Thursday, 26 April 2012

DCS: Also Reflecting Our National Traits

Sometimes I find how we use new technology is as interesting as the technology itself. You may not know or care what DCS reflectors are, but the way they’re developing tells us a little about ourselves, I think.

DCS reflectors are basically a new generation of servers or chat rooms we use with digital amateur radio to link repeaters, nodes and individuals together. They were developed recently by some very clever enthusiasts in Germany and are growing in an organic way. A bit like dandelions.

Each DCS reflector has modules from A to Z, which are a blank canvas. The way in which these are being filled is like a group of sugar drink-fuelled children scrambling to choose their bunk-beds in a large dormitory at summer camp.

Let me explain: The first two DCS reflectors, DCS001 and DCS002 were hosted by the Germans. They had neatly and orderly divided up the entire globe into modules. It was a good start. For their own country they had a national module of course, with additional modules for north, south, east and west Germany respectively. But anyone who knows a little about Germany should not be surprised to see that Bavaria has broken away and formed its own module. The states of Hessen and Baden-Wuettenberg followed suit, of course. The states of the former East remain quiet for the moment, it seems.

There are now nine DCS reflectors at the time of writing, all now hosted by different countries who wanted their own national servers. The Dutch are fastidious in their egalitarianism. They’ve gone and divided their reflector into nation-wide, north, mid and south Netherlands as well as – wait for it - thirteen different regions including the colonies of the Dutch Antilles. The inhabitants of Flevoland must be ecstatic.

The Swiss, however, have no national module at all. No, they’ve divided their piece of DCS cake in language-slices: German, French and Italian. I’m also sure it will be the most reliable DCS reflector ever known to man.

The Italians seem a little less self-assured. They have a record number of four test channels, just in case.

The US reflector is well-ordered, with a couple of the noisier states, like Texas, having their own module. Even the Canadians are accommodated.

And as for my lot, the Brits? Well, we would have to be a little bit different, wouldn’t we? At the time of writing there is a national UK module, with a Northern Ireland, Wales & West, Midlands and South module. No Scotland so far. Maybe it’s the expense. And uniquely in the new DCS community, the city of London has decided that it is elevated enough among the great and good capitals of the world to merit its very own module.

I think we can rightly take most pride in the four inconspicuous modules simply labelled as ‘chat’. You can transfer to these modules for your one-to-one conversation without tying up the repeaters of an entire small country. I have heard less-than-scintillating conversations occupy worldwide reflectors for some considerable periods.

The pace of development is astonishing. An idea whispered in the ear of a developer is often embodied overnight. And we’re just one month into the story…..

UK DCS005 shown on he excellent (German) DV-RPTR
Control Centre software

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

FT-790R, 1W of Forlorn Hope?

“One Watt! One Watt! What on earth bl***y use is that to you?! I don’t know… (sigh)” exclaimed one local straight-talking OM on 2m FM yesterday.

His response to my acquisition of a rather dated Yaesu FT-790R ‘portable’ transceiver was less than encouraging. It’s just as well I’m an optimist then. With a maximum output of one Watt on one band (70cm) I think I’ll need to maintain an upward outlook.

But here’s the thing – I always find myself drawn to obtaining the more elusive QSO. You need a certain amount of eccentricity and tendency to self-harm to stand on a hilltop for hours calling out on 23cm FM QRP, for example. I was the first in the area to start calling CQ on DV mode on 2m. It took months before my first simplex QSO and then very little since.

The higher bands and modes have their rewards in spades, however. The rush of excitement when you finally make that new or distant contact. The perceived camaraderie knowing someone has gone to the same quirky lengths as you to operate on a lesser used band/mode or from an unusual location. You feel you have made a meaningful and personal connection, at least for the duration of the QSO. Oh, it’s such a far cry from exchanging reports of 5/9 with the fiftieth Italian station running 1kW on 20m you’ve spoken to in one morning. Better still, no QSL cards.

Any why the FT-790? Well, at just over £100 it’s one of the few portable internal battery-powered transceivers you come across before taking the small fiscal leap to an FT-817, for example. Either way, it will hold its value if my 2m friend’s prophecy becomes true.

Anyway, so far so good. It’s powered up and seems to be fully serviceable. I’ve even managed a short-distance QSO with John GW4ZPL over the Menai Strait in the Caernarfon direction, just a few miles away.

I’ll be out and about when the weather improves and will post my experiences here. Will it be too futile, or with a bit of luck will I make that elusive QSO I’m after? Will my single sidebanded plaintive cries of CQ reach a caring ear?

Maybe I’ll be happily shouting “One Watt! One Watt!” from a heathery Welsh hilltop.

FT-790, forlorn hope?

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Loving My Alinco DJ-G7

Alinco DJ-G7
There are many reviews on the internet already about this cracking little 23cm-capable transceiver. In fact, it's the only 23cm handheld currently manufactured, which begs the question when will the Chinese fill the obvious gap in demand?

I'd like to add a couple of comments to help G7 owners get the most out of their cherished handsets:

Firstly, you'll find that programming the frequency offsets for 23cm repeaters may involve two minutes rotating one of the knobs. So, before you do this, set the tuning steps to 1MHz and not 25kHz, for example. You'll be able to dial a 20MHz offset in no time.

Secondly, make full use of the large alphanumeric display. This is the only radio I have where there are enough characters to enter a repeater call sign AND its location as shown to the right.

Alphanumeric display
If you're thinking of trying 23cm FM with one of these, I'd urge you to go ahead! I've had so much fun working good distances with just 300mW from a local hilltop. The top power on 23cm is 1W with 5W on 2m and 70cm, of course. The audio quality is crisp and clear and QSO's are very rewarding. Is there activity? Well, not a prodigious amount, of course. Try monitoring the SOTAwatch website for hilltop activity or put out a call on 2m or 70cm asking for stations QRV on 23cm to respond. Note that some stations may have horizontal beams for SSB - simply turn your antenna on its side when needed. Do some research on homebrew bi-quad antennas as they're really easy to construct and will give you immediate gain without sacrificing portability. Again, there is plenty of excellent information on the net. I used this design here: Hybrid Quad Directional Antenna

Check your licence terms, though, as Foundation holders don't have access to this band. Otherwise I look forward to working you soon!

Read Ross G6GVI's excellent review here: G6GVI Alinco DJ-G7

Update - here's a list of stations worked in my first week QRV on 23cm:


D-STAR Makeover

I had a surprising and slightly emotional experience on DV mode last week. I was in QSO with a mobile station who temporarily lost the repeater for a couple of seconds. Not unusual, but get this - instead of vanishing permanently in to vast digital abyss, he came right back as the system re-synced and locked-up. This happened again and he was re-acquired and all was well. Remarkable.

No longer will your beautiful, eloquent, flowing QSO be 'bumped' abruptly and permanently off the air by a random mobile station the other side of the world 'pinging' his local repeater for a few milliseconds. You can now even QSY to a 'chat' module and not hog the repeaters of an entire nation while you discuss your passion for North Korean tractor parts for three hours.

The advent of DCS reflectors, hand-in-hand with the German DV-RPTR boards shipped all over the world, is going to save the mode from extinction, no less. Witness the used D-STAR radios in the graveyard of Ebay as testament to the disillusioned DPlus users.

If only they'd have waited.

The DV-RPTR unit in its housing

*UPDATE 24th April 2012: Looks like the Dplus system has been suddenly revamped to include the routing information with the voice packets in the same way as DCS. Shame it took seven years of dysfunctional communications and a rival system to prompt this. I'll be staying on the DCS system - but enjoy whichever system you use and enjoy the mode!

Foundation for Life?

Nobody would doubt that the RSGB initiative to bring a new crowd of entry-level operators into the hobby was a 'good thing'. The young, the old, dabblers and people of varying abilities are able to enter the hobby with nearly all the operating capabilities of an advanced licence holder. Ten Watts on nearly all the bands really is 'enough to work the world'.

But should that be the end of their radio adventure? I am wondering if there should be a nominal time limit that encourages the foundation licence holder to progress to the next level or the licence is rescinded. Does this sound harsh? Well, there are plenty of analogies - think of your teenager's moped licence.

Should you be able to remain aspirationally dormant at this level for life? Perhaps if you are visually impaired, for example, or face other similar restrictions, then this should be an absolute entitlement.

But has the proliferation of long term M3's and latterly M6's downgraded the quality of the hobby to some extent? For example, take two metres, with fewer of the 'older gentlemen of the air' as I like to call them, taking an active part in daily communications, has the lead example of how to behave been lost? I would say to an extent, yes. More senior operators still monitor two metres and will bemoan inwardly the way that newer operators seem to be making up their own rules of how to behave on the air without any mentoring or peer influence. Yes, I know there are examples of senior operators behaving appallingly, but I really would not want any young aspiring radio amateur to listen to some of the inane, irrelevant and wholly inappropriate conversations floating around the bands in my area - and we're in a comparative Narnia here in north Wales.

I admit to feeling my heart sink when I heard about a five year old girl passing the Foundation Exam recently. This is not an example of how clever the girl is, is it? Likewise the blood drained when I heard of the Belgians giving their novices fifty, yes fifty Watts to play with. Unless I've been reading this incorrectly, the RSGB have been reporting all this as 'good' news.

So where do we set the balance? Where is the incentive to learn, progress and perfect?

Suggestion: Foundation for five years, Intermediate for ten, Advanced for life. Too severe, or the only way to keep any credibility and dignity in the hobby?

Comments please.

Sandpiper 23cm 19 Element Yagi

My relatively new Sandpiper beam is now performing well after a shaky start. It's a misnomer to sell it as anything else other than an antenna kit, to be truthful. It really does arrive as a bag of bits and two rough photocopied pages of sketchy instructions.

It didn't help that the elements were supplied in the wrong sequence with a couple of 'wild card' elements from another antenna design altogether. Marc, the manufacturer, was extremely apologetic and helpful in sending me the antenna measurements straight away by email. However, it meant the additional purchase of a metal rule and measuring callipers from our local excellent ironmonger to get cracking.

After what seemed an afternoon of measuring and re-measuring, the beam started to take form. This involved discarding one element and chopping down another to size. In the initial construction the reflector ended up as the first director. What was supposed as a reflector must have come from a 70cm design. No wonder the thing worked better sideways.

But now, all is well. Coupled with my 1W Alinco DJ-G7 I worked Stoke on Trent (2E0DDD) simplex from a local Anglesey hilltop thanks to a slight tropospheric enhancement. It seems to offer the best combination of gain and beam width. This means your calls will be heard reasonably widely with enough gain (17.1dBi). You won't be losing out too much due to de-pointing either. Its size also means that it can be supported by a modest pole/guys or tripod without offering too much windage.

I think it's possibly the most optimal solution for hilltop and portable operating.

The completed 19 element 23cm Sandpiper yagi