This page is for those of you who are recently licensed and getting ready to find your way in this hobby. (Or perhaps returning after a long absence)
You have passed the test and received the email from the FCC with your new license and callsign attached. Now what?
Getting on the Air
Choosing a first radio
Most hams choose a VHF/UHF handheld radio as their first radio. These radios will allow you to talk on the local repeaters. Prices for a new HT (HT or handy-talkie is slang for a handheld radio) range in price from less than $50 up to the $500 range. How do I choose? As in most purchases, you get what you pay for. The very inexpensive radios allow you to find out if you are going to stay interested in your new hobby with a very minimal investment, but they have limitations that some people find frustrating compared to the higher quality “name brand” radios made by Kenwood, Icom, and Yaesu. You can expect to find a high quality but minimal frills name-brand radio for between $100 and $200. Paying more money gets you additional features such as GPS, APRS, and digital modes such as dSTAR and System Fusion.
Where to buy?
If you are looking for the best prices on the inexpensive “off-brand” radios, doing an internet search is the best option. If you are looking to purchase a “name brand” radio (Kenwood, Icom, Yaesu) then there are three large retailers who will have better prices than you will find on Amazon. They are (in alphabetical order) DX-Engineering, Gigaparts, and Ham Radio Outlet (HRO). HRO generally seems to have the best prices (but compare) has a network of 12 brick-and-mortar stores across the US. DX-Engineering has a physical store in Ohio. GigaParts have physical stores in Las Vegas, NV and Huntsville, AL. If you live in SoCal, there is an HRO store in Anaheim. I like to support HRO because they maintain physical stores, so you can try out the radios and the sales folks are pretty good at explaining the various features of the radios.
Learning to program your radio
Your new radio most likely came with a detailed Operating Manual. One radio I own came with five manuals (yikes!). If you are lucky, your manual will have a “getting started” section that will get you on the air. It might have a section called Operation or Basic Operation. But do read your manual because your radio likely has many useful (and some not-so-useful) features that will enhance your enjoyment of your new investment. It’s difficult for me to write step-by-step instructions that will work with all radios, but I will attempt to explain conceptually, what you will need to do to successfully get on a local repeater.
Manual programming or computer programming?
There are computer programs such as CHIRP or RT-Systems that allow you to use a USB cable to program many channels into your radio using a spreadsheet-like interface. This is a fast way to program lots of frequencies quickly or to copy a set of channels from one radio to another. That said, it’s best to learn to program your radio by hand, without using a computer. There are often times when you will need to program your radio in the field. Once you are proficient at manual programming, you may find it convenient to use software.
Simplex Operation. If you want to talk to another ham directly, that is without using a repeater, you want your radio to transmit in what is called the simplex mode. That means that your radio will transmit and receive on the same frequency.
1. Choose a frequency. Common 2-meter simplex frequencies are 146.52 MHz (calling frequency), 146.550 MHz, and 146.580 MHz. A common 70 cm simplex frequency is 446.000 MHz. Here is a link to the 2-meter band plan used in Southern California. If you live elsewhere, you should do a search for your local band plan. Don’t just talk on any random frequency or you may interfere with a repeater or one of the digital modes.
2. Put your radio into the VFO mode (not memory mode). Some radios have a button labelled VFO, if so press this button. Some radios have a button labelled V/M. This button will toggle between VFO and Memory modes. HINT: if you see a channel number you are in Memory mode. You don’t want this right now.
3. Enter the frequency, for example 146.520. If your radio has a number keypad, you can probably enter the frequency directly. Consult your manual to see how.
4. Set the power level. HTs don’t have very efficient stock antennas, so it’s best to start out on high power. Once you start a conversation, you can reduce power and ask the other operator if you are still readable.
Look at your radio’s frequency display when you transmit. It should display the same frequency as when you are receiving.
The purpose of a repeater is to receive the transmissions of your radio and to relay them so that you can communicate over a greater distance. Repeaters are usually installed at a high elevation, sometimes on mountaintops. Most of the 2 meter activity is on repeaters.
To program a repeater into your radio, you will need to know three things: The frequency of the repeater, something called the repeater offset, and something called the CTCSS or PL tone. We’ll cover these below.
When you operate through a repeater, you transmit on a different frequency than your receive frequency. The difference between your transmit and receive frequencies is called the repeater offset. For almost all 2 meter repeaters, the repeater offset is either 600 kHz higher (called a positive offset) or 600 kHz lower (called a negative offset). The symbols + and – are used to represent the repeater offset. On the 70 cm band, the repeater offset is 5.00 MHz lower than your receive frequency. Most radios will take care of all this automatically. Radios have a feature called Automatic Repeater Shift or Automatic Repeater Offest. When this feature is turned on (usually by default) your radio knows which frequencies are usually simplex and which repeater frequencies have + or – offsets. You only need to worry about stuff in this paragraph if the repeater you are programming does not follow the convention.
1. Find the frequency of the repeater you wish to use. There are printed repeater directories that list the frequency, offset, and PL tone for repeaters listed by geographical area. If you have a smartphone, the Repeaterbook app uses your phones GPS to determine you location and then will display a list repeaters starting with those closest to you. There are settings for filtering according to band and various repeater attributes.
2. Enter the frequency, for example 146.970. If your radio has a number keypad, you can probably enter the frequency directly. Consult your manual to see how.
3. Confirm that the your radio selected the correct offset when you entered the frequency. You can check this by briefly transmitting while looking at your radio display. If a 2-meter repeater has a minus offset, the frequency when you transmit will be 600 kHz (0.600 MHz) lower than your receive frequency. If a 2-meter repeater has a plus offset, the frequency when you transmit will be 600 kHz (0.600 MHz) higher than your receive frequency. For 70 cm repeaters, your transmit frequency should be 5.000 MHz lower than your receive frequency.
4. Turn on PL tone encoding. So what is this? First let’s deal with the name. A long time ago, Motorola came up with an idea to send a low-frequency audio tone along with a radio transmission as a way to “unlock” the repeater. They called it Private Line™ (or PL™ for short). Notice that PL is a trademark. So other companies that use this feature can’t write PL in their manuals. Hams almost always call this a PL tone, but you will not find the term PL in your radio manual or in a ham radio magazine, it will be called CTCSS (which stands for continuous tone coded squelch system). In many radios PL encoding can be enabled with a couple of button presses. Some radios might require you to find a menu setting. On Yaesu radios this button is labelled SQ TYP. Kenwood radios label this as TONE. When PL encoding is enabled, most radios will display a tiny “T” in the display above the frequency. Your radio may be different. The manual is your friend.
5. Enter the CTCSS (also called PL) tone. Sometimes simply called the tone. There are 50 different PL tones. You need to enter the one that your repeater requires. In some radios this can be set by pressing a button. Some radios will require to to enter the menus. Yaesu labelled the button CODE, Kenwood calls it T SEL or TONE Freq.
Some repeaters do not require a PL tone for access. In that case, in step 4 above, PL tone encoding can be set to off. (No T will be displayed.)
A word about receive PL or tone squelch. What we have been talking about so far, it the need for you to set your radio to transmit the correct CTCSS tone in order to access (open the squelch) on the repeater. Your radio also has a setting that will keep the receiver of your radio quiet unless it receives the correct PL tone. This is called Tone decode, CTCSS decode, or Tone Squelch It is usually set by the same buttons or menu item as the PL encode setting. If you think you have things set correctly but you cannot receive anything, you might have accidentally turned on. If your radio stays muted after turning up the volume and manually opening the squelch, it’s possible that you have accidentally enabled PL decode. Look at your display. On Yaesu radios T SQ will be displayed instead of T. On Kenwood radios, CT or DCS will be displayed instead of T.
This is what a typical repeater print listing might look like: 146.970- PL 136.5
Here is what the Repeaterbook app will display: 146.97000 -0.6 MHz 136.5
In both cases, the repeater frequency is 146.970 MHz, the repeater offset is -0.600 MHz and the PL tone is 136.5 Hz.
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