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Starting with HAM Radio in Canada

For years, I've been meaning to get my Amateur Radio Licence and back in April, I finally did it.  However, I haven't done anything with it until recently, and I figure that I should probably start blogging about HAM.  I know that many people at various hacker cons have been convincing people to get their licence, and Make Magazine has featured Amateur Radio numerous times.  The problem with most mainstream guides is that they're American, and the system the FCC has set up is more complex and isn't as straightforward as the Canadian system.  In addition to that, the US has more people, and as such has more Amateurs under the age of 40.  That matters, because if there's not new blood, corporations are going to start grabbing more and more frequency for themselves, and that's bad for anyone who has an interest in RF.  I think that Rogers, Bell and Telus owns enough spectrum in Canada, IMO.

Why the hell would I want to do that?

Having a HAM Radio opens up a world of possibilities for hackers. There's something to be said for having one of the only technologies that can communicate with satellites in space.  Yes, REAL SPACE, as in Low Earth Orbit.  That, combined with being able to experiment with voice and data on amateur frequencies makes this a useful licence to have.  For example, in theory, I can now legally run OpenBTS as a secondary user of the ISM band by setting the ID of my tower as my call sign and not running encryption.  As long as I don't interfere with other users of the band, it's all good.  (I'm not sure how practical this is, since many phones won't operate when you use the bands, but it's legal at that point.)

Also, if you actually go outside a major city, you'll notice that all the Telco providers suck at providing a network in remote areas.  In BC, I know that I don't get good signal in the Fraser Canyon, and I also know that Eastern Oregon has bad signal based on my trip to Burning Man last year.  Being able to radio for help while stuck in the heat isn't exactly radical self-reliance, but it's a hell of a lot better than going through all your camping supplies in a day and risking dehydration in the summer, or worse.  Being prepared isn't a bad thing.

At any rate, there's no guide for people to become HAMs and so I'm blogging about my experiences.  This blog post will now be mostly about getting licenced:

Getting Licensed

The best way to get licensed is to take a course from a local HAM club.  I did my exam at VECTOR, and their main goal is to try and get people licensed so that they can get more people to help them during their field days and other major events, such as the Celebration of Light.  I'm mostly interested in tinkering, but this is a very important aspect of Amateur Radio, and I recommend this course.  The downside is that when I took it, it started at 7:00 AM on Saturday, and most of my friends weren't as dedicated, which sucks.

That being said, the best way to practice for the exam is to use Exhaminer, and to do it over and over again until you pass the exam.  This is very much memorization, but it does help that you actually read the book.  Most of the answers are common sense, such as questions about having a high-powered antenna near people.  I basically went into University Study Mode when I studied for it, and I got Basic with Honours easily.

(If you use a Mac, you're kinda SOL, since I couldn't get WINE to work right on a Mac.  I did all my studing on my Ubuntu box.  One thing that you'll find in HAM Radio is that most of the easy software tools to use are implemented in Windows.)

The Radio Amateurs of Canada has a list of clubs, but the problem with this is that it hasn't been updated.  I personally haven't had any luck contacting the UBC HAM Radio club by e-mail, and many people at VHS who tried contacting them suspect that it may be defunct.

Hackerspaces

If you have a problems finding a course, ask around the local hackerspace.  I know that Vancouver Hack Space does have some active HAMs, as does hacklab.to and foulab in Montreal.  Chances are that there may be enough interested enough people to form a club at the Hackerspace and offer classes.  This is something that's been looked at for a while at VHS, and hopefully we'll do more HAM stuff there in the near future.

Licence Levels - Canadian Style

Unlike the US, where there's numerous qualifications, Canada only has three main qualifications.  These are the following:

  • Basic (with and without honours)
  • Morse Code (5wpm and 15wpm)
  • Advanced

I have my Basic with Honours, which means that I have access to all the bands.  They assume that if you get over 80% on the basic exam, you can be trusted to study what you need to know to not make a total fool of yourself on the gentleman's band.  Morse Code isn't required for using Ham Radio in Canada or the US, but if you go to any other country in the world, you most likely can't operate there.  Also, if you are a US amateur looking to operate in Canada, you only have Basic without Morse, because the reciprocal treaty is over 50 years old.  I'm probably going to get Advanced and Morse so that I can operate in Europe when I go to the next Chaos Communications Camp.

Anyway, with Basic, you can transmit on the Amateur Radio Bands above 30MHz, and with Honours, Morse Code and Advanced, you can transmit on the Amateur bands below 30MHz.  Advanced also gives you the ability to build your own equipment for your own use, and for use by other people who also have the Advanced qualification.

I think I'll stop my blog post here for now, but I recommend that people find a club and get licenced.  It's important to use this band properly, because it helps protect a public resource and privilege that will go away if it is neglected or abused. I'll have more posts about HAM in the future, mostly about my adventures in HAM.  They can include things such as how to get started on a budget, as well as talking about fun SDR tricks.  I'm thinking that these blog posts would be useful for people in Canada starting out.