RATHDRUM - The allure of surfing amateur radio bands hasn't diminished in the age of smart phones, tablets, tweeting, texting and Facebook.
Digital technology and the Internet have enhanced the ham radio experience.
"With five watts, you can talk to the world," said David Telles, a member of the Kootenai Amateur Radio Society (KARS).
But only if you have a license; amateur radio is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.
KARS is conducting a weekly series of classes, beginning tonight, to prepare interested potential hams to pass the FCC's exam to earn a Technician Class License.
The classes are from 7 to 9 p.m. each Thursday through May 23 at Kootenai Medical Center, Room 2, in Coeur d'Alene. Tuition is free. A class license manual is required and will be on sale for $22 at tonight's class. There is a $15 fee to take the FCC amateur exam.
The 35-question licensing test is designed to teach newcomers the rules of the radio waves before they start exploring the amateur bands, frequencies the FCC provides for ham operators to use.
The Technician license is the entry-level for most hams.
"The best part is Morse code is no longer necessary," said Telles, an FCC-authorized examiner who lives in Dalton Gardens.
With a license comes a call sign.
"Call signs in Idaho have a number seven in them," said KG6QQM, also known as Bonnie Patterson, president of KARS.
Patterson, of Athol, got her license while living in California.
A retired computer programmer who worked for a defense contractor, Patterson got her license 10 years ago. Her husband, Pat, already had a license.
"So I got to listen to all the traffic," Patterson said.
Her husband has the highest level of license an amateur radio operator can earn, she said.
The advanced licenses can be earned by passing additional, more complex exams, and with each successive license comes expanded privileges on the amateur bands.
"He likes to listen overseas," Patterson said of her husband.
There are awards and challenges available to hams, through KARS' parent organization, the American Radio Relay League, a group formed in 1914. ARRL is the national association for amateur radio, and touts 158,000 members.
Patterson's husband has earned one of the top awards hams can strive for, achieved by confirming radio contacts with hams in 100 countries beyond the United States.
KARS, formed in 1973, has 100 members.
Patterson said that many of the KARS members are involved with ARES, Amateur Radio Emergency Services.
"That means they have interest in helping during an emergency," Patterson said.
Amateur radio serves as a last line of communication when all other systems are down or overloaded during a crisis.
New York City agencies kept in touch on 9-11 using amateur radio, reports the ARRL. When hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma destroyed communication systems, ham radio was used to coordinate rescue efforts.
"It works when there are no bars on your cell," said David Telles.
And it doesn't have to be expensive.
Telles pulled a handheld radio out of his pocket: "$40 on Amazon."
With the small radio, Telles said a licensed ham can talk to other hams locally or use computer software to make contacts around the world.
"There are no monthly fees, like a cell phone," he said.
The methods of making contacts are diverse, Telles explained, with older technologies still available.
The possibilities for air contacts are also broad.
Telles has bounced a signal off the moon, just for fun.
It's possible to make contact with ham operators in orbit.
"90 percent of the astronauts are hams," Telles said.
Amateur radio enthusiasts come from all walks of life, he said.
"We are looking for all ages to participate but especially young people who will be those keeping our hobby alive for many more years," Telles said.
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