It is possible to partake in Amateur radio for FREE! Yes, you can dip your toes in the water for no money at all and research which area you eant to go further with. Of course it can be an expensive hobby and the sky is truly the limit but you can SWL (Short Wave Listen) or Monitor VHF/UHF and a lot more for free!
In the next few paragraphs I will take you through the stages of slowly rising costs that can get you started for minimal funds.
we all love that word, well if you have an internet connection and a web browser then you can get started.
Note: A lot of these websites are not secure, don't worry as we are not going to be entering any sensitive data. Just click the button as shown if it appears.
Web SDR is free to use, you can even set up your own WEB SDR server.
WebSDR - the starting point. http://websdr.org/
Some of the UK's favourites are
Hack Green - http://hackgreensdr.org:8901/
Jodrell Bank (The site not the telescope)
For HF Bands http://188.8.131.52:8901/
For VHF/UHF http://184.108.40.206:8902/
Of course you can use a WebSDR from anywhere in the world, if you know multiple languages then you could listen from Germany or Russia or Brazil!
Tranmission occur froma Medium Wave frequencies 1.8Mhz all the way into many Giga Hertz and via satellites including the ISS - International Space Station and Amateur Radio Satellites.
You will soon get used to the type of conversations that happen on different bands.
There are bands where you can transmit legally without a license. The most common one these days is PMR446, The UHF 446 Mhz band is available for hand-held walkie-talkie tpye radios that have lno more than 0.5 watts RF power and must not have detachable antennas. Many operators use Baofeng radios on this and other bands- none of which is legally allowed. I di dmyself have a Baofeng UV-S9 radio for use purely on the amateur bands and for monitoring only on other bands.
There is also a DPMR446 channels allocation too for low-cost licensed use, this uses the DMR radio modulation common to many Amateur and Professional radios and was pioneered by Motorola but released for other manufacturers to use.
CB Radio, the 27Mhz (often referred to as 11m metre band) can be used legally with upto 4 watts RF on FM and AM and 12 Watts on SSB mode. The frequencies and legality are detailed here.
The 47-50Mhz band is allowed for certain very low power devices such as baby alarms and walkie-talkies license free.
Other bands where made available but most are no longer legal so plese check before transmitting on them.
Listening to the radio
In the UK you can legally listen to any frequency, but you will soon realise that nowadays you will no longer hear the Emergency services main radios, you may however hear there handheld walkie-talkies that are given to outside Police forces for special evenst such as football matches and marathon runs, thes are Narrrow-band FM. I did myself hear one Police officer say something derogatory abot a mamber of the public and follow it with "It's a good thing these things are encrypted!", I wish I had a recording of that! The main radios used by Police, Ambulance and Fire Brigades are either trunking or Tetra, where the frequencies are shared and dynamically allocated as well as digital and encrypted.
Amateur radio operators must pass between one and three exams and adhere to proper radio procedures and etiquette, while this is frowned on by some non-licensed operators it is a superb community of many differently experienced and often highly qualified amateur and professional radio operators.
Amateur Radio Operators, sometimes (I think badly called Hams) are licensed to transmit with power from 10 watts - Foundation License, 40 watts - Intermediate License and 400 watts - Advanced License on certain bands and using specific modes.
VHF 144-146 Mhz and UHF 430-440Mhz are often hand-held or mobile (in car) operators that tend to either just put out a CQ (seek you) call and get a radio R-S-T report or have longer conversations.
Other conversations get prolonged into what the Americans call Rag-Chew, or as we might say in the UK chewing the fat or cud.
Then there are regular Networks, either on repeaters or Digital Talk Groups, these are almost always themed to either M7- Beginners, a Quiz, a particular band or modulation (DMR, Fusion SSB etc.) and will go on for several hours. When the NET starts, the NET Controller will identify him or herself and the topic for that days conversation. Then they will ask you to form an orderly queue and 'Log in' (Assuming that you are licensed to transmit) with your callsign and then to wait until it they invite you to speak for a few minutes. Everyone gets their turn and it is an awesome way for beginners to overcome their first-time nerves and learn what goes on, even if you are only monitoring. Of course the days most Amateur Radio also have Facebook groups and with some you may participate even if not licensed, others will require your callsign and they will check it.
NETs also often belong to local Amatuer Radio clubs, and they will prioritise there members so it is a good idea to join them to participate or ask permission on radio.
On HF and LF bands you will hear contests from all over the world! They will try to log as many contacts from specific continents as possible in a few hours or maybe all weekend! There are also specialised contest such as SOTA - Summits on the air, where you have to log as many different mountain contacts or peaks as possible. Similar events take place with different OTA designations you Youths, Water, Railways etc.
Transmission modes and using repeaters and nodes
These bands are normally capable of being heard 25-75 miles depending on the conditions, though lifts do occur allowing much longer distances and Amateur operators with large directional Yago antenna will often get much further under the right conditions.
You will soon realize that it is possible to transmit/receive much further via the use of repeaters, thes are mostly on VHF/UHF but do exist on other bands as well. They originally only worked using FM, but with the prevalence of lower cost Digital (audio mode) Radios such as DMR, Fusion, D-Star this has increased the range and reliability of communications and in the case of DMR provides seperation and channel sharing via hundreds of talk-groups, 9 color codes and 2 time slots. Similar functions are available on other digital transmission modes.
Some repeaters are linked into the Internet using systems such a Echolink, FreeSTAR, Brandmeister and others. This allows users to log into a local repeater and talk to people all over the world who ay also be using different systems and modes to connect in. These repeaters may have permanent links or scheduled times for specific continents or Digital talk groups, (TGs).
If you cannot access a local repeater, or just wish to diversify your potential you can buy or build a Hotspot or Node, often called a Pi-Node or MMDVM, DV-Mega, Jumbo Spot. Orignally these required a PC pr laptop to work but many are now based ont the Raspberry Pi computers anf can be builtfor under 50 GBP. or bought for under 100 GBP. These allow many talk groups to be accessed on-demand rather than waiting for a slot on a repeater to be available, though these do require a digital transceiver to work.They often will connect via multiple digital modes and your mode does not need to be the same as the others in that stalk group which is very useful.
There are many other digital text modes such as POCSAG, RTTY (Radio Teletype), FT8 and FT4 and of course the oldest transmission system in the world - CW or continuous wave, a bit of a misnomer as it is turned on and off to represent the letters and number of Morse Code, yes this is till in use and represents the highest skill possible. Why? Because morse code or CW can be picked out by the human ear on the weakest or most QRM (Interference) signals anywhere giving it unprecedented range. Remember the WW2 films of radio operators tapping out messages in prison camps on the plumbing?
Making any claims about one transmission system being better than another will result in heated conversations from most Radio Amateurs and should be carefully approached!
These can take place as a quick radio report, a QSO where once contact and a report and exchange possibly of equipment used then its 73 and bye, to longer more technical conversations or Rag-Chews as the Americans call them, we might say chewing the fat.
There are also contests where details are quickly exchanged, usually to score point for longer distances or specific regions or countries.
Amateur radio is continuously evolving with new frequencies and techniques or modulations being tested. Many operators construct their own antenna or if Advanced licensed their own transmitters and receivers too.
Local Amateur Radio clubs
These provide weekly meetings on most cases, where operators may have a topic of conversation, minutes of previous meetings and upcoming events. With Covid 19 many of these meets have took place online or on-air. Clubs almost always welcome new members with taster session for no cost, before you will be asked for a membership fee. This is very worth it for the beginner as they can benefit from training and knowledge from more experienced operators and take part in outdoor events and open days.
You will often be allowed to purchase radios from members and silent keys, operators who have died and their equipment is often donated to help with costs.
It is also worthwhile to join Radio Society of Great Britain, they support through a monthly magazine called RadCom and online at rsgb.org and provide much raining material for the beginner and more advanced operator alike. They have a store with merchandise and may great books to help you, not just with passing the exam, but constructing and operating equipment too.
Radio operators can access a repeater on the ISS, the International Space Station, have conversation with the crew. Also many amateur satellites are in orbit, some based on Raspberry PIs and some orbit while others are geo-stationary. It us great fun constructing antenna to listen or contact these satellites.