My First D-STAR Repeater Contact

Here is another milestone in my D-STAR experience….my first repeater contact using the technology. (I had previously been using D-STAR on simplex.) There are no D-STAR machines within range of my house, but there is one west of Denver (the Colorado D-STAR Association, W0CDS).

I was headed to the Denver airport for a business trip to the west coast and I realized I would be within the W0CDS repeater coverage. I had previously programmed my IC-91AD with the right info to access the W0CDS UHF repeater on 446.9625 MHz. (If you think getting the right CTCSS tone plugged in is difficult, wait until you deal with the callsign routing for D-STAR.) I tossed the HT in the car and gave a call when I got close enough to Denver. Barry KA0BBQ came back to my call and we chatted for a few minutes.

As widely reported, the D-STAR audio is fine but you have to get used to how it cuts out under weak signal conditions. You don’t have the gradual fade of increasing FM noise…it just starts cutting out, similar to a digital mobile phone. I just had the HT rubber duck antenna inside the vehicle, so the signals were a bit on the weak side.

Watch to see D-STAR activity.

73, Bob K0NR

BPL Coming to Colorado

Hide the children! Broadband Over Powerline (BPL) is coming to Colorado. Xcel Energy has announced plans to make Boulder the first SmartGridCityTM in the nation. See my previous posting on BPL. The pitch from Xcel is:

The next-generation electricity grid will allow our company to better meet growing demands, address environmental challenges, maximize available resources and optimize the entire energy system. Ultimately, a “smarter” grid helps us serve our customers by creating more options for managing personal energy use, habits and cost.

BPL has caused quite a bit of concern in the amateur radio community due to its use of HF spectrum for data communications via powerline. Some BPL deployments have resulted in considerable interference to licensed amateur radio operators.

Xcel has posted quite a bit of information on their Smart Grid approach on their website. In particular, take a look at the white paper on Smart Grid technology. The good news for ham radio operators is that Xcel is using BPL technology from the Current Group. This implementation of BPL is considered “ham friendly” since there have been multiple deployments of this flavor of BPL that have resulted in no radio interference complaints from the ham community. This could be just luck, but there are technical reasons that indicate Current may have a system that doesn’t interfere with most ham frequencies. The key attributes of the Current BPL system are that the Medium Voltage Lines use 30 to 50 MHz (outside the ham bands) and the Low Voltage Lines use 4 to 21 MHz notched for the ham bands using the Homeplug standard.

The Boulder Amateur Radio Club (BARC) is forming a BPL Committee to monitor the situation locally. We also have an amateur radio BPL team for the state of Colorado.

Note that Xcel is not planning to offer broadband internet service to consumers. At least, not yet. The public relations campaign from Xcel is all about Smart Grid, managing the power grid for maximum efficiency. The BPL industry has been on the Smart Grid path when it became clear that delivering broadband to consumers was going to be economically difficult. I still expect that BPL will die out over time, but it may find a niche market in Smart Grid. Maybe. Keep in mind that wireless technologies can be applied to Smart Grid applications just as well (and maybe more economically) than BPL.

The important thing is to ensure that these BPL deployments don’t mess up the HF spectrum.

73, Bob K0NR

Too Much Data

Disclaimer: I am a little ticked off that my digital scanner (radio receiver, not a graphics scanner) decided to toss its cookies today and lose all of its programmed data. The day before, my Yaesu FT-8900 got amnesia, losing all of its channels. (It seems to not appreciate the voltage dip when the car engine starts.) This reminds me of when iTunes discarded my podcasts about 3 weeks ago. Which reminds me of when my computer hard drive failed, putting my entire digital presence into the bit bucket.

I had always resisted using software to program my radios. When our public service agencies switched to 800 MHz trunked digital, I didn’t have a choice anymore for the scanner. The complexity of that system requires a software program to manage the channels. I also tried to avoid using software to program my amateur transceivers. (Old Guy Talk: Back in the old days, we only had a band switch and one big VFO knob to turn and that was plenty good enough.) Slowly, but surely, the huge number of memories and features available have teased me into buying the software to keep track of it all. I don’t mind paying for the software…typically, the programs are a bargain.

I do object to the time it takes to manage this stuff. You might think that there would be a standard file format that stores my favorite frequencies, transmit offset, CTCSS tone and channel labels so that I don’t have to enter them every time. No, that would make too much sense.

What other cute little electronic devices require their own database? I already mentioned iTunes and MP3 players, where the songs are just bits on a computer. (Not your old 8-track tapes anymore, is it?) My GPS receiver has its own set of maps that demand to be cared for and fed to keep the little device happy and useful. (The other day, a bit in the GPS got set that told it to ignore the maps that were loaded. I could see that the maps were there but the GPS was apparently not using them. A master reset and reload eventually cured the problem.) The GPS also makes use of my favorite set of waypoints that I maintain…carefully stored on The Hard Drive, waiting for the next disk crash.

Oh, and don’t forget digital cameras….they are the Masters of Data Creation. One click of the camera can generate a file with a million or two bytes. A day of photography can fill up a few gigs of storage with no effort at all. All of these precious photos need to be stored somewhere to be preserved for posterity. (Should I put posterity on The Hard Drive?)

There is just too much data in my life, and the trend line is increasing. Keep in mind that this data is the kind that you never really see. You can’t see files on a hard drive, you can’t see mp3 files on an iPod, you can’t see the bits programmed into my scanner. Oh sure, you can see something that pretends to represent the actual data….The Hard Drive lets you display a Word document on your screen and print it out. It is supposed to be the same as the file on The Hard Drive, but that is just an approximation….or maybe an illusion. Another reason bits are so hard to manage….they are invisible.

Back to the scanner…I had the configuration file on The Hard Drive (and backed up via Carbonite, just in case.) The Win96 software that programs the RadShack PRO-96 scanner was a victim of the recent hard drive failure, so I had to reinstall it. The program refused to run until I found the magic registration key that proves I paid for the software. No problem…found that on The Hard Drive as well and off we go. Then, the PC had trouble talking to the scanner via the COM port, mostly because there is no COM port on the PC. That is, I needed to use a USB-to-Serial Port converter. (Insert another poorly documented device of questionable origin.) Can we just have USB ports on all data-hungry electronic devices? After much fiddling around, I got the scanner to load all of the data.

Any one of these things is not that big of a deal. I can deal with one or two special programs and cables. But after being surrounded by these self-centered little devices that don’t play nicely, it really starts to wear you down. Clearly, the amount of data is going to continue to increase and more devices are going to take advantage of it. So don’t count on the problem getting any simpler. Ever.

So what’s the solution?

  • Electronic devices should use standard data formats that share easily from device to device. They shouldn’t insist on their own native format. Sharing data is good.
  • These devices should use standard interfaces and memory cards so that moving data around is trivial. Get rid of the proprietary cables.
  • The software that handles the data should be designed and tested for maximum usability using established human factors methods. Every feature should work with minimal effort for the end user.
  • Last but Most Important: these devices shouldn’t ever lose their memory. Bad, bad, bad, bad.

There, I feel much better now.

– 73, Bob K0NR