Archive for category Mobile Wireless

The Android HT – Part 3

I received a comment on my previous post on The Android HT, pointing to this Android mobile phone plus UHF transceiver: Runbo X5. This is not quite what I described as the Android HT but this device is certainly interesting just the same.

Runbo X5 Android Phone with UHF Radio

Looking around on the web, I found this set of specifications. The frequency range for the “walkie-talky” function is listed as 400 to 470 MHz. The power output is not specified, but the UHF range is listed as 5 km. Some of the photos show a rubber duck antenna while others do not, so I suspect that the UHF antenna is removable.

Of course, the Android HT that I described was amateur radio only, no mobile phone capability included.

73, Bob K0NR

8 Dec 2012 Update: I just noticed that PD0AC highlighted a similar product on his blog, the OutFone BD-351-A83.

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The Android HT – Part 2

My article on the Android HT generated some interesting comments and ideas. Thanks so much! One of the main themes in the feedback is to have the radio be “faceless”, with the user interface done on a mobile device (i.e., smartphone or tablet). The mobile device would communicate to the transceiver via Bluetooth (or maybe WiFi). This approach has the advantage of separating the radio hardware (which probably doesn’t need to change very often) from the compute/display hardware (which is on a faster-paced technology path). I went ahead and hacked together a concept photo of such a device (click the photo to enlarge it). This device could interface with any mobile device that has a Bluetooth interface, so it would be independent of OS on the mobile device (yes, you could use your iPhone).

Such an approach opens up a variety of use models. Imagine sticking the transceiver in your backpack and using an app on your smartphone to enjoy QSOs when hiking. Alternatively, the radio could hang on your belt. At home, the radio could be left in some convenient location, connected to an external antenna on the roof and operated from the mobile device. (Low power Bluetooth is said to have a range of about 10 Meters.)  These are just a few thoughts…I am sure you can think of others.

I would expect the original Android HT concept to be easier to use for casual operation, due to the All-In-One Design with dedicated hardware volume control, channel select and PTT switch. I am assuming those functions would be implemented in software in the faceless implementation, which would likely be less convenient. Most mobile devices have their own GPS system included, so that would mean one less thing that has to be in the radio.

The other idea that surfaced in the feedback is using Software Defined Radio (SDR) technology to implement the transceiver. This would provide a higher degree of flexibility in generating and decoding signals, enabling additional areas of innovation. That is a great idea and will require a whole ‘nuther line of thinking.

73, Bob K0NR


The Android HT

I’ve been watching all of the innovative work going on in the smartphone and tablet arena and wondering how we could get more of that going in ham radio. To be sure, there are always radio amateurs developing creative technology. Some examples are adaptations of D-STAR, IRLP, improvements on APRS and sound card modulation modes. However, amateur radio is missing a standardized platform for handheld communications. Such a radio platform could open up lots of software innovation in this space.

What I have in mind is a dualband (2M/70cm) handheld transceiver that is built on top of the Android operating system. (Sorry Apple Fan Boys, iOS is a non-starter based on Apple’s walled garden philosophy.) This radio would have some of the hardware features we now take for granted in smartphones: GPS, WiFi, USB, maybe even a camera. I’d also include APRS hardware built-in, similar to the Yaesu VX-8GR or the Kenwood TH-D72A. I’ve hacked together a concept photo shown on the left of this post (click to enlarge). We would probably want to maintain some of the most important direct hardware controls such as PTT, volume and channel select. The rest of the user interface would be done via a touchscreen display, where the power of the Android OS comes into play.

While this hardware configuration is exciting, the real power comes from having a software developers kit (SDK) with a stable Application Programming Interface (API). This would unleash the creativity of all those software-oriented hams out there and a plethora of apps would emerge. There are plenty of ham radio apps available on the Apple and Android platforms…it’s just they are missing the radio as part of the package. An obvious area for innovation would initially be in APRS or maybe D-STAR. We could actually have the equivalent of SMS text messaging on ham radio, backed up via the WiFi connection. (Yeah, this kind of exists already but it is really cumbersome to use due to the braindead menu-driven user interfaces of current radios.) Just think how easy programming the radio would be with a touchscreen approach.

This is the type of product development that requires significant investment, but the technology is readily available. I suppose a garage shop operation could get this done but one of the big radio manufacturers could easily pull this off. Maybe one of those upstarts from China might want to take this on. Whoever does it, just send me $5 per unit and I’ll be happy :-).

That’s my best idea for this morning. What do you think?

73, Bob K0NR


The Next Step in Electronic Communication

It figures: I just get done blogging about the history of electronic communications and Google takes the topic to the next level. Recognizing the inherent problem of cramming a QWERTY keyboard onto a Smart Phone, Google has gone back to the future by adopting a simple binary input device that uses DOTS and DASHES. That’s right, the new Gmail Tap uses Morse Code.

Google has apparently rediscovered what CW operators knew all along: Morse Code is extremely efficient for text communication.

Go to the Gmail Tap web page to get the full story.

73, Bob K0NR


The K0NR History of Electronic Communications

Humans have always had a desire to communicate. They started out just talking to each other but then found that it was really handy to be able to write things down. This caused the invention of the alphabet and the training of English teachers to explain overly-convoluted rules of grammar.

In 1831, Joseph Henry was playing around with electric circuits and came up with the idea of a telegraph. We can imagine a simple system where ON means “time for dinner” and OFF means “not yet”. This wasn’t good enough for Samuel Morse, who invented the Morse Code which could use ON and OFF to represent the entire alphabet. This was the first digital code and was used for important messages such as “Laughing Out Loud”, later abbreviated to LOL. This was basically the same as modern text messaging but you needed a trained telegrapher to do it.

In 1875, an inventor named Bell decided that it would be better if you could just talk over the wires instead of messing around with Morse Code. This will be a recurring theme — whether to talk to other people or just send digital codes. Bell invented this thing called the telephone, which is still used today. Basically, a person could talk into one end of a wire and have his voice pop out of the other end.

Later a guy named Marconi came along with the idea that communication should not depend on wires. For example, it was quite inconvenient to drag a telephone wire behind a ship as it moved across the sea. Unfortunately, Marconi didn’t know how to do voice over the wireless, so he dropped back to using Morse Code. ON and OFF is a much easier way to go. Although there is a persistent rumor that Marconi intentionally used Morse Code to torment future generations of FCC Licensed Amateur Radio Operators, I can find no evidence of this. Some people argue that Nikola Tesla invented wireless but I think he had to be disqualified for overloading and shutting down the Colorado Springs power grid on numerous occasions.

Again, not wanting to be limited by trained telegraphers, voice communication (originally called Amplitude Modulation, but now known as Ancient Modulation) was invented. We are not sure who first came up with Ancient Modulation, but there are a bunch of radio hams on 75 Meters still trying to perfect it.

Somewhere around 1973, Motorola figured out that what the world really wanted was a portable phone that everyone could carry around in their pocket. The first attempt at this was the Motorola DynaTAC, which required an enormous pocket to carry it in. Knowing that customers were not going to enlarge their pockets, various mobile phone manufacturers worked feverishly to reduce the size of these phones.

Unfortunately, the mobile phone manufacturers terribly miscalculated, thinking that people would want to actually talk on these phones. As text messaging was added to these phones, it was discovered that most people, especially those under the age of 30, preferred to send cryptic text messages rather than actually talk to anyone. It was also discovered that all forms of human thought can be captured as 140 character messages. Although it was tempting to apply Morse Code to digital text messaging, it was rejected in favor of the ASCII 8-bit code. Instead of using ON/OFF keying, text messages are normally sent with a tiny keyboard patterned after a full-size typewriter (now obsolete).

73, Bob K0NR

P.S. I made up some of this stuff.


The Incomplete List of Ham Radio iPhone Apps

It was time to upgrade my Verizon Wireless phone, so I decided to move to a smartphone. After pondering whether to go with Android or Apple, I finally settled on the iPhone 4. I still miss the The Real Keyboard on my old LG EnV3, as it is nearly impossible to type on a shrunken touchscreen. But then there’s those apps…

I have been trying out some of the ham radio related applications on the iPhone, so I thought I’d report out what I have found.

Here are a few utilities that I found. These apps doing something relatively simple:

CallBook (Author: Dog Park Software, Cost: $1.99) Simple ham radio callbook lookup that accesses the WM7D database (or QRZ and Ham Call databases if you are a subscriber).

Maidenhead Converter (Author: Donald Hays, Cost: Free) Handy app that displays your grid locator, uses maps and does lat/lon to grid locator conversions.

Q Codes Reference (Author: fiddlemeragged, Cost: Free) This app displays the definition of the common Q Signals (QRZ, QSL, QTH, …)

UTC Time (Author: Michael Wells, Cost: Free) A simple app that displays UTC time and local time.

Sunspot (Author: Jeff Smith, Cost: Free) A simple app that displays solar data from WWV.

Ham I Am (Author: Storke Brothers, Cost: Free) A handy app that covers some basic amateur radio reference material (Phonetic alphabet, Q Signals, Ham Jargon, Morse Code, RST System, etc.) Although I find the name to be silly, I like the app!

There are a few repeater directory apps out there:

QSL.FM Mobile (Author: Robert Abraham, Cost: $2.99) Geolocation repeater directory and call sign lookup.

iHAM Repeater Database (Author: Garry Gerossie, Cost: $4.99) Geolocation repeater directory. This seems to work a lot better than the QSL.FM app.

If you are an EchoLink user, then you’ll want this app:

EchoLink (Author: Synergenics, Cost: Free) The EchoLink app for the iPhone.

There are quite a few APRS apps out there. I have tried these:

iBCNU (Author: Luceon, Cost: $1.99) The first APRS app I was able to get running. It just turned on and worked. It integrates the mapping into the app, so it is easy to use. I recommend this one for most casual APRS users.

OpenAPRS (Author: Gregory Carter, Cost: $3.99) This APRS app integrates into the server. A bit more complicated to set up but looks to be more flexible, too. You might want to check out before buying this app.

PocketPacket (Author: Koomasi, Cost: $4.99) another APRS app. Seems to work fine but I find the previous 2 apps more useful. Note: This app can function as a packet modem connected to a transceiver (no internet required).

Ham Tracker (Author: Kram, Cost: $2.99) APRS app, works OK, uses external maps such as Google and “Share” feature allows you to send an SMS or email with your location information.

Satellite tracking is another useful app for a smartphone:

ISS Lite (Author: Craig Vosburgh, Cost: Free) A free satellite tracking app for just the International Space Station

ProSat Satellite Tracker (Author: Craig Vosburgh, Cost: $9.99) This app is by the same author as ISS Lite, but is the full-featured “pro” version. Although it is a pricey compared to other apps, I recommend it.

Well, that’s what I have found so far. Any other suggestions?

- 73, Bob K0NR

This is an older posting, see my updated list here:



Reading the Fine Print in Part 97

The ARRL just filed a Petition for Rule Making with the FCC concerning a specific modulation format called TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access). This issue has been simmering in the community of repeater operators but I suspect that most hams have no idea what this is about. It so happens that the land mobile industry (most notably, Motorola) has developed a very efficient and cost-effective digital standard called DMR (Digital Mobile Radio). Motorola markets this technology under the name MOTOTRBO.

As often happens, some radio amateurs deployed this new Part 90 radio technology on the ham bands. Along the way, people started looking carefully at the emission designator that Motorola was using for MOTOTRBO and began to question whether it was allowed under Part 97. I won’t go into the gory details as it makes my head hurt :-). My brief look at this concluded that there is definitely an issue here but I am not completely convinced that DMR is illegal under Part 97. If you want to dig into this, read the petition in detail with a copy of Part 97 and a few aspirin in hand.

The ARRL probably did the right thing by requesting a very focused rule change which should remove any ambiguity from Part 97. (I know this will disappoint the arm-chair lawyers who make a so-called life out of debating these issues to death.) The ARRL also asked for an immediate temporary waiver from the FCC to allow for DMR operation while the rule making proceeds…another good move.

It is unfortunate that the FCC amateur rules were written in a way that (potentially) disallowed the use of the latest land mobile radio system. This is exactly what we don’t want to have happen in the Amateur Radio Service, as it should be a place for easy adoption of new technology. Future FCC rule making should keep this in mind, always erring on the side of flexibility.

- 73, Bob K0NR

Update on 25 Mar 2011:

The ARRL reports that the FCC is seeking comments on this petition, now designated RM-11625. Comments can be filed electronically here.

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IWCE 2011

This week I attended the International Wireless Communications Expo, a wireless radio conference centered on land mobile radio (LMR). While not an amateur radio event, it was three fun days totally immersed in radio technology. Being a professional show, not a hobby event, the emphasis was on modern and emerging technology in the industry. No boat anchor radios here.

Amateur radio often adopts and adapts technology from the LMR industry, especially for mobile operating on frequencies above 50 MHz. I guess we could call VHF FM amateur land mobile.

A few highlights from the show:

  • A large portion of LMR is Public Safety Radio: fire, police, ambulance, so emergency communications was inherent in many of the conference sessions.
  • There was quite a bit of analog FM equipment on display but LMR is clearly shifting to digital, with formats like APCO Project 25 leading the way. The FCC requirement to go narrowband by January 1, 2013.
  • Several vendors are familiar names in the amateur radio industry:  Kenwood, Vertex (Yaesu), ICOM and Alinco. Of course, Motorola had a major presence at the show.  I noticed that ICOM had a stack of amateur D-STAR equipment on display.
  • Historically, LMR radios covered only one band (VHF low, VHF high, UHF, 800 MHz), which matched the tendency for each organization to deploy channels in only one band. With an emphasis on interoperability, more organizations are finding the need to operate on multiple bands and the manufacturers are responding with multiband radios (see Motorola APX™ 7000, for example).
  • A number of radio manufacturers from China were present, generally with lower cost radios (Hytera, Kirisun).
  • The FCC recently announced that the frequency range known as Block D (two sections: 758–763 MHz and 788–793 MHz), dedicated to public safety broadband use, will use the LTE air interface standard. LTE is the dominate 4G mobile phone standard, just starting to be deployed. The conference had many sessions on the challenges of getting funding and actually making this work.
  • Since Block D will use LTE, it opens up the potential for public safety networks that also use commercial networks (e.g., Verizon) for extended coverage. These hybrid systems provide for tight control over the primary network while leveraging the infrastructure investments from commercial providers.
  • Quite a few sessions on the integration of IP-based networks into radio systems. The general trend is that the local “air interface” may be a specific radio technology (P25, LTE, …) but the network is always IP-based.

I was struck by the forward march of technology in the LMR industry. In the ham radio world, we often see strong opposition to adopting anything new. And we’re supposed to be the experimenters!

- 73, Bob K0NR

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Has Amateur Radio Missed Out on Instant Messaging?

Earlier today, I was examining the various mobile phone service plans and “smart phones.” This caused me to reflect on how text messaging has become such a big deal in the mobile wireless world. Text messaging, more properly called  SMS (Short Message Service), supports simple text messages up to 160 characters. Even with a limited text length, much information gets passed using SMS, with usage rates exploding in recent years.

Twitter created a messaging system based on these short messages (actually limited to 140 characters to  fit into SMS with some margin). It wasn’t clear at first what the purpose of this system is, but people have figured out how to make use of it.

Other social networking systems, such as Facebook, have included SMS into their system, including sending status updates out via text messages. It turns out that you can do a lot with just 160 characters of plain text.

Ironically, amateur radio had the basic technology for a simple messaging system decades ago. This technology is packet radio or AX.25, a narrowband digital communications format that is ideal for sending short messages. This was a hot technology during the 1980′s and into the 1990′s. Later it faded into the background as the Internet delivered much faster digital pipes.  APRS (Amateur Packet Reporting System) revived interest in the mode in the past decade but remains a niche application in ham radio.

The APRS community has tried to take APRS main stream as a ubiquitous messaging system, but this has not gained wide adoption. Bob Bruninga WB4APR documented the Universal Text Messaging initiative on his web site. This is a nice piece of work. Bob argues correctly that we have quite a few different messaging formats that need to be tied together so they can be more effective.

What is standing in the way of a robust amateur radio messaging system? I think it  it is quite simple: the lack of a compelling mobile device for text messaging. While both Kenwood and Yaesu have incorporated APRS into their handheld radios (TH-D72, VX-8GR),  the emphasis seems to be on position reporting (GPS) and simple status messages. Neither of them have done anything innovative in the text message area, such as including a QWERTY keyboard or a touch screen user interface. Imagine a handheld radio based on the Android operating system…an open system that can be programmed by the amateur community. Being inherently digital, ICOM’s D-STAR radios had the opportunity to really nail this type of use but they have missed it so far.

There has been some fine work done using D-STAR to provide Instant Messaging (IM) capability. Most notably, the D-RATS software by Dan Smith KK7DS does a super job of integrating IM and email, using the ham bands along with the Internet. (D-RATS has many other features, too.) But to run D-RATS you need a computer attached to the radio….appropriate in some applications but missing the portability associated with the conventional HT or mobile phone.

A valid question is whether this really matters at all. Do we even need a ham radio instant messaging system? If we did, what would we use it for?  Applications that come to mind are: position reports, event announcements, DX spots, emergency pages, callsign lookup, repeater directory and, of course, casual chatting.  I suspect that once the capability is available the software gurus among us would apply it to applications that are beyond our current thinking. Actually, we know what hams like to “tweet” about…just monitor the high level of ham activity on Twitter. To really make this work, we’ll need some action from the equipment manufacturers.

That’s my thinking….what do you say?

73, Bob K0NR

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Standard USB: Missed It By That Much

usb-cable-mini-bI’ve blogged in the past about the need for standardization, especially when it comes to computer cables and power adapters. I have been feeling quite good about the progress I have been making with my personal collection of electronic gizmos. I’ve noticed that most of them have lined up behind the idea of using a mini-USB (Universal Serial Bus) port for both power and data. Now how cool is that? Someday, I might be able to carry one USB cable and a AC adapter and have it handle all of my information-age cabling needs.

Then I got a surprise: I upgraded my personal mobile phone to an LG enV3. Great, it also has a little USB connector on it, so it will be compatible with my other devices. Bzzzt. Wrong!  It turns out that the enV 3 has a micro USB port which is about the same width but thinner than the mini USB. It seems that the USB Implementers Forum decided that the mini USB was just a bit too fat for slimmed down mobile phones and personal digital widgets. And the mobile phone industry has decided to standardize on this new slimmer connector.

Then I had to admit that I remember when the mobile phone guys announced this new standard. I just missed the fine point about mini vs micro. I thought we were already mini and micro enough!

I see now that the ham radio manufacturers cleverly avoided this whole mess, clinging to that industry giant, the old reliable RS-232 serial port! Their late adopter (never adopter?) behavior has saved them the agony of flipping the USB port.

On a similar note, Apple will apparently never move away from their proprietary iPod connector, so they have also shielded us from the pain and agony of using an affordable, standard connector.

I guess I need to go find a micro-USB to mini-USB adapter somewhere.  Like this one.

73, Bob K0NR

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Flag Pole Radio Tower

img_23341I have gotten into the habit of taking photos of interesting radio sites. This all started as part of my general tendency to visit mountain summits to play ham radio. It turns out that for some reason, there are quite a few radio installations in high spots. Hmmm, imagine that.

So I started taking photos of the more interesting ones. One thing lead to another and I now have a photo collection of lots of different towers, antennas and radio sites. Fortunately, my spouse thinks this behavior is cute…other people find it a bit crazy.

So I am driving west on Highway 24 and I see this really big flag pole at Lake George, CO. It just doesn’t look quite right— a bit too fat. I drive closer to get a better look and, sure enough, it is really a cell site with an antenna disguised as a flag pole. (This is at the US Forest Service work camp. )

Clever design, I think.

73, Bob K0NR


International Standards

radio_47I just got back from Mobile World Congress, the biggest mobile wireless show in the world.

The hot topic is an emerging mobile phone technology called Long Term Evolution (LTE). The basic idea is that there will be only one 4th Generation (4G) mobile phone standard worldwide. What a concept…one mobile phone standard that you can use anywhere on earth. (Well, there is that small detail of different frequency bands being available in different regions. And there are really two variations of LTE hiding in the standard. But we can still tell each other this is a single standard.) Of course, there is that competing 4G standard called WiMAX.

Worldwide technical standards are a good thing.

The show was in Spain and I stopped in the U.K. on the way home. This reminded me of another worldwide standard that doesn’t exist: driving on the right side of the road. In this case, a country only has two choices: drive on the right side or drive on the left side. Most of Europe drives on the right side but the U.K. drives on the left. You would think that the world could have agreed on this but apparently not. Go figure. According to wikipedia, 66% of the world population live in right-hand drive countries, which means that is the right approach (weak pun sort of intended).

Another world non-standard is electrical power. Around the world there are various combinations of line voltage, ranging from 100 Volts to 240 volts RMS with a frequency of either 50 Hz or 60 Hz.  I am not sure how all of these different choices evolved but by now they are very entrenched. My engineering mind wishes that we were all on the same power line standard, so that we can all be more efficient: one power plug could be used all around the world.  The adoption of switching power regulators has helped this situation, since one power supply can handle all of the power line definitions around the world. Add in a small collection of plug adapters and the problem is solved.

One defacto standard that is common around the world is the QWERTY keyboard, which originated with the typewriter. Later it transferred over to computer keyboards and now it shows up on many of the so-called Smartphones (see BlackBerry). This is another example of a very entrenched standard….there is probably a more optimum keyboard layout but this is the one that everyone has been trained on. The Apple iPhone delivers an innovative touchscreen interface (that everyone else is trying to copy and one up) that is redefining the accepted smartphone user interface. Even the iPhone chose to implement the QWERTY keyboard in touch form as the way to enter text.

The one non-standard that has caused the most pain and suffering around the world is the lack of a common connector on wall-wart chargers. I blogged about this a while ago. It seems that every manufacturer does it differently and they are not even consistent within their own product lines. In response to some pressure from the European Union (and my blog, I am sure), a coalition of mobile phone manufacturers have announced they will implement a common charger format:

The GSMA and 17 leading mobile operators and manufacturers today announced that they are committed to implementing a cross-industry standard for a universal charger for new mobile phones. The aim of the initiative, led by the GSMA, is to ensure that the mobile industry adopts a common format for mobile phone charger connections and energy-efficient chargers resulting in an estimated 50 per cent reduction in standby energy consumption, the potential elimination of up to 51,000 tonnes of duplicate chargers1 and the enhancement of the customer experience by simplifying the charging of mobile phones.

The group has set an ambitious target that by 2012 a universal charging solution (UCS) will be widely available in the market worldwide and will use Micro-USB as the common universal charging interface. The group agreed that by the 1st January 2012, the majority of all new mobile phone models available will support a universal charging connector and the majority of chargers shipped will meet the high efficiency targets set out by the OMTP (Open Mobile Terminal Platform), the industry body who developed the technical requirements behind UCS.

The Micro-USB seems like an obvious choice. I wonder why it takes until 2012 to get this done? If they do get this accomplished, manufacturers of other electronic devices will follow. Heck, we might even see it on a 2 Meter handheld.

73, Bob K0NR

Update (19 Dec 2009): I came across this article from Mental Floss on the history of driving on the right/left side of the road.