Is HAM Radio AM or FM?

A common question we often hear when discussing ham radio is whether it is AM or FM.

Both AM and FM are methods of transmitting radio signals and each has its unique characteristics and advantages.

AM, as the name suggests, works by varying the amplitude of the transmitted signal according to the information being sent, while the frequency remains constant.

On the other hand, FM modulates the frequency of the signal while maintaining a constant amplitude.

These methods of modulation have different implications for the quality and range of the transmitted signals, as well as their susceptibility to interference and noise.

In the world of ham radio, both AM and FM modes are used, depending on the specific needs and preferences of the operator.

AM was once the dominant voice mode in amateur radio, offering a warm, rich audio quality that provides for more personal interaction.

It also encourages hands-on restoration, modification, and homebrew construction to a degree no longer found among contemporary radios.

Meanwhile, FM is more immune to interference and is typically preferred for mobile and portable communication setups, as it is less affected by poorly adjusted transmitters and receivers.

Basic Concepts of AM and FM

Details of an old am radio receiver.

When discussing HAM Radio, it’s essential to understand Amplitude Modulation (AM) and Frequency Modulation (FM).

While both technologies help transmit radio signals, they involve different techniques for modulation.

Amplitude Modulation (AM)

Amplitude Modulation is a method of broadcasting signals where the amplitude of the carrier wave varies according to the information transmitted, while its frequency remains constant.

This method has been widely utilized in radio broadcasting, with medium wave frequencies being the most common for AM radio stations.

Some advantages of AM modulation include:

  • Longer range transmission, due to the longer wavelengths of AM waves
  • Less complex equipment, which can lead to lower costs
  • Easier reception in remote areas and regions with obstacles

However, AM signals can suffer from more interference and poorer audio quality compared to FM transmissions.

Frequency Modulation (FM)

Frequency Modulation, on the other hand, involves modifying the frequency of the carrier wave according to the data being transmitted, while keeping the amplitude constant.

FM radio stations utilize higher frequencies compared to AM and provide improved audio quality and less susceptibility to interference.

FM transmissions offer several benefits:

  • Better sound quality, thanks to higher bandwidth and reduced noise levels
  • Less susceptibility to interference and signal degradation

Despite these benefits, FM does have some limitations, including a shorter transmission range and the need for more complex equipment for broadcasting and reception.

Both AM and FM modulation techniques are integral to understanding and operating HAM Radio systems, as they provide different strengths and weaknesses that can influence a radio operator’s choice of modulation method.

HAM Radio Spectrum

Ham (amateur) radio is a popular communication means for enthusiasts worldwide.

The spectrum for ham radio contains portions of the electromagnetic spectrum with specific frequencies allocated to amateur use.

Frequency Allocation for HAM Radio

The frequency allocation for ham radio varies depending on each country’s regulations.

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) manages the allocation of frequencies for various services, including amateur radio.

Amateur radio frequencies can be found in different bands throughout the radio spectrum, such as Low Frequency (LF), Medium Frequency (MF), High Frequency (HF), Very High Frequency (VHF), and Ultra High Frequency (UHF) bands.

Each band has distinct characteristics, which makes them suitable for specific communication purposes.

HAM Radio Bands

The primary ham radio bands are organized as follows:

  • 2200 meters (135.7-137.8 kHz) – The only official LF band for ham radio. It allows CW, Phone, Image, RTTY/Data transmissions and is accessible to General, Advanced, and Amateur Extra licensees.
  • 630 meters (472-479 kHz) – A Medium Frequency band, located just below commercial AM broadcast bands.
  • 160 meters (1.8-2.0 MHz) – Belongs to the HF range, allowing longer-range communications, especially during nighttime.
  • 80 meters (3.5-4.0 MHz) – Another HF band, mainly used for local and regional communications.
  • 40 meters (7.0-7.3 MHz) – This HF band allows for reliable long-distance communication, and is often used for establishing international contacts.
  • 30 meters (10-10.15 MHz) – An HF band reserved for digital and CW transmissions.
  • 20 meters (14.0-14.35 MHz) – A popular HF band among DXers and contesters due to its reliable long-distance characteristics during daytime and nighttime.

In addition to these, there are several more amateur radio bands in the VHF and UHF ranges, allowing for local and regional communication on 2 meters (144-148 MHz), 1.25 meters (222-225 MHz), 70 centimeters (420-450 MHz), and beyond.

Ham radio operators often use both Amplitude Modulation (AM) and Frequency Modulation (FM) methods, depending on the band and operating conditions.

AM is more common on the HF bands, while FM is predominantly used on VHF and UHF bands for local communications, repeater systems, and digital voice modes.

Modulation Modes in HAM Radio

Modulation modes refer to the specific methods used to encode information into radio transmissions. HAM radio operators utilize a variety of modulation modes, including both AM and FM.

Common Modes Used in HAM Radio

Amplitude Modulation (AM): In this mode, the audio signal modulates the amplitude of the radio wave while the frequency remains constant.

AM is used in various conditions and for different purposes by HAM radio operators, including long-distance communication and vintage radio operations.

Frequency Modulation (FM): FM is the prevalent voice mode for local VHF and UHF operations over simplex or repeaters, making it popular among HAM radio enthusiasts.

In FM, the audio signal modulates the frequency of the radio wave within a small range. It provides good performance with simple equipment demands, as explained by the American Radio Relay League.

In addition to AM and FM, HAM radio operators also utilize Single Sideband Modulation (SSB), Digital Modes (e.g., D-STAR), Morse Code (CW), and many other modes.

A detailed list of amateur radio modes can be found on Wikipedia.

Choosing the Right Mode for Communication

Selecting the appropriate modulation mode depends on factors such as distance, desired signal quality, available equipment, and personal preferences. Some general guidelines are:

  • Local Communication: FM is the preferred choice for short-distance and local transmissions, offering clear audio and easy setup.
  • Long-Distance Communication: AM, SSB, and Morse Code (CW) can be advantageous for long-distance or weak signal communication, as they often provide better signal reception under challenging conditions.
  • Digital Communication: In situations where high data speed and error-free transmission are crucial, digital modes like D-STAR are worth considering.

Ultimately, HAM radio operators should choose the modulation mode that aligns with their communication needs, technical skills, and equipment capabilities.

AM and FM Usage in HAM Radio

Detail of a radio and telegraphy operator

Amateur radio, also known as HAM radio, utilizes both Amplitude Modulation (AM) and Frequency Modulation (FM) for communication.

The popularity and applications of both these modulation methods vary among HAM radio operators.

Popularity and Applications of AM in HAM Radio

AM was once the main voice mode in amateur radio but has now become a well-regarded specialty within the HAM radio community (American Radio Relay League).

AM is often used by enthusiasts interested in vintage tube-based gear, military surplus, and modern ultra-efficient FET-based Class E transmitters.

This mode offers great opportunities for learning, building, and enjoying radio.

However, AM has become less popular for voice communication, except for certain niche groups like amateur radio operators who use it primarily for “legacy” reasons.

Popularity and Applications of FM in HAM Radio

In contrast to AM, FM has gained increased popularity in HAM radio usage, especially for voice communication.

One advantage of FM over AM is that it can employ a non-linear amplifier, which is more power-efficient and thus has a longer battery life in mobile operation.

FM is commonly used for local communication on VHF and UHF bands, as well as for repeater systems that extend the range of communication.

Additionally, FM is often utilized for various data communication modes, such as packet radio and APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System).

Pros and Cons of AM and FM in HAM Radio

In this section, we will discuss the pros and cons of AM and FM in HAM Radio, focusing on signal quality, interference, equipment, and bandwidth requirements.

Comparing Signal Quality and Interference

One key difference between AM and FM in HAM radio lies in signal quality and resistance to interference.

FM radio provides better sound quality and a clearer signal compared to AM radio, as it is less affected by noise and interference.

However, FM signals are more local and confined to shorter distances, whereas AM signals can cover a broader area and greater distances

Equipment and Bandwidth Requirements

For HAM radio enthusiasts, choosing between AM and FM also impacts equipment and bandwidth requirements.

The wider frequency range of FM radio means that it can cover the entire range of human hearing, offering improved audio quality.

On the other hand, AM radio has a narrower frequency range and doesn’t provide the same level of sound quality.

As for equipment, both AM and FM radios often have similar setups and components in a HAM radio station, but FM radios may require additional or more advanced equipment to provide enhanced audio quality and reduced interference.

HAM radio operators who prefer long-distance communication may opt for AM, whereas those who prioritize audio quality and low interference may opt for FM.


Ham radio, also known as amateur radio, uses various modes of communication, including both AM (Amplitude Modulation) and FM (Frequency Modulation).

Unlike traditional AM and FM broadcasting, ham radio operators do not broadcast to a wide audience or play music; rather, they communicate one-on-one or in groups with other amateur radio enthusiasts.

Both AM and FM have their unique characteristics and advantages.

For instance, AM offers a warm and rich audio quality, promoting more personal interactions, while FM provides a clearer signal over a shorter range of frequencies.

It is essential for ham radio operators to understand these differences and select the appropriate mode of communication based on their requirements and preferences.

In summary, ham radios utilize both AM and FM modes as part of their versatile and effective communication channels.

This flexibility makes amateur radio a valuable tool for hobbyists, emergency communication, and fostering global connections among like-minded individuals.

Cody Martin

With over 18 years of federal law enforcement, training, and physical security experience, Cody focuses his time nowadays on both consulting and training. He regularly advises individuals, groups, multinational corporations, schools, houses of worship, and NGOs on security threats while conducting customized training as needed.

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