I’ve had several people ask me about what would make up a good HAM radio setup for a beginner. There are a few things to keep in mind when someone is considering a new setup. Please note, this discussion is for VHF/UHF radios only. I may do a similar post for HF at some point.
Set realistic expectations
First, keep in mind that technology has it’s limits. It’s unlikely using a handheld radio and a stock antenna, for instance, you will be able to talk across the state without using repeaters and other services offered by HAM radio clubs you may need to join. VHF and UHF are limited by line of sight. That is why tall towers exist, because the further you can “see” the further the radio signals go. It’s important to understand what the technology can and cannot do, and I hope to explain that below.
What sort of communication do you plan to do
What this question means, is are you looking to communicate across town, or around a small geographic area (like within a park)? Who do you plan to communicate with? A radio is only one piece of the puzzle, there needs to be someone within range on the other end who you wish to talk to. Are you okay with analog radio which is easily eavesdropped, or do you want the added complexity of digital radio (such as YSF or DMR) which although unencrypted has a higher barrier of entry for snooping? What is your budget? $100 or $1000? Do you plan to communicate directly radio-to-radio (known as simplex) or do you want to use a repeater as an intermediary?
With those questions out of the way let’s talk about some of the technologies:
Base stations are very useful for communicating across town or even within the county. They will be permanently setup in a home, garage, or office. Usually they are connected to an antenna mounted on either a tower, or at least a rooftop so that it has some height. Remember the higher the antenna the further you will be able to communicate. Additional height is almost always more important than additional power. Base stations are made up of a “mobile” radio (designed for a vehicle) attached to a 12v power supply that plugs into AC. Some people also add a 12v deep cycle battery for off grid use. Base stations realistically can talk within a 5-10 mile area directly (simplex) if both base stations have elevated external antennas. Base stations can talk much further when using a repeater, it’s not uncommon to be able to use repeaters 30-50 miles away. (I can access repeaters in Waterloo and Muscatine from my home by the airport)
Mobile stations also are useful for communicating across town or within the county. But, mobile stations usually are limited to the largest range when communicating via repeaters only. Without a repeater, realistically you might expect to talk to a base station 5-10 miles away, but another mobile station only within a few miles. When using a repeater, you can likely make it to repeaters within 20-30 miles of you and then talk to other stations within the repeaters coverage area. Mobile stations use the same radio as base stations, and are attached to the vehicle battery which makes then disaster ready.
Handheld stations, or walkie-talkies, are many people’s first entry into HAM radio. They can be very useful, because they are entirely self contained and highly portable. Many people add additional features to their handheld, such as external antenna, power supplies, speaker mics or amplifiers. People even use handheld stations as base stations. When in their basic state (internal battery and internal antenna) a handheld may communicate short distances directly to other handhelds. They can communicate further with base stations, but usually you are still limited to a few miles under the best of conditions. When using a repeater, a handheld can talk to anyone within the repeaters coverage area, so probably 20-30 miles.
It might be a good time to discuss the benefits and draw backs of using repeaters. Repeaters are basically ham radio base stations located at tall towers (or sometimes people’s home) that act as a retransmission point. They receive a signal and then retransmit it at a much higher power from a much taller antenna. This means that anyone within a repeater’s service area can communicate with anyone else within the repeaters service area — for instance two handheld radios can communicate even if they’re 20 miles apart as long as they’re both in the repeaters service area.
Why wouldn’t you want to use a repeater then? Well, there are some drawbacks. First, they are a limited quantity, for instance there are about 5 reliable and wide area repeaters in Cedar Rapids. It’s possible (but somewhat unlikely) they could be tied up when you want to use them. Additionally, if one is tied up, both stations need to know which other repeater to try and in what order such that they can still meet up on the air. Also the repeaters are owned by individuals, or in some cases clubs, who pay to keep them operational. So you may need to join the club to use them.
Secondly, repeaters are great when things are going well. But not all repeaters are available if the power is out. Some repeaters have battery backup, but that will only last a few hours or days at most. And if the tower was to collapse, then the repeater would also be offline. Depending on a repeater in a disaster situation could be a bad bet!
Finally it’s also important to consider that repeaters are a well known frequency with hundreds maybe even thousands of people listening at any given time. The repeater 146.745 in Cedar Rapids is the most well known repeater in Eastern Iowa. This isn’t a big deal if you’re just meeting for lunch chat — but if you’re discussing anything private then forget about privacy.
Digital vs Analog
For the last 60+ years, most two way radios were analog. This is a very simple technology, it’s readily available, and it’s cheap to produce. You can buy an analog handheld HAM radio for < $40.
However analog has some disadvantages. It suffers from noise where the weaker the signal the more background static/hiss will be present. This can make it difficult to hear or understand when signals are weak. It’s easily listened to, with other ham radios or with scanners. It’s limited to one conversation on a frequency at the same time, since only one radio can transmit on a frequency. It’s relatively power hungry on handheld radios since it transmits 100% of the time you are talking. There are other drawbacks as well, but those are the ones most users see.
Around 10 years ago, many commercial and HAM operators started moving to digital. There are 4 main types of digital ham radios in use today. YSF (also known as C4FM) is Yeasu’s standard. DV short for Digital Voice is ICOM’s standard. DMR is an open standard made by many manufacturers and Chinese clones (also known as MOTOtrbo which is Motorola’s patented version). And finally there’s P25 which is another Motorola proprietary standard which is commonly used in the commercial space by law enforcement.
Each of these standards has different advantages and disadvantages. And the big disadvantage is that none of them are compatible with each other! Some advantages are that digital modes can have much clearer audio, much lower power usage, and provide some privacy because the cost of entry is higher. Privacy shouldn’t be confused with encryption however, because anyone with the knowledge can decode these standards when used by HAM radio operators because encryption is forbidden.
DMR – The cheapest digital standard to get into, which makes it the most widely adopted, but complicated to set up
DV – ICOM standard which is getting older so there is some used equipment on the market
YSF – Relatively new standard but if you are a Yeasu guy this is what you’ll be using. Easy to program.
P25 – Lots of off lease and retired Motorola radios on ebay you can get to operate this
Personally, I have DMR, and YSF radios.
Build Ideas – Base Station
Good: Total price from Amazon = $242.23
This is a good entry level setup. The radio, while a “Chinese” clone is a brand that is known to have fairly good support and is robust and well liked by ham radio operators. However, one draw back is it’s relatively complex to use. A printed guide can help with that. The base antennas is modest, and would be the first thing I would consider upgrading to a diamond brand. The feed line, RG-8x has some loss, which means the power is being dissipated in the wire and not making it up to the antenna.
|Element||Name and Link||Price|
|Radio||Retevis RT95 Dual Band Mobile Radio||$119.99|
|Antenna||HYS TC-40UV Dual Band VHF UHF 2meter 70cm||$26.99|
|Feedline||RG-8x 35 Feet with PL259 Connectors – You need 2 of these||$28.99|
|Lightning||UHF Coaxial Lightning Arrestor PL-259 Lightning Protector||$17.29|
|Power Supply||MENZO 12v 30a DC Power Supply||$19.98|
Better: Total price from Amazon = $676.56
This is a nice mid range setup. The Yeasu is a Japanese made name brand radio that has a working lifespan of decades. It is easier to use with more basic functionality and buttons you do not need to dive through menus to access. The antenna has more “gain” which means it focuses power toward the horizon instead of sending it to space. The coax is better shielded which means less power is lost.
|Element||Name and Link||Price|
|Feedline||LMR-240 Coax Cable with PL-259 40 feet – You need 2 of these||$54.99|
|Lightning||Coaxial Lightning Surge Protector, BL 2000 PL259 Female||$19.79|
|Power Supply||Universal Compact Bench Power Supply – 30 Amp||$86.84|