Change of plans

Since my last post, only days ago… I came to a decision. For a little too long I have been trying to get by on the cheap and avoid buying more expensive equipment than what I needed. This doesn’t seem to work out that well. I keep running into frustrating limitations. And it’s wearing me out trying to figure out ways around them. So I quit resisting and forked out some money on what I think are the best solutions for my situation (rather than the cheapest). Sometimes you just have to say… what the heck. And I did.

I have only one antenna, in my attic. I run the rest of my VHF/UHF radios on dummy loads. I have no digital voice repeaters nearby. I have four hotspots, a WiRES-X node, and a simplex Allstar/Echolink/IRLP node. I talk into all of those with radios connected to dummy loads and it works great.

I did get my FTM-100 back from the shop. My intent had been to use this in PDN mode. The selling point for PDN mode is… you don’t need a second radio to run WiRES-X. But that’s misleading. Because if you run PDN mode… WiRES-X is the only thing you can do with that radio. One still has to sacrifice all other functionality of a radio in order to do WiRES-X. I’m thinking that means most people will still need a second radio to do other things. That makes the idea of dedicating my FTM-100 as a node radio to use with my HRI-200 a no-brainer… since I wouldn’t be able to do anything else with it anyway. But it does mean I need another base C4FM rig to use with the node. One of my FTM-3200DRs would work. But since I also want to be able to use my hotspots for C4FM, nope. So the best answer is probably an FTM-400. I could run this on a dummy load. I can use the A band with my WiRES-X node and my hotspots. And on the B band I can monitor my Allstar/Echolink/IRLP node.

The only thing I haven’t covered, is what radio do I hook to my only VHF/UHF antenna to use for the local repeaters? Analog functionality is all I need. I have no reason to have digital voice mode capability connected to my antenna. But analog-only radios that have dual band and dual receive ability are quickly fading from the market. It has always been the flagship radios that have featured dual bands with dual receive. And now these typically have a digital mode of some kind tacked on.

However Kenwood is a bit of an exception. None of their mobile FM rigs have digital modes. And their TM-D710GA is the ultimate when it comes to APRS functionality. Back when I was doing APRS I was seriously lusting after one of these. There is no better way to do APRS. Honestly, not only is the Kenwood TM-D710GA a great APRS radio… it’s clearly the best analog-only dual band dual receive radio out there. So there we go. Easy choice.

There goes my ham radio budget for the next year.

Getting ready

Ok, maybe this is a small deal. But I heard from Yaesu and my FTM-100DR has been repaired and is on it’s way back to me. Also… I learned yesterday that ICOM recently released a firmware update for my radio (which I installed this morning). This fixes the bug in their terminal mode. In preparation for having the intended functionality back with my gear, I rearranged my shack today. I bought a small shelving unit and moved quite a few things around. My intent is to revert back to the original plan I had back in November when I sold most of my radios and got my current crop of gear.

That plan changed when my FTM-100DR exhibited a glitch with WiRES-X. It was further derailed by firmware bugs in the terminal mode feature of the ICOM ID-4100A. Now that these problems have been sorted out, I’m going to give this another go. So the idea is:

  • Use my ICOM ID-4100A in terminal mode with QnetGateway for D-Star
  • Use my Yaesu FTM-100DR in Portable HRI Mode (direct) for WiRES-X
  • Use one Yaesu FTM-3200DR with my attic antenna for local repeaters
  • Use the second Yaesu FTM-3200DR for full-time monitoring of my Allstar/Echolink/IRLP node

One new twist… at the start of this I had one openSPOT2. Then when the plan fell apart… my WiRES-X radio wasn’t working right… and terminal mode flaked out on me… the openSPOT2 went on sale and I bought two more. So I now have three openSPOT2 hotspots. This will be fine. Because I can still use those with my three HT radios. One for DMR, one for Fusion, and the third for D-Star. Should be a reasonably good setup. I will be able to monitor quite a number of things at one time.

On my shelving in the picture I have two blank spots. The spot on the top shelf is for the laptop that will run WiRES-X. The spot on the second shelf will be for the FTM-100. In the interest of simplicity, I am going to attempt to tolerate the built-in speakers on these radios. Things get considerably messier if I try to put an external speakers on all of them.

Whew… this is work

I’m afraid that I have been spending way too much time and effort trying to come up with the “optimal” setup for my desk/shack. Not only have I rearranged things many, many times. But every time I switch things around… I have to update my QRZ page with the new details because I don’t want it to be out of date. I finally gave up on that a couple of days ago and decided to remove all the details about my setup. Instead I will just have a picture. That will be way easier to keep up to date.

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.

Let’s go with IRLP

Here are three of the radios on my desk. The top one is for D-Star. The bottom right one is for local repeaters… it’s hooked to an antenna in my attic. The bottom left, as you may notice… says IRLP.

Let me tell you about this. I have been using an Allstar node. It had not only Allstar functionality, but also Echolink and IRLP. Turns out, the IRLP folks took exception to that. Apparently the hamvoip Allstar folks offered the feature in their software to connect to the IRLP network… without the approval of the folks who run the IRLP network. So… very recently, all the users who were using the hamvoip Allstar software to access the IRLP network… had their IRLP security keys revoked because they were using an illegitimate method to connect.

Yes, that’s a big deal. That means… all these folks who paid for an IRLP node… just lost their privileges to use IRLP. I was one of those people. When I realized this, I disabled the IRLP feature of my Allstar node… and hooked my official IRLP hardware back up. Then I contacted the IRLP folks and asked them to reinstate my node.

And they did! Great!

Long live IRLP.

Downgrade… leaner and meaner

Hmm, I see it’s been over six months since I blogged about ham radio. I’ve done a lot of things since then. I guess I’ll try to touch on them in order.

First, I did get around to using my HF setup. And it worked perfectly… just like I had envisioned when I bought the gear. The Kenwood TS-590SG hooked to an MP-1 Super Antenna in the front yard. And I tuned the MP-1 with the aid of a Comet CAA-500 antenna analyzer that was hooked up to the antenna with a two-way coax switch. Perfect! And… I really liked the Kenwood radio. Very smooth and intuitive once I got familiar with the basics.

I did become aware of something over the last number of months. I think maybe I’m a little on the OCD side. I swear. Perhaps it’s just an aspect of the hobby. Or maybe it truly is a personality trait. Or both. But I have rearranged my radio setup a whole lot. Like a zillion times in the last year. There are so many various ways to set things up. I have a lot of different combinations of gear that I can put together. And many different ways to do the same basic things.

Not only do I change things around a whole lot… I also have a tendency to keep adding capabilities to my arrangement. Sorta like “scope creep”. I spent a few hundred bucks on an actual TNC so I could do APRS properly. But after playing with it for a couple of months I concluded that it was a waste of time, and I pulled the plug. I also added a cheap DMR radio to my mix. And… I resurrected my Allstar node. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

One of the things that I have dealt with since I initially sprung for my main set of gear back in March… is the feeling that I was locked in to my initial choices with regards to what I had chosen. The amount of money I would lose by selling any of my gear and buying different gear was a serious deterrent to making that sort of move.

But eventually I really felt that I wanted to try ICOM’s terminal mode that they have on their ID-4100A. I had the ID-5100A. And while it’s a better radio in most ways… I think the ID-4100 is more recent technology and it has this feature that the ID-5100 does not have. The feature in question allows the radio to connect directly to a Raspberry Pi hotspot via a data cable… no RF involved.

So I decided to bite the bullet, take the loss of the buying/selling… and I sold my ID-5100 and bought an ID-4100. The data cable to enable the terminal mode cost about $80. All in all… “downgrading” from the ID-5100 to the ID-4100 actually cost me over $200. Yep… that would be a prime example of why to not do this.

Wait… it gets better! After I pulled the trigger and launched that swap into motion… I figured what the heck. I proceeded to sell 4 more of my radios… and buy 5 more new ones. I pretty much did all this swapping around without knowing what the final cost would be. This was because most of the stuff I sold was done via eBay auctions. So there was no way to know what I would really get out of things until it was all said and done.

The biggest loss was the decision to sell my Kenwood TS-590SG and replace it with an ICOM IC-7300. That move cost me almost $300. Well, it was $300 out of pocket cost. If you factor in the original price of the Kenwood… downgrading from the Kenwood TS-590SG to the ICOM IC-7300 cost me almost $700.

All said and done… all this swapping is what I wanted to do. And so that’s a bonus. It felt rather liberating to finally do it. And while my ideas about what I want to do change frequently… I think that’s just part of the hobby. I will say that now… my gear is much better-suited to the purpose at hand. It is function over form.

In the end the swapping cost me very little out of pocket money. But pretty much every single move I made was a downgrade except for one.

My swaps included…

  • Kenwood TH-D74A out, ICOM ID-31A Plus in
  • Kenwood TS-590SG out, ICOM IC-7300 in
  • Yaesu FT-2DR out, Yaesu FT-3DR in
  • ICOM ID-5100A out, ICOM ID-4100A in
  • Yaesu FTM-400XDR out, 2 Yaesu FTM-3200s in

And I paid money to do this!

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.