2017: Year of the Ham

I’ve decided this coming year will be one in which I invest heavily, both from an operations and licensing standpoint. I’ve been thinking of how best to expand my radio horizons, and have come up with a pretty good list of goals for myself.

Licensing

I’ve been licensed since around 1984 as a Novice class operator (that class no longer exists). Since then, I’ve progressed to General class. There is one final hurdle to Ham Nirvana, and that is passing the Amateur Extra class. I’ve got the study guide, and a high bar to reach (I scored 100% on my General). The plan is to pass my test before Field Day

Operations

This year I am going to try a few new things. For one, I’m going to register with RACES and/or MARS in order to increase my experience with emergency services. This is one of the more enjoyable facets of the hobby. During the Loma Prieta earthquake and the Oakland Hills fire, I helped the Red Cross and local emergency responders. It’s a great feeling to be able to help out in times of need

Next up is mesh networking. In the event of an emergency, we’ve always got our radios ready for voice comms. However, a movement has begun to create a fully-meshed data network using off-the-shelf comm gear that we share frequency spectrum with. Using radios and highly direction antennas, we can connect our nodes together and create a high-speed data network between many points. This would enable different emergency centers to communicate via voice (telephones) and also via data (web, mail, video, etc). It’s pretty exciting. There is a node near the QTH, up on Mt. Oso. The plan is to purchase an Ubiquiti RocketM5 radio and dish and connect to it full-time. Additionally, I’ll assemble a mobile node so that no matter where I’m operating, if there is a node I have line of sight to, I’ll be able to connect and pass data and voice.

Gear

I’m very happy with my radios atm: the Electraft KX3 is awesome, the Yaesu FT-101EE is a venerable and strong voice rig, even 30+ years on, the Kenwood VX-7R for mobile, and my Yaesu 817ND. So, no more radios for now. However there are some station extras I’d like to pick up.

  • Elecraft Panadapter for the KX3: will show me a nice waterfall display for tuning. No computer needed!
  • Cushcraft R9: a BIG vertical antenna that will be permanent at the QTH
  • BuddiPole system: A better portable antenna for hiking/mountain tops
  • Solar: I just bought 3 18W panels from a fellow Ham. Now to put them to work!
  • Go-Kit: I plan to build a portable field desk specifically for my gear and operating activities.

Field Day

I’ve not participated in FD for many years. This next year will be a full-force showing for me! I plan to put all this new stuff into play from a mountain top within sight of the QTH so that I can establish a data link via AREDN, Go full solar/battery power, provide a video stream and try to reach at least 250 contacts. I’ll bring the large tent and our popup to make for a solid ES-type operation. The site will be open to anyone else in the area who would like operate “survival style”.

Check back for more updates!

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Back to the past

The venerable old FT-101

I came across a listing on FB for an FT-101EE recently, and decided to buy it. I think I became intrigued at the idea of investing in the past, where the FT101 reigned as king of the tube transceivers. The -EE was released in the early 70s, and had an optional speech processor. The most intriguing part is that it has glowy TUBES!!

All of my radios have integrated circuits that control all aspects of operations. The FT101 has actual glowing tubes to generate the radio frequency output. Additionally, it puts out around 130W of power on single side band. My current wunder-radio delivers 12W on DC power.

I plan on using the FT101 to finally dabble in contesting a bit, and also for general rag-chewing. I can even get back to doing more slow-scan TV over to Europe and Asia. So, that’s kind of exciting. 🙂

I’ll update here when the radio arrives.

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Back to Basics: Morse Code

Okay, I have a disclaimer to make before I start this discussion. When I took my Novice license test, back in the Dark Ages, I proudly passed my code portion with ease..then immediately forgot Morse and never used it again.

That being said, I think I’ll focus on why I think it’s important to embrace Morse code, continue to push it’s relevance and if you don’t know it, take some time and learn it. I’m not sure why I came to this conclusion, so I figured it’d be something best hashed out on the blog, and so here I am.

Of course, Morse code was the de facto way to send correspondance in the early days of both wired and wireless communication. Starting with the telegraph, and moving through the first radio transmission, Morse is firmly rooted in our hobby — not only as a nod to the Old Timers upon whom we’ve built ths hobby — but simply because it worked, and provided the infrasturcture to all of our modern comms.

So why learn Morse code? There are several rationalizations for spending the time with hand to key. Firstly, and probably the most controversial, is that it’s a way to preserve the history of the hobby, and there are many who think that it’s a right proper way to respect the roots of radio. Of course not everyone agrees about ‘right’ or ‘proper’ in that sense.

But another way to look at it is purely pragmatic. Morse code is still (almost) the best, most reliable way to send a message regardless of how the sun and magnetosphere is behaving. I say ‘almost’ because it’s been knocked out of first place by extremely sensitive digital modes like JT-65A and some of those other singsongy modes. The difference is that Morse only requires, well, only two wires actually…or perhaps even a key, if you’re spoiled that way.

I’ll now digress a bit to point out that Morse isn’t only used in amateur radio. It’s also used by naval forces across the globe to communicate via light flashes in the dark, in aviation to identify radio aids to navigation, and by commercial operators up until the last decade as a matter of course in sending data to ships.

There are a lot of people in our hobby who would probably resort to kicking and screaming  before they’d have to learn Morse, and there has been much resistance in the past decades to retaining it as a requirement. I don’t see what all the fuss is about. I learned it, and it didn’t kill me. I think it’s a challenging and rewarding way to explore yet another of the myriad ways to use our radios, even in such a technologically advanced time.

And I have promised myself I’m going to get right back to it!

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FCC planning to cut back Field Enforcement bureau

The FCC announced earlier this week that they are considering a drastic cutback to it’s Field Enforcement Bureau in the US. At first glance, this seems like a good thing. No more “Big Brother” watching over our shoulders, no more dark figures hunched over radios with oversized headsets on slowly creeping across the bands.

But in reality, the FCC’s monitoring program has helped the hobby in it’s quest to keep the airspace respectable and clean, and in so doing, has made our hobby more enjoyable, and less tarnished in the eyes of those we share the spectrum with.

Historically, Ham radio has had it’s bad kids. Ask any Ham radio operator what they think of CBers on 11M, for example, or swing your dial to 14.313 Mc and listen for a couple minutes (if you can stomache it). To be fair, CBers in and of themselves aren’t the bad guys here, but they do have a reputation (being an ex-CBer myself, I sorta get it).

So what can we expect the fallout to be? Will the beloved amateur bands turn from friendly ragchewing to cursing, singing out-of-tune country songs and talking about each other’s mamas? Or will sanity be preserved?

To be fair, the FCC has not really been the proverbial white knight that we’d like them to be. In fact, the FCC is notoriously slow to find and fine our ‘bad kids’. They do have bite when they need to, however. Look back at any of the recent enforcement actions, and you can see that though the don’t catch everyone in their skimpy enforcement dragnet, you certainly don’t want to be the one slow guy that doesn’t hide well enough!

Under the current proposal, the FCC will drop it’s field offices from 24 to 8 in the states. That’s pretty significant, even though they plan to do a better job at strategically placing them. Another part of the planned action is to seek out and establish partnerships with other organizations that could help them out in the mission of finding any foul-mouthed, country-singing and mama-insulting wayward radio ops.

There is, of course, such a partnership already in place: the Amateur Auxiliary of the FCC, also known as the Official Observers. These are members of our own ranks who diligently listen and report on bad activity on our bands. I’m not sure if anyone notices, but there are a LOT more OO’s out there than any Enforcement Bureau super-snooper site could man. In fact, I’d venture a guess that reports from the OO are the fooder that keep the FCC’s montoring branch healthy and well.

So do we even need Big Brother at all? Well, yes we do. OOs are trained to gather evidence and forward it up to the FCC. They’re not supposed to scold, finger-waggle, coach or otherwise try to hunt down the ‘perps’ with their DF gear and unplug antennas (although I have to say that sounds like a pretty good idea).

I think the shrinking of the FCCs enforcement bureau doesn’t have to be a catastrophy. It’ll probably mean slower response to our complaints, and maybe a few more may evade the dragnet, but in the end, it’s only us who will save the Amateur Service from self-destruction by operating properly, reporting those who don’t and continuing to work on improving our own reputation.

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Homemade Spectrum Analyzer

One of the guys on IRC made a pretty nice analyzer…

http://gridtoys.com/sa/sa.html

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Ettus USRP

So I’ve been reading up on software defined radios and came across a couple guys who set up and ran their own private BTS (base station Transceiver Site, a.k.a cell site) at Burning Man. They basically were able to provide mobile telephone service to the masses…for free!

Here’s a picture of their setup…

OpenBTS and Asterisk, along with a RangeNetworks SDR comprised the BTS for Burning Man.

OpenBTS and Asterisk, along with a RangeNetworks SDR comprised the BTS for Burning Man.

And here are some links:

http://papalegba2012.wikispaces.com/Results

Well, I thought this fascinating, and decided to look into it. They used an Ettus USRP as the radio, and then some filters and an amp to boost the weak output into something that had some reach. I believe also their antenna system added some gain to the signal.

The result was that people who were at Burning Man could use a cell phone to call other people at Burning Man! The first year there were no outbound trunks, so you couldn’t make cell calls back home, but it was a really cool way to use technology out in the wilderness, which is something I’ve always been interested in.

So, I looked around and bought the same USRP radio off of eBay. The next thing I needed was the software, which is all open source. It’s called OpenBTS, and provides the logic to run the radio and communicate with the phones. There is also another component which handles the call routing, voice mail and such.

I’m really close to having the system ready. The only thing holding me back is getting a differnet clock source for the USRP. The original USRP’s built-in clock is not procise enough, and is on the wrong frequency.

There is a company that has manufactured an add-on clock for the USRP, but it’s been expensive at $250. I just noticed lately that the price has dropped to $99, which was wonderful! Unfortunately, the company is out of stock and waiting for enough interest to do another production run.

Once I do get the clock source (or just build one myself), I hope to have the system running off a the BeagleBone Black, which is a micro linux server that fits in the palm of your hand! Once that’s working, it’ll become our portable cell system when we’re out in the RV!

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Stuck in SF all day with no radio

I had to journey to San Francisco in order to apply for a travel visa today. The plan was to apply for the visa and have the consulate fedex it to me, but as it turned out, the only available option was to pay extra for an “urgent visa”, which meant picking it up later on the day.
While this was good news (and my company is on the hook for the extra cost), it has left me “stranded” in SF all day! I know, there are worse fates and locales, but I’m cursing the fact that I didn’t have the sense to bring a radio!
Instead, I’ve decided to do a “working cafe” tour!

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Pitcairn DXpedition, anyone?

I just read about the island of Pitcairn, on the pacific. It’s the least populated island in the world, and was founded by mutineers including John Adams.
It sounds like an incredible place to do a DXpedition to!
Who’s with me?!

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Happy New Year

Happy New Year to all my fellow Hams. Here’s hoping for stellar conditions this year. My personal goal is to work towards some awards, get more active on the air and earn my Amateur Extra rating. What are your goals?

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Backyard antennae

Here are a couple of my portable antenna systems.

In the back of the below pic is my awesome 21′ tripod mast from HRO. I’ve used it for my Hamstick dipoles, G5RV jr. and longwire antennas. The mast is non-conductive fiberglass. Works really well. I plan on taking it up with me when I next go mountain-topping.

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In the foreground is my new Outbacker Outpost tripod, which has my Outbacker Perth Plus multi-band trap vertical on it.

Those long blades attached to the legs are for capacitive coupling to the ground. Because of this, no ground radials are required. It’s really a neat system.

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