Ham radio operators must be licensed to broadcast, although not to listen in. There are several levels, or classes, of licenses, each consecutively more difficult to obtain. The current operator classes are technician, general and amateur extra. The technician license holder can operate an amateur station that transmits on channels in any of the 17 frequencies that have up to 1,500 watts of power. General class holders can operate in all 27 amateur bands and, after being accredited as volunteer examiners, can administer the licensing examination to others. Amateur extras can operate in HF bands [source: FCC]. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also recognizes grandfathered operator classes; these are novice, technician plus and advanced.
Most classes require knowledge of the rules and regulations involved in being a ham radio operator, as well as the equipment and electronics. Study guides are available in print and online. The basic test consists of about 35 questions. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) offers assistance with helping new people get involved and in proctoring licensing tests.
One reason for licensing is because ham radio operators provide an important service that the FCC recognizes. The amateur operators provide back-up communication in times of emergency. It may not seem necessary in the days of cell phones and Internet communications, but if a storm or other even knocks out power, transmitters powered by the sun or generators could keep amateur radio transmissions up and running and ham operators relaying important messages [source: Harley].
Ham radio was really popular in the 1960s, after groups of amateur radio operators (radio hams) came together to build an amateur radio satellite. The first satellite was put into orbit in 1961 [source: SatBytes]. The satellite was named OSCAR-1 and many ham communications satellites since then have been named OSCAR. Amateur radio operators already had been relaying messages, probably since 1914, when they had a system to send messages from one coast to another [source: ARRL]. The ARRL says it has more than 157,000 members and estimates that at least 600,000 people in the U.S. operate ham radios [source: O'Neal].
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