Wednesday, 16 May 2012

FT-790R, 1W of Forlorn Hope? Part II

I’m treasuring my multimode, single band transceiver of yesteryear. They really ‘don’t make them like that any more’. When the FT-790R was manufactured, the UK still happily built cars that broke down and industrial action was a continuing popular pastime. Thank goodness the Japanese manufacturing success story was at its zenith.

In my previous blog, FT-790R, 1W of Forlorn Hope? I outlined my trepidation, my dreams and anticipated joy of achieving hilltop 70cm SSB contacts over phenomenal distances. This was in the face of an antagonist old-timer who thought a little too much RF had leaked into CPU of my head. So what was the reality?

Since taking delivery of the ‘790, I’ve managed to test most of the functions. With a radio of that age I shouldn’t have been surprised that the front panel illumination bulbs have long since ruptured their once-bright filaments, probably in the early 1990’s. A simple removal and refit of the battery tray, which holds eight ‘C’ cells was required to reconnect the internal power.

Powered by 8 'C' cells
Straight away, I connected a spare telescopic antenna for 2m to the front panel BNC and gave a call on FM. I enjoyed two great local contacts with stunning audio quality. Excellent audio reports came back too. Two quick tests with local station John GW4ZPL confirmed that SSB was working fine, albeit a little off frequency with his TS-2000 shack-in-a-box. Then we tried CW (my first CW attempt, ever). Apparently John hadn’t heard ‘chirp’ like mine since working Russian stations in the 1980’s! Luckily the operation manual comes with a full schematic diagram. I’ll have a look and see if a key click filter is misbehaving, for example.

Realistically speaking, I do know that a random 1W call on 70cm SSB is unlikely to attract an answer under normal conditions. My plan was to get to a modest local hilltop with a small beam antenna. If there was any tropospheric enhancement or lift, all the better. Unfortunately, the Welsh weather of late prevented this. Following the advice of Tim, G4VXE, a competition evening would give me a fighting chance.

Casually having a chat on D-STAR the other evening, someone mentioned that a 70cm activity evening was due to start in around half an hour at 20.00. No time to get up a hill and where the heck was my BNC to SO239 adaptor when I needed it to hook up my homebrew 9 element beam? So, if you can picture me leaning out of the upstairs window with a small, non-resonant, telescopic antenna pointing out at a jaunty angle, then this was my big chance. My only chance, so far.

I scanned the SSB portion of the band. Nothing. I twiddled the telescopic antenna and re-scanned. Nothing. But then, a quick call in a clipped English tone and a GD (Isle of Man) callsign. After a couple of failed attempts, antenna adjustment, more leaning out of window, the received signal came up to 5,9. The other station adjusted to my offset frequency and SUCCESS! - Gave me a 5,4. He said he was using 400W and a 23 element beam that wasn’t even pointing my way. The distance was around 73 miles or 117km, admittedly mostly over a great sea-path.

He’d been calling out rather robotically but had a chuckle and warmly wished me 73 when he heard about my operating set up. I forgot his callsign in the excitement and my bemused YL heard a whoop of joy from downstairs.

Anglesey to the Isle of Man
For every person that has told me that an FT-817ND would be the ideal rig for me (and it would), there has been another that has regretted getting rid of their FT-2/6/790R. My FT-790R is a solid, brick-like joy to own. When I get up to a hilltop to try it out again, I’ll be supremely hopeful!

Monday, 14 May 2012

Mic Clickers: Easy 3-Point Guide.

And I’m not talking about the clicking of computer mice here. I’m talking about the highly vexatious and irritating habit of jamming people, mainly on 2m FM by others. Sometimes this escalates to music-playing and verbal abuse. They are here and here to stay. Thankfully there aren’t many of them, but we’ve nearly all heard one from time to time. What to do?

Don’t worry! I’ve compiled a quick, easy and memorable 3-point guide on what to do if you encounter any wireless abuse. Feel free to print this out and place it above your rig:

1. DO NOT acknowledge any interference
2. DO NOT acknowledge any interference
3. DO NOT acknowledge any interference

Clear enough? Self-evident? One would blooming think so. However, I’ve regularly heard some less-than-fully-brain-QRV amateurs :

1. Acknowledge the interference, repeatedly
2. Provide the abuser with a useful and accurate signal report
3. Articulate ‘entertaining’ anger and frustration to encourage further abuse

Once you can grasp the simple, blinding reality that these abusers only do this to elicit a response – provide them with that response and they will continue, satisfied and emboldened. Deny them that response and they will, eventually, cease and desist. I promise you.

In my beloved country of Wales, we have a legend that the entire army of Owain Glyndŵr, rebel leader and last (Welsh) Prince of Wales (1400 – 1415 AD) lies sleeping in a hidden cave in the mountains, waiting for the call to defend the country once more. I have heard amateurs say on-air ‘that a group of detecting stations’ was out-and-about and would quickly track down the offender with their accurate yagis and Jedi-like triangulation skills. Oh. Would this mythical radio foxhunting elite be the band of 2m septuagenarians who only exit their shacks to eat, make tea and perform vital bodily functions, would it?

Owain Glyndŵr,
detection genius.
It’s equally remarkable and disturbing how some people even enter into one-sided psychological games with their abusers, labouring under the misconception that they are cleverer than the offenders who must be naturally stupid. They are not. Threats of ‘I know who you are’ (when you don’t), reports to government agencies (who don’t care or are too busy), Owain Glyndŵr’s sleeping detection-army – I’ve heard it all. Don’t rely on the fact that you’ve passed a foundation exam that a five year-old girl passed last month will guarantee you intellectual superiority in this case. The same goes for intermediate and advanced licence holders for that matter.

Break any of my 3-point guide rules and you’ve lost before you’ve begun.

In my next blog: How to deal with pesky competition stations…….

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Icom IC-E92D – Why This Is My ‘Staple’ Handheld

Every ham has a handheld in their collection of transceivers. I have one normal rig in my collection of handhelds. Nearly all the equipment I have can be held in my hand, chucked in the car, operated ‘portable’ or temporarily connected at home. It’s the capability that would suit a cold war double agent who has to move between a series of safe-houses at short notice. Everything I have, I can pick up and run with. Just as well I don’t have an HF vertical that looks like a porcupine then.

I’ve had my beloved Icom IC-E92D for a couple of years now and I spend more time talking though this than any other piece of equipment. Two years ago there was no DV (Digital Voice) or D-STAR activity in my area, but I wanted a dual band handheld that would be, to some extent, future-proof.

And before the rival Yaesu C4FM digital system is mooted, let me say that D-STAR is so firmly established, that a lot of infrastructure would be needed to better the existing system. Great advances have been made lately with the advent of the German DV-RPTR (‘DV Repeater’) boards as well as the new DCS reflectors. Having said that, I’m always keen to try any new digital modes. 

I’m not going to dwell heavily on specification and features because this is not a newly launched product – there are plenty of excellent resources and reviews already available. But here are some things that have pleased me about both the radio and the technology behind it.

Icom IC-E92D
Let’s put the digital stuff to one side for the time being. I think the E92D is just an excellent FM transceiver in its own right. Its construction is solid and feels good in the hand. Used outdoors, it’s comforting to know that it’s waterproof. I live in Wales, after all. The send/receive audio quality is very good in all modes and the microphone doesn’t suffer from the aforementioned weather-proofing that blights some other units. It seems XYL’s sewing kits have been raided worldwide for needles to pierce microphone membranes.

I love using low power when I can. In DV mode you either get a R5 copy or rapidly nothing. Why not see how low you can go? The E92D will go down to 100mW and oddly enough I use this more than any other power setting. It’s also all you need for your home D-STAR hotspot, isn’t it? A group of three of us had a 2m net with a distance of 20 miles between the furthest stations. We all used DV mode and 100mW (external antennas, of course) for a full lock and quality audio output. Compare this with the FM mindset of achieving ‘full quietening’ in many local nets. Admit it - a small swell of pride is taken in how many dB’s ‘over’ are registered. With DV it is how few. Back to the E92D: If things get marginal and stressed then the next increments are 500mW, 1W and 2.5W. Unleash the whole 5W if it’s a national holiday or you’re feeling reckless. In common with many handheld owners, I also have an aftermarket antenna to add a little more gain when needed.

Built for the outdoor life - with HM-175
GPS Speaker-Mic 
I have, and recommend, the RS232C remote cable and bundled programming software. There are enough people now who have kindly uploaded their files (called .icf files) to the internet with repeater and node settings for entire countries. You can enter or edit data manually from the front panel, but as with most radios a computer will save you time you can otherwise spend chatting idly. Seeing how the channels and banks are organised on-screen helps you properly exploit the memory capacity. Apart from the usual, I have also stored AMSAT, marine band, PMR and SWL channels. I travel a lot so it’s good to have repeaters stored by region too.

Dislikes? Only a couple and they’re not going to jaundice my high regard for this pleasure-giving, grown-up gadget. Most E92D owners acknowledge that although the battery life is good, there is little warning given before the battery dies. A bit like a pet hamster. Again, with four power settings you should optimise your battery life. Secondly, I don’t think many consumers would eagerly vote for an SMA antenna connector over a BNC, but we have to live with that. The main problem can be a snapped pin from an over-stressed SMA to SO239 adaptor, for example. This happens easily, frequently and on one occasion to me. I sent my unit back to Icom UK for repair, as the stuck pin could not be extracted. I must add that their support and service was fantastic. The repair was carried out quickly and was not costly. Chastened, I made a pigtail adaptor for use in the car, shown below.

SMA - SO239 adaptor
As far as accessories go, I have the HM-175 GPS speaker microphone. The embedded data channel in DV is something we’re only just starting to fully explore. GPS position and distance reporting between simplex users or posts on via a repeater are fun. I also have a two-pin mic/headset adaptor for mobile work.

Just download an electronic manual and have a look at the level of specification and configurability! You'll find a new feature every day for the first few months. There are now the lower-cost IC-E80D and 70cm-only IC-ID31E to supplement the range, of course.

So, after two years I think the big test for any bit of equipment would be “If it was damaged/stolen/confiscated by vexed YL/XYL, what would I replace it with?” For me, an exact replacement, no less. It’s a much of a staple as the King Edward potato. 

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Man Who Fishes For DX

I live on Anglesey, a mystical Celtic island steeped in the legends of the Druids and lapped by the misty waters of the Irish Sea. There was whispered talk amongst the old people of an elusive man who fished for DX and caught specimens from Borneo, Antarctica and other strange lands.

Actually, it’s only Dave.

Dave, GW4JKR, has an antenna system that you can’t buy from any supplier. He uses a carbon-fibre fishing pole on a metal spike and several acres of saltmarsh. The system is blindingly simple, takes minutes to erect and is devastatingly effective.

“I set up on the 20m band and all was quiet. I put out my first call (SSB) and you know what? I worked Borneo 5/9. Because he was an English ex-pat, I thought he was local until he gave his callsign for the second time! Other local stations here couldn’t even hear him.”

In a similar vein, Dave related how he’s had a 5/9 chat with a chap with a German accent. Only turned out he was on holiday in Guadalcanal. “You’re the only station in Europe I can hear,” he said from his sunny patio.

One of Dave's many QSL cards
The DX takes the bait each time. Reports come in from the Pacific islands, China, Japan, Korea, Antarctica and New Zealand. I think Dave’s witnessed more pile-ups than the M6 motorway.

The antenna system comprises two ultra-efficient parts, making it a genuine ‘killer’ setup. For the antenna, Dave uses a carbon-fibre fishing pole, also known as a ‘roach pole’. He specifies the better quality versions that use high modulus carbon for optimum conductivity. The pole is approximately 12m in length, coming in seven sections. It is featherweight at under a kilogram. The base of the pole mates to a large ‘agricultural’ steel earth spike, which is actually a brutal pummelling device for digging holes in rocky ground. A plastic sleeve insulates the two components. Coax is easily attached by jubilee and croc clips. The second part of the antenna system is the saltmarsh on the edge of an expansive tidal sandy bay. The saltwater saturation, even at low tide, is high. Ask the shellfish.

Red Wharf Bay, Anglesey
Like a latter day St. George, Dave holds the spike aloft and plunges it deep into the salty mud where it stands at the ready. If there’s a small pool of salty water nearby, all the better – in it goes. Wet, sandy beaches work, but not nearly as well as dark, oozing mud it seems. Lovely.

Clearly the vertical radiator, wide open aspect, perfect electrical ground and ultra-low angle of radiation give the best start a radio signal could ever want in in its sinusoidal life. It’s as electrically quiet as a library down on the beach which makes for reception most of us can only dream of.
Base section of carbon fibre
vertical in situ

Follow Dave’s simple formula and you too can become a fisher of men and the stuff of legend.

SAFETY: Dave would like to warn all readers to exercise care when handling a carbon fibre pole in the open. Do NOT venture anywhere near power lines. You may render yourself permanently QRT.

More photos available on Dave’s Flickr site.