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VE3OIJ

ARRL Field Day 2015

Clubs, Digital Modes, DX, General, Operating, Technology, Voice Modes

It’s the end of June and that means ARRL Field Day 2015.  Squidette (VA3CEW) and I deployed to the Outlet Beach (FN13jv, right beside Sandbanks Provincial Park) to operate a Field Day station as VE3EEE.

Equipment

We went out with the standard VE3EEE portable pack:

  • Honda EU2000i generator
  • Quad core i7 laptop
  • Yaesu FT-847
  • Begali paddles
  • RigExpert Plus TNC
  • LDG automatic tuner
  • Hy-Gain DP-19D dipole (set for 20m)
  • Buddipole (set for 15 or 40 depending on the time of day)

WX

Cold  and miserable with drizzle for basically the entire time.  That was not fun at all.  Nevertheless, we did have shelter, so it wasn’t the end of the world.

Solar WX

There were geomagnetic storms earlier in the week, but they had pretty much abated.  K-index bounced between 1 and 3.  15m down to 80m seemed to be open.  I listened on 10 and didn’t hear anything, so I didn’t bother with 6m.

Results

We made 72 contacts between 40m, 20m, and 15m, almost all digital although we threw in a few CW and Phone contacts just for good measure.

Social

We also took the time to drive across the county to visit the Quinte ARC Field Day site in Ameliasburg.  It was rainy and miserable there too, but they had a great setup with 4 radios going!

Photos

This is the buddipole set up on a sand dune. The tower isn't quite fully extended due to overhead trees. Nevertheless, it's got a good 5-7m over the ambient ground level.
This is the buddipole set up on a sand dune. The tower isn’t quite fully extended due to overhead trees. Nevertheless, it’s got a good 5-7m over the ambient ground level.
This is the buddipole set up on a sand dune. might be a bit easier to see.
This is the buddipole set up on a sand dune. might be a bit easier to see.
Hy-Gain dipole between trees. Had I planned this better, I'd have picked different trees and maybe gone for 40m.
Hy-Gain dipole between trees. Had I planned this better, I’d have picked different trees and maybe gone for 40m.
Looking northwest along the beach road.
Looking northwest along the beach road.
This is the cabin on the beach while we were setting up. The generator is in front.
This is the cabin on the beach while we were setting up. The generator is in front.
This is the VE3EEE operating position. That's a 27" touch screen on the left, which makes operating the radio a lot like a Star Trek console.
This is the VE3EEE operating position. That’s a 27″ touch screen on the left, which makes operating the radio a lot like a Star Trek console.
VE3OIJ

EMCOMM and amateur radio – what is needed and what is not

Digital Modes, General, Operating, Security, Technology, Voice Modes

I’ve been reading a fair bit about emergency communications (EMCOMM) and amateur radio. Nominally, EMCOMM is why amateur radio exists – the service is there, hypothetically, to be able to provide backup communication paths when infrastructure fails. Certainly, for many years, that was a pretty valid position and amateur radio filled that niche very well.

But time has marched on, and with it has marched both requirements and technology. In my considered opinion, amateur radio EMCOMM is likely to come up short when the situation is dire. This is something amateur radio can overcome, but getting past the shortcomings is going to require a new way of thinking for a lot of amateur radio EMCOMM enthusiasts.

The Use Case

It is first necessary to consider what role amateur radio is going to fill in an emergency situation.

The goal of EMCOMM is to get timely, accurate communication outside of the disaster zone to a place where the regular communications infrastructure is not damaged.  Barring an asteroid strike that makes a crater the size of Texas and destroys an entire continent, that communication is not going to need to be more than tens of kilometers, maybe small hundreds.

That brings about my first EMCOMM observation: HF is probably not going to factor in an EMCOMM situation because it’s awkward and unnecessary.  Awkward because it needs long, difficult antennas, and propagation is unreliable.  In the event of a very wide-scale disaster, then perhaps, but generally, it will be quicker, easier, and more reliable to use VHF and UHF radio to get messages out of a disaster zone because the equipment is small and much easier to come by.

Modern “first responders” – police, fire, military, para-military and medical all have reliable, effective short-range communication technology and infrastructure.  Their comms channels are robust and intended to work in adverse situations.  For the most part, amateur radio will play almost no part in assisting these people.  It’s worth noting that, military notwithstanding, none of these essential services uses HF radio much or at all.

Secondary assistance services are much more likely to require amateur radio assistance: Red Cross, various “civilian” disaster relief agencies and so on.  These are important people in any disaster, but they’re likely not well equipped in the communications department and could benefit greatly from amateur radio  help.  Again, however, they’re going to want to move information outside the disaster zone, and that distance is not likely to be “around the world” because there are many better ways to do that than HF radio.

I’ve tried to figure out what sort of info these agencies might want to send, and the most obvious one I can come up with is a casualty list.  This is a good one because it seems both likely, and highly useful to an agency like the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders, or some similar group.  There might also be traditional short “Hi Mom! We’re OK!” messages, but those are generally easy to send by any convenient means.

So what does a casualty list take?  Let’s consider a short list: 1500 people are at a shelter inside a disaster zone, and the Red Cross needs to send that list 75 km away to the coordination centre.  The list contains “phone book” info: name, (former) address, plus gender and date of birth.  If we figure the name field at 20 characters, address at 20 characters, gender as 1 character and birth date as 6 characters, and an indicator for unharmed/deceased/injured/missing of a single character, a list of 1500 people is about 72000 characters, or 70 kB, or in CW terms, 14400 words.

Right off the bat, you can see one problem.  That short casualty list, using 4 operators blasting CW at 30 WPM non-stop, will take a full 2 hours to send and still require coordinating the output of the 4 CW streams at the far end.  That is not acceptable in 2015.  That same list, sent by D-Star at 9600 bps, takes less than 90 seconds.  Even at 1200 bps D-Star it will clock in less than 10 minutes.  This brings me to the second observation about EMCOMM: Morse Code is not going to be used very much if at all in an EMCOMM situation because it is too slow to carry any significant amount of useful information.

What does this mean?

The general use case of casualty lists, supply requisitions and similar information simply can’t be sent by morse code or even by voice.  Modern EMCOMM needs to move small and medium amounts of data over those tens of kilometers.  Possibly even image data.  This simply cannot be done with traditional “Morse Code and HF” thinking, and not even with “packet” thinking.

EMCOMM groups have to start thinking about the objective, and they have to start acquiring the infrastructure and training to be able to provide useful communications.  This is what I think all EMCOMM groups need to have as a capability:

1. Enough available equipment to set up a VHF and/or UHF data link that can cover a distance of about 100 km, AND link to the neighbouring EMCOMM group – effectively able to form cells of about 50-100 km in radius to be able to get communications away from the disaster zone.

2. Enough man-portable (i.e. HT or similar) equipment to be able to deploy operators quickly and keep them highly mobile.  This would include easily erected directional antenna equipment.

3. The ability to move data with a speed of at least 9600 bps over the coverage area.  Even faster would be better.  That may mean we all have to start thinking of better ways of moving data.  Guys, it’s not 1980 any more.  Even 9600 is glacially slow by modern standards, and information is king in a disaster situation, but at that speed you can move decent sized text blocks around.  If amateur radio can’t move enough good quality information quickly and accurately, amateur radio will be bypassed.

4. The ability to interface with existing communications channels (e.g. the internet).  I assure you, the guys who can get internet connectivity into a disaster area are going to be viewed as heroes of communications because internet is *THE* communication channel used by every organization everywhere.  Also, being able to patch into other networks like the phone system and drag a level of that connectivity into a disaster zone would be really helpful.

5. This is a pie-in-the-sky thing, but I’ll put it out there: The ability to assist with, organize, and direct the communications infrastructure of others – in short: trained operators who can free up firefighters, police, and maybe even soldiers by operating THEIR communications infrastructure while they go out and do the nasty work.

EMCOMM needs to look at the now and forward, not back in history.  It’s time to drop HF and morse, and build up robust, portable digital communications for emergencies.  That is what will be needed when the worst happens, and that’s where the expertise of highly trained radio amateurs is going to be most effectively deployed.

VE3OIJ

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 Archive.org) 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.

VE3OIJ

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.

VHF and UHF

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.

$300-$600

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.

Conclusion

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.

VE3OIJ

VoIP is NOT Amateur Radio

Digital Modes, DX, General, Operating, Technology, Voice Modes

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 they are not amateur radio, and it’s easy to explain why: none of them use radio, amateur radio specifically, but radio in general, as the primary method to transmit information.

That’s not to say that they don’t use radio.  Certainly with IRLP, Echolink and “DX” uses of D-Star, radio is involved.  That’s where people get confused… “It uses a radio, therefore it is amateur radio” and that’s absolutely wrong.

It’s wrong because 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.  Any use of a radio is a secondary convenience.  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, 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.

On the other hand, 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 it is 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.

But PSK and other digital modes use a computer too. 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.

The computer is not the issue, the primary communication medium is the issue.  With PSK etc. that medium is radio, with Echolink etc. it 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.  They’re not, and they won’t ever be a replacement for basic radio communications.

[edit]

Some very good and interesting comments.  I’ve decided to add a bit here to address them.

I feel very strongly that amateur radio is about more than just communication and the ability to self-learn.  You don’t need amateur radio for that.  If that is the only justification for the existence of amateur radio, then we’re already in deep, deep trouble.  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 we don’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.

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