Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Handiham World for 18 July 2012

Welcome to Handiham World.

Bucket list!

Hippie mechanic: What kind of guy drives a Vega?  Loser!
Photo: I found the problem. The confabulator gear is stripped. You'll need a new one if you want this Vega to make it back to Podunk. 
Hey, readers and listeners! It is certainly high summer here in North America and the temperature is so high and the humidity so oppressive that we are definitely not thinking clearly. That is why we have come up with this "bucket list" which we hope to complete before we die.
1. Landing a single engine plane on the beach.
2. Changing the transmission in a Chevrolet Vega.
3. Making yogurt from scratch.
4. Setting the tone and frequencies on a mobile radio while driving.
Well, if you are like me you have probably done the first three of these things without any particular problem, but you have never been able to safely program a mobile VHF/UHF radio while driving a car. In fact, programming a radio while driving can be a frighteningly dangerous experience, much worse than sampling that first icky-looking spoonful of homemade yogurt or dropping a Vega transmission on your toes. That is why the radio programming is not checked off my bucket list. In fact, programming a radio while driving instead of watching the road is a good way to assure that you will probably die before completing most of the items on your bucket list.
I started thinking about this particular problem when I read the correspondence section of the August QST wherein astute letter writer K2GW talks about making the programming process for VHF/UHF radios more user-friendly. The use of subaudible tones on repeater systems is so common as to be expected, and most of us will have to admit that these systems do an excellent job of preventing the repeater from ever actually being used for anything, but mostly from ever being successfully accessed by anyone trying to keep a car between the ditches while traveling through the area supposedly served by the repeater.
Of course the subaudible tones might be necessary to prevent interference from distant repeaters should there be a band opening or from other nearby RF sources or an alien invasion where the flying saucers transmit on the repeater input. I get that. But the problem remains that unless you are able to preprogram your radio for the repeaters along your route, you are likely going to be out of luck when you try to simply access them by punching a receive frequency into the VFO and letting the radio's built-in offset function set the transmit frequency according to the band plan. One possible workaround is to listen for activity on the repeater in question and then punch the tone scan function button to try to locate the correct subaudible tone. If this works and you do not end up in the ditch (especially dangerous in Florida where hungry alligators find the ditches quite attractive), then you might be in business. The more likely outcome is that you will drive entirely through the repeater's coverage zone without hearing any activity.
The ARRL TravelPlus® repeater directory on CD-ROM does provide a way to map and program radios along a planned route, so it is a good resource that allows you to program your radio well in advance of your trip. Programming your radio while sitting in the driveway is one heck of a lot safer than meeting an alligator for lunch. Still, you may need to program a radio while in motion. The safe way to do this is for you to pay full attention to the radio by letting someone else do the driving. When my wife and I take car trips, I feel safe enough fiddling with the radio while she pilots the car. While this division of labor keeps the car out of the ditch, it does not necessarily ensure that one will be able to access or make a contact on a repeater.
One time, on a trip through alligator-free central Illinois, I tried a repeater that I really, really wanted to use and that was programmed into my radio already, because I had looked it up in my repeater directory. I heard the repeater identify and decided to throw out my call sign.
Okay, so I upped the power and tried again.
Obviously, the subaudible tone that I had programmed was incorrect. So I set the radio to tone scan and hoped for someone to transmit on the repeater. Well, that didn't happen. I guess I probably could have gone through every possible subaudible tone while kerchunking the repeater and throwing my call sign out, but somehow that didn't seem to be worthwhile. Instead, I switched to VFO mode and 146.52 MHz where I had a nice QSO with a truck driver who was passing through. The subaudible tone system had certainly done its job of preventing interference and any actual use by mobile stations, that's for sure. Later, after we got back home from vacation, I discovered that the subaudible tone for that particular repeater was incorrectly listed in the directory.
I'm not sure what the answer to this partly technological and partly behavioral issue is with VHF/UHF repeater systems. All I know is that you cannot make things that difficult to use because prospective users have many other alternative means to communicate and they will vote with their feet and go somewhere else. For example, I can easily bring up the node of my favorite repeater on my Android phone by using the EchoLink application. I recommend doing this while you are sitting in the passenger seat rather than trying to steer the car. Once I am connected on EchoLink, all I need for reliable communications is a cell phone data signal. I can talk to my friends who are regulars on my preferred EchoLink-enabled repeater system.
Would I prefer to use the radio in my car to make a local contact? Certainly! But hey, repeater owners out there – you might consider connecting your repeaters with the world via IRLP or EchoLink and make sure that your frequency and tone information are correctly listed in repeater databases and on your club website. And if any of you local stations are listening on the repeater and hear a mobile station give a call, take a minute to have a short conversation and make a new friend! Maybe the technology will improve to the point that radios will be easy enough to use while driving so that one day I will be able to actually use repeaters I encounter along my mobile route.
Today's safety tip: Don't feed the alligators. Also, but not safety-related, the QST audio digest in DAISY format is now available for our blind members in the DAISY section. You can hear me read the correspondence section with the K2GW letter.
The long-range forecast: Speaking of Podunk, localism is an endangered species. As applications for mobile devices like smartphones proliferate, people will listen to the broadcast stations they prefer, avoiding the local stations - especially when they are on the move, traveling by car. When the typical car driver would one time tune around for the local yokel stations along the route, the trend will favor simply staying tuned to the internet station they have always liked. Satellite radio is already making such inroads into localism. The same thing is going to happen to local repeater systems. If the repeater system is not linked, it may be doomed to obscurity. Repeater owners who think EchoLink "isn't real radio", take note.