As you read this article, the FCC is getting ready to vote on a proposal to open up the entire 6 GHz to 7 GHz spectrum for unlicensed Wi-Fi 6 use. You will recall an article I posted last Fall referencing this new, ultra-wideband Wi-Fi protocol and how it promised much faster speeds and throughput. To make good on those promises, Wi-Fi 6 uses 180 MHz channels which simply won’t work in the current 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz spectrum. To accommodate this new protocol, the FCC is once again going to rob Peter to pay Paul (as the saying goes).
So, what’s the big deal here you ask. I have a need, the need for speed! Clear the decks! Get out of the way!
First, the government cannot give you something it hasn’t already taken away from somebody else. In this case, the somebody else group includes microwave Common Carriers who carry an amalgam of traffic that includes data links, video services, and voice services. Another member of the somebody else group is Public Safety, your local Police, Fire and EMS agencies. Huh? I thought they used VHF, UHF, 700 MHz and 800 MHz. They do. But many Public Safety Radio Systems, particularly those operating in the 700 MHz and 800 MHz bands, rely on 6 GHz point-to-point microwave links to connect all the towers they need/use in their jurisdiction. These 6 GHz links are used because they can carry a lot of traffic at one time and can operate reliably over extended distances and in a variety of atmospheric conditions. Other microwave frequencies in the 18 GHz and 24 GHz bands are also part of the fabric. But they have a much shorter range and are subject to interruption from events like rain fade (also known as “Gator Gushers” here in Florida). The presence of active, unlicensed transmitters in the 6 GHz band will raise the noise floor and has the potential to cause interference to these “mission-critical” users.
Let’s switch gears for a second. If your cell phone is less than two years old, you may have seen a feature on it called “Wi-Fi Calling”. Some of you, many of you, may already be using it. What has prompted this feature is the need to supplement the cellular infrastructure (on 700 MHz, 800 MHz, 1900 MHz, 2500 MHz) you are paying for. Depending on where you are and what kind of structure you are in, your cell service may be marginal or buried in the noise floor. Many commercial and government buildings have been forced to spend some “very big bucks” to install Bi-Direction Amplifier Systems (BDAs) to boost both cellular and Public Safety radio signals inside their facilities. BDAs are expensive and out of the question for most individuals. The workaround is Wi-Fi Calling. Your call uses your Wireless Router and your Internet service (which you are probably paying for separately) instead of your cell carrier’s infrastructure. Clever! And now you know why cable companies like Comcast, Spectrum, and others are now in both the cellular and Internet businesses.
In a way, Wi-Fi Calling is a lot like the Amateur Radio Hotspot. If your area has limited or no Amateur Radio NXDN, DMR, Fusion or D-Star infrastructure, your Hotspot enables you to use Wi-Fi and the Internet to make the call. It is a workaround. But is this really Amateur Radio?
The train, in all probability, has already left the station on 6 GHz Wi-Fi. And when 6 GHz Wi-Fi causes interference with established, licensed, mission-critical links, we will all pay dearly for this mistake. As for the continued proliferation and use of Amateur Radio Hotspots, hold your crocodile tears when the next patch of spectrum the FCC wants to re-assign is from the Amateur Radio frequency pool.
-April 11, 2020
It has been nineteen years since what you know as the NI4CE Repeater System went on the air. On February 24, 2001, the 145.430 repeater took to the air using the callsign K4WCF. A couple of days later, it was joined by a UHF repeater on 442.950 on the WHPT-FM tower in Verna. We called them the “Big Stick Repeaters”, a moniker that has stuck through good times and challenging times.
A few things have changed along the way. On August 11, 2004, a new callsign was granted, NI4CE. Two days later, Hurricane Charley came ashore in Charlotte County. The Verna repeaters, along with two repeaters in Downtown St. Petersburg helped disaster responders pick up the pieces in Charlotte, DeSoto and Hardee Counties in Charley’s wake. And then, along came Hurricanes Frances, Ivan and Jeanne.
The NI4CE system has grown a bit since then and now serves as the glue that brings many West Central Florida Hams from eleven counties together on the air daily. And thanks to the many operators who provide the financial support to keep NI4CE on the air, it continues to fulfill its mission of providing vital communications support during severe weather and other emergencies.
Why is this important? And why is bringing new operators into Amateur Radio important? It’s 2020 and cell phones and cell towers are everywhere. Who could ask for anything more? Just pay your monthly subscriber’s fee and you can talk, text and surf the world wide web “’til the cows come home”!
Here’s why. While cellular has dramatically changed the communications landscape, it is not invincible. Cellular, including 5G cellular, is only as strong and reliable as the network that connects all the towers that dot the landscape. Break the network and cellular collapses. Cellular also collapses without backup power at each and every tower site. And it’s not just power to run the communications equipment. It’s also the power needed to run the air conditioning to keep the cellular radios from overheating. And then there is “network overload” that occurs when the millions of subscribers all want to talk, text and surf at the same time.
Ham Radio, on the other hand, marches to the beat of many different drummers all at the same time. NI4CE, with our tall towers and generator-based backup power can reach many over a wide area. But NI4CE is not alone. It’s joined by other local repeaters on VHF and UHF that are used by Hams to serve communications needs in smaller geographic areas. And unlike cellular, Hams can use their radios to communicate in simplex mode, one to one, to address the needs of their neighbors and on HF frequencies to reach other Hams who are outside the immediate area impacted by the communications outage. Ham Radio works in 2020 because Amateur Radio is not just technology. It is a knowledgeable, creative human resource with a “git ‘er done” attitude! Yes, it is a great day to be a Ham! To get started, pick up a copy of the ARRL’s “Tech Q&A Study Guide”. It has all the questions (and correct answers) to help you pass your Technician Class Amateur Radio license exam. Once you have your FCC license and your VHF/UHF radio (we recommend Alinco, ICOM, Kenwood or Yaseu), come join us on NI4CE.
-February 14, 2020
We all want to have the best technology at our fingertips, be it in the form of a computer or tablet, a cell phone, an efficient, well-outfitted vehicle, 4K or the new 8K LED television set, even the radios we use on the Ham bands. I could go on and on and on. But then there is the reality check that seems to creep in and cause us all to take a second look: How much does it cost.
Early in 2018, tech giant Apple discovered the battery technology that powers its many products was causing many of its customers to complain about the poor performance of their iPhones. Some customers and groups even suggested Apple was throttling the performance of their devices as part of a much larger scheme to sell new phones.
Yes, the iOS Operating System that runs the iPhone has code that monitors available battery power so as to keep the high powered processors in the iPhone from going into a figurative meltdown. Yes, performance takes a hit. But better to have something working most of the day even if it is at less than one hundred percent of when the phone (and battery) were brand new. After significant research, Apple’s engineers concluded the problem was not their software but the batteries powering their phones. Even as good as Lithium-ion batteries are, they can only sustain maximum performance for a finite number of charge cycles.
Apple offered customers of two and three-year-old phone the opportunity to purchase a new battery at a substantial discount. Some customers took advantage of the offer and discovered new life in their older phones. But most just limped along waiting for the new iPhone to come to market.
When the latest iPhone made its debut, Apple, of course, heralded it as the “Next Big Thing”. But then reality showed up in the form of a change in how the cell carriers promoted and subsidized the latest cell phone offerings from Apple and most other carriers. Instead of these new phones costing the consumer a couple hundred out of pocket dollars, users were now looking at out of pockets costs that eclipsed a thousand dollars for some models. “Whoa! Hold the phone”, said many of those potential buyers. And at the same time, many of them remembered (or were reminded of) Apple’s Replacement Battery offer good through the end of 2018. Twenty-five dollars versus One Thousand dollars. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what caused Apple’s projected new phone sales to come up short.
Your portable Ham Radio may be underperforming because the battery powering it is coming up short. While Lithium-ion batteries don’t develop show-stopping memory issues like earlier Ni-Cad did, they do have a finite number of charging cycles before their ability to hold a full charge wanes. Keeping your radio’s battery in the charger when you are not using it can also shorten its useful life. Sometimes, all it takes is a brand new battery to bring your radio back from the dead.
– Jan. 21, 2019
If you live in Florida, anywhere in Florida, the last week has been extraordinary. For many, life is getting back to “normal”, if you define “normal” as electricity from a power utility, air conditioning, a hot shower and most if not all the other conveniences of life prior to Hurricane Irma. For many others, however, “normal” is still an elusive target. And Hurricane Season still has a long way to go.
The last time Florida experienced a storm that ran up the center of the state and affected so many people was Hurricane Donna, exactly sixty-seven years ago. I wasn’t living in Florida at the time. But those who experienced Donna first-hand did not have the satellite imagery, the Tropical Cyclone forecasting, and the other technology now in place to prepare them for what was about to change their lives. A couple Donna survivors I have talked with have told me the impact of Irma was much worse. I wonder if the all the pre-storm anxiety, the long lines at gas stations, food stores, Home Depot, Lowes and other stores wasn’t part of their assessment.
Floridians in 1960 did not have the vast communications resources and networks we have today, either There were no cell phones, Facebook, Twitter and the like to share the experience with others. Heck, Ham Radio and SKYWARN had barely met in 1960 to provide real-time information on the storm, where it was going and who would be impacted the most. Of course, there were a lot fewer people in Florida in 1960 than today. It was a simpler time and place.
We are not going to know the full extent of just how bad Irma was for a few months. For those of us who lost our utilities and were inconvenienced for a few days, the impact will be far more fleeting than those whose homes are flooded or otherwise severely damaged. I can only hope that whatever Irma’s impact was on your neighborhood, you took the opportunity to get to know your neighbors a little better and help them out if you could. And I hope everyone will take this experience and acknowledge what worked, what needs improvement and be better prepared for the next storm that will barge into our lives.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge some extraordinary efforts that helped keep people informed before, during and after the storm. A tip of the hat to Evans Mitchell-KD4EFM and Jason Triolo-KD4ACG for their efforts both collecting and disseminating information about Irma on NI4CE. They kept the SKYWARN Net running under very tough circumstances. Another tip of the hat to our partners at Cox Media Group, iHeart Radio, American Tower Corp. and Polk Co Emergency Management for keeping the generators running, allowing the NI4CE system to remain on the air and available for the Ham Radio community. Downed trees and power lines at the Holiday site made re-fueling the generators there a real exercise in “adapt, improvise and overcome”. And a big thumbs up for the Hams who manned shelters and are aiding in the recovery effort.
Hurricanes like Harvey, Irma and Jose and all those that preceded them serve a necessary purpose, that is, to evacuate an extraordinary amount of heat and energy from the surface of our planet. Hurricanes have been doing this long time, long before all the chatter about climate change. It is part of Mother Nature’s grand schema to keep out eco-system in balance. It is unfortunate so many lives must be disrupted in the process.
Every year, about this time, the West Central Florida Group, Inc. conducts its Annual Meeting and provides a report to the organization on the state of the NI4CE Repeater System and what we envision for the coming year. Because of the CoVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Annual Meeting and the report will be virtual to minimize the exposure and threat from the virus.
I am pleased to report that even with much of this past year being enveloped by the CoVID threat, we were still able to move our piece of the Amateur Radio pie forward. Among the accomplishments:
• The re-location of the Pasco NXDN Repeater to the Holiday tower site where it now operates alongside the NI4CE analog repeater (443.450). We are also pleased to report the coverage footprint of this NXDN digital repeater closely mirrors the footprint of the analog repeater, providing portable coverage over Northern Pinellas, Northern Hillsborough, Pasco, and much of Hernando Counties with mobile/base station coverage North into Citrus County and South and East over the entire TampaBay Metro area.
• Along with the addition of the Pasco NXDN repeater, some recent development work by the authors of the NXCore software used to network the several NXDN repeaters together, now enable the use of Short Digital Messaging between NXDN stations. This text messaging capability gives Hams yet another way to communicate.
• We were also able to put another APRS automated Weather Station and Digipeater on the map from the Holiday site as well.
• The “refresh” and updating of the NI4CE Riverview site has been partially completed with the installation of new weather instruments and RF technology for the NI4CE-11 Weather Station and Digipeater. New analog and NXDN repeaters and antennas have been procured and staged on the ground at Riverview, awaiting the final leg of their journey to the 805-foot platform.
• Our SKYWARN operations (thankfully) were not as numerous as they could have been. In a year that saw a record thirty (30) storms, Florida, somehow, lucked out with only one storm (ETA) making landfall in the Sunshine State. But when it did, NI4CE was in full SKYWARN activation mode. Thanks to all the NWS-trained spotters for their 2020 efforts.
All things considered, including the restrictions encountered because of CoVID, that’s pretty good.
As you might expect, there were some items on the “To-Do List” that remain. One such item is the installation of another NI4CE APRS Weather Station, this one at the Lake Placid (Highlands Co.) Repeater Site. The gear is all here. It is a matter of completing the installation.
Another item on the list is several New Amateur Radio Operator Training classes we were working on with another organization. Those classes, unfortunately, have yet to take place, in large part because of the pandemic. But 2021 and two new CoVID-19 vaccines are coming to hopefully enable us to bring some new energy and enthusiasm into the West Central Florida Amateur Radio community.
As the pandemic begins to abate and as the economy gets back to full strength in the coming months, I am hopeful these events will bring new life, new enthusiasm, and new discovery into Amateur Radio in West Central Florida. Property deed restrictions will continue to be a limiting factor for HF operations. But for those Hams who want to talk with their counterparts in other states and other countries, NXDN digital Ham Radio offers new opportunities to operators in condos and new housing developments where HF is just not an option.
Let’s not forget, Amateur Radio is the ORIGINAL social media. If you are wanting to avoid all the trappings of Facebook, Twitter, and all the other BIG TECH platforms, Ham Radio makes a great connection.
Finally, a heartfelt THANK YOU for your continued support during the past year. NI4CE exists because of your support, encouragement, and continued use. It will be twenty years (on February 24th) since the Verna repeaters went on the air. And there is a lot more to come!
-December 3, 2020
The ball in New York’s Times Square dropped. The clock struck twelve. And magically, we said goodbye to the nightmare that was 2020 and hello, with promise, to 2021. Sounds simple enough, if only it were. I am afraid the Ghost of 2020 is going to be here a while longer and, with it, the challenges we have faced every day since March. But there is a reason for optimism as we start this new year and a new beginning, post-pandemic. And is wishing you and your family a bright, hopeful 2021!
The other day, I was asked to weigh in on Hams using the technology known as a Hotspot. For those of you who are not familiar with the technology or the term, a Hotspot is a small micro-microcomputer that Hams are using to operate in the digital realm. Hotspots receive and translate an incoming RF signal into the desired digital mode and send it on its way. The device has an ongoing VHF or UHF radio that both receives and transmits and a Wi-Fi transceiver to connect to the Internet. The multi-mode devices (as defined by the software it’s running) can operate cross mode allowing the operator to go in using an NXDN, DMR, Fusion, or P25 radio to communicate with another Ham in the same or a different mode.
Hotspots are seen by many users as an “invention of necessity”. In some cases, the Hotspot serves as a portal for a Ham who lives in a Deed Restricted building or development and cannot put up an outdoor antenna. This portal enables them to leverage the Internet service (wired or cellular wireless) to make contact with other Hams across the street or around the world.
Unlike “traditional” VHF-UHF analog operations where repeaters are readily available, many locales lack the digital repeater infrastructure needed for Hams, particularly those with portable radios, to operate in a “traditional” manner. Even when a Club or individual can put a digital repeater on the air, there is hesitation to do so with so many different modes currently in play. The “Radio Food Fight” between NXDN, DMR, Fusion, D-Star, and P25 continues with no end in sight. Until the marketplace comes to a consensus digital radio or the FCC completes what they started in 2004 with their Digital Radio Report and Order, the food fight will continue. Most Hotspots resolve this dilemma.
The drawback with using a Hotspot is its reliance on non-Amateur Radio bandwidth to succeed. If the Internet fails, you are unplugged. If you are mobile and the commercial cellular infrastructure you are using as your wireless transport fails, again, you are unplugged.
The West Central Florida Group made a decision fourteen years ago to build a digital infrastructure alongside our analog repeaters. We selected NXDN because it fully met the technical specifications the FCC laid out for the two-way radio industry in 2004. NXDN repeaters excel at duplicating, even exceeding, the coverage you will get from a similar 25 KHz analog repeater. We have taken a leadership position that enables Hams in our region to take a “traditional” approach to Digital Amateur Radio (DAR) unlike many other places in Florida and the US.
We encourage Hams to take the plunge into DAR. I believe it is the future of our hobby. If using a Hotspot gets you started, so be it. But Hotspots should not be a substitute for building a strong, viable DAR infrastructure, for the good of all Amateur Radio operators.
-January 2, 2021
Some years ago (I am not telling just how many), a lot more of my Ham Radio time was taken up on the HF bands. I will admit I did have a lot of fun contesting. I also enjoyed my time on the MARS bands. But, like anything, you can get too much of a good thing and after a while some other events in my life caused me to move away from HF.
For those operators who have never explored HF, it is a substantially different operating platform than VHF and UHF. With a few exceptions, everything is in SIMPLEX mode. Yes, there are some 10 Meter FM repeaters on the air. If the band is OPEN (and depending on the sunspot cycle that can be a BIG if), you might be lucky enough to have a QSO on one. But most HF operations today are either Single Sideband (voice) or they use some digital mode. For those of you who think VHF-UHF Digital Voice is a free-for-all, just look sometime at how many low throughput HF digital modes there are.
There are many other challenges with HF. Chief among them is the size of the antenna needed to operate on every band. If your backyard space is limited, so, too, maybe your options when looking to erect an efficient antenna. The size of an HF antenna is “significant” compared to most VHF-UHF antennas. But, don’t feel bad if you are relegated to operating with a simple wire antenna like the G5RV. I have had many, many contacts with the G5RVs I used. One plus of the G5RV: The cost of this antenna will not break your budget.
Some other challenges are far more difficult to overcome. Two of them are your neighbors and the impact of “new technology” that you have no control over. I, personally, never have had to deal with the “grouch” who blames you and your Ham Radio station for all the woes in their life. But I have heard horror stories from many other Hams who have. There is nothing more annoying and psychologically debilitating than having to deal with someone who knows nothing about RF and is blaming you and your “Ham Radio Station” for everything that makes them unhappy. There are also the people who live by the motto “My Way or the Highway”, although most of them have now moved into Deed Restricted neighborhoods, are busy running the HOA and driving everyone nuts.
Then there is the OTHER challenge: NOISE. HF operations are challenging enough when all the planets are aligned, no thunderstorms are generating static crashes in the area, and the bands are all open. But the onslaught of new technology has the noise potential of a 727 rolling down the runway toward take-off. If it seems like your noise meter is always registering S9 or above no matter what band your radio is on, you are probably being impacted by an excessive noise generator. It could be a bad lighting ballast, a faulty electric meter (not necessarily yours), an LED lighting source (these are cropping up everywhere), an arcing electrical transformer (particularly when it is wet), and one that is also becoming a lot more prevalent, the solar panel array. All of these things (and many more) generate various amounts of noise. You might be able to filter some of that noise out with a choke filter (if it is coming in on your electric service). Over-the-air noise is a “whole ‘nother animal”. Depending on the level of noise generated, it can also raise the noise floor on VHF and UHF bands as well making it more difficult to receive distant signals. Some of these noise generators are governed under FCC Part 15 rules, you know, the same rules that govern your computer, your TV display, and your Wi-Fi emissions. If the source can be traced to something your Electric Utility has responsibility for, there may be some recourse you can take there. But first, you have to get their attention and, speaking from experience, that can take weeks, even months, and many phone calls. As for the new solar array on your neighbor’s roof, the last thing someone who has just spent forty thousand dollars on to save money wants to hear is their investment is the source of your pain.
I am not sure there are any easy or simple ways to lower the noise that has invaded your space. If you have found one or more cures, feel free to share them. After all, we are Ham Radio operators. We adapt. We improvise. We overcome!
-July 20, 2021
The coronavirus pandemic has brought to the forefront a lot of discussion about what is “essential” and what is “non-essential”. Let me be very clear. Everything that makes up the American tapestry is ESSENTIAL! Let me say that again. EVERYTHING that makes up the American tapestry is ESSENTIAL! And so there is no ambiguity about this, Amateur Radio is ESSENTIAL!
Amateur Radio is, has been and always will be a great place to learn a variety of disciplines that go well beyond their application to the technology. First and foremost, it has enabled men and women of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds to come together socially. Amateur Radio was social media long before Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and other Internet-based entities were even thought about. I would also suggest the Amateur Radio community has maintained a level of civility that is more than a cut above what you will find online on any given day. It is not just because the FCC has a set of rules that govern on-the-air conduct. Amateur Radio operators live by the Golden Rule: “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you”.
Amateur Radio is one of the truest expressions and representations of freedom you will find. I have often said there is so much you can do, so many modes to operate with, some many different talents and skills that you can develop and hone you will likely never experience them all. But you are FREE to embrace as much or as little of what Amateur Radio offers as you want with no one calling balls and strikes or passing judgment because you may find one mode more motivating and exciting than another. Contesting, DXing, Traffic Handling, Emergency Response communications, or the ever-popular “Hi, how are you” rag chew are all on the menu and all practiced daily.
Amateur Radio is also a great place to learn and innovate. Electronics, theory, and application are obvious. Even in this day and age of surface mounted components, some Ham technicians (do-ers vs license class) still prefer to break out the soldering iron and put their own rigs together or fix them when they malfunction. As the available technology has supported and has been aided by computerization, Amateur Radio has supported and benefitted from a wide range of computer software development. Some Hams are realty motivated by antenna design. One of the first things you learn as a new Ham is “It’s all about the antenna”. And while concepts like circular and elliptical polarization or NVIS designs were not necessarily invented specifically for Amateur Radio, Hams certainly benefit from their use.
Ham Radio has served as a proving ground for a lot of communications capabilities we now take for granted. GPS tracking is a discipline and industry radio amateurs have played a major role in defining and refining. Bob Bruninga-WB4APR wanted to track his Navy midshipmen as they practiced their rowing skills. Keith (WU2Z) and Mark (KB2ICI) Sproul were hot air balloon enthusiasts. They all played a major role in developing APRS software. And thank the Brothers Sproul for adding weather telemetry capability as a means of collecting and distributing real-time environmental data to the APRS network.
Drones have become a hot topic and technology of late. And Amateur Radio is front and center as a key component for controlling these devices and their predecessors. Remote Control Aircraft operators have been using Ham Radio as a tether for decades. Speaking of things aeronautical, Amateur Radio has proudly served the American Space Program bringing together our orbiting astronauts with tomorrow’s space explorers.
So don’t try to convince me that Amateur Radio is anything but an ESSENTIAL part of our American tapestry. Amateur Radio license holders and practitioners may not make up a majority or even a plurality of our population. But we are as ESSENTIAL to the American family as all the chefs, waiters, hair stylists, auto mechanics, and every other person whose way of life has been labeled NON-ESSENTIAL during this pandemic.
-April 27, 2020
According to the Federal Communications Commission, Amateur Radio is defined as a “service” with several stated missions and goals. Nowhere in Part 97.1 where these missions and goals are defined will you find the word or term “hobby”. And yet, ask many current Amateur Radio license holders and that is precisely what they consider Amateur Radio to be: a HOBBY.
After all, you will find people from many different professions and walks of life in the Amateur Radio community. Doctors, lawyers, construction workers, foresters, farmers and others in agriculture, IT professionals, railroad engineers, mechanics, bus and over-the-road truck drivers and many, many more. While some of these people may use a radio in their course of the workday, their lives do not revolve around radio.
There are many license holders and active operators whose lives do revolve around communications. I know many Hams who are broadcast station engineers, two-way Land Mobile Radio technicians, and engineers, cellular technicians and engineers, men and women who earn their living manufacturing and repairing radios and other electronic devices just to name a few. For many of them, Amateur Radio is a place to explore and discover, a natural extension of what they do to put bread on the table and pay the mortgage. And for some, it was the catalyst that got them interested in exploring a career in radio, television, IT, Land Mobile Radio and the Cellular industry to begin with.
There are many ways of getting into communications professionally. There are Electrical Engineering programs available at many colleges and universities where you can earn a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. Many people develop an affinity for working with electronics or computers and know someone who serves as a mentor. Some turn a developed curiosity into applying the knowledge and skills they may have picked up casually into a career. And one thing many in communications-related industries and professions have in common is Amateur Radio.
There is a saying “If you are not moving forward, you are falling behind.” That’s not a problem for Amateur Radio operators because you are learning something new every day. Amateur Radio is Science, Technology, Engineering, Math and Communications Skills all rolled up into one, lovable bundle you can get your arms around. I believe we would all be better off if our education system would spend less time teaching how to pass tests and more time helping our youth become proficient with tools, like Amateur Radio, to discover the world around them and solve problems.
No, I would not be so presumptuous to suggest that Amateur Radio is a one-size-fits-all stepping stone for someone who is looking for a challenging, meaningful and fulfilling career. But if you like learning something new every day, if you like “connecting dots” and making a difference in your community, if you like problem-solving and want a real challenge, no matter what your age, Amateur Radio has something for you.
-February 27, 2020
There is a reality in Amateur Radio that life below 30 MHz is significantly different than life above 30 MHz. Part of that reality is driven by the laws of physics. Wavelengths are longer as frequencies go lower and lower. A ten-meter antenna requires a lot less length and space than a forty meter or seventy-five-meter radiator. And while you can put up a wire antenna to support your HF operations, you will need to give that radiator some height above ground to operate efficiently.
The size of your antenna(s) and towers, the sensitivity and selectivity of your transceivers and the power output of your power amplifier largely define your footprint on the band. Yes, operating talent and skill also comes into play. But what you can muster is your personality and footprint. That’s because HF ops are almost exclusively simplex, one operator to another with nothing else in-between except a good F1 or F2 layer for distance.
Contrast this with VHF and UHF operations. Yes, you can invest thousands of dollars into your radio, your antenna and tower and any other ancillary equipment to complete your station. But unless you are into Single Sideband (SSB) or some other simplex operation, VHF and UHF communications leverage some type of intermediate device. Most VHF / UHF comms are conducted through one or more terrestrial repeaters. VHF / UHF operators can also leverage Amateur Radio satellites, a repeater orbiting the planet to be able to cover a relatively large footprint. There is also some limited use of the Moon to bounce VHF signals off of. But this usually requires a very large antenna and an appropriate amount of real estate to be successful.
When we started building the NI4CE Repeater System, the sites in Hillsborough, Manatee and Polk Counties were considered RURAL, lots of pasture and farmland, very few houses. CC&Rs (Deed Restrictions) were largely found between I-75 and the beach. But twenty years and the significant (and continuing) influx of people into West Central Florida have changed the landscape. Sprawling housing developments have gobbled up those pastures. The density of these developments is high. And Deed Restrictions come with each subdivided lot. This new landscape leaves no opportunity for HF operations and limited, sometimes challenging opportunities for Hams on the VHF and UHF bands. Amateur Radio infrastructure is more important than ever to keep Ham Radio alive.
Most CC&Rs do not prohibit the use of RF transmitters. If they did, say goodbye to your Wi-Fi and microwave oven. The challenge for 21st Century Amateur Radio operators is being close enough to your favorite repeater to get good building penetration and locating your antenna to maximize both the received signal and the transmitted signal back to the repeater. If you live within eight miles or so of the repeater, you will minimize those challenges. Beyond that distance, an antenna mounted in the attic or crawl space will help you out. If you live in an apartment or condo, placing an antenna on your balcony can also help (provided you are not trying to shoot through your building to hit the repeater).
Some Hams are using so-called “Hot Spots” or VoIP services that leverage their Internet service to connect with other Hams. In these instances, they are using commercial circuits to communicate with other Hams. Expedient, yes. But is that really HAM radio?
There is a future for HAM Radio in high-density, deed-restricted areas. But it is going to require some operator ingenuity and the presence of and a shared investment into Amateur Radio infrastructure to make it happen.
-March 31, 2020
In my last post, I highlighted the differences between operations on our HF bands (below 30 MHz) and Amateur Radio operations on VHF, UHF and beyond (above 30 MHz). I also discussed the impact of CC&Rs, otherwise known as Deed Restrictions. These are implemented through “private contract law” between land developers and individuals.
Real estate developers and others in the real estate industry contend Deed Restrictions are necessary to maintain property values, the esthetics of their Sub-Divisions and communities and a host of other reasons you hear from the “Antennas Are Ugly” crowd. The postage-stamp-sized lots in these developments make HF operations virtually impossible. Any Amateur Radio licensee and who wants to be active on the bands above 30 MHz are forced to do so “underground” inside their dwelling.
The presence of Amateur Radio infrastructure – VHF and UHF Amateur Radio repeaters – is “key” to enabling and keeping Amateur Radio alive in the 21st Century. Without infrastructure, deed-restricted operations are extremely limited. Simplex operations coupled with a lack of antenna height and all the inherent losses associated with indoor operations will limit propagation to a few blocks. Strategically placed VHF and UHF repeaters can overcome those obstacles. Those “deed restricted” Hams now have the means to reach out and utilize their operating privileges in a meaningful way. And they are dependent on a “pay-to-play” cellular carrier or Internet Service Provider (ISP) for bandwidth. That’s particularly important here in Florida and elsewhere during emergencies.
As I noted in my earlier post, the NI4CE repeaters at Verna, Riverview and Holiday were designed to cover a lot of real estate, to cross county lines and serve the regional West Central Florida Amateur Radio community. But a funny thing has happened along the way. The pastures that used to surround these repeaters have exploded with ‘deed-restricted” housing developments to accommodate some of the several million people (including many Hams) who have become Floridians. Those NI4CE repeaters now are “enablers” for those Hams who have moved into one of these deed-restricted properties. And for residents who are looking for a great hobby, a way to give back to their communities and a cellular-independent way to keep in touch during emergencies, Ham Radio is now a real possibility.
-April 6, 2020
Hams are almost always up for a good challenge. It is part of who we are. We are creative, innovative, think-outside-the-box types who scoff at those who asset “That can’t be done”.
Hams eat, live and prosper “by the numbers”. We also learned a long time ago that you cannot defy the Laws of Physics. That doesn’t mean there isn’t more than one way to arrive at your destination. Sometimes, you just need to be a bit more creative in how you achieve success.
This summer, we are all going to have to be “creative thinkers” and innovators to survive the “Energy Hole” the political and bureaucratic geniuses have dug us into. We can debate the pros and cons of using fossil fuels to produce the energy we need to light our lights, heat and cool our homes, run our businesses and factories and power our transportation systems. If there is a need to change HOW we create the energy that is needed to accomplish all the above, I think most people are willing to listen. But just as it is not a good idea to sell your car or your home before you have a new or different one to move into, you cannot arbitrarily abandon energy sources without having new and equal capacity energy sources to replace them. Unfortunately, that is what is occurring in many parts of the US.
The energy shortfalls that will result have already been catastrophic for some. The brownouts and blackouts that occurred in Texas in February 2021 should have been a wake-up call. You cannot take fossil fuel electric generating plants offline if the windmills, solar farms and whatever else if out there are not capable of producing a like or greater amount of power. That’s simple math!
Telling someone to go buy an EV (Electric powered Vehicle) because the price of gasoline is over five dollars a gallon is also unrealistic. First, EV production and inventory will fall dramatically short of demand for years. Even if the number of vehicles produced could meet demand, the electric generating capacity of the grid needed to power all those vehicles is not available. As refineries are forced to close down (seven in the last two years), the production of gasoline and diesel has shrunk while demand continues to increase. And increasing the percentage of corn-based Ethanol to the fuel mixture will only succeed at increasing damage to vehicle engines while diminishing the food and water supplies.
Brownouts and blackouts are forecast to impact major portions of the country in the next few months. One utility here in Florida has been running television commercials trying to re-assure their customers about their efforts to prevent outages. Those efforts won’t mean much if generating capacity comes up short.
Outages will cause communications disruptions. Cell towers and networks will be overloaded. Wireline phones will go down, too. The Amateur Radio community needs to be prepared to step into the lurch and assist our neighbors and our communities in every way we can. Many of us have generators and emergency fuel supplies as part of our hurricane preparedness. Make sure your cache of batteries (large and small) is charged and at the ready to power your radios. Teamwork is going to be vital. Know who you can communicate during an outage using simplex frequencies as well as through local repeaters.
We can hope we will not suffer a blackout or brownout. If our hopes are dashed, being prepared to mitigate the emergency is our best strategy for weathering the storm.
-June 11, 2022
2020 has not been kind to any of us. I am sure many of us started the year with more than a passing amount of optimism. And then, along came the coronavirus and our world was turned upside down. It is now the middle of May. The curve has been flattened. And while the CoVID-19 bug is still out there waiting to pounce, we are cautiously but optimistically starting to poke our heads out of our self-quarantine and back into the sunlight.
No, life may not be exactly the same for a while. Most of us will be donning a face mask as part of our everyday attire. Never did I ever imagine I would seriously take on the persona of the Frito Bandito! Any intimate stroll on the beach will now be accompanied by a chaperone telling you there just is not enough space between you and your boyfriend or girlfriend. And just when you thought life might be getting back to some time that approaches “normal”, along comes Mother Nature and the 2020 Hurricane Season.
Some of the early predictions are telling us we are likely to have an “above normal” storm season. El Nińo is apparently taking the season off. The forecasters at the University of Colorado are prognosticating up to eighteen cyclones in the Atlantic Basin this year. The official NOAA National Hurricane Center outlook is due out any day. I expect a similar forecast. But now, before their expectations have been published, it looks like this is going to be one of those years when the wind and the rain and the surf will start churning before the traditional June First starting date.
We may have our first named storm in the next few days. Forecasters are predicting the spin-up of a storm off Florida’s East Coast. If that happens, it will be named Arthur. A complete list of names for this year’s storms is posted on the National Hurricane Center’s website: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/ . The forecast models suggest Arthur will stay out over water and become a nuisance to shipping and marine life. One can only hope given what we have all been through this Spring.
But sooner or later, one of these critters will make a beeline for our shores. This season, more than ever before, we need to be prepared and in ways we have never been prepared before. Gloves, face masks, a thermometer, alcohol (the antiseptic kind) and other cleaning supplies will all be necessities. If the proliferation of love bugs this Spring is any indication, we also need to be prepared to deal with other kinds of flying pests (mosquitos). Keeping your radios and other equipment wiped down and clean will be imperative. And if your hands are like mine are with all the hand washing and sanitizing, a big bottle of moisturizing lotion is also a “must”.
If you live right on the beach (or close enough to it to be worried about storm surge), NOAA will be providing more detailed Storm Surge guidance this season.
The NI4CE Repeater System will, once again, be working with the National Weather Service and SKYWARN to provide you with two-way, interactive information about any storm that threatens Florida’s West Coast.
So buckle up and get ready for Hurricane Season 2020. And keep your radios at the ready and your batteries charged.
-May 14, 2020
Antenna polarization may be one of the least understood properties of a wireless signal. If you are installing many antennas in one location, like on a tower, polarization is an important piece of the puzzle that you’ll need to take into consideration. Here we give you a quick overview on antenna polarization.
Polarization is determined by the way an antenna is mounted, usually horizontally or vertically. To ensure optimal network performance only like-polarized antennas should be used in point-to-point wireless applications. It is possible to establish a wireless link using antennas with different polarities but network performance and connectivity will suffer.
The big advantage of using different antenna polarization schemes is to reduce interference. For example when mounting several antennas on a tower, it is best to stagger vertically and horizontally polarized antennas to reduce interference.
If horizontal or vertical polarization won’t work for your wireless application there are dual-polarized, cross-polarized and circular-polarized antenna options to explore.
Antenna Polarization Options
Dual-polarized antennas feature two antenna elements in a single physical package (radome), one that is vertically polarized and one that is horizontally polarized. When properly installed, dual polarized antennas can communicate with both vertically and horizontally polarized antennas. An advantage of dual polarity antenna is that you get basically two antennas in one package, this saves space and money. These types of antennas are often used with MIMO (multiple-in/multiple-out) wireless access points and CPE devices.
Cross-polarized antennas sometimes referred to as X-Pol antennas, feature two elements in one package. One element is +45° polarized and the other is -45° polarized. The two opposing 45° angle of the elements produces a cross or X orientation. Using a cross polarized antenna with vertically and horizontally polarized antennas further reduces interference.
Circular-polarized antennas have equal response to either horizontal or vertical polarized antennas. These antennas are designed to either support right hand or left hand polarization to suit varied wireless connectivity applications. Using a circular-polarized antenna on a fixed access point can be beneficial if the linear-polarized remote links are constantly moving.
Republished with permission and courtesy of L-com Global Connectivity.
As many of you know, I am an avid APRS operator. I am proud to have had a fulltime, RF-driven Ham Radio APRS Weather Station on the air from my home continuously for over twenty years.
I am also heartened by several new RF-driven APRS Weather Stations that have popped up on the air in the last few months. Kudos to KM4LTG and K4DKK to name a couple of relatively new Hams who have not only taken the plunge into APRS but are “brapping” live weather data into the RF network. These stations are proverbial “points of light” for the National Weather Service and Ham Radio as they track our sometimes abundant rainfall and wind activity from thunderstorms rolling through our area. This is one more way Amateur Radio continues to be a “relevant” force in the 21st century!
APRS is an acronym for Automatic Position Reporting System, an invention of Bob Bruninga of the U.S. Naval Academy. It has been around since the early 1990s and was originally created to track moving objects using GPS and Ham Radio. In fact, it provides Bruninga a means of tracking his Midshipmen while they were out on the water at Annapolis.
A few years later, identical twins Keith-WU2Z and Mark-KB2ICI Sproul, developers of the WinAPRS and MacAPRS software expanded their apps to include support for transmitting live weather data. Other APRS developers soon followed. And to collect all this data for analysis by the National Weather Service, APRS was married to the Internet through the APRS-IS network. Along the way, another Florida Ham, Steve Dimse-K4HG, created the findu.com website, a portal for literally everyone to view the data collected from thousands of Amateur Radio APRS Weather Stations nationwide.
Here’s a fun factoid about the real-time application of APRS Weather Station data. In 2004, the APRS Weather Station network in central Florida was used by National Weather Service meteorologists to track the path of Hurricane Frances as it came across the peninsula.
The West Central Florida Group has supported APRS for many years. The NI4CE digipeaters at Verna and Riverview are hubs for the APRS network in the Greater TampaBay area and gateways for APRS weather data to the Internet. We have just upgraded the NI4CE-11 Weather Digi at Riverview and will soon be adding APRS Weather Stations at our Holiday and Lake Placid repeater sites. Polk County Emergency Management operates an extensive network of APRS Weather Stations (WC4PEM) in their county. Data collected by these stations is used daily by Polk County firefighters to aid their efforts assessing fire danger and battling wild fires.
If you would like to know more about APRS, APRS Weather Stations and how you can get on the air, just send an email to [email protected].
Before I close, a word about Internet-only Weather Stations operated by a number of area Hams. We are grateful for the weather data you are collecting and sharing with us. But it really isn’t Ham Radio and APRS unless you add a radio and send it over the air on 144.390 MHz. Put your callsign and your weather data on the APRS map. Go all the way!
-May 27, 2019
There is no doubt Amateur Radio faces some significant challenges as we move deeper into the Twenty-First Century timeline. Recent estimates put the number of current license holders at around three-quarters of a million operators. How many of them are currently active, on the air, well, I am sure the number of less than that.
Ham Radio faces two significant challenges today that are most pervasive than ever. The impact of “private law” restrictions on outdoor antennas is severely limiting HF operations, particularly in large urban and suburban areas. New housing developers have all but erased the ability of any radio enthusiast to erect any kind of antenna on their “home” property. Deed Restrictions notwithstanding, the sheer lack of available green space separating homes in new developments provides no space to erect an antenna. VHF-UHF operators are just as challenged. Even a simple push-up pole with a top-mounted antenna is virtually impossible to erect. You will also find few if any, television receiving antennas in many developments as well.
The other challenge is finding suitable space for “infrastructure antennas”. Amateur Radio above 30 MHz is conducted using a mixture of mobile and portable “operator” radios and infrastructure, otherwise known as repeaters. Because VHF-UHF is “line of sight” in nature, repeaters work best when their antenna(s) can be located on towers or multi-story building rooftops. There is no shortage of these structures in most areas. Our twenty-first Century American landscape has exploded with towers and tall building structures, most populated with large cellular antenna arrays to the exclusion of almost everything else. That’s because there is money, lots of money, to make this happen. Now you know why your cell phone bill is fifty, sixty, one hundred bucks a month or more.
Unless you are fortunate enough to find a tower or building owner with a soft spot in their heart for Ham Radio, it is hard to put a repeater on the air that will cover more than a mile or two of real estate.
Some Hams have resorted to other media to make their connections. Digital Ham Radio operators have discovered the Internet as one way of “keeping in touch”. Rather than conducting their QSOs in a completely wireless manner, they use a portable or mobile radio combined with a small computer, known as a Hotspot, to leverage an available Internet connection to bridge the gap. Many of the connections leverage the same Internet drop in your home or office that lets you send and receive email, look at weather radio or let you shop online. Some Hotspots will let you go mobile. In this case, the operator uses a 4G or 5G cellular connection as the transport to the Information Superhighway.
These Hotspots do leverage Amateur Radio frequencies at very low power and in most cases for only a few feet. The model is similar to using a Wi-Fi Access Point to transport a cell phone call or data transfer when your cellular coverage is lacking. In both cases, the “message” is more important than the “media” you are using. And, yes, it is still Amateur Radio because you are limited to communicating exclusively with other Amateur Radio license holders like yourself.
Hotspots do have a place in Twenty-First Century Ham Radio. But I am one of those Amateur Radio traditionalists who will always advocate, fight for and strive to use my Amateur Radio privileges and equipment to the fullest extent possible. This is why the NI4CE Repeaters (analog and NXDN digital) will be on the air for all licensed Hams to use for as long as we can keep them alive. I urge you to make every effort to use your over-the-air Ham Radio privileges to the fullest extent possible. Amateur Radio is about the media and the message.
-October 26, 2021
In our last posting, we discussed some of the benefits of Radio over IP (RoIP) for licensed Amateur Radio operators whose operating privileges are negatively impacted by Deed Restrictions. Erecting an antenna, any antenna, is no longer possible. And in many cases, oversized houses on undersized lots further underscores the challenges to Hams in the 21st Century.
But using the Internet as a means of transport to maintain some form of Amateur Radio activity comes with some distinct perils. The onslaught and increasing frequency of ransomware attacks is a “clear and present danger” that cannot and should not be ignored. These attacks, often originating by hostile groups in countries that are not our “friends” are real and dangerous. And they can turn your life upside down in an instant.
Life in 2021 relies on the reliable, uninterrupted flow of information. It started with the electrification of America at the beginning of the last century. Once reliable electricity service became available, the next step in the progression of the electrification of communications. It started with the wired telephone coupled with a frenzy of activity to move information wirelessly. Many of the people we can thank for commercial radio and television were Hams. What they learned by doing in the lab and on the air changed the communications landscape forever.
Just as television progressed from fuzzy monochrome images to color and now to ultra-high resolution digital imaging, so, too, has every other aspect of the communications process. A mainframe computer that filled an entire room evolved to the first personal computers in the early 1980s to the handheld devices we now call tablets and “Smart Phones”. Everything, well almost everything, has gone digital and along with it has become connected.
One of my favorite expressions is “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should!”. Just because you can break into someone’s home or place of business doesn’t mean you should. Privacy and property rights are precious. Ethical people know that and observe the right of their neighbors to their privacy and property. Somewhere along the way, though, significant segments of our society have tossed aside those ethics. The Internet, for all its good, has also enabled the ethically challenged in our midst to intrude, steal and destroy.
The progression from the wired telephone to wireless, cellular devices was only natural. It was an expression of personal freedom. Those of us who took the time and made the effort to embrace Amateur Radio did so for the same reason: to enhance our ability to freely communicate anytime, anywhere, unbound by the limitations (and cost) of wired media. Internet-enabled Ham Radio is a means to an end and when it works, it is better than no Ham Radio at all. But, cause the connection to break or be impeded by unethical (not to mention criminal) behavior and you are left wanting for the freedom to communicate whenever, wherever and with whomever you choose.
A couple of years ago, former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly wrote a book titled “Settle For More”. Good words to live by. As Ham Radio operators, we should all strive for wireless on every band, unimpeded by the limitations of Deed Restrictions, oversized houses on undersized lots, and unethical people who use the Internet to impede not enhance our life.
-October 31, 2021
The 2017 Hurricane Season officially begins this week. Unofficially, it got underway several weeks ago with a bona fide Tropical Storm that spun for several days in the Central Atlantic. And if the forecasters at the National Hurricane Center are to be believed, we may be in for an above average season, possibly the most active since 2005.
A few weeks ago, I was re-discovering a portable radio I purchased about ten years ago. When I acquired my Kenwood TH-F6A, my motivation was to have a Ham Radio transceiver that could transmit and receive on 2 meters (VHF), the 222 MHz band and 70 cm (UHF). At the time, I knew a couple other Hams who had purchased the radio and were happy with how it operated. So, I took the plunge.
While re-discovering the radio and what it could do, I was pleasantly reminded the F6A had a really cool feature that every Ham operator needs to have at their fingertips, particularly during large-scale emergencies. That feature is the ability to receive Broadcast AM and Broadcast FM stations. The F6A also tunes the three domestic Broadcast Television bands, too, although the migration of TV stations to digital now makes this capability a moot point.
Why is the ability to receive AM and FM broadcast stations so important? In a large-scale emergency, broadcast stations, particularly those who are the designated EAS LP1 and LP2 stations, are an authoritative resource for information vital to the community. These broadcasters have direct links to local and State Emergency Managers and other authorities whose job it is to mitigate the disaster, whatever it is. This includes information on road closures, power outages, emergency ice and water resources and much more, including the weather forecast. These broadcast stations can operate for as long as necessary on generator-based backup power.
After the Hurricane Charley disaster thirteen years ago, I spent a day serving as a liaison between Charlotte Co. Emergency Management and the local AM-FM broadcast station in Charlotte County. My task was to convey information transmitted to me via Ham Radio to the radio station so they could then relay it to the general public and those most severely impacted by the storm. It didn’t hurt that I am an ex-broadcast journalist and could take raw information and turn it into an easy to read script.
As our society has become more cellular and wireless data-centric, we need to be reminded these resources will be the first one to go down in a large scale disaster. That’s why having a battery-powered radio capable of receiving local AM and FM broadcast stations is vitally important. Much to my delight, that capability is part of my multi-band Ham Radio transceiver that is always close by.
Should a tropical weather system threaten West Central Florida, the NI4CE Repeater System also stands ready as a communications and information resource you can count on.
If you are a Star Trek fan (and, yes, I have been for a long time), the chant of the Borg is probably etched into your consciousness. “We are the Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”
The Borg were more than a bit heavy-handed with their assimilation process. While each species they brought into the fold added something to the collective consciousness, the end goal was the same: the creation of a singular, homogeneous society.
Amateur Radio, too, has an assimilation process. It is a completely voluntary one that begins the day a prospective operator begins studying to pass the Technician License Exam. Once the candidate has achieved that goal and has their FCC license in hand, the process continues as the new operator begins the exploration and discovery phase of their assimilation. What do I want to do, to achieve with my new license privileges? How do I get there? Who can help me along the way? Where do I go to get what I need to get on the air? The WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY, and HOW of Ham Radio (sounds like Journalism 101). But getting answers to those basic questions will enable any operator to lay a strong foundation for full assimilation into the Ham Radio Society.
In my twenty-five years as a licensed operator, I have explored a lot of what Amateur Radio has to offer. Along the way, I discovered Amateur Radio is a series of Sub-Cultures neatly woven into the Amateur Radio experience. HF operation has some significant differences from VHF-UHF operations. One of the biggest differences is the ability to use a frequency to communicate when you want to. The variables of HF propagation are challenging at best, downright frustrating at worst. VHF-UHF, on the other hand, is usually always there because it is local. Even very long distance (Internet augmented) QSOs can be conducted with a high degree of technical reliability, none of the fade and co-channel interference you often find on HF.
Another sub-culture within Amateur Radio is Morse Code operation. Not all that long ago, nearly every licensee had to pass a Morse Code proficiency test to get their license, even if they had no interest in using “the Code”. For some, Code proficiency came without a lot of effort. For others, it made waterboarding seem humane. But if Code was your cup of tea, you no doubt had a lot of fun.
In more recent years, digital operations have brought a lot of new operators into the fold. Digital voice, wireless network development, and operation, even using a relatively simple, low speed (1200 baud) mode called APRS that folds GPS tracking, messaging, and weather telemetry into a nice, neat package has attracted thousands of enthusiastic operators. The growing popularity of flying radio-controlled drones is now bringing even more people into Amateur Radio.
Ham Radio Assimilation requires a commitment. You must be willing to learn to be successful. It can be a great team-building experience. Along the way, you will meet and communicate with a lot of great people who I have found are focused on serving their communities, overcoming challenges, large and small, and making those communities better.
One last and very important thing about Ham Radio Assimilation: You have got to want it and to be part of the Ham Radio Society.
-July 9, 2020