About Ham Radio “Contesting”

by Rick Booth, KM1G

What Is Amateur Radio?

We live in a wireless world today, but it wasn’t always so. Most people don’t realize the radio we take for granted today was perfected by home hobbyists. Today they’re called Amateur Radio Operators. You might know them as “hams.” There are 700,000 in the United States and more than a million others around the world, and still growing.  Yes, people still do ham radio!

Ham radio is not just for those with technical interests. Operators include engineers and scientists of course, but also store managers, physicians, pilots, bankers, military officers, judges, musicians, diplomats, students, professors, winemakers, and even professional baseball and soccer stars. Anyone who can earn a license is welcome to join in.

Amateur Radio is a service licensed in the USA by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Other countries have their equivalent to our FCC, and can earn licenses, as well. Once licensed, hams are authorized to use radio to talk anywhere on earth, using different “modes” such as voice, Morse code, or any of several computer-connected codes which hams also pioneered, and continue to do so.

Hams communicate within their own countries and worldwide. Some “ragchew” – the ham nickname for social conversation. Much of the talk surrounds the technical nature of ham radio. The conversations bring hams closer, bridging international frontiers and spanning obstacles like mountain ranges and oceans. Tuning across the ham radio “bands” will reveal conversations in many languages, with English as the most common.

Radio spectrum, “the frequencies,” are a limited resource—one ever-pressed by commercial interests such as wireless Internet. Why are frequencies still set aside for hams to use for free? Because every nation realizes the role Amateur Radio can play in time of disasters. Did you know that, in the aftermath of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina it was Amateur Radio communicators who replaced commercial radio and telephone during the crucial early hours?

Others spend their time at the “outer limits” of radio, making the higher frequencies (Ultra High Frequency or UHF) more useful. Some bounce signals off the moon and receive the return signal. Ham radio organizations have built satellites for amateur radio. For more than 50 years there have been ham satellites in earth orbit, permitting hams to talk on UHF not otherwise possible. And perhaps most prestigious of all, hams have been privileged to speak first hand with the International Space Station, or ISS. Most of the astronauts and cosmonauts assigned to the ISS are licensed amateurs in their countries.

In the United States, Amateur Radio is represented through a national organization, the American Radio Relay League, based in Newington, Conn. The ARRL is a membership organization that promotes and supports the growth of ham radio. Anyone interested in ham radio can visit www.arrl.org for more information on how to obtain a license. The ARRL is celebrating its centennial in 2014!

What is Amateur Radio Contesting?

Finally, there is competitive ham radio, known as Radiosport, or “contesting.” These competitions help hams improve their equipment, understanding of radio propagation, and communication skills that could be needed in an emergency.

The object in an Amateur Radio contest is to contact as many others as possible, exchanging specific information peculiar to that contest. Small contests may have hundreds of participants. The very largest may have 10,000 to 20,000 people involved from all around the world. Everyone operates at the same time using their own equipment from wherever they are in the world. They log each contact and submit it to a central administrator for scoring and calculating the results.

So it is that every four years there is what might be called the Olympiad of Amateur Radio: the World Radiosport Team Championship. The seventh edition of this special competition returns to U.S. soil, this time in New England. Some 59 teams of elite contesters from across the globe will assemble in 2014, for a single 24-hour marathon test of skill and will. Chosen from regions around the world in a series of 55 qualifying events over a 3 year period, these are the all-stars.

But wait. If radio allows Radiosport enthusiasts to compete from afar, why do they want to gather in one place to compete every four years? The answer lies in answering the question, “who is truly the best of all?” It is the nature of competition: the melding of operator, equipment and geography in a given time can give victory or defeat to one or another. The WRTC was designed to overcome that. All the competitors are on the same geography, with identical stations. Given the same
conditions, the two partners with the highest score can truly say, for the ensuing four years at least, they are “the best in the world.”

What could be more exciting?