No license is required to listen in on radio chatter. The following links will direct you to software defined radios where you can listen in on a wide range of frequencies. Popular military frequencies include 8992 KHz and 11175 KHz. Keep in mind that one or more of these SDR systems may be down from time to time. If that should happen then I encourage you to try again later.
With radio, one can also download satellite maps, listen to alerts in the area, etc. There is still massive loss of life in countries that lack the means of weather prediction, never underestimate this basic resource. Same would apply in modern countries should the lights go out, though satellites should be operational for at least some time in most events. More info: http://sdr-radio.com/
Communications is one of those things that you don’t realize you got until it’s gone. If disaster was to strike, the power could be knocked out, rendering the internet and cell phone towers useless. Ham radio has been proven by the test of time, making it the last line of communication when all else fails. Most radios can be powered/charged from a simple car battery, or even solar panels if the need should arise. During Hurricane Katrina, ham radio was vital in saving lives. When the power went out, many radio operators were called into action to report people in distress and pass along emergency messages to different public safety services.
With an Amature radio license, you will be able to transmit on a wide range of radio frequencies. In the United States, there are three permit classifications: Technician, General and Amature Extra
These licenses must be obtained in that order, however you can stop at any point if you are happy with your existing privileges. For example, if you gain a technician class license, you are not required to get a General or Extra class license, but each level allows you more radio privileges. Here is a list of frequencies you may transmit on. Keep in mind that knowing morse code is NO LONGER REQUIRED to obtain a license.
Getting licensed involves taking a test, the cost is usually about $10, but no more than $15. Click here to locate a testing facility near you. You will start with a Technician class license, which is an excellent starting point to gain experience once you are on the air. Many people stop with this class of license, while others move on to the General and Extra class for expanded worldwide communication.
A helpful study guide can be found here for free (Technician class). After reading the guide, you can begin taking practice exams on this website. The test is 35 questions, you are allowed to miss up to nine of these. So if while taking practice tests, you start gaining a score of 90% or better, then you are probably ready for the real thing. Don’t be intimidated, simply study for the test and you’ll likely pass it. Children as young as five years old have acquired their Technician class license. When studying, do not memorize the order of the options, as these will likely be mixed up on the real exam. Upon passing the exam, your newly assigned callsign will be in the FCC database as early as the next business day, at which time you may get on the air (not before!).
Working in amature radio does not have to be expensive, in fact, there are even free methods of taking advantage of the hobby. Echolink is a perfect example of this. Echolink is a free service available only to licensed radio operators, so proof of licensing will be required before your account is set up. You will download the software from the Echolink website, and once approved, use your computer or cell phone as a radio. The advantage is that you can use your device to communicate all around the world without the need for an antenna. The disadvantage is that it requires an internet connection of some kind, so will likely not function in a true emergency. This is where a portable handheld radio can come in handy (Walkie-Talkie).
For less than $40, you can purchase a portable handheld unit. These are usually rechargeable, and this unit can put out up to 5 watts of power on the 2 meter and 70 cm bands. It can also pick up the NOAA weather channels and local emergency frequencies, but it is important to remember to NEVER transmit on these frequencies or any other frequency outside of your licensed privileges. There are exceptions in event of an emergency, but very few as you will learn in the course of your studies. A small radio can transmit up to 30 miles under the right conditions, and often take advantage of a nearby repeater network (available in most areas) to communicate even further. Using a repeater, I’ve communicated across the country using only my handheld radio. Some repeaters have reliable power backup systems in case of an emergency.
For more power, you can get a mobile unit which can connect to your automobile’s battery or a home power supply. These come in various strengths, I’ve seen a small $100 unit transmit around the world under the right conditions. You also have the option to buy used quality equipment at a very low price.
Being licensed is not only a great hobby, but it can also save a life at some point in the future. Sure people will say a licensed won’t be required in a SHTF scenario, but it’s better to gain experience legally before the emergency, than it is during the crisis. On the air, you will make many new friends and find that most radio operators are more than willing to share information.
Please post any questions in the comments section below. Hope to hear you on the air soon!