When we put the NI4CE Riverview repeaters on the air in Hillsborough County in 2006, we were fortunate to be able to place them on one of the “tall towers” in the Tampa Antenna Farm. Our host, American Tower Corporation, the largest tower owner in the country, was gracious enough to allow us a spot on a platform 805 feet above ground. From that perch, NI4CE has been able to serve the Amateur Radio community in Hillsborough, Pinellas, and Pasco Counties for the past sixteen years.
When we first started operating from the ATC site, there were three West Central Florida Group, Inc. Board Members who were certified to go to the platform and service the repeater and APRS equipment housed in the weatherproof cabinet. Fortunately, that equipment has required a minimal amount of attention. Those three Board members have moved on. That makes keeping the Riverview site fully operational a bit more challenging.
Recently, an opportunity presented itself that will allow us to maintain our presence in the Riverview area, maintain the extraordinary coverage footprint the Riverview repeaters have enjoyed for the past sixteen years and bring all the electronics to the ground where they can be accessed and serviced on almost a moment’s notice. Sometime in the next few weeks, NI4CE will be moving to a tower jointly owned by WFLA-TV and WFTS-TV and will begin operating from that site. It is about a mile and a half north of our current location allowing us to provide “close-in” coverage to Hams in the surrounding area, many of whom are impacted by Deed Restrictions on their property. At the same time, the “combined” antenna system we will be sharing with Channel 8 and Channel 28 will allow us the same wide-area coverage you have enjoyed the past sixteen years. So, if you are in Pinellas, Pasco, or Polk Counties and use the NI4CE Riverview repeaters, you will still be able to. There will be one noticeable change. Our NXDN digital repeater, which has operated on 444.425 MHz is moving to a new frequency, 442.0875 MHz.
We are excited to be making these changes because they will allow NI4CE to maintain what we consider is a “critical presence” and commitment in a high-density, Deed Restricted portion of our coverage area. Hams moving into these neighborhoods will not be forced to choose between living close to work, close to shopping, close to schools, and being able to exercise their Amateur Radio privileges. Those residents who want to get their Amateur Radio license and become active, contributing Hams will be able to do so from the comfort of their deed-restricted home.
We are excited about this opportunity because we will be building and sharing a common antenna system with two commercial broadcast partners who have a long history of service to the Tampa Bay area! Just as we operate our Ham repeaters to support SKYWARN and emergency communications, both Channel 8 and Channel 28 also use UHF repeaters on frequencies just above the Amateur Radio band to support their operations. And yes, both stations have licensed Hams on staff.
This project does come with a cost. It includes refurnishing and re-tuning a multi-channel Transmit Combiner and Receive Multi-coupler and the purchase of some additional electronics not needed at our current site. Thanks to some generous Hams, we can meet our project commitment. For their part, Channel 8 and Channel 28 are supplying the transmission lines and labor needed to install the cable and antennas on the tower … no small commitment! Together, we are making this happen for you!
The West Central Florida Group, Inc. is here for the long haul. This impending move of our Riverview operations to the Channel 8 and Channel 28 tower is a demonstration of our continuing commitment to be there for the Hams of TampaBay and West Central Florida for many years to come.
More to come ….
-January 22, 2022
I fielded a question from a new Ham recently about the sustainability of the NI4CE Repeater System in an emergency. He wanted to know if there was a scenario where the NI4CE system would no longer be able to operate.
The simple answer to this inquiry is YES. No matter how much redundancy you put into the design, no matter how many contingencies you plan for, no matter how many backups you have to your backups, the simplest of failures can take out one or more repeaters. And if that happens, no matter what the cause, your best hope is you can get the site operational with a minimum of effort and lost time.
No matter how much you plan to avoid failure, Murphy is always lurking right around the corner. After all, we live in Florida where a myriad of hazards is always on the table. Impacts from severe weather are what a lot of people focus on because they go with our geo-location. Tornadoes and severe thunderstorms can (and do) disrupt commercial power, take down trees, cause buildings to collapse and in a worst case scenario, topple communications towers. That’s during the “quiet” months. Every June through November sees the threat level rise immensely with the onslaught of tropical weather systems. Storms like Andrew, Charlie, Ivan, Dennis, Irma, and Michael are game changers.
Weather is not the only potentially catastrophic hazard we face. And it is important to recognize and acknowledge this. The power blackouts occurring right now in Venezuela can turn life upside down and bring life to a screeching halt. We have so come to rely on electricity and all the gadgets it powers. Pull the plug and are we really prepared to live in the dark, even for a short period of time? Couple this with the sophistication of nearly all twenty-first century, silicon-based systems. Everything is a “network” with thousands of moving parts. Cause the wrong one of those parts or some combination of parts to fail and the network implodes.
Back to the original question. How resilient is the NI4CE system? From time to time, pieces of it can and will fail. The most recent interruption of service of the Holiday repeater was caused by a broken jumper cable that connects the antenna at eleven hundred feet above ground to the main transmission cable. What caused the failure? One theory is stress from high winds. The good news was the rest of the system remained on the air.
The location and coverage footprints of the repeaters afford us overlapping coverage. That doesn’t mean someone won’t be left out in the cold from a failure. But Hams in the TampaBay Metro area usually can reach more than one repeater. These sites are also on long term, generator-based backup power, thanks to our site partners. Those backup generators will usually keep NI4CE powered for at least seven days before needing the fuel supply replenished.
The NI4CE analog repeaters are RF linked, less fragile and usually more reliable than the Internet which the NXDN repeaters rely on.
In short, we have tried to build and maintain NI4CE with more than just casual resiliency. And with your continued support, we will do our best to keep our old friend Murphy at bay.
-March 17, 2019
Earlier this year, a group of Hams in Sarasota, Manatee, and DeSoto Counties conducted an exercise to simulate an extreme flooding emergency. The purpose of the exercise was to test operating procedures and communications in the event of a severe weather event that caused the flooding of pastures and grazing lands that could endanger livestock, transportation, and life in general in our interior counties. Little did they know what they practiced for in April would come to pass in late September.
The devastation in coastal Lee, Charlotte, and Southern Sarasota Counties from Hurricane Ian is only part of the story. This storm will go down in the record books as one of the most powerful and destructive storms to ever make landfall here. It will take many Floridians months if not years to recover from. That includes the people this storm touched in our interior counties.
Ask the “Average Joe” which state is the Number One beef producer in the country and they will likely tell you Texas, Oklahoma, or Colorado. That is because it is in those states where the feedlots and meat processing plants are located. They would be incorrect. Much of the beef that is a staple on many of our tables starts right here in Florida. Ranchers here foster the birth of calves and tend to the herds of Angus and other varieties of cattle generally through the first year of life. Once you get East of I-75, the fields and pastures this time of year are home to thousands of cattle that will eventually end up on the dinner plate. It is not just our orange and grapefruit groves or fields of tomatoes and other produce that Florida is famous for. Beef is a very big deal here as well.
Once Ian ravaged the Southwest Florida Coast, it brought its extreme winds and rainfall to Florida’s interior. Even the porous, sandy soil could not absorb the twenty inches of rain Ian left. Waterways like the Peace and Myakka Rivers were already above flood stage before Ian arrived. Ian dramatically changed the landscape. Fields were now lakes. Roadways were no longer passable under feet of water. Bridges were either submerged and impassable or washed out completely. Getting from one place to another, in many cases, required a boat or high-clearance vehicle.
During this past April’s High & Dry II exercise, members of the Sarasota Agriculture Resources Group, many of them ranchers, all licensed Hams, used Amateur Radio technology and their operator skills to test their readiness in the event of a major weather event. Now in hindsight (which is always 20-20), the drill set the stage for their recent response. They used the NI4CE NXDN digital repeaters during the exercise because they provide the excellent multi-county portable coverage needed if such a scenario were to ever occur. The NI4CE linked Verna and Charlotte NXDN repeaters enabled SARG operators to gather critical information about the flooding and damage caused by Ian and communicate it directly to Emergency Managers and others. At the same time, that information was shared across county lines on the NI4CE Analog repeaters to help Hams navigate around flooded areas, including I-75 and US-41 in southern Sarasota County.
Another item simulated during the Spring Exercise was the operation of Staging Areas set up to receive and distribute truckloads of hay and other critical supplies coming into the disaster zone. The flooding along the Peace River and closure of crossings in Hardee and DeSoto Counties created a special challenge for these responders. Once again, Ham Radio played a key role in making sure emergency supplies arrived safely and efficiently distributed.
The teamwork exhibited by SARG members is but one example of how Amateur Radio made a difference in helping people (and other creatures) survive in the wake of Hurricane Ian. The West Central Florida Group is proud we could be part of the solution.
We would like to acknowledge Cox Media Group, our NI4CE host at Verna, and Charlotte County Emergency Management for their support during this emergency. Despite the loss of commercial power at the Verna and Charlotte Repeater Sites, the generator-based power they provided kept NI4CE on the air and part of the solution.
-October 10, 2022
The invention of high-resolution cameras, high capacity storage devices and networked transports that can carry large amounts of data from one place to another has enabled a whole new discussion about PRIVACY. This discussion, in many ways, has manifested itself in the framework of “Do the Good Guys have an inherent right to be safe and secure in their person and their property” versus “Do people who do not respect laws and any semblance of moral character have an overriding right to infringe on the safety and security of others in the guise of privacy”.
Questions about privacy are not new. Think back to the days when the telephone in your parent’s house was connected to a “Party Line”. When y folks moved to a rural area in Wisconsin in the mid-1950s, the only telephone service that was available was on a “party line” they shared with twenty-five other neighbors. An expectation of privacy – only in your dreams. The ole “party line” was Gossip Central!
Ham Radio communications have always been “open” and in the clear. When you key-up a mic, you know there will be other people lurking in the weeds (and sometimes they aren’t other Hams) listening to your every word. If there was any security, it was only by the obscurity of the frequency being used. And to reinforce the concept of communications in the open, the ITU, the world governing body of all RF communications, prohibited Hams early on from using any form of encryption, in part out of fear European Hams would compete against the government bodies there that controlled telephony and broadcasting.
Digital technology has made it a lot easier for coding and obscuring content transmitted via wired or wireless media. Satellite TV providers routinely encrypt their transmissions to prevent intellectual property theft. Many law enforcement agencies are now encrypting their transmissions to maintain the security of their transmissions. Wi-Fi users are routinely encouraged to encrypt their transmissions to prevent theft on several different levels. This has created conflict since many unlicensed Part 15 users use the same RF spectrum that is licensed to Amateur Radio which is not allowed to employ encryption. This is something the FCC needs to address, hopefully with whatever rulemaking falls out of the RM-11831 process.
There is, however, a huge difference between transmitting content converted to zeroes and ones and actually “encrypting” that digital stream. The digitizing process does not change the meaning of the content. It merely allows the user to send the content as some collection of zeroes and ones. It is no different than an operator sending a message using Morse Code. What some people get hung up on is where the intelligence to code and decode the content resides. Digital voice and messaging rely on silicon-based intelligence rather than some learned ability by an operator to decipher dits and dahs at some speed.
I could easily make a case for allowing true encryption on Amateur Radio bands above 1 GHz, particularly on bands we share with unlicensed Part 15 users. It’s the only way we can keep those unlicensed users from using our equipment. I could also make a case for allowing the encryption of emergency communications on any band, particularly content that is governed by HIIPA and other legislated privacy mandates.
Do we all have a right to be safe and secure? You bet we do. But we also have a personal responsibility to protect our privacy. If you don’t want the world to know your secrets, don’t put them out there in plain sight. Conversely, when it comes to the rights of others, keepa ya fingers off. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
-October 13, 2019
I have recently been streaming episodes of the Fox Television series “24” and taking notes while doing so. For those of you who never caught up with “Jack Bauer” when the series first aired in the early 2000s, the post-911 show depicts several different domestic terrorism incidents that each plays out over a twenty-four-hour timespan and features the Los Angeles-based Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) and superhero Bauer as they try to defeat the bad guys.
I watched the series when it first aired because it was a good drama and well-produced. Now in reprise and almost twenty years later, it is fascinating to see how much the technology used in the series has changed. For example, you won’t find a “smartphone” anywhere to be found, at least not on most of the episodes. It hadn’t been created yet. Instead, the “flip phone” was the leading edge appliance of that era. Some of those phones were outfitted with still image cameras with a substantially lower resolution than those that are standard fare now. But if you needed to look at an image in any detail, it needed to be sent to a computer or a PDA (remember those?).
Two-way radios were used as “tactical communications devices” when the CTU team was surrounding the bad guys and preparing for the takedown. Now, I could be wrong but in one of the first episodes, I thought I saw what looked like a very old Radio Shack HT-404. Or was that an HT-202?
One technology conspicuously absent was GPS vehicle navigation. Oh yes, there was GPS (and satellite) tracking. But for all the places the CTU team was dispatched to, they somehow always seemed to know where they were going and how to get them.
It is also fascinating to note how a couple of sponsors used the show to promote what was at the time their leading-edge communications technology. For example, Cisco, best known for their network IP switches and routers, was getting into the IP Telephony marketplace. Back in the day, the SIP technology phone was just being launched. By contrast, twenty years later, SIP telephony systems are commonplace, along with IP-based cameras for video conferencing. Another foreshadowing of things to come occurs in one episode when CTU operatives can use their cell phones during an emergency when the cellular networks are all in a state of overload. That facility is now called FirstNet, a special slice of the cellular infrastructure reserved for Public Safety.
Woven into the storylines presented are things like Denial-of-Service attacks, Network Breaches, and even an EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse) attack that takes out everything in an eight-block area. For all the new gadgets and infrastructure we now have, these things are still with us and getting even more sophisticated.
One technology conspicuously absent has been Ham Radio. I guess the writers and producers never crossed paths with Tim Allen (a real Ham and star of Last Man Standing) or Tim McGee (of NCIS) who used Ham Radio in their respective series. It is amazing the number of actors and actresses seen in “24” who went on to play prominent roles in NCIS, NCIS-LA, and NCIS New Orleans.
All this is one way of saying that what we thought was advanced and considered leading-edge technology just twenty years ago has been eclipsed as chips have gotten smaller, networks have gotten more powerful and the imagination has been allowed to consider new possibilities. As for Ham Radio, that, too, has changed, in some ways dramatically. And there is still room for discoveries and innovation, even if it’s not Jack Bauer’s (or his successor’s) cup of tea.
-September 13, 2021
One of the questions I am asked most frequently is “Why can’t I get into the repeater system with my handheld radio inside my house? I can hear it just fine.” So, let’s talked about that for a moment.
Ham Radio signals are just another like any other RF emission. The strength of the transmitted signal at any location is dependent on the power output of the repeater, the gain (or lack thereof) of the antenna, the height above ground of the antenna, the quality (and loss) of the filtering (duplexer), cable loss and your surroundings. Each one of the preceding items has a number associated with it. The transmitter and antenna are usually positive values, the antenna height governs just how large a coverage footprint the repeater will have. Everything else, while necessary, has a negative value in the equation.
The same holds true for the receiver side of the repeater. Antenna height and gain are positives while cable length and its loss characteristics and filtering put a drag on just how much signal gets to the receiver. One optional mitigating item some repeater systems (including NI4CE) incorporate is a Receiver Pre-amplifier which introduces some positive signal gain. Pre-amps mitigate cable and filtering losses and help equalize the signal differential that exists when the repeater is transmitting 100 watts but the radio being used in the field is only putting out four or five watts. That signal strength differential can often be 20 dBm or greater.
All this assumes you are operating in free space with nothing to obstruct or inhibit the RF signals between you and the repeater. But this is Florida, not Colorado, Texas or some other locale that has mountains, open plains and unobstructed RF signal paths. Florida has trees, lots of trees and many different varieties. Some pine trees, for example, have needles that approximate the length of a UHF (70 cm) signal. That can be a real show stopper. Ever notice how much better radio signals are in January and February before the new leaf growth emerges. Trees love to eat RF.
Then there are buildings that inhibit RF signals. Commercial buildings can introduce a 30 dBm to 40 dBm signal loss without breaking a sweat. Most residential construction (your house) in the Sunshine State is rated at a 20 dBm to 30 dBm signal inhibitor. Things like protective Hurricane Film on your windows also block radio signals. And yes, weather conditions can inhibit radio coverage. A recent hail storm in our area caused some serious, short term attenuation to signals going to and coming from the repeaters.
The coverage footprints for the several NI4CE analog and NXDN digital repeaters represent what is known in radio circles as “mobile coverage” and assumes you are using an external antenna. If you are operating your radio with the antenna inside your vehicle, immediately subtract 20 dBm both transmit and receive. Even with our high gain antennas and outstanding antenna height, receiver pre-amps and some good engineering, using your portable radio inside your house forty miles from the site is probably a non-starter. For reliable, in-building, portable radio coverage, even on UHF, we would need more repeaters, a lot more.
Two-way radio is a NUMBERS game. Sometimes the numbers add up in your favor. Sometimes, it’s just hard to get there.
-July 5, 2019
The coronavirus pandemic we are now in has really ramped up a lot of “remote” activities. Working “remotely” at home. Remote Distance Learning for our “harmonics” who can’t go to school. Remote commerce, ordering everything online from toilet paper (if you can find any of it) to a gourmet meal. Yes, silicon-based technology connected to the Internet is allowing us to carry on with life and stay abreast of the latest developments during the lockdown.
With all this “remote”, online activity going on, you might expect someone to ask if Amateur Radio Testing could be done online. And there has been some experimentation with it. A couple of Volunteer Examination Coordinators had experimented with remote online VE Testing before the CoVID-19 lockdown. One effort was taking place in Alaska where prospective Hams may be located in hard to get to places. Distance from a testing site there is also an issue where the harsh environment makes travel difficult at best.
“Hams in Training” have been taking Practice Tests online for many years. And such “practice” testing has worked very well as a test preparation tool.
But administering a “real” VE Testing Session online requires a much higher level of security and monitoring of every “test-taker” as required by FCC rules. Those rules require a VE Team to visually monitor the testing process. VEs are also required to inspect all electronic devices (like calculators) that may be used by the applicant. And then there is the matter of ensuring the integrity of the test itself. Somehow, the VE Team must have a high level of confidence the computer and its Internet connection are secure from potential hacking or some other shenanigans that might take place. Take all these requirements into consideration and the technology needed to conduct a Remote VE Testing Session is formidable and expensive! And the level of IT expertise needed to comply with the existing FCC rules that govern VE Testing Sessions and procedures may be even more daunting.
The President has spoken often about the pent-up demand he experts for the economy once we can re-open the country and let people emerge from their homes. Based on postings I have seen from other VE Teams, there are hundreds of prospective candidates in the wings who have been studying and are ready to take their Ham Radio exams. And even with social distancing and sanitary requirements, I am sure it won’t be long before one or more VE Testing opportunities will be available.
Remote VE Testing sounds like a good idea at first glance. But I am not convinced it is as easily accomplished, given the current FCC rules governing the administration of Ham Radio tests, as one might think.
-April 24, 2020
I want to give all of you a heads-up. If your Amateur Radio license has expired or is about to expire, here is your Call To Again to get it renewed now.
I recently renewed my Amateur Extra Class license. If you are within ninety days of the Expiration Date on your current license, you can go online to “re-up” for another ten year term. VECs, like the ARRL, can also assist you with the process for a nominal fee. Ten years ago, Vanity Callsign holders also had the pleasure of filling out a FCC Payment Authorization Form along with submitting a nominal remittance to cover their Vanity Callsign renewal. Good news! The old Vanity Callsign Fee is a thing of the past making your license renewal even more painless.
But there is one change you will run into that may make completing the renewal process a little more difficult and time-consuming. It used to be the FCC would mail you a very official looking paper LICENSE to proudly place in a frame and hang on the wall in your shack. That official document also had a wallet-sized license you could have laminated (to prevent it from deteriorating inside your wallet).
The full size license (along with the wallet-sized version) are still available. But now, you need to download it from the FCC website and print it yourself. Not a big deal unless you don’t have online credentials to go with your license. If you are in that boat, here is how to remedy this speedbump.
A phone call to the FCC will get your started. 800-CALL-FCC is the magic number to reach a friendly Customer Service Agent. Press Option 3 for help with your license. You will need a FRN number to setup your online access. If you don’t remember your FRN registration number (don’t feel bad if you haven’t memorized it), you can open your favorite Web Browser and enter https://wireless2.fcc.gov/UlsApp/UlsSearch/searchLicense.jsp which brings up the FCC’s ULS License Search page. Enter your callsign and press the SEARCH button. Within seconds, a link to your license record will appear. There you will find your FRN number.
Now, if you have never obtained a FRN, the FCC Customer Service agent can help you out with that, too.
Now comes the tricky part. To login to your FCC account, you need the FRN and your PASSWORD. If you are like me, you probably haven’t logged in lately so good luck getting into your account. Right? Passwords are meant to be RESET. The FCC agent you speak with can help you with that little chore, too. Fortunately, I wrote my password down and stored it away for safe keeping.
Printing a copy of your new or recently renewed license is fairly painless. Click a couple buttons to have a PDF printable version sent to your email address. Open the file with Adobe Acrobat and off to the printer it goes. You are almost done. As I mentioned earlier, you may want to get your newly printed license laminated for preservation and safe keeping. There are a number of different Office Products retailer who can help you with this. I took my license to a local Staples.
One thing about your new license. The wallet-sized version is, well, a bit larger than the one from ten years ago. It will not fit in the pockets you normally put your credit cards, Driver’s License and other important IDs into. Fortunately, most wallets now have at least one pocket that will be large enough for your new license.
-December 17, 2019
There is no doubt distracted drivers are a HUGE problem in Florida. People who think they can text and drive are as much of a menace to our safety and those driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs. But as sure as I am that drivers who cannot seem to put their cell phone down when they are behind the wheel are a problem, I am just as sure Florida State Senate Bill SB-76 is not the solution!
SB-76 seeks to make the use of all wireless communications devices by drivers a “primary offense”. That means if you are observed by law enforcement texting and driving, you can be pulled over for solely that infraction. Nothing wrong with that.
However, that’s where SB-76 goes off the rails. This bill arbitrarily lumps all wireless devices, including cell phones, computers and two-way radios into the same basket and requires a completely “hands-free” operation. The only exemption currently in the bill as written is for “law enforcement”. Let’s think about that wording for a moment.
There is a lot of Public Safety personnel we rely on daily who would not be exempted from this hands-free operation” language. Firefighters and EMS technicians are “Public Safety” not “Law Enforcement” What about School Bus Drivers and Public Transit Drivers who we rely on to us from where we are to where we need to be? And, to admittedly be a little selfish, what about Ham Radio operators who safely operate two-way radios while driving, often in the Public Interest? As this bill is currently written, only law enforcement personnel are exempted from the “hands-free operation” provision in SB76.
Come on, let’s be realistic. The current Distracted Driver Law that prohibits texting while driving has been a colossal failure. It assumes, falsely, that just because you write a law people will change their behavior. I am sure some have. But many, many others have not. This update to the existing law now treats the use of two-way radios, which are half-duplex voice devices in the same manner as cell phones, which are full-duplex voice and interactive text messaging devices. There is a HUGE difference in the human interaction required to operate a two-way radio versus a cell phone. In many ways, human passengers riding with a vehicle driver can be as much of a distraction as using a cell phone. What are our enlightened legislators going to come up with next: prohibiting passengers in a moving motor vehicle? Good luck with that one!
If you can’t change how humans behave with the technology, change the technology. Cell phones all have onboard GPS capability. That means they have the capability to know when the device is in motion. If humans cannot act responsibly with the technology in their possession, mandate all text display and authoring capability be DISABLED when the device is traveling more than 8 miles per hour. Now, I know vehicle passengers will howl at the prospect of not being able to text while in motion. To that I say, too bad! The way society as a whole has behaved with these devices must be changed.
Lumping two-way radio use in with the use of cell phones is a huge and potentially costly mistake. The human interaction required with the device is radically different because of how two-way radio works. The cost of replacing the two-way radios in Fire and EMS vehicles, School Buses and Public Transit vehicles will be a budget buster. Yes, the technology exists. But is it really required? I don’t think so.
Unless someone can show me data proving Ham Radio operations are detrimental to public safety, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Think about all the Hams that have responded during the many disasters we have seen in Florida. Take away the core tool they need and use and you have taken away their reason for responding.
If you think SB 76 needs some changes, contact your State Senator and State Representative today. You will find a list at https://www.flsenate.gov/Senators/.
-April 27, 2019
If you read my posts with any regularity, you know I have made no secret of my advocacy of digital radio. I am particularly fond of the NXDN digital operating protocol, in part, because it is the only digital voice protocol that fully complies with the FCC’s 2004 Record and Order for VHF and UHF Narrowbanding. I also happen to think it offers superior voice quality and fidelity to the other modes currently vying for market share in the “digital radio food fight”.
Like it or not, digital radio and other digital operating modes are here to stay on our precious RF spectrum. And Amateur Radio, the birthplace of experimentation and innovation, should reflect this reality.
So why is it the FCC is even considering this Petition for Rulemaking, RM11381, that would severely restrict, if not downright prohibit, the use of digital modes on Amateur Radio frequencies? The petition, filed by Ron Kolarik-K0IDT, a Ham from Nebraska, seems like a knee-jerk reaction to the growing presence of digital signals on the air. More to the point, it seems like a heaping bunch of sour grapes!
If adopted, changes to 97.221(2) would mandate that all transmissions on Amateur Radio frequencies remain open for over-the-air eavesdropping of station identification, message content, and capable of being fully decoded with publicly available methods as required by Part 97.113(a)(4). Translation: Digital radio is not the one-size-fits-all method that plain, ole, analog radio signaling is. As such, it requires both technology and skills that Hams should not be required to possess to listen in on any given transmission.
The second part of the petition deals with digital emissions, primarily on HF frequencies from Automatic Control Data Stations (ACDS) which generally use an assigned channel or frequency. As digital stations proliferate and start showing up on additional frequencies, the petitioner contents these signals must be easily identifiable. And as the digital protocols being used also expand, the new modes must be easily decodable so as to be considered “in the open”.
One of the arguments being given weight in this matter is Amateur Radio’s so-called “self-policing” tradition. As a Ham who has had to deal with interference issues, the argument about “self-policing” is an empty suit. If there is an infraction of the rules, the FCC must first makes its’ own case on the merits of the situation and, if an infraction of Part 97 rules is verified, only the FCC is empowered to take action against the offender(s) in the matter.
Yes, life was simpler when everything on the air was “plain vanilla analog mode”. The proliferation of digital operating modes has injected a level of complexity the FCC never anticipated when Part 97 was written to govern the Amateur Radio Service. But instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, a better solution can be had by using some plain ole common sense. If you want to transmit “zeroes and ones”, the protocol you are using must be published and publicly available. If there is a need to partition a portion of spectrum for over-the-air experimentation, change the rules to address the need.
The FCC’s document also suggests there is some underlying heartburn with the use of hardware, modulation schemas and protocols that are in use in Land Mobile, Aviation, Marine and other radio services. Aside from encryption (which has never been allowed in Amateur Radio by International Treaty), I have no problem whatsoever with allowing the operation an FCC Type Accepted Radio on Ham frequencies. Yes, a Part 90 Type Accepted radio may cost a little more. But you get what you pay for as we have all seen with the Bao-feng debacle.
You can weigh in on this matter. Go to https://www.fcc.gov/ecfs/filings/express and file your comments on RM-11381 for the FCC to consider. I have already done so.
Now, if the FCC really wants to bring clarity to “digital radio”, particularly digital two-way voice emissions, it should go back to its own 2004 Report and Order for Land Mobile Radio. It clearly spelled out what it wanted to see used: 6.25 KHz channel bandwidth, FDMA modulation and a data rate of 4800 baud. Clean up the dog pile you have allowed for Part 90 VHF and UHF and some real clarity on digital signaling for both Land Mobile Radio and Amateur Radio will start.
-April 26, 2019
Some of you may have heard a rumor floating around that a new NXDN Repeater is now on the air in Polk County. I am here to CONFIRM that rumor. You will find a brand new NI4CE NXDN repeater now operating on 442.1375 from Bartow. It went on Tuesday morning and is lighting up Polk County radios smartly.
442,1375 is one of three new NXDN repeaters the West Central Florida Group, Inc. is launching this Spring to meet the needs of a growing number of Hams who have discovered (and really like) the performance of the NXDN Digital Operating Mode. Bartow will be joined shortly by a Lake Placid (Highlands County) NXDN repeater on 442.1125 and a second Charlotte County NXDN repeater that will serve the Hams there on 442.1875. These new repeaters will bolster NI4CE’s NXDN coverage over the interior of the Florida Peninsula and will be available this coming Hurricane Season to support emergency operations should another one of those critters (like Ian and Nicole last year) come calling.
I am often asked, “Why NXDN? Why not DMR or Fusion or P25?” What are the real benefits for Ham Radio with this mode? Most importantly, why should I invest my money to buy yet another radio?” These are all great questions. Here is my response.
NXDN is the most spectrally efficient of the digital modes being used in the VHF and UHF bands. Its’ 6.25 KHz bandwidth packs a HUGE punch with voice clarity that I find superior to other modes. Despite its narrow bandwidth, NXDN outperforms the other modes found on the Amateur Radio bands, all of which require double or up to four times the bandwidth. Unlike Analog signals which are difficult if not impossible to read at signal strengths below -105 dBm. NXDN provides clear, precision audio that is tuned to the human ear at signal strengths down to -116 dBm. This is particularly important for operations requiring the use of a portable radio. And this ability to decode weak RF signals extends the effective range of NXDN radios on repeaters and in simplex mode.
OK. But if NXDN is such a big deal, why can’t I find any NXDN radios on my favorite Ham Radio dealer’s website? NXDN was created in 2005 by two companies very familiar to Hams: ICOM and Kenwood. Why these two prominent radio manufacturers have chosen not to market these radios to Radio Amateurs may have something to do with each company’s focus on the Land Mobile Radio market. ICOM also has another digital mode it created for Hams: D-Star. Whatever the reason(s), you won’t find NXDN radios or repeaters on the shelves at your favorite Ham Radio retailer. But NXDN and Ham Radio were made for each other. And you will find NXDN radios are readily available through both ICOM and Kenwood Land Mobile Radio dealers.
NXDN is more than just a crystal-clear voice. It also supports Short Digital Messaging, a Digital Paging function called CALL ALERT, Over-The-Air Alias which allows you to automatically transmit your FCC Callsign with every touch of the PTT button. Some models also have built-in GPS and Bluetooth. NXDN is a worldwide product with Hams in Europe, Asia, Australia, and South America using NXDN radios. NXDN is real Ham Radio!
A word or two about Hotspots. These Voice-over-IP computers have become a way for Hams to explore NXDN in places where an NXDN repeater or repeater network has yet to be built. Not all Hotspots are created equally causing voice quality degradation. Mobile Hotspots require some type of mobile Internet service to make a connection. NXDN is a radio mode that is LIVE and LOCAL just like most analog Ham Radio, And in West Central Florida, the NI4CE NXDN Radio Network is real NXDN you can take everywhere you go.
To learn more about the NI4CE NXDN Network, go to the NXDN section of our website. When you take the plunge and get your own NXDN portable or mobile radio, come join us on Wednesday evenings at 7:30 for the Florida NXDN Net.
-April 28, 2023
Let me start this article by saying if you are someone who believes Amateur Radio is dead, you are mistaken in that belief. Yes, the proliferation of cellular technology through every demographic, every age group, and every socio-economic level of our population may make it seems like everyone has gone over to the “dark side” and abandoned our way of communicating. After all, how many people, particularly young people, will entertain what they may see as another burden of passing a test to operate a radio?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating for the abolishment of Amateur Radio Testing. It does serve a useful and meaningful purpose to help ensure adherence to critical technical standards and procedures. Most cell phone users have no idea what it takes to keep cell networks working as well as they do. A cell phone is just another throwaway appliance.
So how do you get a whole generation of young people exposed to and enthusiastic about Amateur Radio? Some Public School Educators in Polk County, FL may have come up with the answer. Several teachers and administrators in the Polk County Public School District have embarked on a mission to share their knowledge and love of Amateur Radio with their students.
They call themselves the Polk Co Schools Radio Society and have already secured an FCC license, W4PSR, to help support their efforts. The upcoming 2022-2023 School Year will start anew in just a few weeks. With it will come an opportunity for select Middle School and High School students to jump in, feet first, and become the NEW “Kool Kids”.
Amateur Radio has so much to offer students, particularly those in STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Math) programs. Simply put, Amateur Radio is the “practical application” of mathematics, physics, and communications disciplines. It is not just some exercise in memorizing some abstract formula. You have the opportunity to apply Ohm’s Law and other scientific principles in real-time and learn the real value of settings goals and realizing accomplishments through teamwork. It is also a great way to have some fun!
One of the things I have always liked about Amateur Radio is how it enhances troubleshooting skills and a person’s ability to think outside of the box. Today’s Amateur Radio incorporates critical thinking, logic, practical analytics and so much more. From a social point of view, you also gain a sense of “belonging”, being a part of something that enhances your academic and social development.
I sincerely hope this effort in Polk County’s Schools will be a gigantic success. And I hope that success will serve to encourage other School Districts here in West Central Florida to follow their lead and introduce Amateur Radio to their students, either as an After School activity or as part of an elective curriculum offering. There is nothing more rewarding for teachers and students than to see “book learning” applied to solve real problems.
-July 8, 2022