This past weekend, members of the West Central Florida Group, Inc. Board participated in the St. Pete Beach (Pinellas County) Hurricane Expo. It afforded us a great opportunity to speak with a number of people about Ham Radio and basic Emergency Preparedness.
Yes, we live in a part of the world that is prone to not only hurricanes and tropical weather events as well as tornadoes, hail and flooding rainfall. Now that our Summer time thunderstorm season is about to begin, it is a good time to make sure we are ready for whatever Mother Nature throws at us. That means plenty of “essential supplies” on hand; water, non-perishable food, basic and prescription medications, batteries, lanterns and flashlights. If you are a homeowner, you might consider a “Blue Tarp” or two.
But not every emergency is weather-related. Just last week, the lights went out at our house right as we were sitting down to eat dinner. Nine and a half hours later, power was restored after Duke Energy crews located and repaired a relatively new (two years old) underground feeder line that broke. Another part of our “emergency preparedness” is having a generator and about ten gallons of fuel on hand at all times just for events like this one.
The 1970s-style gas shortages and long lines at gas stations, fallout from the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack and still going on, will happen when the wholesale fuel delivery systems are disrupted and panic buying sets in. And if you think electric cars are the cure for this emergency, think again!
Communications is essential to help manage and mitigate every emergency. Ham Radio may be the best communications option available to you and your family. Yes, it requires a Technician class or higher b license to transmit with your radio. But Ham Radio offers more options, more frequencies and more flexibility, no matter where you are or what the emergency may be.
Ham Radio is not the only option. There is FRS, the Family Radio Service, that utilizes several UHF frequencies and low cost radios. FRS does not require a license albeit the range of FRS radio is limited. Its Big Brother, GMRS, requires a FCC license (but no test) and covers immediate family members. GMRS offers more range and is popular. Many areas also have one or more GMRS repeaters on the air to extend your range even further. Another license-free communications option used by construction and highway maintenance crews is MURS. This option has five VHF frequencies and portable radios featuring up to two watts of power. MURS radios can be found right next to the FRS radios at many retailers.
If you live in a development with a Homeowners Association or if you are part of a CERT Team, you may want to consider purchasing a two-way radio system that could include a repeater, some number of portable radios and operates using a Part 90 commercial radio license that covers everything.
BE PREPARED! BE READY! There will be a “next” emergency that can (and will) hit with little or no notice. Your ability to survive it is crucial.
-May 17, 2021
The events of the last few months have resulted in a dramatic migration of people from all over the country to our little piece of Paradise. No doubt, some of the folks migrating to Florida are licensed Amateur Radio operators or maybe looking to become a licensed Ham. For them, the old real estate saying “Location, Location, Location!” becomes a prime consideration.
Yes, there are many properties in Florida that are not encumbered by Deed Restrictions and Covenants, otherwise known as the dreaded CC&Rs. These are generally in rural locations or in urban areas that have not been recently developed. If you are a Ham and are fortunate enough to locate and purchase one of these properties, you are in what is proverbially known as “Fat City”.
However, if you are not so fortunate and find yourself located in a Deed Restricted development, all may not be lost when it comes to your hobby and exercising your Amateur Radio license privileges.
When we started building the NI4CE Repeater System twenty years ago, one of our main goals was to construct a system that could be used to connect Hams located in many counties. We looked for tall towers to enable our VHF and UHF repeaters to reach out forty miles or more from the repeater site. This was a tall order (no pun intended) to be sure. With several of us being either active or retired broadcasters, we were able to develop the relationships needed to get the job done.
A funny thing happened on the way to where we are today. Many of the pastures that surrounded the towers of the NI4CE repeater are located on turned into high-density residential housing developments. These subdivisions now serve as home to some of the millions of people who have come to call West Central Florida their new home. If your backyard is located in Southern Hillsborough, Central Manatee or Western Pasco, Northern Pinellas, or Northwestern Hillsborough Counties, there is a NI4CE Analog Repeater and a NI4CE NXDN Digital Repeater waiting to serve you! And for those of you in Hernando, Sarasota, and Polk Counties, we are not far away.
I wish we could say this was all part of some grand Master Plan to help keep Ham Radio alive and viable in the age of CC&Rs. I supposed we could have used logic and deducted those pasture lands would someday turn into row upon row upon row of single and multi-family houses. That is simply not the case. But what I am thankful for is now that all these new houses and families have moved into the neighborhood that we can help them enjoy the many wonders of Amateur Radio. Our sites at Verna (Manatee County), Riverview (Hillsborough County), Holiday (extreme SW Pasco County), and Bartow (Central Polk County) enables NI4CE access with a five-watt portable Ham radio by proximity. If the rubber duck antenna on your radio is not “quite enough antenna”, a mobile antenna in the attic (particularly if you bought a two-story dwelling) can help boost that signal. One caveat… if your house has a metal roof, that attic antenna is probably not going to work too well.
If the 5G Cellular companies (and their high-powered legal teams) can’t move the needle on CC&Rs, chances are the Amateur Radio community is going to be just as unsuccessful getting them rescinded. But proximity to a NI4CE repeater can keep you active and on the air. LOCATION! LOCATION! LOCATION!
– February 23, 2021
Freedom of Expression is a cornerstone of democracy. The freedom to say what you think, to be an advocate, even if your cause of not mainstream or popular, goes to what this nation’s Founding Fathers believed in when they wrote the Declaration of Independence and Constitution
Freedom of Expression also comes with responsibilities, chief of which is tolerance for the opinion of others who may not subscribe to your particular position on a given topic. Another responsibility is the recognition that when all men (and women) are created equal, everyone shares an equal right to be heard. One other responsibility we all share is “civility”, that is, to be respectful of others and with others in our discourse. It is this “civility” that is becoming harder and harder to find.
One behavior that is anything but “civil’ is bullying. It is raw. It can be brutal. And much to my chagrin, it has become a lot more prevalent. Bullies have always existed. I encountered them when I was going to school. I have encountered them on the job. And, I have encountered them in social settings. They are not a lot of fun to be around. Many act out of their insecurities. Some are just plain mean. Some think the only way they can be noticed is to physically dominate or in some other way use brute force, oftentimes to suppress an idea or a position.
I have often referred to Amateur Radio as the original “social media”. By its nature, Ham Radio has served as a place where people from all walks of life, of different ethnic backgrounds, people literally from all over the world have shared ideas, engaged in technological experiments, and have competed against one another in contests. Most have done so in a civil manner and have gone out of their way to operate within the rules that govern this social medium. This is not to say that everyone agrees with everyone else. It is more a demonstration of respectful behavior.
We have a couple of bullies amongst us who have chosen to demonstrate their social immaturity and lack of respect for the Amateur Radio community on the NI4CE Repeater System. These radio bullies choose to remain anonymous, probably a strategy they use on one or more of the other social media platforms they are on. However, unlike the other platforms that make it easy for bullies to hide their identity, radio bullies leave a trail of RF energy that betrays them. Every time one of these bullies transmits, there is a distinct and remarkable signature that exposes them, their location, and their bad manners for everyone to see. Moreover, every time one of these bullies keys up, their radio transmission is recorded as evidence of their unsocial and illegal behavior.
It is unfortunate the anonymous bullies who shout the loudest or scream the longest seem to be getting the most attention. That may work on Facebook or Twitter but not on NI4CE! Recognition starts with respecting the Freedom of Expression and Freedom to Operate that comes with the Amateur Radio license NI4CE users have earned.
-October 4, 2021
When you are growing up (or at least when I was growing up), you are taught that sharing is a good thing. Of course, there is a limitation to that. For instance, you really don’t want to share the flu or a head cold with someone else. But we routinely will share radios, pizza, tools and lots of other things with family and friends.
As Amateur Radio operators, we share some of the spectrum we are assigned and use regularly. Our 70 cm (UHF) frequencies are shared with the Federal Government, primarily the Department of Defense. Our 902-928 MHz allocation overlays the ISM (Industrial, Scientific, and Medical) band. Over 1 GHz, there is all kinds of frequency sharing (e.g. 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi, 5.8 GHz Wi-Fi, 5.9 GHz ITS, etc.). There are also a couple of instances of Deep Space SETI cut-outs in the 3.3 GHz band. There is nothing wrong with spectrum sharing as long as you and those entities you are sharing with can peacefully co-exist with each other.
But Spectrum Sharing does have its limits. Some recent attempts to overlay Wi-Fi on some bands with existing Satellite users are proving to be not such a good idea. Signals from orbiting satellites are very, very weak by the time they arrive from space. Drop some Wi-Fi emissions into the mix and at best they will raise the noise floor, at worst, they will cause harmful interference. Such is the case with the effort to allow Wi-Fi in and near the C-band satellite spectrum.
There is a new proposal now before the FCC to allow a private 5G Cellular provider to operate on the spectrum that has been in use for decades by NOAA to download satellite weather imagery and other climate-related data. The frequencies being looked at are 1675-1680 MHz.
Frequencies between 1670-1675 MHz are already allocated for commercial wireless use. The petitioner wants to use the 1670-1675 MHz spectrum plus the 1675-1680 MHz segment to provide wider band, high speed, 5G services than they would otherwise be able to do.
NOAA’s fleet of weather satellites and the imagery they provide are critical tools for forecast severe weather, particularly hurricanes and other tropical disturbances. Anything that potentially blinds us to that critical information this time of year is not a good idea.
Groups like the American Meteorological Society (AMS), National Weather Association (NWA) and the American Geophysical Union have already come out against this proposal. You, too, can weigh in and let the FCC know what you think (for or against) by using the following web link: FCC link
-June 29, 2019
For those of you who were fans of the old “Six Million Dollar Man” TV series you will recall how the show opened every week with the proclamation “We have the technology”. Then, along came Star Trek and the Borg. It was the Six Million Dollar Man mass produced and on steroids.
So with all the technology we now possess in 2017, with the extreme miniaturization of circuits that is now found in everything electronic and with our collective ability to control almost everything with software, why is it two-way radio transceivers do not have something as basic as a VU meter to monitor and display the audio quality of what is being transmitted?
When I first started my broadcasting career it was drilled into my psyche that the VU Meter was not only your friend but the single best tool at your toolbox to monitor the level and quality of your audio. You lived and died by what the VU meter on your console, on your air monitor on anything that enabled you to control the audio quality of your signal told you. Without a VU meter to monitor your audio output, you may as well have been trying to drive a car at night wearing a blindfold. You lived and died by your VU meter if you wanted consistent (and properly modulated) audio levels.
When I ventured into Amateur Radio in 1995, I was absolutely shocked to find few if any Amateur Radio transmitters with some means (other than your ears) of assuring proper modulation and audio quality. And today twenty-two years later, the only devices I have found that are outfitted with something approaching a VU meter are very high-end HF rigs that only a handful of Hams have in their shack. Why is that you might ask? I wish I had the answer.
Just turn on NI4CE any evening during one of the many Nets are conducted each week. You will hear stations that are LOUD, some painfully so. You will hear stations whose audio sounds about right. And you will hear stations (if you turn the speaker volume to the MAX) with low audio, some averaging no more than ten to fifteen percent modulation. It’s all over the road! And with a simple addition of a VU meter or some means of monitoring the transmitted audio volume of the transceiver, these all-over-the-road audio levels are preventable.
Of course, unless someone (FCC) were to require some means of real-time audio level monitoring, it probably won’t happen. Adding an Automatic Gain Control (AGC) circuit to every radio would help. But good luck getting being able to buy any transceiver for thirty dollars after an AGC circuit is added. I am afraid we may have to add this one to the list “obvious problems to fix” (right next to building utility lines through trees).
As we continue to pick up the pieces from this year’s spate of intense and destructive tropical cyclones, there are questions about what worked (and why) and what did not work (and hopefully, why). Were our expectations high enough? Was our vision broad enough? Did we individually and collectively have a realistic view of how to prepare, how to respond and, so to speak, weather the storm? But maybe the most important question that needs to be asked (and answered) is “Can We Make It Better?”.
When the concept of the NI4CE Repeater System was first conceived in 1999, the purpose was to fill a perceived need. Our region did not have a single point, “go to” Amateur Radio communications system where Hams who were SKYWARN spotters could report severe weather information. Before the NI4CE system was built, Net operations were strictly county-based. That meant a Net Control operator located at the National Weather Service in Ruskin spent most of the time “spinning the dial”, going from one repeater to another, trying to collect information. The opportunity for a county-based Net Control operator to have clear visibility of what was coming at them from the next county over was minimal.
When the “Big Stick” repeaters at Verna went on the air, it was the start of connecting a lot of dots. No more “spin the dial”, no more “flying blind”, a network started being built. In 2004, the repeaters at Verna and St Petersburg helps a lot of people “weather the storm” and aided disaster responders like the Salvation Army and Red Cross with their relief efforts.
“Big Stick” was never envisioned as a “Be All, End All” solution. And after the 2004 experience, we were able to expand the system with repeaters at Pebbledale (now Bartow) and Riverview. This accomplished two important improvements: better coverage, particularly for indoor portable radio operation and repeater redundancy. Still, that did not get us where we wanted to be. In 2011, the Holiday site came online to provide better redundancy over the TampaBay Metro area and to expand coverage over counties to the North. And in 2015, a long talked about repeater in Lake Placid was added to cover Highlands County.
Of course, all this has taken a lot of money and a lot of time to build and maintain. Having some great partners, particularly our Broadcast partners Cox Media Group, iHeart Media, ION Networks, Hearst Broadcasting, American Tower Corporation, and Insite Tower has been a big, no, HUGE plus. And the support we receive from the Amateur Radio community has allowed the NI4CE system to serve West Central Florida. To all, we say “Thank You”!
If you have not seen Dave Rockwell’s article titled ‘Disaster Traffic” that was posted on the NI4CE website last week, please take a few minutes to read it and digest it. Disaster response communications don’t just happen. It takes a lot of vision and planning. And, hopefully, our experiences this year will enable us to better plan for the next disaster.
Late last year, the FCC told the Amateur Radio operators they would need to register and maintain an email address as part of their license record beginning in 2021. The reason given for this change: all official communications with the FCC would take place electronically.
Beginning November 29th, an important piece of the FCC’s move to all-electronic communications will go into effect with the launching of a new CORES data management system. CORES, another one of those insidious government acronyms, is short for COmmission REgistration System and is a key element to the Universal Licensing System (ULS) where license records for Amateur Radio, Part 90 Land Mobile Radio, Aviation Radio, Marine Radio and Part 95 Personal Radio Service (i.e. GMRS) are stored.
A pre-requisite for any FCC license is a FRN, short for Federal Registration Number. If you do not currently have a FRN, your first step in the process of obtaining one is to apply for a FRN. You do that by logging into CORES at https://apps.fcc.gov/coresWeb/publicHome.do . If you have never used this site, here is a link to a helpful document on how to navigate the CORES system and the FRN application process.
If you already have a FRN ID, you will need to login to your account to update your record if you do not have a valid email address on file or if the email address you have previously provided is no longer valid. A failure to do so could put your Amateur Radio license and any other FCC license(s) you hold in jeopardy.
If you have any questions about all this, you can contact the FCC at 1-888-CALLFCC (888-225-5322). Good luck!
-November 17, 2021
You are probably all too familiar with the phrase “I am here from the government and I am here to help”. Enter FCC Docket number MD 20-270 adopted this week by the Commission. Yup, the Federal government is here to help themselves and BIG TECH at OUR expense.
MD 20-270 is a proposal to charge every Amateur Radio operator a fifty dollar fee for every Amateur Radio license application filed with the FCC. Yes, you read that correctly, $50.00, for a new license, to upgrade your license, to renew your license! The justification for this action is the” Repack Airwaves Yielding Better Access for Users of Modern Services Act of 2018”, sometimes referred to as the “Ray Baum’s Act”.
This ridiculous, absurd proposal (and I will tell you what I really think about it in a moment) gives the word “chutzpah” a whole new meaning. Over the last four decades, the FCC has abdicated its responsibilities to and for the Amateur Radio Service and every operator who holds a license. This started back in the 1980s when the Commission ceded responsibility for administering Amateur Radio License Exams. The Commission “empowered” Amateur Radio Volunteer Examiners to undertake the task of testing new, prospective candidates. Yes, the FCC would still be responsible for some of the administrative tasks, like issuing and printing those individual licenses. But the hard work, the “grunt” work was now on the back of the Amateur Radio community.
But then, along came the Internet and automation. That job of issuing Amateur Radio licenses just became a whole lot easier for the Commission. And this new technology, along with the creation of the Universal Licensing System (ULS) allowed the FCC to further disengage from the process. The onus of the manual labor needed to enter the license application data into the system was now shifted to the VEC organizations, ARRL, Laurel VEC, etc. And while the FCC still printed and mailed the actual license to Hams, that, too, would soon become an automated, online process that now requires every Ham to log into the ULS system and print their own license on their own paper and with their own printer.
The advent of the Internet and modern connectivity also brought other new technology to the landscape. Enter Wi-Fi in 1999, the great invention that allows you to connect your computer to the world without needing wires. But to do so, you need RF spectrum. Don’t look now but where did that RF spectrum come from? Well, the great experiment of turning over the Eleven Meter Ham Band to every Tom, Dick and Harry in the late 1960s worked so well, let’s try it again. And so the FCC did by allowing every Tom, Dick, Harry, and Jane to operate LICENSE FREE, first on the Amateur Radio 2.4 GHz band and a couple of years later on the Amateur Radio 5.8 GHz spectrum. But that’s OK because these interlopers would only be allowed one hundred milliwatts. What harm could possibly result from that? What did they think would happen when transmitters numbering in the hundreds of millions would flood the airwaves? And then there is the small matter of Hams being required to keep the masses from accessing their equipment while the masses are allowed to use encrypted signaling, something that is verboten in the Amateur Radio Service.
Now, along comes the year 2018 A.D. and the passage by Congress of the Repack Airwaves Yielding Better Access for Users of Modern Services Act. I think the name of this legislation says it all. It’s BIG TECH, you know, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile to name a few, with their deep pockets and penchant for liberally spreading around boatloads of cash in Washington buying their way to grab RF spectrum currently allocated to others. Before you know it, TV Broadcasters are jumping through hoops changing channels because their previous loss of channels 51 through 83 just wasn’t enough. C-Band Satellite spectrum was next on the chopping block. Don’t look now but there goes the Amateur Radio 3.3 GHz allocation all so we can have more Cellular 5G. And if the overlay of unlicensed Wi-Fi in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz spectrum wasn’t enough, along comes BIG TECH’s new marvel, WI-FI version 6 that now is going to overrun 5 GHz (including Amateur Radio) and vital, licensed Public Safety and Broadcast licensees in the 6 GHz band.
ENOUGH! Oh, and if, somehow, you didn’t understand me the first time, ENOUGH! Just as the upcoming Presidential Election may be the most important one ever, imposing a Fifty Dollar Service Fee for every license application (including your license renewal) could be the straw that breaks the back of Amateur Radio forever. MD 20-270 cannot be allowed to stand!
The Amateur Radio community must speak with one voice. First, login to the FCC’s Electronic Filing System (ECFS) at https://www.fcc.gov/ecfs/filings and post your comment in opposition to MD 20-270. But don’t stop there. Your elected congressional Representative (http://www.house.gov) and elected Senators (http://www.senate.gov) need to hear your opposition to MD 20-270 as well. After all, they are the ones who got the ball rolling by enacting the Repack Airwaves Yielding Better Access for Users of Modern Services Act.
Government cannot give you something it hasn’t already taken away from someone else. First, it was our RF spectrum. Now, the FCC is coming for our money. It is time to just say NO!
-August 29, 2020
The advent of cellular communications has done more to put mobile, interactive communications devices in the hands of every American than anything else in history. There are now an estimated three hundred thirty million cell phones or cellular enabled devices (e.g. tablets, computers, etc.,) in domestic use. WOW! I wish we had even one percent of that in Amateur Radio.
One thing most cellular enabled devices also have onboard is Wi-Fi. There are currently two main Wi-Fi bands that operate in the U.S., 2.4 GHz (sometimes referred to as 802.11b,g) and 5 GHz (sometimes referred to as 802.11a). Two newer IEEE protocols, 802.11n and 802.11ac with higher data throughput them their predecessors, are also prevalent on both bands. And in case you haven’t noticed it, most Wi-Fi enabled phones will work just fine with data apps even if your cellular LTE service is down or disconnected (Airplane mode when you are flying).
Almost all Wi-Fi operates with requiring a FCC license of any kind. This is because most (but not all) Wi-Fi devices transmit with no more than one hundred milliwatts (or 0.1 watts). That is the threshold for licensed versus unlicensed domestic radio transmitter operation. One exception to this is (wait for it) AMATEUR RADIO. Yessiree Bob, Hams can operate with more than 0.1 watts on Channels 1 through 6 in the 2.4 GHz band and on frequencies between 5.65 GHz and 5.925 GHz in the 5 GHz band. Of course, Ham can also operate on all Wi-Fi frequencies within the boundaries of the Part 15 rules because, after all, we’re just plain folks, too.
I mention all this because we are about to head into yet another Hurricane and Tropical Storm Season when the Amateur Radio community may be called on to provide emergency communications for our neighbors. One of the “lessons learned” from recent hurricanes is Americans of all shapes, sizes, genders and backgrounds are addicted to their Wi-Fi (and LTE) enabled communications devices. So, when you want to get information into the hands of those in a community impacted by a storm or some other emergency, where are us “just plain folks” likely to look first for that information. If you answered the above question with “Their Wi-Fi / LTE device”, give yourself a gold star!
That does present a real challenge for Emergency Managers and others who are trying to put critical information into the hands of those in the emergency / disaster zone. If the Cellular Networks are out in the area, you have a really big hurdle to overcome. One way to overcome this speedbump is with Wi-Fi hotspots mounted on easy to move pushup poles.
Most Wi-Fi is used indoors in our homes and businesses. Put four walls around a transmitter operating with 0.1 watts inside a well-constructed building and you will limit the propagation of the signal. But put that same 0.1 watt output on a push-up pole thirty to fifty feet above ground level and you will be surprised at just how far that signal will travel. In a densely populated area or an urban sprawl (like the TampaBay area), you will need lots of these Wi-Fi hotspots. But this is a technology every community should consider using in an emergency. And this is a technology every Ham operator should consider putting up at their home base to help their neighbors out.
Wi-Fi, all by itself, is not necessarily the “Silver Bullet”. But when you are looking at what you and your neighbors have in common, Wi-Fi may be close to the top of the list.
-May 12, 2019
One down. Five more months to go. We have made it through the first part of the 2022 Hurricane Season. But before you get too comfortable, June is usually (but not always) one of the quieter segments of the season. While we had an early scare from the system that eventually became Tropical Storm Alex, a large amount of dust in the upper atmosphere from the Sahara Desert has kept things quiet since then.
Come August, September, and even into October, things can and probably will heat up. As they do, what are the communications options available to you to keep you connected to family and friends near and far? Of course, if you have your Amateur Radio license, the answer is simple: Amateur Radio. It works almost everywhere. Most Ham radios can be powered with a battery. And you can operate short distances on VHF and UHF in simplex mode, no repeater required. In HF mode, the sky is the limit.
Now, time for the reality check. While we encourage everyone to become part of the Amateur Radio community, not everyone can do so. That’s OK! For those of you who are not license-holders, you have communications options, over and above your cell phones.
One of those options is FRS (Family Radio Service). FRS offers several UHF channels. It does not require a license of any kind. FRS portables are inexpensive and easy to use. They will help you keep it together if you have to move the family to a shelter or some other unfamiliar surroundings. They can also be useful in your neighborhood in the aftermath of a storm.
FRS has a Big Brother, GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service). GMRS does require a license because the radios operate with higher power and can use a repeater for greater distance. Unlike Amateur Radio, there is no test required to get a GMRS license. That license will cover you and your immediate family members. Some communities have a GMRS repeater to help keep neighbors in touch with each other. Check with your Community or Homeowners Association.
Some of the larger “Planned Communities” in Florida have a Land Mobile Radio repeater and portable radios reserved for use by residents. The HOA or Management Company takes care of any licensing that is required. These radios can be used during the rest of the year for Neighborhood Watch and Security activities.
Another “no license required” radio option is MURS (Multi-Use Radio Service). MURS has five VHF frequencies which can be programmed to use up to two-watts output power. Some MURS radios allow the user to program a PL or CTCSS tone to keep unwanted transmissions from other MURS radios from being heard. MURS radios will generally cover a little more real estate than a FRS radio. But transmissions are strictly radio-to-radio, no repeaters are allowed.
MURS and FRS radios can be purchased from a variety of Big Box Store vendors as well as online. The radios do not require a degree in Rocket Science (or anything else) to get them working. If you can program a TV Remote Control, you will have no problem with a MURS or FRS radio. Their batteries just need to be charged regularly. And when the sun is shining, they can be taken with you to the beach or park. They can also be a great asset to have with you on vacation.
We hope the remaining five months of the 2022 Hurricane Season will be as uneventful as the first month has been. Should the skies darken, the waters rise and the winds blow, be prepared. Having one or more communications options available should be part of your personal Hurricane Prep and Recovery Plan.
For the latest storm information, monitor NOAA Weather Radio, local Broadcast Media, and, of course, the NI4CE Repeater System.
-July 4, 2022
When the West Central Florida Group, Inc. was being formed nineteen years ago, we made a commitment to the West Central Florida community. To those of us who hold an FCC Amateur Radio license, we promised to provide a communications platform that all licensed operators could use twenty-four hours a day year-round. We promised the community-at-large an emergency communications resource that would be available on a moment’s notice should our area need it in the event of a disaster or disruption.
Operating a communications platform the size and breadth of the NI4CE Repeater System is no small undertaking. It takes the sweat capital provided by volunteers to build and maintain our several, interconnected repeater sites. It takes another kind of capital, real dollars, to maintain repeaters, amplifiers, antennas, power supplies, and other components when they break, are taken out by lightning (something we never experience around here) or are otherwise damaged. And like most things, age and use require a renewal of these finite resources to keep the system viable.
The 2019 Hurricane Season has now ended. Fortunately, this was not our year to pick up the pieces from a major storm like Charley, Wilma, Irma or Dorian. But before you get too comfortable, tornadoes, flooding rains, downbursts, all those events that we need to be alert for and respond to know no calendar bounds. They can strike at any time. And we need to be ready to support SKYWARN spotters and any other responders when they do.
WCFG, Inc. is a non-profit, 501(c)3 volunteer organization that relies on the support of the Amateur Radio community to keep our heart beating strong. But we also rely on support from the West Central Florida community at large because the community, too, benefits from our presence and efforts.
It has become fashionable for many corporations, foundations and others involved in “charitable giving” to focus their support on a handful of social issues: the homeless, the hungry, drug abuse, mental health treatment to name a few. Those are all worthy of support. And one day, hopefully, someday soon, these issues will be solved. But in the meantime, there are other community needs that cannot be and should not be ignored.
One of those needs is the NI4CE Repeater Site in Riverview (Hillsborough County). The electronics and antennas at this location have been in non-stop operation since 2007. It is time for a “capital refresh” to keep this site viable. It is a Twelve Thousand Dollar project that needs the support of the community. And Hurricane Season 2020 is just five months away.
As we, once again, celebrate the Fourth of July and the freedoms we enjoy here in the United States, it is easy to be reminded that freedom (and all good things for that matter) is something we cannot become complacent about. Freedom is a precious commodity something we must work at every day. It does not just happen all by itself.
Ham radio and the freedom to communicate freely is the same way. No one, to the best of my knowledge, was born with the knowledge and skills needed to use technology, any technology, to convey ideas, solve problems or just “shoot the breeze”. Using wireless technology, including Ham Radio equipment, is a learned process. If you don’t believe me just tune in to any repeater system and witness the number of key-ups or “kerchunks” followed by dead silence. Those of us who are Volunteer Examiners were called on to administer Morse Code tests to evaluate the ability of Ham Radio license candidates to operate with Morse Code. I sometimes think we need some sort of Phone Proficiency exam as part of the testing process to make sure that operators actually know what to do once they have pressed the Push-To-Talk button.
But back to the topic of “complacency”. It has been thirteen years since those of us on the West Coast of Florida experienced a major disaster. Someone said to me the other day we need a good hurricane or some other type of disaster event to shake everyone out of their complacency and not take everything for granted. By nature, humans, including those of us with an Amateur Radio license, tend to get into a “comfort zone” and stay there because it is the easy thing to do. We avoid taking on challenges or thinking outside the box unless it is something we are really motivated to do.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where the challenges are growing in scope and in number. There are the natural threats (like severe weather and hurricanes) that we can get some prior warning about. And then there are the manmade threats for which we will receive almost no prior warning.
One threat we need to take seriously is EMP – Electro Magnetic Pulse. EMP can occur naturally, the result of sunspot solar flare activity and lightning. EMP can also be manmade on a scale that can range from something very localized to a catastrophic, existential event. The loss of the electric power grid and most electronic communications (including Ham Radio) that we rely on daily could have an enormous impact.
There are several actions you can take to mitigate the threat from EMP. First, protect your radio equipment with EMP-rated devices, like PolyPhasor Lightning Protectors. The West Central Florida Group, Inc. has been using EMP-rated lightning protection for over a decade at our several NI4CE repeater sites. Second, build a Faraday Cage and place one or more radios into it for safe keeping. Third, think about all the things you need electricity for and what you would do if the lights went out. You will find this goes well beyond communications. Finally, raise your voice with your elected representatives and electric power provider about the work that needs to be done to shore up the Electric Power Grid in the United States. Several studies conducted over the last two decades have concluded the electric grid is at significant risk from an EMP event. One of these studies has determined the power grid can be strengthened and made more secure at a cost of around $2 billion. Complacency about this problem and its potential impact, however, has led to inaction. Not good enough!
Take stock of the freedoms we enjoy this Independence Day Week. And if you will be cooking some burgers on the grill, I’ll take mine medium rare!
Comparing radios with one another is what a “Shootout” is all about. It is a time tested method for evaluating the various offerings in the marketplace where apples are apples (so to speak), not oranges, apricots or grapefruit.
The advent and miniaturization of silicon components have allowed several manufacturers to cram so many features into very small physical packages. Sometimes we lose sight of what is really important – voice and speech quality. The ultimate test for any two-way radio should be how well it actually sounds. All the fancy features don’t mean a hoot if the radio sounds like something that was just dragged through a swamp.
The ability of the radio to reproduce clear, intelligible audio is a by-product of the technology inside the chassis. But that is not the only factor. The operating mode of your radio (analog versus digital), the modulation schema of the radio (AM, FM, SSB, FDMA, TDMA, etc.) and the signal strength of both the transmitted carrier and the received carrier all factor into the clarity and understandability of what you hear. One other really important factor is the quality of the speaker or headset you are using to reproduce what has been transmitted.
Amateur Radio operators have been very slow adopting digital voice radios. I am sure price has had something to do with it, particularly given the number of cheap (and I am not just talking about price) radios that have flooded the market. Digital voice radios require a chip, a vocoder, that converts speech to zeros and one for transmission and, conversely, takes the received zeroes and ones and re-creates human speech. A vocoder or any kind of DSP (digital speech processing) adds to the cost of these radios. But take it from someone who values clear speech without all the bleeps, chirps, snap, crackle and static crashes, the cost of the vocoder and what it brings to the table is well worth the expense.
The downside with digital voice radios is the lack of compatibility. Even though most digital voice radios are built around the same vocoder chip, there is no one single set of standards the manufacturers have adopted for these radios. Two-way digital voice radio is unlike digital broadcast radio and digital television where all manufacturers have built their transmitters and receiving equipment to a universal standard. This lack of a single standard has scared off Hams from entering the digital realm for the lack of interoperability. Analog radios may not sound as clear and readable as their digital counterparts. But at least they all work together, well, sort of.
The FCC laid out a roadmap and their vision for narrowband digital voice radio in 2004. Two Japanese radio manufacturers, ICOM and Kenwood, took on the challenge and created NXDN. Their products are interoperable in conventional (non-trunking) mode. And the radios produce clear, easy to understand audio that is shaped to the human ear. Oddly enough, it was an American company, now among others, who begged, pleaded and lobbied for an exception to what the FCC laid out. Why? Because their narrowband digital voice radios took a different path.
Had the FCC stood its ground fifteen years ago to ensure compatibility and interoperability, narrowband digital voice radio would not be the Beta vs VHS free-for-all it has turned out to be. Two likely outcomes would be better, less expensive radios for all to use and enjoy and advanced technological innovation.
The TampaBay area is a leader in Amateur Radio NXDN digital voice radio. Come visit the NI4CE Booth at the TampaBay Hamfest December 13 and 14 to hear just how good NXDN radios sound.
-October 29, 2019
Unless you have been living under a rock (and are reading this post from that hideout), you already have heard the words “Supply Chain Crisis”. This is not something that we have had to put up with for a long time. After all, the United States has a comprehensive and diversified transportation infrastructure that has served us well for decades. Trains, trucks, planes – we have it all. So what is going on? And how is the current CRUNCH affecting Amateur Radio, near term and for the long haul (no pun intended)?
First, the speed bumps currently impeding the Supply Chain are affecting every aspect of the process of turning raw materials into finished, saleable products. The “Just In Time” mode of doing business is no longer living up to its name. Getting raw materials into the hands of manufacturers has been turned upside down. One of the underlying causes is the shortage of workers. Some of these shortages are regional and largely reflect the impact of the CoVID-10 pandemic. The CoVID pandemic, coupled with onerous regulations in some locales has also diminished the number of drivers in the labor pool. Many have simply walked away from the Trucking industry or have retired.
While many businesses have fully re-opened here in Florida, many in other parts of the country have not been so fortunate. CoVID is still having a major impact on the West Coast. This has caused factory output to falter and major delays at nearly all West Coast Ports of Entry (not just in California). Delay is the new name of the game. We are now seeing major delays, first unloading cargo transported by containerized ship, then getting that cargo to an intermediate or final destination.
Domestic ground, rail, and air transport services are the next speed bump. Excessive regulation has caused a major hit to commercial trucking. A significant number of independent truckers have been taken out of the game, many permanently by rules limiting the age of transport vehicles. And new “Green Energy” mandates will further deplete these resources. Major over-the-road haulers are still plagued by drivers calling in sick. No one is quite sure how looming vaccine mandates will impact the truck, rail, and air transporters. All are labor-intensive. And all complement each other. This is true with international transport. For example, if a Japanese radio manufacturer needs to get the product to the United States, they use to be able to rely on both the surface ship industry and air freight. Flights between Asia and the U.S. cut when the pandemic first began are slow to return. This is also true with domestic carriers although that appears to be improving. Even if an overseas factory can produce the finished products on time, getting them into the United States is problematic.
Here is how Amateur Radio (and the overall commercial radio marketplace) is affected. Most radios we now use come from Asia, mainly Japan and China. The impact of the AKM fire in Japan last year slowed the production of many radios (and a lot of other things). That manufacturer is, once again, open for business. Radios that used their chips are being produced. They just cost a lot more. Getting the finished goods out the door has resumed. Now the crunch is transportation to their destination. The container ships parked at sea off all major West Coast ports (not just Los Angeles) cannot offload their cargo. Even if a ship’s containerized cargo can be offloaded, the number of trucks and drivers to haul it away has been diminished by the regulations we mentioned earlier.
So, what about loading the cargo onto trains? This is being done but this method of transport has its limitations. So, the cargo containers pile up at the ports going nowhere fast. And the longer those containers sit there, existing inventories are depleted and are not being replenished.
Most Amateur and Commercial Radio products, as we noted earlier in this article, are caught in this transportation conundrum. The delivery of product from overseas factories is delayed by thirty, sixty, as much as ninety days by the “Port Crunch”. International air freight services remain severely limited. With a shortage of domestic trucks and drivers, many of whom have retired or gotten out of the business, your new radio just sits there.
The United States used to be a manufacturing powerhouse. Not so much anymore, due in large part to government policy changes, cheap labor, lower production costs overseas, and an unwillingness to rethink the domestic production process. Now, it is coming back to bite. I cannot predict when or even if our domestic production capabilities will ever come back. But, this Christmas and likely for the foreseeable future, a picture of your new radio is what you are most likely going to find under the tree.
-November 11, 2021