The Cacophony of Digital Voice Continues (Part 1)

Digital transmission

It wasn’t that long ago that I commented on the state of digital voice on the VHF/UHF ham bands: Digital Voice Balkanization. We have three main competing (incompatible) standards in the running: D-STAR, DMR and Yaesu System Fusion (YSF). At a high level, these three formats all do the same thing but there are significant differences in implementation (See Comparison of Amateur Radio DV by Roland Kraatz W9HPX.) All three of these are (arguably) open standards, allowing anyone to implement equipment that supports the standard. However, the reality is that D-STAR is still largely an ICOM system (with Kenwood joining the party), YSF is mostly a Yaesu system and DMR is…well, DMR is not deeply embraced by any large amateur radio equipment supplier. Instead, DMR is promoted heavily by Motorola for the commercial market via their MOTOTRBO product line. Another big factor is the availability of DMR radios from some of the low cost providers in the ham market: Connect Systems, Tytera MD-380. Baofeng has also announced a DMR radio but it has some potential shortcomings.

D-STAR has a clear head start versus the other DV standards and is well-entrenched across the US and around the world. DMR and YSF are the late comers that are quickly catching up. To put some numbers on the adoption of DV technology, I took at the digital repeater listings in the August issue of the SERA Repeater Journal. SERA is the coordinating body for Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. This is a large region that includes rural and large urban areas, so perhaps it is a good proxy for the rest of the country. I just considered the listings for D-STAR, DMR and YSF repeaters, some of which are set up as mixed-mode analog and digital repeaters.

D-STAR   161    39%
DMR      136    33%
YSF      121    29%
Total:   418   100%
SERA Repeater Journal - August 2016

I was definitely surprised at how the DMR and YSF numbers are in the ballpark with D-STAR. Of course, we don’t know for sure how many of these repeaters are actually on the air or how many users are active on each one. Still, pretty impressive numbers. (And I did not bother to count the analog FM repeaters but those numbers are way higher, of course.)

It is the repeater clubs and repeater owners that drive the deployment of infrastructure for new technology. To some extent, they are driven by what their users want but also by their own technical interests and biases. One of the positive factors for DMR is that most of these systems are Motorola MOTOTRBO. Hams involved in commercial land mobile radio are exposed to that technology and naturally port it into the amateur radio world. MOTOTRBO is actually not that expensive and it’s built for commercial use. YSF received a big boost when Yaesu offered their repeater for $500 to clubs and owners that would put them on the air. By using Yaesu’s mixed analog/digital mode, it was an easy and attractive upgrade for aging repeater equipment.

Disruption From New Players

Early on in the world of D-STAR, the DV Dongle and DV Access Point by Robin AA4RC allowed hams to access the D-STAR network without needing a local repeater. This basic idea has continued and evolved in several different directions. For example, the DV4Mini is a cute little USB stick that implements a hot spot for…wait for it…D-STAR, DMR and YSF. This is very affordable technology (darn right cheap) that lets any ham develop his or her own local infrastructure. We don’t need no stinkin’ repeater. DV MEGA is another hot spot, supporting D-STAR, DMR and YSF. Oh, and then there’s openSPOT…don’t want to leave them out. I guess somebody forgot to tell these guys they have to choose one format and religiously support only that one.

dv4-mobile-transceiver
DV4 Mobile Transceiver as shown in Dayton 2016

OK, so that’s one way to solve the babel fish problem…support all three formats in one device. And that’s what the DV4 mobile radio promises to do as well: “This DV4mobile is a tri-band VHF/UHF transceiver (2m, 1.25m and 70cm) that supports DMR, D-STAR and C4FM ( or “fusion”) all in one box.” Heck, let’s throw in LTE while we are at it, it’s only software. This site says the radio will be available Q4 2016. Well, it’s Q4, so maybe it will be here soon.

Conclusions

So let’s wrap up Part 1 of this story. What can we conclude?

  • For the foreseeable future, we will have D-STAR, DMR and YSF technologies being used in amateur radio. I don’t see one of them dominating or any of them disappearing any time soon.
  • Equipment that handles all three of those DV modes will be highly desirable. It is the most obvious way to deal with the multiple formats. Software-defined radios will play a key role here.
  • A wild card here is DMR. It benefits from being a commercial land mobile standard, so high quality infrastructure equipment is available (both new and used gear). And DMR is being embraced by both land mobile providers (i.e., Motorola, Hytera) and suppliers of low cost radios (i.e., Tytera, Connect Systems). This combination may prove to be very powerful.

Introducing The Android HT

rfinder-h1c-k0nr-edit
Photo: androiddmr.com

Some exciting news wandered into my inbox this past week concerning a handheld radio driven by the Android operating system. The RFinder H1 is an FM plus DMR radio to be released at the end of this month. Click to enlarge the photo to the left to get a better view. I had proposed a similar concept back in 2012: The Android HT, so this radio immediately grabbed my attention.

Details are still a bit thin on the RFinder H1 (pronounced “Ar Finder H 1”) but this video gives you a glimpse of its operation. The 70cm band radio apparently also supports GSM and 4G/LTE mobile phone formats.


There are a few other YouTube videos available, one of which emphasizes the easy programming of the radio using the RFinder online repeater directory. This makes perfect sense and is a great example of the power of a connected device. This feature would be very handy for programming up FM repeaters on the fly and outstanding for dealing with the complexity of DMR settings.

The RFinder H1 includes DMR capability, something I wasn’t thinking of back in 2012. That also makes perfect sense…embracing the growing amateur radio format that is based on industry standards.

Very cool development. What do you think?

73, Bob K0NR

What’s In Your Rubber Duck?

rubber-duckyAnyone with a VHF or UHF handheld transceiver (HT) probably uses the standard “rubber duck” antenna for casual use. I often refer to the rubber duck as The World’s Most Convenient Crappy Antenna. To be fair, all antennas are a compromise…the rubber duck optimizes small size and convenience at the expense of performance. The Wikipedia entry describes the rubber duck antenna as “an electrically short monopole antenna…[that] consists of a springy wire in the shape of a narrow helix, sealed in a rubber or plastic jacket to protect the antenna.

Being curious about what really is hiding inside the typical rubber duck antenna, I decided to take a few of them apart. I did not try to assess the performance of the antennas but just examine their construction.

Baofeng UV-5R Stock Antenna

Baofeng UV-5R rubber duck
Baofeng UV-5R Antenna

I started by dissecting a Baofeng UV-5R antenna, which took some aggressive action with a diagonal wire cutters to split the rubberized jacket near the bottom. After that, the jacket slid off to reveal the classic spiral antenna element inside. You can see some white adhesive near the top of the spiral element (upper right in the photo).

The Baofeng antenna had a female SMA connector.

Note: You can access high resolution versions of the photos in this article by clicking on them, allowing you to see lots of detail.

 

 

Yaesu FT-1DR Stock Antenna

Yaesu FT-1DR antenna
Yaesu FT-1DR antenna

The Yaesu antenna was easy to disassemble. In fact, I chose this antenna because I noticed that the outside jacket had come loose and was starting to slide off the antenna. A steady pull on the cover exposed the antenna elements without any further antenna abuse. (I plan to reinstall the cover with a few dabs of glue and expect that it will continue to work fine.)

The construction of this antenna is quite different from the Baofeng. The main element is a very tightly-wound spring…so tight that I expect that it acts like a solid wire electrically. In other words, it doesn’t have the spiral configuration that makes the antenna act longer electrically. At the bottom of the antenna, there is a coil inserted in series with the radiating element (connects radiating element with the center pin of the SMA connector).

Yaesu FT-1DR coil closeup
Close up of antenna coil

 

The photo to the right shows a closeup view of the male SMA connector and the coil.

 

 

 

 

 

Laird VHF Antenna

Laird antenna peeling coating
Peeling back the outer coating of the Laird antenna

Next, I wondered if antennas for commercial radios used different design or construction techniques. Laird makes high-quality antennas for the mobile radio and other commercial markets, so I purchased one of their VHF rubber duck antennas to dissect. This model is intended for use with Motorola radios requiring a threaded antenna stud.

This antenna was a challenge to cut open. I used a sharp knife and diagonal pliers to cut the rubberized jacket and peeled it back using a needle-nose pliers. The rubberized coating was embedded into the spiral antenna element, so it did not come apart easily. It took over an hour fighting with the antenna and I gave up before getting the entire spiral element exposed.

 

Laird VHF antenna
Laird VHF antenna

The Laird antenna is clearly the sturdiest of the three antennas. The spiral element is much thicker than the Baofeng and the rubberized coating is tougher and molded tightly into the spiral element.

The Baofeng and Laird antennas use the same design concept…just take a spiral antenna element and apply a protective cover. However, the Laird construction was far superior, but not a surprise given that Baofeng is a low-cost provider in the ham radio (consumer) market.

My disappointment is with the Yaesu antenna. The antenna came apart after one year of not very heavy use. I expect I can put it back together with some adhesive, improving on the design in the process.

Anyway, I found this interesting and wanted to share it with you. What’s in your rubber duck?

73, Bob KØNR

How About an Updated FT-817?

The Elecraft KX2 made a big splash with QRP enthusiasts at the Dayton Hamvention this year. HamRadio360 had some good coverage of the product introduction. Basically, the KX2 is a shrunken version of the KX3, covering the HF bands 80m through 10m.

The Yaesu FT-817ND
The Yaesu FT-817ND

There were rumors circulating that Yaesu would introduce a replacement for the FT-817ND, but that turned out to not be true. It is a good rumor because the original FT-817 was introduced way back in 2001 (according to Wikipedia). Also, Chris Wilson NØCSW was actively soliciting inputs for an 817 replacement at the Central States VHF Conference last summer.

A while back, I did a comparison of the FT-817 and the KX3 (big brother to the KX2). I evaluated the two radios from a VHF/UHF point of view. The FT-817 is the only portable single-radio solution for 50 MHz, 144 MHz and 432 MHz. The KX3 includes 50 MHz standard and 144 MHz is an option. The KX2 leaves out the VHF bands completely to achieve a smaller size.

What’s Next for the FT-817?

Its always fun to speculate on what might be coming in new gear. I expect Yaesu will maintain its position as the QRP transceiver that covers HF/VHF/UHF. It has a long history of delivering cost-effective “do everything” radios. We can look to recent product introductions from Yaesu to get a hint of what might be coming.

The FT-2DR, FT-400DR and FT-991 have all adopted larger touch-screen displays so we can probably expect that for the 817 replacement. However, this will challenge the existing form factor…you can’t just drop a larger display into the existing 817 design. The three newer radios include the System Fusion C4FM digital mode…at this point, I don’t think Yaesu would introduce a VHF/UHF radio without it.

Which raises another question: will the new radio also include a GPS receiver? This capability is a good complement to the C4FM mode in a portable radio. The FT-991 requires you to enter your location manually, which the FT-2DR and FT-400DR use a built-in GPS. But it adds circuitry and complexity so I am going to guess they will leave that out.

I am expecting (hoping?) Yaesu will improve the battery life of the transceiver. (Receive standby current is spec’d at 450 mA.)  Even if they don’t improve the current drain, newer battery technology could be used to improve operating time. Also, depending on the form factor changes, it may be wise to dedicate more space for a physically larger battery.

Yaesu will probably improve the overall receiver performance, including advanced DSP features. Many 817 users have complained about the lack of coverage of 162 MHz weather radio in the US. On the transmit side, a little more output power would be nice…maybe match the KX3’s 10 watts on HF. Yaesu could really make the VHF crowd happy (in the US) if they included the 222 MHz band.

Take One Tablet

The radio will surely have a computer I/O port with USB being the most flexible choice. There is an opportunity to innovate a bit here by coupling the radio with Android and iOS tablets. I could see a really nice app that handles logging, CW, PSK31, RTTY, bandscope, and other advanced features. This could take the pressure off having a larger display and loading tons of features into the radio. The most convenient I/O would be wireless, most likely Bluetooth or maybe WiFi.  Many of the SOTA and QRP operators already take along a smartphone or tablet for logging and other tasks, so it would be a good fit to that market. The key to this idea is careful human factors design and tight integration with the radio. Do I expect this from Yaesu? Not really. So surprise me and knock my socks off.

Those are my thoughts. Your turn.

73, Bob KØNR