Sunday, March 6, 2016

An English guide to the Hong Kong amateur radio license

Due to having some RF-related projects on the go, I needed to get a couple of transmitters. In Hong Kong, with few exceptions (see page 4 here for a list), possession/ownership of transmitters without a license is illegal. An amateur license was a quick way to step around this, however the process is not particularly well documented in English. 

What use is a license?

Broadly speaking, with an 'Amateur Station License' (ASL)-
  • You can legally own a large range of radio transmitting equipment
  • You can make transmissions on the amateur-allocated frequencies
  • Reciprocal recognition of licensed status in many other countries
More specifically-
  • Amateur bands offer airspace for non-commercial users like hacker/maker communities to experiment
  • Amateur bands have higher power limits and fewer restrictions on equipment compared to the public walkie-talkie bands. Portables like the UV5R series start at under 200HKD each, and internationally are very popular with AirSofters, outdoor adventurers, and even paragliders*. Legal use depends on holding an amateur license.
  • Amateur radio is a multi-faceted hobby in itself including packet radio, long distance HF communication, and volunteer emergency response
* Operating amateur radio from aircraft is forbidden in HK. I have no idea if a paraglider is considered an aircraft for the purposes of this law.

The process

Sit and pass the Radio Amateurs Examination at the IVE

Note: These links and procedures have recently changed with OFCA now administering the exam enrollment rather than IVE.
  1. Check here for the next exam date. They are run twice a year.
  2. Fill in this form to enroll. It must reach the OFCA more that 14 days before the exam date. Include a 350HKD cheque.
  3. Get studying. The exam is 100 multiple choice questions. Pass mark is supposedly 50%. More on the syllabus in a little bit.
  4. Turn up on exam day at least 15 minutes early
  5. Bring a calculator from the approved list. You can get by without a calculator, but it's easier with.
  6. When you pass, OFCA will send you a confirmation letter.

Apply for an Amateur Station License (ASL) from the Communications Authority using this form.

  1. Don't fill in an Amateur Station Location unless you already have equipment installed there.
  2. Apply for the ASL (150HKD). The ATO is pointless as it only allows you to operate another licensed station, not own any equipment, and has no international privileges. But the ATO lasts for 5 years and you can apply for both on the same form, so if you like accumulating licenses it only takes two ticks and 160HKD more  
  3. Choose a callsign from the list here. Use the 'Morse code ability unassessed' option. You'll be entitled to a six-character callsign beginning with VR2U-VR2Z. VR2WTF is unfortunately already allocated.

Register your equipment with the Communications Authority

  1. OFCA insists that you register all your equipment with them within 72 hours of acquiring it. This is easiest done online after you receive  your licence.
  2. Bookmark the Amateur online services page, then click 'Licensee' and register for an account. This password forces changes from time to time, and the password reset procedure is 'Contact OFCA'. It's best not to forget what you set it to.
  3. After your account is created and you log in, you can register your new equipment/locations/vehicles.
  4. There's three classes of equipment - fixed, mobile, and portable. Fixed is installed at a particular location, mobile is installed in a car or boat, and portable is for handhelds. Fixed and mobile require registration of the location/vehicle details.
  5. OFCA will send you a 'sticker' to attach to each registered item. It isn't actually a sticker, and it is too large to fit on most portable equipment. Make of this what you will. I'd suggest not keeping it too far from the radio. 

Studying for the exam

Not much information on the content of the exam exists in English other than the syllabus, but it is much the same as equivalent exams in other countries. There are 100 4-choice questions, and are mostly quite straight forward. But there are a handful of hard ones thrown in too. 50% is the legal minimum pass mark. Presumably the pass mark is set to that legal minimum.

Morse code is neither required, nor tested.

Regulatory section (30 marks)

Most questions in this section are answered in either the text of the Amateur Station License (ASL) or this document here. The ASL is 7 pages long and a sample can be found here. Print both of them.

The amateur band frequencies are listed in the ASL. Memorising the whole list is overkill, but knowing the 144mhz and 430mhz bands well will probably have good effort:payoff ratio.

Regulatory questions that aren't in the ASL are either common sense or related to international license recognition. The latter probably isn't worth studying, but if interested, read CEPT 61-02. Q codes and phonetic alphabet are covered, but too low in number (~2 each) to warrant the time learning if not already known.

Technical Section (70 marks)

Best results will be had if you at least understand all the terms mentioned in the syllabus, but the largest number of marks to be gained are from the following types of questions
  • Calculations of ohm's law, its rearrangements, and its associated power equations
  • Calculating values for resistors/capacitors/inductors in series and parallel
  • Calculating values for power and voltage in series and parallel circuits
  • Calculating power and voltage changes in decibels
  • Basic functions of common electronic components and their circuit diagrams
  • Knowing the purposes of the basic components of a superheterodyne radio receiver, especially intermediate frequency calculations
  • Knowing the purposes of the basic components of FM and AM radio transmitters, especially where filtering should be applied
  • FM, AM, and SSB modulation techniques
  • Dipole antenna configuration, length and frequency calculations
Official sample questions are here, but this is probably too brief to be useful. The full New Zealand question book  is probably the best source (ignoring the NZ-specific regulation questions) of practice questions I've come across. NZART have an exam generator program if you want to generate shorter test papers. For the technical sections, it should be a reasonably accurate score-estimator.

Noticeable differences between the Hong Kong and New Zealand syllabii were-
  • The HK exam has questions on logic circuits and binary (~3)
  • The HK exam has questions on Q factor (~3)
  • The HK exam covers emissions codes like A3E, J3E, F3E and G3E (~1)
  • The HK exam has calculations on resonant circuits (~2) 
  • The HK exam does not cover vacuum tube components (tetrodes/pentodes etc)

Summary

The ASL is reasonably straight forward, mostly involving paying fees. The exam is infrequent, but those with a high-school/100-level physics/electronics background should be able to gain a passing mark with minimal study.