Aug 23, 2018
Today I attended a cram session for the FCC Amateur Radio License, often called a HAM radio license.
The class was run by volunteers from the Sonoma Mountain Repeater Society. SMRS also administered the test after the session. The session took place in the "Community Room" of a building in Petaluma, California, a venue donated by a local company who has all of their employees obtain HAM licenses from SMRS.
I passed the test! The license I earned is Technician, the first license level. Beyond Technician, there are General and Amateur Extra licenses. Those tests are harder, and the licenses offer more privileges.
The SMRS cram session doesn't try to teach any theory, it just presents about 200 test questions and answers for applicants to read through, remembering what we can. Then the test is 35 of those questions, multiple choice.
One might say that's not really a valid way to get a license, but FCC apparently tolerates it. SMRS has passed thousands of students over the years. SMRS and the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) offer many more ways to actually gain the knowledge needed to build and operate a radio station legally and correctly.
I have a lot of electronics and avionics experience, including a shallow understanding of radio, so it was quite easy for me. Someone without that background could easily pass the test, but they'd have even more learning to do after.
Amateur radio is limited to purely non-commercial activities. ARRL lobbies FCC to keep it relatively open to people interested in using it, but you can't get paid in any way.
I decided to finally get a license because I'd like to experiment with Packet Radio, a technology that routes data over radio. People like me use Amateur Packet Radio Network (APMRNet) to build and use gateways to the internet over the amateur radio bands.
I was surprised to read in the test prep materials that encrypted data over packet radio is prohibited by FCC. Or at least, I think I understood that right. That severely limits its usefulness, even for non-commercial activities, but I look forward to learning more.