Don’t Sit With Smart Guys

For those of you who have no interest in the ongoing issues to do with Radio Amateurs of Canada (see post below), here’s something on why you shouldn’t sit with smart guys.

You see the Oakville Amateur Radio Club has an informal gathering of members at a local restaurant every Saturday at 6:30 a.m.DSCF2059

It’s a breakfast meeting that often sees 10 to 15 participants and includes myself and Marion, VE3HEN.

Now Marion and I think we’re both fairly capable when it comes to smarts but we’re like a couple of the stupidest people at this table. We’ve got engineers and physicists even a lawyer or two. There are lots of retired guys and a few newbees but here’s where the smart guys come into the picture.

We talk about everything at breakfast with a predominance of the topics being about whatever is of interest in Ham Radio that day. Sometimes we talk about contesting and strategy or how to get into D-Star or station and antenna design.

So we’re sitting around last Saturday and one guy who is in electronic sales says he’s got his hands on a very expensive testing device and he’s going to checkout his antennas and coaxial runs.aa54-1-sm

It gets me thinking that my RigExpert AA-220 antenna anaylizer might not be telling me if my coax has degraded so I took my QRP wattmeter and dummy load out to the tower and put it on the remote antenna switch.

A test running five watts out showed under three watts at the tower. Yikes. This is not good. So I tried another 100-foot run and it showed almost five watts at the meter. Fearing a problem where either in the cable (which is buried and has been for 10 years and likely has soaked up moisture) was failing or the antenna switch was dirty, I took the switch out of the line.

Power through the cable came up to four watts and the switch got a cleaning.DSCF6238

But to be safe I left the old coax (LMR-400) connected to the five-position remote switch where the verticals and dipoles are connected and laid a new line of LMR-400 to the Explorer beam (40/20/15/10) which is my bread and butter antenna.

The new LMR-400 run is above ground and runs along the bottom of the fence coming up an eight-foot mast lashed to the fence at the back of the yard and then across a tramline to the tower.

Now when I run the wattmeter at the tower I see over four watts of startling power and signals seems stronger in the wonderful receiver in the FlexRadio 1500. (BTW heard a guy on 20 meters on the weekend complaining about the noisy audio on his new $8000  Kenwood 990s. Poor guy should have gone FlexRadio which was melodious easy-to-listen-to audio even on the $600 QRP Flex 1500.)

The big advantage to all this work (let alone expense) is now I’ve got an open connection on the remote switch just in time to add a Butternut HF-2 80/40 vertical at the back of yard before the fall contesting season gets underway.

QRP: When you care to send the very least 🙂

RAC And The Muslim Brotherhood

Okay now Peter, you’ve gone too far.

No. Honestly think about it and I have no wish to insult Muslims (I know lots of Muslims. Love Ramadan. Some of my best friends are…etc.)w-tahrir-square-cairo-now-j

Now lets figure this out.

In Egypt a duly elected government gets tossed by a powerful force (the Egyptian military) after the government (upheld by the Muslim Brotherhood) starts to govern in a manner that serves the Brotherhood and not the people in general.

So how does that compare to Radio Amateurs of Canada?

Well you don’t have to look too far to find former RAC executives (and perhaps even some former directors) who quit or were summarily dismissed (dismissed without trial or due process) and who are some pissed off about it.

Try and find answers to some simple questions (How many members? What has the process been for awarding contracts? What’s the true story of our finances? Whatever happened to the former regulatory affairs officer never mind at least one former president.) and you discover no transparency or forthcomingness from the RAC Brotherhood. This is not helpful or good.

I have a story about all this came about at RAC.

We (like the people of Egypt) mistakenly elected a bunch of guys (And it’s all men who make any of the decisions of any consequence at RAC. Why do you think the ARRL has a woman running the show? Just saying.) who may well have been terrific guys at running public companies, private enterprise or government.

Guys who run big organizations often run them without a lot of input from others (and thus the formation of unions) and can be pretty dictatorial (or poor communicators like Steve Jobs) and they need to be like this if they want to succeed.

But gee do you really think guys like this are ready to run an open, progressive and communicative association with a mandate to represent all Hams in Canada (and not just paid members)?

Now that’s not to say some of the guys aren’t trying really hard to make substantive changes to RAC but since we haven’t heard anything directly from the directors in a long. long time, who knows?

I suspect the directors have been told not to make any grand public statements.

Maybe you should contact your local director and ask him what he’s doing to improve the situation at Radio Amateurs of Canada and the state of Amateur Radio in Canada in general? You can find their names and contact info in The Canadian Amateur magazine or online on our poor beat up old website.

If they can’t come up with a satisfactory answer, maybe it’s time they stepped down voluntarily?

It’s either that or as the Muslin Brotherhood found out, those big crowds in Tahir Square aren’t there for a party.

Is D-Star The New C.B?

Some of the conversations on REF001C, the most active reflector on the D-Star network, sure sound a lot like the conversations we used to have on CB about 40 years ago.

REF001 can be a pretty busy place with stations calling from all around the world. The good news, of course, is there are lots of other reflectors but 001 is the busiest by far.

Some of the conversations are great fun. I’ve talked to WS4FSM, the museum station in Florida which is on a lot during the week introducing Amateur Radio to visitors to the facility.

There’s lots of technical talk about Raspberry Pi computers and Dongles and all things digital. You can learn a lot just by listening in. Some guys are even DXing on D-Star.

This is great stuff but maybe we should stop and talk a lesson from the DX guys on 20 meters.

For example the other day we had a bunch of guys from Japan come on and some of the conversations were …how should I put this? …needed help.

So Sparky here are some thoughts to working some guy whose English is almost non-existent.

First remember he’s speaking English and you’re not speaking Japanese or French or Zay which is one of the 90 languages spoken in Ethiopia. So your English needs to adjusted so your new buddy stands a chance.

So slow up. A lot! Speak a little slower. Don’t use big words and for Heaven’s sake don’t use English idioms. Now that’s a pearl of wisdom for you.

Most international contacts start with callsign, name and qth. As you’re on digital you don’t need to give the guy a signal report unless he’s R2D2ing (which is a form of digital breakup caused by forward error correction having a tough time).

And don’t complain that he’s speaking a foreign language (as I heard one guy say). No it’s English, sort of, and you need to listen up.

After the preliminaries almost everyone asks about the other guy’s weather. Why weather? Because weather is something we all share and can complain or brag about. Next thing you might consider asking about his QTH or his rig or how long he’s been a ham.

Most of us know enough not to ask about the recent political situation or talk religion or other controversial subjects because in some countries offering an opinion on air about any of the above can get you locked in jail.

I can’t tell you how many digital QSos I’ve heard this week when the operator, who can probably program code for a quantum computer, doesn’t have enough people skills to make a basic exchange of information and actually sound interested in what the other guy has to say.

Digital communications offers unlimited opportunities for Hams from around the world to talk with each other but first you’ve got to exchange a few basic pieces of information.

For those of you who are seriously repressed read How To Win Friends and Influence People. It will make a big difference to your Ham Radio experience.

Now if we could just move this information over to 80 meters 🙂

If It Stays Up…

The old adage in Ham Radio is if it stays up longer than a year it’s not big enough.DSCF1180

So I raised the Diamond X-200 another five feet so now it’s 15 feet above the roof.

That’s it in the centre of the house. The antennas to the left on the tower at two square six-meter antennas.

I can hit Kitchener and Buffalo on 440 and expect even better results on 2 meters.

Can’t wait to see if the additional five feet adds any range to the DVAP dongle running 10 milliwatts.

If nothing else now it clears the TV antennas and if it stays up through the winter I’ll be pleased (and surprised).


SDR = Software Defined Radio

BBR = Big Box Radio

The debate is raging on the SDR email reflectors. Which type of radio is better?

And the answer is: It depends. It depends on what kind of radio you want and how capable you are of understanding what you’ve bought.3990sys

Big box radios like the new Kenwood TS-990S at $8,000 are state of the art but not to everyone’s tastes.

While it is possible to update firmware this radio still relies on hardware to work and you can’t change hardware. They come with a lot of knobs and buttons. This is an attraction for some.

SDR rigs like the new FlexRadio 6700 at $7,500 are state of the art but not to everyone’s Homepage_FLEX6000 Banner6-24-13tastes. The biggest feature of SDR rigs is the ability to completely change the operating parameters based on uploading new software. (I’ve had two or three complete changes of software for my Flex 1500 as well as several minor upgrades.)

SDR equipment comes with no knobs. The rig doesn’t even need to be visible on the operating table. Some of us have bought external knobs to tune and control some of the features visible on screen and it all works out.FlexControl

Both big rigs will knock your socks off but for different reasons.

The TS-990 or the ICOM IC-7600 at $3500 (or the 7700 at $7,000) or the Yaseu FTDX9000D at $10,000 will provide a state of the art experience for most Amateur Radio activities including rag chewing, contesting, SSB, CW or digital operating.

These radios are similar to other radios that have been around for a couple of decades. Most Hams with little or no experience will find it fairly easy to get a big box radio up and running. (In some cases it’s as simple as plugging in 110 volts and an antenna and no need to read the manual.)

Software Defined Radios aren’t quite that simple but 99% of the issues faced by new owners will be operator error and get solved in time and with help.F1500_new_RAV

SDR requires more direct interface with the station computer and the computer needs to be a relatively new computer with some horsepower under the hood.

(Lots of guys run SDR with laptops costing around $500. I bought a I7 basic box from Tiger Direct for $900. An older HP computer ran the SDR Flex 1500 at 20 per cent CPU or more while the I7 runs around 2 per cent and I have no computer issues with latency.)

Speaking of latency, this is the delay that some SDR systems introduce in the path from the antenna to the headphones. My Flex 1500 will sometimes switch from transmit to receive and I’ll hear the other station in mid reply having missed a character or so. This is mainly an issue during high-speed CW contesting and would be unnoticeable in most other more casual contacts.

Big box radios won’t have that latency issue but come with issues of their own. Most of the big box radios have audio out to the headphones which varies from noisy to unlistenable. I always wondered why contesting gave me such a headache after 48 hours (okay 48 hours on and off and a good night’s sleep) of operating.

And, then I switched to the Flex 1500 (with its huge on screen panoramic display). The audio is so lovely to listen to I immediately sold my ageing big box radio and aside from missing he 100-watt PA on occasion I have no regrets.TS-590S

One big box radio I like a lot is the Kenwood TS-590s which sells for around $1700 has pretty nice audio and is dead drop easy to use. It’s getting lots of good reviews.

The Elecraft KX3 at roughly $1200 is a very interesting and capable 10-watt radio. Another $1200 gets you a state of the art 100-watt amp.kx3

Their K3 starts at $1800 for the 10-watt version and $2400 for the 100-watt rig. There’s a 500-watt amp too for $2000 and a 500-watt auto tuner for $700. A lot of contesters run K3s.

So which radio is for you?K3 and P3 full spect 1024


More D-Star Walking

I took another walk from my home QTH near 4th Line and Rebecca in Oakville south  towards Lake Ontario.

With my DVAP dongle attached to the Diamond X-200 antenna on the roof of the house I was pretty much fully connected right to the lake which is about 1,000 meters south of me.

I could also access the dongle and hear (sort of) the REF001 reflector from the far west side of the park which is at least 1500 meters away as the crow flies and conditions were about the same at Lakeshore Blvd., and Third Line which is farther away by another 500 meters or so.

This is phenomenal range for a 10-mw dongle and I’m thrilled.

BTW the manufacturer states that an RF amp should not be used with the dongle as its spectrum quality may not (read is not) up to snuff. For running around the house or the yard it’s fine but it’s not a true hot spot that is using a clean full-size rig to amplify the signal.

Best conversation yet was a guy in England firing up his P.C. dongle before he goes on vacation tomorrow and his test call was answered by another guy in Australia on his way into work.

Think of what you can do with a digital hand-held when you go on vacation or to the Dayton Hamvention (which has its own reflector) so you can stay in touch with the guys back home or at the flea market.

There’s an infinite amount of room for everyone on digital.


D-Star Neighbourhood

In my enthusiasm last night I plugged my DVAP dongle into my PC computer and plugged in the Diamond X-200 antenna which is on the top of the roof of the house and I went for a walk with my IC-31A.DSCF1170

I had already checked out the range of the DVAP with its tiny two-inch antenna and I could easily communicate to it inside a 100-meter circle.

This is a lot farther away than I would have guessed the range to be so it’s a good thing the software allows you to decrease power if you want to keep your coverage just to your own property.

Anyway with rig in hand and both the standard six-inch whip and an extended 19-inch whip I set off to check the range with the X-200 and the dongle’s 10-milliwatt transmitter.

Best guess is I’m good out to about 1000 meters using the standard W/T antenna so I can go for my hour-long walk around the neighbourhood and never lose the DVAP connection.

The DVAP uses a USB cable to plug into either a Mac or PC and works seamlessly (as in photo where I’m using the Mac).

What the DVAP unit allows you to do is experiment with linking and unlinking reflectors without having to go “on air” to a local repeater where everyone locally can enjoy you screwing up as you’re learning.

The only “on air” part of the dongle system is from your hand-held to the DVAP and since you’re running simplex on some obscure part of the two-meter or 440 band and you’re running on super-low power out nobody is going to hear you.

The DVAP unit connects through your computer to the digital system (including D-Star, FreeStar and other systems) through the Internet and pops out where you’ve programmed it to go which can be an Internet-based reflector or actual RF-repeater anywhere in the world.

For example right now I am monitoring REF001C (the A,B or C at the end indicates which module or transmitter you’re hitting on a connected digital repeater. A is for the 23 cm transmitter. B is for the 70 cm box and C is for the 2m module) which is one of the busiest open chat reflectors. Stations from around the world can be heard hear all day long.

But REF001 isn’t the only reflector. There are a bunch of reflectors (well over 50) and they can be dedicated to specific uses or areas.

And the we come to linking and it’s here I am still reading blog posts and watching videos. 

Digital Amateur Radio communications using the D-Star and other systems is enormously powerful and holds great promise for the future of radio.

Think about it. Using a handheld and a DVAP from anywhere you can get an Internet connection  allows you to participate in a global communications system.

You can even use a cellphone to provide the Internet connection so anywhere you can get a cellphone to work as your Internet hotspot you can get your DVAP to connect to the digital system. How cool is that?

Another device, the DV Dongle, eliminates the need for a handheld. It connects directly to the digital system using your computer equipped with headphones and microphone.

Now some guys don’t understand the concept that Amateur Radio is all about experimenting and get themselves bent out of shape saying digital isn’t radio. (Think somebody said the same thing when we switched from AM to SSB.)

Well that might be true if you’re using a DV Dongle to access the system but somebody out there is going to come back to your call using his or her handheld or mobile rig so there is an “on air” part to all of this Internet switching and routing.

As to the cost of the equipment which is a continuous whine, I bought my IC-31A for under $300 which is not out of line compared to other handhelds and yes it’s UHF only but if you’ve been listening to your local VHF repeater you might consider that an advantage. 🙂

The DVAP is sold by Ham Radio Outlet in the US for $269.00 and yes there’s GST and shipping but that comes to about what it costs for the two-hour round trip to my local Amateur Radio store. It took US Post a week to get it here delivered to my door.

And if you’re like most hams and super cheap, you can convert many FM rigs that have a 9600 baud data port into a digital rig using a Raspberry Pi computer ($35) and a DMSK modem ($75 or so) and you’re on the air or in the system depending on how you look at it.

Digital VHF/UHF communications isn’t for everybody.

It’s complicated because we’re still getting stuff designed and marketed by engineers without the help of marketers and sales folks. That will come in time and everything will run at the push of a button and we’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.

But for now getting on digital is a challenge. It’s not a great challenge as evidenced by the fact that I did it and I’m not the sharpest tool in the toolbox.

Best of all, it’s a lot of fun. Talked to Jerry at the West Palm Beach ARC’s club station WS4FSM at the South Florida Science Museum. Jerry was doing a demonstration of digital radio for the staff and they were amazed that Jerry could talk to somebody in Ontario, Canada!


I Am Assimilated

Well I am on D-Star!
My DVAP dongle arrived about an hour ago and I was on the air almost instantly. Setting up the dongle on the Mac was dead-drop easy. Thanks to the terrific programming software from RT Systems I quickly reprogrammed my IC-31a to use my dongle as its primary point of contact to the digital system and then I waited.
For awhile there I was thinking that maybe I was just communicating with the dongle on a UHF simplex frequency and then suddenly WS4FSM came on calling CQ from Florida.
Using a simplex 440 frequency and about 10 mw of power both ways I walked out to the main road from my house which is easily 100 meters with absolutely no drop in signal strength until I got to the very end.
The DVAP was sitting on my work station table at ground level and the IC-31a was using its standard 6″ rubber duck antenna. Amazing!
As I listen I learn more and more. Like I connected to the reflector, in this case, REFOO1B using the memory allotment and then when the system prompt says “link connected” turn back to the radio’s T (for talk) memory allotment to avoid triggering the system prompt on each transmission.
Duh! I wouldn’t have known but for the conversation between two other new guys on the reflector.
The DVAP dongle couldn’t have worked better. It truly opens up the digital system especially if you’re running a handheld or if your local digital repeater is just a little too far away for reliable communications.
Working digital repeaters locally was a lot of fun but now thanks to the dongle I’m connected to the digital world (which is more than just Icom’s D-Star) and I’m very happy with the dongle.
Next trick is to plug it into the X-200 VHF/UHF antenna which is on the roof and maybe add in a Raspberry Pi computer 🙂

14.236 HF Digital

Well this changes everything.

You too can be on digital mode on HF right now. So why would you want to do this?

Well the bandwidth for digital HF mode is 1.5 KHz!!!d_star_diagram

Yes you read that right. Now the audio processing is pretty geeky but it’s a work in progress.

The signal to noise ratio makes this audio sound pretty good compared to SSB. In the accompanying video you’ll notice the operator is using a squelch control so now we can look forward to an FM-style communications on 20 meters! (14.236 MHz).

I wonder what this will do to HF communications? After all you can do digital with your standard HF rig using a sound card interface.

The video I’ve linked to is all about the DV access point dongle and it’s worth watching if you’re interested in digital communications on VHF/UHF.shapeimage_2

The DV access point dongle allows you to use your digital (likely a D-Star Icom as they are the only commercial manufacturer making digital rigs….right now) handie-talkie around the house while talking around the world.

D-Star (or FreeStar) repeaters work great but not every ham lives in range of a local repeater especially when it comes to accessing it using a handie-talkie. Here at VE3HG I can hit VE3PMO from my driveway using the handie but it’s not consistently good and I can’t reliably hold the Mississauga repeater.

My IC-880 can hit it easily and hold it from Guelph to Newmarket but the 880 is in the car again parked in the driveway.

So right now I need to hit VE3PMO and then I can use the repeater to link to other digital repeaters or reflectors (computers online which link to repeaters) anywhere in the world. Of course if I did this then everybody else on the repeater would have to wait until I finished listening around.

The DV access point dongle connects directly from my computer to the D-Star reflectors without having to go through a repeater. This is very cool the Dongle allows me to monitor or talk through the reflectors without tying up a local repeater and has a 10mw transmitter so I can use my handie to control the computer software interface to the D-Star system.shapeimage_2

There’s also a DV dongle that doesn’t even need a rig but attaches directly to your computer and using a headset connects you to the D-Star network and then to digital repeaters and reflectors.

Ordering my DV access point dongle for 440MHz so I can use my D-31a D-Star handie (bought for under $300 at Dayton) and work the world from my lawn chair.300px-RaspberryPi

BTW many two meter or 440 FM rigs that have a 4800 baud port can be used to work digital repeaters using a computer (or $35 Raspberry Pi mini-computer) and a GMSK modem (less than $100) and you’re on digital.



D-Star In York Region

Thanks to Chris, VE3NRT, and the members of the York Regional ARC for allowing myself and Oakville ARC president Rod Hardman to attend their club meeting in Newmarket last night.

York Regional ARC has one of the newest functioning D-Star repeaters up and running and Rod and I wanted to see what they’ve done and why.

D-Star (and FreeStar a non-propriety compatible system) isn’t all that hard to understand (audio from the mic is encoded into a digital packet that’s enclosed in a narrowband FM signal that’s decoded at the other end. Because the intelligence is digital all kinds of neat things can be done like allowing for simultaneous transmission of text and linking of repeaters or reflectors – which are just big computers that tie repeaters and other digital devices like dongles – together.)

Where digital communication gets complicated is when you start programming your 1,000 channel handie or mobile rig. You can do it from the radio but software makes this chore a whole lot easier.

The York system functions on two meters and 440 but not on the 1.2-gig band which would allow for dedicated Icom D-1 rigs to transmit high-speed text. While this might seem ideal for special events work where the 1.2-gig system could transmit text in pre-built forms like Red Cross message forms, it’s an expensive way to go. Rigs run $1k each and the digital repeaters needs a $2800 triplexer installed plus a 1.2-gig module at $1,000 and pretty soon we’re talking big bucks for limited functionality.)

One of the really neat things about digital systems is they can be linked. You can link a local repeater to a nearby repeater or to a repeater in another country. Also you can control remote computers (called reflectors) to link repeaters in a region, country or from around the world. You can listen to specific repeaters or reflectors. And you can setup your station to only listen for certain call signs and ignore others. The ramifications are staggering.

Think of the possibilities for special event work. If Oakville ARC had a D-star repeater we could link it to the Hamilton digital repeater and to similar repeaters in Kitchener, York, Toronto and Durham and create a very wide system that spanned most of southern-central Ontario.

Not only would this allow us great facility and resiliency but it would be a pretty cool thing to be able to do.