4/18/2017 Update: Amateur Extra exam passed on April 15, 2017!
Well, I finally got around to taking the test for my Amateur Radio license to advance to the General Class! It is somewhat embarrassing to admit that I bought the study material nearly 3 years ago, but a lot of things kept bumping priority to a lower level. My Technician Class license was earned on May 24, 2010, so nearly 5 years have passed. There is no statute of limitations for how long you have to advance to the next level, although licenses are issued for 10-year terms. The impetus at this point was that the question pool is due to change again in July of 2015, so I wanted to make sure to git 'er done before then; otherwise, it would require becoming familiar with the new material.
The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) is responsible for administering the test on behalf of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). My local Ham radio club is the Forsyth Amateur Radio Club (FARC) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. They administer tests an hour before monthly meetings. My CSCE (Certificate of Successful Completion of Examination) is on record and awaiting entry into the FCC's Universal Licensing System (ULS) database*. Thanks to the three Volunteer Examiners (VEs) who used their personal time to make the opportunity available at no charge (the FCC does exact a small fee for administrative purposes).
What does the General Class license benefit me or any other Ham? Mostly, it opens access to a very large band of frequencies as outlined in the U.S. Amateur Radio Bands chart to the left. Technician Class license holders are allocated a much smaller segment of the most popular bands, with voice (phone) being an even smaller segment. General Class privileges permit access to nearly the entire High Frequency (HF, 3-30 MHz) - also referred to as shortwave - realm, which is what opens up long distance communications (DX) due to the ionospheric layers reflecting and/or refracting radio waves back earthward when the critical angle of impingement is not exceeded.
Studying the material necessary to earn a General Class license will introduce you to concepts and terms that might not be familiar to an engineer or technician who has earned a college degree but has worked primarily in the commercial and/or military communications electronics world. For instance I used to refer to all stages of frequency translation components as simply 'mixers;' however, in the hobby radio world they are commonly more specifically addressed according to their place in the transmit or receive chain. The term 'mixer' usually means the heterodyning stage closest to the antenna; i.e., at the highest frequency. The frequency translation stage closest to the microphone is referred to as a 'modulator' or a 'product detector' when closest to the headset or speaker. Yes, I was very familiar with the terms prior to entry into the Ham radio world, but I just never tended to use them when doing upconverter and downconverter design. Another example is the term 'antenna coupler' or 'transmatch' rather than simply 'matching network' when referring to the circuit used to match the antenna system to the transmitter/receiver. It is a fair bet that more Amateur Radio guys (and gals), whether they be professional electronics types or accountants, would recognize and easily interchange all of the aforementioned terms more readily than guys who only do radio work for a living ... or, maybe it's just me.
Next on the bucket list is earning the ultimate of Ham licenses - the Amateur Extra (AE) class. Doing so immediately conveys upon you demigod status amongst lesser beings (provided said beings are wise enough to recognize their subordinate existence) in the world of Hamdom ;-) The question pool for AE just updated in 2012, so the study material will be good through June of 2016. That's not a lot of time to prepare. Tests for Technician and General classes have 35 questions each, but the Amateur Extra class test has 50. There are 456 total questions in the question pool for General class, so the 35 on the exam represented a mere 8% of those possible. I aced my exam, but only after reviewing the entire pool so often that I could routinely ace the entire 456 with no problem (as verified by the software included with the study materials). I estimate that 70-80% of the material I already knew from nearly four decades spent in the electronics communications realm - circuit components, Ohms Law type calculations, electrical systems, atmospheric phenomena, etc. However, the challenging part was memorizing all the frequencies, power levels, data rates, and specific FCC regulations that comprised the remaining 20-30%. I'm learning at this point in my life that teaching old dogs new tricks is not as easy as it was thirty years ago. Continual learning and practice at what you know is a proven means of staving off gray matter atrophy, so hopefully this latest exercise has prevented a few brain cells from disappearing forever.
If you have been considering getting a Ham license, now is as good a time as ever to get started. In fact, it is a better time to get started than prior to 2007, after which the FCC dropped Morse Code testing for all Amateur radio licenses (FCC WT Docket 05-23). That is a real sore spot with some Hams who were licensed prior to then because, according to many, easier access to already crowded airwaves by not requiring code proficiency has caused too much of an increase in traffic (akin to how I resent people getting home mortgages now for 4% interest when my first one in 1983 was at 12.5%). Being a Federal agency, there is no guarantee that it will not change its bureaucratic mind and revert to a code requirement again, so get moving.
* Note: The update to General Class has already gone through the ULS - it's official now!
Posted on January 13, 2015