Simplex node

Because of a recent VHF/UHF radio purchase, I ended up with a “spare” dual-band radio. And, I’ve been having some fun lately monitoring the WIN System on a local repeater (that is connected via IRLP). So I figured I might try my hand at setting up an IRLP simplex node. I’ve had some experience with IRLP in the past and have really enjoyed it.

However as I was looking into it, I started hearing about Allstar. That is an alternative to IRLP. It’s a little cheaper to get started with Allstar, and it offers full-duplex operation. And it uses standard open-source VoIP software to do it’s thing.

So here you see my main computer, and next to it is a $45 Goodwill special. It’s a Core 2 Duo with 1GB RAM and an 80GB HD. Pretty wimpy, but more than enough to run the special Allstar Linux CentOS distribution. This Linux distribution comes with all the stuff needed to run an Allstar node and does the setup for most of it.

So I’ve applied for and received my node number. I went ahead and finished the Linux installation last night and that’s all good.

The only things I had to buy (besides the computer) were the URI (USB Radio Interface) and the URI cable. The URI plugs into a USB port and the cable connects it to the radio.

Now patiently awaiting those last two pieces.

So in theory… once this is all complete… I should be able to sit on my couch with my HT and talk to my node radio in the back room which will control the node. I can connect to other nodes all over the world with a few DTMF commands. And the connection quality should be rock-solid and full-quieting.

Plus, I have a neighbor who is a ham. He should be able to use it as well.

Trial and hopefully not error

For most ham radio operators… having a decent working HF station is somewhat of a holy grail. First, let me define HF for those not familiar. The term HF stands for “high frequency”. This is the type of ham radio where you can talk around the world. Other types of ham radio (like VHF and UHF) are only suitable for local communications.

So most hams want to do HF, but it takes a lot more energy and effort. It also takes more dollars and higher license privileges. I’ve had the license privileges needed to do this for quite a few years. But I’ve only had an HF station very briefly. An HF antenna typically takes a lot of room. People who live in apartments or in houses that are on small lots face many challenges in setting up an antenna that will work. Also, many homeowners find themselves restricted from putting up antennas due to CC&R rules and such.

My wife and I recently bought a house and we live under such restrictions. The rule is basically, no antennas. However, there are a lot of “stealth” options available where you can put up an antenna (particularly a wire antenna) that people cannot see or will not recognize as an antenna. As I’ve recently become interested in operating HF, I’ve been thinking a lot about those options.

One possibility is putting up an antenna in one’s attic. Radio waves typically go right through wood and other building materials like sheetrock and roofing. However metal such as ducting or electrical wiring are problems. Other problems with antennas indoors or in the attic have to do with all the interference caused by normal household electronics. Not only will the electronics bother the radio reception, but the radio will likely bother the household electronics when it transmits as well. Then there is the reality that a misstep in the attic will mean a large hole in the ceiling and/or an injury. That’s the part that discourages me.

One can string wire antennas around their property. But a common example of a wire antenna would be 102 feet long. I have nowhere outside where I could possibly string a wire that long in a straight line. You can get creative and zig zag wires different directions or around corners but then you face the fact that it’s fairly likely that you’ll try many things that don’t work or don’t work very well. I know a lot of hams like this trial and error. But honestly, I just don’t want to dork around that much.

So I decided to go with the very well-known portable antenna called a Buddipole.

This will be 18 feet high. And while it’s not exactly “stealth”. It is not a fixed antenna. I can take it down in about one minute. And I would typically only have it up when it’s in use. So I think because it’s not mounted on the house or any fixed structure, I should be able to squeak by the restrictions. And it has the distinct advantage of being known as a very effective antenna (for it’s kind) where you basically follow the instructions, put it together, and it works! Gotta love it.

For my radio… I have long been wanting a Yaesu FT-857D. There was a $50 rebate on these that ended two days ago. I bought the radio online with the “will-call” shipping option on the last day of the rebate offer. I had been debating between that radio and the Yaesu FTDX1200. The FTDX1200 is far more radio. But it’s not as versatile (and certainly not as cheap). And it didn’t have a rebate.

However, the day after the rebate offer on the FT-857D expired I was on the store’s web site and guess what was on their front page? The FTDX1200… with a $200 rebate!

While it’s not typically going to be something I’ll take out of the house to operate at the park or whatever, it will be much nicer to use at home than the little FT-857D.

The reason for the title of this post… is because in spite of the fact that this is a “good” radio and a “good” antenna. There is no guarantee that it will work well here, or even be usable. There is only one way to know. It’s possible that it will totally suck. Here’s hoping it doesn’t.

More new gear

I’ve been playing with my new Yaesu FT-60R HT a bit. Works great at home. And works fine in the mobile. I have ordered a headset to use with it while I’m driving. But even without the headset I was able to use it while driving with the top down on the freeway today. Although it was a little hard to hear. However the audio is quite good.

My involvement in ham radio has dramatically increased since getting the new HT. Mainly as a result of trying harder. Rather than simply tossing out my call sign and hoping someone will come back to me (which they rarely did). I am now attempting to come back to others who come on the air wanting to talk. Really, for that to work I just need to be willing to talk to anyone. And honestly, that’s great practice for life in general.

As a result of my renewed interest and increase in activity, I decided to go ahead with my initial plan to replace my ICOM base (IC-208H) with the Yaesu equivalent shown below (the FT-7900R). I’ll be running it on low power (5 watts) using a 1/2 wave mag mount stuck to my metal desk. This is a setup that I already know works quite well for the local repeaters.

I figure I’ll use new FT-7900R for my base unit at home, and my HT for mobile use… with a mag mount and a headset. I’ve decided that I’m definitely a Yaesu fan.

One of the issues I’ve been wrestling with is the idea that an SMA connector on an HT is not designed robustly enough to withstand repeated and frequent swapping back and forth between antennas. So my thought was that I need to stick with either the normal HT whip, or a pigtail for connecting to an PL-259, but not normally switch between both. So that means if I default to using it for mobile/base use with a pigtail, then I generally won’t be using it as a portable.

While this is a little bit of a disappointment, considering how nicely the FT-60R works as an actual “handheld”. The idea of having a radio that is strictly for handheld use is not that feasible either. Because it would rarely get used. Although it’s hard to anticipate my usage habits. As I get more involved, my past habits are not necessarily useful for determining future usage.

I have thought of the idea of perhaps getting a second FT-60R. I already have all the accessories. But how doofy would it be to have a second radio just so I don’t have to swap antennas. I will continue to ponder this.

The eBay auction where I was selling my old ICOM IC-208H closed yesterday for $282. That should cover the new radio. I like the top-facing speaker. That means I might get away without having to use an external speaker on my desk.

Ham radio equipment fun

I haven’t been that into ham radio since moving out of Salem. I knew folks in Salem. The further away I move, the lower the percentage of people on the radio I actually know. In addition… my involvement/usage declined quite a bit after getting married. Funny how that happens when you actually have someone to talk to (as opposed to when you don’t).

A couple of months ago I sold one of my two mobile radios and my HT to help offset the cost of the new PC that I built. This left me with one mobile radio, which I was using at home as a base. Since I use this radio with an indoor antenna, I don’t go above low power (5 watts). But that’s no problem because I can hit all the local repeaters with that just fine.

The HT I sold was a Kenwood TH-F6A. Widely held (at one time) to be the best HT out there. It’s a tri-band radio that will transmit with a full 5 watts on 220. It has dual-receive and all sorts of nice things. I never liked it. The main reason was the lack of a physical squelch adjustment, and an inconveniently located volume control. To me, those two things totally deserve their own physical controls that are easy to manipulate.

After selling these two radios, it wasn’t too long before I was kinda longing for a Yaesu FT-60R HT. I’ve had one of those before and really liked it. And it has nicely-placed squelch and volume controls. It’s also very well-built.

So a couple of days ago I did it. I bought the FT-60R along with a number of accessories. I’ve always had spare batteries and quick-chargers for every HT that I’ve had. So I wanted to do that again. But this time instead of going with cheap knock-off accessories, I went with the name-brand Yaesu battery and quick-charger. Add to that a factory Yaesu speaker-mic, a Diamond after-market antenna, and an antenna pigtail/adapter so that I can use the HT with standard external antennas.

After this purchase I started thinking that, dang, I like Yaesu products! Maybe I should sell my ICOM IC-208H base rig and replace it with a Yaesu too! However I also started thinking that, dang, that new Yaesu HT was spendy. My poor allowance is going to be in the hole for awhile on that one.

That’s when I made the decision to sell my ICOM base rig and use the new Yaesu HT for both base and mobile. No replacement necessary. I already have two really good mag-mount antennas. One for use at home and one to use in the car.

One really nice aspect to using an HT and a mag-mount for mobile use is… no installation. Slap it on and go! No issue with where to get power. No issue with where to mount the antenna. Perfect! Of course I won’t be able to work weak repeaters with that mobile setup. But it seems to me that the benefits are totally worth that tradeoff.

Reset

Kind of did a “reset” over the weekend. Not sure what I mean by this term. But whatever it is, I do it periodically. The reset included two things:

1) I tore down my ham radio installations in my office and my car.

2) I yanked the hard drive out of my laptop that had Arch Linux installed on it and put my SSD with Windows 8 on it back in.

It was just last week that I received a window sticker for my car that said 146.52 on it in a small white oval. The 146.52 is the standard frequency used by ham radio operators who are local to each other so they can call one another direct (rather than using a repeater). Armed with that sticker (which would indicate I’m listening on that frequency) and my callsign on the back window of my car… I figured I might get calls as I tool down the road.

And sure enough. On Friday I was headed up to Salem and someone gave me a shout. We had a nice little chat. It worked!

But overall my involvement in ham radio is a bit of a bust. I know some of the guys on the local repeater. And I knew a bunch of guys in Salem. But not very well. When you stop talking on the air for extended periods of time people tend to forget you exist. So a person either needs to be a regular, or just give it up.

I originally got into ham radio for the social aspect. I would say that most hams are tolerant of operators who are not very technical, but many are not. And now that I’m married, I don’t sit at home alone all the time wanting someone to talk to.

Another aspect of the local repeater group (and most repeater groups) is that it’s quite cliquish. You’re either a “regular” or your not. And this point is brought home almost daily. Not that they aren’t nice people for the most part. It’s just natural human behavior.

As a result of all this, I don’t get on the air much. So I decided to tear down the ham radio installations in my office and car.

In my office I had a mobile VHF/UHF radio setup with a 12-volt power supply and a mobile antenna on a little mast with a ground radial kit. It worked pretty well, but it was ugly and I wanted a more minimalist office environment. I tore that down entirely and packed it away. I will use my handheld if I decide to play radio at all. And it will work just fine with the local repeaters.

I took the stickers off of my car and I removed the antenna mount and hid it under the hood. I pulled out the radio itself, but I left the antenna cable and power cable in place just in case I change my mind (which I’ve done before). But most signs of the installation are gone.

As far as Linux goes… once again I sort of reached the point where I realized it’s a bit pointless. I can spend endless hours tweaking a Linux system. I can install a new distribution every day if I want and configure everything to work correctly in short order. But why?

At some point it’s totally “been there, done that”. Sure it’s neato and everything. But for me I think computers have stopped being a source of wonder and amazement quite awhile back. While it always fun to try something new, it’s hard to consider it a hobby any longer. Sure I like tech, but computers, tablets, smartphones… they are all now just appliances. Part of life. The less time it takes to set them up and keep them going the better.

I thought of playing with various Linux distributions in the VirtualBox VM software. And I still might. But it’s just not the same as having it on the bare metal. Any wuss can install Linux in a VM. But putting it on bare metal you are committed. You are relying on it.