Ham Radio: Now, Tuning In Is Easier

If you've ever hankered to operate a ham radio but were daunted by the idea of learning Morse code, now is your chance to act. New rules from the FCC let you obtain a Technician-class license by simply passing a written test of radio theory and operating regulations.

Technician privileges, while limited, go far beyond those of citizen's band, allowing greater transmitting power and access to advanced broadcasting technologies. The $5 Technician ticket lets you send personal messages on the very-high and ultrahigh frequency (VHF and UHF) bands--50 megahertz, or 6 meters, and up.

Those frequencies don't travel much beyond 300 miles on their own. But a network of radio repeaters on tall buildings or mountaintops can extend the range by hundreds of miles, depending on what part of the country you're in. So a ham in Sacramento, say, may reach as far away as Phoenix.

With the right antenna, VHF equipment can even get you to foreign countries via satellites. The more common way to span oceans is to broadcast directly on lower frequencies. To do that, however, you'll need a Novice-class license, which requires a smattering of Morse code.

NO MESS. For many people, ham radio still conjures up a picture of an unwieldy box with a tangle of wires and glowing tubes. But today's streamlined, computer-controlled VHF equipment can fit into a car dashboard or the palm of a hand.

Handheld VHF walkie-talkies run from $200 to $650, while larger, more powerful transceivers for home or car cost $300 to $1,100. Simple home antennas go for an additional $100 or so. Most gear comes from Japan, with popular brands including Kenwood, ICOM, and Yaesu. Generally, the more you spend, the more powerful the transmitter and the more memory is available for storing different operating frequencies.

Where to buy? Check the yellow pages under Radio Communications for local dealers, and look for mail order ads in ham magazines such as CQ Amateur Radio Journal (516 681-2922) and QST. The latter is available only to members of the American Radio Relay League, the nation's premier ham organization. Drop them a line at 225 Main St., Newington, Conn. 06111, and they'll fill your mailbox with information on how to get started, including names of local radio clubs that offer theory and code lessons and administer FCC tests.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.