Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Handiham World for 25 April 2007

40 years of the Courage Handiham SystemIn this issue you will find:

  • 2 m repeaters -- too many of them is not a good thing
  • Avery thinks about Summer ham radio activities
  • Helmet cam returns
  • Eat like a radio camper
  • Assistive tech survey
  • Mobile phone screenreader
  • Text band plan and frequency chart updated
  • Radio camp applications in the mail
  • Elmer tells a funny
  • In RekkyTec: Links
...and lots of other stuff. Tune in today!

2 m operation continued

octopus answering several phones and running computerPicture: This cartoon octopus is answering phones and running a computer. People are doing so many different things these days that getting on a 2 m repeater must compete with many other activities!

Last week, I talked to little bit about the disappointing lack of activity on 2 m repeaters. That apparently struck a nerve, because I heard from others who have had pretty much the same experience. Here is what WR1X wrote:

My wife, granddaughter and I just returned from a 300 mile trip to Quebec. I pre-programmed the Kenwood TMV7A with all the possible repeaters from north central MA, where I did not talk so nobody would know the house was vacant for several days, the southwest portion of NH, the entire length of VT into Quebec and then another 100 miles north to Drummondville. I gave my call and said I was listening on the repeater and many of these repeaters are on tops of mountains and have good coverage. Not one reply. In Quebec I stated the same in both English and French and nothing. It was a very disappointing trip as far as Ham radio was concerned and 146.52, .55 and .58 are always the first 3 channels in all my VHF radios and on UHF I have 446.000 and then the next two channels are up and down by 25 kilohertz. Most of the repeaters were working well as the courtesy tone or squelch tail could be heard.

I placed the radio into scan mode for all my memories and not much was heard over the 5 days. Thank goodness for talking books!


Have a great day,

Paul Bolduc

Thanks to Paul for sharing with us. What are we to make of this lack of activity? I think there are several things that are contributing to "radio silence", not only in the United States, but -- as we see -- in other countries as well.

The first group of things that might keep people off the air are things that we really have no control over. The rise of cellular phones as a way to stay in touch with family and friends, the need for most people to be in the workplace away from amateur radio during large parts of the day, and the galaxy of competing activities that make amateur radio only one choice of many audiovisual/multimedia choices throughout their busy days. Many of us are so bombarded with audio and video that it is a relief to simply hear silence for a while. These are long-term trends that show no signs of abating, and they affect other activities as well as amateur radio. So let us assume that they are a "given".

The second group of things that might keep people off the air are things that we have control of in the amateur radio community. Simply getting into the habit of carrying an HT and listening to a favorite frequency can go a long way to building activity on your local repeater. If you don't listen, you can't participate! Since there are plenty of small, easy to carry radios available now, taking a radio along during your exercise time walk in the park or setting it on the workbench while you clean the garage is really easier than ever. Radio clubs should consider scheduled on the air repeater activities. Not only do these activities give club members a reason to get on the air, but they also help to keep us familiar with the operation of our equipment. These kinds of scheduled net activities may be heard on the local repeater by mobile stations passing through. Net control stations should invite mobile stations to check in. There is no reason amateur radio operators who are retired or who work odd hours cannot have local, scheduled on the air repeater activity during the daytime.

In the past, I've talked about the problem of "dilution". What it means is that when there are 1, 2 or just a few of something it is easy to focus on those few things. A good example is what happened to the traditional TV networks when on the air television began to be replaced by cable TV. When there were only three networks, there was little choice and viewership for all of them was high. Now, with hundreds of channels to choose from, traditional networks have lost viewers as overall viewership has been "diluted" by the addition of so many specialty channels.

Do you know what? I think the same thing has happened with amateur radio repeaters. At first, there were only a few of them and activity on these few repeaters was relatively robust. In 2007, the situation is very different. Here in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, the largest concentration of people in Minnesota, there are virtually no 2 m repeater pairs that are currently not accounted for. With so many repeaters, actual on the air activity is spread out so thin that the end result is lots of dead air time. Frankly, this is one case where having "more" does not always mean "better". Of course some of these repeaters have specialty purposes, and there is not anything necessarily wrong with that. However, all too many of them are simply being placed on the air because the repeater owner enjoys the technical challenge of putting the repeater together and keeping it on the air. The end result is much like what has happened to television networks when cable TV came along with hundreds of channels. The pool of possible users is now spread out over so many repeaters that activity on individual machines must necessarily be lower than it would be otherwise. I'm not sure what the solution is to this one. One thing for certain is that it is more of a social challenge than an engineering challenge to keep the club repeater active for more than a few minutes a day.

What needs to happen is that your club's repeater needs to be a "stand out" from all the rest. As I said, scheduled club activities can keep the repeater active as well as reminders in the club newsletter encouraging members to carry their portable radios and to welcome newcomers onto the air. These are the things that we have control over and can change. We are not going to change the march of competing technologies and the growth of competing activities. It is up to us to make amateur radio an attractive option so that more people will choose to participate!

Patrick Tice, WA0TDA
Handiham Manager

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Handiham World for 18 April 2007

40 years of the Courage Handiham SystemIn this issue you will find:

  • 2 m yawn
  • Avery gives you two chances
  • In AT: Jerry gets a new computer!
  • Blind ARDF event gains publicity
  • N1BLF has Worldradio digest ready for May
  • New! Virtual photo tour of Courage North Radio Camp setting!
  • Elmer goofs off this week
  • In RekkyTec: Send us links... Please!
...and lots of other stuff. Tune in today!

2 m mobile operation proves challenging, disappointing

The Heil Sound Hummer at Dayton in 2005Picture: The Heil Sound Humvee with antennas in the parking lot at Dayton Hamvention 2005. Now THIS is a mobile setup! Maybe the extra work to go HF mobile is worth it after all.

Last week I told you about some of the HF operation I did while on my family's "Spring Break" vacation in Gulf Shores, Alabama. The operation was done entirely by remote control using Ham Radio Deluxe from a laptop computer with a DSL connection. Using the Internet made it possible for me to check into a regional HF net and stay in touch with my friends, something that would not have been possible from that distance on 75 m had I carried my ICOM 706 M2G along and tried to use an end-fed wire. The band simply would not be open for distances over a few hundred miles, even under the best conditions during the daytime. The Internet, coupled with physical radio equipment, enhances the amateur radio experience and gives us a chance to try new technology.

This week I'm going to talk a little bit about the VHF operation I attempted during the same vacation week. After all, we have plenty of frequency bands, so why not use them? Besides, VHF operation from a moving vehicle is much easier to accomplish than HF operation. The equipment and antennas are smaller and more manageable. My Honda CRV has plenty of room, so I mounted an ICOM IC 2100H at the front of the center console and simply powered it using the vehicle's accessory socket. Yes, I know that this is not the best and most highly recommended way to power a mobile rig. However, it really works quite well when the rig is not going to be permanently mounted in the vehicle provided you stick to medium or low power settings. It is almost never necessary to operate at the high power setting, but you can do so to put out a call if you feel that that may reel in a station for you. A mag mount antenna on the roof of the SUV completes the installation easily and works very well. As it happens, my 2 m mobile experience over four solid days of driving during the week and a half was rather disappointing.

It's not that my mobile station was deficient. I think it was perfectly adequate. No, what was lacking was activity on the 2 m band, at least on FM repeaters. A check of the repeater directory shows plenty of repeater resources in cities large and small. The problem is that there is almost no one using them during the daytime, and if anyone is even listening to them, they are not coming back to a call. But wait, folks... that's not all!

Anyone who travels with a 2 m mobile rig in unfamiliar territory has encountered the frustration of being unable to access repeaters because the owners have not conveyed frequency and sub audible tone encoding changes to the editors of various repeater directories, including the ARRL Repeater Directory -- always a "must-have" for me. One example was a repeater that I had used before on several previous trips. Although the frequency and tone have been programmed into the ICOM per the ARRL Repeater Directory settings, I could not bring the repeater up. Either the repeater was off the air or, more likely, the tone encoding had been changed but this information was not in my 2007 edition of the directory. Even though most rigs can scan for tones at the push of a button, there has to be some actual on the air activity on that repeater for a traveler passing through to be able to take advantage of that function. The end result is that the repeater sits idle, unused, and might as well not even be on the air.

Sometimes repeater owners take to experimenting with tones and fail to convey this information to users. A repeater that transmits a tone so that users can take advantage of tone-encoded squelch needs to transmit that tone to open up users' receivers. If the tone is suddenly removed, users will never hear activity on the repeater. This is really a problem if the repeater needs to be used in an emergency. Although local users will eventually figure out changes in tone encoding for both the input and output frequencies of a given repeater, this is not going to be the case for a traveler visiting the area.

I cannot stress strongly enough how annoying this situation is. Yes, I certainly understand that changes to frequencies and tones will be necessary from time to time. The installation of new repeaters or other services on the same repeater tower can cause interference that had not been present at the time the original repeater information was recorded in the repeater directory. But give me a break -- when information is not updated from year to year, someone is dropping the ball. Furthermore, sometimes changes are simply made because the repeater owner wants to make a change. Fine. If you own a repeater, that is your privilege. However, I do have to stress that the airwaves are a shared resource and we will really get the most out of this resource if we follow "best practices", both in engineering and in communicating technical requirements to users. A trip across the country need not be in "radio silence".

Of course 2 m repeaters are not everything. There is always the national calling frequency 146.52 MHz. In fact, I had more success there on the trip than I did on repeaters. Be sure to set 146.52 MHz simplex as one of your rig's memory channels so that when you are using the scan function you will be less likely to miss a simplex call. It doesn't hurt to leave the radio on 146.52 and put out a call periodically. You may be surprised who is listening! Best of all, no tone encoding is required. I seem to remember that once upon a time, someone designed an automated device to put out a voice identification periodically from a mobile rig. It was used to put out the user's callsign at intervals, while one was driving and monitoring 146.52 simplex. Does anyone remember that article, and can you share that information with us?

Finally, before I close on this topic, I want to mention how much fun I had on EchoLink through the week. I was able to check into the Handiham noontime net and talk to other stations from time to time using my laptop computer. EchoLink or IRLP can really enhance the functionality of a repeater. I sure wish more repeater owners would take the steps necessary to bring this new technology online with their machines.

"Use it or lose it." Repeater owners, that applies to the valuable frequency spectrum your machines sit on. I hope those frequencies are being used wisely. Or used at all. Let's try making things a little easier for users!

Patrick Tice, WA0TDA
Handiham Manager

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Handiham World for 11 April 2007

40 years of the Courage Handiham SystemIn this issue you will find:

  • E-letter returns from break
  • Avery informs us that we will have a new repeater
  • In AT: A new blind-accessible logging program
  • Talking meter won't break the bank
  • Blind ARDF event scheduled at Dayton
  • Warthogs from Heaven
  • Laurie's April events posted
  • N1BLF has QCWA digest ready for April
  • New radios for new Techs!
  • Reminder: 20 m Monday net changes time.
  • Elmer goofs off this week
  • In RekkyTec: More good links
...and lots of other stuff. Tune in today!

Tanned, rested, and ready -- your weekly E-Letter returns from spring break!

This year's alligator picturePicture: your humble newsletter editor gets grabbed by a huge alligator.

We are back from spring break, tanned, rested, and ready! The WA0TDA family vacationed in Gulf Shores, Alabama. The weather was wonderful and provided us a much-needed respite from Minnesota's cold and snow. Even as I write this week's E-Letter, it is snowing outside. You wouldn't know it is almost mid-April.

One of the questions I always have when I'm going to travel someplace is whether (and how) my amateur radio equipment and operations will travel with me. This year's trip, coming at the very bottom of the sunspot cycle, called for a different strategy than the one I have used in previous years. I probably should explain that it is a tradition to take some time off in the spring, always in a place where the weather is warm so that I can get an early start on summer. When HF conditions are good and the sunspot cycle is not at minimum, it makes sense to take an HF rig like my ICOM 706 M2G along for the ride. The rig can be used on VHF and UHF with a small mag mount antenna on the car while we are driving. Once we arrive, HF antennas can be deployed, sometimes even long wires, and I can enjoy quite a range of amateur radio operating during my vacation.

Alas, the story is different at the bottom of the sunspot cycle. Lately, 20 m band conditions have been abysmal. Even though I set up the station last year, we were close enough to the bottom of the cycle that it ended up pretty much unused. Obviously, when a family is packing a car for a long trip, one is always looking for ways to save space and weight. This year I decided that I would not take along an HF station only to have it sit unused during the week. Why bother carrying it along just for use on 2 m repeaters while we are mobile? Instead, I brought my trusty ICOM IC 2100H, a small 2 m mobile rig. It proved to be easy to install and came in handy for monitoring 146.52 MHz and the National Weather Service. Furthermore, all I needed was a small mag mount antenna. Talk about an easy installation!

You may be surprised to learn that I did get on HF during the week, even though I did not have a rig for the HF bands along on the trip. Instead, prior to leaving Minnesota I made arrangements with Lyle, K0LR, who operates a remote HF station as part of his volunteer activities for the Handiham program. I would be able to log on to Lyle's excellent station, an ICOM IC 756 Pro, using Ham Radio Deluxe on my laptop computer via the Internet. The audio would be ported through the SKYPE program. This arrangement worked quite well, and allowed me to check into my favorite 75 m net, PICONET, with ease. Of course even under the best of circumstances with excellent HF conditions at the top of the sunspot cycle, it would not be possible to check into a daytime 75 m net from a distance of 1300 miles. That is why Ham Radio Deluxe and the remote transceiver solution is so useful. It allows a different level of HF operation altogether. I didn't even bother to try 20 m, because the guys on PICONET reported that conditions were terrible on that band. It was fun to be able to stay connected with my usual friends on a regional net, which is the way I would've stayed on HF had I been operating directly from my home station. A bonus was that the ICOM 756 Pro is a top-notch rig, definitely a few steps above my own HF equipment. During the course of a regular week at Handiham Headquarters, the 756 Pro acts as a remote receiver. This allows us to operate 75 m, transmitting with our local Kenwood rig while receiving on the ICOM via the Internet. We have a terrible noise problem caused by the high-volume air system at Courage Center. The fan controllers generate a lot of RF hash. The remote receiver, located in a very quiet rural spot, provides excellent reception and is a welcome alternative to straining our poor ears to pick up stations through the RF hash. A big thank you to Lyle for providing this service.

Remote operation is really coming into its own. The April QST even has an article about remote control via Ham Radio Deluxe, and we have included this article in the audio digest. Prior to the widespread availability of high-speed Internet, remote-control operation was expensive and problematic. The Internet provides an excellent conduit for station control, and more of us will be looking at it very seriously as an alternative to having equipment immediately available on the desk in front of us.

Next week I'm going to give you some thoughts on monitoring and operating 2 m repeaters -- specifically, this will be my experience from the spring break trip. You will want to stay tuned for that one!

Patrick Tice, WA0TDA
Handiham Manager