Thursday, 16 August 2018

Is it “Real Radio”?

There has been quite a lot of discussion regarding the relatively new (to the Amateur Radio Community) Digital and Internet linked communications technology. Systems such as D-STAR, DMR, Fusion and NXDN and P25 which use Internet Linked reflectors and VoIP platforms such as Zello, TeamSpeak and EchoLink which also utilise Internet as the carrier for communications. Many people accross the Globe use these systems in one form or another on a regular basis and derive great pleasure and satisfaction from it. These systems have their detractors though. 

Let’s look at each sector of Internet Linked Voice Comms, starting with  those modes generally accessible with a dongle such as the DVMega, MMDVM or Openspot. These systems usually consist of a Modem which takes the RF signal from a suitably equipped digital radio and converts it into a PC or Raspberry Pi for redistribution via a server. This communication is then decoded by other users in reverse order and received by their digitally equipped radios. The hotspot will typically run at a few milliwatts and a range from the transceiver typically around 30 or 40 metres is achievable. With the Internet link Global communications can be effected, thereby negating the need for complex antenna arrays, making this mode of comms ideal for those not in a position to erect towers or string wires over great lengths, such as people who live in flats or apartments and those more elderly operators who find themselves living in sheltered accommodation or nursing homes. 

RoIP (Radio Over IP) systems such as AllStar and EchoLink work in a similar way to digital hotspots. A node, consisting of a radio, connected to a computer running the appropriate software picks up an analogue RF signal and distributes it in much the same manner, the received signal being relayed via the operators node to their analogue radio. 

This brings us to Network Radio systems such as Zello and TeamSpeak. These are programs for PC or apps for a mobile phone or other VoIP device, which utilise the mobile or fixed internet and servers to distribute the comms. A typical Network Radio would run the Android operating system, Zello being the platform used to distribute the communication. Although not exclusively reserved for mobile devices, a computer or tablet can also be used. 

Is it Real Radio?

Yes and no. Yes, in the sense of a WiFi router or mobile phone sends data via RF, either to a cell tower or on 2.4 or 5 GHz. Yes in that some form of PTT is used to speak. No, in the conventional interpretation of “radio”. Amateur Radio is mostly considered to be RF point to point communications, but that description is based upon old conventions. 

Let’s consider the commercial application of VoIP. Many businesses use VoIP for their communications, mainly because a costly licence can be avoided due to the fact that they use mobile data on frequencies covered by the providers licence. Also a conventional mobile phone can be used, negating the necessity for expensive radio equipment (although dedicated cellular PTT devices are available). In the UK the Police Service use TETRA, essentially a VoIP system which uses a mobile data connection to provide essential communications. This system is due to be replaced by ENS, which works on similar principles, one major difference being an enhanced data service to provide almost constant coverage which is important for such vital communications. 

What happens if the Mobile Data service is switched off?  For security reasons the Government might require the mobile phone service to be inaccessible - for instance, in the case of a serious Terrorist threat or a natural disaster disables the service. Essentially there would be no alternative but to use point to point RF comms - that’s why Network Radio will NEVER be a total replacement for conventional RF. My standpoint on Network Radio and other Internet Linked communications is that it is supplemental to conventional radio. It’s not a replacement, merely another aspect of the communication hobby which complements the established systems that we have. In this case it’s no threat to what we already have, in fact if use of Network Radio encourages people to study for and attain an Amateur Licence (and there is evidence of this) then it can only be a good thing for the hobby in the long run. 

The disappointing thing for me is that some within the Amateur community are decrying Network Radio and representing it as the Devils Work. For a hobby that has innovated from day one with the developmental history of radio and all the changes and advances over the 100 plus years of its existence, I find it dismaying that some people are still stuck in the mid 20th Century. Is Netflix real TV? Are MP3 tracks real recordings? Tuberculosis was around until the 1950’s, that didn’t make it a good thing. As technology advances we either go with it or let it pass us by. In Victorian England, would anyone ever have thought that International communications could take place with devices that fit in the palm of a hand? When railways first became commonplace the detractors said that travelling at high speed would kill you. My point is that instead of dismissing something, take the time to try to understand it instead of writing to RadCom and pulling the whole thing down, due in no small part to the stubborn ignorance and refusal to accept that progress is made, not only in communications but in all walks of life - and especially in medicine, something that many of the more senior detractors should be happy to embrace. 

I will still be out and about with my portable HF gear, I will also still call on simplex frequencies and repeaters on V/UHF. I will still build aerials and other equipment and at the same time I will have my DMR hotspot and my Network Radio to supplement all of the above. I will always be a Radio Amateur and nothing will ever change that for me. 

73 de 2E0ENN 

Monday, 30 July 2018

Network Ramblings

Whilst not abandoning my interest in Hotspots and Digital Communications, I have recently been using my Network Radio equipment more just of late. I have used Zello for a few years but not to any great extent. I recently became aware of Network Radios Channels on Zello and decided to give it a try. To say that I’m impressed by it would be an understatement. Six channels, open to both Licenced and Non-Licenced people, there is activity all day long. There are some very knowledgeable people who participate, not only in th Amateur Radio field but also SWL’s and Android gurus. The conversations are informed, interesting and conducted in a very civilised manner. The Moderators are fair and attentive and the whole experience is very good. In light of this new found positivity, I have purchased two more Network Radios recently. 

The first is an Inrico TM7 Base/Mobile unit. Audio is excellent through the front mounted speaker and it is simple to use. The only criticism would be that the screen is too small to effectively be used as a touch screen. I have overcome this issue with a Bluetooth keyboard. 

The second is an Alps F40, otherwise known as the 7S+. 3/4g and WiFi, with a 4000 mAh battery, it’s excellent and cost effective as a portable unit. 

Both devices run EchoLink, TeamSpeak and Zello, as well as APRSdroid and work very well. 

Of course, you don’t need to buy a dedicated Radio to get on to the channels - an Android and iOS app is available for your smartphone/tablet/iPad as well as PC and iMac - so it’s accessible to everyone without the need to buy extra kit. 

You will need a data plan for use away from a WiFi hotspot but data usage is quite low - 1gb per month should be enough. There are lots of PAYG deals available and the option to tether to your phone’s hotspot is also a possibility. 

For those who travel abroad and do not hold a full Amateur Licence can use the channels as they don’t use Amateur frequencies. 

Is it “real” radio? Possibly not in the sense of Amateur Radio, but both WiFi and 3/4g use RF to access the cells so radio is definitely involved - even if on the Mobile cellular network. 

True to form, I have several devices for the Network based systems - when will I learn that one for each mode is enough? 

Friday, 11 May 2018

Rambling Onwards

The further adventures of an obsessed Ham. 

I’ve been dipping into the slush fund again. Two more DMR radios this time. First is a TYT MD9600 mobile radio. A used bargain from eBay again, I’ve upgraded the firmware and installed a codeplug which covers all UK repeaters. I’ve found that I can access GB7PE crime home so, for the moment it’s connected there on slot one, which is TG235 on the Phoenix DMR+ Network. 

The second purchase was a Radioddity/Baofeng RD-5R. Since upgrading the firmware on that one I find it’s utterly incompatible with the DMR network - they do work, but not if the firmware is upgraded. So, it sits on the shelf until the manufacturer issues a fix. 

Last Friday (4th May) I did a presentation and demonstration of Digital and Internet linked radio at my radio club, South Kesteven Amateur Radio Society. 

This went down really well with contacts being made on DMR, D-STAR, Fusion and Network radio. 

There were amazed faces when I made contact with Sid (G4RIO) on DMR whilst he was on holiday in France. That explained his absence from the meeting. 

With a little luck, hopefully I will have made believers of some of the more cynical amongst the members. The theme for my presentation was “Is it real radio?” I think I managed to establish that it was following several successful QSO’s. 

The Jumbospot arrived in timely fashion. It was assembled and working within half an hour, and now serves as my mobile hotspot, powered by a USB power bank and tethered to my mobile phone hotspot. After careful setting of the RX QRG, it works flawlessly and is continuing to behave itself, being used with my Hytera PD365 handheld - a great combination. 

The openSPOT also arrived and after a little time taken to understand the set up procedure, I’m astounded by the quality of this product and its superb performance. This has become my “go to” hotspot for shack use. 

The DVMega collection continues to perform without issues, thank goodness for Pi-Star software - easily the simplest and most effective means of digital communication via a hotspot. 

It’s the /P season again! Let’s see what can be achieved this year. Hopefully I’ll be out and about during the Summer. 

73 for now

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Rambling in 1’s and 0’s

In my attempts to set up the ultimate in a digital and internet linked station, I have been flexing my Debit Card recently. The first acquisition was a second hand dual band DVMega. This was obtained at a very reasonable price but the firmware was quite out of date which meant that it couldn’t be used with MMDVM Host software under Pi-Star. Instead of using MMDVM I selected DSTAR Repeater as the host and used it for a while for DSTAR only. I got to thinking that the firmware just had to be updated but I was daunted by having to solder a wire jumper to the delicate Pi Hat. In a rare moment of bravery I took the plunge and broke out the soldering station and magnified “helping hand” project stand. Taking the attitude of “nothing ventured, nothing gained” I proceeded to solder the jumper wire in place. This went with surprisingly little drama. I re-installed the Pi Hat to the Raspberry Pi and rebuilt the case. Following excellent directions from the Pi-Star Users Group, I set about the procedure of updating the firmware. The first attempt was not a success - I had missed a line in the code, but on correcting the error and ensuring the firmware version was correct it flashed successfully. So I now have a bargain DVMega, with the firmware update jumper installed, working with Pi-Star, just as it should. 

I found that I had a Raspberry Pi 2 without a purpose, so I contacted Karl at and ordered a new dual band Pi Hat. So now I’m using two dual band DVMegas, one for DSTAR and the other on DMR+, both set on VHF, with the Icom IC-880 and VHF Hytera MD785. 

My single band UHF DVMega is usefully employed on DSTAR and is exclusively used to connect to HUBNet’s AllStar/DSTAR cross link. This means that I can now access my favourite AllStar network with a DSTAR radio (IC-80),thereby freeing up my AllStar node for other connections. 

The UHF DVMega Bluestack is connected to a Raspberry Pi3 and is used for DMR on the Brandmeister Network in conjunction with the UHF MD785. The same hotspot can be detached from the Pi and be used mobile with BlueDV for Android software. I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks whilst mobile and, whilst the performance under BlueDV is not as good as with Pi-Star, I get very good results. 

Staying on the subject of Hotspots, I’ve been researching the Jumbospot MMDVM board and have ordered one to attach to a Pi Zero for a permanent mobile Hotspot solution. It’s cheaper than a Zumspot and nice and compact, so ideal for a mobile situation. I will road test it when I get it and I will post a review and my thoughts on it. 

Impulse buy! This months unplanned purchase was a Shark RF OpenSPOT. I’ve always been put off the OpenSPOT simply because of its price and the fact that it has to be connected with an Ethernet cable or a seperate MiFi router as it doesn’t have wireless capability. I suspect that the manufacturer has an updated WiFi version coming soon, as one supplier in the UK has massively discounted the current version (by 38%) and that's the primary reason for buying it. It hasn’t arrived at the time of writing this but I hear good things about it so I hope to enjoy experimenting with it when it gets here. 

I have a WIRES-X node and wanted to link that with an FCS reflector, so I have had an FCS reflector allocated and I can link the two together with a DV4 Mini. This isn’t the best way of providing the link but will suffice for the moment, until I can get my MMDVM home brew server working (that’s still a work in progress at the moment). Access is available via WIRES-X on LincsLink node 41087 and also on LincsLink FCS004/32. The link isn’t on continuously at the moment as I want to soak test it before permanently leaving it active. If you spot my call on either system feel feee to give me a call. FCS004/32 is on all the time so feel free to link in. 

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Obsessive Compulsive Ramblings

I keep on doing it. I can’t help it. I can’t resist a bargain when it comes to radio equipment. As if the recent purchases of DMR radios wasn’t enough, I’ve bought another two radios this month. Both are DSTAR radios, an ID-880 mobile and it’s handheld counterpart the IC-80. Both were very reasonable used bargains. This brings the number of DSTAR radios to four. 

I have a Ham friend locally and we have talked on and about radio since I first became licenced. After a bit of a lay off from the hobby he decided to rekindle the hobby with a new TYT MD380 DMR handheld. I spent a Saturday afternoon with him, updating the firmware on his DVMega, installing Pi-Star software on his Raspberry Pi and writing a suitable codeplug for the radio. After a bit of coaching about how to access reflectors and imparting some knowledge, he has now found a renewed interest in the hobby and is now active again. It’s always good to have a Ham returning to the fold and it was particularly gratifying to be able to help him along the way. All in the spirit of Amateur Radio. 

I have decided to replace the AllStar RF node with something a little more suitable for a personal hotspot. I have always thought that using the Icom IC-E208 as a node radio was a bit of a waste of equipment, bearing in mind that attenuating the output to around 10mW with a radio capable of 50W is not exactly exploiting the radios capabilities. It would be fine if I was using it as a Gateway radio, but even then NoV conditions would be likely to limit the output to a fraction of the radios potential. Thinking about options, I considered a Micronode built by G7RPG but had issues in justifying the cost. I have used UHF for an AllStar node before but had to abandon it due to my neighbour’s not being able to use the remote central locking on their vehicles while the node was transmitting on its licenced frequency. I switched to VHF with no issues whatsoever. So, I needed a compact node, using a handheld radio and also using VHF. I approached the Guru of all things AllStar, Alan, M0AQC, about converting a VHF Wouxun handheld that I had in a cupboard, doing nothing. Alan suggested that the Wouxun might not be suitable but suggested the Baofeng UV-82 as an ideal candidate to build a dual band AllStar node. He then began to look into converting a UV-82, with one of his modified USB sound fobs. It’s a work in progress but my RF needs for AllStar will soon be met with the new node, freeing up the Icom for more suitable work. 

My involvement as part of the Admin Team for the UK Hub on the AllStar Network continues. Recent developments have included a bridge to WIRES-X and also a link into the Fusion FCS reflector System. Negotiations are also underway to allocate a Brandmeister Talkgroup for a DMR crosslink. Not too bad considering that the Hub has only been active for a few months. Join us if you can on AllStar node 43909 or 27066, alternatively EchoLink G7KDZ-L. Access can also be made through my nodes, which are 43989 or 42536, EchoLink 2E0ENN-L.