just manually tune your radio to a repeater’s output frequency and set the correct transmit offset, you’re better off programming the repeater into one of your radio’s memory channels. Usually this is done by first manually tuning the radio, and then storing the tuning information into a memory channel. If you have programming software on your PC for your radio, and the proper cable, it’s just a matter of inputting the information into the software.

If you do have one of those cheap Pofung/Baofeng UV-5r or similar Chinese radios, God help you. They are obnoxious to program from the keypad, the official software is odd, and the included manual is useless. I’ll write an article on that later, but for now, see miklor.com for much more useful info on those things.

Some radios will automatically set the offset based on the frequency you tune to, but it may not always be correct. Some repeaters may have an unusual offset (“odd split”). It depends on what your local frequency coordinator or repeater council has decided to do. Most radios will allow you to manually specify the transmit frequency for these odd-split repeaters. Generally though, the repeater’s input frequency will be 600 KiloHertz above or below the output frequency.

In the case of 70-centimeter (UHF) repeaters, the offset is almost always +5 MHz, but it may be -5 as well. It varies by area.

So, altogether, you’ll need all this information to use a repeater:

  • The output frequency you’ll be listening to
  • The offset
  • For a lot of repeaters, especially in the 70-centimeter band, you’ll also need to know the CTCSS tone the repeater requires for access.
CTCSS

Oh yeah, CTCSS. It stands for Continuous Tone Coded Squelch System. It’s also known as a “PL Tone,” because that’s what Motorola calls it. PL stands for “Private Line,” even though it adds no privacy whatsoever.

What CTCSS or PL does do, is prevent a repeater from hearing and retransmitting unintended signals. This is because the repeater will not retransmit any signal that doesn’t have the right tone transmitted along with it. These audio tones, between 67 and 250.3 Hz, are transmitted along with your voice the entire time you’re holding the push-to-talk switch. When you’re listening, your radio should filter out those low frequencies, so that you don’t hear the tone.

Some repeaters will also add this tone to their transmissions, so that you can program your radio to listen for the tone, and you won’t hear other transmissions or random noise.

This contrasts with a two-way radio transceivers usual method of operation, where you adjust a squelch control to silence the speaker until you receive a signal strong enough to open the squelch. With CTCSS, your radio will not open the squelch, and will remain silent, except when it hears the proper tone.

As far as I know, every modern 2-meter and 70-centimeter transceiver is capable of sending and listening for CTCSS tones. Older equipment may only be able to transmit a tone (called encoding), and may have an optional decoder module to provide the tone-controlled squelch functionality. Even older equipment may have no CTCSS functions at all.

An alternative to CTCSS is DCS, or digital-coded squelch. DCS sends an inaudible short numeric code along with your voice, instead of just a simple tone. This isn’t used as much where I am, but the general principle is the same as CTCSS.

Finding a repeater

So, where do you find information about local repeaters? There’s a few places to get lists of repeaters.

  • RepeaterBook.com – has a large database of repeaters, world-wide. They also offer an excellent Android and iOS app.
  • The ARRL Repeater Directory, which is probably the best ‘offline’ reference you can have. It’s a nationwide directory, and a very handy thing to have along with your radio when you’re on outdoor adventures.
  • Local clubs – Just do a Google search for “<your area> amateur radio” and see what’s out there. While you’re at it, maybe meet up with some of the clubs. It’s always good to know some experienced people who you can learn from.
  • Eventually, this website, if you’re local to the Twin Cities Metro. I’ll be compiling a list of local clubs, repeaters, and general information.
Having a conversation

Making a call on a repeater is easy. Usually, it’s enough to just say your callsign, once, and wait for a response. Something along the lines of “this is , is anyone listening?” is also acceptable.

You’ll often hear people say “<callsign> listening,” or “<callsign> monitoring.” These people seem to fall into two categories; there are those that are just letting people know they’re out there, maybe expecting a call back from someone in particular. There are also those newly licensed hams with a radio and an ARRL Operating Manual who are just figuring things out, dipping their toe in the water, so to speak. They may not actually be expecting anyone to contact them.

Many times you’ll hear bunch of people say their listening, but no one actually talks to each other. This leads to the joke “This is K0MCG listening to everybody listening.”

However you choose to make your call, conversation from there is pretty natural. Introduce yourself by name and callsign. Talk about whatever. There’s no need to say “over” at the end of your transmissions, because it’s pretty obvious when a station talking on the repeater stops talking and releases the PTT switch.

Usually, repeaters will beep when anyone stops transmitting. This is known as a courtesy beep, and is meant to allow for a pause between transmissions to let other people jump in if they want. Everyone should wait for the beep before keying up (pressing the PTT and speaking) again. That doesn’t always happen, however.

If someone does wish to jump in, (called ‘breaking in’) they’ll just say their callsign during that brief pause before the beep. On your next transmission, acknowledge them. Say ” acknowledged,” or “breaking station acknowledged.” You may choose to just say “breaking station, go ahead,” and let them say what they want to say right away. Alternatively, you can proceed with your next transmission and then figuratively pass the mic to them by saying “over to you,

Never actually use the word “break” to break into a conversation unless you have critical or emergency traffic. By the same token, if a station does say “break” or especially “Mayday,” acknowledge them immediately and find out what they need.

If you find yourself conversing with two or more other people at once, it can be a bit confusing at first, but you get used to it. If you have the benefit of sitting at a desk with a notepad in front of you, it’s helpful to jot down the callsigns and names of the people involved. Otherwise, the easiest thing to do is picture everyone sitting around in a circle, talking. The only thing you really need to remember is the callsign or name of the person whose turn comes after yours. So, when you finish saying your piece, say “over to you, .”

Don’t talk too long at a time. Most repeaters have a “timeout timer,” which protects them from overheating, and ensures that someone with a stuck PTT switch won’t be filling the airwaves with random noise for hours. If the repeater hits its timeout limit, it will temporarily disable its transmitter, and no one will hear what you’re saying. You won’t know that this has occurred until you let go of your PTT and don’t hear the courtesy beep. The repeater will reset after a short time, and re-enable its transmitter. You may find yourself the target of some light ribbing if this happens.

Regardless of how casual the conversation might be, remember to properly identify with your callsign at least once every 10 minutes. There’s no need to identify in every single transmission; that can just get a little annoying.

When you’re finished with the repeater, say “<callsign> clear.” This lets people know that you’re turning off your radio or moving to a different frequency. If you’re still going to be listening to the repeater, you could instead say “<callsign> standing by,” or “on the side”

So, that’s casual repeater conversation (sometimes called ‘ragchewing’) in a nutshell. Let’s move on to some more formal operations on the repeaters.

Nets

Nets are more like a structured and (mostly) orderly meeting on the air. They happen at a regular scheduled time on a particular repeater. For instance, around here, both the Metro Area Repeater Association and the Twin Cities FM Club hold a weekly “swap net” where people can buy, sell, and trade amateur radio equipment.

These nets will start with the “net controller” describing the net, making any relevant announcements, and maybe playing recorded audio of one of the amateur radio news programs like AR Newsline.

After that, the net controller will ask for “check-ins.”

Checking in

Depending on the individual network controller’s preference, they will ask people to check in with either their full callsign or just the suffix. So I might say “K0MCG,” “MCG”, or “Mike-charlie-golf”. This is not the time to actually say anything else. The net controller will write down the callsigns he or she hears, usually taking about 5 at a time. You may not be heard right away, if there are a lot of people trying to check in. Your transmission could end up ‘doubling’ with another, garbling both of them. If the net controller doesn’t hear you, just wait for the next round of checkins and try again.

Once the net controller has a list of 5 or so callsigns, they will call on each of you in turn to say what you want to say. You may not have anything relevant to say, in which case you can simply say “This is <name> in <location>, <callsign>, just one for the count.” Net operators like to keep track of participation to have some idea of how many people are active on the various nets.

Whatever you say, when you’re done with your transmission, announce “Over to net control” so that they know they can move on to the next person on the list. Once they’ve gone through the list, they’ll ask for another round of checkins.

Some other nets will allow for a bit of ‘crosstalk’, where you might say something directly intended for another participant. Just keep the conversation brief, or agree on another repeater or simplex frequency to move to before continuing your conversation. In either event, when your conversation on the net is finished, remember to explicitly turn it back over to net control as in the previous paragraph.

Emergency nets

Emergency Communications or EMCOM nets are a special case. These might be started up for SkyWarn or other trained storm spotter groups, or during a disaster. There can also be nets for amateur radio operators supporting various events such as marathons, bike races, anything that requires a lot of people communicating important information.

Don’t screw with these nets. If you are not one of the intended participants, feel free to listen along, but find a different repeater if you want to chat.

Rules And Courtesy

These are the basic “rules of the road”. Some are actual law, defined in Part 97 of the FCC regulations. Others are just generally accepted practices, and common courtesy.

  • Again, listen before you speak – Make sure you’re not about to transmit over another station. Learn your local operating practices. This also means that if you’re using CTCSS/DCS to keep your radio quiet, you should press the “monitor” button to make sure no one else is using the frequency before you transmit.
  • Identify yourself – The FCC requires you to identify yourself, with your assigned callsign, at least every 10 minutes, and at the end of your conversation. (FCC Part 97.119 – Station Identification)
  • Wait for the courtesy beep – Far too few people remember to do this when using a repeater. Remember, it’s a courtesy beep. It’s there to allow other people the chance to break into a conversation in progress.
  • Use the ‘monitor’ button – I mentioned this above, but it’s also important in general to open the squelch on your radio before talking, to make sure no one off in the distance is conversing. The signal might be too weak to open your radio’s squelch, but you could still conceivably end up interfering with them if you start using the same freq.
  • Use appropriate language – This, also, is the law. (FCC Part 97.113 (4) – Prohibited Transmissions). Law notwithstanding, remember that this is also a family hobby. There may be children on the air. Anyone who can pass the written tests is eligible for a license. Further, even unlicensed kids might be listening along with their family in the car or at home.
  • Avoid controversial topics – There’s no law about this, and it’s not strictly required, but it’s just good sense. No one wants to listen to people arguing politics and such on the radio. We’ve got Facebook for that.
  • Ignore the idiots – Yes, there are some idiots out there, both licensed and unlicensed. They will do things like talk on the radio without a license, intentionally ‘jam’ repeaters with interfering signals, rude noises, foul language, etc. Some people just have nothing better to do with their time, apparently. Ignore them completely. They are looking for a reaction from their ‘audience’. Don’t give them one. Repeater operators may just shut the repeater down for a while, or everyone can just move off frequency. There’s always the possibility of using radio direction-finding to figure out where the idiot is and filing an FCC complaint, but that’s frequently more trouble than it’s worth. Life goes on.
  • Last but definitely not least. Always yield to emergency traffic – Oddly, I can’t find a specific law on this right now, but it’s just common sense. If another station is in distress, provide assistance if possible or yield the frequency to someone who can.

In closing

So, there you have it. I hope this has been an informative and relatively clear guide to your first steps into amateur radio operation. A rough list of the next few posts I plan to write for this series includes:

  • Setting up a home 2-meter/70-centimeter base station
  • Coping with the cheap Chinese radios
  • An introduction to HF communication
  • Digital communications over amateur radio
  • Contesting and awards

Additional resources

The ARRL Operating Manual For Radio Amateurs is an excellent resource for beginning hams. It contains a lot of the same information I’ve covered here, and quite a lot more.

If you’re still at the “getting your license” stage the I covered in Amateur Radio 101, you may find the ARRL Amateur Radio License Manual to be a useful study aid.

The ARRL website in general contains a lot of valuable information as well.

If you are reasonably proficient in legalese, you can and should also read the entirety of FCC Part 97 rules for the amateur radio service.

[Ed. Note: I finished this article after returning from the dentist and in substantial pain. If something is unclear or outright wrong, please feel free to leave a comment below.]

Thanks for reading!

73 de K0MCG

9 thoughts on “Amateur Radio 102: Basic Usage”

  1. Great article. I’m just getting started and really appreciate this information. Still pending my callsign, but I’ve been trying to gather as much info as I can before pushing that first transmit!

  2. Steve, great write up. I would like to mention however that HF doesent have to be expensive. There are plenty of kits and schematics to build your own HF rigs for less than 100 dollars. The BITX comes to mind as I am in the process of building one myself.
    Another HF source of inspration comes from the the soldersmoke blog and podcasts, which are very enjoyable to listen to.

    73s
    Jesse
    KD0ZBY

    1. Thanks!
      I have seen the BITX a while back, I might have to get one to play with. I used to have a cranky old IC-740, but I had to sell it. If I do try out a kit transceiver I’ll definitely be writing about it here.
      Thanks for reading,
      -Steve

  3. Thanks- I’m just getting started (waiting for the FCC assignment). I have the Baofeng (of course) and a couple of antennas. I figure I’ll listen in the HF range with a SDR before jumping in with a transceiver, especially because I can’t put up a good antenna.

    Really interested in the digital modes, especially at the > 50mhz frequencies. Information seems to be out there but no great howtos on getting it set up.

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