Becoming Intermediate

It’s really quite a comprehensive process similar in format and concept to the Foundation assessment and examination I took earlier in the year and once again the assessment is unique relative to the US licensing process that is exam centric only.

The most obvious benefits in attaining a UK ham Intermediate license are an increase in operating power from 10 to 50 watts RF and access to more frequency spectrum.

This is step two of my trilogy journey and a lot has occurred in the weeks prior to this Saturday morning in late May.  Having completed the Foundation process and once back in California I set to studying the RSGB Intermediate book and diligently undertook most practicals and the construction project.

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An invaluable study aid

Unlike the Foundation assessment that determines “on air” operating ability, the Intermediate assessment is heavily skewed toward demonstrating a grasp of fundamental electronic theory and a demonstration of practical build skills.

The rationale behind this approach centers on Intermediate license holders being granted the privilege to design and build radios. Seemingly obscure, no other radio users (commercial or broadcast users for example) have this privilege and therefore without a grounding in the basics, a home brewed radio could seriously interfere with other radio users with whom we share spectrum. Imagine creating a radio that interferes with air traffic control traffic, clearly not good at any level.

The assessment takes us through a series of activities covering safety, interference and skills to minimize the heartache with a failed project.

These include;

  • Wiring a mains plug with a 3 wire cable. 240 volts at 13 amps is a lot of power that can easily kill, so getting it right has obvious merit.
  • Demonstrating soldering skills. This is about not just creating a good connection between a component and a board but enabling us to spot a bad joint. Build a board with 100+ solder joints, one is bad and the board doesn’t work. Very frustrating and avoidable with good soldering skills.
  • Wiring a coax connector to cable is a good exercise in making sure my cables do more than appear to work and ideally don’t leak RF that can cause interference.
  • Calibrate a Variable Frequency Oscillator. As a key sub component in a radio if this is setup incorrectly interference can result in neighboring frequencies. For example, we can transmit very close to the AM/medium wave band and if my home brew radio uses a poorly calibrate oscillator I could stomp on your favorite AM station.
  • Build a circuit to demonstrate the basics of a transistor. That magical component that has changed the world.

All of this and more was done under the watchful eyes of Pete (GM4BYF) and Pete (GM4DTH) our assessors/invigilators from Foundation days. Assembled at Pete’s house in Edinburgh we navigated our way through the perquisites. My home brew 80m VFO hadn’t attracted the wrath of the US Transportation Security Agency (TSA) and safely made its way to Pete’s house from California. I had de-soldered the largish variable capacitor as I felt it would easily separate from the board in transit and thrash around most likely damaging it’s delicate board compatriots. Re-soldering it at Pete’s, checks an item off the assessment list and I was thrilled to hear it’s shrill tone on my KX2 this time with a better antenna than my tweezers.

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My 80m VFO constructed using Manhattan technique
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Large cylindrical thing is a variable capacitor that aids in creating a frequency from 3.6 to 4 Mhz

I enjoy constructing electronic projects all the way from kits (such as the Elecraft KAT100) through to my own home brew using the Manhattan technique. Its satisfying to have a working circuit but I also find the layout, construction and testing of the Manhattan board satisfying and a wonderful learning process to boot. I got positive feedback on the 80m VFO I turned in for my Intermediate assessment. Thanks!

Bread boarding a transistor circuit – another item checked off list
Calum’s construction project a success. Check!
Calum (now 2M0NOU) calibrating my 80m VFO using the KX2

Assessment complete and with a short break for lunch we took the opportunity to chase Andy MM0FMF who was activating a SOTA peak using 2.3 Ghz.

A critical mass has developed in southern Scotland (Edinburgh and Glasgow area) to encourage the use of microwave and SOTA. Pete (GM3BYF) is an avid VHF/UHF/Microwave operator and understandably has a very effective 2.3 GHz station at  his house. I was intrigued to learn from him about signals bouncing off mountains and contacts being made from Edinburgh to the English Lake District and I think out and onto the Isle of Man. Very cool and clearly defying the typical line of sight attribute of microwave. I think the hunt is part of the attraction but the investigation and learning around signal propagation an equally attractive part. It was satisfying to have my first over the air contact with Andy (MM0FMF) having already completed a face to face, email and text contact over the last year or so!

All in all a fun interlude, now its 3:30 pm and game time.

We are back at St Fillian’s Hall, tables up, chairs out, clock visibly displayed, desks cleared and exams papers ready. We’ve elected for the paper exam versus the on-line that the RSGB offers. Despite a life in the ever changing Silicon Valley tech world, I still appreciate the old school aspect of paper exams.

Calum and I finish roughly at the same time and the indicative score suggests a pass for both of use. Hooray, hip, hip, hooray!!

An American style group photo with my assessors/invigilators (Pete and Peter left to right)

I’ve enjoyed the journey immensely. While the process, time and energy to attain an Intermediate exam is non trivial and clearly far more than the equivalent US journey to General class, it creates a cadre of operators that are well equipped to be effective and move forward in home brewing if they so choose. To some extent the pairing up with the assessor/examiner plus possibly fellow participants gives a new Intermediate license holder a support team while pursuing home brew and beyond. The lack thereof is oft cited in the US as a clear impediment for newly minted hams actually getting on the air or doing really anything radio centric. Just too much unknown and sadly the fear of failure/embarrassment too intimating.

However, the world has changed and home brewing, as in building a circuit/radio, isn’t quite the necessary skill it was in years past and this begs the question of it’s necessity in the Intermediate licensing process. No doubt I enjoyed it as a “wannabe electronic designer” but do all Intermediate candidates have to build an electronic circuit?  After all ham radio is a very diverse area and if someone’s interest is in contesting or even SOTA then off the shelf radios etc will more than adequately do the job.

To the point that the world has changed, software has entered the ham radio world far beyond PC based software to assist in tracking contacts, to the point that radio features and capabilities are primarily implemented in software and not hardware. You still need hardware but the heavy lifting of extracting a voice or Morse code signal from the radio wave is implemented in software. Recognizing this, the RSGB is revamping the Intermediate and Full exam syllabus to introduce digital radio topics into the Full syllabus and shuffle some of the electronic topics into the Intermediate. Part of the rationale for the later is the perspective that the Intermediate to Full exam transition is steep as the Intermediate syllabus hasn’t provided a sufficient electronic theory groundwork to facilitate a more graceful journey through Full.

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The RSGB study guide
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And bringing out the big guns to ensure I’m well equipped on understanding syllabus topics

While software and math are always interesting to me and a journey to revisit Fourier’s world welcome, syllabus changes dictate new books and new background/support material. With that in mind, it’s full speed ahead to sit the Full exam in early fall/autumn period ahead of any new syllabus.

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3 thoughts on “Becoming Intermediate

  1. Interesting how different the US exams are to the UK’s. I like the fact that you are required to build something and calibrate an oscillator. This has to make a more capable Ham than just passing paper tests. Thanks again Paul for an interesting post.

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  2. Interesting as I’m only a foundation holder – but lucky enought to be an ex RO and only do CW. I like your question regarding only Foundation + licence holders can build stuff – but no ability needed by commercial operators. I can assure you that NO commercial or indeed military operators would ever dream of constructing anything. Everything is bought, designed and built by commercial builders of electrical equipment and the requirements of designing electronic equipment in such places probably means you have a degree in electronic engineering or similiar.

    Dave Perry (M6GYU)

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