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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

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Add an Internal Battery and GPS to Inrico TM-7 by OK8NWO

Internal Battery Modification

A lot of people are complaining including me, that in modern cars the 12V supply cuts the supply to TM7 when ignition is off. I blame emissions and political correctness. Bit like the auto stop start button for the engine.

I got tired of this battery issue, because TM7 is slow to boot and in fairness not the fastest Android I have to cope with.

A friend suggested 18650 Cells were worth a look, I had not realised they are used all over the place incl vaping devices and laptop battery packs. As I have no experience with LithIon batteries I had some fear this was going to go badly wrong.

I ordered 3400mA Sanyo cells with metal solder tags, to make life a bit easier on the build.

I also realised LithIon batteries need a proper charger circuit. Having trawled that well known auction site I discovered you can get 2,3,4,5,6 cell charger circuits. I decided 4 cells was probably more than I need but I had the room inside the TM7, so 4 cells it was. Also, I got a 15V switchable 3A power supply which could do the charging.

Id already opened the TM7 to install the sd card, so I knew the first thing to do was remove those 2 weights on the board. This makes ample room for 2x 18650 cells on either side.

Having wired them up according to diagram supplied with the board (it could be any , there are too many to specify) and made sure everything was correct in terms of polarity, and also insulated. I put some foam in the back of the case on either side to stop the batteries rattling around. That also keeps them secure. The DC output from board I soldered paralell to underisde of pcb with plus and minus going to respective tracks.

However, I should suggest that a fuse should be fitted and even one you can mount on the back to screw in ie a holder, or at least an inline fuse in case of something shorting or whatever. I didn’t as I had nothing on the desk to hand. A toggle switch may also be useful if you manage to crash the android and you need to fully power down the unit. You really don’t want to reopen and desolder wires after this job again.

I charge it for 8 hrs and I end up with literally 24 hrs full use. My intention was 7.8hrs in the car, but its exceeded way beyond what I required in terms of capacity. My guess a 3 cell arrangement would probably work. Just get the correct charger pcb.

Current, the TM7 draws 130mA in standby and max about 240mA, this is tiny in real terms as its just a telephone in a large box. So , 18650 cells are a little overkill but it works.

GPS Internal Antenna Modification

Due to my lack of tolerance regarding cables in the car I decided to put the GPS module into the TM7.

So before I decided to rip the gps antenna apart I checked how it worked inside the house. No surprise it was fine, so that was my trigger. The gps antenna is plastic cased so a sharp blade and a pliers was used to break open the case. Its sharp and brittle so expect bits of plastic to fly around workshop.

Having extracted it, I allowed 3 or 4 inches of coax cable and then cut it. I don’t need all the extra length anyhow.

Use a super fine soldering iron for surface mount, reason is no the coax, but the socket on the TM7 is difficult to get at and there is Very little clearance to tap the centre pin for connection. The braid is easier to solder to it. As we have no other option due to impossible thin coax coming from PCB, I wasn’t going to try and cut it open and go that way. Remove socket and put in vice or clamp to hold it as the soldering is awkward., I got it connected anyhow and I put the antenna snug on right side of internal back case above the battery I had already fitted.

The drop in signal inside the car is neglectable and I have it shoved down between gear box and seat. On dash the signal is full.

Good Luck.


Do at own risk. I do not accept any responsibility if something goes wrong or on fire etc. I would suggest these mods could be improved somewhat in terms of safety and general risk. These were carried out as a one off test, I would prefer manufacturer would actually do these as an option on purchase. Having to do these was out of necessity and frustration.


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The Reality of Amateur Radio in 2018

The Reality of Amateur Radio in 2018

by Chris G7DDN

What is the greatest hobby on earth? Now there’s a question!

For many of you reading this article, the answer will be clear – Amateur Radio. It’s a hobby that delights, excites and, at times, frustrates in probably equal measures!

But it is also a hobby that has historically pushed the boundaries of technology – and often asked questions no-one had even thought of asking.

The Pioneers

I love the fact that the history of our hobby is littered with the regulatory authorities of their day allowing us access to bands considered “useless” and then watching as we showed over time what immense value they could have – yes, even the most supposed “line-of-sight” bands.

It is somewhat ironic today that the most in-demand spectrum across the world commercially is VHF/UHF and Microwave, the most “line-of-sight” bands discovered in the 20th Century.

Here in the UK, large swathes of this spectrum are constantly being re-jigged and subsequently “sold off” to the highest bidders (something that has always struck me personally as slightly obscene, but that’s another story…)

Back to reality

The reality though for perhaps the majority of Hams on a day-to-day basis in 2018 is not so rosy.

I switched on 160m the other day and was faced with S9 of noise across the band. It was S5 only a couple of years ago. I’m lucky apparently – many people are getting S9+20dB or more of noise, on several bands…

As Hams, we face challenges every day from local sources of interference; power-line adapters, non-compliant devices imported from abroad, hissy routers, noisy house appliances, power supplies and all other manner of electronic hash. It doesn’t seem to be getting any better…

Then we have the Home Owner Associations coupled with the newer restrictive covenants that stop us putting up antennas, whether it be an 80 metre long wire or a 60 foot high tower. We have neighbours complaining about eyesores and about interference from “that Radio Ham” up the road.

We might think an antenna mast is a thing of beauty, but we have to concede that most of our neighbours will disagree – sometimes, most embarrassingly, led by our own XYLs!

A Means of Escape

For many, portable operation offers some escape from this, but not everyone has the motivation to climb a mountain with QRP gear and play SOTA, very laudable though that is.

If the only Ham Radio we can play with is limited to reasonable weather and a trip out, most of us are not going to be playing a lot of radio that many days of the year, are we?

At least mobile operation helps out here and has saved the day for many of us on occasions.


Then we struggle with the fact that we are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as being old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy and out-of-touch.

When you consider what Hams have contributed to the history of Communications, this is the height of irony.

The very people who, in effect, discovered and perfected modern-day communications, that everyone from schoolkids to governments rely on, are now reviled as being as old-fashioned as 78rpm shellac discs!

Shall we just give up then?

So what is the point of continuing in the hobby? Many have decided they won’t!

The numbers leaving the hobby, anecdotally at least, seem to be increasing. I often see ads online where complete stations are for sale, and where the owner says something like “giving up after 35 years – too much noise – too much hassle…”

Now you may be fortunate enough to live somewhere really electrically quiet – or you might be able to afford a huge farm or ranch in the countryside where there is little or no electrical noise – but the vast majority of us are not going to be able to do that.

Another way out?

Is there a sense of “If we can’t beat them, join them”?

Is one solution to take Ham Radio and move it into that realm that we perhaps secretly despise and yet simultaneously almost adore?  The online arena?

I find it slightly odd that, as hams, we are more than happy to embrace the internet and computers when it suits us – for example, CW-ers make extensive use of the Reverse Beacon Network, Datamodes enthusiasts embrace programs like PSK Reporter – DX-ers rely on their preferred cluster, and so on.

We all probably have our favourite logging software, our favourite contesting programmes and websites we frequent, even if it is just to have a moan!

It’s too scary!

But are we just a little too apprehensive to “go the whole hog” and accept the Internet for what it already actually is? A man-made alternative method of propagation? Is this one reason why the whole “Network Radios’ phenomenon is so difficult to comprehend?

One well known UK ham (and regular author for one of our Amateur magazines here) wrote to me with commendable honesty recently. He explained that he was struggling in his thinking about the Internet being a form of propagation, despite the fact that intellectually he can see that it clearly is!

He was, in effect, trying to come to terms (just as I did initially) with even understanding that there could exist another form of propagation for our signals, man-made at that.

He did go on later to acknowledge that the real issue for him, was not that that this form of propagation existed, but that it was “always there”. (To be fair, that does make it different!)

Does it have to be hard work?

But this got me thinking too!

Have we got so used to Ham Radio being so much like “hard work” that if technology creates a means of propagation that makes our lives easier, we almost have to pooh-pooh it?

Is there a bit of an attitude issue? You know the kind of thing… “I had to work hard to work VP8G, so why should you be able to do it more easily?”

A new playground

In 2018, the technology available to Hams has provided us with a new playground (internet propagation) – it’s similar to, and yet very different from, the old playground (ionospheric & tropospheric propagation – which by the way, is still there for us too – it hasn’t gone away, we can and should still use it!)

Who says we can’t play in both playgrounds at once? Surely it is a case of both methods of propagation being usable, if that is what makes you happy?

There is something in human nature that doesn’t like others having it easier than we had it, but I would love to see Amateurs being open to be more accepting of new technologies in the hobby and realising that 21st Century Amateurs’ interests are, by virtue of the times we are living in, just different from those of 20th Century Amateurs.

There’s nothing wrong with that – it just is what it is!

The License Issue

For some of us, it’s difficult to get our heads around the new technologies, simply because of all the hard work we had to put in to gain our licenses. This now could be perceived as partially redundant, once we get our heads around the “Internet as a means of propagation” argument. After all the Internet is open to everyone…

We all have a tendency towards defensiveness – this is partly because we have something other people don’t have – a Ham license.

But again, putting this in perspective, and oversimplifying a little, possession of this means that we just have specialist knowledge about (mostly) building and testing transceivers (and maybe some knowledge of CW)

Are these the highest priority for a lot of hams these days?

I like what the RSGB President, Nick Henwood G3RWF, observed at his Society’s National Convention last October, that 20th Century Hams were more likely to be interested in mechanical & electrical solutions to problem solving, whereas 21st Century Hams are far more likely to look for solutions to issues in software.

That is an interesting way of viewing the change in the hobby over the last 30 years or so…

Where does all this lead?

Who knows? Isn’t that the most exciting thing?

SDR technology is transforming HF, computer technology is transforming the likes of CW, Datamodes & DX-ing, (just look at the rise of FT8!) and modern communications technology and its concomitant infrastructure is providing us with the ultimate change – an alternative means of propagation.

So have fun with RF – in all it’s forms!

So yes, go ahead and play with those Network Radios that use the Internet – make Ham-friends around the world.

Communicate with each other, use software, use Boat Anchors, use QRP CW, use valve radios, use big antennas, use minimal antennas, use internet-connected nodes, take part in contests, work through satellites, use D-STAR – do as much as you wish!

Have fun with RF in all its many forms – the Ham bands, yes, but also the cellular bands, the wi-fi bands & the bluetooth bands – especially if it gives you pleasure!

After all, isn’t a hobby ultimately supposed to make us happy?

Perhaps the saddest “Reality of Amateur Radio in 2018” is that, to listen to some folk in the hobby, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s main purpose was actually to make Hams as miserable as possible!

Let’s use all the wonderful technologies available to us in 2018 and beyond – after all, next year there will probably be yet more new toys in the playground!

I, for one, can’t wait!

© March 2018 – Chris Rolinson G7DDN

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Three Letters to a Magazine

Three Letters to a Magazine
by Chris G7DDN

Today was “Porn Magazine” day!

Before you jump to rash conclusions, this is my wife’s description of the day in each month when the Radio Society of Great Britain’s monthly journal ‘RadCom’ hits our doormat.

She knows I will be perusing and purring over the articles and adverts, looking to see what is new in the world of Amateur Radio.

If only there were a glossy glamour photo of the new Icom 7610… …oh there is, yay!

The Last Word

Today though, it was not a new piece of radio equipment or a particularly inspiring piece of writing that caught my attention. Today I was particularly struck by a thread of letters to the editor, in what is known as the “Last Word” column.

There has been a particularly interesting set of opinions expressed about new technology and its impact on our hobby. And if I am honest, I hope I am not the only one somewhat concerned about what I am reading.


Correspondent number one was recounting the magic of amateur radio and how it is our joint responsibility as Hams to reach out to others to increase our numbers – all good stuff.

But he then went on to say and I quote “…of course the young will have their iPods, iPads iPhones and the like, but there is no ‘magic’ with those devices”

I am sure the writer is not trying to wind anyone up when he writes this – it just betrays how difficult it is for us older hams to see the world through the eyes of people younger than us.

But let’s be brutally honest, surely this represents a huge misunderstanding of where 21st Century people are.

Try telling 99% of today’s population that there is no “magic” in their mobile devices!

A device that is a touchscreen pocket computer; a device more powerful than a desktop PC from only a few years ago; a device that allows instant communication world-wide with HD live video in addition to audio and instant messaging; a device capable of storing your complete music library on it…

Seriously? That is not magic? It looks like magic to me! A small slab of glass which does almost anything in the communication sphere that you can imagine? Wow!

Remember Windows 3.1?

A reality check for us oldies!

Most under 30s do not remember a time before a “Start” button in Windows! (Just let that sink in!)

Most under 30s have no concept of what a “tuning knob” on a radio is for.

Most under 30s have no concept of what Ham Radio actually is, does or understand how it works (and they show little interest in wanting to know either, from my experience!)

However, most under 30s own at least one smartphone, tablet or computer and probably know how do some level of coding on it too.

This shows the scale of the task we are up against in getting new people interested in our hobby. Sadly, we are perceived, if we are perceived at all, as being old fashioned, out-of-date and out-of-touch.

Electronic Scrap

But these were not the only comments that struck me in a less than impressive way.

A second writer noted that “…amateur radio communications are point to point with no enormous infrastructure in between, other than dear old Mother Nature! Take that infrastructure away and all those much-hyped wonderful devices would be so much electronic scrap!”

OK, I would argue the assertion that all Ham Comms are point-to-point, but I can see what the writer is saying.

But when I actually think about it, in the 25 or so years that I have owned a mobile device, I cannot recall one time it didn’t have a connection to the network.

Millions are spent improving the Internet and particularly the mobile access to it, both in terms of speed and coverage. Yes it can be turned off, yes it is vulnerable to malicious intent, but for 99.9999 recurring percent of the time, it works!

I would posit that there is precious little chance of these devices becoming “electronic scrap”, except in an apocalyptic scenario…

It’s the End of the World…

which brings me to the third correspondent.

He predicted that, in an Armageddon event, “cellular phone networks, social media, cash machines, local authorities, food supplies, power stations, water supplies, gas and electricity and fuel producers, the military, police, fire and ambulance services.” would all close down.

He concludes that “Amateur Radio and RAYNET could then become part of the few remaining communicating methods left in the country.”

Again you can’t disagree on the surface and I do get the point.

But really, if all these devices and organisations have gone down in an apocalyptic event and it’s every man for himself, I don’t think my first thought will be to spend time erecting a 40m dipole and using my EMP-protected (you had thought of that, hadn’t you?) FT-817 to see if I can make contact with some other poor starving members of the human race, who are also trying to survive the aftermath…

I do hope the letter authors will forgive me, as I do “get” where they are coming from, but I really feel they are missing the most important point.

The Internet is the Medium

That point is that, in the 21st Century, we have a new means of propagation that pretty much everyone can, and does, already access (without exams and a special licence) – the Internet.

And it would be remiss of us to ignore that or worse still, belittle it, just because it is new, man-made and not the ionosphere that we all love so much!

The ionosphere is a fantastic natural resource, though with S9 of noise in most urban settings these days, it is sadly becoming increasingly difficult to make meaningful contacts in the way we used to. Like it or not, the Internet is the 21st century propagation medium of choice.

What’s this to do with Network Radios?

Here we have devices that, in one way, are not radios in the normal sense, but that still use RF to communicate. Radios that do not use the ionosphere, but use this newer means of propagation, the Internet.

I think the majority of people these days can relate to these devices – they are familiar enough to be comprehensible, but different enough to introduce them to the delights of 2-way communication.

In other words, it’s a potential practical route in to our form of radio communications in general, and Ham Radio in particular.

Yes, some may not progress all the way to a Ham License, but some might and that has got to be a good thing – we need to start where people are and with the technology they use every day.

Surely we cannot offer them what seems, on the surface, to be an “inferior” form of communication, coupled with an exam, as the sole means of entry to what is, in the end, a hobby?

I fear the current state of affairs in Ham Radio could well lead to our extinction as a hobby (well before the end-of-the-world event predicated by the writer of the third letter to RadCom.)

Honey, I Shrunk the World!

Years ago, communicating long distance was only possible by expensive operator-placed telephone calls or by Ham Radio. Not so now – the mobile internet has shrunk the world and Ham Radio needs to redefine itself to remain relevant in the 21st Century. I really don’t think we will achieve that by suggesting there is no “magic” in mobile devices!

In fact, we cannot assume anything anymore – people do not have any “context” that allows them to understand what Ham Radio actually is, so we have to find other ways to relate to them. Starting with devices they already own and have in their pocket with them is surely one relevant way to do that. Network Radios are exactly the kind of device that can build on that interest.

Using Android OS, using a touch screen, able to use apps they already use, able to be a phone, an internet device, but setup for amateur-style communications, they just might be the perfect hybrid device, or at least the start of development towards such a device.

I would urge all Hams to keep an open mind about this subject and not dismiss the Network Radio phenomenon out of hand.

Where it will all lead, who knows? But it could be to a much brighter future than many fear…

© Chris Rolinson G7DDN

March 2018

N.B. Chris is giving a presentation on Network Radios at the Wythall Hamfest near Birmingham UK on Sunday 25th March 2018 at 11.00am. All are welcome.

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“It’s not real Ham Radio!” by Chris G7DDN

in the picture – Inrico TM-8

A Pioneering Background

I was musing recently on the wonderful history of Amateur Radio, from the early pioneers with spark transmitters and the race to get the first signals across the Atlantic, up to the Microwave enthusiasts who developed the way forward for space communications and satellite technology (and, whisper this, mobile phone technology!)

The history of Ham Radio and RF technology is inextricably linked – there was even a time here in the UK where it was believed, anecdotally, that a Ham Radio callsign would help you to get a job with the BBC!

However change came very quickly, relatively speaking, in the early history of radio. From Marconi’s experiments to the first Public Broadcast Stations was only 25 or so years. TV was only another 15 years or so behind that, and so on…

Resistance (or not feeling at “Ohm”)

Yet the history of Ham Radio is also one of resistance to change – not from the pioneers, they were often instigators of it, but from the “everyday” Hams.

Let me see if I can give you some examples, with my tongue planted very firmly in my cheek…

“That’s not Real Ham Radio!”

The early Hams used CW pretty much exclusively. So when AM arrived as one of the first of the voice modes, there was a bit of an uproar…“It’s not real Ham Radio! Real Ham Radio involves using a Morse Key! What in world is the hobby coming to, using voice to communicate over the airwaves? It’s sacrilege!”

But life went on, AM found acceptance and all was well in Hamland once again.

Then transistor technology arrived in the late 1940s and early 1950s, provoking quite a response. “Hang on! That’s not real Ham Radio. Real Ham Radios glow in the dark – we can’t be having this miniature technology – they’ll never last as long as valves or be as reliable”

But life went on, solid state devices found acceptance and all was well in Hamland once again.

Then SSB arrived and there was more discontent… “That’s not real Ham Radio. Real Ham Radios don’t sound like Donald Duck! It’s a fad, it will soon fall away once people get fed up of hearing those silly voices”

But life went on, SSB found acceptance and all was well in Hamland once again.

Then FM and repeaters arrived and there was polarisation within the hobby (and it wasn’t horizontal or vertical either!) “That’s not real Ham Radio. Real Ham Radio doesn’t need to use that thing on top of the hill to help your signal get somewhere! Real Ham Radio is point to point!”

But life went on, FM & repeaters found acceptance and all was well in Hamland once again.

Then Packet Radio arrived and there was real trouble… “That’s not real Ham Radio. Real Ham Radio doesn’t need one of those new-fangled computer thingies in order to work. Get your key or your mic out and start working other Hams properly!”

But life went on, Packet Radio found acceptance and all was well in Hamland once again.

Then Digimodes arrived and there was yet more strife… “That’s not real Ham Radio. Real Ham Radio doesn’t involve typing messages to other Hams – and those perishing computers again! What on Earth are they doing in the hobby?”

But life went on, Digimodes found acceptance and all was well in Hamland once again.

Then Digital Voice modes arrived and there were some very serious disagreements… “That’s not real Ham Radio. Real Ham Radios don’t sound like R2D2! Real radios don’t use the Internet to help them get round the world, they ABSOLUTELY HAVE to use atmospheric propagation. What is happening to this hobby???”

But life went on, D-STAR and other Digital Voice modes found acceptance and all was well in Hamland once again.

Then we arrive at today and Network Radios come onto the scene and all hell breaks loose! “That’s not real Ham Radio. This is playing at Ham Radio – there’s no Amateur RF so it is simply not Ham Radio. What is more, I worked hard for my license, everyone else should have to too! How dare people enjoy communications in an incorrect manner!” 

So will life go on and will all ever be well in Hamland again?

The 21st Century Challenge

This is why the advent of Network Radios represents such a challenge to us as Hams – it is causing us to completely rethink what it means to be a Radio Amateur in 2018 and beyond.

And we will have to start facing up to questions similar to these…

  • What exactly defines a Radio Amateur?
  • What do we mean by “Amateur RF”?
  • Is it RF generated by someone who is an Amateur?
  • Or is it RF generated on a particular band allocated to us by the government?
  • If so, does it absolutely HAVE to be that?
  • Can it be nothing else?
  • Does any of this really matter?

What about our bands?

As Hams we are very “attached” to our bands. Whether it be 160m or 2m, we almost have a psychological sense of “ownership” of them.

We have “favourite” bands, we have bands we never frequent.

We even have “our” spot frequencies and some Hams will get somewhat “assertive” if a fellow amateur who is not in their “group” dares to use “their” frequency!

And yet in the 21st Century, I believe that the whole concept of bands & frequencies is becoming ever more fluid. Why would this be?

An example from Broadcast Radio

Not that long ago, we could tune into broadcast stations on Long Wave (LF), Medium Wave (MF), Short Wave (HF) and FM (VHF Band II). Stations frequently referred to themselves by frequency: “247 metres Radio 1” or “1152 AM” for example. It was seen part of the station’s identity – many had the frequency in their station names!

But today, we increasingly hear less of this. When you listen to broadcast stations these days, they seem to be eschewing giving out frequencies, instead they just announce that they are on “FM, DAB and Digital” or something similar to that.

Why? Because radio is something you probably increasingly consume in one of two ways – either digitally (via DAB or Satellite or similar means) or by streaming via the Internet. Frequencies and by extension, bands, are not as relevant as they once were.

Moving Out!

The large broadcasters are also increasingly moving away from “traditional” radio.

On Short Wave – only a few countries & various religious groups seem to operate there now. The big guys are moving out of Long and Medium Wave too. If commercial broadcasters are moving away, we need to ask why.

Do Bands matter?

I have a suspicion that this is, in part at least, because bands and frequencies don’t matter so much these days. Domestic radio appliances are more about push buttons and screens that get you to your station instantly, rather than tuning dials with frequencies. It’s the end product that is important, not necessarily the manner in which it gets to you.

Who tunes a modern broadcast radio in these days with a manual tuning dial? Anyone? It was the main knob on all radios not that many years ago! I can even remember tuning old VHF TV in with a dial in my early days on this planet – that really seems odd now!

Going one step further, many broadcast stations are not even using direct RF at all these days! We still refer to them as “radio stations” (or occasionally “Internet radio stations”)

Is there any reason to think Ham Radio as a hobby will not invariably move in a similar kind of direction? One of our strengths historically as Hams has been that we are good at embracing new technologies and adapting them for our own uses.

The point I am leading up to is this – I suspect “bands” and “frequencies” are not really as big an issue in the digital age as we might like them to be.

In essence, bands only exist because of propagation.

Propagation again

160, 40m, 20m,10m, 2m etc. are all, in reality, “line-of-sight” bands. To over-simplify the subject, it is the ionospheric or tropospheric layers that enhance this line-of-sight propagation and turn it into something else.

Each band has differing propagation qualities as a result, giving each band its “character” and for some, the study of propagation in itself is a fascinating part of the hobby.

Man-made propagation is just different

When we think of (and use) the Internet as a man-made propagating medium (which is what it is – it propagates signals around the world) then the concept of bands becomes redundant.

The Internet is like one, almost infinitely wide, worldwide “band”, constantly open S9+40 to all countries 24/7 with few vagaries – and not just for voice, but for vision and other digital modes as well.

Put like that, who wouldn’t want to use it? Would it actually matter what “band” you were (or were not) on, if there even were one?

So the concept of “bands”, by which so many of us define our activities, may be crumbling in front of us in this digital age and we may not even realise it yet!  That is not to say our bands don’t still exist, by the way – clearly they do. It is just that, to many people these days, bands are a foreign concept.

And then what?

As the hobby starts to come to terms with some of the implications of this, other issues then start to arise, such as…

  • Do we need an exam any more to get a licence?
  • Do we even need a licence?
  • What form or forms should it take, if so?
  • Might we see an influx of new people coming into the hobby because the entry to it is more straightforward?
  • How would we cope with that?
  • Do we even want new people coming in, especially if their views differ from ours?
  • What will the hobby even look like in 20 years time?
  • What happens to our “traditional” bands?

I expect to see a lot of discussion in the future about this – it’s actually quite exciting!

Out of the Comfort Zone…

However it will make many of us feel extremely uncomfortable – the ground is shifting beneath our feet and the traditional raison d’être of Ham Radio is waiting to be challenged to change and adapt…

I don’t see this as a bad thing – intelligent honest debate is to be welcomed. The most important thing is to keep our minds and our thinking wide open. We shouldn’t reject something just because it is new or because it challenges our preconceived ideas of where radio is going in general.

Equally, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and reject traditional Ham Radio as it has been for years. The Ionosphere and the Internet are complementary, not in competition.

My own opinion?

If you have read this far and you really want my personal thoughts…

Why can we not have the best of both worlds? Surely we can.

Network radios (at this stage in their development at least) are not contest radios for example, and the Internet is not yet a contest-friendly mode of propagation. (That might change of course!) so contesting is still best on the traditional Ham bands. I’ll see you on 80 metres – 59 001 OM…

However, regular reliable high-quality contacts around the world are but one thing Network Radios excel at, so why not just use that when you want to (or when the HF bands are full of noise or are otherwise dead)? I do! I don’t see the expansion of choice in the hobby as a bad thing.

Enjoyment is the key

Does the fact that I am transmitting on cellular frequencies at 800MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz, 2100MHz or on Wi-Fi on 2.4GHz or 5GHz matter? Is there something intrinsically evil about that? Is there more virtue in using 21 MHz or 432MHz, for example? They are just “frequencies” after all.

I prefer to see myself following the motto of my local radio club, “Having fun with RF”. Whether I choose to use a Network Radio or a Yaecomwood super-duper base station is not as relevant to me. Enjoyment of the hobby is everything, otherwise why have a hobby?

Whichever way this debate goes and whichever direction this great hobby takes, my line would be to keep all the richness of every aspect of the hobby.

In other words, to go back to the title of this piece and change but one word, “It’s ALL ‘real’ Ham Radio”

© March 2018 – Chris Rolinson G7DDN