The Cacophony of Digital Voice Continues (Part 2)

Digital transmissionThis post is a continuation of The Cacophony of Digital Voice Continues (Part 1), so you probably should read that one first.

All of the popular amateur digital voice (DV) systems (D-STAR, DMR and YSF) use the AMBE vocoder (voice codec) technology. This technology was developed by Digital Voice Systems, Inc. and is proprietary technology covered by various patents. The use of proprietary technology on the ham bands causes some folks to get worked up about it, especially proponents of an open source world. See my blog posting: Digital Voice at Pacificon and this presentation by Bruce Parens K6BP: AMBE Exposed. Codec2 is an alternative open voice codec developed by David Rowe, VK5DGR. David is doing some excellent work in this space, which has already produced an open codec that is being used on the ham bands. FreeDV is an umbrella term for this open codec work. Here’s a recent video of a presentation on FreeDV by VK5DGR.

It will be interesting to see if and how Codec2 gets adopted in a DV world already dominated by AMBE. After all, a new codec is another contributor to the digital cacophony. On the HF bands, it is easier to adopt a new mode if it can be implemented via a soundcard interface (which FreeDV can do). Any two hams can load up the right software and start having a QSO. The same is true for weak-signal VHF/UHF via simplex. (Note that Flexradio also supports FreeDV, showing how Software Defined Radio (SDR) has an advantage with adopting new technology.)  VHF/UHF repeaters are trickier because you must have a solution for both the infrastructure (repeaters and networks) as well as the user radios.

The vast majority of digital repeaters support just one digital format. For example, a D-STAR repeater does not usually repeat DMR or YSF transmissions. Interestingly, DMR and YSF repeaters often support analog FM via mixed mode operation for backward compatibility. It is definitely possible to support multiple digital formats in one repeater, but the question is will large numbers of repeater owners/operators choose to do that? With existing DV systems, the networking of repeaters is unique to each format which represents another barrier to interchangeability. In particular, most of the DMR infrastructure in the US is MOTOTRBO, which won’t ever support D-STAR or YSF.

In the case of a new vocoder, we can think of that as just a new format of bits being transported by the existing DV protocol. DMR, for example, does not actually specify a particular vocoder, it’s just that the manufacturers developing DMR equipment have chosen to use AMBE technology. So from a technical viewpoint, it is easy to imagine dropping in a new vocoder into the user radio and having it work with other identical radios. Of course, these radios would be incompatible with the existing installed base. Or would they? Perhaps we’d have a backwards compatibility mode that supports communication with the older radios. This is another example of putting more flexibility into the user radio to compensate for DV incompatibilities.

One objection to AMBE is the cost of the technology, especially when compared to free. When D-STAR radios first started using AMBE codec chips, the chip cost was rumored to be $25 to $50, but I don’t have a solid source on that. Now, I see that Tytera is selling a DMR handheld at around $100, including AMBE technology inside, so the codec can’t be very expensive. If a free codec starts to be a credible threat, it will put additional pricing pressure on the AMBE solution.

A potential advantage of Codec2 is superior performance at very low signal-to-noise ratio. We’ve all experienced the not-too-graceful breakup of existing DV transmissions when signals get weak. Some of the Codec2 implementations have shown significant improvement over AMBE at low signal levels.

Conclusions

Repeating a key conclusion from Part 1:

  • 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.

Adding in these conclusions for Part 2:

  • Codec2 will struggle to displace the proprietary AMBE vocoder, which is well-established and works. The open source folks will promote codec2 but it will take more than that to get it into widespread use. Perhaps superior performance at low signal levels will make the difference.
  • Repeater owner/operators will continue to deploy single-DV-format repeaters. This will make multiformat radios such as the DV4mobile be very attractive. In other words, we will deal with the digital cacophony by having more flexible user radios. This will come at a higher price initially but should drop over time.

Repeating this one from Part 1:

  • 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.

Well, those are my thoughts on the topic. I wish the DV world was less fragmented but I don’t see that changing any time soon. What do you think is going to happen?

73, Bob KØNR

SOTA Activation: Ormes Peak (W0C/FR-052)

I’ve been thinking about activating Ormes Peak (W0C/FR-052) for a while now. It is not too difficult to get to and is not a difficult climb. After the Waldo Canyon fire (2012), the area was closed for several years, so I needed to be patient. Then I noticed that Don KØDRJ put an alert on SOTAwatch indicating that he was going to activate the summit, so I gave a listen on 146.52 MHz. Sure enough, around mid-morning I heard Don on the frequency and worked him without any problem from my home location.

Then I got to thinking. Joyce KØJJW and I had talked about going for a walk this afternoon, so I did a little checking on Ormes Peak and concluded that it was an option. My fractured ankle is still on the mend so I am not back to 100% of my hiking ability. Ormes seemed like a good next step that would keep me progressing.

bob-k0nr-ormes-peakWe hopped in the Jeep and headed to Rampart Range. To get to Ormes Peak, take USFS road 300 from the north (which is what we did, via Mount Herman Road) or from the south via Garden of the Gods. You’ll want to have a Pike National Forest map for this trip.

ormes-peak-mapTurn East onto USFS road 303 and then follow USFS 302 (these roads are easy 4WD, probably OK for high clearance 2WD). These roads go through the Waldo burn area so you see what a burned forest looks like. Ormes Peak was not directly affected by the fire but we did see a few burned trees on the mountain. According to the Summit Post info, the best approach is from the south but we continued on around to the east and parked at the marked parking area here: 38.948680 deg N, 104.929677 deg W. From there, we bushwacked westward up the side of the hill without too much trouble (about half a mile and 600 feet vertical).

Once on top, I started calling on 146.52 MHz using the FT-1D handheld transceiver. I assembled my 2m yagi antenna hoping to work Brad WA6MM headed up Mt Antero but I found out later he did not summit. We had excellent visibility in all directions: great view of Pikes Peak to the south, Mt Yale and a sliver of Mt Princeton to the west and Mt Evans to the northwest. This really is a great spot to just sit and enjoy the view.

After making 7 contacts on 2m fm, we packed up the gear and headed down the mountain. Ormes Peak is a good “close in” summit accessible from Colorado Springs area.

73, Bob KØNR

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.

SOTA Activation: Bald Mountain (W0C/SP-115)

On Saturday, I activated Bald Mountain (W0C/SP-115) for Summits On The Air. It was an awesome fall day here in the Rockies, so Joyce KØJJW and I were ready for some outdoor fun. When you say you are going to the summit of Bald Mountain, the usual response is “which Bald Mountain?” Fortunately, for SOTA purposes we can use the designator (W0C/SP-115) to drive out the ambiguity. Else, you have to deal with the fact there are 32 summits in Colorado known as Bald Mountain. And I am sure there are many more in other states.

SP-115 is a drive-up summit if you have a reasonable 4WD vehicle. For us, this meant taking the Jeep Wrangler to the top. (I am still recovering from a fractured ankle and just starting to hike a bit, so a drive-up opportunity sounded good to me.) Many maps do not show the road up Bald Mountain, so I included a portion of the latitude40smap.com map for the area (below). These recreational maps are excellent quality so I recommend you get one for exploring the area.

bald-mountain-map
Salida – Buena Vista Map latitude40maps.com

To get to this Bald Mountain, take Highway 285 south from Buena Vista, exit at Fisherman’s Bridge, then head towards FS road 300. (Refer to the San Isabel National Forest or Latitude 40 map for details.) We followed FS 300 east which is easy 4WD.  About 2 miles in, we took FS 300B (marked) to the north which winds its way up Bald Mountain.

At 0.6 miles from the intersection of 300 and 300B, an unmarked 4WD road leads off to the left and proceeds around the west side of the mountain. Taking this route provides a much easier path than the main route leading to the east side of the mountain. (We had taken the main route on our previous activation.) The preferred road does one big switchback out to the west and then returns east to the summit. This road is easy 4WD but is a bit narrow so a full size SUV or truck may have trouble. Of course, you can always hike to the summit…most likely just following the road.

bald-mountain I got out my trusty Arrow 2m yagi antenna, connected it to the Yaesu FT-1D and started calling on 146.52 MHz. It took a while to get my four contacts but I kept at it. Actually, I worked five stations on 2m fm: KEØDMT, KDØMRC, K5UK, KAØABV and NØVXE. Thanks for the contacts! I was hoping to work WGØAT who was on the summit of Mount Herman (W0C/FR-063), but I was unable to copy him.

The summit has awesome views of the Collegiate Peaks to the west and it’s worth the trip just for the view. Mount Princeton with some light snow on it is shown just left of center in the photograph.

73, Bob KØNR

Rehab for the KØNR Repeater

My UHF repeater has been operating on 447.725 MHz here in Monument for a couple of decades now. It started out as a classic “pet repeater” project and has been operating from my basement all this time. Over time it has picked up additional users and has turned into the de facto hangout for our local radio club.

The repeater system has gone through a number of revisions over the years, including the RF transmitter and receiver. I wanted to retire the pair of Motorola Mitrek mobile radios I have been using when they started to exhibit a few lose connections. Really though, I thought it was time for some synthesized, modern RF gear in a compact package.

k0nr-repeater3When Yaesu offered an attractive price on their DR-1X Fusion repeater, I jumped at the chance. Initially, I put it on the air in mixed analog-digital mode with the repeater automatically switching modes to handle either analog FM or C4FM digital. I used the internal controller of the DR-1X which is quite simple and has limited functionality. (The SCOM 7K controller got put on the shelf for a while.) The DR-1X supports using an external controller but implementing the mixed analog-digital mode is…well…challenging. (Various people have figured out ways to do it with modifications to the DR-1X or using additional hardware.)  After 10 months of operation, I decided to reinstall the full-featured SCOM 7K controller, enabling quite a few features including a 2m remote base, synthesized speech, automatic scheduling and weather alerts. This does mean giving up the C4FM mode but usage was minimal anyway.

The SCOM 7K repeater controller has been in service for decades, handling multiple receivers and transmitters, very configurable with programmable macros. SCOM has long since moved on to a newer, improved model but my 7K just keeps on ticking. The 7K has the voice synthesis and autopatch options installed, so, yes the repeater has an autopatch (not that anyone cares). A Yaesu FT-7800R is used as a 2m remote base and the duplexer is a classic Decibel Products. Not shown in the photo is a Bearcat WX100 weather receiver that is used to transmit weather information when an alert occurs in our area.

I’ve documented the wiring diagram and configuration used here: k0nr-repeater-construction-notes

This was a good opportunity to clean up some of the cabling and physical mounting that had degraded over time. (A kluge here, a kluge there and entropy takes over.) I am happy with the result.

73, Bob K0NR

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

NPOTA: Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain

arrl_npTo celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service, the ARRL is sponsoring National Parks On The Air (NPOTA) during 2016. Joyce KØJJW and I happened to have a trip planned to visit several of the National Parks, so it was great opportunity to take along some radio gear and operate portable from the parks.

teton-mountains
Grand Teton National Park

First stop was the Grand Teton National Park (NP23) in Wyoming. I operated from Signal Mountain, which is also a Summits On The Air (SOTA) peak. See my previous blog posting: SOTA plus NPOTA on Signal Mountain.

buffalo
Two of the 3700 buffalo that inhabit Yellowstone NP

We continued on to Yellowstone NP (NP57), where we saw lots of wildlife: buffalo, elk, deer, bear and antelope. (Click on any of the photos to get a larger image.)

yellowstone-npota
NPOTA station operating in Yellowstone NP.

As described in the Signal Mountain post, my portable station was a Yaesu FT-991 driving an end-fed halfwave antenna on 20m. I used a SOTABEAMS pole to support the antenna, lashing the pole to whatever posts I found available. It was not too difficult to find a suitable parking spot close to mounting post. I was prepared to operate on other bands but 20m seemed to be the best choice based on current band conditions. I made 48 contacts on 20m ssb in about 30 minutes.

As we headed back home to Colorado, we visited Rocky Mountain National Park (NP48). We entered the park from the west side and crossed over to the east entrance via Trail Ridge Road. Love that drive! But first we stopped on the west side to do another NPOTA activation. Again, 20m phone was the operating mode and I made 33 contacts with stations across the US and Canada.

elk
Rocky Mountain NP elk.

We took our time leaving the park around dusk so that we could spot some elk. The strategy paid off as we saw more than 20 elk in various locations.

Our top priority was enjoying the parks and viewing wildlife so we did not spend a huge amount of time doing NPOTA activations. Still, we activated three of our favorite National Parks, making 121 QSOs. We also worked in two SOTA activations on the trip as a bonus. All in all, it was a great trip with some fun ham radio activity included.

The SOTA and NPOTA logs have all been submitted (SOTA database and Logbook of The World, respectively.)

73, Bob K0NR

SOTA plus NPOTA on Signal Mountain (W7Y/TT-161)

Signal Mountain (W7Y/TT-161) is now my favorite spot in the Grand Teton National Park. The summit is well-marked on the Grand Teton NP map, on the east side of Jackson Lake. It has a paved road to the top and it provides excellent views of Jackson Hole and the surrounding mountains. Oh, and it’s a great location for ham radio.

On this summit, I did a combination Summits On The Air (SOTA) and National Parks On the Air (NPOTA) activation. Well, sort of. It turns out that when I packed for the trip, I included my usual SOTA gear, which is all VHF. For NPOTA, I loaded up my HF DXpedition gear that needs a pretty hefty power source. These means that the HF stuff uses my car battery, so it is not SOTA-compliant. Oh well.

img_1698
Bob K0NR works stations on 2m fm for a SOTA activation.

For the SOTA activation, I used the Yaesu FT-1DR and my 3-element Arrow yagi antenna to work a handful of stations on 146.52 MHz. I was a little concerned about finding enough stations listening on 52, but once again a little bit of patience payed off and I made my four QSOs.

img_1707
Bob K0NR using the “back of the SUV” operating position. The 20m end-fed half-wave antenna is supported by a SOTABEAMS pole.

Then I set up the NPOTA station to activate Grand Teton National Park (NP23). My equipment was a Yaesu FT-991 driving an end-fed half-wave for 20m from LNR Precision. I’ve tried a number of different portable antennas over the years but have found that a half-wave radiator up in the air is a pretty effective antenna. This could be a center-fed dipole antenna but that can be a challenge to support, depending on the physical location.

The end-fed half-waves (EFHW) from LNR Precision are easily supported using a non-conductive pole such as the 10m SOTABEAMS pole. The top two sections of the pole are too thin to support much of antenna, so I have removed them. This makes my pole about 9 meters in length which is still long enough to support a 20m halfwave.  (The antenna angles out a bit as shown in the photo but its pretty much vertical.) I attached the pole to a fence post using some hook/loop straps. I don’t fiddle with the length of the antenna, I just let the antenna tuner in the FT-991 trim up the match. This is the same configuration I used in Antigua (V29RW), where it worked great.

The FT-991 is a great little radio for this kind of operation. The SUV we were driving is not set up for HF operation so I just located the radio in the back of the vehicle and plopped down on a folding camp chair. For power, I clipped directly onto the vehicle battery with fused 10 gauge wires.

I started by making a few calls on 20m ssb. As soon as I was “spotted” on the usual web sites, I had a good pileup going. I worked 40 stations in about 40 minutes, so averaged one QSO per minute overall. Thanks to everyone that worked me; all contacts have been uploaded to Logbook of The World.

Oh, and it was a lot of fun.

73, Bob K0NR

Slacker SOTA Activation in the Tetons (W7Y/TT-061)

The Grand Teton National Park has plenty of mountains for Summits On The Air (SOTA) activations, so I wanted to activate a few of them as we enjoyed the park. I am still recovering from a fractured ankle, so I was definitely looking for an easy-peasy summit to activate on our trip. It turns out there is a summit right at the top of the Jackson Hole Arial Tram that operates during the summer months (W7Y/TT-061). (This tram serves the ski area during the winter.)

The SOTA database shows this summit as unnamed and refers to it by elevation, 10450. The locals may refer to this as Rendezvous Mountain, not to be confused with Rendezvous Peak (W7Y/TT-035). For SOTA purposes its just “10450”.

The bottom of the Arial Tram is accessed in Teton Village and is easy to find. However, don’t confuse the it with Bridger Gondola, which goes to another peak.

img_7281
Joyce K0JJW at the top of the tram. Yes, that’s snow on the ground.

Well, this sounds pretty awesome…ride the tram to the top and play ham radio. Now the bad news: the ticket for the tram is $42. It’s an all day pass that gives you access to other lifts and plenty of hiking trails but still it is expensive. OK, slightly better news: if you purchase online you can get the pass for $32. There are senior and other pricing options, so check out the web site for the latest info.

img_7259
This map shows trails available for hiking from the tram and lifts. Click on this photo to see the detail.

The September weather was overcast and cold at the summit. I opted for a simple VHF activation using my Yaesu FT-1DR and a half-wave vertical antenna. I had my 3-element 2m yagi with me but I didn’t deploy it. I figured that my ability to contact folks on 2m fm would be limited more by who happens to be monitoring…signal strength would not be a major factor.

img_1689
K0NR using the innovative “sit on the ground” operating position. Note the Official SOTA hat.

It was cold at the top and I was glad that I packed my gloves, hat and a decent jacket. I made five contacts by calling on 146.52 MHz. Corbet’s Cabin at the top of the tram offers basic food and drinks and warm place to sit.

The tram ride was quite enjoyable with good views of the Jackson Hole area. However, this may go down in history as my most expensive SOTA activation.

73, Bob K0NR

Monarch Ridge South SOTA Activation (W0C/SP-058)

For the 2016 Colorado 14er Event, I chose really easy SOTA summits to activate because I had fractured my ankle earlier in the summer. At this point, I was able to hobble around with a protective boot but walking more than a few hundred feet was difficult. On Saturday, our radio crew (Bob K0NR, Joyce K0JJW, Denny KB9DPF and Kathy KB9GVC) drove up Pikes Peak and took a short stroll away from the vehicle to operate. On Sunday, we decided to activate Monarch Ridge South (W0C/SP-058), using the sight-seeing tram that goes to the top.

Trailhead signAccess is right off Monarch Pass (Hwy 50), where there is a large parking lot. There is a trail that goes to the top and we’ll be back to hike that some other time. (Actually, Joyce K0JJW and I already tried to snowshoe to the top in blizzard conditions but that is another story for another day.) The trail is a popular mountain bike route, part of the Continental Divide Trail (CTD). Monarch Pass is oriented north/south and the trail heads off to the east (behind the tram building). At some point, you need to turn left off the main trail to ascend the summit.

Tram lower buildingBut we opted for the tram, boarding it inside this building near the parking lot. We purchased tickets in the nearby gift shop, which is worth a look if you need a map, book, ice cream cone or trinkets. See their website for latest schedule and pricing.

 

 

 

Tram going up mountainHere’s a photo of the tram going up the side of the mountain. Of course, the views are great and the ride takes about 10 minutes. The tram car holds four people and a reasonable amount of SOTA gear.

 

 

 

KB9DPF operating 2m fmAt the top, Denny KB9DPF made contacts on 2m FM, aided by expert logger Kathy KB9GVC. The actual summit is about a tenth of a mile to the south but we operated from a concrete pad on the north side. The ridge is flat and we judged the activation area to be very large.

We made a total of 13 contacts on 2m and 70cm, including 5 other SOTA summits (S2S).

 

 

K0NR operating 70cmI used my Yaesu FT-817 to call on 432.100 MHz SSB, hoping to find someone in the UHF contest that was happening concurrently with the 14er event. I didn’t work anyone on 70cm SSB but I did work K3ILC in Colorado Springs on FM at a distance of ~90 miles. Not too bad. The Arrow antenna is attached to my hiking stick via the camera mount thread.

 

 

 

Radio SiteThere is a substantial radio site on Monarch Ridge that did provide some RF interference to us on 2 meters. The 70 cm band seemed to be unaffected but I can’t be sure. The “bad boy” transmitter is the KMYP automated weather station (AWOS) transmitting continuously on 124.175 MHz. Well, at least we could receive current weather information. We did relocate to put some distance between us and the transmitters but my lack of mobility kept us from going very far.

If you are looking for an easy access SOTA summit near Monarch Pass with excellent views, this is it. The hike up should not be very difficult but the tram makes it even easier. If you plan to operate 2 meters, expect some interference. Next time, I’ll try locating even further away from the transmitter site. I might even bring along some bandpass filters. Other SOTA enthusiasts have reported no problems on the HF bands.

At the time of this post, there are plans to put a 2m amateur repeater at this site on 145.325 MHz.

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

All VHF Shack Sloth

w0sotaOn June 21st, I worked Steve K7PX on Mount Garfield (W0C/FR-040) using 2m fm to push me over 1000 points to quality for the SOTA Shack Sloth Award using only VHF. This is my first significant SOTA award, which I have been working towards for several years now. I decided to pursue Shack Sloth using only the VHF bands, which is much more difficult than using HF. Why did I choose that? Something about mountains, Height Above Average Terrain (HAAT) and VHF radio has always intrigued me.

Here’s the line up of my top chased summits, with Mt Herman and Pikes Peak taking the clear lead. Mt Herman is The Most Radio-Active Mountain in Colorado and it is in my backyard. Most of those contacts were with Steve WGØAT and Frank KØJQZ. Thanks, guys! Pikes Peak is also a clear VHF shot from my house and many SOTA activators and tourists like to activate that summit. No surprise, the rest of the summits are various peaks in Colorado, worked from my house or from our cabin near Trout Creek Pass. Quite a few of these are Summit-to-Summit contacts made when activating peaks, often during the Colorado 14er Event.

chased summitsMost of my thousand points were contacts made using plain old 2m fm, The Utility Mode. A few contacts were made on 2m ssb along with some 70 cm fm and ssb contacts. I have been encouraging folks to try 2m ssb for huge improvements in weak-signal performance but the universal nature of 2m fm seems to be winning out.

My next goal is Mountain Goat with VHF only. I’ll need to activate a lot of summits to get that done, so it will take me a while. It’s always good to have something to work towards.

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

Summits On The Air – Colorado Style

14erLOGOsmallSummits On The Air – Colorado Style is the title of my presentation at Hamcon Colorado, 2 pm Friday May 13th. I will be discussing the Summits On The Air program and the Colorado 14er Event.

The slides are available here:
Summits On The Air -Colorado Style

The conference will be excellent. I hope to see you there!

73, Bob KØNR

Announcing: 25th Annual Colorado 14er Event

14erLOGOsmallAmateur Radio operators from around Colorado will be climbing many of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains and Summits On The Air (SOTA) peaks to set up amateur radio stations in an effort to communicate with other radio amateurs across the state and around the world. Join in on the fun during the 25th annual event and see how many of the mountaintop stations you can contact. This year the event is expanded to include the entire weekend, August 6 & 7. However, many mountaintop activators will hit the trail early with the goal of being off the summits by noon due to lightning safety concerns.

See the very cool 25 Year Anniversary t-shirts available at http://www.cafepress.com/wg0at

The 14er event includes Summits On the Air (SOTA) peaks, which add over 1700 potential summits! If you aren’t up to climbing a 14er, there are many other summits to choose from (with a wide range of difficulty). See the W0C SOTA web page at w0c-sota.org

Radio operators who plan to activate a summit should post their intent on the ham14er Yahoo Group. To subscribe to the “ham14er” email list, visit the Yahoo groups site at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ham14er/ . Also, be sure to check out the event information at http://www.ham14er.org  It is also a great idea to post an ALERT on the SOTAwatch.org website.

Frequencies used during the event
Activity can occur on any amateur band including HF and VHF. The 2m fm band plan uses a “primary frequency and move up” approach. The 2m fm primary frequency is 147.42 MHz.  At the beginning of the event, operators should try calling on 147.42 MHz. As activity increases on that frequency, move on up the band using the 30 kHz steps. Don’t just hang out on 147.42 MHz…move up! The next standard simplex frequency up from 147.42 MHz is 147.45 MHz, followed by 147.48 and 147.51 MHz.

Frequency (MHz) Comments Frequency (MHz) Comments
147.42 Primary 2m FM Frequency, then up in 30 kHz steps  7.032 40m CW Frequency
147.45 Alternate 2m FM frequency  7.185 40m SSB Frequency
147.48 Alternate 2m FM frequency 10.110 30m CW Frequency
147.51 Alternate 2m FM frequency 14.060 20m CW Frequency
446.000 Primary 70 cm FM frequency 14.345 20m SSB Frequency
446.025 Alternate 70 cm FM frequency 18.092 17m CW Frequency
144.200 2m SSB calling frequency 18.158 17m SSB Frequency
50.125 6m SSB calling frequency 21.060 15m CW Frequency
21.330 15m SSB Frequency
Other Bands/Modes Standard calling frequencies and/or band plans apply. 28.060 10m CW Frequency
28.350 10m SSB Frequency

Warning: Climbing mountains is inherently a dangerous activity.
Do not attempt this without proper training, equipment and preparation.

Sponsored by The Colorado 14er Event Task Force

Here’s the event flyer in pdf format: Colorado 14er Event Flyer 2016

Yaesu FT-1DR: A Trail Friendly SOTA HT

A common topic in the QRP community is the Trail Friendly Radio (TFR) concept for backpack-style operating on the high-frequency bands. I’ve adapted the concept for the VHF/UHF bands, calling it the VHF Trail Friendly Radio (VTFR).

IMG_0728edit

Strong candidates for the best VTFR include the Elecraft KX3 (with 2m option) and the Yaesu FT-817. Heck, both of these radios deliver all of the HF bands, 6m and 2m in one portable package. (The FT-817 also has 70cm.) See my blog post that compares the two rigs.

But the other set of strong contenders for the best VTFR is one of the many dualband HTs available on the market. It is hard to beat the compact, portable attributes of these great little radios for casual use on the trail. I’m not going to review them all but instead talk about my current favorite: the Yaesu FT-1DR. (Yaesu has recently replaced the FT-1DR with the newer model FT1XDR, which is the same design but with an improved GPS receiver and larger battery pack.)

My main usage of the radio is when hiking and doing Summits On The Air (SOTA) activations. This radio has a lot to offer in terms of capability and features, but the main things that stand out are 2m/70cm band coverage, two independent receivers and built-in GPS/APRS capability. Most SOTA VHF operating is on 2m fm so that band is critical, but I also make contacts on 70cm. More important is that together 2m and 70cm covers that vast majority of fm repeaters in my state, providing the best backcountry repeater coverage. The built-in APRS features allow the HT to be an effective tracking device as I move down the trail. SOTA chasers can see my position in real-time and anticipate when I’ll be on the summit. The radio has two separate receivers which turns out to be very useful when on the trail. With two receivers, I can monitor 146.52 MHz (2m fm calling frequency, often used for SOTA) while also keeping an ear on a local 2m or 70cm repeater. Another configuration is using one side of the radio to ping my location via APRS while the other side monitors 146.52 MHz.

The extended receive capability of the radio opens up lots of listening options: AM broadcast, FM broadcast, airband, shortwave and NOAA weather radio. I don’t use these very often but there are times that I want to tune to weather or news.

I am not a huge fan of Yaesu’s C4FM digital mode but do use it on occasion. The DN (digital narrow) mode supports voice and position information simultaneously, so Joyce KØJJW and have been using it to keep track of each other on the trail. The radio provides a basic indication of distance and direction to another C4FM radio.

A few other tips: if you buy an FT-1DR, I recommend upgrading the belt clip to the BC-102 clip from Batteries America. It is way better than the standard one from Yaesu. Michael KX6A created a very handy quick reference card for operating the FT-1D, so consider putting one in your pack.

73, Bob KØNR

Winter SOTA Activation of Kaufman Ridge North

Today, Joyce KØJJW and I activated Kaufman Ridge North (W0C/SP-085) for Summits On The Air (SOTA). We’ve been on the summit before, including the first ever SOTA activation back in September of 2012. This summit is close to our cabin, so it made for a convenient hike. The mountain is not that difficult of a climb but we encountered quite a bit of snow in March, up to three feet in places, which we tromped across with snowshoes.

IMG_0720edit
Joyce K0JJW on snowshoes in typical trail conditions

My blog posting about the next mountain to the south, Kaufman Ridge HP (W0C/SP-081), outlines a good way to access both summits during the summer. However, a seasonal gate closure (December to April) means we needed to find a different route. We approached the mountain from the north, parking our vehicle on Castle Court (a short side road off of Kaufman Road). We quickly crossed what appears to be private property (empty lot, no signs) to get to the US Forest Service boundary. Once we hopped the fence we were on public lands. We intentionally routed to the east to avoid some houses.

Snowshoe route shown to summit of Kaufman Ridge North
Snowshoe route shown to summit of Kaufman Ridge North. We parked at Castle Court, the unlabeled road that connects with Kaufman Road.

I don’t claim that this route is optimal. We had to break a lot of trail, pushing through the snow. We found a section of trail that had recent snowshoe traffic on it but it wasn’t of much use to us heading to the summit. We followed numerous game trails which appeared and disappeared on the side of the mountain. Mostly, we busted through the snow on our own. Surprisingly, the last quarter mile to the summit had little snow, so we removed our snowshoes at that point and just hiked in boots.

IMG_0728editMy Yaesu FT-1DR has become my favorite rig for SOTA activations. It covers both 2m and 70cm with dual-receiver capability. it has a built-in GPS receiver and APRS capability that facilitates easy APRS tracking. Joyce and I have a pair of these which we’ve been using to track each other’s positions on the few occasions we get separated on the trail.

 

 

Bob K0NR knocks out a few 2m fm contacts from the summit
Bob K0NR knocks out a few 2m fm contacts from the summit

After we made the summit, I made a few contacts on 146.52 MHz. Thanks to Jim KDØMRC, Dave KØHTX, Carl K5UK and Candy KEØDMT for giving me my four required SOTA contacts.

The weather turned out to be better than predicted…partly cloudy and temps around 50 degrees F. On the way back down, we retraced our ascent path so we had more of a snowshoe trail to follow. I have to admit that this trip was a good lesson in how off-trail snowshoeing can really be a challenge. This was many times more difficult than a summer trail hike of equal length and elevation gain. Trip stats: 2.6 total miles, 1300 vertical feet.

At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

73, Bob K0NR

January VHF Contest Plus SOTA

A view of Pikes Peak from Mt Herman.
A view of Pikes Peak from Mt Herman.

It’s been a while since I’ve done a January VHF contest from a mountaintop so I decided to give it a try from Mount Herman this year. The ARRL recently changed the contest rules to allow the use of the national 2m fm calling frequency for contests. See Coming Soon: 146.52 MHz in ARRL VHF Contests. I wanted to see how this change would play out in practice when doing a combination VHF Contest plus SOTA activation. In previous attempts, I had to vector the SOTA activity to another 2m fm frequency for it to be a legal contact for the contest. The SOTA + Contest operation is attractive because it has all the elements of a fun SOTA hike coupled with the increased activity of a VHF contest. The contest brings out the weak-signal folks with very capable stations, increasing the probability of making some good DX contacts.

Bob K0NR using an HT to make contacts on 446.0 MHz FM.
Bob K0NR using an HT to make contacts on 446.0 MHz FM.

 

Joyce KØJJW and I hit the trail at 10:30 AM local with the goal of being at the summit around noon (1900 UTC) for the start of the ARRL contest. The trail was icy, but manageable with the gripping devices on our boots. The weather was chilly but not bad for January. At the summit, I configured my FT-60 handheld radio for 146.52 MHz using a 2m half-wave vertical. My first call netted a QSO with Tim, KAØMWA in Castle Rock. I worked a few other stations on 2m fm and then set up the 2m ssb station (FT-817 plus Arrow II antenna). On 144.200 MHz SSB, I contacted two Wyoming stations in grid DN71, about 140 miles away. I also gave a call on 446.0 MHz fm and worked W3DHJ and KE0HBW mobile.

Freq    Mode    UTC     Call     Grid
146.52    FM    1900    KA0MWA   DM79
146.52    FM    1902    N0AXK    DM79
146.52    FM    1905    N0LP     DM79
146.52    FM    1905    K0GPA    DM79
146.52    FM    1905    WG0AT    DM79
146.52    FM    1920    N0ISB    DM78
146.52    FM    1923    N0LEA    DN70
144.2    SSB    1932    WY7KY    DN71
144.2    SSB    1935    K0ALE    DM79
144.2    SSB    1938    AB0YM/R  DM79
144.2    SSB    1939    KG0RP    DN70
144.2    SSB    1940    WA7KYM   DN71
144.2    SSB    1942    KC4YLV   DM79
446.0    FM     1948    W3DHJ    DM78
144.2    SSB    1949    WE7L     DM79
144.2    SSB    1951    N0SP     DM79
446.0    FM     2000    KE0HBW   DM79

The wind was strong at the summit and kept blowing everything around, making it difficult to operate the radio and manage the antennas. After an hour of operating, I decided to QRT and head on down. I know I missed a bunch of potential contacts, especially having not gotten on 70 cm and 6m ssb.

Except for the short operating time, the operation played out as expected. I was able to work the SOTA folks and 2m fm enthusiasts on 146.52 MHz. I made it a point to not hog the calling frequency, as there are quite a few folks that monitor there. Switching over to 2m ssb, I worked the contest crowd, typically with more capable vhf stations. My score is a whopping 114 points, in the single-op portable category.

Thanks to everyone that got on the air to play radio that day!

73, Bob KØNR

2016 SOTA Activity Days

Bob summitSummits On The Air (SOTA) operating events are a great way to promote activity and create opportunities for summit-to-summit radio contacts. Here’s the 2016 calendar, an update of the 2015 list suggested by Guy N7UN. Many of these dates are aligned with VHF events but there will be HF activity as well.

IMG_1836Of course, any day is a good day for SOTA activity.  The August 6-7 weekend looks to be the alignment of the planets with four events happening around that weekend. Early August usually offers excellent conditions for hiking the highest peaks in Colorado, so come on out and play.

For more info on VHF SOTA, see How To Do a VHF SOTA Activation.

Get off the couch, put on your hiking boots, grab your backpack, grab your radio but most important: get on the air!

73, Bob K0NR

Winter Assault on Mt Herman (W0C/FR-063)

On the last day of the year, it seemed like a good idea to get in one more SOTA activation. It turns out that I had not been up Mt Herman (W0C/FR-063) all year, even though it’s close by. See this page for the trail description. Joyce KØJJW and I decided to hike up in the morning, reaching the summit around 11 AM local time.  This was my third SOTA activation of Mt Herman, but I’ve operated from there many more times in various VHF contests (back before SOTA was a thing in Colorado).

Trail conditions
Winter conditions on Mount Herman trail.

The road to the trailhead (Mt Herman Road, FS 320) was in very good condition but snowpacked and icy. This road is not plowed during the winter but it is often passable with a decent 4WD vehicle. Today, you could make it to the trailhead with 2WD and some careful driving. The trail conditions were typical for winter time: almost completely covered in snow with a few bare spots showing here and there. The trail was packed powder and not particularly icy. Still, we appreciated having traction devices on our boots. This trail can be downright treacherous when it ices up, so traction devices (Yaktrax, Microspikes, etc.) are highly recommended. Trekking poles can be helpful, too.

K0JJW K0NR
Joyce K0JJW and Bob K0NR on the trail.

Once at the summit, I used my Yaesu FT-60 handheld radio and a half-wave vertical antenna to work people on 146.52 MHz. Having notified a number of people that I would be on the air, I actually had a bit of a pile up on 2m fm. In short order, I worked KE5QNG, WA6MM, KH7AL, WG0AT, W7AWH, K9MAP, K0JQZ, K9DBX, W0STU, KD0MFO, WB0ROK, KD0VHD and KL7IZW. Best DX was about 50 miles with W7AWH in Pueblo West. Thanks to everyone that got on the air to work me.

The weather was cold, about 15 deg F, so we didn’t stay too long on the summit and headed back down the trail. OK, maybe “winter assault” is a bit of an exaggeration. Let’s call it a fun hike in cold weather.

73, Bob K0NR

Other postings on SOTA activation of Mt Herman:
Soggy Mount Herman SOTA Activation (W0C/FR-063)
Mt Herman: SOTA plus VHF Contest