What is Amateur Radio?

Amateur radio in a nutshell is non-commercial radio. People of all ages and backgrounds participate. Some do it for fun, others because they wish to make themselves available for service to their fellow humans. I’ve had a short while to listen to people, and hope to share some insights.

What Good Is It?

It can be used for any non-commercial purpose, limited only by imagination. Many use it for chatting, but that is only the tip of the iceberg.

Events like parades, cycling and running events (including the Boston Marathon) make use of amateur radio volunteers to ensure the event runs smoothly. For example, supplies and help arrive where they’re needed. The location of chase vehicles can be tracked without expensive satellite systems using amateur radio. Lost children can be reunited with their parents.

It’s used by university students doing research, for example, with high-altitude balloon experiments. For example,  Here is a picture of students on top of a mountain providing communications with home brewed antennas.


It’s not only about voice. Television, digital data, satellite, and model control not only have their enthusiasts, but many of the technological innovations that we enjoy are direct descendants of experimentation done in the amateur field. I spoke with a fellow in Australia recently whose research broke previous technological barriers in point to point communication.

international-space-stationRadio waves aren’t bound to the earth either. A good number of amateur radio operators have expertise in satellite communication. There are a number of communication satellites run by amateurs. Some are skilled enough to bounce radio signals off of the moon, meteor showers, and even auroras. On the other side of the spectrum, people can talk to astronauts on the International Space Station, and sometimes the space shuttle.

Skill doesn’t matter. A week ago I met a woman too chicken to use the radio despite the fact she has her license. I’ve also met highly seasoned radio operators who could compete in Olympic-level “radio games” (if such a thing existed). Watching them in operation is like witnessing magic before your eyes.


Amateur radio operators have from the beginning provided critical skilled communication capabilities during emergencies to both private relief organizations and government agencies. This tends to happen behind the scenes without the limelight. In the United States, members of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) work closely with local and county police, fire, and medical teams to train and prepare for when they are needed.

Multiple times every year disasters strike somewhere in the world, and volunteers step up to generously serve their fellow man without being conscripted or compelled. Famous incidents include the 9/11 attacks and hurricane Katrina. Here’s a video about foreign radio operators who helped in the tsunami.

It’s Not Old Technology

I’ve run into more than one person — technology professionals — who called radio “obsolete” technology. I could write a whole article on that, but I’ll point out a few things.

  1. Many of the fancy technologies we have today appeared in their experimental forms in radio. Internet communication protocols are “old fashioned” radiogram technology adapted from the wireless realm to the wired world. Radio operators were using chat rooms and text messaging each other in the 1970’s — decades before texting became a regular feature on cell phones.
  2. The use of high technology continues in radio. It tends to become more specialized, as well as a playground for experimentation.
  3. Even though consumer electronics is convenient, no commercial system has been designed to be robust. (The cost to do that is prohibitive.) They all break under pressure. On holidays, or during high-profile local event, the circuits get tied up and telephones are useless. Even satellite phones suffer from this problem. Radio is robust and keeps working.

It’s Not Just About Talking

Others get their license for non-verbal communication purposes. I met a man who obtained his license two years ago. He’s a radio-controlled (RC) airplane enthusiast who felt constrained by the limitations imposed on RC flying. His amateur license allows him to use more powerful transmitters than his fellow RC hobbyists for purposes limited only by his imagination. For example, he sends live video from his airplanes, giving him a “pilot’s eye view” while flying.

Amateur Doesn’t Mean “Incompetent”

The word “amateur” simply means it’s not your job. Specifically it means “doing something without pay”. Unfortunately, over time the word has also picked up a derogatory meaning of inept or unskilled.

The Olympics was initially billed as an amateur competition. It would be difficult to write off Olympic athletes as unskilled, incompetent, or anything other than what they are — the best athletes in the entire world.

Not For Hire

In amateur radio, there are strict rules governing whether a person can be paid for time on the radio. Without getting bogged down in details, the rule is, “No! No! No!” A business or private organization such as the Red Cross may buy and install the equipment, but staffing the equipment can only be done by real honest-to-goodness unpaid volunteers who are not “on the clock”.

There are exceptions for occasional non-commercial transactions. For example, on-air swap meets where private individuals occationally sell their personal gear to fellow hobbyists.

What Is Amateur Radio?

So, what is amateur radio? It is many things to different people, but in the end it’s all about people enjoying themselves and the company of their fellow humans.


Edit for clarity. Added pictures and expanded text slightly. Added section on emergency communications.

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