Short Wave Listening Days – All Over Again?

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Chris Rolinson transcends the ‘real-radio-or-not’ debate, fondly recollects the National Hamfest

 

 

Chris Rolinson transcends the ‘real-radio-or-not’ debate, fondly recollects the National Hamfest, visits a presentation on network radios and reports on emergency communications in North Carolina.

 

 

For some time now, there has been a debate about whether or not NR is ‘real radio’ (however that is defined –

and too often it isn’t!). That notwithstanding, within the user community, it seems the debate has now moved on. Stations seem to be more relaxed about the ‘real radio’ issue because, frankly, they are enjoying using the system.

Therefore, it does not seem quite so important whether or not the RF in the system is a particular ‘kind’ of RF, or what the means of the signal arriving at its destination is. What appears to be counting for more is that the system works and that it is a great part of the hobby we are all involved in.

However, the debate for some outside the system seems to have changed: Network radio (NR) has been (at least partially) accepted by some radio hobbyists. They are seeing the possibilities of NR, as a kind of ‘stepping-stone’ towards an amateur licence, and even as some kind of ‘last resort’ for hobbyists who cannot erect antennas, for whatever reason.

Sadly, the hidden implication remains that amateur radio is somehow more ‘important’ than other kinds of radio. Some NR enthusiasts are now, it appears, being accused of ‘taking people away from amateur radio’ and ‘suggesting that network radio is going to replace amateur radio’.

However, in my experience, the reverse is happening. I see Facebook (FB) posts everywhere with people saying NR has actually rekindled their interest in what was a fading hobby for them.

Personally, I have never suggested that NR lives anywhere other than alongside other strands of the radio hobby. It is useless for contesting and propagation studies and is not a DX mode in the traditional sense, though you can work worldwide on it.

 

An Example

Currently, the amateur band arguably most under threat is 1.2GHz. In IARU Region 1, FAA radar expansion is proposed; and in Region 2, the Galileo GPS system is the issue.

So, what are radio amateurs doing about this? Are they organising a mass ‘occupation’ of users on 23cm? Are they crowd-funding transceivers and antennas to donate to all hams (with free antenna erection services, of course) so they can all go QRV on 23cm to make it the most-occupied band in history?

‘Use-it-or-lose-it’ is often the battle cry of these folk, yet all we seem to hear is this very slogan. Nothing actually gets done. Furthermore, operators do not appear to be on 23cm, any more than the rest of us.

In addition to this, even if 1.2GHz was awash with activity, would that save it? Especially if the military and government came knocking at the door? When military and government want something, they usually get it!

 

And a Lesson from History

The whole history of amateur radio is one of governments ‘giving’ hams frequencies (HF, VHF, UHF, Microwave), that they either don’t want or consider useless – until the experiments, which many radio users perform, show otherwise – and then the authorities want their frequencies back again!

I can still remember 934MHz being allocated for UK CB – as recently as 1981 – because it was thought to be so much ‘line-of-sight’ as to be unusable by anyone, except hobbyists.

Licensed hams are actually very fortunate to still have the slivers of the spectrum they have – and yes, they are worth fighting for, if you want to try to keep them.

 

One Place at a Time

But what many ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ proponents forget, is that transmitting hobbyists can usually only be in one (or maybe two) places at a time. If I am chatting on 23cm (‘defending it against ‘the enemy’), I cannot be talking on Top Band at the same time – well, not easily anyway!

Add in another band or two (even with automated digital modes (digimodes)), and it all gets rather ‘silly’.

My suggestion to all who are worried that NR will take people away from ‘real radio’, is to offer operators who use NR a better reason to want to leave it behind. NR users have access to world-wide high-quality audio conversation, in effect via an interconnected set of commercial cell repeaters.

I wonder if an amateur radio network can ever attempt to rival this.

 

Different, that’s All!

The bottom line is that network radio and amateur radio are just different; it seems pointless trying to compare them. An apple is an apple, an orange is an orange. They are both fruit and both edible, but they taste completely differently; and some people like one but not the other.

With network radio, the main difference is the manner in which the signal arrives at its destination – but arrive it nonetheless does!

 

Transmitting to the Network

In a recent on-the-air debate on the network radios event channel, Mitch from Alabama, a retired professional in both Telecoms and IT for large corporations, nailed it for me. I am reproducing his exact words, as spoken, here: “What we are seeing is the inevitable evolution of communications. Over the past 10 to 15 years, the telephone industry has pretty much converted everything to IP. Well, now it’s time for the radio industry to convert to IP, and it is happening right in front of you.

“We can call it whatever you like, but we’re now transmitting to the network, as opposed to transmitting into space. I do think we’re going to need to transmit into space still, but for most things, people are going to be using the network…”

 

Newark 2018 National Hamfest

It seems a while now, but the 2018 National Hamfest in Newark at the end of September was the first event with a large network radios presence. Overall, there were three main areas of interest, equipment, meetings and magazines! Most of the larger dealers were selling NR equipment, and there was a dedicated NR stall, courtesy of G6 Global and Andrew Clark (Fig. 1).

Andrew seemed somewhat ahead of the game, as he was selling not only the ‘usual suspects’, including the recently released Boxchip radios but also some commercial offerings running Android, such as the new Hytera PNC370 (Fig. 2).

Have a look at the website at this URL:

www.network-radios.co.uk

The PNC370 is beautifully crafted and made for the professional market; as such, it doesn’t have access to the Google Play Store and does not offer a touchscreen. For most users, therefore, it’s not a good radio to start with. However, the audio quality is superb, and, once you have side-loaded Zello and set it up, it works great. If you know what you are doing, or are interested in experimentation, it could be just the radio for you.

There were two gatherings of NR users at the Hamfest, at 11 am on both days. At those times, you could see the ‘real radio’ users moving out of the way, as a wave of NR users gathered near the RadioUser stall!

The editor came to greet us, as many who recognised each other’s voices met each other for the first time. Fig. 3. The oddest thing about this was that it wasn’t difficult to tell who was who, once people opened their mouths! It was simply identical to the audio quality on the NR system! I was caught out, more than once, by recognising a voice and then turning around, to meet them for the first time ‘in the flesh’.

PW and RadioUser were well represented, by both editors, Don and Georg, and by Rob Mc Donnell and Katherine Brown from Warners. However, I should probably not mention the fact that the October edition of RadioUser completely sold out on the first day!

NR enthusiasts were still talking about the Hamfest for days after the event. Clearly, it had made quite an impression on those that attended. It was particularly nice to see so many ladies too.

[it was a pleasure to meet NR users and learn more about the technology and ongoing debates. The November issue of RadioUser had a brief photo-essay covering the event – Ed.]

 

Contacts at 30,000 Feet

I will confess to a moment of swooning at the Hamfest meet-up, as I finally got face-to-face with the now infamous ‘talking Inrico T-320’, featured in October’s column of RadioUser.

Fresh from its holiday in Scotland, it was ‘telling’ me that it had taken its owner, Roy G1IKF, to Cyprus recently. Thankfully, it provided me with a rather ‘cool’ photo of itself, being used to keeping in touch with others at 30,000ft, using the aircraft’s Wi-Fi (Fig. 4).

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It still is in the lead for the Most-Travelled T-320 Award, it seems to me.

 

More T-320 News

I am indebted to Mike Higlett G6WTM for perusing the FCC teardown of the T-320 and coming up with some useful information for us about aerial arrangements (Fig. 5).

Mike said, “You can see that the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth antennas are common because they are both low power 2.4GHz services. The GNSS antenna (GPS) is internal but importantly, is facing skywards. The main antenna is marked as ‘2G/3G/4G’, but, down by the side of the battery, is a DRX antenna, which, I knew, was part of the 4G (LTE) system, but I didn't know exactly how.

“I’ve been doing some research, and I believe that DRX is a secondary, low-power, 4G receive antenna that has two uses: First, when doing high bandwidth data downloads, it works in parallel with the main receiver to help achieve that; and second, when in standby, the main 4G transceiver shuts down, and the lower current- drain DRX stays listening to the cell to see if it's still there, thus saving power.

“Occasionally, the transceiver comes on, in order to confirm to the cell that you are still present. This explains why, when the rig is in standby, you can take the aerial off, and the 4G signal appears not to change – the DRX receiver is doing the work in standby.”

I tried this out for myself – Mike is, of course, correct. If you force the radio into 2G- or 3G-only and remove the antenna, the signal drops. But on 4G it is variable – sometimes it does, at other times it doesn’t!

 

Something for Christmas?

I know a lot of you will be hoping Santa brings you the network radio you have been coveting this Christmas, and that partners everywhere will have been getting ‘hints’!

It would be completely wrong of me to wade into this to try to persuade your friends and family, of course. But I thought it might help if I put together a little guide to why a network radio is so much more than ‘just a phone’ – and why you simply have to have one this Christmas!

Table 1 lists my Twelve Network Radio Days of Christmas – 12 solid reasons why you might conceivably want one. Do let me know what you get for Christmas please and why you went for it!

 

A Visit to Cheltenham

One very wet Thursday evening in September, I thought I would take a trip to the Cheltenham Amateur Radio Association. My friend (and fellow RU columnist) Tim Kirby G4VXE was giving a talk on network radio to the members there, and I wanted to support him. As in any radio club, the debate about NR continues - we were expecting a lively time, to say the least.

Tim did his usual, excellent, job of being very fair and explaining the pros and cons (Fig. 6) but wrote to me later: “On Friday, I was pleased to find that several people had signed up to the new Cheltenham Amateur radio Zello channel. I put out a call and had several conversations with members using Zello on their phones. They’ve had a fun-filled field day this weekend and have enjoyed using NR for keeping in touch across several tents and caravans, as well as with folks at home.

“The Chairman later told me that they’d also used it as a ‘Comms and Engineering’ channel for arranging skeds. They’re delighted with it! Another club member is thinking about buying a T-320 to speak to friends in VK who have foundation licences and aren’t permitted to use DMR. I’m actually surprised the response has been so positive!”

Me too, Tim - is there, perchance, a change in the air?

 

Hurricane Florence

A criticism frequently levelled at network radios is their inability to function during an emergency. You might change your mind when you read that US cell phone operator Verizon reported that, following Hurricane Florence, which battered the East Coast in September, it used a combination of trucks, planes, boats and drones to ensure that the coverage remained at 99% during the aftermath – and they succeeded!

Some cell stations, like the one in Wilmington, North Carolina (Fig. 7), are built on stilts, so that flood water cannot affect them; COWs (Mobile ‘Cells on Wheels’) were employed to keep coverage levels high and ‘Flying COWs’ (mobile drones) are available too for short coverage windows in difficult terrain. In addition to this, some indoor cell sites (called ‘eFemtos’) were deployed to Emergency Command Centres.

All in all, the US cell operator seemed to be well prepared to keep coverage levels high in emergencies.

Naturally, Zello was the number one downloaded app. Many NR enthusiasts worldwide were glued to the channels that sprang up over the Carolinas, listening in to the emergency traffic in real time as the Hurricane passed overhead. It was like short wave listening days all over again!

 

More NR coverage on the way?

Ofcom has recently published an interesting advisory document on the subject of improving cell coverage across the UK:

https://tinyurl.com/ydx8l7km

Some of the facts I discovered, when reading this document are summarised in Table 2.

 

Happy Festive Season

Have a wonderful Christmas and New Year. I look forward to catching up with you in January.

Keep your news coming, by writing to the e-mail address at the top of the column.

 

Table 1: Twelve Reasons to Want a Network Radio

 

1. It has an external antenna - you get far better coverage.

2. It stands up on a flat surface - have you tried putting a smartphone on its edge? It falls over.

3. It has a PTT button - it’s more like using the system as ‘real radio’.

4. The loudspeaker is much louder than on most phones.

5. It has a longer battery life - there has to be an up-side to that tiny screen.

6. The battery is usually removable and replaceable - much better for the environment.

7. There are more physical programmable buttons than a phone, so it’s more customisable.

8. It fits better in the hand than a phone – it feels like a hand-held transmitter.

10. It’s more difficult (and less expensive!) to drop and break – therefore, a better investment!

11. You will have a dedicated device for your PTT apps, rather than having to share them with a phone.

12. You end up with a spare phone too.

 

Table 2: From the Ofcom Advisory Document: Further Options for Improving Mobile Coverage

 

  1. As much as 7% of the UK landmass is currently not covered by any operator.
  2. And 30% cannot get voice & data from all four main operators.
  3. Improving mobile coverage is one of Ofcom’s top priorities.
  4. In 2019, there will be an auction for spectrum in the 700MHz band, which could provide excellent coverage.
  5. Stipulations may be placed on this auction. to ensure more coverage of areas currently not served.
  6. Roaming & infrastructure-sharing between operators are also being considered.
  7. The law could change to allow mobile operators more compulsory purchase rights and other ‘perks’, in order to help reduce the cost of building and operating masts.

 

This article was featured in the December 2018 issue of Radio User