The $ 50 Ham: Entry-level technician transceiver
Last week I covered the ridiculously low barriers to entry to amateur radio, both in terms of the financial outlay and the process of studying and passing the FCC exam. You had seven days so I’m assuming you took the plunge and are a freshly minted amateur radio operator. The next big question might be, what now?
We briefly mentioned the picture that amateur radio is a rich old person’s hobby and that the reputation is somewhat deserved. There really is no limit to what you can spend on ham equipment. Glossy brochures and slick web pages feature transceivers with buttons and switches and the latest features that will likely be obsolete within a few years when the next big thing hits and manufacturers are reacting with new, must-have ICOM IC-7300 models. It’s no different from any other technology market, and enough people fall for this marketing to make it a running business.
Fortunately, while there isn’t an obvious upper limit to spending on ham equipment, it certainly has a floor that can be very, very low. Our $ 50 budget can go a long way to get a new technician on the air if you’re willing to compromise and miss out on the latest and greatest for a while.
Better than nothing
Like apparently every other class of electronic device, there has been a recent deluge of cheap ham transceivers aimed at newly licensed technicians. And just like TVs and computers and everything else, these cheap imports have a good and a bad side. On the good side is the benefit for consumers who otherwise could not afford such devices. Such cheap devices also tend to persuade high-end device manufacturers to adjust their pricing strategies so that their lunch is not eaten. Competition is always good for the consumer, especially in niche markets such as amateur radios with relatively few manufacturers.
The bad aspects of cheap imported electronics have been messed up many times, and we won’t go into these points here other than to say that in many cases you get what you pay for. You can’t expect as much from a radio that you spent $ 25 on as you can from one that costs a few hundred dollars. It is up to the consumer to evaluate the value proposition of the purchase. Some people need the quality and features of an expensive device, while others get by with the cheap one.
The first “hut” for many hams: Baofeng UV-5RA on the right, Wouxun KG-UV6D on the left. Personally, I keep the baofeng for experimentation and for places where I might lose it.
That said, a hue and a scream always come from the mere suggestion that someone should buy one of the cheap Chinese radios as their first ham rig. Older hams mock these radios, mocking not only the technology but those who would condescend to use such a thing. Some particularly unruly hams will flatly refuse to speak to anyone using a cheap Chinese cell phone talkie (HT).
They have a point – Baofengs are particularly known for their annoying off-band emissions – but I personally find that this is gross and exclusive behavior. I would think anyone interested in expanding the hobby would consider such QSOs (contacts) as teachable moments rather than making a newbie feel bad about their gear choices.
But if you think you might suffer the slingshots and arrows, your first radio is only $ 25 away. The Baofeng UV-5R Dualband-HT is an opportunity for the newly minted technician to exercise his privileges on both the 2-meter VHF band and the 70-centimeter UHF band. The radio is incredibly small and light, has a decent battery life and a maximum transmission power of four watts. It can be programmed from the front keyboard, although it is so tedious that it is not a bad idea to purchase a programming cable and an open source programming app. The technician can make contacts in both simplex mode (short range, radio-to-radio on the same frequency) and duplex mode (longer range contacts at two different frequencies and a remote repeater (next article).
Obviously, a $ 25 radio has a lot of tradeoffs, and the most important one for the Baofeng is the antenna. The standard rubber duck is just pathetic. An outline shows that there isn’t much in it, but a wire spool and a simple matching network in the flexible plastic cover. Fortunately, there are better antennas, also cheap. The Nagoya antennas are a great choice and will only set you back about $ 15. And nothing prevents you from building an even more elaborate antenna, like a quarter-wave ground plane antenna or a yagi antenna, which we’ll cover in future sections of this series.
Even with the better antenna, your entire first “rig” can be well below our magical $ 50 limit. However, if you do have the funds, it is probably wise to invest a little more. My first HT was a Wouxun KG-UV6G, another dual-band HT that costs about four times the cost of a Baofeng. It feels that way too – stronger, more solid and less plastic, with a better serial antenna. Some will still consider it a cheap import, but I’ve had no problems with it over the years. Even so, there’s not much else left for “true” dual-band HTs from manufacturers like Yaesu and ICOM, and if you are patient you can find deals on used high quality equipment.
Regarding Baofengs and their inexpensive cousins, the FCC recently issued a notice banning the import or sale of equipment that does not comply with their rules. The crux of the matter with these radios is their ability to broadcast outside the ham bands, especially on the public service bands. With the (im) correct programming, these HTs can be set up so that they not only receive police and fire calls, but can also be used to transmit on these channels. Listening to the people in blues and reds can be interesting and completely legal, but even accidentally blocking public security services is a serious problem. However, it seems to me that the FCC is doing this wrong. A total ban on radios would appear drastic if it were possible to re-flash the firmware of these radios to prevent anything other than the ham bands from being transmitted.
It’s hard to say what the FCC will do with their opinion or how they intend to enforce it. Will they ban the future import of these radios? Are they going to punish someone who uses them? Or worse, will they try to confiscate your new rig? If you send legally, I very much doubt it will, but even if your new Baofeng is banned, you will only lose $ 25. In my opinion, putting a few bucks on one of these import HTs is likely a solid investment if you can get it on the air and start learning.
Are there other ways for the new technician to go on air? Absolutely! Homebrewing is always an option; I would love to build a 2 meter rig from scratch for this series. There are UHF and VHF kits out there, and some people have even found ways to use old CB radios that work with the former 11-meter ham band as SSB (single-sideband) radios for the narrow ones Modify disc of 10-meter tape for which technicians have telephone rights. CB radios are basically e-waste these days so a cheap and interesting project could emerge.
But just to get on the air and at least listen to what’s going on, you can’t beat the cheap HTs.
In the next episode, we’ll discuss what to do when you have a radio: check into the local repeater, find other hams in your area, and join networks.