NI4CE regional linked repeater system


By Paul Toth – NB9X

The advent of the microprocessor has changed life in hundreds, no, thousands of ways. Microprocessors are now found in almost everything: computers, printers, television receivers, microwave ovens, many kitchen appliances, home security systems and the list goes on and on and one. Ever wonder why your automobile, truck, or SUV costs so much. Just look at all the components that are controlled by microprocessors.

Two-way radios are no different. Many, if not al,l two-way radios used in commercial and Amateur Radio communications have at their heart a microprocessor. And along with that microprocessor is memory, USB, Serial and Bluetooth connectivity, and a lot more. However, just how much “more” is usually determined by the amount of memory your radio has in it.

Even though silicon-based memory is now relatively inexpensive, there still is a cost. The more memory you find on the motherboard, the more your radio will cost. But that is changing as the availability of low-cost, high capacity microSD memory cards enable some radios to store a myriad of information. Your voice calls (sent and received), text messages, metadata including Radio IDs, Signal Strength (in dBm), GPS position, and more can now be captured, stored, and downloaded for analysis. These microSD cards can also store some important new enhancements to increase the functionality of your portable or mobile radio, hence the subject of this post.

Some radio manufacturers, ICOM amongst them, have added a Channel Change Announcement capability to some of their radios. What comes standard is something that is very generic, very simple, a voice telling you the numeric channel you are on. But what if you could program a Channel Change Announcement that is a lot more descriptive of what is actually in that memory channel you have selected? And what are the potential benefits?

The ability to ADD a third party microSD memory card to your radio expands the memory of your radio by several orders of magnitude. You can now have enough memory to record, save, and assign custom Channel Change Announcements to each memory channel in your radio. It is now very realistic to have a Channel Change Announcement that aurally describes that memory channel’s contents in a way that was only available by looking at your radio’s display. WOW! Now. Let’s say you are “visually challenged”. For example, you are driving down the highway unable to look at your radio’s display. With custom Channel Change Announcement capability, your radio will tell you in plain language which channel you have just selected. Or let’s say you want to change channels in a dimly lit area. Or your portable radio is attached to your belt or in a carrying case. Your Speaker/Mic allows you to change channels. But what have you just changed to? Now you will know. This is, as the title of this article suggests, being “visually challenged”.

For people who are “visually impaired”, custom Channel Change Announcements are nirvana. Even if your radio’s programming uses multiple ZONES with multiple memory channels in each ZONE, the custom Channel Change Announcement gives you certainty about your selection (which beats guesswork hands down any day of the week).

Even if you have Twenty-Twenty vision, we all can be “visually challenged”. When you are looking for a new radio for your vehicle or “The Shack”, look for models that support a microSD memory card and Custom Channel Change Announcements. It is a feature that will add important functionality to your radio and your ability to use it to the “max”. Some ICOM radios that support microSD card memory and Channel Change Announcements include the IC-4100 and IC-5100A analog/D-Star radios and the F3400/F4400/F5400/F6400 analog/NXDN radios.
-May 25, 2020

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By Paul Toth – NB9X

When I was first licensed over twenty years ago, I was faced with the same daunting challenge that every new Amateur Radio operator faces: “What should new FIRST Amateur Radio purchase be?” Should my first radio be a Portable I can take everywhere? Should it be a Mobile radio that I can use as a Base Station (with a power supply) or in the car? Decisions, decisions, decisions. Well, here is what I decided.

My first radio was (wait for it) a MOBILE radio. A curious choice you are thinking. But in retrospect, if I had to do it again, I would make the same choice. Here’s why.

Portable radios, no matter the brand or model, are limited in their power output. Now, if the repeater you are trying to talk through has an output of fifty watts and the portable radio you have chosen transmits at five watts, you will be operating at a distinct disadvantage. That difference in power output is 10 dB. That may not sound like a big difference. But believe me, it is. Now, let’s compare Antenna Gain. The repeater is probably using a high gain antenna to boost the Effective Radiated Power by 6 dBd to 10 dBd, maybe even more. But comparison, most portable radios are outfitted with antennas that have a negative gain maybe as much as -4.0 dBd. Now, add up the differential and, as you can see, that portable radio you are trying to use has a -20 dBd or more disadvantage. And just got good measure, let’s say you are trying to use your portable radio inside a vehicle or a well built structure. You can tack on -15 dBd to the RF hole you are in.

By comparison, most VHF mobile radios transmit at up to 50 watts. UHF radios can transmit at up to 45 watts maximum output. Most mobile antennas will offer a gain factor that will offset any losses introduced by the coax cable needed to connect the antenna to the radio. And because your mobile antenna is located on the exterior of your vehicle and the radio is powered by the vehicle’s alternator, you will not be added to the losses described above with a portable radio. Base Station antennas may actually offer you enough gain to increase your Effective Radio Power (ERP) by a factor of two or more. And a Base Station antenna will likely be mounted at some elevation that will allow you to eliminate losses from trees, buildings and other vertical obstructions.

Why is all this important for a new Ham? You have heard the saying “Success begets success!” A successful first radio experience will encourage and motivate a new Ham (and, for that matter, any Ham) to want to do more. Ham Radio is not a spectator hobby. You learn by doing. And the more you do, the better you will be.

More on your First Radio in my next post.

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By Paul toth-NB9X

In my first post on this subject, I discussed my rationale for selecting a MOBILE radio as my first Ham Radio. When I added up the numbers including Transmit Power Output and Antennas Gain and factored in other losses I could expect using a Portable radio, it just made more sense to make that first radio a MOBILE radio.

But there were other important criteria I took into consideration for that first purchase. Many new Hams will purchase a VHF, single band radio. It is less expensive than many VHF+UHF dual band models. And, in many parts of the country, there is more activity on the VHF (Two Meter) band or so many people believe. But even though a dual band, VHF-UHF radio was going to cost more, I thought going that direction was worth the every investment. And that decision turned out to be a good one.

Another factor was audio quality. Once again, the MOBILE radios I had been exposed to before making that first purchase just sounded cleaner and more full bodied than their Portable Radio counterparts. That still holds true today for most ANALOG radios. Digital Mobiles and Portables (e.g. NXDN, DMR, P25, Fusion, etc.) tend to have virtually identical audio quality. There are other factors, including the Speaker/Mic you may be using and the digital format itself, that make once format better than another. More on this topic in another post.

Perhaps the most important item I factored into my first radio purchase was how I wanted to use the radio. Did I want to talk with other Hams going to and from work? YES! Did I want to participate in Nets? YES! Did I want to get involved with emergency/public service activities, like SKYWARN and ARES? YES! How about Club activities? YES! With those criteria in mind, a MOBILE radio made the most sense.

Now, in all fairness and in full disclosure, it became pretty clear within three months that a VHF-UHF dual band Portable radio was going to be in my immediate future. Ultimately, an active, energized, engaged Ham is going to have at least one MOBILE and one PORTABLE radio.

More on DIGITAL Ham Radio in my next post.

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

A new Ham in the 1990s had some important choices to make when selecting his/her first radio. Was it going to be an ICOM, Kenwood, Yaseu, Alinco or one from a handful of lesser known brands, like Standard or Azden. Or maybe, you knew someone who could convert an old Motorola or GE mobile or portable that had been used by a commercial user.

Twenty years later, the choices are a lot more numerous. Yes, the Big Four in Ham Radio are still around and still innovating with radios that include color LCD screens, PL+CTCSS+DTCS tone control, voice compression and more. Many of the lesser known brands have been replaced by radios from Chinese manufacturers who have flooded the market with low cost (and, in some cases, dubious quality product).

While most ANALOG Amateur Radio repeaters still operate Wide Band FM, that is with a 25 KHz channel bandwidth, the Narrowband Mandate (12.5 KHz bandwidth) imposed on commercial and government users in 2013 has dried up the availability of commercial radios capable of 25 KHz operation. We are also seeing older WBFM repeaters now being replaced by new models that must operate at 12.5 KHz NBFM.

The FCC mandate for commercial radio has also brought with it new DIGITAL operating modes that some Hams are experimenting with. P25, NXDN, DMR, Fusion, TERTA and D-Star are just some of the DIGITAL modes out there. All but D-Star and Fusion (which are Ham Radio only) are gaining prominence in commercial and government use. All of these DIGITAL modes are feature rich. Some allow multiple VHF and UHF repeaters to be connected via IP. Interoperability, one mode to another and one manufacturer to another, is still a problem (just as computer networking was twenty years ago). And each mode has its strengths and weaknesses. No two modes are created equally.

I personally like NXDN, created by ICOM and Kenwood jointly in 2005. Each manufacturer’s radios are interoperable. The repeaters can be networked easily. And equipment is readily available from dealers and on the Internet. I also happen to like the range and clarity of NXDN radios, which rivals WBFM despite the fact they use one quarter the bandwidth of WBFM.

DMR offers two talk paths per RF carrier, a feature some Hams find desirable and fascinating, although you can only talk on one at a time. DMR repeaters tend not to cover the same amount of real estate as NXDN repeater do. And there have been some interoperability issues between Type 2 and Type 3 formats. Yet, DMR is popular in many areas, in part because of the availability of product.

P25 has two versions, the older Phase 1 mode and the newer Phase 2 mode. Both are designed for the Public Safety market and, as a result, P25 radios are a lot more expensive than most other Digital radios.

More on the Ham Radio only DIGITAL modes in my next post…..

Go to now and tell us what you think.  Or send an email to [email protected]

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

In my last post, we started talking about DIGITAL two-way radio, why it exists and why you should seriously consider a DIGITAL radio.  Let’s expand on that with a look at the several DIGITAL radio protocols and radios that are available.

First, no two digital modes are created alike.  Each of the several CAI (Common Air Interface) has their strengths and weaknesses.  NXDN is the only mode that meets all of the FCC’s 2004 engineering mandates for Ultra Narrow Band Digital.  In a Report and Order issued in December, 2004, the FCC told the radio manufacturers they wanted to see radios that used 6.25 KHz bandwidth, FDMA modulation and a data rate of 4800 baud.  That is what NXDN, jointly created by ICOM and Kenwood, is.

In that same R&O, however, the FCC gave manufacturers like Motorola some wiggle room allowing their two channel TDMA mode to operate.  DMR radios, the generic term for TDMA, uses 12.5 KHz bandwidth with two simultaneous voice paths.  Some early DMR offerings are not compatible with the newer Type 3 radios that include products from Hytera, Tait and others.

P25, the modes (there are two) adopted by APCO for Public Safety are also 12.5 KHz.  P25 Phase 1 uses a FDMA modulation schema while the new P25 Phase 2 mode is a two voice path TDMA offering that uses one modulation type for the uplink (radio to the repeater) and a different modulation schema for the downlink (repeater to radio).

Radios using all these operating modes have been created primarily for commercial and government use.  But they are also is use on Amateur Radio bands.  Why?  What are the benefits of DIGITAL?

ANALOG transmissions are subject to all kinds of noise and disruption.  Weak signal analog voice transmissions are often difficult to copy because of the inherent noise that is part of the signal.  Then, add to that “snap, crackle pop” from atmospherics in the area, disruptions caused by multipath, trees and other vertical obstacles.  In short, analog transmissions have drawbacks that can make communications difficult.

DIGITAL transmissions are usually much cleaner, clearer and easier to comprehend.  That’s because the transmitting radio turns your voice into a stream of “zeroes and ones”, sends them over the air to the receiving radio that decodes the stream and re-creates the voice communications.  With some exceptions, digital voice is far more stable than analog voice.  Digital voice transmissions are generally usable at RF signal strengths up to 20 dBm weaker than analog signals.  Most digital radios also feature ambient noise reduction to eliminate or substantially reduce road noise.

One drawback with most of the commercially available digital radios:  they are single band only.

More on DIGITAL radio in our next post….

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

Some of you have heard me state that “Amateur Radio was the FIRST Social Media”.  That is a rather bold statement given all the other Social Media offerings that now grace the digital landscape.  The fact that Ham Radio, in Analog or Digital mode, is still a relevant Social Media, is pretty remarkable.

Let’s close the loop on DIGITAL radio before we get too far off topic.  Here are some thoughts on the several DIGITAL modes available to all Hams.

I personally like NXDN, created by ICOM and Kenwood jointly in 2005.  The radios from both manufacturers are interoperable.  The repeaters can be networked over IP easily.  And equipment is readily available from commercial dealers and on the Internet.  I also happen to like the range and clarity of NXDN radios, which rivals WBFM despite the fact they use one-quarter the bandwidth of WBFM.   NXDN radios also support Text Messaging and GPS.

DMR offers two talk paths per RF carrier, a feature some Hams find desirable and fascinating, although you can only talk on one at a time.  DMR repeaters tend to come up short on coverage compared to NXDN and P25 Phase 1, a product of their modulation schema.  And there have been some interoperability issues between Type 2 and Type 3 formats.  Yet, DMR is popular in many areas, in part because of product availability and local dealer support.  There is also the Motorola name recognition that has helped popularize DMR.

P25 has two versions, the older Phase 1 mode and the newer Phase 2 mode.  Both are designed for the Public Safety market and, as a result, P25 radios are a lot more expensive than most other Digital radios.

There are two digital products that are “Ham Only”:  ICOM’s D-Star and Yaesu’s Fusion.  D-Star remains ICOM’s prominent Ham Radio offering, even though its GMSK modulation schema is hardly state of the art.  The end user D-Star radios will do both analog and digital modes. D-Star repeaters are digital only.  D-Star has become less of a “proprietary” mode thanks to the proliferation of D-Star dongles that turn your computer into a virtual radio.  Still, if you want to operate wirelessly, ICOM is your radio source.

Fusion, from Yaesu, is a ‘proprietary’ created only for Ham Radio product.  Its C4FM modulation schema has some P25 Phase 1 characteristics.  Fusion radios support both analog and digital mode operations.  And Fusion repeaters can be programmed to automatically convert analog to digital and vice versa.  Fusion has gained a foothold with some Ham Radio Clubs, in part, because of an early marketing campaign that made Fusion repeaters available at Fire Sale prices.  Yaesu’s success with Fusion may also be based on a belief that the majority of Hams will only buy Ham-class radios.

The West Central Florida Group, Inc. currently has two NXDN repeaters in operation at our Riverview and Verna repeater sites.  Like our analog repeaters, the NXDN repeaters are linked full time to create a large coverage footprint along Florida’s West Coast.

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

If you have forty dollars or so invested in a radio, you probably consider it a “disposable appliance”. In the accounting world, it would be considered an “expense item” rather than a more expensive “capital investment”. Nevertheless, you are going to want to continue reading because what I am about to share with you is important. Now, if you have made a more substantial investment into your radio, you want to do everything you can to protect and optimize your investment. So, you will want to continue reading.

PM is short for Preventive Maintenance. It is a process and series of procedures that many radio owners, commercial and Amateur Radio, undertake on an annual basis. PM looks at key metrics of a radio that determine just how well the radio performs, no matter what bands it operates on. PM can also provide valuable clues about key components in your radio and whether your radio is working well or may be getting ready to fail.

Most radio Preventive Maintenance procedures examine several key metrics. For example, how far off the center frequency is your radio operating. Very few devices will ever be exactly “on frequency”. The question is just how far off the center frequency has your radio deviated. If your center frequency is plus or minus fifty Hertz, your radio is considered to have an acceptable error. If your radio is a couple hundred Hertz high or low from the assigned center frequency, the radio needs some tweaking or adjustment. And if your radio is, let’s say, a kilohertz off frequency, your audio is probably sounding a bit fuzzy and your radio has likely lost some of its sensitivity or so it seems. Your radio’s best friend is a qualified radio technician equipped with a frequency counter or more appropriately a Service Monitor.

Once you have your radio back on frequency, it will likely perform a lot better and sound a lot better on the air, too. But a Frequency Check is only the first metric to test. Another key metric is the TX Power Output of your radio. With age, the components in your radio change value. This can cause your radio’s power output to degrade. A portable radio rated at five watts may now only be putting out four watts. Optimizing the transmit power output of your radio is your best chance for getting the most out of your radio and cleanly getting into your favorite repeater. While your radio is on the bench, make sure any “fixed” power settings are also optimized. I recently discovered a Medium fixed power setting on one of my radios was only registering a nineteen-watt output. This setting is rated at a twenty-five-watt output.

Digital radios have another metric that must be measured, Modulation Fidelity. This metric is an indicator of how accurately the Zeroes and Ones are being transmitted. A Mod Fidelity error of three percent or less will result in a low Bit Error Rate and optimal reception of the stream of Zeroes and Ones you are sending.

One other very important metric to maintain clear, concise voice communications is your audio output. In Wide Band FM mode (WBFM), your radio should be transmitting a 3 KHz deviation. Anything less and your modulation is not optimal. If your deviation is 5 KHz (or more), you are over-modulating and likely have a hard time holding a repeater.

An annual PM will help you operate by the numbers. And that’s a good thing because the quality of your on-the-air signal is your radio personality.

Let us 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

Last month’s disruption to the Texas Power Grid left millions of people not only in the dark but in the cold, too. Frozen windmills and solar panels stopped producing electricity. Even fossil fuel generating stations were offline for several days. Over thirty people died. Businesses of all sizes and shapes were disrupted. Travel, at best was dangerous, at worst, impossible.

Now if you think such a calamity cannot happen here, well, you just moved to Florida. All you have to do is think back to the impact Florida’s major hurricanes have had on electric service. In 2004, Charley left some parts of Florida in the dark for well over a month. Just four years ago, Irma caused major, multi-week outages in some high-density population centers, including the TampaBay area. Just after Irma’s landfall here, Hurricane Maria wiped out the entire power grid in Puerto Rico, something the residents who remain on the island are still living with.

Let’s face it: We take electricity and the way of life it affords us for granted. Most Floridians have never known a time when there was no electricity. We have always had the modern conveniences: refrigerators to keep our food and medicine cold, microwave ovens for cooking, hot and cold running water made possible by electric pumps and lights so bright you can light every nook and cranny in our house. Now add to all those basics all the information technology we now rely on: Computers, tablets, routers, Ethernet switches, Wi-Fi, printers, LCD and LED displays, television, and radio. And lest we not overlook our own hobby, Amateur Radio transceivers, RF amplifiers, battery chargers, and more.

Some of us maintain at least one electric generator we can use in emergencies. It does provide for at least the basics to keep us going when commercial services are down. But if your generator relies on gasoline or propane to operate, it is, at best, a short-term band-aid. And, at over three dollars per gallon for non-ethanol gasoline, an expensive one at that. What happens if your electric service is disrupted for months?

Two years ago, President Trump signed Executive Order 13920 directing the Federal Government and major Electric Grid operators to strengthen the grid against disruptions. An Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) attack could be devastating to the grid and some of its major components. What happened in Texas would pale by comparison to what an EMP-induced outage would look like. Cyber-attacks are another major threat to the grid. Yes, the EO is still there. But without action from Congress to fund the two billion dollars needed to strengthen and safeguard the grid, it’s going nowhere and our commercial electric service and way of life are still at considerable risk!

Another threat, IMHO, is the headlong push into solar and wind technologies on the Production side of the equation. The majority of “Capital Funding” for the electric infrastructure is going into these technologies. Fossil-fueled generating plants are on the wane, even as the number of consumers continues to increase. Wind and solar, at best, are part-time production technologies. When the sun sets (as it does nightly), those production tools go offline just as a major effort to convert our vehicles to electric propulsion ramps up. The lack of new generating capacity to meet this new demand will only lead to one conclusion: brownouts (as we are seeing regularly in California) or no service at all.

I am sure you have a house in your neighborhood that now has solar panels on the roof. The electricity from those panels goes right to the grid and is of no consequence to the homeowner when commercial service is out. There is no way to keep the lights on and the refrigerator running. Oops!

What happens when the next tornado or hurricane blows through and damages or destroys one or more of the commercial solar farms that are now dotting the Florida landscape? That fifty percent solution now crashes to ZERO!

Call me a skeptic but I am not getting a lot of warm fuzzies from the perspective of having to give up my Ham Radio because of a lack of electricity. Floridians need a resilient electric grid not a lot of green new hyperbole.
-March 1, 2021

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

During the last few weeks, I have had an opportunity to do some work-related traveling. It allowed me to note some important changes taking place to the landscape, not just here in Florida but in several other neighboring states.

There are new subdivisions and new commercial and industrial developments cropping up all over the place. As people re-locate from the Northeast and other locales, they need a place to live, to shop, to work. I also noticed another kind of development, rows upon rows of solar panels now dotting the countryside. Some of these solar farms are very visible from major highways; I-75, I-95, and I-10 to be sure. Some are off the beaten path, what you might say “out in the middle of nowhere”, occupying land that had previously been used for raising cattle, grouping crops, or on property (particularly in Georgia) where trees are the renewable cash crop, used for everything from lumber to Kleenex and other paper products. And while there still appeared to be a lot of forested land remaining, it is highly unlikely these not so insignificant plots now home to rows of solar panels will ever be forested again.

I am not against capturing and using energy from the wind and sun. B8ut what is the Master Plan here? And if there is one, why isn’t it out in the open for public view, being discussed and debated? Or is this whole effort to obsolete fossil fuels one of those “throw as much stuff against the wall and let’s see what sticks” endeavors?

We have already seen what happens, twice, now in the last three months, when the Master Plan, if there truly is on, has not been fully vetted. The storms this past February in Texas put millions of people in the dark and without heat. More recently, and still ongoing in states that were hit the hardest, the interruption to the flow of gasoline, diesel and, aviation products through the Colonial Pipeline network left everyone on the Eastern Seaboard scrambling. Our economy needs safe, affordable energy to run and prosper. Once again, we came up short. This is not a confidence builder.

Since this website is primarily focused on Amateur Radio, you are probably asking “What does all this have to do with Ham Radio?”. And the answer is “Plenty”! First, Amateur Radio depends, heavily, on the availability of electricity. No juice – no RF emissions. I am sure a lot of Hams thought the ban on outdoor antennas implemented through “private law” Deed Restrictions was just going to be a flash in the pan. Not only has this trend taken root, but it is also expanding, so much so that some developers have made “green space” in their subdivisions a thing of the past and banished outdoor antennas permanently.

Then, there is the matter of relying on “part-time energy sources. How does the Master Plan address this not so insignificant reality? Solar only works during daylight hours. What happens when the sun sets? Oh, and by the way, have you noticed once day turns to night, the wind needed to drive the wind turbines tends to die off? This is not accidental, you know!

For those of us left who are still ACTIVE Ham Radio operators, I am not looking forward to the day when I have to choose between charging my electric vehicle (because the gasoline-powered ones are being phased out) and using my hard-earned Amateur Radio license to communicate. Yes, I must admit, my life does not revolve around the Internet and social media. “Electric Everything” is neither foolproof nor without insignificant costs. Scientists are still trying to figure out what the long-term environmental impact is going to be from the windmills that have been built so far, speaking of Climate Change.

We know how snow and ice can disrupt the so-called “Green Energy” sources. How about tornadoes, hurricanes, lightning, and my personal favorite baseball-sized hail? When Mother Nature rains her havoc, what is the backup resource we can all fall back on? Or are stationary exercise bikes that turn a generator going to be the new “must-have” accessory for your home? Again, where is the Master Plan?

Amateur Radio needs antennas, it needs operators, it requires stable, adequate energy to flourish, much less exist. Or are we all destined to join a very prominent Ham, actor-comedian Tim Allen in saying “Baxter Out”!
-June 1, 2021

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

By now, I am sure you have taken in some of the chatter about “TV Repack” we are in the midst of here in West Central Florida. And I am sure you have also probably seen some of the new T-Mobile commercials promoting their new 600 MHz LTE signals.

These two events are connected at the hip. The incursion of cellular operations into the 600 MHz band was made possible by the auctioning of that spectrum previously occupied by broadcast television stations. These stations, in turn, are now in the midst of relocating to new channels (that were previously vacant) or are moving from one channel to another to better accommodate one of these displaced broadcasters. There is a significant re-ordering of the TV spectrum which will all come to fruition on or about January 16, 2020.

Those of us with Amateur Radio licenses need to pay close attention to all these seemingly innocent shenanigans that are costing billions of dollars. Why? It’s simple, really. We may be next on the auction block.

This TV Repack Auction was made possible by our good friends who are supposed to be representing us in Congress. A majority of them are of the belief there is something to be gained (money) by taking the RF Spectrum, which previously has been administered as part of the Public Trust, and selling it off to large corporations to do with as they wish. For a short term, one-time investment, companies like T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T and a few others now OWN this precious, finite commodity and are virtually accountable to no one. There is a HUGE difference between using RF spectrum under the authority of a publicly administered license and owning the spectrum outright.

There is a Grand Master Plan beginning to emerge. First, Cable TV and Satellite TV subscribers continue to bale in large numbers from their high monthly cable bills. They are able to migrate to broadband digital Pay For View services, like Disney Plus, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime and many more. As Cable and Satellite hemorrhage their customer base, they start trimming channels. Fewer channels mean fewer satellite channels needed for program distribution. Along comes Cellular 5G and its promise of speed, increased bandwidth, portability and reliability. And the Broadcast TV folks, well, they have fewer and fewer channels to try to compete against the competition. As TV viewers get tired of watching re-runs, broadcasters will find it harder and harder to remain fiscally viable and some will throw in the towel completely. Others will jump on the 5G bandwagon and use the Internet as their delivery system. Before you know it, the cellular industry will be clamoring for more spectrum. And Congress, because it hasn’t seen a dollar that it shouldn’t spend will SELL them the spectrum instead of licensing its use.

The next big chunk of RF real estate now being oogled is the C-Band Satellite allocation. And nearby is the Amateur Radio 3.3-3.5 GHz sandbox which Hams are unable to develop because our recreational dollars are all going to the Big 3 Cellular Carriers instead of investing in our own RF infrastructure. Don’t believe me? Just watch this play out over the next ten years.
-January 11, 220

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

Amateur Radio was the great proving ground for many of the communications devices that ultimately ended up in the hands of the masses. In fact, the whole concept of portable, go anywhere two-way radios was a staple in Amateur Radio long before the cell phone came along.

But in the mid-1980s, cellular communications devices and infrastructure made their way to the marketplace. Early cell devices were big, bulky and heavy. Let’s not forget about heavy. My first cell phone was a three watt “bag phone”. I recall dragging that thing over my shoulder on business through airports, hotel elevators and the like. I also remember having to drag it into Disneyland with me on vacation (I was supporting a very high profile computer imaging product at the time).

Cell phones in late 2017 are a lot less like portable telephones and more like a portable, hand-held computer that is a one size fits all. Sure, you can still make a phone call. But you can also send text messages, read email, navigate using the internal GPS receiver and any number of apps. In fact, the term “smartphone” really is an inaccurate descriptor for the personal communications devices used by most people.

Now, by comparison, two-way radio and Amateur Radio devices could be compared to the forgotten “red headed” stepchild that nobody wants to talk about. Land Mobile Radio and Amateur Radio, in many ways, are tied at the hip. While many of the radios have gotten physically smaller, their functionality remains limited, in fact, almost primitive, when compared to personal cellular devices. Most LMR and Amateur portable radios do one thing, one to many voice communications, something cellular has tried several times to do unsuccessfully. Digital LMR and Amateur Radio devices are now capable of Talkgroup and Individual calling. Some recent product releases now have a built-in GPS receiver (not necessarily for navigating) and Bluetooth support for wireless headsets. But LMR and Amateur Radio devices in 2017 are still much like their predecessors from the 1970s and 1980s. Any color displays are too small to support a touch screen keypad. There are virtually no apps available. What apps that do exist require a separate computer or tablet in tow. And only really high end Public Safety class radios are equipped with some form of WiFi. It’s hard to attract new people into the Amateur Radio realm when the technology seems like something from Jurassic Park!

I would love to have an Amateur Radio transceiver that could support operations on VHF, UHF, WiFi (both bands), a touch screen interactive color display, USB connectivity, built-in GPS and apps to support navigation as well as APRS, and apps for text messaging, NTS messaging, even email. Yes, I might have to sacrifice some range (i.e. antenna size and lower power output, maybe 2 watts instead of four or five watts). Battery technology has gotten so much better that such a device should be able to be made without weighing twenty pounds. No, such a device is going to cost more than your typical Bao-feng. But if Apple and Samsung can build their latest smartphones for around a grand, LMR and Amateur Radio manufacturers should be able to do so, too.

Let me know what’s on your Wish List. Send your thoughts via email to [email protected], post to the  page or do something rally radical and send me a NTS Radiogram.

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

When the first NI4CE repeater went on the air in 2001, it was a Wide Band FM Analog repeater. Fast forward almost eighteen years. The actual repeater is a different make and model. But it still operates in WBFM analog mode as do the other five NI4CE analog repeaters.

But in the eighteen years that NI4CE has been on the air a lot of other things have changed and changed dramatically. For example, cell phones are now digital. The major cellular providers all operate high speed LTE-based wireless data networks that allow you to take a hand held computing device (your cell phone or tablet) to surf the Internet, send and receive email, shop online and much more.

Land Mobile Radio, the commercial “Big Brother” to Amateur Radio VHF and UHF repeater systems, no longer allows WBFM operations. In 2013, LMR users were forced to migrate to Narrow Band FM Analog or a Digital operating mode.

Broadcast Television went all digital in 2010 and is about to embark on ATSC 3.0, a new digital TV standard with improved screen resolution and throughput.

In case you did not realize it, NI4CE does not just play in the WBFM sandbox. We have been operating parallel NXDN digital repeaters at our Riverview and Verna sites for many years. We also are working cooperatively with Dave-KG4YZY on the operation of an NXDN repeater in Pasco County. These repeaters are IP linked and connect to a master server in Orlando that allows NXDN-equipped Hams to talk with other NXDN Hams in the USA, Canada and a number of other parts of the world including Europe and Australia

So, why did we choose NXDN? There are other digital operating modes including DMR and P25 as well as Amateur Radio only D-Star and Fusion. Simple! NXDN was jointly created in 2005 by ICOM and Kenwood (two familiar names) to meet the FCC’s ultimate Ultra Narrow Band standard, 6.25 KHz bandwidth operation. It uses very efficient FDMA modulation. It natively supports digital voice, digital messaging, GPS Tracking and allows linking multiple repeaters via IP or RF. NXDN radios are readily available. And new portable and mobile NXDN radios are on the way.

Another important attribute of NXDN is repeater coverage. Commercial LMR users discovered a substantial loss of coverage when they made the migration to Narrow Band FM in 2013. But those that went from WBFM to NXDN actually realized about a ten percent increase in coverage in many cases. NXDN provides clear voice and data signaling at lower signal strengths because of its efficient modulation schema.

WBFM repeaters and radio are still pre-dominant in Amateur Radio after all these years. But that will change. If you want to get out ahead of the curve, NXDN Ham Radio is here in West Central Florida NOW! Turn it on, tune it in and discover the power and effective communications possibilities. And if you need help getting started, there are local Hams and local resources readily available like the NI4CE-NXDN-Users group on Google.

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

When the NI4CE Repeater was first conceived sixteen years ago, it had two primary objectives:  Provide a VHF-UHF platform that ALL Hams in West Central Florida could communicate through.  This included support for the several Nets the ARRL West Central Florida Section conducts each week.  The second objective was to provide a VHF-UHF communications platform to support the National Weather Service’s SKYWARN severe weather spotter program.

Ham Radio has played an integral and vital role since the SKYWARN program first started in the late 1950’s in “Tornado Alley”.  Trained Ham operators were the eye and ears of the NWS during severe weather outbreaks in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas using their radio communications privileges to report severe weather directly to NWS meteorologist.  It wasn’t until the 1970s when the program was rolled out nationwide.  In the 1990s, when the Weather Service was downsized and re-organized into the 118 offices it now operates from, SKYWARN took on an even more important role.

The technology used by the National Weather Service has changed dramatically since the early days of the SKYWARN program.  Forecasters now have geo-synchronous satellites and 3D Doppler radar to help predict severe weather and issue warnings to keep all of us safe.  Spotters who were limited to telephone and Ham Radio now have a plethora of social media and email to send in reports, including still images and video.

So, why is Ham Radio still relevant to the SKYWARN program and to the general public?  The answer is simple.  Ham radio does not require the Internet, a working telephone or any other technology (other than a portable or mobile radio) to get severe weather reports from spotters to the NWS forecasters.  Moreover, that same Ham Radio link can also be used by the forecasters to push out severe weather warnings and other guidance to all the SKYWARN Hams as needed in a timely manner.

Let’s turn the question around.  Is SKYWARN still relevant to Ham Radio?  Absolutely!!!  SKYWARN is a year-round opportunity for Ham Radio operators to demonstrate our importance at a time when society is cell phone and Internet centric, so much so that many people think Ham Radio, the original “social media”, is a thing of the past.  And SKYWARN participation is a great opportunity to fulfill one of the prime justifications for the Amateur Radio Service’s existence.

2017 has the potential to be a very active Hurricane and Severe Weather year, maybe the most active since the 2004 and 2005 seasons.  Now is the time to get ready.  Attend an upcoming SKYWARN Training session scheduled for your area or take the online SKYWARN training offered by the National Weather Service.  Participate in the SKYWARN Information Net every Tuesday night at 9:00 PM on NI4CE.  Be ready to be part of the solution when severe weather threatens your county, your neighborhood.  And when you finish reading this article and feel so motivated, find the PayPal “Contribute” buttons on our main webpage to help keep NI4CE on the air and ready for whatever Mother Nature will throw at us this year.

A correction to my comment about ICOM being the sole source for D-Star radios in my last column.  Kenwood’s TH-D74 portable now provides Hams with a second source for operating in D-Star mode wirelessly.

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Word Salad
By Paul Toth-NB9X

You can’t always tell a book by its cover. How many times have you heard that saying? More importantly, how many times have you found the statement to be true?

The Study Guides to help new candidates prepare for Amateur Radio exams are a great exam of this. If you are like most people, your first impression will be “Amateur Radio is all about electronics and rules”. If you can memorize a few formulas, Ohm’s Law, for example, and remember how often you are supposed to identify your station (assuming you successfully pass the exam), you will be partially correct. Ham Radio exams focus on the electronic, technical, and regulatory pre-requisites. And while having a demonstrable knowledge and retention of this subject matter is important, it is only part of the story.

You see, Amateur Radio is all about communications. It is all about conveying information that you have verbally, digitally, and visually through wireless media to others. It is also all about developing the discipline to receive the information transmitted by someone else, process it and then, if necessary, take action on that information. These are two key disciplines as the Testing process completely ignores.

As I am writing this, someone keyed up their radio on one of the NI4CE analog repeaters. There were about thirty seconds of unmodulated carrier and the typical noise you will hear when the transmitting radio is some distance from the repeater. I suppose the operator could have been performing a power measurement or some other technical task. However, there was no ID at the end of the transmission so we will never know. A communications failure? You bet! Had the operator keyed up the radio and asked for a Signal Check, he/she would know how well the signal was getting into the repeater. Had the operator ended the transmission with their legal FCC callsign, he/she would have also met a legal requirement thus demonstrating their real grasp of the Part 97 material they are supposed to know.

Now, by contrast, there was another series of transmissions between two operators, a QSO. During those transmissions, one of the operators (who will remain nameless) went on and on and on about an event that had recently taken place. It was a rambling “word salad” that, with a little forethought, could have been conveyed in about a quarter of the time it took.

Even if you are a complete “techno-geek”, how you convey information, one person to another, is ultimately what Amateur Radio on every band is all about. Not everyone will have the well-practiced and refined communications skills of Walter Cronkite (if you don’t know who Walter Cronkite-KB2GSD was, ask your grandparents). Sending and receiving information are two related but different disciplines every Amateur Radio operator needs to practice to succeed on the air. Know what you want to say before key-up your mic. Once the mic is keyed, transmit that information in a manner that is easy for you (and everyone else) to understand. There is nothing worse than to have your fellow Hams on the receiving end of your transmission scratching their heads and muttering “Huh?”.

One of my early Broadcast mentors told me successful wireless communications can be summed up in one word: “conversation”. For a broadcaster, the information is going one way. And you work on making sure your thoughts are clear, concise, and to the point. Fortunately, Amateur Radio is a bi-directional wireless medium that provides immediate feedback. We wish you success with your “conversations”.
-July 14, 2022

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By Paul Toth-NB9X

So far, the Spring of 2019 has been relatively quiet when it comes to severe weather here in West Central Florida. The SKYWARN activation on Good Friday was the first major regional event this year. The strong straight-line winds associated with the storm system caused a lot of trees and tree limbs to be blown on top of power lines. This plunged thousands of residents and businesses into the dark. It could have been worse, a lot worse. No lives were lost, no major injuries were reported.

It is hard to know what the rest of the Spring and Summer will bring. Early Hurricane Season forecasts suggest a slightly below normal year. But all it takes is one Andrew, one Katrina, one Maria or one Michael to dramatically change the landscape. The “new normal” will be drastically different than what it is today. And recovery will be measured in years, not months or weeks or days as our neighbors in the Panhandle are discovering.

Maria in Puerto Rico and Michael here in Florida exposed a number of shortcomings in short term storm recovery planning. One of those shortcomings was with civilian communications. To put it mildly, there was none for the first few days. Cell towers were blown down. Telephone and Internet services were unavailable. Getting the word out to friends and loved ones was next to impossible, even when they may have lived the next town or county away. Never mind vital information about the availability of ice, water, food stuffs and medicine even with all our “normal” technology because there is usually nothing “normal” operating when a CAT 5 Hurricane or EF5 Tornado blows through your neighborhood or town.

But here are a couple of thoughts I would like to offer that may be able to make a difference for the next disaster. For all the Ham operators reading this post, take as many of your critical communications tools with you when you evacuate. Not only will you need them in working order when you return, so, too, will your friends and neighbors. They will be relying on you to deliver Health and Welfare messages so their friends and loved ones know they survived.

If you are not familiar with how to take a formal Health and Welfare message, Dave-W4PXE, the Manager of the Eagle-Net, conducted nightly at 8:30 on the NI4CE Repeater System can help. Dave is conducting some “over-the-air” training sessions this week and for the next several weeks that will help you become fluent with message taking and message receiving. Yes, the process may seem antiquated given all the email and SMS texting technology most people now have on their phones. But, remember, when the phones aren’t working, Ham Radio usually does.

If you are not a licensed Ham and would like to become one, contact a local Ham Radio Club or your local Emergency Management officials. A list of local Ham Clubs can be found at or And every Emergency Management agency in our area has a Ham Radio contingent who can be a resource and point you in the right direction.

But maybe the most important thing EVERYONE can do is get to know your neighbors! Know if they plan to evacuate as the storm approaches or if they are going to try to ride it out. Hams can be a real resource getting Health and Welfare Messages out for their neighbors. Many Hams also have generators to power refrigerators, keeping vital medicines cold.

One contingency that has not been adequately addressed is identifying one or more distribution points for outgoing H&W Messages. Specifically, how do we get these messages from the local neighborhoods to one or more HF equipped (and manned) transmission points to send the messages to locations where they can be relayed by phone, email and other available means to the target recipients? I think local broadcasters, particularly local radio stations could play a huge role with this, speaking as a former broadcaster.

I have gone a bit long in the tooth with this article. So I will pick this subject up again, soon, in future posts.
-April 22, 2019

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