Is Amateur Radio like CB?
One of the most common responses when you tell somebody you're a radio amateur, is "is that like CB?". To which the answer is "yes and no". Yes -- because they're both fairly open services, and you don't necessarily have to communicate with a closed group of other people (though many seem to like it that way).
But, to explain the "No", there are more differences than similarities. CB permits business activities, amateur radio doesn't. There are two CB bands of 40 channels each. Amateurs have access to dozens of bands, each with as many effective channels as can be squeezed into the available space. In fact the amateur bands are not defined in terms of channels, instead they are simply defined as small segments of the spectrum, within which amateurs can use any frequency at all within reason.
Amateurs are permitted to use any of a number of modes, whereas CB operators are limited to AM/SSB on 27 MHz or FM and telemetry on 477 MHz. The power levels are quite different too. 27 MHz CB radios are limited to 5 watts of output power on AM or 12 watts on SSB and the UHF (477 MHz) radios are limited to 5 watts output. In contrast, amateur radio operators are permitted powers up to 120 watts output on modes other than SSB, where power of up to 400 watts is permitted. Another difference is that radio amateurs are allowed to construct or modify equipment, whereas CB users must use type-approved transceivers.
Basically, whatever interests you, as long as you stay within the licence conditions. Some people like to chase awards, others like to work rare overseas stations. Others experiment with television, or digital modes such as radio teletype (RTTY), AMTOR, packet radio, or the newer PACTOR or GTOR that are a combination of the AMTOR and packet modes.
Hidden transmitter hunts (foxhunts) are popular with some, and help hone skills useful for tracking down interference.
Amateur satellites provide a unique challenge to some operators, while others like to bounce signals off our only natural satellite -- the moon. Still others enjoy working the world with the lowest possible power (called QRP operation), or bouncing signals off meteor trails or aircraft flight paths.
Some amateurs like building their own equipment, although with most amateurs this is usually limited to accessories and antennas. Most amateurs use radio equipment built in Japan or the USA, but build or buy a variety of different accessories when assembling their station. Experimentation with new modes often requires some work with the soldering iron. Or if soldering isn't your scene, you can try your hand at building antennas, or writing programs used for logkeeping, contesting, satellite tracking or packet radio.
The internet is making its impact felt in amateur radio, with it being used to link voice repeaters all over the world, transmit news of the appearance of sought-after stations, allow rapid exchange of technical data and exchange electronic QSL cards and more.
Australia is fortunate in having one of the least regulated amateur radio services in the world. There are relatively few restrictions on what sort of signals we transmit in our allocated bands. This makes benefits amateur radio as it makes experimentation in new modes and techniques easier.
Basically, you can do anything with amateur radio, unless it's prohibited by regulations. The main restriction is a prohibition of any form of commercial activity -- which in any case is not in the spirit of amateur radio.
About the only other thing that is expressly forbidden on amateur frequencies is the transmission of any form of entertainment (though having said that, some amateur conversations can be amusing to listeners-in). Amateurs are also prohibited from seeking to transmit messages on behalf of a third party, unless the message relates to a natural disaster.
There is no longer a morse code exam for Australian amateur radio licences. However a lot of amateurs still use morse on the air for various reasons, as explained below in the Operating section.
Often hams are trying to communicate when signals are weak, where there is interference or some other factor is making it difficult to understand the person being received. Sometimes it is necessary to spell out a callsign or a word such as a name. If you try to spell your name using the letters alone, a listener can mistake one letter for any of several. eg. A, J, K, all sound alike in English. So do B, C, D, E, G, P, T, V. So instead of spelling things out with letters, we use words known as phonetics, which have been chosen specially for their clarity. There is an international standard English phonetic alphabet, though some hams tend to use alphabets developed for the English-speaking military earlier in the 20th century. You will also hear hams using phonetics that are clearly home-made, such as Apples, Bananas, Oranges. These actually confuse listeners, especially when signals are weak or there is interference.
The standard alphabet is:
Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliet, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, Xray, Yankee, Zulu.
You will notice that none of these words can be mistaken for any other. Once you are familiar with these phonetics, you only need to hear part of the word to recognise it.
There are also standards for pronunciation of numerals and numbers such as 15. To avoid confusion between "fifteen" and "fifty", the standard expects you to speak each digit separately, with the word "decimal" to represent a decimal point. So instead of saying "fourteen two hundred" for 14.200 MHz, you would say the words "one four decimal two zero zero".
There is a detailed history and background to phonetics here that provides some additional information about how phonetic words were chosen.
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