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Kings of the Airwaves?

by Chris G7DDN

One of things that drew me (and probably you too) to Amateur Radio was the ability to make long-distance (or DX) contacts.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s though, for the majority of the population, talking with someone in another country was a complicated and expensive business.

One example…

I recall being allowed by my parents to join in Radio Nederland’s monthly “Happy Station” phone-in on two isolated occasions in the early 1970s.

In the UK, this involved calling the International Operator Service beforehand and booking the call. You were not allowed, for whatever reason, to dial it for yourself in those days!

You gave the number you wanted to call to the operator and tried to explain it would be good if they could call it at a certain time as it was a phone-in, but in truth, you were in the lap of the gods – you had to wait your turn in the queue!

Eventually though the Operator would call you back and then dial the international number for you. At some exorbitant cost, you were eventually put through (or not, in the case of the phone-in programme as the number was usually engaged by then – sheesh!)

Ham Radio – Something Special

So becoming a Radio Amateur in those days was not only a way of accessing a modern up-to-date technical hobby, it was also a way of using your radio skills to talk to people in far-off climes, learn about world geography, and receive those magical QSL cards that proved to your friends that you had achieved something rather special and that you really hadn’t made it all up!

You were somebody as a Ham!

UK-to-UK was impressive too

Even talking with other operators in the UK was quite something.

Before the days of Motorways (Freeways for our US cousins, Autoroutes in Europe) a journey across the whole country could easily take several hours. I specifically remember a journey my family made to the seaside in Devon in 1973 which took the best part of 8 hours on the old “A” roads…

As a Ham in those days, even to talk with a station in Devon, well, it felt like talking to someone on the other side of the world!

Kings of the Airwaves

So being a Radio Amateur back then was truly like being a “King of the Airwaves” – the world was literally your oyster!

When CB Radio and 446 MHz came along, it was easy to differentiate Ham Radio from those services – they were designed as short-range radio only and, unless conditions were exceptional (which they occasionally were on 27MHz!) they did not normally sustain long-distance propagation.

Those services were no threat to amateur radio as a result – and sadly, partly because of this, too many Amateurs at the time looked down on CB-ers  – it wasn’t “real radio” and its operators were “inferior” and “didn’t understand proper radio”. (Heard that before anywhere, by the way?)

The tables have turned!

Now fast forward to today – and the tables have very much turned!

The Internet means that pretty much everyone has unfettered access to worldwide communication, in a variety of forms.

Text, documents, photos, audio, video – you name it, it can pretty much be sent worldwide and at relatively small cost.

In reality, the new Kings of the Airwaves in 2018 are…. all of us!

Radio Amateurs have now been joined by everyone else!

Old fashioned?

Is it any wonder then that Ham Radio is all too often viewed these days (by people outside the hobby at least) as old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy and the preserve of old men who prefer to live in the past?

No wonder we have an identity crisis – no wonder it is difficult to attract new blood!

If the best we can offer is “you’ll be able to help out with emergency communications when a natural disaster or war devastates your area” it doesn’t sound overly attractive!

Author’s Note: Please understand that this is not to denigrate those that do provide this service by the way; I am simply trying to show reasons why our hobby is not as attractive as it used to be – I have every respect for those that serve the community selflessly in such a manner, they are heroes in every conceivable sense of the word.

Perishing computers – they’ve ruined the hobby

Like it or not (and I too have a love-hate relationship with them) computers have revolutionised both society and consequently our great hobby too. And they are going to continue to do so.

Network Radios (which we can think of as “pocket SDR computers with a PTT button” as that is what they are) are simply one more evolutionary part of the journey.

They allow us to access the richness and colour of Internet propagation, while existing in a package that we already understand and can therefore use.

Now we can work other Hams anywhere they have a connection to the network, if that is what we choose to do.

It’s rather like using the Internet as a massively combined set of repeaters, only they are not exclusive to Hams anymore – we share that service with the rest of the population.

Resistance?

And perhaps this is one reason there is resistance to this movement.

There was, and still is to a great degree, an exclusivity about holding a Ham Radio licence.

I remember working extremely hard for mine. I was, and remain to this day, very proud that I achieved it (with a Credit and a Distinction in the two papers I sat, by the way, as well a pretty flawless 12wpm Morse Test ;))

But in 2018 and beyond, a licence to transmit on increasingly noisy bands that require large antennas, which in turn causes friction with neighbours and conflicts with restrictive covenants, seems increasingly irrelevant to many Hams.

As a result, it appears that many have voted with their feet and left the hobby altogether.

A growing hobby, but not as we know it?

Network radio does not suffer from these problems however. And though we may not regard it as “pure” as Ham Radio was in the past, it is helping keep the hobby alive.

Indeed, if what I am seeing is correct, it is actually growing it!

Every day, I am hearing Hams coming on the Network saying things like…

“I’ve been on the radio more in the last week that I have in the last 10 years.”

“I never thought I would use Ham Radio again till I came across this channel.”

“This has completely rejuvenated my hobby.”

“I haven’t got my Ham licence yet, but I’m learning a lot from talking with you guys and I am going to enrol on the next course.”

A lesson from Ancient Rome?

What was it that was said about Nero – that he “fiddled while Rome burned”?

Regardless of the historical accuracy of that statement, I wonder if there is a sense of something similar happening within our hobby.

Are our traditional bands gradually slipping away from us under piles of noise?

Are people leaving Ham Radio because “it isn’t what it was”?

Does the thought of erecting a new antenna sound less exciting than chatting with the family on social media or checking your news feed?

If the answer to any of those is yes, then let me ask, are Network Radios possibly one way we can piggy-back on Internet propagation and bring our hobby further into the 21st century?

Running out of time…

If it is, or even if it isn’t, we had better be quick with something!

Two decades of this century have almost gone by and with arguably more than 50% of Amateurs  unlikely to be on this planet by the end of the next two decades, time has been running out for the hobby for some time already…

Radical solutions?

No one is suggesting that Network Radios are the answer to all the issues the hobby faces. Clearly they are not.

But they are already playing an increasingly growing part in the hobby and a positive one, from what I am experiencing.

We lose precisely nothing by embracing what they can do for us – and they just may be an opportunity that we cannot afford to pass up.

Catch you “on the network”?

© Chris Rolinson G7DDN

May 2018

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A New Radio…

by Chris G7DDN

My main device since I got into this whole Network Radio phenomenon has been the Talkpod N58.

This is not perhaps the most popular radio from a sales point of view – the Inrico T320 seems to be the big seller just now (and yes I have one of those too, and an Inrico TM-7!)

But I have a very soft spot for the Talkpod.

Why so?

Firstly the build quality is definitely the best I have experienced on any Network Radio so far. To say it is rugged is a bit of an understatement really – I have never owned a radio quite so tough!

Secondly, the fit in the hand is exemplary – just like an HT should feel, in my opinion.

Thirdly, the audio has to be heard to be believed! When I did a presentation on Network Radios recently at my local club, the audio from the little Talkpod filled the large club room completely – and it was not even on full volume at the time. Outdoors it is unbelievable!

Issues?

However the Talkpod was rushed to market at the very end of 2017, and, as is often the case with anything “computer”, the firmware was a little “threadbare” at launch.

I can forgive the old version of Android and the limited memory as they do not impact my use with the radio one jot. There is still plenty of memory for all the apps I might need and they work as expected under Android KitKat. I don’t need or use a second SIM card or SD card either.

The things I had trouble with were mostly oddities like, the clock reporting the wrong time unless I did a reset. The battery percentage saying 1% when I knew that really could not be possible! Not knowing what was happening when I seemingly thought I had turned the radio “off”.  Annoying things rather than issues that upset the use of the radio.

The only major issue was the volume control, which though positively loud, sometimes couldn’t actually go low enough for more “clandestine” use.

New Firmware

Well I now have a “new radio”!

Talkpod have, just a few days ago, released a new firmware (EU) and new firmware (US) which seems to address a lot of those niggles.

To be completely fair, Talkpod have released a few firmwares since January but the latest does seem to address more issues than before.

So what’s new?

Well a lot of the new stuff is probably “under the hood” updates, but there are a few visible (audible?) differences.

You actually can’t display the battery percentage now, which is one way of solving that issue – perhaps the correct percentage meter will make a return in the future?

When you turn the unit off now, instead of going into Airplane mode without telling you, it gives you a very useful option to either go into Airplane mode or to completely power off instead, which is far more useful and user friendly.

The volume control is much improved too, though it could still do with a little more control at the lower volumes for my liking. However, that can be “tweaked” in the engineering menu, as described on this very website – though the values given in that article are certainly worth experimenting with (in true Ham tradition!)

It is useful advice too to use the paid version of the Button Mapper software to control the media volume. Android seems to have 3 or 4 different volume controls, only one of which is for traditional volume as on a radio – Button Mapper allows me to always use the “Media” volume control mapped to the physical knob.

Still in love?

All in all I still love my Talkpod – arguably it’s not so easy to use as a phone as other Network Radios, as it has no keypad (though it still works with a touch screen), but for my use case, which is as a Radio-like HT, it is perfect!

It won’t be leaving my shack for a very long time. Here’s to another “new radio” in a month or two’s time. I hope you are listening, Talkpod!

Chris Rolinson G7DDN

© April 2018

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What makes a Radio Amateur?

by Chris G7DDN

I had a lively conversation with one of my best Ham friends the other day – and it got me thinking again… (always a dangerous thing!)

It’s not Ham Radio!

We were discussing one of the big talking points about Network Radios; the problem it seems to give some people that they do not generate RF on Amateur Bands on their own.

My friend was arguing that using a Network Radio was not Amateur Radio, though when he talked about such devices accessing IRN and signals coming out on RF links via Echolink, he was happy to admit that it then could be Ham Radio, at least in part, because one’s voice would be coming out on, for example, an amateur repeater somewhere.

For him though, IRN to IRN or Zello to Zello was definitely “not Ham Radio” because no RF on an Amateur Band was generated.

I totally get this argument – it is impossible to disagree that Network Radios do not directly generate “Ham RF” or work directly on Ham bands.

But I think that this is not the only issue here, as I will come to in a moment…

You’re not an Amateur unless… what?

He went further still however and argued you are not “being a Ham” unless you are actually transmitting on Ham Bands.

His reasoning was that if you use CB, you are a “CB-er” and if you use Zello, you are a “Zello-er” and neither of these constitute any form whatsoever of Amateur Radio.

Again I totally understand this, but again for me this doesn’t completely hold up.

Why not?

Let’s see why I think things have changed.

For most of the history of Ham Radio, it was clear that Hams used only the allocated bands in the electromagnetic spectrum. This was in part because they were granted to us by governments for experimental purposes and, frankly, that is all there was!

Interestingly, many hams through history have not necessarily been particularly interested in operating at all – their main interest may have been circuit design and/or construction.

They only ever came on the air when they were testing something that involved having to transmit and the choice of band may well have meant little to them. They could have been anywhere on the Shortwave Spectrum in truth, but had to stick to allocated Ham Bands, for obvious reasons.

Others may have been into antenna design – and again only came on to the Amateur bands to conduct relevant aerial tests.

But I doubt whether any of these hobbyists saw themselves not as Hams until they actually transmitted RF…

And what about callsigns?

Our callsigns are very much part of our identity as Hams.

Rather oddly, I see myself as G7DDN whether I am washing up, driving my car, or on holiday – it is almost “part of who I am”. It is strange that a government allocated identifier can have this effect on us!

To make matters worse, I am even called “DDN” by my ham friends and club members – I call other club members by their suffixes too! Even my debating friend above calls all of his friends (they are pretty much all Hams!) by their suffixes.

Why? Because our very identity as people is, in part, wrapped up in our callsigns, even when we are not specifically “generating Amateur RF”.

Into the 21st Century…

Now this gets interesting when the Internet arrives on the Ham scene in the 1990s.

Suddenly we have a new form of propagation and a revival, after many years, of the very term “wireless”.  But this is not exclusive to Hams anymore.

Anyone can use this short-range wireless radio – anyone can access the internet – anyone can have DX “Contacts” of a sort – hence the crisis of confidence Ham Radio has been grappling with for some years…

Does that mean though that the likes of Zello and IRN are not “valid”?

Does that mean Hams should absolutely not use these resources using their callsigns, because we are not transmitting on a specific Amateur Band, for example?

It’s about choice!

I would have thought it is up to us as individual hams to decide how we want to use the new forms of Internet propagation.

As I outlined in my recent article, “Taking a Break”, in my local club, we have set up a Zello channel. It is private, password protected and moderated.  But it is used just like any Ham Radio channel with correct Amateur protocols etc.

When used with Network Radios (handheld SDR computers with PTT buttons), it is not long before it “feels” like Ham Radio in every way.

Ask someone who’s used one for any length of time… PTT buttons on handhelds take away the feeling of using an Android device; chunky units in one’s palm are just like any other HT; PTT-style comms remove any vestige of “phone-like” feel, but we get the advantages of crystal-clear audio together with the benefits of modern social media, such as photo ID of members, (great for getting to know people!) ability to replay “overs”, ability to moderate and self-police in appropriate ways.

Is our Zello Group “Ham Radio”? If you define it ONLY by generating RF on an Amateur Band, then no. But it certainly feels like it…

Is there another definition?

In the 21st Century, is generating “Amateur RF” the only way to define Ham Radio? 50 years ago that may have been an easier question to answer – now, I’m not so certain…

Natural forms of Propagation are only open to the traditional Ham Bands and radios – equally the new forms of Internet propagation are only open to computer-based “radios”. Is it not just a case of “horses for courses”? Use the right apparatus for what you trying to achieve?

The fact that Hams are playing with crossing over between these devices and internet forms of propagation is even more fascinating!

D-STAR and other modes have been part of this experimentation since the first digital commercial ham radios came out in the late 1990s.

And it’s only a hobby!

The word Amateur comes from the Latin “Amare” – to love.

In other words, anything Amateur is done for the love of it. Amateur Radio is a hobby we are involved with (hopefully!) because we LOVE radio in all its forms.

But Zello (and IRN) is also a form of radio.

Yes, it might use 5GHz or 900MHz, indeed we might not know exactly what frequencies we are using at any one time, but RF is being generated. (I am assuming use of a wireless device of course!)

Splitting Hairs?

Put another way, if I have a 10 minute conversation with a fellow Ham on Zello, and then I repeat that conversation verbatim for another set of 10 minutes on 2 metres, why should one be considered “valid” and the other not?

If the only thing that validates it is the fact that it is on 2 metres, I think we need to ask if we are not beginning to “split hairs”.

It’s technology that has caused the problems – we never had to address questions like this in the past.

CB and 446MHz were very much separate from Ham Radio, but the advent of new technology is what is causing new (almost philosophical) questions to be asked about our hobby and where technology is taking us.

If you read my articles regularly, you will know I think this is not a bad thing.

Keeping an open mind is surely a good thing? A closed mind maybe less so?

But I love Ham Radio!

I do! I love Ham radio in all its forms – Zello/IRN to me is another “form” of Ham Radio, maybe not on a specific government-allocated Ham band, but to all intents and purpose, it feels like it.

I am certainly not going to pooh-pooh it – just because it is sending a certain number of cycles per second into my local atmosphere.  I love learning how radio works and constructing things, but why should that stop me communicating with my Ham friends and using Ham protocols, via 2.4 GHz Wifi if necessary?

When I use Zello and IRN, I am still being “G7DDN” and I use Ham protocols accordingly. I don’t have to maybe, but I do, especially as our club Zello group has our own home-grown rules to say we should do so.

It was so much easier without the Internet!

Ham bands were Ham bands, broadcast bands were broadcast bands, numbers stations were numbers stations and jammers were jammers.

Now the internet has come and ruined everything by making the fullness of the radio experience available to everyone, Broadcast radio, Spy radio, Business radio, Emergency services radio, Hobby 2-way radio and now it’s even “infected” Ham Radio. 🙂

We don’t have to let new technologies be polarising though. We can still stand up for and use “true” Ham Radio and simultaneously embrace Network Radios.

We can say, “OK this is not direct Ham RF but is something we can work with and use for our own ends.”

Perhaps the strangest quirk is that, if the Internet had been around when Amateur Radio first began, I wonder whether my best Ham friend and I might not even be having such a discussion today!

It’s a thought…

© April 2018

Chris Rolinson G7DDN

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Using 4G-only SIM cards on 3G-only Network Radios

Some 4G SIM cards will not support 3G-only radios. If that’s the case, using a small trick, you can make the Android radio think it is 4G and still allow it to run 3G, using a 4G-only SIM.

Here, is the 4-step procedure:

1 – Dial *#*#3646633#*#* (This will enter the engineer menu)
2 – Now, select Preferred Network Option
3 – In the drop down list, you need to select 4G LTE/WCDMA/GSM. Then, save and reboot the radio.
4 – Once done, just insert a 4G SIM in the first SIM slot and you may keep the second SIM slot empty.

Your device will now run on 3G speed, connected to the 3G network but using a 4G-only SIM card.

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Taking a break!

by Chris G7DDN

It’s been nice to have a few days away from the pressures of the day job over the Easter period.

My wife and I got to spend some time in Wales and do a few of those things that we all like to do when we are away from home. We particularly enjoyed a little walking and driving around the beautiful hills and mountains.

Technology and modern life

This involves using a map of course, especially to navigate around some of the tiny mountain roads.

This was when, once again, what I suppose I could term the “dilemmas” of modern life, in similar ways to the the ways I see them affecting our Ham Radio hobby, rose up to start me thinking again…

How so?

Well, I picked up my brand new Ordnance Survey (The UK Mapping Agency) paper map of the area and found myself reminded of a great new feature, as advertised on the front cover…

Ah yes, because I purchased the paper map, I qualified for a free mobile download of the paper map for my iPad & iPhone! Yay!

I’ve always been a “paper-map” kind of person, but I really like mapping applications on my personal computer devices, so I thought this would be a good thing – and so it was!

Positives and Negatives

It was like the best of both worlds having the paper map exactly as on paper but on my tablet screen instead…

  • I loved being able to zoom into the map without needing my reading glasses…
  • Having my position pinpointed on the map at all times via GPS was fantastic…
  • Knowing that the map would be automatically updated with new geographical features, such as new by-passes and roads was reassuringly future-proof too…
  • Less cool was the fact that I couldn’t get a large overview of my area in any great detail as I can with my paper map opened out – Boo…
  • I was pleased thought that I knew my paper map would never run out of battery!
  • And when the sun was out, which one do you think was easier to read?

But by and large, the new addition was a very positive experience and led me to believe I would always want to be with both map versions when I was out and about in future, simply because the iPad version added something to an experience with which I was already very familiar.

Now what has this got to do with Network Radios?

It’s another example of how technology has created conundrums for our lives in the 21st Century. Network Radios, for me, are a bit like the online map – an adjunct that adds something to the overall experience, but can stand on its own too.

I love paper maps, always have, always will – I love RF Ham Radio, always have, always will.

But I now love having my iPad map to hand too – just like I love using Network Radios as part of my radio pastime.

They both use new technology to enhance my hobbies.

But it HAS to be a paper map only, surely?

It would be silly to adhere to the view that, unless I always use a paper map, that I am not navigating “correctly”!

Equally, I don’t take the view that, if I am using RF, it absolutely HAS to be on a specific band for me to have fun using it.

Perhaps the problem lies with the fact that all these pastimes are exactly that, hobbies. Things that are intended to bring us pleasure.

Yes, some hobbies need licenses from official bodies in order to function; shooting, driving (definitely for certain types of vehicles), aviation and certain forms of radio.

More choice

But arguably the biggest thing that technology has done in the 21st Century is give us more choice about how to pursue our hobbies.

The online map does that for me when navigating, just as the Network Radio does for my radio hobby.

And this is quite possibly what our great Ham Radio hobby is struggling with.

What do you want your hobby to be?

You see, we now have the technology to make Radio the hobby we want it to be for ourselves. We can shape it to what we want it to be and do for us.

That means we can still chase DX on 20m if we want to; we can take part in 48 hour contests if we want to; but we can also use IRN for social community-building via radio, rather like the recently-formed DigiCommCafé IRN group is attempting to do, again if we want to.

It’s not that one kind of Radio supersedes the other, it is that they complement each other, rather like the online map complements the paper one.

One example

My local Radio Club has it’s own private Zello Group – only paid-up members can join it, but the rules that we have decided upon, are that we HAVE to use Ham protocols. It is moderated and to some degree controlled. You could say we are not only the users but the equivalent of the licensing authority! 🙂 It’s the way we want it to work.

Non-licensed members can have a “Club callsign”, which they use until they get their Ham call. They can practice using Ham Radio safely in an environment where they are among friends and can make mistakes without it affecting other Hams.

Yes it is closed, yes it is private, but we are having fun using aspects of Ham Radio in a different way – one that we want to use and works for us.

It is pretty darned popular too!

Less rules?

Extrapolating a little further, we don’t have to be quite so constrained by rules and regulations that were pertinent when the hobby came into existence.

Network Radios use Internet Propagation, not Ionospheric propagation – they don’t need a license because the Internet is open to all. (Shortwave Transmitters of course, use Ionospheric Propagation and do need a license as users need to understand the implications of launching such forms of RF into the atmosphere)

But we can still have fun with these devices and increasingly many hams are doing.

Some use them simply end-to-end; others use them as part of a Ham-band to Internet link; some even use them to remotely control and PTT their remote HF transceivers.

A new tool

Whichever way, Network Radios seem to be becoming a very useful tool for radio enthusiasts of all backgrounds.

It’s very easy to knock or diss them of course – but perhaps one should actually try such a device first, before you do so?

You might well be pleasantly surprised at the enhancement they can make to our great hobby.

Online map anyone?

© Chris G7DDN – April 2018

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How to increase the mic gain on the Inrico TM-8

This will improve some reports of poor microphone audio of the Inrico TM-8

Upgrade the radio with this firmware and follow these instructions. It will also remove a “waterfall” noise. Then, you can increase the gain like this:

Go the “phone” app and dial: *#*#3646633#*#*
This will enter into Engineer Menu
Then slide the top bar to “Hardware Testing”
Go to Audio, Normal Mode and change Type to “Mic”
Choose Level 4 and adjust value to 255 then click on “set”.

This has worked for me. Some audiophiles said that after replacing the microphone electret capsule the results were even better.

And you are done!

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TM7 WiFi and GSM external antenna mod

For the ones with wifi problems on the TM7; this is a photo manual that a good friend of mine made. I will try to translate te text on the pics as good as possible. The reason for the bad signal is simple: inside the antenna is simply not connected.

1 – Remove the tape and plastics. Afterwards you will see the whole motherboard.

2 – Plastic and tape that needs to be removed.

3 – Be careful when removing the tape. The connector can be damaged easily.

4 – Motherboard ready to tweak.

5 – GSM, Wifi and GPS (connected to external)

6 – End of antenna and connector.

7 – You can clearly see the connector that we will connect to the GSM or wifi connector on the board.

8 – The TM7 does seem to have an internal GSM antenna. The connection on the outside is not connected to GSM.

9 – The TM7 does seem to have an internal wifi antenna. De connector on the outside is clearly not meant for wifi.

10 – You have 2 possibilities now:
1- External to GSM
2-External to wifi

Depending on how you will use the device you will have to choose on what to connect.

11 – In this case we chose to connect wifi. You can easily change this later on.

Credits: This photo report has been made by Marcel Goedemans and translated by Filip Everaert