NI4CE regional linked repeater system


By Paul Toth-NB9X

There was a time when Cellular Phones were ANALOG. Some of you may be too young to remember those devices. Trust me. They did exist. And the coverage and audio quality left something to be desired.

Around the beginning of this century, the carriers and the manufacturers started to make the transition to DIGITAL equipment and service. One of the first things most people noticed was the hash, noise, snap, crackle, and pop was replaced by weird, R2D2 machine-sounding audio when you were in a weak signal area. Dropped calls were also prevalent. Actually, dropped calls are not a thing of the past. They are just less frequent as the carrier infrastructure has been built out and improved.

Most Ham Radio operators have one (or more) of these digital radios in their pocket or on their belt. So, why is it Ham Radio operators have been slow to embrace Digital Ham Radio? And will Ham Radio, on VHF and UHF with better propagation and coverage characteristics than cellular, ever GO DIGITAL?

First, like cellular communications, Digital Ham Radio is not a single technology or standard. You may not have realized this but each cell carrier has its own technological platform. Verizon is CDMA. AT&T is GSM. T-Mobile is HSPPA. To make this all work, those carriers and the industry figured out how to seamlessly transfer all the bits and bytes from one carrier or to another carrier. No, you can’t use your Verizon phone on an AT&T or T-Mobile network and vice versa.

Ham Radio is not that simple. Ham Radio is Push-To-Talk with multiple digital platforms to choose from. Like cellular, it is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. There is my favorite, NXDN. And then there is also DMR, Fusion, P25, and D-Star. There are some Hotspot devices (not a real radio) that will translate one format to another. But, again, these are computers, not radios.

Before you can build out repeater infrastructure, you have to have some agreement on which Common Air Interface (protocol) to embrace. An obstacle many need to overcome is Brand Loyalty. Hams love their ICOMs, their Kenwoods, their Yaseus, their Hytera/TYT radios. Often, it is more a case of Name Plate on the radio than what is actually inside the chassis that makes it work. But assuming you can come to some consensus, you can start building your repeater, assuming you have anyone in your Ham Radio “circle of friends” who still knows how to do that. When all is said and done, it is often just easier to stick with ANALOG and endure the snap, crackle, pop, and noise.

The lack of a viable Digital RF infrastructure in many parts of the US has created an obstacle to the development of DIGITAL HAM RADIO. It has also given rise to very small computers called Hotspots that run software to encode/decode the Digital Radio streams available on the Internet. All you need is an Internet connection and, voila, you can be talking NXDN, DMR, P25, etc. Some Hams have connected their Hotspots to Wi-Fi and a Cellular modem and leverage their Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile account to operate outside the confines of their “Ham Shack”.

Fortunately, West Central Florida is NOT one of these locales. The West Central Florida Group, Inc. now has in place a robust and connected NXDN Digital Ham Radio infrastructure for licensed Hams to use in their Shack, their vehicles, when they are walking down the street, a trial, or at the beach. The NI4CE Digital Repeater infrastructure supports NXDN conventional voice and data (messages and GPS). If you have not heard NXDN Digital Ham Radio, the voice quality will blow you away. And it is not that expensive to get into.

Make 2022 the year you invest in NXDN Digital Ham Radio and find out how useful, how much fun, and how practical it can be, even if you are living in a Deed Restricted neighborhood.
-January 4, 2022

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By Dave Rockwell-W4PXE

Lots of hams on NI4CE wanted to help during Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. After all, many of us became radio amateurs to become public service operators in the Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES). There were questions every night on Eagle Net about how to get health and welfare (H&W) traffic into first Texas, then the Caribbean, and, after Maria, into Puerto Rico. Folks with family in the impacted areas reached out to amateurs here in our coverage area to get messages to friends and loved ones. Many amateurs were frustrated when their H&W traffic requests were turned back. So, let me see if I can put this situation in perspective.

First, let’s look at the situation where we, the local amateurs, are in the impact zone of the hurricane (works for earthquakes, volcanoes, blizzards, and manmade disasters). Depending on the severity of damage, we may only have a small number of radio stations that can operate. Since the power will be out, the stations will likely be on generator or battery power. These operators may have suffered damage and trauma from the storm. Bottom line: If these operators can operate at all, it is for a short period of time. Remember our rule in ARES is “family first”. Make sure you and your family are safe before jumping on the radio.

If the impact area is large, there will be thousands of people displaced by the event. We need an efficient means for folks in the impact zone to pass messages to friends and loved ones. ARES usually works with non-government organizations (NGOs as we call them in Emergency Management) like the Red Cross or Salvation Army (and other faith-based groups). These organizations have proven techniques for collecting health and welfare information. In the impacted area, the NGOs set up reception tables and may have representatives in major shelters and medical facilities. These reps collect names and status of people and destination information for the H&W message. These are assembled into book traffic destined for regions. This makes very efficient use of the scarce radio time.

Now let’s look at what should happen outside the impact area. The natural tendency for most people who know a ham operator is to ask him or her to send a radiogram to the relative or friend. This isn’t bad for a small local event, but the number of such requests soon overwhelms the National Traffic System and the Radio Relay International nets. So, once again, we rely on our partner NGOs, like the Red Cross and Salvation Army to collect requests, assemble them into book traffic, and pass them to affiliated amateur stations.

With our modern, network-based, communications such as the Internet and cellular phone service, amateur radio nets are becoming the last resort channel. If the network infrastructure is partially intact in the impacted areas, the local, state, or regional emergency management team may establish online resources for folks to post H&W queries and reports. Some of the social media services, like Facebook, have services where folks can report their status to friends and loved ones. If the networks are running, these should be the first way. Local governments or NGOs in the impacted areas may establish kiosks where those impacted can post their status. Don’t forget cellphone text messaging. Many times, text messages can make it through the system when voice cannot. The messages take very little bandwidth.

In general, for amateur radio nets during disasters, we give priority to outbound traffic. Inbound H&W queries may be rejected or cached. We want to give precedence to actual H&W traffic, like ARRL ONE (“Everyone safe here. Please don’t worry.”) from a specific person going to a specific destination. Remember, we probably have limited time windows based on the fuel in the generator and propagation, to get that message delivered. Clogging the system with hundreds or thousands of queries doesn’t help. Some of the NGOs set up bulletin boards for incoming queries. These might be online or actual physical signboards. It can be different for each location and disaster.

Now, what do we need to do? First, we need to educate our fellow amateurs in how H&W information is passed. Consider making it a topic at your next ham club meeting. Reach out to your local NGOs and build a working relationship and develop processes to handle H&W traffic. Make sure your agreements and practice sessions with the NGO include the scenarios of being in the disaster zone and serving folks who are outside the zone. Also, tell your family, friends, social groups, and others how the process works. They should know to contact the Red Cross to find out about someone’s status in the impact zone. Ensure everyone knows that it may take days or weeks to get an answer to the query. It’s not unusual for the person in the impacted area to call the relative long before a reply from the amateur radio H&W messages makes it.
In times of emergency like the recent hurricanes, we need to remember that we are communications experts first and radio operators second. We need to advise folks on the most likely channels to get their message through or the query answered. When that channel is amateur radio, then we need to apply our best traffic handling skills and make sure the message gets through as quickly and accurately as possible. Remember, these skills come with practice. If you haven’t sent and received messages in the last six months, you are probably rusty. Join one of the traffic nets and take traffic.
73 de W4PXE

Dave Rockwell-W4PXE is Manager of the Eagle Traffic Net conducted nightly at 8:30 PM. Dave is also a West Central Florida Group Inc. Board Member.

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

If you read my posts on a regular basis, you know most are focused on using communications technology to help make our lives better. And because these posts appear here on a website devoted to Amateur Radio, special attention is paid to our wonderful hobby.

I am going to broaden the scope of this post, however, not only because there is a potential direct impact to Amateur Radio but to everyone in of society. And my comments are going to be directed toward a particular segment of our Florida population: our elected politicians in Tallahassee.

Once again, lawmakers are headed down another rat hole trying to fix the problem of distracted driving. As well intentioned as their effort might be, once again, they have it all wrong. You are not going to stop distracted anything, crawling, walking, driving, skateboarding, roller blading, wind surfing or any other endeavor involving cell phones and motion unless you force a common sense change to the technology. As long as the display on these devices can remain active while the device is in motion, it is only human nature that some will want to and continue to use their smart phone to text, email, or play with some other app inappropriately.

Distracted driving is a huge problem. Lives are being lost. Many other people, through no fault of their own, are being injured. But this stupidity is not limited to people operating motor vehicles. The distraction of using portables devices is also a problem with pedestrian traffic as well. A person texting while walking is a hazard to other pedestrians around them and to themselves (particularly if they step off the curb and walk out in front of a moving vehicle).

The only way you are going to curb this serious problem is to use the onboard technology now built into all smart phones to disable the device’s display when the smart phone is in motion, period! If you can’t see the message, you can’t read it or write a response to it. With text to speech technology also included on many of these devices, it may also be necessary to disable this capability as well to control this problem and human behavior.

Of course, there will be some people who will scream bloody murder claiming their rights are being infringed by such a law. Too bad! Operating a digital information device while in motion is not a right granted in anyone’s Constitution. And the last time I looked, driving a motor vehicle is a “privilege” not a “right”.

Common sense would go a long way toward solving the problem of distracted people in motion and all that can result. But we all know that common sense is not very common. So, in its absence, other action is required. If our politicians really want to curb “digital distraction”, they need to effectively limit the use of the technology, not just slap another band-aid on the open wound and hope it cures the patient. Senate bill S76 and House bill HB 107 are not the answer.
-March 8, 2019

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

Volunteer Examination Teams are starting to gear up to comply with a NEW requirement the FCC is about to mandate of all Amateur Radio license holders. Sometime in 2021, the FCC is going to require all licensees to have a real email address and include it as part of the official license record.

Now, this new requirement may not sound like a BIG DEAL. After all, our current license record includes a U.S.P.S postal address the Commission has required for decades for conducting “official business” with all Amateur Radio license holders. This official address is where your FCC License document, as well as any other official FCC documents, are mailed. Most of us meet this requirement by providing our HOME address here. It is also legal to use a Post Office Box for those Hams who want a little more privacy.

But the FCC now says they are no longer going to rely on the Postal Service (or any other private carrier) to conduct official communication with licensees. Instead, it will (sometime in the near future) use the Internet to conduct their official business with us. A foreshadowing of this was the FCC’s decision to require operators to electronically download and print a PDF file that IS your official FCC Amateur Radio license document.

Most of us already have one or more “real” email addresses, not to mention the pseudo addresses that point to one of those ”real” addresses. On the surface, this should not seem to be a burden. But there are some folks who, for whatever reason, have not bought into what I will call the “Grand Master Plan” that BIG TECH has for all of us. They have heard about the SPAM, the PHISHING, the SECURITY BREACHES that have become part of our daily lives. They are just now interested in having a JUNK MAIL folder to manage or spending one second dealing with all the scams and other stuff that comes with “life on the Net”. After all, Ham Radio is supposed to be fun, isn’t it?

There is a part of me that is resigned to having to provide the government with a commercial email address (that costs me money every month – nothing is FREE, you know). The FCC has been electronically storing our license information for years. If the record(s) are already stored as bits and bytes, the next logical step is communicating with the licensee in the same manner. Some people think it is a less costly and more efficient way of doing business.

But hold on there just a minute. What are those new license application fees the FCC has proposed imposing on us all about? Is there also a plan lurking just below the surface to sell OUR email address to one or more entities to generate a new revenue stream to be used for who knows what purpose? And what happens when this new morsel of information gets hacked?

I suppose I should feel lucky. It wasn’t all that long ago when the Federal government tried to force me to buy a health insurance plan that cost a lot more than an email address or Internet service. At least, I can still get on the air and “play radio” for another week or two.
-December 12, 2020

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

For those of you who may have missed the Tech Net last Thursday evening on the NI4CE Repeater System, I thought I would share some comments I made concerning an equipment heating issue we recently solved.

The problem first showed its ugly head several months ago when we installed a new RF power amplifier at the Verna Repeater Site. The new amp boosts the output power of the 145.430 MHz VHF repeater there. To achieve the rated power output of the amplifier, we needed to feed it with two watts from the repeater. Sounds simple enough, just dial back the power output and all is good.

Shortly after the amplifier went into service, problems began cropping up. During a Net where both the repeater and the amplifier were in transmit mode for an extended period of time, the output power dropped to almost zero. The symptoms suggested an overheating problem. Was it the repeater or the amplifier? Since the repeater had been in service for an extended period of time and without incident, it was logical to suspect the amp. A fan was placed in front of the heat sink to provide additional heat dissipation. That seemed to work for a while.

But alas after a few weeks, the problem showed up again. And this time, it persisted.

Troubleshooting the repeater got a lot easier with the development of a Windows app and direct IP connectivity that allowed us to monitor the repeater’s core temperature in real time. It did not take long to conclude the repeater, in fact, was where the heat issue resided. The temperature inside the repeater chassis rose quickly during Nets and other periods of extended transmit operations.

To provide better heat dissipation, one of the WCFG Board members (and a retired engineer) Paul Knupke-N4PK, resurrected a desire that has been in place for several years at the NI4CE Riverview site. He modified a rackmount shelf and attached two high volume four inch fans that would blow air across the heat sink and chassis of the VHF and its companion UHF repeater. We tested the impact of the additional air flow in a controlled environment similar to the Verna Communications Room. The data collected confirmed this design worked keeping both repeaters within their published operating temperature. Since this modification has been installed, both repeaters are operating within normal parameters, even during extended transmit periods.

The important take away from this experience is the importance of gathering empirical data to support your troubleshooting hypothesis. In this instance, the problem was excessive heat generation. But the initial culprit, the external power amplifier, was not the culprit. It was the repeater, a piece of equipment that operates within its rated one hundred percent duty cycle power output. Had we not been able to measure the internal core temperature of the repeater, we might still be chasing the problem.

Let us know what you think by sending email to [email protected] or on our Facebook page.

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

By many accounts, our brush with Hurricane Elsa was a good warm-up exercise. Wind damage was minimal. Coastal flooding was also a lot less than it could have been. Our biggest problem was inland flooding caused by significant rainfall. In some cases, that rainfall occurred many miles removed from where the worst flooding has occurred. That certainly has been the case in Northport (Southern Sarasota County) where rainfall runoff from the Northern part of Sarasota County and Eastern Manatee County filled the streets in some Northport neighborhoods for the first time in five or more years.

The influx of new residents into many of our communities has areas that were previously undeveloped has created a new severe weather baseline. It created a first time experience for many that should not be ignored. And, this new normal is something community leaders cannot afford to ignore either because if it can happen once, it will happen again.

Every Tropical Weather event is also an opportunity for new Hams and not-so-new Hams alike to, as the saying goes, “get their feet wet” with their radios. I was a bit surprised by the sheer number of operators with KM4, KN4 and KO4 prefix call signs requesting on-air radio checks during the Tuesday night and Wednesday morning of Elsa. On one hand, it was gratifying to know these Hams were there and wanted confirmation they could be heard on the NI4CE repeater system. On the other hand, as a Net Control Station, these radio check requests also served as a distraction during a time when the weather was changing minute by minute.

I have been thinking about how we can help all operators, particularly new ones, be better prepared for the next storm. Here are a couple of thoughts.

First, look at the NI4CE System coverage map located on this website. If you are located inside any one of the coverage circles, pre-program your radio to operate on that repeater. Of course, I would also encourage you to program all six NI4CE repeaters into your radio, even if there is little or no chance you will need that repeater during the next storm. Why? Simple, NI4CE covers a very large geographic area both urban and rural. If you live in Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk or Sarasota Counties, there is a good chance you can get into more than one NI4CE repeater. It is always good to have a backup repeater to fall back on.

Second, the NI4CE system offers a number of Nets each week for you to check-in to. Since most radios are equipped with a signal strength meter or S Meter, you can discover which repeater has the strongest signal at your location. Some radios are also capable of showing you the signal strength numerically with a RSSI feature. If you can hear one or more of the repeaters with a single bar showing on the S Meter, you have a great chance of being heard clearly when you transmit. You will receive confirmation of this when you check-in to a non-emergency Net.

Third, (and this is important) know what the charge status on your radio’s battery. If your battery is LOW, your radio will not operate at or even near It’s peak output power. Make sure your battery is changed and ready to go. Just as there may be more than one NI4CE repeater you can connect through, having a spare battery charged up and ready to go when your primary battery is low is also important. Most battery chargers will rapid charge your battery to ninety percent in three hours, usually less. That optimizes your radio’s output during long duration events, like Elsa.

Fourth, if you are operating with a portable radio, now is the time to explore your options to acquire, install and test a beefier antenna. We sometimes refer to original equipment portable antennas as “dummy loads” because their ability to propagate a signal often falls short of expectations. A base or mobile class antenna in your attic or near a window can significantly improve the coverage you can achieve versus the standard “Rubber Duck”. You will likely need an adapter to connect this alternate antenna. If your antenna retailer cannot provide the correct adapter, go online. A good place to look is .

One last item…if you are making a report during a severe weather Net, please keep your transmission as short and to the point as possible. The important stuff is:

• WHO is making the report.
• WHAT are you reporting.
• WHEN did it happen.
• WHERE did the event take place.

I know, this sounds like Journalism 101 because it is! As long as there is severe weather, you will hear about it on NI4CE! Just, please, don not report HAIL as “Marble-sized” because marbles come in various sizes.
-July 12, 2021

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

I was asked recently by a Society of Broadcast Engineers Chapter to put together a presentation on one of my favorite topics, Amateur Radio. The membership wanted to know, among other things:

• WHO can be a licensed Amateur Radio Operator
• WHAT do you need to know to get your FCC license
• WHEN and WHERE can I take the license exam
• WHY would I want to become a licensed Ham
• HOW many different things can I do once I have my license

Hmmm….there is that WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY, and HOW from Journalism 101 again!

Well, in case you are interested in becoming a licensed Ham or know someone else who is, here are the basics. The WHO is any U.S. Citizen no matter what their age can become a licensed Ham operator. WHAT do you need to know? The Technician class exam requires a basic knowledge of electronics, an understanding of the Part 97 rules (i.e. what frequencies and modes you can use, how often you must identify your station, RF Safety guidelines, etc.) and common-sense operating practices. The Technician (and General) exams both consist of thirty-five, multiple-choice questions, all of which can be downloaded from the Internet.

The audience for this presentation consisted of professional broadcast engineers and technicians, many of who already have a commercial FCC operator’s license. If there is any NEW material to absorb, it is likely confined to the specific Part 97 rules. They already know the rest of what is needed to pass the test. WHEN they are ready, there are some Volunteer Examination teams in West Central Florida. While many of these teams have been sidelined recently by the CoVID-19 pandemic, I expect VE Testing Sessions will start opening up again soon. If you open your Internet Browser and search for Amateur Radio Testing in West Central Florida, you will see WHEN and WHERE testing will be conducted.

The answer to, “WHY would I want to become a licensed Amateur Radio operator?” is an esoteric question and is unique to each individual. Some people get their license to be of service to their community. Others want to experiment or use their Ham Radio privileges as part of their education. For some (and you might find this to be the case with professional broadcasters), Ham Radio becomes an extension of their occupation, a place to experiment. Above all, remember, Ham Radio Is the FIRST Social Media and a way to commiserate with your peers.

As you might expect, there were also questions: about repeaters, mobile versus portable radios, digital operating modes (and because we live in an area where they are so prevalent) how can Hams operate under the thumb of Homeowners Associations and Deed Restrictions. Remember, broadcasters are keenly aware of PRB-1’s provisions, far more aware than most HOAs.

No matter what your profession, Amateur Radio has something for everyone. If you want to take the plunge, a good way to get started is with a copy of the ARRL’s “Tech Q&A” license prep manual, available online at . You will not only see all the questions (and answers) that make up the Technician Class exam, it also gives you an explanation for each correct answer. And it will point you in the direction of Technician Class Prep Exams you can take online to test your readiness to take the test in front of three Volunteer Examiners. So, when you are ready, come on down, join the fun and be one of the “cool kids”!
-July 11, 2020

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

Ham Radio is usually pretty straight forward.  However, two recent events got me to thinking about the IRONY associated with our future.

Event #1 is our current fundraising campaign on for the Riverview Site Refresh.  BTW, to participate and contribute to our effort to update the two NI4CE Riverview Repeaters, antennas, and associated support technology, just go to   And a heartfelt THANK YOU to everyone who has contributed so far.

Isn’t IRONIC we must rely on media other than our own to generate the resources needed to IMPROVE our media?   That’s because Part 97.113 of the FCC rules that govern Amateur Radio prohibits anyone associated with the management of the repeaters from going on the air and talking about the campaign.  Now, if NI4CE was a CLOSED system, I could see some logic to such a prohibition.  But NI4CE is open to all licensed Amateur Radio operators, no strings attached.  I guess whoever came up with this rule must think the money needed to operate and maintain Amateur Radio technology, be it OPEN TO ALL voice repeaters, RF digital links, or any other Ham Radio resource, must grow on trees.  Of course, come to think about it, the rules are written by the same government that doesn’t seem to worry about whether they have money in the bank before they spend it.  If the Treasury is short, they just print whatever they need.  We, on the other hand, can’t do that.

What made Event #2 ironic was the nature of an inquiry that occurred on the repeater the other day.  An admittedly unlicensed individual came on the repeater asking for information on how he could obtain an Amateur Radio license.   Think about that for just a moment.  And while you are doing that, assume the all-encompassing information resource called the Internet did not exist.  Where else would you expect someone to go to find out how to obtain an Amateur Radio license?  Unless you already know someone who has gone through the process, you could easily be stymied in your quest for such information.

When I obtained my license twenty-five years ago, I was fortunate to work with someone who could point me in the right direction.  Not everyone is as fortunate.  And back in the “last century”, there were also Ham Radio retailers who operated storefronts where you could walk-in and not only find out how to get your license but also touch and feel and ask questions about all the Ham Radio gear that was on sale.  With a few exceptions, those storefronts have been replaced by the Internet.  And the likes of Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and even your Cable-Internet-Cell Phone provider are the ones with walk-in storefront operations where there is no license required (only deep pockets).

Let’s be clear:  Amateur Radio has never been FREE!  There has been, is, and will always be a need to FUND the technology we use, be it individually or collectively (as in the case for repeaters, mesh networks, etc.).  Just as importantly, there will be no Amateur Radio without a continuing influx of new operators to keep both the government-regulated Service and the Hobby alive!

We know there are people, some say many people, who monitor Amateur Radio repeaters and Nets (no license required).  Here’s an idea we should incorporate into every Net preamble:  “If you are not currently a licensed Ham operator but would like to become one, send an email to … [email protected] or go to for more information.”  As the saying goes, if you are not moving forward, you are falling behind.  Amateur Radio is too valuable a social and communications resource to be stymied from moving forward by its own rules. 
-August 17, 2020

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

We have heard a lot about “social distancing” during the past few weeks as the effort to curb the coronavirus is fully ramped up. This relatively new phenomenon is foreign to how most humans live their lives. As a species, we thrive on social interaction with our families and our friends. Teamwork, the heart of most businesses depends on the development of strong social bonds.

Unfortunately, the spread of the coronavirus also depends on strong and close human-to-human contract. Yes, there are indirect ways of becoming infected. The bug is known to survive on flat surfaces for a finite period of time. But it is human proximity to a carrier that is, by far, the Number One method of passing CoVID-19 from one person to another. And with the mobility most Americans have available to them, it is not hard to see how it could be transmitted, not just person to person but from one region to another.

So how does Ham Radio fit into this picture? Simple – Ham Radio is a way for those of us who are licensed to maintain social contact with our friends and, in some cases, other members of our family. After all, Ham Radio is a “social media”. In fact, in our modern age of electronic communications, it was the forerunner to everything else out there. And how we now use Ham Radio and our license privileges during this worldwide pandemic can be one key to preventing the spread of the virus, losing our sense of being and maintaining our sanity.

Ham Radio is a great way to reach out to friends who share a common interest. Just letting them know you are there is important! At the same time, Ham Radio provides an avenue to continue exchanging ideas, solving problems, giving someone a helping hand on a project they may be working on. And it is an immediate way to share information on something important that has just occurred, like a power outage or some other time-sensitive event that has just occurred. If you are someone who is now working from home, a call from a fellow Ham can also provide a much-needed break you might not otherwise get. Think of it as that chat with a co-worker or buddy at the water cooler.

Ham Radio is not a panacea for the serious times we are currently in. But reaching out over the air with others that are in the same life raft we are all in at the moment will help take your mind off all the “doom and gloom” you will see on TV. It is a SAFE form of social contact and a way for you to keep your wits about you when the light at the end of the tunnel may be difficult to see. So, fire up your radio. Get on the air. Who knows, you might even make a new friend or two at a time when “social distancing” is on full display.

And if you do have to leave your home for any reason, be careful and stay safe!
-March 26,2020

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

It seems like everywhere you turn, there is talk, speculation, conjecture and a lot more about CoVID-19 otherwise known as the coronavirus.  Here is what we do know.  The epicenter is Wuhan, China.  In the last week, Europe is now the focal point.  Had it not been for the travel ban from China implemented by President Trump, we could very well have that dubious honor.  Moving forward, we all have a personal responsibility to wash our hands thoroughly and frequently, isolate ourselves as much as we can to avoid becoming infected as well as being a carrier and passing it on to other people.  This may turn out to be one of the most serious threats to our country ever.  But if we work together, we will get through this crisis and be better off for it.

So, what does this have to do with Ham Radio?  Unfortunately, more than you might think.  One thing we can say with some certainty is that CoVID-19 is not spread via RF coming from China or any other locale it has infected.  You won’t find this tidbit on Cable News or any of the other media outlets that are driving a “Sky Is Falling” narrative.

Here is something else we can say with alarming certainty.  We are now finding out our willingness to support the non-domestic production of radio equipment, for Ham Radio, Public Safety, consumer cellular devices, and WiFi, is not unique.  Turns out, many of the most common drugs, pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, and devices are also being imported from the same area in China that has been hit the hardest by the coronavirus.  Still, think your Bao-feng is such a bargain?

Virtually none of the radio equipment we use today in Ham Radio is domestically produced.  If it isn’t imported from China, it comes from some other far-off place.  ICOM, Kenwood, Yaesu, and Alinco radios are produced primarily in Japan, although some newer models and accessories are now finding their way to market from China.  There was a time when a Motorola or a Harris product was domestically produced.  But if you have one of their products, check the label.  Both companies have major manufacturing facilities in China.  As for the other electronics we use, most of it is produced outside the USA.

I am not going to speculate on how long the coronavirus is going to be around or how much of a problem it is going to pose to the US and the rest of the world.   We simply don’t have enough information at this point to know.  A more accurate statement would be “We don’t know what we don’t know”. 

What I can say with some certainty is Ham Radio is a powerful communications asset that may be called on to help mitigate the impact of the coronavirus.  If nothing else, it is a way to mitigate the “social distancing” we should all practice during the next several weeks.  So, peep your batteries charged, your radios ready and your operating skills sharp.
-March 16, 2020

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

In a perfect world, one could make the case that Amateur Radio should be a completely self-contained, self-sufficient communications entity. By that, I mean Amateur Radio has all the spectrum, bandwidth, operating modes, and technological resources to reach around the corner, around the state, even around the world and not have to rely on anyone or anything anywhere. That’s in a perfect world.

Of course, if you have been an Amateur Radio operator for more than fifteen minutes, you know what is about as far from reality as you can get. And then throw into the equation the not so small matter of “reliability”, and you really have a challenge on your hands. I have run out of fingers, toes, hands, and feet counting all the moans, groans and complaints I have heard from Hams over “bands not being open”.

One part of Ham Radio that has never been addressed by the regulators is the use of the “Internet”. Maybe it’s because the Internet is relatively new (25 years) and the FCC hasn’t been paying attention. Connecting Ham Radio to “commercial telecommunications services” goes back much longer than the existence of the Internet. Hams have been connecting radios of all kinds to “Ma Bell” for a long, long time. Remember the Phone Patches of the Vietnam War era? How about more the localized phone patches to repeaters in the eighties and nineties to avoid buying a cell phone? Of course, you were not supposed to use one of those circuits to call outside your Area Code or LATA so as not to cheat your local phone company out of revenue.

But then along came the Internet in 1995 and all bets were off because the Internet was all about breaking down barriers. Early use of the Internet in Ham Radio came about with IRLP (to link VHF and UHF repeaters together on demand). It’s still around and joined by another linking platform, Allstar. But, hey, if we can link two repeaters together, why not individual Hams and alas, along came Echolink, where only one side of the conversation needed to originate through a repeater and span hundreds or thousands of miles.

Linking digital repeaters together (NXDN, DMR, P25, D-Star, Fusion) using the Internet locally, nationally and even to other continents is commonplace. Would I prefer accomplishing this linking through some other means, say a Ham Radio Intranet operating on Amateur Radio spectrum above 1 GHz. Absolutely! However, the impending loss of the Amateur Radio allocations at 3.3 GHz and 5.9 GHz coupled with the impact of all the Part 15 overlay make that a lot less likely to happen.

Even Hams wanting to operate on “over-the-horizon” HF bands are finding a friend on the Internet to connect their deed-restricted Home Station to some location where deed restrictions have not prohibited the existence of their large antenna arrays.

As much as the Internet and all the communications services may be inhibiting new interest in Amateur Radio, it has become pretty clear today’s Ham Radio has benefitted from it. But wait, there are rumblings the regulators at the FCC may now be looking at this and maybe formulating some new regulations about its use. It is too early to read any tea leaves and get some insight into what they may be thinking. But how the FCC rules on RM-11831 could afford us some clues. Stay tuned!
-February 3, 2020

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

Recently, I had the distinct honor to help five new Amateur Radio license candidates earn their first Amateur Radio license. At a time when many people think Amateur Radio is a thing of the past, something relegated to some museum somewhere, it is heartening to know there are still some people interested in jumping into the “RF Pool” and who are willing to do the work to earn their license and all that comes with it.

Amateur Radio Test Sessions, with very few exceptions, were put on hold during the pandemic. That’s because the testing of a license candidate must be in the presence of three licensed Amateur Radio operators (usually Amateur Extra class license holders) who have also earned their Volunteer Examiner accreditation.

The process of how Amateur Radio Test Sessions are conducted date back to the early 1980s when the FCC turned over its responsibility for conducting the licensing sessions to the Amateur Radio community. I know the process may seem a bit archaic in the day and age of computers, videoconferencing, and Remote Learning. But this important requirement, testing, in person and before a panel of your peers, is not all that different than that required by many professional licensing and accreditation organizations. The biggest difference with VEs is they are all volunteers. Your paycheck is still a glorious and overflowing $0.00! However, the satisfaction of knowing you have helped someone new earn their license and become part of the Amateur Radio community is “priceless”.

I don’t know if any of the five new operators who tested before the panel I was a part of will ever become a Volunteer Examiner. But, I sure hope it is something they will consider because it is as important to the future of Amateur Radio as having new candidates to test.

According to the rules, a licensed operator holding a General Class license or above can become a Volunteer Examiner. Most VEs hold an Extra Class license because it allows them to test for all license classes. There is some additional education required to become a VE but, frankly, most of what you need to know is “common sense”. The actual tests are constructed using questions and answers agreed to by the several Volunteer Examiner organizations (VECs) and approved by the FCC. The Question Pool for each license class (Technician, General, and Amateur Extra) is reviewed and revised every three years.

The pandemic put a real crunch on Amateur Radio testing. Many VEs (myself included) are older and were in the prime CoVid-19 exposure group. Fortunately, the vaccines have mitigated the risk, allowing VE Test Sessions to, once again, be conducted. Now that things are opening back up, it is heartening to see the interest in Amateur Radio is still there.r

If you hold an Amateur Extra class license, I encourage you to take the next step and become a Volunteer Examiner. If you have not yet earned your Extra class license, consider taking the test. And once you have earned the license, become a VE. As I noted earlier, the satisfaction and gratitude you will earn helping bring more people into the Amateur Radio community is “priceless”.
-June 21, 2021

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The Fight over 5G
By Paul Toth-NB9X

If it seems like we have been down this road before, it’s because we have been. Ham Radio operators know all too well what happens when the members of the “Aesthetics Brigade” mobilize in a neighborhood or development near you.

“Those towers and antennas that are near and dear to our hearts are ‘ugly eyesores’”, these do-gooders will shout at the top of their lungs. “They are a blight and immoral, an obscene violation of our sensibilities and cannot be allowed”.

Despite Federal laws like PRB-1, most residential developments built in the last fifteen years are not only absent of anything that remotely resembles a Ham Radio antenna, the Aesthetics Brigade has also been successful at running off satellite dishes and Over-the-Air TV/FM antennas from their midst, PRB-1 notwithstanding. And now, the Aesthetics Brigades have a new target to take aim at: 5G Wireless!

Battles are already being waged in what will be a nationwide war. Brigade members in one California community near San Francisco are trying to banish 5G antenna from atop neighborhood light poles using that “ugly” argument, again. Unlike 4G cellular, which relies on those “ugly” but not necessarily in our backyard towers and monopole structures, 5G service will need to be far more localized, embedded in each neighborhood. 5G signals at 28.5 GHz and 39 GHz, require antennas mounted on the tops of light poles to be effective. Of course, this not only fuels the “ugly” argument but also gives rise to “RF Radiation and Safety” concerns. Of course, Ham operators know you have to be within a few feet of “non-ionizing RF radiation” for it to be harmful. But the members of the Aesthetics Brigade have never let the facts get in the way of their scare tactics.

One thing the cellular providers have that Hams and others who have fought the “Ugly” wars in the past have not had if their own brigade of lawyers and the money to pay them. That may help level the playing field with City Hall and the HOAs this time around. Of course, another event that would level the playing field is a Federal Law (this time with teeth in it) that “wireless radiators regardless of their origin are permitted in all neighborhoods in the United States so long as they are in the public interest”.

Now, let me refer you to the verbiage contained in CFR47, FCC Part 97.1:
“The rules and regulations in this part are designed to provide an amateur radio service having a fundamental purpose as expressed in the following principles:
(a) Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications.”

Maybe 5G and Ham Radio do have something in common.
-June 6, 2019

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

For decades, Hams have subscribed to the “solar cycle” as a way of predicting when we would have good HF propagation and times when you would be hard-pressed to get out of your backyard on ten meters.  The eleven-year cycles have been pretty regular since radio has been part of the fabric of Ham Radio life.

However, that may be about to change.  If history will repeat itself, there could significant and noticeable climate change in the form of global cooling that will not be man-made.  The burning of fossil fuels, industrial pollution or any of the other factors the Political Left have been pounding their chests about in recent years will be negated by something much larger and, more importantly, something we have no control over.

The phenomenon is called “Solar Minimum”.  Remember this name, “Solar Minimum”.  It comes around every few hundred years and can best be described as a calming of solar and sunspot activity on the surface of that big ball of hydrogen Plant Earth orbits every three hundred sixty-five days.  The last “Solar Minimum” event took place back in the mid to late Sixteen Hundreds and is said to have been responsible for global cooling described by some historians as a mini Ice Age.   Two years ago, scientists who study solar activity began talking about a new “Solar Minimum” starting this year and potentially lasting up to fifty years.  Just as was the case in the last “Solar Minimum” there is reason to believe this “Solar Minimum” event will result in a lowering of temperatures across the planet.

HF radio depends on solar activity to light up the E and F layers of the ionosphere.  The E layer is, among other things, responsible for extended propagation of signals above 30 MHz that usually are limited to line-of-sight propagation.  These periods are called Sporadic E because they are just that, sporadic and only predictable on a very short term timeline.  When Sporadic E is there, VHF and sometimes UHF signals travel hundreds of miles enabling contacts for VHF enthusiasts that dreams are made of.

HF propagation, particularly on the 10, 15 and 20-meter bands can be significantly enhanced by solar activity that lights up the F1 and F2 layers in the upper atmosphere.  When F1 and F2 are charged, they refract HF signals back toward the Earth.  The 10M and 15M band performance seem to be particularly susceptible to these fluctuations, with some lasting no more than an hour or two.  Ever try working a contest like CQ Worldwide and have a station just booming in one moment and gone the next?

Since the last “Solar Minimum” event took place long before radio had been discovered, we have no history to fall back on to predict the impact on radio propagation.  But if sunspot activity is going to go into hibernation for the next fifty years or so and the lack of solar activity causes Global Cooling, as it did during the last event, logic would suggest HF propagation will come out on the short end. Extended periods of white noise may become the new normal.
-February 22, 2020

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HOW FAR WE’VE COME (or have we)
By Paul Toth-NB9X

I was reminded of just how far we have come when a note from a Ham Radio friend of mine. He sent me a quick email commemorating the 71st anniversary of the first photo of our planet taken from outer space. That first image was from a camera onboard a V-2 rocket launched in October 1946. WOW!

Today, we would be hard-pressed to predict major storms like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Our manned space program (when we had one) enabled the astronauts to maintain constant contact with flight controllers through the TDRS satellites that hovered thousands of miles above them. That dish antenna at your neighborhood gas station connects that card reader you just swiped your credit card through with a satellite to a processing center. And despite their name, CNN (Cable News Network) would likely be nowhere without the satellites they use to distribute their product. Let’s face it; life in the 21st Century would be a lot different without all the satellites that now orbit our planet.

I guess that is why I found another recent announcement fascinating. This week, the several MARS organizations that still function will be working with the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security on a terrestrial-based communications readiness exercise. According to an Information Release from the ARRL, this drill will be used to gather information from official and unofficial sources in the wake of a “Very Bad Day”. Ham Radio operators who are not affiliated with MARS can participate through reports offered up on local VHF and UHF repeaters. The information that is gathered will then is relayed via HF radio to Command Posts on the East Coast and in Arizona. By the way, if you were around on 9/11/2001, all this may sound eerily familiar.

If you have an HF radio or shortwave receiver in your shack, this Interoperability Exercise will kick off Tuesday, October 31 at 0300 UTC with a high power broadcast on 5330.5 KHz (Channel 1 in the 60-meter band). MARS operators will be looking for signal reports to find out just how many locales were able to hear the voice transmission.

Now, “why is this so important?” you might ask. This almost seems like one of those “busy work”, Back to the Future drills to justify your existence. After all, everyone has a cell phone. What do we need with 60-meter voice broadcasts, Ham Radio and MARS? The answer can be found in Newton’s Third Law (for those of you who remember High School Physics): “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

Imagine, if you will, what life would be like without cell phones, satellites, the Internet and all the other communications devices and services we now rely on daily. I think that would likely qualify as a “very bad day”. And just as Newton told us centuries ago, there is a counter-balance we cannot and should not ignore. It could be an event, like the devastation Puerto Rico is now experiencing from Hurricane Maria or something much worse that will isolate us and turn our world upside down. The inconvenience of a few days without power could pale by comparison.

Take advantage of this Interoperability Exercise this week. And let’s hope we never have to experience a “very bad day” for real.

Your comments at [email protected] or on the Facebook page are always welcome.

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

2022 has been an unusually quiet Hurricane Season so far. It appears that is about to dramatically change in the next few days as a storm spins up to our South.

Many of us have lived through storms like Charley, Frances, Jean, Wilma, and more recently, Irma. We know what it is like to live without electric power for days and sometimes weeks in the wake of a storm’s passage. But if you are new to Florida, here are some tips to help you cope with what may be coming our way.

• Make sure you have at least three days of food and water for each person in your household
• Make sure you have critical medications and First Aid supplies
• Secure all outdoor items that could become projectiles during the storm
• Fuel up your vehicles. If you have a bicycle, make sure it is in good repair and the tires are inflated.
• Take stock of available tools that may be needed to clear storm debris. This includes saws, rakes, shovels, and hammers.
• If you have a generator, make sure it has been run under a load for at least 30 minutes and that filters and oil have been serviced. If you cannot find ethanol-free fuel, obtain a fuel treatment product to minimize the adverse effects of burning ethanol fuel in a two-cycle engine.
• Make sure all batteries and UPS devices are charged and in good working order.
• Maximize available clean laundry
• Don’t forget your pets. If you must evacuate to a shelter, find a Pet-friendly Shelter.
• And, of course, if you are an Amateur Radio operator, make sure you have batteries charged and radios programmed, ready to go!

Once the storm has passed, you will be tempted to venture outside to assess any damage and clear debris. If a storm has toppled any trees in your neighborhood, there could be live power lines under that debris. Use extreme caution.
Do not venture into any areas that are flooded. Flood waters can displace critters, particularly poisonous snakes from their natural habitat.

The NI4CE Repeater Systems (analog and NXDN digital) will be on the air barring some unusual event. The sites have generator-based emergency power to keep the repeaters active. Please remember to keep your transmissions short and to the point. Emergency traffic is the TOP PRIORITY!

NI4CE will have the latest weather and storm-recovery updates. We also recommend monitoring local Broadcast Radio and TV as well as NOAA Weather Radio.

Good luck and stay safe!
-September 23, 2022

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