The Amateur Amateur: 10 Meters and a Long Time Ago

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
May 2019

It occurred to me that I've been an Amateur Radio operator for almost 25 years. In the beginning, I had very little idea what I wanted to do with my new-found radio privileges. I favored emergency communications somewhat, but definitely wanted to dip my toe into a variety of fields. I did, initially, but now, all these years later, I'm firmly entrenched in the emcomm niche.

As an ARES volunteer (Amateur Radio Emergency Service), I am sometimes called upon to talk about Amateur Radio to people who are not familiar with it. I can speak at length about emergency communications, obviously, but what can I say about the rest of the hobby? I do my best, but even while doing so, I realize that it's been a long time since I actually tried something outside of my own area of interest.

I decided to poke around and reacquaint myself with the vast buffet that Amateur Radio has to offer. Even if I didn't find anything that I wanted to explore further, I'd have at least reminded myself what was there.

The first place I looked was at my own early columns, written back when I was playing around with all manner of things. It was an interesting experience, reading about what I tried, what I learned, and often enough, how naive I was. It reminded me of why I titled this column The Amateur Amateur, and why it is still applicable.

Here is a very early column that appeared in a local police scanner club newsletter, but was never published on the Internet.

* * *

Amateur radio is fun and I've dabbled in a variety of different aspects of it, but my most frequent ham activity is still chatting with my wife car-to-car during rush hour. Since we talk for extended periods of time, we are reluctant to use (and hence tie-up) local repeaters. We use simplex mode when we can. The problem with 2 meter FM simplex is that it is very much a line-of-site operation. That is, when Nancy and I are on hills, it works great. When either of us is in a valley, we can't communicate at all. And, naturally, the further apart we are, the more difficult it is to make contact.

I thought about our propagation problem. One thing that occurred to me was: the lower its frequency, the farther a radio wave travels. This simplistic statement is chock full of caveats, exceptions, and assumptions, but that's the approach I took. I had been thinking about the 6 meter band, because Missouri Highway Patrol cars manage to communicate over long distances fairly well using the 7 meter band. I was saving my pennies toward buying a 6 meter radio when something caused me to change course.

Radio Shack HTX-10
HTX-10 10 meter transceiver
MFJ-1796 HF antenna
Multi-band base antenna
Radio Shack CB mobile antenna
CB mobile antenna

I was reading a radio magazine when I stumbled across an article about 10 meter mobile ham radios. The author was enthusiastic about the band primarily as an introduction to HF and DXing (making long distance contacts), but I was still thinking in terms of local communications with little extra "oomph". Basically, the article said: It's fun. It's easy. It's cheap. I was especially interested in that last part.

The article described a couple of different inexpensive10 meter mobile radios, including one sold by a nationwide chain of popular electronics retail stores. Oh boy, I thought. I could get myself operating on 10 meters right away. I dashed off to the nearest retail store. I really should have known better.

These particular retail stores are always busy on weekends, packed with people attempting to buy high-tech consumer products at bargain-basement prices or get free advice concerning dangerous do-it-yourself projects. My own experience has been that many of the products are basement-tech and high-priced rather than the other way around, and that the advice dispensed tends to contradict not only common sense, but frequently several laws of physics as well. Nevertheless, I waited my turn, itching to get a 10 meter radio.

You know, of course, what happened. The clerk did not know what a 10 meter radio was, what ham radio was, and once I pointed it out in the catalog, didn't have one in stock. He did, however, call another store and ascertained that they did have one in stock. The clerks may not know rocket science, but they do know product numbers.

I dashed to the next store and found a similar group of high-tech, bargain-price, free-advice hunters, but this store had more clerks. (Initially I did not know that the shuffling, muttering, glassy-eyed creatures were clerks. It was only after I discovered that they were engaged in phone conversations on tiny headsets that I realized my mistake.) Within minutes I had purchased the one 10 meter radio that they had in stock. I really should have known better.

Gleefully examining my prize at home, I realized my various mistakes: (1) Don't be in such a hurry, (2) Compare the products of several companies, and (3) Never buy the last item they have in stock. My radio had no manual.

It was, of course, pointless to go back to the store, so I didn't. It occurred to me, though, that the radio's manual might be available on the Internet. I gave it a shot, and was stunned speechless to actually find the manual online and available for download. Actually, it was only extracts from the manual, but there was enough for me to figure out how to operate the radio.

Rather than attempt a complicated mobile installation right away, I decided to test my new 10 meter radio as a base station. I took it down to my basement, a small corner of which is designated as my "shack". I usually hesitate to call myself a "real" ham, but I did have a spare power supply of the correct wattage and a means to connect the 10 meter radio to the multi-band antenna on my roof. It only took a few minutes to set up the new rig. I paused to admire my work. The disarray of radios, power supplies, antenna switches, dummy loads, Morse keys, wires, meters, and illegible notes was starting to look like a real ham shack. I felt proud.

But enough of that. I had to find out if this 10 meter radio, and indeed, the 10 meter band in general, was up to the task I had in mind. I turned on the radio, scanned through the 10 meter band, and was disappointed to find I only heard the occasional hiss of a carrier wave, but nothing strong enough to understand. I contemplated this sad situation. I thought about the possibility of poor propagation conditions. I thought that perhaps my multi-band antenna didn't include any elements for 10 meters. And as I stared at the rig, deep in thought, I noticed that I had improperly set an antenna switch, meaning that the radio wasn't connected to the antenna. I set the switch to the correct position .....

... and was suddenly blown out of my chair by the sound of a S9 (full strength) conversation came blaring from the speaker. Wincing in pain, I fumbled for the volume control, which was set at maximum. After a moment the ringing in my ears subsided. I regarded my new radio for a moment, and then the immortal words of Victor Frankenstein came to mind: It's alive!

I have to interject at this point that I was a little leery of the 10 meter band. The nearby 11 meter band is the notorious Citizens Band. I'd heard stories of CB operators illegally infiltrating the 10 meter ham band. I'd even stumble across the Web page of a local radio distributor who sold a variety of 10 meter transceivers with features such as "echo chamber" and "roger beep" (whatever the blazes that is). This was very disturbing, as these ham radios were clearly loaded with gizmos designed to entice CB operators. I feared that the 10 meter band might be heavily populated with unlicensed users. After monitoring the 10 meter band, however, I was very happy to find that all of the operators I heard were legitimate hams.

Not wanting to transmit without knowing what I was doing, I listened to the 10 meter band for a long time. The first and most obvious problem I was going to have was deciding what mode to use. The 2 meter band was easy. Practically all of it was devoted to FM transmissions. 10 meters was different. There appeared to be a section set aside for FM and a section set aside for SSB (single side band). I scrounged through my books, magazines, and notes and came up with several band plans (none of them exactly the same). Moreover, none of them had a dotted line saying "use FM hereand use SSB there". They tended to show things like "frequency for RTTY uplink using helically polarized antenna when satellite is at apogee". Nevertheless, I was able to figure out about where the dotted line should be.

I did mention that the radio was cheap, didn't I? That was it's big feature. That was practically it's only feature. Although the transceiver worked in different modes, I had to figure out which mode to use when tuning around the 10 meter band and then set it manually. Perhaps you think that's not too bad. Okay, maybe it wasn't.

Except while scanning.

The transceiver was capable of scanning the 10 meter band, but unlike a police scanner, it could not be set to scan only selected portions of the band. I could live with that if the radio automatically switched modes as it scanned, but it didn't. It could only be set to scan the entire band in FM mode, or the entire band in AM mode, etcetera. No matter how I set up the radio, I was going to hear gibberish. I wasn't happy about that. I get plenty of gibberish without having to scan for more.

I knew that if I ever got 10 meter radios to work in our cars, my wife and I would probably use single side band. The clarity of SSB was lower than FM, but it was a more efficient use of the power. That is, single side band had that extra "oomph" I wanted. I decided, however, to focus on FM for my first rudimentary experiments. Why? Well, I figured FM mode would be easiest.

I was wrong.

One of the band plans I found listed a national FM simplex frequency. I monitored it and heard nothing. I transmitted on it and got no reply. I wasn't really surprised, since I hardly ever get a reply on the calling frequency of any band. (I smell a topic for another column..) There were also four FM "repeater pairs" listed in one of the band plans. Were there any 10 meter FM repeaters in the local area? According to the ARRL repeater guide there were two. Great, I decided to give them a try.

Well, the transceiver did allow frequency splits (transmit on one frequency and listen on another) for repeaters, but setting up the radio to do that was a lot like trying to open one of those Chinese puzzle boxes. It would have helped to have a computer capable of doing 3D rendering handy. I didn't, but somehow managed to set up the radio anyway. I needn't have bothered, since I was unable to reach either repeater. (The repeaters, however, could reach me.)

My experiments with 10 meters are continuing. The score so far is, heard: plenty, contacted: nobody. Sooner or later this will change and no doubt I will write a Really Big column about it. Meanwhile, the question that really nags me is: when I am finally satisfied with the 10 meter radio, will I have to go through the Chinese puzzle box all over again after I unplug it to install it in my car?

Stay tuned.

* * *

I did follow up with a mobile experiment. My wife sat in the shack, using my multi-band HF rig, while I drove around the neighborhood with the 10 meter rig (a Radio Shack HTX-10, in case you hadn't already guessed). I stuck a Radio Shack CB mobile antenna on the roof of my car. I can't remember whether we operated FM or SSB, though, and I'm too lazy to go digging through my pile of notebooks to find out. In any case, the HTX-10 kept drifting off frequency, and that ended my 10 meter experiments.

It was time to play with something else.

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