25 May 2024

Field Fixes

I love operating radios in the field. It's fun, and it gets my old arse out of the shack in into the sunlight (insert vampire jokes here). I love testing various radio/antenna/feedline/power source combinations out in the wild. It's challenging, builds confidence and expertise and, like I said, it's a ton of fun. 

If you spend any time in the field with radios and all the associated accessories at some point you'll need to fix or modify something. Cut and strip wire, tighten screws, crimp connectors, scrape corrosion, cut string & cord, and much more. You'll need a tool kit, but a kit that is appropriate to the situation.

Not this - 


More like this -


A bit of a confession. I love radios, but I really love knives and cutting tools. I've been fascinated by knives since I was a young Cub Scout (I'm 67, so do the math). I have a very extensive collection of both custom and production blades, and for years I wrote about knives and related issues on my A Fine Blade blog. So consider this post a mash-up of radios, blades and tools.

Most of the repairs and modifications we might need to do on a short POTA or SOTA deployment are pretty lightweight, and that's what I'll focus on here. You need a light and easy to carry tool kit that can handle the most likely issues that may pop up. Again, cutting and stripping wire, cutting string & cord, crimping connectors, etc. You may also need to make light repairs to your gear - tightening screws, fixing knobs, moving board jumpers, that sort of stuff. For a short field excursion all the tools you need should fit in your trouser pockets, or on your belt. 

We are blessed to live in the Golden Age of Pocket Tools, so putting together that small field tool kit is both easy and fun! The grandpappy of pocket tool kits - they've been doing it for over 100 years - is Victorinox, the Swiss Army Knife folks. They make pocket knives that sport an amazing array of useful tools, things like scissors, screwdrivers, saws, pliers, awls, cork screws, tweezers, and more. I've been buying, using, and losing Victorinox knives for over 45 years, and the level of quality they bring to a mass produced pocket toolkit is amazing. The fit and finish is beyond what few other manufacturers can bring to the market anywhere near the price point of a Victorinox knife. If a Victorinox pocket knife has a drawback it's that they are somewhat lightweight and not suited to heavier twisting or prying tasks. So don't buy one and expect to be able to disassemble your F-150 with it. But for the myriad of minor tasks you will be faced with on a short deployment, the Swiss Army Knife is ideal. But which one? Victorinox makes several dozen versions of their knives - there is no single 'Swiss army knife' - the name denotes a market niche, not a single design. Here's my list of minimum feature requirements:

  • Scissors
  • Phillips screwdriver
  • Flat tip screwdriver
  • Corkscrew*
  • Magnifying glass
  • Awl
  • Package carrying hook (surprisingly useful for twisting lengths of wire together)
Of course, with just about every Swiss Army Knife you'll get at least one, and usually two, knife blades, and tweezers.

* What's going on with the corkscrew? I'm not opening bottles of wine on field deployments. Well OK, I'm not just opening wine bottles on field deployments 😁. Victorinox offers a set of small (eyeglass screw size) screwdrivers that fit into the corkscrew and are remarkably effective for small repairs. 


The one Victorinox model I recommend that has all of what I need out of a knife is the Explorer. It hits the sweet spot in terms of features. Everything I need, nothing I don't.

Victorinox Explorer

And yet, a Swiss Army Knife can't do it all. You still will need an effective set of pliers, wire cutters, a file and a more robust cutting blade. This is where the second part of your field tool kit comes in. You'll need a multi-tool, like one of those made by Leatherman, Gerber, SOG or even Victorinox. I've owned multi-tools made by each of these manufacturers, and all are very good, but the industry standard is the Leatherman, so that's what I'll focus on for this discussion.

Tim Leatherman started his multi-tool business after breaking a knife while trying to repair a car on a road trip back in 1975. He knew he needed something more heavy duty than a pocket knife, a tool that also in incorporated pliers. His first design, the PST, was an immediate hit. Today Leatherman makes over a dozen models and leads the industry. What does the multi-toolkit offer that a Swiss Army Knife doesn't? 
  • Heavy duty needle nose pliers
  • Wire cutter
  • File
  • Saw
  • Ruler
Although I own a number of Leatherman multi-tools, my personal recommendation is the Rebar model. It seems to hit the capabilities and price point sweet spot.

Leatherman Rebar

While there is some overlap in capabilities between the Victorinox Explorer and the Leatherman Rebar, they compliment each other very well. With both of these tools in your POTA bag you'll be well set to handle any repair issues that pop up.

The fun in all of this, though, is that there are literally dozens and dozens of possible brands and models you can choose from. Putting together your own portable tool kit means picking from a broad array of options from a long list of models and manufacturers. What better way to waste a Saturday night, eh?

So what is your field tool package? I'd love to hear what other hams take with them when heading out for a day of field operations. What do you toss into your POTA or SOTA bag to handle the unexpected but all too common repair tasks that pop up? Let us know!

W8BYH out

10 May 2024

Something Pithy This Way Comes*

The 2014 Dayton (Xenia) Hamvention is just a week away. I'm wondering what the over/under is on new HF releases from the big name radio manufacturers. Some, like Flex Radio, have been quite open about their coming new release. Icom has kinda' sorta' hinted something that may, or may not, be announced at Dayton. But Ray Novak has yet to release any of his 'look what I found in my trunk' pictures, so we may not see anything from the 'Big I'.

There are other possible releases or teases that may be coming next week. Let's take a look at what's been hinted/leaked/teased/announced since the last Hamvention:
  • Icom. They've teased out that something is coming in their advertising pages in the last two QSTs editions. Please God, not another UHF/VHF rig. Let's get serious about replacing the IC-7100. The market is there and it's ready to spend the money
  • Yaesu. Yaesu's been dead silent on anything new. But they can't clam up forever. When they killed of the FT-818 last year they abandoned a market segment they once owned. There's a big gap ready to be filled with an FT-857-like replacement (and that ain't the current FT-891)
  • Kenwood. Kenwood recently released their TH-D75 handheld, but there have been rumors of them coming back with an updated HF rig. There's no firm details, just whispers that 'Kenwood is coming back'. I think the best we can hope for at Dayton is an information sheet at their booth
  • Xeigu. Xeigu and Radioddity have been dribbling out information on their new X6200 for several months now. I think it's reasonable to expect a Xeigu vendor to have a working model on display
  • FlexRadio. I don't follow Flex too closely, so I'm not sure just what is coming. My real interest is in the HF digital work Flex is doing for the US Air Force. With this new product, we may see some of that development work trickling down to the Amateur market 
  • Alinco. Who's that? OK, they'll have a booth at Hamvention. I don't think they'll have anything new to announce. A quick scan of their website leads me to think they've pretty much given up on the HF market
  • Elecraft. Elecraft released their handheld KH1 last year, and those sales are going gangbusters. I don't expect them to be announcing anything new
  • Lab599. Russia-based Lab599 has been putting out info on their new TX-500MP manpack HF rig for several months now, but there's no confirmed release date. I would hope there's a pre-production sample on display at the HRO booth (Lab599's US distributor). This radio is much less vaporware than other teased radios listed above. Lab599 actually talks with several ham radio influencers (like Julian, OH8STN at Off-Grid Ham Radio) and responds to questions about the radio. That's a good omen
I won't be going to Hamvention this year, but if I did, there are a few vendors other than what's listed above that I'd be sure to stop and visit:
  • HF Communications Corp. This India-based company makes what looks like some really neat HF radio kits that are very reasonably priced. Most of what they offer are Raspberry Pi-driven SDRs, so they are, in the words of the company, 'hackable, tinkerable, scriptable'. Their top-of-the-line rig, the sBitx v3 is only $429, fully assembled and delivered in the US
  • Codan. Speaking of manpack radios - NVIS Communications, the US agent for Codan, will be at the show. Codan is an Australian-based manufacturer of commercial and military HF rigs, and their products are very highly regarded and in wide use in the Asian, Indian sub-continent and African markets. A lot of MARS and SHARES members have purchased Codan product through NVIS and they've developed a bit of a following. What's interesting regarding Codan's showing is partly about who's NOT at Hamvention - Codan's leading competitors in the market: Barrett Communications (recently purchased by Motorola) and Harris. I believe this reflects NVIS Communications' support of the MARS and SHARES markets and their interest in developing a foothold in the Amateur radio space. I'm particularly interested in their H 6110 manpack radio
  • HobbyPCB. I've built two of HobbyPCBs HardRock50 amps for my QRP rigs, and Jim Veatch at HobbyPCB recently released a 100 watt upgrade kit for the amp. I'd want to talk with Jim about the level of difficulty for the upgrade. I'm fine right now with 50 watts for my IC-705 and KX2, but 100 watts is 'more better' 
We should mention who's not going to be there. Everyone knows by now that MFJ is closing down operations and that leaves a big vendor hole, not just at Dayton but at smaller shows across the country. MFJ was a reliable staple at the Atlanta shows, showing up even when major manufacturers like Icom and Yaesu declined to make an appearance. I think their departure from the market will be felt in ways that most hams can't yet fathom. Martin, I wish you well in your retirement.

That's it! If you go to Dayton I'd love it if you keep your eye out for some of the things I've discussed here. Inquiring minds want to know!

W8BYH out

* A hat tip to Ray Bradbury's classic sci-fi fantasy novel 'Something Wicked This Way Comes'

05 May 2024

Old Radios and Misplaced Nostalgia?

There's a style of radio that has fascinated me for decades. I love the concept of the manpack VHF and HF rigs, a design we first saw in WWII as the SCR-300, reached a design peak in the 1960s with the PRC-77, and culminates today in radios like the Harris PRC-160 HF/VHF manpack

SCR-300 in use during WWII


AN/PRC-25/77 as used in Vietnam


Current production Harris PRC-160. 
Twenty thousand dollars of glorious battle-ready manpack radio technology. And you can't have one.

For years I've idealized this style of radio, and pursued US and foreign models on the used market. But why a manpack? They really don't perform any better than table-top models. In fact, in the Amateur Radio realm they are more likely to perform worse - low TX power, poorer receiver performance, cooling issues, no internal tuner, too many accessory cables, and more. I look beyond all that to the unique and fascinating mash-up of technologies that are used in successful military and commercial manpack designs, designs that can overcome many of the limitations I've listed and provide good mid-range TX performance, good receiver performance, robust tuners, robust weatherproofing and long battery life. All in a package small and light enough to toss in a backpack, go for a walk, and make contacts. 

I've got a small collection of both military models (PRC-77, Czech RF-10) and commercial models (Vertex Standard VX-1210, Yaesu FT-70G), But I'm bumping up against some inevitable issues - most of his hardware is 50+ years old, no longer performs as it originally did, and is not really worth the expense to keeping running. That means when one of these radios dies, its next trip will be to a landfill or electronics recycling center.

Twenty five years ago manpack radios were less difficult to find. There were more of them on the market because there were more manufacturers in the market. Additionally, embedded encryption and military only waveforms were not in wide use like we see today. As encrypted systems became the norm, spurred on by America's conflicts in the Middle East and the rise of cyber warfare, the supply of surplus systems started to dry up. The available older systems were snapped up by collectors and reenactors, or sent for recycling. The newer systems could not be released to the surplus market. These encrypted systems, by law, can not be sold to the public. Instead, the radios had to be ground up or melted down to destroy the embedded encryption systems. 

This means that there's really no military manpack radios of recent manufacture available on the surplus market. Some manufacturers like Harris, Barrett and Codan do make civilianized versions of their high end rigs - radios that lack the sensitive embedded encryption. These are designed for sale to organizations like NGOs (UN relief agencies, Red Cross, etc.) and are legal for civilians to own. However, these radios are extremely rare on the used market, and when they do show up are too expensive to consider. As I write this one online vendor, Green Tip Surplus, offers a used Harris RF-7800 radio (civilian version of the PRC-160) starting at $8,500, with no batteries or accessories. And I have no doubt it will sell at that price.

Ouch

Codan Sentry manpack. Somewhat less ouchy than a Harris 7800, but still painful
at over $6,000 for a new stripped out model


Ham radio manufacturers have gone part way down this path with a few of their radios. I've already mentioned the Vertex Standard VX-1210 (originally made by Yaesu) and the Yaesu FT-70G. These were radios designed for commercial and military markets but bled over into the ham radio market. Other kinda' sorta' manpack rigs designed specifically for the ham radio market include the Icom IC-703, the Yaesu FT-817/818, the Elecraft KX2 and, of course, the current Icom IC-705. Of all of these, the IC-703 came closest to my idealized version of the manpack rig. Icom provided a whole host of manpack accessories, including an internal tuner, direct connect HF antennas, battery packs, and a very well designed backpack. Many hoped (expected?) the IC-705 would just build on the concept of the IC-703, but port over the outstanding digital HF performance of the IC-7300. Alas, while the IC-705 is a great radio, it's also a radio that reflects some missed opportunities, particularly in the awkward physical design and the lack of an internal tuner. Icom does make a well designed backpack for the IC-705 (the LC-192), but it's sized to fit a Japanese school girl and not much use as a serious manpack container.

When the dust settles, we're left with what many would consider a dark horse candidate. The Elecraft KX2. The dark horse perception is odd, because Elecraft actually advertises this rig as suitable for HF handheld operation. This is made possible, in large part, by the excellent internal tuner Elecraft makes for this little rig. 

From Elecraft's own website. This KX2 was designed
with handheld HF operations in mind

The KX2 isn't particularly rugged, and it's very vulnerable to water intrusion (the case is just a stamped metal box with lots of openings), but the performance is world class.

There may be some interesting developments in the manpack HF field just on the horizon. One effort that is beyond the vaporware stage is the Lab599 TX-500MP. This was teased out earlier last year, and one or two pre-production models have seen daylight. Lab599 is a Russian company, but it moved quickly to distance itself from Putin and his antics in Ukraine. The company moved its production to the UAE and seems to have found some stability. The TX-500 has developed something of a cult following, and the company responds well to input and puts out regular firmware updates, always a positive sign. 


There's not a whole lot of info out on the TX-500MP yet other than some basic specs, but Lab599 does keep the user community updated on its development status. The radio looks like a channelized version of the TX-500 with an integrated battery pack and antenna tuner. There has even been talk of a digital soundcard interface. In terms of a real product that may see the light of day in the next year or so, this looks like the best bet.

The other developments are merely speculative. Icom recently teased out that there's something new coming. They won't say what, but it likely won't be a new HT. It may be a new UHF/VHF mobile rig, since the ID-5100 is getting a bit long in the tooth (but is still one of the best dual band mobiles on the market). Or, it could be a new HF/VHF/UHF portable rig. Icom did something odd last year. They pulled the IC-7100 from production, then within literally a few months they put it back into production and acted like nothing every happened. It was a very odd sequence of events, and Icom never commented on what was going on behind the scenes. The IC-7100 is a very nice radio, and it was a strong seller for Icom, but it too is getting long in the tooth, and its DSTAR capabilities are a bit dated. The switcheroo Icom went through may well signal that Icom had the IC-7100's replacement about to enter the pipeline, but hit a snag and decided to keep the 7100 going just a bit longer. So, Icom may be poised to release information on this new radio at Hamvention in Xenia, OH in a few weeks. Fingers crossed that whatever they do release is a good manpack platform.

This last speculation is way out there. Yaesu killed off its FT-818 last year and there's been no discussion of a replacement. Yaesu simply can't let this gap in their product line continue. QRP activities like SOTA and POTA are sweeping the ham radio community, and in the US most of the spend to fill that demand has been on the Icom IC-705. Yaesu can't let Icom go unchallenged in this market. Or maybe they can. In the past decade or so, Yaesu seems to have gotten pretty good at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, as reflected in some pretty clumsy hardware releases.

Some may be saying, "But Brian, what about the Chinese?" OK, I'll admit that the soon-to-be-released Xeigu 6200 looks pretty neat, but if you've read any of my posts over the past few years you'll know that I don't spend money on Chinese products. 

We'll check back on this subject after Hamvention. I'm hoping we'll have one or more really good manpack releases to talk about. Until then, 73!

W8BYH out

26 April 2024

MFJ

Yesterday word came out that Martin F. Jue, the president and founder of MFJ Enterprises, has decided to shutter MFJ and all of it's associated brands, and retire:


Martin and MFJ have served Amateur Radio for over half a century. MFJ filled an important niche in the hobby - they created an enormous range of affordable 'gadgets' that filled the void left as hobby manufacturers like Heathkit closed down, and the homebrew movement dwindled. Need an antenna analyzer? MJF's got multiple catalog pages full of them. Need an antenna tuner? Same thing - MFJ's selection of tuners seems endless. Antennas, amplifiers, connectors, meters, power supplies, microphones, headsets, interfaces, clocks, CW keys, and much, much more. MFJ's current print catalog is 90 pages long and absolutely stuffed full of the bits 'n baubles that hams rely on to make the hobby fun. 

Along the way MFJ vacuumed up a number of brands such as Ameritron (amplifiers), Cushcraft (antennas) and Vectronics (meters). Some of these acquisitions were controversial, but the honest truth is that if Martin hadn't bought them, they likely would have folded. At least MFJ gave them a fighting chance.

MFJs departure will leave a huge hole in the ham radio market. The question is, who will fill the void? 

But for now, let's thank Martin for his contributions to the hobby and wish him well. He's right, life is so short and time with family is so precious. 

W8BYH out 

14 April 2024

MARS Modding the IC-705

Yesterday I decided it was time to do the MARS mod - wide-band  HF transmit modification - to my IC-705. There was nothing special about yesterday, other than the fact that I finally screwed up the courage to open up the little radio and git 'er done!

I like to do the MARS mod on as many of my HF radios as possible. I'm a MARS and SHARES operator, and doing the mod gives me the knowledge that I can use this very expensive and capable radio outside of the ham bands. I've done MARS mods on the IC-7100, 7200 and 7300, Yaesu FT-891, the 991 and the Elecraft KX2. The process differs from manufacturer to manufacturer. Icom's process is the most destructive - you have to carefully remove very small diode(s) from one of the boards in the radio. Yaesu's is the least destructive - you create a solder bridge across one or more open pads on one of the boards. Elecraft's is the most elegant - you simply do a firmware update. 

There are several good on-line resources for IC-705 mod. Of course you won't find anything official from Icom on the subject, but it doesn't take long for the info for any radio, from any reputable manufacturer, leak out. So it was with the IC-705. Within a few months of release, word was already circulating on how to do the modification.

Before going further, I need to say this - if  you want a MARS modified radio your best and safest bet is to buy a new one from the major distributors like HRO or GigaParts. They are authorized by the manufacturers to do the mods, have all the technical data, equipment and experienced personnel to do the job, and your radio retains the original manufacturers warranty. Yes, you'll pay extra, but it is the safest route to take if you want a new ham radio with this modification. I only do this mod on radios that are out of warranty, and I do it only on radios I own - I don't do this as a service for others. 

OK, back to the resources. There are several videos on YouTube showing how to do the mod. All follow the same steps, but in each the mod is done with varying levels of expertise. In one or two I'm surprised the radio survived the surgery. The best video I've found, and the one I watched several times before doing my mod, is the one put together by TRX Lab:

There are also modification instruction sheets posted to the mods.dk website. Mods.dk is a paid subscription website, but they do allow the download of one document per day to those who are not paid members. If you go there, look for the document dated 26 March 2023.

The mod involves removing one very, very small surface mount diode from a portion of the main board that is very crowded. This implies finesse, and the right tools. Of course you'll need heat. Most use a soldering iron. However, I've invested in a quality hot air station specifically designed for electronics use. The model I bought is the Quick 861DW. The Quick is considered a basic 'pro' unit, but it gets generally excellent reviews from people I trust. Honestly, I don't even look at my soldering iron when doing this kind of work. The hot air station is a much better tool.

All the other tools are pretty run-of-the-mill for electronics hobbyists:

  • screwdrivers (I use JIS standard screwdrivers when working on Japanese manufactured gear)
  • forceps and tweezers 
  • heat resistant tape (for masking components on the board)
  • static-safe prying and opening tools (commonly called spudgers)
  • wrist grounding strap
  • static free work surface
Magnification is your best friend. I don't care how good your eyesight it, unless you are the Six Million Dollar Man with bionic vision, you are going to need lots of magnification. The diode that needs to be removed is about the size of a speck of ground pepper! I use a combination of a swing-arm LED lamp with a built-in magnifier and an OptiVisor headband magnifier with a separate magnifying loupe and LED illumination. Often it requires using all of these in conjunction to properly see the board components I'm working on

So let's get to the radio. The radio comes apart like a bit of a puzzle box, but overall it's not too bad. Honestly, one of the biggest pains was getting the six screws out that hold the two halves of the radio together. Everything is tight, and two of the screws are, I suspect, set with thread locking compound. They were a PITA to get out, even with the correct JIS screwdriver, and I buggered a few of them up. But once the radio is open, it's pretty straight forward. You have to remove the front panel and the two connecting ribbons, the sheet metal RF shield and another smaller ribbon connector (at the bottom in the photo below). There are two small antenna cables to disconnect. Once everything is unscrewed and disconnected, wiggle the main board out and rotate it so the bottom of the board is facing up. 

The front panel removed and flipped face down (note the speaker in the lower left corner of the panel).
The main board is underneath the RF shield. It has to be removed and flipped over to
access the diode that needs to be removed. This requires disconnecting the two large ribbon cables,
the smaller ribbon cable at the bottom, the RF shield, and then disconnecting two small antenna
cables (underneath the shield). After that the main board can be removed and flipped over

Here are the two black and gray antenna wires on the main board that have to be removed before the main board can be taken out and flipped over. One is the HF connection, the other is the VHF/UHF connection. Not sure which is which.


Here's the main board removed and flipped over. The diode to be removed is in that 'field' of diodes at the bottom center of the board (outlined in yellow). Luckily the diode in a good location at the bottom left corner of the field. (Sorry for the fuzzy quality of the image, I think the camera was stuck on macro mode.)


According to the instructions downloaded from mods.dk, on US versions of the IC-705 only the diode in the lower left corner needs to be removed (circled in yellow below). Other sources say a diode on the second row also needs to be removed (circled in white). However, this diode seems to be related to 60 meter capability, and since the US version of the 705 already has 60 meter capability (enabled in firmware?), I decided to leave it in place. If future testing reveals this second diode does need to come out, I'll tackle that later.


The next step is to apply heat resistant (Kapton) tape to mask out just the diode that needs to be removed (circled in yellow, below), and protect surrounding components. It's even important to mask open component pads, to avoid melting the solder on the pads and accidentally creating a solder bridge.


Next comes the steady hands part. Apply heat from the hot air station to the diode for just a few seconds, grab it with a set of tweezers, and it should lift right off the board, leaving an open pad that doesn't need any clean-up. Some sources say you should add extra lead solder and flux to each end of the diode pad, to lower the melt temperature of the lead-free solder Icom uses when it builds the boards, but I don't find that necessary if I properly mask out the component using the heat resistant tape. 

Gone, gone, gone...

Once the diode is off the board and you've checked the pad to make sure everything is clean, the only thing left to do is put it all back together and test. The 705 goes back together in reverse order, with a little wiggling to make sure all the ribbon cables are routed properly.


Once that's done, test on various ham and non-ham frequencies (into a dummy load, of course) to ensure the radio does in fact transmit outside of the ham bands and at the correct power levels. Everything looks good!


In all, the process was easier than I thought it would be. The little rig really isn't that hard to open up and navigate around in. Just take the usual precautions - use an anti-static wrist band, work on an anti-static work surface, use the appropriate tools, and you should be all right. Oh, and take lots of pictures to document your process in case you forget what board, ribbon cable or screw goes where.

The radio is a very neat, trim and compact design on the inside. Hey, it's an Icom, right? It's also a very rugged build; everything inside the case is very well secured - literally screwed down tight. There's no wasted space and nothing is flopping around in there. It's a brick. Honestly, with everything so tightly packed in and with no airflow it's a wonder these radios run as cool as they do. 

So that's it! If you have any questions or comments please post them below or contact me at w8byh@arrl.net, and I'll be happy to respond.

W8BYH out

24 March 2024

The Acceptance Phase

Over the years I've posted here a few times about my adventures with my Elecraft KX2. Recently I wrote about upgrading it with the new Elecraft KXIBC2 board, which allows charging of the lithium-ion battery while still installed in the radio. I've also sung its praises here and on other forms for it's excellent design, modularity, maintainability, manufacturer support and world-class performance on SSB. 

What I've had to finally come to accept, though, is that the KX2's is a lousy digital mode performer. 

I so desperately want this little rig to run things like Winlink and JS8CALL, but I've struggled on-and-off for two years to get it working correctly, with no real success. Lord knows, I've put a few dozen hours into the effort, and have bought no end of USB sound card dongles, Digirig interfaces, cables and assorted bits 'n bobs. All to no end. My last attempt was a few days ago, when a JS8CALL session on three different bands netted only two very weak beacon reports. OK, I was getting out, but not well, and I have no idea why.

I'm no digital mode dummy. The list of radios I've run Winlink, JS8CALL, VarAC, Fldigi, MS-DMT and other digital modes on is extensive. Probably close to a dozen different models across all manufacturers, some with internal sound card interfaces, some requiring external sound card setups like the Signalink. The KX2 is, hands down, the most difficult radio I've ever dealt with on digital modes.

"No Winlink for you!"

This isn't a tragedy, merely an inconvenience. I've got other QRP rigs that do just fine on digital modes, like the Icom IC-705. It's just disappointing that an otherwise great little rig is a stinker on digital. Going forward it'll be relegated to SSB only, and in that use it's at the top of the heap. It's such a cracking good little radio that it'll stay on my 'do not sell' list, along with my Yaesu FT-818 (which, by the way, runs digital modes without breaking a sweat). One of the reasons is that the KX2 has had the MARS mod done to it, and I've actually used it to check into both MARS and SHARES nets. It's usefulness as a sideband rig is beyond measure.

So if anyone out there has a KX2 (or KX3) and runs it successfully on digital modes, I'd desperately love to talk with you. Drop me a line.

Until then, I'm screwing up the courage to do the MARS mod on my IC-705.

W8BYH out

13 March 2024

Thinking Outside The Box

Pet peeve time.

Ham radio is in love with the go-box. You can't attend a hamfest or club meeting without seeing presentations on, or hearing discussions about, go-boxes; what goes in them, how they are built, how to power them, how to connect to them, etc. Suffice to say, ham radio is go-box batty. Proof? Just Google 'ham radio go box'. 

The go-box concept is good, but it can be limiting in both capabilities and scope. Just the mindset that all your capability has to fit into a single box, and if it doesn't fit, then you don't need it, is a silly way to approach a problem. 

I haven't seen too many go-boxes that were built to meet a specific mission or requirement. For example, I once asked a person demonstrating his go-box why he included a VHF packet modem. He admitted there wasn't a clear need for it - it was there 'just in case'. This in a region that hasn't seen any public service related packet activity for over 15 years.

I don't want to disparage the concept of the go-box, but the 'box' mentality and the lack of a requirements-based approach seems to lead to a lot of implementations that look like solutions in search of a problem.

Let's think beyond the go-box and instead think about the concept of a mission-focused communications hub or, as we used to call them in the Army, a 'comms center'. A comms center is just a place - a table, a room, a shelter, a tent. Heck, it can be the tailgate of a pickup truck. But it is the place at which you build out a communications hub in support of an event or incident, and build it out tailored to the mission requirements.

A comm center can be anywhere, even in a sandbagged bunker

I use the term 'mission focus' a lot, and it really is the key to the comms center concept. You build capability to meet a specified mission. Let's use a county-level ARES group as an example. Do a mission analysis and ask yourself (and your EMA) these questions: 

  • What are your served agencies? 
  • What are the missions of these served agencies? 
  • What communications capabilities do they need to meet their missions? 
  • What are their organic communications capabilities?  
  • What are they lacking? 
The answer to 'What are they lacking?' is what should drive your mission focus. Once you identify and understand that gap, and build capabilities to close it, you are on the path to establishing a formal comms center.

The comms center concept is also fluid. In the Army, I've been in situations where the comms center started out as just a single VHF radio mounted in a truck, a map board and a message log. Over time it morphed into a dedicated shelter with multi-channel voice and digital HF and VHF capabilities, a landline switchboard and a SATCOM link. What all this gear wasn't, was stuffed into a single box. That was impractical and unwieldly; each communications system required more elbow room than a boxed enclosure could offer.

Far-fetched for a civilian operation? Not at all. With growing reliance on systems like Winlink and other HF-based digital tools like JS8CALL, Fldigi, VarAC, and use of internet-linked VHF voice and data modes like DSTAR, C4FM, DMR and Echolink, the technology stack in a civilian comms center can easily match that found in military units. And let's not forget the vulnerability of terrestrial-based internet. There's a reason a Starlink package is a standard part of many civilian communications centers.

But a comms center isn't really about comms equipment. The job of the comms center is moving information, and the synchronization of communications across systems, agencies and departments. With this in mind, a comms center's key functions include:

  • Establishing and maintaining communications support as directed by the event director, incident commander or incident communications leader
  • Maintaining the event/incident radio log
  • Conducting an overall 'radio watch'; ensuring all comms systems are up, operating and proactively monitored
  • Interfacing communications systems. For example, establishing radio-wire interfaces, making sure information received via radio is 'hopped' to the appropriate systems like WebEOC, internal chat systems, status boards, etc.
  • On-boarding new personnel, departments or agencies that show up to support the incident, making sure their organic communications systems are integrated into the communications architecture
  • Radio set-up and programming
  • Troubleshooting communications issues
So... while a go-box can serve as a component of a comms center, it should never be considered an all-encompassing solution. For this reason I'm not a big fan of the 'box' solution. It seems to impose conceptual restrictions, trying to force the mission requirements to fit the box, not the other way around.

So let's stop focusing on go-boxes and instead focus on flexible, mission focused comms centers. Start thinking outside the box.

W8BYH out