I was asked this question on a social media post and its a blog I’ve been meaning to do so here was my answer.
The FCC regulates the airwaves in the U.S. corporations, businesses, cell phone companies, etc. pay a lot, and I mean a LOT of money to have licenses and access to frequency spectrum. Ham radio has access to more radio spectrum than anyone else except the government. The primary purpose of ham radio is to provide emergency communications and to foster development of technologies. This is written into the regulations (Part 97):
§ 97.1 Basis and purpose.
The rules and regulations in this part are designed to provide an amateur radio service having a fundamental purpose as expressed in the following principles:
(a) Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications.
(b) Continuation and extension of the amateur’s proven ability to contribute to the advancement of the radio art.
(c) Encouragement and improvement of the amateur service through rules which provide for advancing skills in both the communication and technical phases of the art.
(d) Expansion of the existing reservoir within the amateur radio service of trained operators, technicians, and electronics experts.
(e) Continuation and extension of the amateur’s unique ability to enhance international goodwill.
For that we get a license so that there is a basic level of understanding of rules and some radio and electrical principles, hence the tests. There are other radio services that the general public can use, some are licensed by rule, in other words you don’t need a license because the rules say so. This includes the FRS and CB radio services. In those cases the power is limited, FRS is 0.5 or 2 watts depending on the channel (frequency). Others are licensed, like GMRS, with a little more power (5 and up to 50 for a repeater).
Ham radio can use much more power, deepening on the frequency, over 1,500 watts. In addition hams have access to frequencies from 135kHz to 1240MHz. So very low HF to microwave. No other service outside of gov has that kind of spectrum.
Regardless of the rules, and we all know the expression “Rules are made to be broken” or the one I like “They’re more like guidelines” there is another, and perhaps more important, reason to get a license. Practice!
You can’t just take a radio out of a box, turn it on and start talking with someone. It takes skill and practice to learn how it works, how, and what, to program in it so you can talk to someone. Skill and knowledge on antennas, what works best, how can I make it work better. Skills and knowledge on the best frequencies to use based on the time of day and other factors. And more. Just like any other skills in life, and especially preparedness, you need to practice and gain knowledge.
The Technician exam is just a license to begin learning.
You do not come out of a ham class, or having studied to obtain your license, and know all that there is. It takes time and practice.
So, a ham license allows you to communicate with almost anyone anywhere in the world without the use of the internet (although there are some very cool internet based capabilities).
Craig Fugate, former FEMA Administrator said: “We get so sophisticated and we have gotten so used to the reliability and resilience in our wireless and wired and our broadcast industry and all of our public safety communications, that we can never fathom that they’ll fail. They do. They have. They will.”
For information on obtaining your ham radio license see this page.