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  • Stu WØSTU

What is the Amateur Radio Service?

The Amateur Radio Service is better known by its colloquial name, ham radio. It is one of numerous radio services sanctioned and administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The FCC administers a wide variety of radio services, each with a unique purpose and with dedicated or shared segments of radio spectrum, or bands of frequencies. Here are a few examples of radio services that you'll be familiar with:

  • AM Broadcast Radio [535-1705-kHz]

  • FM Broadcast Radio [88-108 MHz]

  • Citizen Band Radio [26.96 - 27.41 MHz]

  • Aviation Radio [117.975 – 137 MHz and others]

  • Commercial TV, Ch.2 - 6 [54 - 88 MHz]

  • Commercial TV, Ch.7-13 [174 - 216 MHz]

And there are many, many others for cellular communications, satellite communications, emergency services communications, ocean vessel communications, military communications, and more. Here is a chart depicting all the radio services administered by the FCC and the slices of radio spectrum dedicated or shared by each service.

FCC Spectrum Allocation Chart
Download your own hi-res version of this chart here:

Radio spectrum frequencies run horizontally along each row of this chart, and each of those variously colored blocks is a unique radio spectrum allocation to a specific radio service like those examples listed above.

The Amateur Radio Service has several bands of spectrum allocated to its use and indicated in this chart. We refer to these as the "ham bands," and they are mostly fully dedicated to ham radio operators' use, with a few shared spectrum exceptions.

Like all other radio services, the Amateur Radio Service has specific purposes for the use of the allocated spectrum. These purposes are outlined by the FCC in the U.S. Federal Government Title 47 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 97, Amateur Radio Service. The stated purposes include:

(a) Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications.

(b) Continuation and extension of the amateur's proven ability to contribute to the advancement of the radio art.

(c) Encouragement and improvement of the amateur service through rules which provide for advancing skills in both the communication and technical phases of the art.

(d) Expansion of the existing reservoir within the amateur radio service of trained operators, technicians, and electronics experts.

(e) Continuation and extension of the amateur's unique ability to enhance international goodwill.

So, the Amateur Radio Service is the formal FCC designation for ham radio, with the defined purposes above and the allocation of spectrum for those purposes. Where, then, did the term "ham radio" come from?

The true origins are not definitively known, but the following origin seems to have the best ring of truth to it among a few myths.

In the early days of radio communication via Morse Code transmitters, there existed professional telegraphers and amateur enthusiasts. The professionals, taking pride in their new profession, strived to produce clean, regularly spaced code transmissions meeting the desired standards of Morse Code. These pros were said to have looked down on the amateurs whose code was nowhere near as clean and precise, mocking them as "ham fisted operators." The term stuck, became abbreviated to simply "hams," and transformed from a term of derision to an adopted term of endearment for amateur radio operators.

The FCC Amateur Radio Service today licenses more than 780,000 individuals (Oct 2021). I hope you'll join us by earning your FCC Amateur Technician License, if you haven't already!

-- Stu WØSTU


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