NI4CE regional linked repeater system


By Paul Toth-NB9X

Having worked professionally in both the Commercial Broadcast and the Land Mobile Radio industries, I have seen more than a few changes. One of the biggest changes is the sheer amount of RF spectrum that is now energized. And knowing just how much electro-magnetic energy is now being emitted up and down the band, you have to wonder if there is something we should be concerned about.

Think about it. If you are over forty years old, there was a time when television signals were mostly on VHF frequencies. What UHF stations that were on the air were relatively low power and scattered over four hundred megahertz of spectrum. And while the migration to digital TV signaling has capped the power output of UHF signals at one megawatt or lower, there are a lot more stations on the air and the average duty cycle on a digital signal is much higher than on the analog signals we grew up with. And the four hundred megahertz of spectrum once allocated to UHF TV has shrunk dramatically to just over one hundred megahertz concentrating all that energy and eliminating near all of the emission-free “white space”.

Commercial broadcast radio was AM, operating on a small size of spectrum around 1 MHz. There were (and still are) a number of AM stations operating with fifty thousand watts signals. The vast majority of AM stations are on the air with far less power. FM stations started appearing in the 1960s but were usually low power. Today, many of those FM stations operate with an effective radiated power of one hundred thousand watts. If they are usually circularly polarized antennas, the effective power is closer to two hundred thousand watts. Large markets like Tampa are also seeing lower power “translator stations” filling in the gaps adding to the overall power signature ns saturation of the FM band (88-108 MHz).

White space (no RF emissions) used to be abundant between 600 MHz and 900 MHz. Not anymore. Literally, tens of thousands of Cellular and Public Safety radio transmitters now fill the airwaves with high duty cycle digital voice and data transmissions.

And the RF spectrum above 1 GHz is almost as crowded with all kinds of emissions: cellular, satellite, high power radar, terrestrial microwave links, Wi-Fi and a lot more. Coming soon to light poles in your neighborhood, new RF antennae that will emit signals on 28 GHz and 39 GHz (5G cellular), spectrum that previously was pristine.

The good news is RF energy is non-ionizing and dissipates rather rapidly once you put some distance between you and the transmit antenna. Still, RF Safety is enough of a concern that those who work around RF transmitters, including all Amateur Radio operators, are required to know and work within the guidelines for RF Safety published by the Federal government.

I’m sure somebody, somewhere has looked at all these emissions on a “one-off” basis and is convinced there is nothing to worry about. And even cumulatively, the sum of all these new emissions, scattered throughout the RF spectrum probably pales by comparison to the energy emitted by the sun. But do we REALLY know for sure our new technological age has not opened a new Pandora’s Box on us? I’m just asking.

One thing we do know is the electricity needed to run all these transmitters, network and other supporting equipment and the air conditioning needed to keep the technology cool is soaring. We can talk about solar, wind and other potential sources of non-fossil fuel energy sources to produce the power needed. But solar and wind are only viable when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing.
-March 24, 2019

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”. That is Newton’s Third Law, something I was first exposed to a long time ago in High School. I am not sure if those in high school today are still being taught about Newton and his several laws but they should be. You see, nothing is ever static. And as the population expands, as the political winds shift and as technology exerts its influence on how we live, we are seeing the ripples all this change causes.

There was a time (in my lifetime) when walking around with a portable radio on your hip was reserved to Ham Radio operators. Then, in the 1980s, along came cellular phone technology. Today, nearly everyone is walking around with a radio (cell phone) by their side. Radio spectrum that used to be reserved for Broadcast Television, Military or other Government use and, yes, Amateur Radio, is being re-purposed or shared to accommodate the changing needs of the many.

Recently, I wrote about a proposal in front of the FCC to “share” some spectrum currently used exclusively for downloading satellite weather imagery. The proposal comes from the successor of a company that proposed “sharing” spectrum with GPS satellites that failed miserably. This latest proposal (in my humble opinion) is equally flawed. But it is not the only one out there that regulators are considering.

Now, there is a proposal backed by the government of France to re-allocate several pieces of radio spectrum for use by the Aviation industry. After all, there are more planes in the air than ever before, flying both passengers and cargo. More planes mean more pressure on the existing radio resources needed to communicate and control those aircraft.

Now, here is where you need to pay attention if you are a licensed Amateur Radio operator. The French proposal seeks to re-allocate the 144-168 MHz portion of the Two Meter Amateur Radio Band to Aviation, worldwide! Say it isn’t so. But it is. In fact, the proposal is right now on track to be brought before the ITU World Radio Meetings in 2023 for action.

At first glance, this proposal doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. The frequencies being looked at are not adjacent to any current Aviation band. Aviation uses AM modulation. FM signals populate most of the 144-146 MHz band now. So the opportunity to “share” this spectrum with Aviation users seems remote. Maybe this is just some trial balloon bring floated as a bargaining chip to get the ITU to re-allocate some other spectrum. But it has to be taken seriously.

Some early pronouncements I have seen from the ARRL suggest a “wait and see” attitude toward this proposal. A lot can change in four years. And threatening the Two Meter Band may also just be a bargaining chip.

No matter what, the hand writing is on the wall. There is nothing sacred about Ham Radio’s access to spectrum. If we want to maintain our ability to maintain our presence on the airwaves, we are going to have to be willing to do more with less. Those Hams who are using digital modes like NXDN and DMR have discovered you can do a lot with less. The days of the Wide Band FM are numbered, particularly since the vast majority of the population seems to think all you need is a 4G or 5G cell phone.
-July 13, 2019

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

After I wrote my last article about yet another potential threat to Amateur Radio’s assigned RF spectrum, a friend of mine sent me a link to an article posted on the IEEE’s Spectrum website. IEEE is the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. The article, by Julianne Pepitone, delved into a petition filed with the FCC by Ron Kolarik of Lincoln, NE seeking some significant changes in Part 97 dealing primarily with digital communications.

The basis for Kolarik’s petition is his contention the airwaves are now filled with too many digital signals that cannot be easily deciphered. If adopted by the FCC, RM-11831, a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking with seek to make all digital communications in the Amateur Radio Service more transparent in an effort to reduce interference.

We wrote about RM-11831 earlier this year and urged you to weigh in on it during the FCC’s Public Comment period. Many Hams, both for and against the proposition, did. Now, we are waiting for the Commission to announce their decision on this matter.

Many who support the NPRM contend digital signals generated by software, including WinLink, step over the line between “hobby” and, well, something that could be considered “productive and useful”. Let’s not forget WinLink was created by Hams for Hams to pass textual messages and information and is now widely used by disaster responders to do just that. The creators have automated part of that process to make it efficient. And it works!

What I believe is the real issue here is an age-old “generational battle”: The Last Generation of Technology and Operators versus the Next Generation of both. The “last generation” relied heavily on Morse Code, skilled operators, and a manual process. The “next generation” has moved on to newer, more sophisticated technology, operators who are focused on moving real information in a timely manner and who have to introduce a modicum of automation into the process.

The IEEE article put forth the question “Is Ham Radio a hobby, a utility or both?”. Maybe it is both. Maybe it is neither. At the time the Amateur Radio Service was created, it served as a hot bed of experimentation, activities that have led to many of the communications tools we have today. The only digital communication was Morse Code. And in many parts of the country (and the world for that matter), the telephone was only a dream. All that has changed. Cell phones, the Internet, satellites, software now make global communication instantaneous and available to almost everyone, including Hams.

In spite of this, there still is a place and a need for Amateur Radio. Our “one-to-many” voice communications capabilities are not easily duplicated in the cellular world. Disaster response communications rely on simplex radio operation. Cell phones cannot be used in that manner. And the Amateur Radio Service provides a pool of non-commercial frequencies and operators available on a moment’s notice when cell networks and the Internet are imploding on themselves.

My great fear is Mr. Kolarik’s quest to eavesdrop on every signal his radio can receive may actually doom Amateur Radio to oblivion. The proposed rules changes could make it impossible to further embrace 21st Century technology along with all the new possibilities for learning and innovation “digital” brings to the table. It could mean an unceremonious end to the public service and disaster response activities Hams are noted for. Maybe Mr. Kolarik and others who support him are ready to take their place in a museum somewhere. But I am not. There is a place for “digital” Amateur Radio. You just have to be willing to embrace it and grow with it. -July 24, 2019

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

During a recent discussion on Facebook, I was asked for some tips on NXDN radios. The person asking was a fellow Ham I know who wants to become active on the NXDN digital repeaters here in the Tampa Bay area.

After giving it some thought and knowing a little bit about what this Ham was interested in, I posted my thoughts for him to consider. Shortly thereafter, another person posted a comment which I thought was somewhat telling. The comment stated in part, “But you can’t buy any of those radios at a Ham Radio store.” At face value, that is a true statement. NXDN radios are considered Land Mobile Radio products by both ICOM and Kenwood. As such, you will need to visit a local Land Mobile Radio dealer in person or on the web if you want to purchase a new NXDN radio.

However, let’s look at this statement in a slightly broader sense. There are a lot of Hams, rightly or wrongly, who believe equipment used in Ham Radio MUST be purchased from a Ham Radio vendor or it just isn’t “Ham Radio”. Let me give you a couple examples.

Many vendors produce ANTENNAS that are cut to work specifically in the VHF, 222 MHZ and UHF “Ham” bands. You will generally find these products sold at Ham Radio stores. But you will also find a wealth of omnidirectional antennas, Yagis, mobile antennas and replacement portable antennas on websites and at retail locations that are not “Ham Stores”. Many repeaters use commercial grade antennas because Ham-grade antennas would not hold up to the environmental conditions several hundred feet off the ground. Commercial grade antennas are generally built to withstand more punishment.

Ham Radio has always been a haven for equipment built for Land Mobile Radio. Many WBFM analog repeaters are refurbished Motorola and General Electric radios that started their service with Public Safety agencies or other commercial users. Now that digital two-way radio is here, NXDN, DMR, and P25 repeaters and end-user gear come almost exclusively from the Land Mobile Radio marketplace. D-Star and Fusion are the exceptions. That should not be a surprise since repeaters, whether they are operating on “Ham Radio” or Land Mobile Radio frequencies, must be able to co-exist with each other in high RF environments. That means tighter filtering and better adjacent channel and harmonic rejection.

Ham Radio RF equipment must pass the technical standards established by the FCC for Part 97 operation. Land Mobile Radio equipped must navigate a tighter, more strenuous set of technical standards to be Type Accepted for Part 90 Land Mobile Radio. When you are talking RF, the better the specs, the better the radio. That does not necessarily make these radios more expensive!

Hams who want to use Land Mobile Radio equipment for their Ham Radio activities do face one challenge. Most Part 90 radios cannot be programmed on the fly. You must use software to put a frequency, a PL tone or RAN code into the radio or activate other features. “Ham Radio” equipment does allow you the freedom to put a new frequency or parameter in from the front panel. Many “Ham Radio” portables and mobiles will also allow you to operate on more than one band. There are some newer Part 90 radios that operate on more than a single band. But you have to have really, really deep pockets to afford them.

My advice to all my fellow Ham operators is simple: Don’t be afraid to expand your horizons. And don’t discount a radio, an antenna or any other equipment just because it doesn’t say “Ham Radio” on it.

Let me know what you think. Send your comment to [email protected]. Or post your comment to the page.

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

One of the casualties of last month’s severe Winter Ice and Snow Storm in Texas and surrounding states was the “Just In Time” mode of fulfillment that many companies have embraced over the last decade. And for a lot of people, from individuals to small companies to industrial giants, the points of failure that are part of the Just In Time fabric stood out like your worst nightmare.

Just In Time was introduced to business in the late 1990s at a time when shipping giants FedEx, UPS, DHL, and others were ramping up their operations. The concept is a relatively simple one. Instead of investing a lot of capital in the goods you consume or need to produce your end products, leave it to us. We will deliver what you need on time. Of course, one of the benefits of Just In Time was the ability to free up a lot of operating money companies and individuals were spending on warehousing and space to store all the inventory.

When the sun is shining, the birds are chirping and the planes, trains, and trucks can move freely, Just In Time does work remarkably well. But throw in a snowstorm, a hurricane, a fuel disruption (or a significant increase in fuel costs as we are also experiencing), a pandemic, or any other kind of mayhem, and the Just In Time concept starts to unravel quickly.

Case in point. For anyone who relies on some type of medical device that is used to monitor some function or activity, you know the importance of that device on how you live your life. In my case, I started using a Continuous Glucose Monitor a few years ago. Over time, you appreciate the value of knowing what your blood sugar is every five minutes. In my case, the Texas Storm was a perfect example of how the Just In Time concept snowballs when it falls apart. The company I purchase my CGM sensors from is located in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. While they received my order before the storm hit, their sensor inventory needed replenishment to fill my order. The storm disrupted the delivery of the product from the manufacturer (located on the West Coast). Their inability to fill the order from existing stock meant a delay, in this case, they had to wait for a delivery before they could fill my order. And, because major shipping hubs were iced and snowed in, nothing was going anywhere quickly and IN TIME! In my case, I fell back on a cache of sensors I maintain just for these occasions.

The concept of having a “Backup Plan” to mitigate the shortcomings of Just In Time is a way of life here in Florida. Anyone who has been here for more than a couple of years has firsthand experience dealing with the disruption to normalcy that hurricanes can bring with them. Ham Radio operators are also sensitive to such disruptions which are why most Hams will have extra batteries, a generator, several days of fuel, a GO Kit or two, and the other things you will need when things go sideways. Is it perfect? Heavens no! At best, it is a short-term “fix”. But when Just In Time has been put into the Penalty Box by Mother Nature, it helps keep life somewhat “normal”.

The start of a new Hurricane Season is coming up fast. Whether this will be your first one or your forty-first one, have a “Backup Plan” and essential supplies on hand. And get to know a Ham Radio operator in your area. Remember, Ham Radio works when your cell phone and the Internet doesn’t!
-March 13, 2021

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

There is a lot of talk about the impact of Public Policy on some important issues affecting our country. Energy, immigration, public health, finance, even public discourse, and censorship are key areas that are being shaped and re-shaped.

Amateur Radio has also received its share of attention, both directly and indirectly, by policy decisions are several different levels of government. Let me cite some examples.

As a result of misguided legislation in Congress, the FCC is now imposing a fee on every license holder just for processing a license application. A new Ham could fork over as much as one hundred fifty dollars to the Federal Treasury in the process of earning an Amateur Extra license. Add another fifty dollars to the tab if that licensee wants to change his/her callsign. All license holders will have to shell out fifty dollars every time they seek a license renewal. Now, at a time when gasoline is costing over four dollars per gallon, fifty dollars may not sound like a lot of money. But to a teenager looking to get into Amateur Radio or a retiree on a fixed income, fifty dollars is still a lot of money. For some, it may be the difference between getting/keeping an Amateur Radio license or walking away.

Last year, the FCC pulled the plug on the Amateur Radio 3.3-3.5 GHz spectrum allocation. It was an arbitrary decision with little to no consideration or compensation offered to those Hams who purchased equipment and were operating in that band. For the cellular industry and Big Tech, access to that spectrum will be the next great bonanza.

It is not just public policy at the Federal level that is having a profound impact on Amateur Radio. You need to look no further than local Planning and Beautification Commissions and Zoning Boards. For decades, these local bodies have allowed developers to build neighborhoods crammed with one house right next to another with minimal spacing separating each dwelling. Our inner cities all suffer from a lack of “green space”. If you haven’t looked around lately, “Zero Lot Line Development”, as it is called, is now showing up everywhere. These conditions virtually rule out the construction of outdoor antennas and supporting structures, serving as a disincentive for Amateur Radio development. If you are fortunate enough to own a lot that can support one or more Ham Radio antennas and (and this is a BIG “and”), your property is not encumbered by Deed Restrictions imposed by the developer and enforced by a Homeowners Association, you are still not free. Chances are there is some local ordinance governing what you can erect and how high it can be, never mind that your neighbor’s trees can grow to be any height inhibiting radio operations.

Still, Amateur Radio just won’t go away (although a lot of people think that it has). Hams are a creative and persistent bunch. We put the antenna in attics. We disguise them in flagpoles. Digital VHF and UHF Ham Radio make it easier to operate with low signal levels and be heard clearly and distinctly. And while I am sure the government’s lust for money will deter some from getting into or maintaining their presence in the Amateur Radio Service, Ham Radio will not be silenced. Of course, Congress could decide to do away with the Amateur Radio Service. However, I suspect if that were to happen, we would have much more pressing problems to deal with.
-March 14, 2022

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

I am sure I am going to take some flak for what I am about to say.  And I am sure some people are going to think I am just an “old fuddy-duddy”. But I need to get this off my chest!

Ham Radio has been something special, something worth taking the time to earn an FCC license for.   It has enabled license holders to experiment, communicate with other Hams, even help out during emergencies on RF spectrum reserved for us.  All we needed to do was come up with the necessary radio equipment and the time.

But there has been an increasing trend by Hams to abandon our Ham Radio roots and spectrum in favor of unlicensed Part 15 frequencies (which anybody can use), piggybacking on licensed, pay-to-play spectrum and the Internet.  What gives?

Digital two-way radio is not exactly a new technology.  And there are lots of flavors to choose from NXDN, DMR, P25, TETRA, not to mention Vo IP and LTE just to name a few.  These commercial modes are finally starting to attract some attention in the Ham world but not in a way that you might expect.  In the analog world, you either operated simplex (radio-to-radio) or through a repeater.  Hams today seem fixated on using “Hot Spots” to connect with non-Ham Radio spectrum and the Internet.  Yes, Hams are putting digital mode repeaters on the air.  But the inability of the Ham community to embrace any single digital operating mode coupled with the desire to operate “everywhere” has caused the “hot spot” to become the new “gotta have” device in Ham Radio.

I am excited that Hams want to learn more about digital communications.  Since the Ham community is somewhat dependent these days on the commercial marketplace, there will come a time when today’s aging analog repeaters and radios will disappear.  But the use of “hot spots” and dependence on the several commercial cellular networks as a transport is, I believe, a train wreck waiting to happen.  We have already seen numerous examples of what happens when major disasters or terrorism events occur.  Without robust, digital repeater systems, Amateur Radio communications efforts will be negatively impacted.  And your digital Ham Radio transceiver will become a useless appliance, just like your cell phone.

We can lament how Ham Radio is virtually invisible to most Americans.  But we have done it to ourselves.  Instead of building a robust and independent communications capability using Ham Radio spectrum and resources, we have copped out, instead of throwing our $$$$ at Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and the dozens of Internet Service Providers that dot the landscape.  Instead of a fifty-watt mobile/base station radio, we are content settling for a four or five-watt portable radio and a “hot spot”, kidding ourselves into believing they are all we will ever need.  Sorry, but that’s not the Ham Radio I signed up for.

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

Say goodbye to yet another swath of RF spectrum assigned to Amateur Radio.  The FCC has announced its intent to strip the Amateur Radio Service of its operating rights and privileges on the 3.3 GHz to 3.5 GHz band.  This action, coupled with another FCC effort to clear and sell off part of the C-Band Satellite band is just one more indication of how powerful the cellular industry and “Big Tech” are in this country.

Fifteen years ago, working as a member of the ARRL’s HSMM Working Group, I helped develop a vision for the development of the 3.3 GHz band.  A plan to channelize this RF spectrum for broadband use by Amateur Radio was floated.  The effort didn’t get any traction, in part, because it proposed a coordinated effort in the Ham community, something that runs against the grain with too many Hams.  I still recall a nasty email I received from an operator in Fairbanks, Alaska expressing his outrage because the plan would interfere with his fifteen hundred watt Beacon Station.  Huh?

This is not the first time the Ham community has been sent packin’.  Remember the loss of the 220-222 MHz spectrum for an ill-fated commercial venture?  How about the loss of Eleven Meters to create the RF Wasteland known as Class D Citizens Band Radio?  Yes, it has happened before.  But this time, we have actually given the FCC justification for this proposed action.

We recently ran a four-part series on Digital Radio Hot Spots.  These devices have enabled many Hams to experience the benefits of new digital operating modes like NXDN, DMR, D-Star, Fusion and P25 without the need for Amateur Radio infrastructure (repeaters) or traditional radios.  The invention of this Hot Spot technology has enabled Hams to experience the benefits of modern digital communications.  That has been a good thing.  And it also demonstrated Ham ingenuity can bring order to the chaos that exists in the marketplace.  But there is another side to this development.

With Hot Spots, you have eliminated the need to build and support discrete, Amateur Radio only repeaters.  Hot Spots rely on Part 15 Wi-Fi, the Internet and, yes, cellular 4G LTE (for mobile operation), none of which have anything to do with Amateur Radio.  Many Hot Spot to Hot Spot QSOs are more about cellular and less, a lot less, about Amateur Radio.  And for the privilege of using that Hot Spot, the operator is shelling out the “Benjamins” to an Internet Service Provider and/or a cellular carrier.  It’s the flow of those “Benjamins” into the coffers of “Big Tech” that, in part, enables them to justify the need for more spectrum and their ability to pay for it.  And, once again, Amateur Radio shoots itself in the foot!

I may be a little jaded about all this because a discrete, digital Amateur Radio infrastructure that is not dependent on commercial, wired or wireless services for connectivity is something Amateur Radio needs in the 21st Century.  The loss of the 3.3 GHz – 3.5 GHz band will now make that virtually impossible and It diminishes the real or perceived value of every Amateur Radio license.  Further, the loss of this spectrum, coupled with the FCC’s penchant to abandon its role as the Trustee of a Public Asset in favor of being an RF spectrum commodity broker signals that Amateur Radio’s days are numbered.  That is a loss of freedom and independence that has been the underlying foundation and spirit of America.
-December 2, 2019

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

Back in February when the Pasco NXDN digital voice repeater lost its home, it left a number of Hams in the Northern part of the TampaBay Metro Area and the Nature Coast stranded. A portable or mobile radio is only half of the communications equation.

The West Central Florida Group, Inc. has worked very hard the past few weeks to bring back the repeater infrastructure needed to make NXDN Ham Radio communications possible. The road has not been an easy one to navigate. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic stopped this project cold in its tracks for several weeks. Then, there was finding a new home for the Pasco Repeater. Our friends at Vertical Bridge, a major owner of broadcast and cellular towers, heard our plea and agreed to provide a new home for the Pasco NXDN repeater.

But there were still two hurdles to overcome. Installing a repeater antenna on a tall broadcast tower is not the same as installing an antenna on a pushup pole and a backyard tower at home. It requires the expertise of a professional tower crew. And then there’s the matter of having the financial resources to afford the professional tower crew, the cabling, the connectors and all the other parts needed to connect the repeater to the antenna.

Well, several thousand dollars later, not to mention all the sweat equity that went into putting the pieces of this puzzle together, the Pasco NXDN Amateur Radio Repeater is back on the air, better than ever and waiting to serve you! Ham Radio as it is meant to be: No Hotspots, no Wi-Fi Access Points, no expensive cellular data plan required, just pure, Twenty-First Century, push-to-talk Ham Radio baby! And, for those of you who have (or have wanted to have) an APRS Tracker or Digital Weather Station in Northern Pinellas or Pasco Counties, the Pasco APRS Digipeater is back on the air as well.

The importance of having a cohesive analog and digital Ham Radio infrastructure cannot be overstated. CC&Rs, otherwise known as Deed Restrictions, permeate Florida’s landscape. Florida may rank third nationwide (behind California and Texas) for total number of Amateur Radio licensees. But without infrastructure, many cannot use their radio and operating privileges. Strategically located, open repeaters change all that, enabling Hams to stay active and connected for fun, fellowship and, if called upon to do so, engaged to provide emergency communications support.

The West Central Florida Group, Inc. and NI4CE is committed to providing both analog and digital infrastructure to keep Amateur Radio strong for you and our West Central Florida community. You can help with your tax-deductible contribution. Just scroll to the bottom of this page to lend a hand. Then, grab your radio, press the push-to-talk button and let your voice be heard.
-July 3, 2020

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

Every year around this time, the great migration of the North American Snowbird starts in earnest. When I first moved to Florida almost twenty years ago, I was fully aware of the migration of Canadian Geese (the ones that fly in V formation) and the elegant, oversized Sand Crane to habitats along the Gulf of Mexico. Being a Wisconsin native, I can’t blame any living being for leaving the Arctic cold and snow in Dodgeville, or Nekoosa or Eagle River (all places I have been in Winter) for Bradenton, Port Charlotte or Lake Placid (FL not NY).

If you have come to West Central Florida to spend some time with us this Winter, we welcome you and hope you enjoy yourself. Our little corner of Paradise has a lot to offer when a CAT 3 or CAT 4 hurricane (also known as a Bad Hair Day) isn’t blowing through. And we have a lot to offer Ham Radio operators who have come to escape the cold.

If you are new to the area or have not previously discovered the NI4CE Repeater Systems before, we have a lot to offer. The five-site Analog repeater system is open to all licensed operators (including our friend from VE-land). You will need to program any or all of our analog repeater frequencies with a PL or CTCSS tone of 100.0 Hz. To find the repeater nearest you, visit the Repeater Page on the webpage.

The NI4CE Analog System features at least one Net every night at 8:30 with multiple Nets on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings. The NI4CE Digital System will soon have an NXDN Net on Wednesday nights at 8:00 PM where we will be discussing all things digital. One other Net that will pop up as conditions require is the Regional SKYWARN Severe Weather Net. We take severe weather very seriously!

Just in time for Snowbird Season, we have just added a third NXDN Digital Repeater to our network to complement the Riverview (444.425) and Verna (444.3125) repeaters. NXDN is now loud and clear in Northern Pinellas, Northwest Hillsborough, Pasco and Western Hernando Counties on 442.650. All three repeaters use RAN 1 and support Talkgroups 1200 (Local) and 65000 (NXDN-Worldwide). If you are from New England, you may also want to use TG 9000.

Of course, both NI4CE systems are available for friendly QSOs anytime there isn’t a Net scheduled. You will find a pretty diverse group to rag chew with. Please try to limit your use of four-letter words like COLD, SNOW and WORK. We try to be “family friendly”. We also ask that you keep any kerchunking to a minimum We ask that of everyone, although a couple people think squeezing their PTT button is good hand exercise and a stress reliever.

So, welcome, snowbirds, to West Central Florida and NI4CE-land. Ham Radio Lives Here!

Have a question or a comment? Drop us a line at [email protected] or post to the Facebook page.

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Is There A Future For Ham Radio?
By Paul Toth-NB9X

I was reading a fascinating article online earlier today that posed the question that is the title of this post. I am an optimist by nature. So, of course, my response is YES, there is a future for Amateur Radio but only if we want one bad enough. What do I mean by that qualifier? Keep reading.

Amateur (Ham) Radio is the original social media. I have made that statement many times and will continue making it because it is a fact. To participate, you need three things: a valid FCC Amateur Radio license, a radio capable of transmitting and receiving on a frequency assigned to the Amateur Radio Service, and curiosity. Well, the first two items are fairly basic and well-defined. But where did that third item, CURIOSITY, come from. I have never seen that listed as a pre-requisite anywhere, you are saying to yourself. Consider this place a first to be blunt about what Amateur Radio is all about and how to keep it alive and well in the 21st Century. Looking at the proposition from another angle, it could also be a lack of CURIOSITY that could lead to Ham Radio’s demise.

There are many reasons the current Ham Radio population of around three-quarter million U.S. operators earned their license. For some operators, Ham Radio is an extension of their profession in commercial communication or electronics. Ham Radio has been, is, and will always be a place to learn new techniques, to experiment and prove or disprove a theory or communications concept. It is also a place to try out new operating modes.

For other Hams, their license was a gateway to apply their communications skills to solve problems or give back to their communities. Hams have long supported community programs like SKYWARN, disaster communications support in the aftermath of some natural or manmade event that upends life as normal. As is often the case, curiosity about what worked and what needed improvement leads to questions, analysis, and innovation that is applied to the next event.

For some people, their interest in Amateur Radio is a gateway to advance in some other endeavor. If you ate enrolled in a STEM program (Science-Technology-Engineering-Math), your Ham license now enables you to control a drone, build a wireless network, design and test an electronic RF device, and more. And your license and radio will enable you to reach out to your fellow STEMers locally as well as cross country to share your experiences.

Ham Radio is for the curious amongst us. It is where you will hear and share multiple points of view. It is for anyone and everyone not willing to merely settle for what Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites serve up.

Can Ham Radio improve what it is and how it does it? Absolutely! That’s one of Ham Radio’s great strengths. If you think you have a better idea or way of doing something, you have the power to do it. In the end, your Amateur Radio license privileges enable you to satisfy your curiosity no matter your age, your ethnicity, or your background.
-October 11, 2021

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

Back in the Eighties and Nineties, the “Cool Kids” walked around with portable two-way radios. It was a Status Symbol as much as it was a communications device. And when it worked, it was “really cool”.

Cell phones have now allowed just about everyone to be one of the “Cool Kids”. Most people don’t know what makes them work. They just know they work most of the time, indoors and in the great outdoors. By association, those same people have an expectation their portable two-way Ham radio will work the same way. Many times it does. But there are limitations.

First, let me say the West Central Florida Group, Inc. takes great pride in the NI4CE Repeater Systems (analog and NXDN digital). We put a lot of work and effort into making sure the systems are optimized to provide maximum coverage. The high-profile nature of sites like Verna, Boyette, and Holiday each give the Amateur Radio community a large coverage footprint. Link those sites together, along with the Bartow and Lake Placid analog repeaters, and you cover a lot of territory. On the digital side, there is nearly equal coverage plus signaling from the Charlotte County site that extends coverage over most of Lee County and the Fort Myers area.

Still, there are places where NI4CE cannot be easily heard. Hurricane-proof construction attenuates nearly all radio signals, no matter what the frequency. If the repeater is nearby, there will usually be enough signal penetration to make the connection. Cell signals may work inside a large building because the building owner has installed a Bi-Directional Amplifier System to boost those signals inbound and outbound. Those same BDAs may be required to boost Public Safety radio signals, particularly 700 MHz and 800 MHz systems.

The three major cellular carriers have a lot more towers in the same geographic area our six repeater sites cover. There is a lot to be said about your proximity to a tower. Even though many Amateur Radio portable transceivers operate with five watts of transmit power, that simply does not overcome the distance and losses incurred trying to reach the nearest tower.

Just because you can hear a repeater doesn’t mean you will be able to transmit into it. Repeaters generally put out more Effective Radiated Power than a portable or mobile radio. We do have pre-amps on most of our repeater receivers to boost incoming signals, particularly weak ones. Sometimes, that boost is just not enough to equalize the repeater’s transmitted signal strength and your radio’s transmitted signal strength.

Unlike commercial to-way radios that measure signal scientifically in dBm, most Ham Radios come equipped with a simple “S Meter” that often can be misleading. Here is a Rule of Thumb that can help. If your S Meter shows a full-scale signal, you should be able to get into that repeater. If the S Meter is at three-quarter scale, you still have a good chance of communicating. If that S Meter reading is half scale or less and you are using a portable radio, the odds are stacked against a successful transmission. Even if you are lucky enough to open the repeater’s squelch, your signal will likely be really noisy and hard to read (unless you are using an NXDN digital radio which decodes the digital stream down to -116 dBm).

One additional tip that holds true for UHF signals. Radio coverage often looks like a cross-section of Swiss cheese. It is littered with lots and lots of divots. Have trouble getting into UHF repeaters? Sometimes, just moving six inches in any direction will get you out of one of those RF divots.

73 until next time!
-August 1, 2022

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

If someone told you one hundred years ago that you need to live without electricity, you would have probably laughed them right out of the neighborhood. If that same person told you the Global Positioning System (GPS) was vulnerable and you would have to find a way to live and work without it, you would have probably given them the proverbial “Deer in the Headlamps” look and uttered a questioning “Huh”.

That was then. This is 2021. There are few places in the U.S. where electricity cannot be found. Life without it for most people is considered “extreme” hardship. And life without GPS, something that wasn’t even invented until the latter part of the last century, that, too, would stop a lot of things cold! So, why then are our elected Representatives in Congress ignoring these two critical issues? Must the Electric Grid and the GPS system FAIL before they will act?

Texans found out a couple of months ago what can happen when “the Grid” fails. The lights go out. There is no heat (or during the summer months, air conditioning). Food spoils. Manufacturing and transportation come to a grinding halt. Electronic communications of all kinds stop! And, yes, people die as a result. Life can go on without a working electric grid. But it takes the knowledge, tools, and a special set of skills that few people today currently possess. If you have an electric generator with enough capacity to keep your food and medicine cold, your house at a comfortable temperature, some lights on, and take care of some other necessities, it is only a temporary fix. Just how temporary depends on your ability to purchase the fossil fuel needed to keep your generator running.

“Ah, but I have solar panels on my house”, you say. I am all set. Right? WRONG! Unless you also purchased the needed controller and battery storage to capture the electricity your solar panels generate, you are in the dark along with everyone else. And if the cause of the failure was an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) event, your solar panels are probably fried!

It is currently estimated it will take around two billion dollars to shore up the U.S. Electric Grid. With the way Congress wastes money like there is no tomorrow, two billion almost seems like “chump change”. So, why hasn’t the funding been appropriated? A good question you need to ask your Congressional representatives before there is no tomorrow.

The same holds true with the GPS question. The US Department of Transportation (USDOT) estimates there is a seventy percent chance of a significant GPS outage in the next twenty years and a twenty percent chance of significant damage to the GPS Satellite Constellation during the same period. Why should you be screaming at the top of your lungs for action? Here is what a working GPS system supports. How about commercial and military aircraft navigation. Many of our newest jetliners fly on GPS. Cellular telephone depends on GPS to synchronize all the cellular transmitters on several networks. Many Public Safety Radio Systems also require GPS for system timing and synchronization. Surface transportation is another BIG USER, everything from Over-The-Road Trucks and Delivery Vehicles to your own personal automobile. Take away GPS and a lot of things and people are “off the grid”.

Congress has passed three mandates directing USDOT to develop and implement backup systems if GPS fails. Mandates, YES. An allocation of dollars to do the job, NOT YET! I hope it doesn’t take a plane falling out of the sky to finally get some action on this vital issue.

Don’t know how to contact your Congressional Representative and U.S. Senators? Go to and (while we still have electricity and the Internet). Their phone numbers and email addresses are published there.
-April 5, 2021

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