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Is it radio when it uses VoIP? Not exactly…

Digital Modes, Equipment, General, Operating, Technology, Voice Modes

Much of this post comes from something I wrote years ago that sank with the old blog, but since the question has come up again, I thought it was time to revisit the old post (yay and bring things up to date.

This topic comes up from time to time, and I’ve never seen anyone give a definitive argument as to why VoIP modes like Echolink, IRLP, some uses of D-Star (dongles and “dx”), CQ100 and so forth are absolutely not amateur radio. To me, it is obvious that some of them are certainly not amateur radio, and others are really just radio-based by convenience depending on how they are used. It’s trivial to explain which is which: It’s not amateur radio if an amateur radio transceiver isn’t involved.  Period.  An even better line might be that it’s not amateur radio if an amateur radio transceiver isn’t required.  The key is in the communications medium itself.

Using that defninition, it is a simple matter to determine what is and isn’t radio. Certainly with IRLP, Echolink and “DX” uses of D-Star, radio can be involved. That’s where people get confused… “It uses a radio, therefore it is amateur radio” and that’s absolutely wrong.

It is also situational.  If you took the radio away, all those modes still work. Echolink, all the DX part of D-Star, and CQ100 work over the internet, computer to computer. When used in this manner they are absolutely not amateur radio. In the case of CQ100, it’s primary purpose is to be used computer to computer. Legally speaking, no person needs an amateur radio licence to use these applications for computer to computer communications, despite the best efforts of software authors to keep access restricted to the amateur radio community. If the guy down the street downloads Echolink or CQ100 and somehow manages to get an authorized registration, all the hooting and hollering in the world will not get your national communications regulator to come down on the guy as long as (in the case of Echolink) he never causes a signal to come out on an amateur radio frequency.

Now let’s look at it a bit deeper.  If you take the internet away, Echolink, IRLP, CQ100, and most of D-Star die immediately. They absolutely cannot function without the internet, and it is because of this that I say that this makes it clear that such modes are not amateur radio. In fact, they’re no different than Skype or Logitech’s video program, or MSN Messenger beyond having less features than those commercial VoIP programs.

D-Star is a special case because it can be used for direct, radio-to-radio communication. Thus, I have to afford that mode special dispensation: At the core, D-Star is amateur radio, but a lot of how it is used is not.

So after all that, when this topic is discussed, someone always says this: PSK and other digital modes use a computer too.  I can use a computer to send CW. I guess they aren’t amateur radio.

Wrong. That is a canard oft trotted out in defence of the “amateur radio” status of Echolink et al. but it is a strawman that is incorrect at the most basic level. The issue isn’t the use of a computer. Machines have been communicating by radio for more than half a century. PSK, RTTY and other digital modes are just modern versions of that.

Take away the internet, and people’s digital modes software still works and they can still communicate by radio. Take away the radio, and all that digital modes software becomes useless. Therefore, it is amateur radio.

Just so it is absolutely clear: the way you tell if something is or isn’t amateur radio is by looking at the primary communication path, not the specific hardware.  With PSK, CW etc., even when done with a computer, that medium is radio. With Echolink etc. the primary medium is the internet.

Why does this matter?

Largely, it does not except in message board fights. One place it does matter, however, is in the public-service angle of amateur radio… you know, that part where we’re supposed to be able to communicate in the event of some kind of emergency where the major communication systems are knocked out.

One property of disasters is that they can take out the internet locally. So if your amateur radio setup is based around internet modes, you are effectively useless when the internet drops out over a wide area… as happened in Haiti and Chile during their recent earthquake disasters, as happened in Louisiana with the hurricane, and as is the case over much of the world where internet just hasn’t made it yet.

These internet modes are fun to play around with, but don’t think of them as amateur radio. In the traditional sense, they’re not, and they won’t ever be a replacement for basic radio communications.  That doesn’t mean they’re not useful or fun technologies. I really enjoy using Echolink to get into repeaters back home when I’m travelling the world.  I just don’t think of the Echolink as amateur radio, but rather as a generic assisting technology like a VOX or an antenna rotor.

What about the things the technology brings to amateur radio?

I feel very strongly that amateur radio is about more than just the ability to self-learn (although that is the essence of amateur radio).  You don’t need amateur radio if ALL it is about is learning.  With pressure from commercial interests, and a general disinterest from the public, it won’t be long before amateur radio is killed off if the best we can do is work out glorified Skype or MSN clients that look like a radio on-screen.  To me, the purposes of amateur radio are to allow people an experimental venue from which they can learn about radio communication, to further radio communication research, and to provide public service in the event of an emergency when the other infrastructure fails.  That’s why amateur radio doesn’t need VoIP on the internet… let commercial interests do that (they already have).  We shouldn’t be wasting time and effort reinventing an already well-perfected wheel.

There are aspects of this sort of technology that would be very useful in the amateur radio world.  Here’s a few ideas where I think this area of interest should be going that would further amateur radio, rather than just being yet-another-VoIP-client on the internet (and thus useless when the internet doesn’t work).  This is definitely not an exhaustive list:

  • Digital voice over radio – Yes, D-Star is a cool area of endeavour not because it links repeaters over the internet but because the limited bandwidth requirements of a digital voice signal mean more conversations can fit on the standard bandwidth of an FM repeater.  More conversations is more efficient use of the available spectrum.  This technology also has direct commercial application with cellular phones and general commercial radio.  Advancing this sort of technology advances radio communication generally and harkens back to the original goals of amateur radio: to further communication technology over radio.  Amateur radio is grossly behind the times in this area when compared with cellular phone technology.  We should be on the leading edge of this stuff, not decades behind.
  • High speed data transfer over radio – Again, D-Star is making the advances here, but amateur radio still lags far behind the rest of the communications world in this area.  The ability to send high-speed data by radio would be a huge boon when using amateur radio in the event of an emergency.  Oddly enough, one of the types of traffic such a radio data network could carry would be digitized voice (such as voice over IP), or video.  The key here, however, is to gain the ability to do this over radio links when there is no internet, nor phone lines.  Again, amateur radio is decades behind on this when we should be leading it.  Just to drive this point home… if a bunch of amateurs set up even a 128 kbps radio network running IP over radio, they could run the free software Ventrilo and chat, computer to computer. Ventrilo is a commercially supported package that is well tested and works extremely well.  Increase that network bandwidth and you could carry a lot of VoIP conversations very effectively.  My point: instead of working out ham radio simulators, let’s solve the high speed data over radio issues.
  • Both of the above over satellite – to get message and data traffic out of a disaster area, satellites are likely the way of the future.  Efforts that enable the ability to use existing and future satellites for the previous two purposes will greatly advance amateur radio in terms of the intended purpose of amateur radio and in the eyes of the public.
  • Improved HF modes – faster and error corrected methods of transferring information globally over HF radio.
  • Space communication – faster, smaller, easier methods of sending messages over inter-planetary distances.  It’s maybe a bit early, but radio amateurs can lead this field with work on things like EME and Earth-Venus-Earth or Earth-Mars-Earth work.

That’s where I think we should be spending effort instead of wasting it on things like VoIP over the internet and pretending that it’s radio.


So you’re a new amateur… where to begin

Clubs, Equipment, General, Operating

[This article was originally published 20 Nov, 2011.  I have recently updated it for 2015]

I get asked this a lot, particularly when I’m working at VE3JW. New and prospective radio amateurs want to know what equipment they need to start off. Since I’ve never really written about that, and it seemed like good article material, I figured I’d give it a go.

Built or Bought?

Unless you are already an avid builder, I suggest buying your first radio(s). Building can be fun, and if you already have the skills, it’s a great way to participate in the hobby. But if you don’t have the skills, it can be a frustrating way to start.

Nobody should take this to mean that I don’t respect building/tinkering skills. Quite the opposite actually, I think every radio amateur should develop such skills… but I don’t think it’s a good place for the new amateur to start unless he’s already into that sort of thing.

New or Used?

Here’s something controversial… the new/used question. I’ll state right up front, that I think a new or prospective amateur should be buying new, not used. That’s a generalization, of course, and here’s the exception: Buy used if you know the seller well and have great trust for the seller. By “know the seller well” I don’t mean “some dude at the local club meeting”… I mean “this is the guy who personally mentored me through the process and has been a close personal friend for many years.”

There are two reasons I recommend buying new:

  1. The first and foremost is that a new amateur is less experienced and therefore less likely to be knowledgeable about the cost of equipment and the value of used equipment. In my experience, there are some great deals to be had in the used equipment market, but you have to look for them. Far too many amateurs think their 10 year old radio that cost them $2000 back in 2001 is still worth $1700 now in 2011. In my estimation, radio equipment depreciates like anything else. A 10 year old radio, even meticulously cared for is not going to be the radio it once was. And for $1700, you can likely get a brand new radio with better features Whether it’s HF sets or handhelds, you really have to shop around for a good deal if you buy used, and that requires experience that a new amateur is not likely to have.
  2. The second reason is that if you buy used, especially from someone you don’t know well, you may very well get sold a hunk of junk. There are a LOT of radio amateurs who are happy to unload non- or barely- serviceable radios at the aforementioned premium used prices. As a new amateur, you don’t need this hassle. Buy new, get a warranty. One of the most de-motivating experiences a new amateur could have would be to innocently pick up a junk radio to start with. It’s a shame that people are willing to push their junk on the unsuspecting, but radio amateurs are people like anyone else, and that means that there is the usual share of unscrupulous amateurs.

So you’ve decided to buy a new radio!

Good for you. You need to look at what you want to do with it and how much you want to spend. There are two general classes of radio: VHF / UHF, and HF, and I’ll look at them separately. I’ll use Radioworld as the reference for prices, because I have the most experience with them, but there are many fine vendors of equipment, both online and with store-fronts.


When you think about VHF and UHF equipment, you’re generally thinking about access to the local repeaters, or perhaps satellite work if you’re going to jump right into that. You’re probably looking for an FM set with various features. If you want to do APRS, that’s something else to consider: does the radio support it natively or will you have to acquire/build a TNC?

So how much do you want to spend to get on VHF and UHF?

< $150

Lots of people have had good experiences with inexpensive handheld radios from China, acquired over eBay. The radios come fully equipped and the prices are usually below $100 per set. There are many band configurations, and the new amateur can get 2m, 220 MHz, 70 cm, and more. For the most part, these are straight FM radios, so if you wanted to use them for APRS, you’ll need to build or acquire your own interface. If you want to get on the air inexpensively, this is a way to go.

It’s also a good way to get into satellite work cheaply. A pair of these (one for VHF, one for UHF) and an antenna you can build for a few dollars and you can work the FM birds, including the International Space Station.

$150 – $300

This is a low-mid price for a name-brand handheld radio, and a low-end for some mobile sets. The Yaesu FT-60, VX-3, VX-6 and the Alinco DJ-V57 are fine radios. I lean toward dual-band handhelds because limiting yourself to 2 meters is, well, limiting. Depending where you live there may well be plenty of good repeaters on UHF, and if you just like to chat among friends, UHF has a lot less interference from commercial services. There are Luddites who will say 2m is all you need, but in my experience, those are people who don’t actually use the radio much.


In this price range you’re getting into the high-end handhelds and low-end mobile rigs. If you plan to drive around a lot, a mobile rig is probably a good call. You can mount it on a quick-disconnect mount and move it in the house and use it like a base-station, thereby saving the cost of having a house rig and a car rig. Mobiles generally have more power since they are intended to be used on the road/outside and that may be an important feature if you wish to get into some kinds of VHF and UHF work. Again, I recommend dual-band because 2 meters simply doesn’t cut it in an urban area due to interference.

For handhelds, take a look at the Kenwood TH-D72, and Yaesu VX-8 series. Both are full-featured, multi-band handhelds with APRS capability. Before anyone writes a comment, I do not recommend blowing the money on an Icom D-Star handheld. For what they cost, frankly, you can get a better handheld, or the Icom mobile D-Star radio. I consider the D-Star handheld a waste of money… there are simply better deals out there.

For mobiles, there’s many good choices in this price range. My personal favourite is the Kenwood D-710 and I have used this family of radios for a long time. The 710 supports packet and APRS natively, which is a real bonus. It also is full duplex, meaning that you can operate FM satellites with it without having to buy a second radio. Other good mobile sets are: Kenwood TM-V71, Yaesu FT-7900, FT-8800 and the Icom ID-880H which has D-Star capability (and is cheaper than the previously mentioned Icom handheld).
If you have over $600 to spend on a starter radio, I suggest looking at mobiles and bases with greater features, particularly if you also have HF privileges (Canadian Basic + or Advanced).

HF gear

If you want an HF rig, you’re going to need more than $1000 to spend, and your best bet, in my opinion, is the Yaesu FT-857. It is an all-band, all-mode mobile radio, up to 100 watts output. It’s small, it can be mounted for quick moving between your car and your house, does HF, VHF and UHF in all modes, and costs around $1000. It’s not as awesome as some $13000 uber-HF set, but it’s a good starter radio, it’s pretty durable and it does have some advanced features. No other major vendor has a comparable radio for a comparable price.

Some people may tell you that the FT-817 is as good a deal because it’s cheaper. That’s true, it is cheaper, but it’s only 5 watts. And while it’s true that 5 watts is enough to work the world, if you’re a new amateur, the 13 dB of extra power in the 857 is going to make your early experiences better. There’s nothing wrong with QRP, but I think that’s a place to go AFTER you’ve got experience and have a good idea what you’re doing, and have established good, effective antennas.

If you get the 857, you may not need to buy a handheld, so there’s some potential cost-offset there.

Don’t Forget…

You’ll need to set money aside for accessories (yes, hams accessorize) for your radio, be it a handheld or a base station. You’ll need to have money aside for antenna(s), cabling and possibly power supply.

Money spent on good antennas is better than money spent on extra power. Don’t pay extra for a 200W radio when there’s a cheaper model with 100W. The extra 3 dB won’t make a difference in most situations.


How you spend your first few amateur radio dollars is going to give you the taste experience with amateur radio that will determine whether this is the hobby for you. Don’t overspend, but don’t go on the cheap. Buying crappy equipment will discourage you, so try to stick to vendors who back their products up (or in the case of the Chinese handhelds, sell them so inexpensively that it doesn’t matter so much). Once you have some experience under your belt, you can upgrade your equipment to better suit your need and desires.


Watch the aurora, live!

Astrophysical and Geophysical, General

Back in 2008, I had an article here about live web-cams that were pointed at the aurora.  I’ve been noticing hits on the old page (the web never forgets!) and given that is a subject that interests me a lot, I thought I’d make a new article.

In the 6 years since I posted the original article, there has been growth in the number of aurora-pointed web cams.  Today, you can watch the aurora from various places in Europe and Canada.  The southern aurora doesn’t really have a camera, presumably because it’s rare in New Zealand, and bringing internet to Antarctica is likely too expensive to waste on such a camera.

In any case, here are some links for looking at northern lights:

  • The Canadian Space Agency operates a camera in Yellowknife, NT.  Being a government page, it is also available in French.
  • Service Aurora is a site in Europe that combines cameras from Scandinavia plus the Canadian camera, and some information that may be of use to radio amateurs.
  • Aurora Spy is a UK site that aggregates a number of cameras.

All three of these seem to be right up to date.

So if you live in an area that’s too temperate/tropical to see an aurora, there are plenty of online opportunities!  Enjoy!


Have you checked your photos lately?

General, Security, Technology

It’s coming on to Christmas, and that means it’s time for an annual chore: the checking of my photo archives.  Like many people, I have a large number of digital photographs and videos, and I don’t want to lose them.  Each year, I check my archives and make sure that my data is still good.

Many people assume that because they’ve got their pictures stored somewhere, the pictures are fine.  That assumption could not be further from the truth, and that’s why you actually have to perform maintenance on your digital files, just like you would on your paper photo albums.

Here are the maintenance tasks I would recommend:

  1. Empty your camera – That’s right, pull the photos off your phone, your Nikon, the memory cards you have laying around, etc.  Realistically, you shouldn’t store photos on your phone for very long anyway, since they might be subject to embarrasing disclosure, or loss.  A phone or camera is not intended as a long-term storage device, so just don’t do it.
  2. Validate your optical media – home-burned CD/DVD/BRD media use an optically alterable chemical to store data.  Over time (usually 3-7 years), that chemical can degrade.  When that happens, you start losing data.  If you’ve backed your photos onto optical disks, you absolutely must copy them off and put them onto new disks or other media every few years or you absolutely will lose photos.  Unlike the marketing hype, this media really isn’t permanent, nor does it have a 100 year lifespan.  3 to 7 years, that’s all.  If you get more than that, you’re just lucky.
  3. Validate your hard drive media – Storing your photos on a hard disk?  have you checked your hard disk?  Hard drive failure is a big killer of people’s photos.  Unless you’ve taken steps to prevent it, a hard drive is a single point of failure – lose the drive, lose everything, including your photos.  Personally, I store most of my photos on a RAID device that uses four hard drives and is configured such that it can tolerate a single drive failure (RAID 5).  That may be a bit much for a home user, but if you’re using hard drive storage, at least consider keeping backups somewhere not on the same hard drive.
  4. Check your on-line storage accounts and licensing agreements – Plenty of people use online services.  Be aware of your user agreements and licensing!  Many of those services will claim ownership or unrestricted use license rights in consideration for letting you use their service.  This is particularly true if the service is free.  If you use a paid service, don’t forget to make sure you’re paid up.
  5. And don’t forget your paper – If you’re over 20 years old, you probably have paper photos somewhere… don’t forget to check them and make sure they’re not rotting away.  Maybe scan them to digital media.

Keep your data safe this Christmas!


OVMRC Time Capsule

Clubs, General

Tonight was the OVMRC Christmas dinner/social.  It was well attended, which is always nice to see.  Good company and a nice buffet provided by Louis’ Steak House in Ottawa.

The highlight of the evening was the opening of the OVMRC time capsule.

The time capsule was assembled in 2002 at the 40th anniversary of the club, and it was intended to be opened in 2012 at the 50th anniversary of the club.  Unfortunately, it was forgotten about due to being well buried at the back of the club storage area.  The box was, however, discovered again and it was decided to open it at the 2014 Christmas gathering.

Then the issues at the Canada Science and Technology Museum got in the way.  The club’s storage is at the museum and with the asbestos and mould issue, there were challenges to recovering the box.  However, due to some great work by our club president, and some consideration and assistance from the museum, the box made an appearance.

The contents of the box were:

  • A list of check-ins to the 2002, 10th anniversary Welcome Mat net.
  • Some personal items from VE3PUR
  • A photo from a “Talk to Santa” Christmas event at the Canada Science and Technology Museum
  • A copy of the club’s original charter or letter of incorporation (I’m not really sure what the proper name of the document is).
  • A brief history of the club from formation to 1965
  • A 2002 catalogue from Durham Radio
  • Numerous QSL cards
  • A class photo from the 2002 amateur radio course run by the club
  • A copy of Canadian Amateur magazine
  • Some CDs of photos, audio cassettes, and a VHS cassette

Time will likely have ravaged the CDs and cassettes, so it will be interesting to see if anything useful can be recovered from them.  They appeared to be Field Day related.

Interestingly, prices haven’t changed that much, numerically, on amateur radio gear since 2002, although inflation means that prices have actually declined.  That’s a good thing I suppose.

Overall, a good time was had by all!

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Darin Cowan - VE3OIJ