What is a Digital Ham Radio?

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  • Written By: Mike Howells
  • Edited By: Michelle Arevalo
  • Images By: Global Panorama, Beelix
  • Last Modified Date: 13 October 2019
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Despite the shrinking of the world thanks to the development of air travel, the Internet, and satellite and cellular communications, amateur radio remains a popular hobby for millions of people around the planet. Amateur radio operators, known as hams, use a variety of radio kits to communicate with each other and provide emergency notification services. A digital ham radio is simply a ham radio system that works using digital technology, as opposed to analog.

Amateur radio has existed since the invention of radios themselves, around the turn of the 20th century. Though declining equipment costs have opened up the hobby to many more people, it has always enjoyed a strong and devoted following. Like many activities, the adjective amateur, as it applies to ham radio, simply means it is outside the realm of government and business, and does not describe the relative skill of ham operators.

A ham radio kit generally consists of a number of different pieces of equipment. These can include a receiver, a transmitter, a transceiver, and amplifiers. A digital ham radio kit, in addition to these pieces, invariably also includes a computer. Ham radios supplemented with computer systems are capable of expanded uses beyond traditional frequency modulation (FM) and single sideband (SSB) transmissions.


Additional modes made possible with a digital ham radio include digital radioteletype (RTTY), Voice Over IP (VOIP), and TCP/IP-based packet radio, among others. RTTY has largely replaced older radiotelegraphy methods, like Morse Code, for non-verbal communication over radios, though Morse still has a dedicated following among purists.

Other benefits to digital ham radio include stronger signals, better adaptability to changing weather conditions, and generally more straightforward and reliable use overall. The downsides — similar to the weaknesses of most digital, non-mechanical systems — are related to power consumption. Given the unique nature of ham radio and its benefit during emergency situations, the need to be able to run a ham radio kit off the grid, with limited resources, is very important. Adding computers to the equation greatly increases power usage, which thereby increases the need for reserve fuel, larger emergency generators, and so on.

Nevertheless, ham radio has continued to thrive. With the increased versatility of digital systems, hams can converse and hold multi-person discussions from around the world over radio waves. With the use of signal repeaters and more creative tactics, like bouncing signals off the magnetic phenomenon known as the Northern Lights, hams have even been able to communicate with operators as far away as space, such as the astronauts inhabiting the International Space Station.


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