FTM-100 repair

Still waiting to get my Yaesu FTM-100DR back from the Yaesu repair shop. I am very curious to see if they will even acknowledge that it has a problem. Honestly, when it comes back I’m not even sure that I will use it. It really boils down to whether or not I decide to go back to running WiRES-X. I do know that I really like not having a laptop on the desk. And since the only reason for the laptop is to run WiRES-X… it makes the idea of using a hotspot instead very attractive.

Below, you can hear the recording of the problem that caused me to send my radio to Yaesu for repair. It happens when receiving data via WiRES-X. And it happens even with the volume all the way down.

Ham radio, again

Back in February I made the decision to jump back into amateur radio. I’ve had an extra class license for a number of years. So I have the maximum privileges. And I just renewed it for another ten.

I dropped a pretty good load of cash on a bunch of new gear. Probably the biggest piece of the expenditure is an HF setup that I haven’t even used yet.

This is partly due to laziness. It’s also partly due to being so entertained with the other gear that I bought that I haven’t really been wanting for more to keep me busy.

The HF setup I have uses an outdoor portable-style antenna. I did this because we have antenna restrictions where we live. While I’m not allowed to have a permanent antenna outdoors, I can’t see that it would be a problem to have one that I setup and take down each time I use it.

So this is what I have. But that actually presents a bit of a barrier to actually using the thing. All my other gear is setup to where I can just sit down and use it any time I like. But the HF rig, I have to hassle with setting the antenna up each time. So I haven’t done it yet.

Another aspect is… I have never really understood how to operate on HF. And conditions aren’t good these days. I am really expecting that it will be a frustrating experience when I do get around to trying it. For many this is the most fun part of the hobby. For me… I haven’t spent enough time doing it to really get the hang of it yet.

On the other hand… virtually all of the other gear that I bought is oriented to digital communications via the internet. Yes, some will say that this isn’t “radio”. But the fact is, it has four things that are very much in the spirit of amateur radio.

First, I am talking into a radio on my end. And the person I’m talking to is typically talking into a radio on their end. So we still get to play with the cool gear. It’s really a minor technicality that it’s the internet that is connecting us.

Second, this form of digital communications has the aspect of enabling conversations with interesting people around the world. And for me, that has always been the most appealing aspect of ham radio. Good conversation!

Third, when using these digital modes there is really plenty of tinkering around to do. Sure, maybe there is more computer tech and less radio tech. But it’s still tinkering all the same.

Fourth, there is the aspect of a cohesive community. Hams helping hams has a long tradition. And with many internet groups dedicated to this digital communication tech, there is plenty of opportunity to learn and help others learn.

One major difference between these digital modes that use the internet vs HF, is that communicating via the internet is quite reliable. It is not dependent on solar conditions or propagation. Whereas operating HF is very hit and miss. In my experience, one can operate for hours without even making one contact. 

There is no doubt that I will be trying out my HF gear before too long. Maybe even today. I do know that I picked out some good gear. And it ought to be a lot of fun. My challenge will be learning the appropriate operating procedures for the mode. People do things differently on HF.

Regardless, so far my foray back into ham radio has been a lot of fun. There are so many things to learn that I think the process could go on for quite awhile.

Ham shack

I recently decided to jump back into amateur radio with both feet. This last weekend I picked up a bunch of gear. And I have a couple of radios still on their way. Our little home office (man cave) is now looking like an actual ham shack.

Previous to this, I was using a couple of raspberry pi VoIP nodes to do IRLP, AllStarLink, and echolink. I was using a handheld transceiver to utilize this. Well, I unplugged that stuff and decided I would try some new things.

 Here is a list of my new capabilities:

  • I now have a regular VHF/UHF dual-band dual-receive mobile rig as part of my shack. This is an improvement.
  • I now have HF. And a very capable radio at that. Unfortunately I am stuck with a definite compromise for an antenna in that I will be using something small, portable, and temporary. I will set it up outside when I want to use it. And take it down when I am not. I have very little choice about this due to neighborhood restrictions. Although the antenna situation may evolve into something better if I get creative.
  • I’ve added D-Star capability. I built a little D-Star hotspot using a raspberry pi with a DVAP. And I obtained a new handheld transceiver that has D-Star capability. 
  • I have also added WiRES-X capability. To do this right I went ahead and ordered the official WiRES-X interface box and a node radio. One downside is, this forces me to run Windows on my desktop computer system. This will be a big change. I’m not that happy about this aspect. Luckily I already had my Mac setup to dual boot. So it’s doable. 

Most people reading this probably don’t know what these things are. Here is some explanation:

  • HF is a mode that uses radio frequencies to potentially communicate with other hams around the world. Signals bounce off the ionosphere. 
  • VHF/UHF is pretty much local only. It’s a line-of-sight mode that uses repeater systems located at high elevations to communicate with others. 
  • D-Star and WiRES-X are digital modes that are directly supported by radio manufacturers. These modes use UHF/VHF as described above. In addition, they use the internet to link repeaters (or private nodes) together. This facilitates long distance communications where one can talk to individuals and groups of users around the world. There are typically radios and repeaters on each end of the connection, with internet in between.

Node radio revisited

I will say, messing with the Baofeng 888 radios was a major pain. The main problem was actually getting the second radio from the seller (KD8MST). And when I finally did get it, it didn’t work correctly. So I disassembled both my new (non-working) radio and my old (working) radio to see what the difference was in the wiring.

Both these radios were modified and a cable was wired into the circuit boards to facilitate use as a node radio. I opened them up and sent pictures of the wiring to the seller in hopes that he could identify the problem. He didn’t see any problem, but confessed he may have used the wrong pin-out on the other end of the cable.

The problem I had… once I disassembled these two radios… I could not get them back together. So I simply tossed them both in the trash and wrote the whole thing off as a failed experiment.

I went back to my trusty Alinco node radio with my DB9 A/B switch. Everything is working great. There are only two minor inconveniences.

1) I need to switch back and forth between nodes (having only one node radio to share between nodes instead of each node having it’s own radio).

2) I need to remember to switch on my muffin fan when I’m connected up to something in order to keep the Alinco cool in case the system I’m connected to gets busy. However I did replace my previous fan with one that is now less noisy.

The Baofeng node radio idea really was an experiment. The first one I had worked great. But as I pointed out to KD8MST, my tolerance level for frustration on these things is quite low. I just don’t need the grief. And while the Baofeng solution was much cheaper than what I was using before… I already had a working solution that was perfectly acceptable.

I am truly an “appliance operator” type ham. I want things to just work. I’m not in it that much for the tinkering, but more for the communication aspect. I enjoy having a good conversation. And having a chat with someone you don’t know can be interesting, fun, and also good practice.

Baofeng 888 node radio

This is incredible. I found a guy online who provides a “modification service” for Baofeng 888 handheld radios. This modification allows the use of these cheap radios as a node radio for ham operators such as myself who want to run a local VoIP node. I have two VoIP nodes (one Allstar and one IRLP). And I had them setup using an Alinco node radio.

That Alinco radio is about $165 and it needs a $100 power supply to run it. It also can’t be run very long without using some kind of fan against the heat sink. The fan is noisy and it’s annoying to have to turn it on every time I want to operate.

The modified Baofeng I bought replaces that $265 worth of gear for $37. And it will operate all day long without any kind of a fan. No noise!

I am a happy camper.

Ham radio VoIP stuff

I have sort of ditched local ham radio in favor of a couple different VoIP setups. I have two VoIP nodes… one is IRLP and one is AllStar. They both run on the raspberry Pi 2.

I only have one node radio. It’s connected up to a dummy load instead of a regular antenna. Since it’s only intended for my use at home, that works just fine. I have a DB9 A/B switch where I can switch my node radio from one VoIP system to the other.

I was originally running just an AllStar node. But I decided after awhile to add the IRLP node to my setup. While IRLP is not as nice as AllStar for a number of reasons, IRLP has far more of a history and established user base. At least that is my perception.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, let me explain.

I have a local ham radio that I talk on with an antenna in the attic. Then I have another radio (we’ll call this a node radio) that I have connected to an A/B switch which in turn connects the radio to one of two raspberry Pi systems that are connected to the internet. So I talk on my local radio which is received by my node radio. That audio then goes out over the net via my VoIP nodes. And of course I listen the same way. I control the nodes by using DTMF (touch tones) to “dial up” other nodes all over the world that are also connected to radios (usually high-powered repeaters that are located on hill tops).

So on all these nodes, there is a radio component that facilitates local communication. The VoIP aspect simply allows those radios to connect to each other over long distances via the net.

This is all sort of fun. But it reminds me of the last days in the life of the whole BBS scene. This was where BBS’s were fighting to stay alive by offering internet connectivity and such. That only delayed their death for a short time. In reality the vast majority of ham radio repeaters sit idle and are rarely used. In the Eugene area alone there are well over a dozen repeaters. But only one or two that actually have any activity to speak of.

Desense

I had a little problem with my ham radio setup at home. I figured I’d post about it here just for kicks. I have two “base” radios at home. One is a dual-receive Yaesu FT-8800R that I use to monitor local repeaters. My second rig is an Alinco DR-135 that is connected to my Allstar node. The antenna for my Yaesu is up in the attic above the garage. The antenna for the Alinco was in the garage below.

The Alinco is a 2-meter radio. I run it at 5 watts. When my Allstar node is connected to another node/hub, the Alinco transmits whenever there is activity on that node/hub. The output of the Alinco was essentially “desensing” my FT-8900. The symptom being that the FT-8900 suddenly became “hearing-impaired” whenever the Alinco was transmitting.

I typically monitor the Alinco radio from inside the house on my HT. And 5 watts is way more than I need for that. Unfortunately, regular mobile rigs don’t usually go lower than that.

I tried moving the Alinco node radio into my office in order to gain a little more distance between the two antennas. But even on low power the RF got into some of the electronics in the room which made that an unworkable solution.

After considering a number of other possibilities, I decided to take the antenna off the Alinco node radio and swap it with a dummy load. I tried this last night and it seems to work really well. I located the node right in my office and the RF no longer interferes with any electronics. And the dummy load allows enough RF to pass where I can talk though it from my HT with no problem.

Gear swapping

After concluding a couple of weeks ago that I wasn’t going to be able to do HF here at home, I sold all my HF gear on eBay. I sold my Yaesu FTdx1200, my Buddipole and my Comet antenna analyzer. I also sold my Signalink (since it’s intended use was on HF).

I got pretty good prices for what I was selling. I actually sold the FTdx1200 for only $45 less than what I’d originally paid a few months back. So I’m officially out of the HF business.

After selling all that gear I decided to make a few more changes. I have a node radio (a Yaesu FT-7900R) that I use with my Allstar node. I’ve been running it on 5 watts, but even 5 watts is overkill just for my local use. And it’s certainly a much nicer rig than what is required for a node radio.

So there’s this guy that obtains used commercial radios and resells them along with the necessary control cables for use as node radios for both Allstar and IRLP. You can’t just spin a dial and put these radios on the frequency you choose. These radios must be programmed via special software for the frequency and tone you wish to operate on. And that’s part of the service he provides.

So I ordered a GE MVS commercial radio for use as my node radio. And I requested he set the transmit power level to 500mw. It will be very sweet to have a commercial radio as my node radio that only transmits with 1/2 watt. Should be about perfect. I talk to my node radio with my HT on it’s lowest power setting which also happens to be 500mw.

I had been toying with putting my current node radio (the FT-7900R) in the car, but decided against it. Instead, I bought a second Yaesu FT-60R for mobile use and put my FT-7900R up for sale on eBay.

My wife and I switch cars fairly frequently. So it is really better that I don’t have something permanently mounted in a vehicle. What I will have is a mag-mount antenna in each vehicle. And I’ll move my FT-60R back and forth as I switch vehicles.

Node relocation

I’ve learned a couple of things about running an Allstar node. Nothing too earth-shaking.

1. The mobile radio hanging off the node computer can spend a LOT of time transmitting. Typically a non-commercial ham radio is not rated for this sort of duty-cycle. But I’m hoping that having the power set to the lowest setting (5w) will make a difference.
2. I’ve been experiencing a high number of dropped cellular calls. I don’t know for sure, but it seemed that most of the dropped calls happened while sitting 3ft from my node antenna. And these dropped calls probably happened while the node was transmitting. It is for this reason, as well as general RF safety that I decided to relocate my node to the garage (see pictures).
3. Technically I’m supposed to be monitoring the node at all times and have the ability to turn it off if need be. That is part of the definition of a “control operator”, which every ham station must have. However when someone is using my node, they are transmitting and my node is not. When my node is receiving RF it is sending VoIP out over the net, but it would be the repeater or node on the other end of the connection that would be transmitting. And for that I would not be responsible to the FCC. The repeater or node-owner on the other end would. My node would only be transmitting what gets received from the repeater or node that is on the other end of the VoIP connection.  Of course the repeater or node-owner on the other end may block me (and be justified in doing so) if someone on my end is abusing my node.

As part of the move out to the garage I set up a spare router that runs the Tomato open-source firmware to act as a wireless bridge. It connects to the wireless router in the house via WiFi signal and connects to this PC via ethernet. It’s not that different than having a wireless card in the PC, except that this PC runs an ancient version of CentOS Linux that probably has really iffy support for wireless cards. With the bridge it only needs to support the on-board ethernet.

How to setup an Allstar Link simplex node

Check out these three links:

Allstar getting started info: https://allstarlink.org/getstarted.html

URI: http://www.dmkeng.com/URI_Order_Page.htm

Cables: http://www.uricables.com/

The Allstar folks are the ones who offer the ACID Linux distribution which has all the software you need to run a node. Much of it is preconfigured. It’s essentially CentOS 5.11.

So, buy the URI and the right cable for your radio. Download ACID Linux and install it on an old PC. And hook up the radio. Then configure and adjust the audio tuning in the software.

Most all the configuration can be handled via the Allstar portal. You set the configuration there and and it actually pushes it onto your computer. You do need to setup port forwarding on your router for this to work.

If you wish to enable Echolink, you need to forward those ports as well. This software will do Echolink with very little extra effort. But you will want to change your callsign to have the -L suffix and switch it over to “sysop” mode.