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I pursued Amateur Radio primarily for local emergency communications and as part of my electronics education. My only radio right now is an inexpensive 2m/70cm HT which is good for local weather spotting and emergency operations.

I'm interested in talking to other Amateur Radio users around the US, but I'm trying to keep my costs down. I know that many amateurs can make contacts worldwide on various bands at very low power levels, but many of them require specific conditions. I'd like to be able to talk with others around the US regardless of the conditions.

What bands and modes best suit these requirements, in order of importance:

  • USA Amateur Radio bands
  • Voice contacts
  • Long distance (3,000 miles, 4,800km, or more)
  • Unconditional access (don't want to worry about time of day, minor weather effects, etc)
  • Low cost of setup (including antenna cost)
  • Low power usage
  • Small footprint (doesn't require acres of antennas)

The first four are critical. If there is no band or mode at any cost that fits these needs, then the question cannot be answered. If multiple solutions exist for the first four, then narrow them down or rank them according to each of the next three requirements. For instance a lower cost with a bigger antenna footprint would be preferable to a solution that cost more but had a smaller antenna footprint.

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    $\begingroup$ As this question stands, it's too broad. There are quite a few important factors, such as price, land availability, time of day, etc, which play important factors. Also, how important is it that you can reach 3,000 miles all the time? I'm sure I could find more good questions too... $\endgroup$ – PearsonArtPhoto Nov 6 '13 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ @PearsonArtPhoto I've edited my question with a more concise list of requirements - is this still too broad with too many good solutions? $\endgroup$ – Adam Davis Nov 6 '13 at 21:01
  • $\begingroup$ It'll do. I think a lot of people have such desires, and this will no doubt help them to realize why it's so difficult to do. $\endgroup$ – PearsonArtPhoto Nov 6 '13 at 21:20
  • $\begingroup$ Related: What is the best time of day/Band to make a contact with Hawaii from the East Coast? $\endgroup$ – a CVn Nov 7 '13 at 9:52
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You are going to have a very difficult time achieving the first 4 with any band on a low budget. But in general, I'll say a few words to get you started.

  1. You probably want to be able to use digital modes. Your best bet to get consistently across the country will be via digital modes, as they can add something like 20-30 dB effectively to your signal. Olivia in particular might be a good choice. This is achieved because digital modes are more sensitive, able to read signals below the noise floor.
  2. If you want to be able to reach your "neighborhood" consistently, and occasionally around the world, then your best bet is probably 40 m. In fact, 40m is a highly recommended band to start out on. It works very reliably up to about 700 miles during the day, a bit further at night, and if you get it high enough, can work really well at night. Plus it's less crowded and generally more friendly than 20m.
  3. 20m is the best band overall to work around the world, but you often will have difficulties with things that are closer.
  4. If you really want voice to anywhere in the world, you'll want a huge yagi antenna on a large tower, transmitting at the full legal power in a quiet RF area. Other than that, you will have some compromise.

My set up is a G5RV in my attic, which I can talk routinely to Europe on 20m, most of the East part of North America on 40m, and occasionally further on 10 and 15m. I live in Virginia (FM19), to give you an idea.

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    $\begingroup$ They work at less than a SNR of 1. Voice needs an SNR of something like 5-10 to be effective, while digital can often receive signals with a signal of 20-30 dB below the noise floor. $\endgroup$ – PearsonArtPhoto Feb 21 '14 at 21:44
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Based on the parameters given I would say 20M is the best band to aim for. There's usually a lot of activity, it tends to give reliable propagation, your antenna can be relatively small and there's a little bit of everything happening on it (CW, voice, digital and SSTV). From south-central Canada I've worked as far south as Cuba and as far east as Germany on a horizontal dipole hanging about 3 meters (10 feet) off the ground and most of North America with a sloper hanging off a tree at the edge of a field.

For straight distance it's hard to beat digital or CW though, so it may be worth learning Morse Code or finding some software to encode/decode it for you on the fly.

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20m is the "go-to" band for long haul comms without a huge antenna, but it is by no means the only one. I've had 5000mi contacts on 20m, 17m, and 10m (using only 100W transmit power). With more space for antennas, 80m and 40m have even more potential for long distance.

"unconditional access" is the hard one. There is no one band that will do that for you all the time. It all depends on the atmospheric conditions. For instance, 10m is only good during the daytime, and 20m is best during the daytime, and I wouldn't expect long haul comms out of it at night. To pick 3 bands, 10,20 and 40m would work if you learned how propagation works. You can also build (from speaker wire) an antenna that will work pretty well on all three of those bands.

"low power" means something special in the ham radio world. If you mean 5W transmit power, then you need to drop the voice mode from your requirements. Morse code could do that. Or if you can use a computer with it, JT-65 or PSK31 would work also.

It's going to sound like the catch-all answer, but find a local club. Find some used gear. My first radio (3 years ago) was a 1986 model Kenwood TS-430S. That, plus the tuner cost me only 325 from a local guy. Great radio. add in power supply and antenna fixins and I was under $500 with a wire antenna laying on top of my shingle roof.

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For long range voice contacts that work all the time, day or night, you need a satellite phone. Especially if you are considering emergency use, that is your best bet.

If you want to do the same thing on amateur bands, you need high power, high gain antennas for several bands, and several years of intensive practice.

You could set up an Elecraft K-line station (500 Watts), plus a tower and a beam for maybe $10K. That is about the cheapest setup that satisfies your top four requirements.

If you are OK with digital contacts instead of voice, things could be a lot cheaper. It is common to talk cross-country with 10 Watts and simple antennas on digital modes.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ha, ha... satellite phone? Why not just say he needs a cell phone with a good long distance plan? Or why not just recommended some internet based chat? I think this answer misses the point of the question being directed at amateur radio. He's likely looking for something that could work when satellites are down, internet is inaccessible or he may be looking for a specific setup goal to work towards and train with, given some recommendations. $\endgroup$ – BenSwayne Feb 6 '14 at 19:06

protected by Phil Frost - W8II Feb 23 '14 at 0:21

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