Once you get your ham license, you need a station. Ham radios are like cars in a sense; you can buy a more plain one for a lesser price or a fancier one if you have more cash.
There are a lot of places to buy ham radios and accessories. Ebay certainly has vast amounts of ham equipment. Many hams are growing old and often their equipment appears for sale once they pass away. There are also web sites specifically for selling used ham equipment – just search. Hamfests are another source. Hamfests are gatherings of ham radio operators where they buy, sell, and swap equipment, win radios as prizes in drawings, take ham radio tests, and talk, talk, talk. At hamfests you can get both new and used equipment. Many hams operate with used rigs, and a well-cared for radio lasts all but forever. If you want a new radio, there are online dealers who sell every radio made; one example is http://www.aesham.com
If you got a Technician license, you probably want to get a handheld 2 meter radio. That way you can talk on the local repeaters to all the hams in a radius of about 100 miles or so using clear-as-crystal FM. Plop a magnetic mount antenna on the roof and you can use your handheld on the go. Since repeaters blanket virtually the entire USA, you can always find locals to talk to. I once got stuck in a horrible traffic jam on I-95 South on the North Carolina border. I easily found my way on the back roads past the problem with the friendly assistance of the guys on the nearest repeater. New handhelds vary from about $80 to $500 or more. The super cheapo ones have too little range; they put out tiny amounts of radio energy. Spend a little extra cash and get a five watt radio.
Once you get your HF privileges, it’s time to make some decisions. Here are some of the types of radios available, roughly from cheapest to most expensive.
There are certain hams who are into “QRP,” or low-power operating. They pride themselves on using the absolute minimum power to communicate, and use tiny radios. Frequently they build these miniature radios themselves; ham radio magazines contain plans for radios built inside tuna cans and 35mm plastic film containers. These people tend to be outdoorsy, and will hike to a mountain peak to transmit from great heights. The radios they use are almost always Morse code only, since it is clear even when it is very faint. Their radios are often very inexpensive.
Technicians who have passed a Morse code exam can operate using voice communications on one HF band, the 10 meter band. Many companies sell 10 meter radios specifically for these people. Ten meters is one of the radio bands that is affected by sunspot activity; when the Sun has spots, it works well for long distances. When the Sun is spotless, 10 meters is only good for local communications. The sunspots go up and down in an 11 year cycle, and are on the low side right now. These radios are about $150.
VHF and UHF radios are used by Technicians and higher class licensees. They operate on higher frequencies (shorter wavelengths) than HF radios. They are usually for the 2 meter, 70 cm, or 23 cm bands. They are for local use only (except under unusual conditions). The hot thing now are all the digital modes. Ham radio is going digital, and the marriage of ham radio and computers is a quickly expanding area, especially on VHF. These start at $100 and go up to over $500, depending on what you want: handheld or base radio, plain or fancy.
HF radios that allow you to communicate worldwide come in many different forms. From small, plain, single band radios to gigantic multiband rigs with the latest features.
Small low-power single band radio: Sounds good, lets you talk on the band of your choice. With some radios, you can buy plug-ins that allow you to use more than one band. Maybe only 20 watts or so, but if you are patient and have a decent antenna you can have a lot of fun. It’s more of a challenge than using a kilowatt, but that’s part of the fun, too. About $250 new.
Regular multiband radio: Typically puts out 100 watts. It has the features you need to operate DX (talk to foreign stations) like split (listening on one spot, transmitting on another). It allows you to use different modes such as voice, Morse code, or radioteletype. You can talk on any of the HF ham bands, and listen to any HF frequency (it’s fun to listen to shortwave, military, etc.). There are many different radios in this category. About $500 new.
Fancy or top-line radios: For the truly serious. These go all the way up to about $5000 or more. They have antenna analyzers and tuners, computer control, digital signal processors, etc. These are for the guys that also spend $5000 to put up a 50 foot tower in their backyards and buy a $500 amplifier so they can put out a kilowatt. They are the opposite of the QRP people.
Next post: Thoughts on the ZS radio network: what we need to do to establish a functional radio communications network (just in case this inner-net thingy ever breaks)
Part 1 - Intro
Part 2 - Licensing
Part 3 - Equipment
Part 4 - Networking