31 December 2019

The EMCOMM Layer Cake, Part 1

It's been a busy couple of months. Thanksgiving and Christmas, new granddaughter, some heavy requirements at work and, to top it all off, I was asked to do some digital mode software evaluations for our local ARES groups.

For a few years I've been holding familiarization and training sessions for Winlink. In my opinion, Winlink is one of the 'killer apps' for Amateur Radio in general, and the killer app for ARES and EMCOMM work. I make no secret of my admiration for the entire Winlink system, from the quality of the desktop client software to the extent and depth of the Winlink node infrastructure. It is a robust, professionally developed and maintained communications infrastructure that you can buy into for zero bucks. If it were up to me I'd make a high level of demonstrated Winlink proficiency a minimum requirement for ARES membership. If you can't prove that you can be up and running and sending ICS formatted message traffic via Winlink within 30 minutes of arrival at an EOC or other EMA location (fire station, etc.) then just don't bother showing up. So hold on to this thought for a bit.

What I've really been focusing on since November is a fairly new digital mode package called JS8CALL. I won't get too deep into the particulars about JS8CALL - it deserves its own blog post. I'll just say that JS8CALL seems to offer some real promise for EMCOMM work. JS8CALL is a low speed, weak signal free text communications tool, inspired by the FT8 protocol but modified to be able to handle longer message strings. As the developer, Jordan Sherer, KN4CRD, says, "JS8 is the mode, JS8CALL is the application". At work I spend a lot of time and money on software development. I don't do it myself, I pay developers to build focused applications that meet real world needs. I can spot good software a mile away. JS8CALL is really good software.

So what? There's lots of slick software out there for ARES to use. The real question is, does JS8CALL fill a real world need? Or if it's adopted will it end up being just another another ARES EMCOMM 'toy', fun to play with but fills no real need, or fills a need but falls short on performance?

So here, dear reader, is the real subject of this series of blog posts: what do our primary supported agencies - county and state EOCs and incident command posts - really need that they can't provide for themselves? What communications capability do most of these agencies lack and, in most cases, don't even realize they need? And how can ARES fill that gap?

Identifying real-world EMCOMM requirements gaps requires a needs assessment done in conjunction with emergency management agency (EMA) directors. Each EMA's needs will be slightly different, so it's important to sit down with the individual directors and go over their communications plans to see just where ARES can fit in. The killer question to ask each director is this: what happens in an unlikely but still plausible 'very bad day' scenario like Hurricane Maria - a scenario where all of your comms systems go dark, even for just an hour or two? No repeaters, no phones, no internet. What do you do then? How do you reach outside of your county to get critical information to adjacent county or state-level EOCs? I think we can make an accurate educated guess about the answer to this question.

Since Katrina, the professional EMCOMM community at the federal, state and local levels have made great strides in both expanding and hardening their VHF and UHF communications infrastructure. These guys and gals are good at what they do, and they take their jobs very seriously. The average EMA communications infrastructure in any county in the US is far more robust and capable than anything Amateur Radio can provide. Our UHF/VHF repeater-based services are crude and out-dated by comparison. In this realm we don't bring anything to the table that the average EMA doesn't already has, in spades.

It's also ludicrous for us to think that our Amateur Radio repeater infrastructure will survive any 'very bad day' event. If hardened EMCOMM systems go dark, ours will too. Consider this - in my county we have several Amateur Radio EMCOMM repeaters sitting on public service towers owned by state and county agencies. These repeaters are tied into the same power sources as the EMA systems on the same towers. If any of those tower sites go dark then everything on that tower goes dark, including the Amateur Radio repeaters. Many would say "yes, but there are other repeaters in the county on private towers that we can use!" Well OK - how many of those repeaters would survive a Maria-level storm event? Or an F1 tornado? Or a heavy flood? Or the owner forgetting to charge the back-up batteries?

The one operating mode that can answer the capabilities gap question is low-band HF (the high frequency 40, 60 & 80 meter bands). HF using NVIS antenna configurations can reach into the next subdivision, into the next county, into the next state, all while operating completely off-grid and independent of other systems. In addition, the newly created 60 meter interoperability channels give local, state and federal agencies a dedicated HF 'chat space', a place on the HF spectrum where everybody knows everyone else will be monitoring. HF is that last ditch, everything's else has gone dark, communications tool.

But very few (if any) local EMAs have organic HF capability. It simply isn't in their communications mix. For decades the federal government and the DoD have de-emphasized HF communications and pushed virtually everything over to point-to-point UHF and VHF (and SATCOMM for the feds with a lot of our tax dollars to throw around). The state and local EMCOMM communities just naturally followed along. HF communications systems were viewed as finicky, requiring special skills, radios and antennas, and reliability was too dependent on propagation. The emphasis in the EMCOMM world was to simplify - all an EMCOMM operator should need to do is press the PTT switch on an HT and all the magic takes place behind the curtain. Delivering that level of service is how Motorola became a multi-billion dollar company.

But starting with Hurricane Katrina, then Super Storm Sandy and then Hurricane Maria, the federal and state governments realized that it isn't just possible, but highly likely, that most point-to-point communications would go down during a catastrophic weather event like a hurricane. EMCOMM agencies worked to harden existing systems and build greater redundancy, but they also realized that HF, while imperfect, could give them the off-grid, short and long-haul comms capability they badly need in the hours immediately after a catastrophic event. This realization is what led directly to the creation of the federal government's SHARES program. For its part the DoD started pushing HF capability back into the force structure, mainly in the National Guard which has primary responsibility for civil/military interaction during disasters. There's even a renewed emphasis on the Army MARS program with a corresponding move to an all-HF infrastructure.

We can see the need, but just how would HF communications fit in to a local EMA EMCOMM support plan? We'll tackle that in Part 2 as we circle back to Winlink and JS8CALL, so stay tuned!

W8BYH out (for now)

03 November 2019

You Can Go Home Again

I found out yesterday that you can go home again, at least in Amateur Radio.

Yesterday as I was leaving the Stone Mountain Hamfest in Lawrenceville, GA I made one last sweep through the boneyard and stopped to talk with David, AG4F. David looked like he was trying to unload the worlds largest collection of 32-bit computer parts, and reported he actually had some measure of success. Seems there's a buyer for EVERYTHING at a hamfest!

At the table next to David's I noticed the seller had two nice looking Radio Shack HTX-202 2-meter HTs for sale. One was in the box, with all accessories still in the unopened packaging. The only thing missing was the Ni-Cad battery pack, but that's to be expected for a radio that went out of production 20 years ago. The package did include the AA cell battery holder so I knew I could at least power it up and use it portable. We haggled a bit and I walked off with a part of my Amateur Radio past.

The HTX-202 was my first Amateur Radio transceiver. I bought it in 1995 after being licensed at Fort Hood, TX and assigned the callsign KC5YNP. The radio was an expensive purchase back then - something like $200. But the HTX-202 had a great reputation and, perhaps most important, the local Radio Shack store in Killeen, TX sold a lot of ham radio gear and did a great job of supporting the local Amateur Radio community so I figured it was a safe purchase.

But my experience shows the importance of mentoring (or 'elmering' as it's called in the ham radio world). I struggled with the radio for a few weeks and couldn't bring up most of the repeaters in the Fort Hood area. I ended up taking it back to the Radio Shack store and had them ship it off to the repair facility in Fort Worth. To say I was peeved that Radio Shack had sold me a defective radio would be an understatement. A week later the store called and told me my radio was back from Fort Worth and ready to be picked up. I dropped by the store after work and when the sales guy handed it back to me he said, "They didn't find anything wrong with it"

I fired the radio up right there in the store and tried to hit one of the local Killeen repeaters. No luck. I gave the sales guy a stern look. "It sure doesn't look to me like this thing works!"

"Have you set the PL tones?" he asked.

"What's a PL tone?"

I got a quick block of instruction (that 'elmering' thing again) and thirty minutes later I walked out of the store embarrassed as hell but with all the PL tones for every repeater between Dallas and Houston loaded in the radio.

That HTX-202 ended up doing yeoman work. I took it with me on field exercises on Fort Hood and allowed my Soldiers to use it to make phone patch calls home. It rode in the car with me everywhere, becoming my 'mobile' rig. I even took it to Six Flags Over Texas, and got the 'you're an embarrassment' look from the YL when I pulled it out of my backpack just before getting on the Yogi Bear ride. I eventually put up an MFJ ground plane antenna in my back yard and bought a used 35 watt amplifier. From my house on Fort Hood I could bring up repeaters in Austin, a good 60 miles away. When all you can afford is one radio, you make do.

One memorable day in May, 1997 my wife and I stood in our back yard at Fort Hood and watched an unbelievably ugly storm system pass just to our east. Weather systems don't usually scare me, but this one did. I told my wife to get the kids inside, and I rushed in to fire up the HTX-202. Just 20 miles south of us that storm system dropped an F5 tornado on the ground that literally wiped the small town of Jarrell off the map. If you were not under ground when the tornado hit you were dead. Period. I listened in morbid fascination as repeaters from Waco to San Marcos lit up with tornado and storm damage reports, weather warnings and calls for assistance. I was hooked. That little radio was my window into things well beyond my line of sight.

Later in 1997 we moved to Germany and the HTX-202 went into storage. In 2000 we found ourselves back in the US, in Fayetteville GA. Soon after settling in I pulled out the HTX-202, found a few local repeater frequencies and got back on the air. I'm still on the air, on the same repeaters, almost daily.

Somewhere along the way the old HTX-202 became just an obsolete piece of gear, and I sold it off to a local ham who wanted to run a packet station with it. Well, packet is dead, and I'm sure that old radio is too. I soon came to regret getting rid of the HTX-202; it was my 'first love' in ham radio and it taught me a lot. I always told myself that one day I'd find a replacement and bring it home, for nostalgia reasons. Well yesterday was that day.

The radio works, but returns an 'Er1' code, which means the internal memory battery is dead (dead, dead, dead...). But that's an easy fix, and a replacement battery is already on the way from Amazon. I did manage to get a local repeater frequency and tone loaded and confirmed the radio does work (just don't turn it off or all the memories get wiped - the dead battery thing).


So I'm tickled pink to have my first radio back. It'll assume an honored place among my collection of handheld radios and, who knows, maybe I'll fire it up sometime try to make a phone patch - for old times sake.

W8BYH out.

30 October 2019

The S--- Truly Has Hit The Fan

We learned just a few days ago that the Kincade Fire in California has turned into a 'perfect storm' of high winds, dry conditions, political malfeasance, idiotic environmental policy, bad utility management practices and poor power grid maintenance. As a result, California is probably the first political entity in America to simultaneously shut off power to millions of residents, allow explosive fires to devour tens of thousands of acres of poorly managed state land, and cause entire critical communications networks to 'go dark' for no good reason. In short, a self-inflicted gunshot wound of the highest order.

When I started this blog a few years back I promised myself I'd keep it non-political. After all, dear reader, I want you to come here for pithy Amateur Radio content, not political bashing. But California is just too deserving a target. If what's happening in California were instead happening in south Georgia the press would be all over the story, blaming the toothless Bible-thumping rednecks of the region for the situation. But because this is happening in The Golden State - the land of feel-good environmental policy, the bullet train to nowhere, celebrity governors and beaches littered with Beautiful People - the mainstream media seems utterly uninterested in trying to find out how and why things got this bad.

Huge swaths of central California have 'gone dark' and will go dark again (and again) as Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) institutes wide area blackouts in an effort to reduce the risk of wildfire ignition. It seems that PG&E's power line infrastructure is so poorly maintained that the lines in many remote areas are prone to shorting out in high winds or high heat, causing showers of sparks that ignite the tinder-dry wood and vegetation sitting on the forest floor. So PG&E shuts off power to entire sections of its grid and a series of cascading failures begins. Without power cell phone sites (which are not required to have backup power in California) go dark. And of course, with no power there's no internet (either on phones or in homes). Then the remote repeater sites start to go dark as their backup systems - usually a combination of batteries and generators - go dead. What about landlines? Well, since most 'landline' these days is VOIP, that goes dark as soon as the power to everyone's internet modem goes out. The few left with old fashioned conventional landline service are OK for a time, but at some point the fires take out those lines too. Because, you see, even though PG&E is shutting down power over wide areas, their live lines are still sparking and igniting forest fires.

Hollywood screen writers couldn't have crafted a more zany set of interlocking failures involving mother nature and poor human decision making. And don't think for a moment your local politicians and utility owners can't bring the same level of incompetence and mismanagement to your hometown. We saw it in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina and in Puerto Rico in the wake of Maria. In this context California is not an outlier; 'civilized' countries or regions descend into chaos all the time, and no level of investment in hardened communications systems makes them invulnerable.

What's this all have to do with Amateur Radio? Actually, quite a bit. What's happening in California represents a real-world, full on communications blackout. EVERYTHING is down, even the federal government's vaunted 'FirstNet' system was having problems. Amateur Radio infrastructure is not exempt - I'm sure repeater sites were going down right along with the cell sites.

But there IS an Amateur Radio mode that can operate completely off the grid, with zero dependency on local power or other infrastructure. This is the same mode that came into play in Puerto Rico in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and in the Bahamas right after Hurricane Dorian earlier this year. The solution is HF using Near Vertical Incidence Skywave (NVIS) antenna configurations. If you need to get a signal up and out of an affected area, but still retain the ability to communicate with the guy just on the other side of the ridge, then NVIS is your best - and often your only - bet.

NVIS Propagation

We'll be discussing more about NVIS in later postings. But for now just understand that 'when all else fails', even our highly touted repeater infrastructure, there is still one mode that can get the signal through - NVIS.

W8BYH out.

20 September 2019

All FOGged Up

It's rare that I praise the US federal government. I take the view that the least government is the best, and the only way you could use the word 'least' in describing what we've got here in the good old USofA is 'least effective'. But occasionally they get things right. NASA did a pretty good job with the Apollo moon missions, and the Coast Guard does a good job of keeping pirates from raiding our shores. And back in 2016 the Department of Homeland Security released to the public a neat little document called the National Interoperablility Field Operation Guide version 1.6.1. Or as the Amateur Radio community calls it, the NIFOG.




What is the NIFOG? I'll just quote from the document's introduction:

"The National Interoperability Field Operations Guide (NIFOG) is a technical reference for emergency communications planning and for radio technicians responsible for radios that will be used in disaster response."

In its original format the NIFOG is a pocket-sized guide chock full of extremely useful information that every emergency communicator will need access to in times of real emergency:

  • FCC rules for emergency communications
  • Federal, state and local interoperability and mutual aid UHF and VHF channels
  • Contact phone numbers for key agencies like FEMA and regional Coast Guard offices
  • Geeky stuff like RS-232 pin-out conventions, RJ-45 connector wiring standards, IP addressing standards, radio line-of-sight calculation formulas, etc.
  • Iridium and INMARSAT usage instructions
  • Aviation, marine, SAR and rail channel frequencies and coordination information
  • GMRS & FRS frequencies and rules
  • HF disaster coordination frequencies
  • Automatic Link Establishment (ALE) frequencies
  • A pretty good Amateur Radio section that includes the current band plan



Homeland Security makes the NIFOG available in a digital (PDF) and hardcopy format. While the PDF version is easy to get and have available on your computer, I strongly recommend everyone involved with emergency communications get the hard copy version from the US Government Bookstore. It's a pocket sized, spiral bound, waterproof booklet that should be a part of your Go-Kit. Get a copy, take the time to review and understand its contents and bookmark so you can quickly find the relevant sections. Like so many things disaster response related, the worst time to try to become familiar with the NIFOG is when a hurricane is bearing down on your county.

Here's a short video covering the NIFOG (version 1.4) contents. It has a bit of a 'prepper' bent, and the guy who made the video can be a little crude, but he knows what he's talking about. His day job is managing field communications systems for the US Forest Service, and he has published a number of videos on communications support during wildfires.




So get the NIFOG, familiarize yourself with it and always have a copy with you when you deploy. That's an order!

W8BYH out

02 September 2019

A Shot Over The Bow

A few days ago, at the Tokyo Hamfest, Icom officially announced their new Icom IC-705 portable radio. Notice I said portable, not mobile. It seems this radio is specifically designed to be taken to the field and used in remote places, not chauffeured around in your car.





Even though the radio was announced just a few days ago the buzz and spin on the internet is at hurricane levels. The responses are either that Icom knocked it out of the park with this radio, or that Icom blew a golden opportunity because of some missing feature(s) or design elements.

This is all based just on speculation and the little information that was released at the Tokyo Hamfest, but we can do some informed speculation based on what we already know, and we can do that because Icom has wisely based this new radio on the proven SDR technology in the hugely popular IC-7300 (which I own and use almost daily).

If we simply take in the known features we get a sense of where this radio is heading:
  • HF, 6 meters, 2 meter & 70 cm
  • Proven SDR technology
  • D-STAR
  • Large touchscreen user interface
  • Max 10 watts output w/ external battery
  • Wideband receive from 1 mhz all the way up to 148 mhz
  • Built in GPS and Bluetooth

There are a few things we have to infer given Icom's recent past history with HF radios:
  • Sound card interface (every Icom HF rig introduced since the venerable IC-7200 has had a built-in sound card interface so we have to assume this one will, too). If Icom has included a sound card for digial modes that makes this radio a sure winner
  • This radio will not enjoy any industry standard protective rating - it's not ruggedized or water resistant. OK, maybe a basic IPX5 rating, which means you can sneeze on it lightly and it'll keep working, but anything heavier... nope

What we do know for sure is that this radio will not have a built-in tuner. While I'm OK with that, I do think it's a serious hiccup on Icom's part. C'mon Icom, if CommRadio can shoehorn a very capable internal tuner into their smaller and lighter CTX-10 then you can do it with this radio. Yes, of course LDG will be right along with a battery powered IC-705 specific tuner, but an internal one is still something very desirable in a portable rig. And spare me the "just use a resonant antenna" crap. This is the real world, and the real world is full of non-resonant or 'almost-but-not-quite-resonant' antennas, and a tuner provides frequency agility and can make portable operation so much more enjoyable.


A few things I saw in the Icom product brochure that caught my eye include:
  • The UHF/VHF antenna looks like it has a 6 meter coil. This radio could re-invigorate the concept of 6 meter manpack portable operations. If the antenna is not 6 meter capable I anticipate a lot of folks buying the excellent Yaesu 6 meter antenna that comes with the FT-818
  • The use of pre-existing lithium-ion battery packs designed for use with the Icom ID-51 handheld. While I don't think the standard battery pack is any great shakes when it comes to capacity, what it does mean is that it'll be easy for third party manufacturers to design larger capacity snap-in battery packs
  • The included microphone is not just a mic, but a speaker mic. Hooray! This is critical for portable mobile operations. The HFPack guys must be in a tizzy over this, because they have to Rube Goldberg an RX audio setup for their commercial radios to work in their manpack setups. I wonder how long it will take for someone to develop an interface cable for the standard US military H-250 handset? I'm guessing about a week

Imagine a MILSPEC H-206 handset (seen here connected
to a pair of PRC-77 radios) hooked up to the new
IC-705

Who is this radio really aimed at? Well first, guys like me who love operating portable. To me hauling a radio to the woods is one of the more enjoyable pastimes in ham radio. And the term 'guys like me' also includes folks who like to do Parks On The Air (POTA), Summits On The Air (SOTA), Islands On The Air (IOTA), and folks who like to do manpack mobile HF (the aforementioned HFPack crowd). There's a huge ready made market for this radio, and if it's a success it'll just draw more operators to these activities.

But this radio is also Icom's shot across the bow of their competitors in this market space, particularly Elecraft, Yaesu and the rising tide of Chinese manufacturers who are coming on strong with offerings like the Xiegu X5105 and the G90. Elecraft and Yaesu in particular have to be sitting up and taking notice. This radio is aimed squarely at the Elecraft KX3, and the IC-705 will certainly give that radio a run for the money, particularly if Icom can bring it in at a low enough cost (below $1,000 street price).

Yaesu has been resting on its laurels in the portable radio world for decades. Its FT-818 and FT-857 designs are ancient by comparison, and Yaesu muffed the design of the FT-891 so badly (discussed in an earlier blog post) that it had to slash the street pricing drastically to get over the bad press. The FT-891 doesn't reflect just a bad design, but also a missed opportunity. The FT-891 was designed specifically to NOT impact sales of the older FT-857 or the new FT-991. As a result Yaesu ended up with a radio full of compromises, not innovative features. Here's hoping the Icom IC-705 forces Yaesu off of their rear ends so that next year at the Tokyo Hamfest we'll be talking about Yaesu's new innovative HF/50/2 meter/70 cm offering.

Regardless, it looks like Icom is about to hit it out of the ballpark with the IC-705. Let the drooling begin.

W8BYH out

17 August 2019

Huntsville

Late today I got back from the Huntsville (Alabama) Hamfest, billed as the 'World's Friendliest Hamfest'. Not sure just how they measure that, but it really was a friendly bunch at the Von Braun Center.  (And in a town full of PhD's with rocket science degrees, putting a metric to the concept of 'friendliest' should be fairly easy, so we'll let them run with it.) Anyway, this was both my first time at the hamfest and my first time in Huntsville. I drove over from Atlanta on Friday and spent the night in a local hotel, did a few laps around the hamfest this morning and then headed home in the early afternoon.

I really didn't know what to expect of Huntsville. I'd heard mostly good things, but it IS located in Alabama, home of inbred toothless rednecks living in single-wides, driving pickup trucks and singing the unofficial state song that heaps praise on George Wallace. Georgia should be so 'inbred'; I found the part of Alabama I drove through (roughly between Rome, Georgia and Hunstville on secondary roads) to be absolutely delightful. Neat, tidy, quirky in a few places, and just plain charming.

Huntsville was a very pleasant surprise. It was refreshing to be in a city that is absolutely unapologetic about its success (so unlike Atlanta), and in fact celebrates its achievments for the world to see. After all it IS the 'Rocket City', dammit - the city that put men on the moon, shuttles into space and a space station into orbit. A breath of fresh air.

The hamfest itself was very good. The organizing committee does a great job, and one of the big benefits is that all of the boneyard activity takes place indoors, in air conditioned comfort (remember, this is August in Alabama, and today was a 95+ degree day). At most hamfests this is an outdoor activity, and you take what you get, weather-wise.

I did notice a sameness regarding the major vendors. Mostly the same folks you'll see at the Atlanta area hamfests. But that's to be expected since the two cities are so close. One difference was that many of the big manufacturers, particularly Icom and Yaesu, upped their game when it came to their display setups compared to what they normally provide at the Atlanta venues.

A few things of note:

  • SDR is where its at, baby! If you are a radio manufacturer and you are not moving wholesale into SDR architectures you are about to be crushed. Forget how good your double and triple conversion transciever were just a year or two ago. No SDR = no market share... OK, I'm being a bit facetious here. There's still plenty of damned good conventional radios on the market. One thing that does seem to be dawning on a lot of hams is that SDR does not necessarily equal high price. Companies like Xiegu out of China, who are hungry for US market share, are putting out some good SDR radios (like the new G90) for pitifully low prices - and they are getting pretty good reviews. Please spare me the talk of the Chinese 'dumping' on our markets - Xiegu seems to be listening to its US and European-based customer and responding well to things like new feature requests and bug fixes with regular firmware updates.
  • I had a look at the new(ish) Elecraft KX4. Now I'm just trying to decide which kidney to sell to buy one.

The Elecraft booth was perpetually slammed. Left kidney or right?

  • When the exhibit hall doors opened I rushed to The SignMan of Baton Rouge's booth to put in an order for new name tags. Seems everyone had the same idea - there was a 45 minute wait in line to give Donna your order. The SignMan has been at just about every hamfest I ever attended over the past 20 years, and it just wouldn't be a hamfest without Donna and Rick. Thanks guys!

Need a callsign nametag? Get in line!
  • Among other things, Yaesu was hawking their new FT3D handheld. Other than a color screen and better alpha tags I'm not sure it's worth the $100 premium over the older FT2D. Here's one of the Yaesu reps demonstrating a neat parlor trick - taking a picture with the optional camera mic and transmitting it from one radio to another via a System Fusion link. That's my ugly mug on the radio display. The picture was take using an FT2D and pushed to the FT3D over the System Fusion repeater set up for the show. Handsome devil, eh?


  • What impressed me most with the Icom floor display was not the radios, but how they manage to package everything in easily transportable, self contained cases. Just wheel the cases onto the show floor, open them up, connect power and you are ready to go. You can tell these guys do a LOT of trade shows.

The other side of these transport cases is the complete
trade show setup. Pretty neat!

During the show I had the chance to meet some of the HamRadio.World crew - basically the Lea family out of south Florida who are minor celebrities in ham radio. I've been following their adventures for some time now and it was a treat to meet them in the flesh. They already posted a short YouTube video about their trip up to Huntsville (which included fighting with Atlanta traffic on the I-75/85 'connector', a mistake I think they'll avoid next time). It looks like they followed the same route I took from Adairsville, GA, through Rome, GA and then over Lookout Mountain and down into northern Alabama.



And last but not least, it seems like half of my local radio club, the Fayette County Amateur Radio Club was at Huntsville. While we didn't get together for a group picture I ran into Joe, KI4ASK, Ryan, KN4RQL, Dave, AG4ZR, Ross, AJ4P and perhaps one or two others. Maybe next year we should rent a party bus!

Well that's it for my take on Huntsville 2019. All-in-all I had a great time. Some may ask, "Why not more pictures of radios?" Well, I was more interested in talking to people and seeing new things, plus you can get all the pictures you want of all the latest gear at each of the manufacturer's websites. Google is your friend.

W8BYH out

28 July 2019

APRS.fi

Yesterday I was following an Amateur Radio balloon launch event put on by a nearby ham radio club, the Bill Gremillion Memorial Radio Club. The balloon carried an APRS tracker and all flight activity was available on the APRS.fi website. I was reminded just how great a service the APRS.fi site is, and figured it was time to give it some coverage.

When I stepped away from Amateur Radio a little over a decade ago the service known as APRS (Automatic Packet (not Position as many claim) Reporting System was moribund, kept alive by a few true believers. The decline in interest in APRS was due to a number of factors - the general decline in interest in packet radio with its slow AX.25 protocol (which APRS uses), and the kludginess and expense of much of the desktop client software. And then there's the ever present 'shiny new object' factor, so common in ham radio. New things like HF digital modes were becoming extremely popular and started drawing attention away from APRS.

APRS was developed in the 1980s by Bob Bruninga, WB4APR as a real-time local tactical communications system. I won't spend a whole lot of time reviewing the history of APRS, instead I'll let Bob lay it out, in an article he wrote in March of 1999 and updated in 2013.

One of the Achilles heels of APRS in the early years was the lack of good map interfaces. This was long before the availability of on-line services like Google Earth or Google Maps. There was some good client software available, but the map interfaces were either small scale wide area maps, many just roughly georeferenced screen captures, or the user had to buy a third party mapping program. I used the excellent UI-View software published by Roger Barker, G4IDE (SK), but had to purchase a mapping package called Precision Mapping (on CD) produced by a company called Undertow Software for an additional $50. There was a somewhat awkward relationship between UI-View and the Precision Mapping files, but it worked.

Fast forward a decade and things have changed - for the better. One of the things I noticed was the rise of the AX.25 'KISS' protocol. Ham radio manufacturers like Yaesu and Kenwood figured out it was easy and cheap to implement a KISS TNC in their radios, making them APRS ready right out of the box. Sadly, Icom seems to have forgotten about APRS since it developed a slavish devotion to DSTAR and it's 'sorta-like APRS' function known as DPRS.

Next is the development that I think really saved APRS - the excellent APRS.fi website.

APRS.fi web page showing a weather station feed - a very popular application

APRS.fi was launched in 2006 by Finnish developer Heikki Hannikainen, OH7LZB. APRS.fi uses the Google Maps application programming interface (API) to provide the worldwide map interface, and Heikki built a custom web platform that merges real-time APRS data and high resolution street maps (and satellite imagery), adds some user tools and makes it available freely to the Amateur Rado community. What APRS.fi does is remove the APRS client 'drama' that kept a lot of potential users at arm's length. With APRS.fi, APRS functionality is easily and immediately available on the web, on just about any hardware. If you can get to a web browser you can get to and use the APRS system.

There is a LOT going on behind the curtain with the APRS.fi system, and I'll let Heikki cover it in a presentation he did at the 2012 DCC conference in Atlanta. A bit geeky, but hey, we're all geeks, right?


With APRS.fi and a modern radio such as the Kenwood TH-D74 or the Yaesu FT2DR, which have built-in GPS receivers and APRS-ready KISS TNCs, there's no reason to not get active on APRS. So get out there and get tracking!

W8BYH out

06 July 2019

CommRadio CTX-10

I've hinted in this blog - or at least I think I have - that I purchased and I'm testing (a fancy word for 'playing with') a CommRadio CTX-10.



Up to this point I've held off on posting about the radio because it was having some teething issues, and I thought I would wait until CommRadio had a chance to mature the firmware. Well, CommRadio has successfully tackled the biggest firmware issues, so I think it's time for an initial review. Before going forward I also need to state that this radio is not a loaner from CommRadio. It's mine - I purchased it from CommRadio four months ago with the intention of using it, and using it hard, during field operations. The firmware version I tested against is v.1330. For particulars about the radio's features I encourage you to read the CTX-10 spec sheet on CommRadio's website.

First, just what is the CTX-10? The radio is the vision of one man, Don Moore, W0CTX, the owner of CommRadio. Don's background is in aviation communications system design and manufacturing, and as such he has the resources to bring his vision to market. Don saw the need for a small, lightweight, rugged and easy-to-use low power (10 watt) field radio based on SDR technology. Right now the market is flooded with QRP transceivers - the Yaesu FT-818, the Elecraft KX line, the Xiegu X5105, and more. All are good in their own way, but none met Don's vision of ruggedness and simplicity of use, a design that followed the aviation radio concept of 'push the button to talk, let the radio take care of everything else.' As such, the CTX-10 design emphasizes ruggedness and ease of use over a complex set of configurations and controls.

The CTX-10 is essentially the same size as the Yaesu FT-817/818

The CTX-10 is not a cheap radio - it clocks in at a penny shy of $1,000, and you still have to provide your own microphone, and sound card modem if you want to work digital modes. Some Amateur Radio operators I've shown the radio to have turned it over and over in their hands and asked, "Is this all you get for a thousand bucks?" I'll admit that at first glance the radio is not all that impressive - a tiny screen, six buttons, a VFO knob and a volume/multi-function knob. On closer inspection you do notice a few external things - the overall quality of construction and light weight. The exterior is a machined magnesium 'box' that is heavily finned for heat dissipation; there is no cooling fan on this radio. The VFO and volume knobs are machined aluminum and the operation is extremely smooth, with no 'wobble'. The rear of the radio is neatly laid out, with each connection port (power input, microphone, mini-USB, 6-pin mini-DIN, CW key, speaker & headset jack) sitting in a very cleanly machined 'well'.

The rear of the CTX-10. This is a computer design image, but the layout of the rear panel
is identical to the radios as manufactured. 

But to appreciate this radio you have to understand what's going on inside the magnesium case, and how it follow's the design philosophy:

  • Ease of use via a simplified command set - the focus is on communicating, not button pushing
  • Leverage the SDR architecture not to add 'bells and whistles', but to provide superior ease of use and performance by handling most operating parameters automatically in software, leaving the user to focus on communicating
  • Rugged, survivable design - not MILSPEC, but certainly capable of surviving rough handling and operating conditions that would put other radios out of service
  • Low power consumption and a superior internal power management system that eliminates much of the 'power angst' that accompanies most other portable radio designs
  • Integrate all of this - SDR transceiver, internal batteries, antenna tuner - into a package that can be carried anywhere and operated at a 100% duty cycle in austere or harsh conditions 

I'm no radio construction expert. I can barely solder two wires together and resistors, capacitors, diodes and transistors all look the same to me. I have had the bottom cover off this radio to diagnose an odd rattling sound (turns out it was the glass plate that covers the main display) and everything inside looks neat, tidy and well tied down.

Don has stated that the radio's construction closely follows aviation radio component selection and construction standards for failure-proof operation. The US Federal Aviation Administration is a harsh taskmaster - I know because I work at The World's Busiest Airport and deal with FAA compliance issues every day. I am sure the FAA aviation radio requirements related to reliability are extremely stringent. Don has let those requirements guide the design and construction of the CTX-10.

Back in February Tom Witherspoon, K4SWL, did an excellent review of the CTX-10 on the SWLing.com blog, and that review still stands as the single best evaluation of the radio to date. In the review Tom discussed the radio's strengths and weaknesses. As of the February review the firmware was considered somewhat half-baked. Work still needed to be done to smooth off the rough edges, but the radio showed true potential and promise. There was very little Tom found that could not be fixed in software - it was all just a matter of convincing CommRadio that adding the missing features would not steer the radio away from its design philosophy.

But the SWLing.com review is now somewhat outdated. CommRadio has addressed a number of the issues that Tom identified, particularly the 'accidental on' issue and the lack of split VFOs. Those were addressed in the most recent firmware updates. Unfortunately CommRadio released a firmware update in April (v.1321/1321-1) that introduced some TX audio parameter changes resulting in severe audio clipping and distortion. It took Don several weeks to run the issues to ground, but the most current firmware update, v.1326, seems to have finally fixed those issues. I'm now getting good audio reports.

The CTX-10 in my (normally) messy shack, working a local 10 meter net

So how does the radio work in the real world? I try to get it on the air with it several times a week for local and regional nets and rag-chews. The lousy band conditions have not helped, but I find that 10 watts, when the bands cooperate, are enough to get my signal noticed. Of course I can't compete with big gun stations running amplifiers, but from just outside of Atlanta I've been able to reach all over the southeast and as far west as Missouri, using just a simple vertical antenna.

The CTX-10 packs up nicely into a small Pelican case and works well with
a simple vertical antenna that is fast to set up and reasonably efficient.
Note the antenna in the left background. A great portable arrangement!

But how about digital modes? Other than running FT8 (which I don't use), CommRadio doesn't provide much information on digital mode configurations. One of the packages I was very interested in testing the CTX-10 with is WinLink. After studying the CTX-10 user manual I discovered that the mini-DIN connection pin configuration was identical to the Yaesu standard. Since I had a SignaLink USB all set up for Yaesu radios I figured I'd give it a try. After a few hiccups I was able to get it working, using the Yaesu FT-891 configuration settings. I still have to set the frequency manually (grrrrr), but everything else works just fine.

CTX-10 running WinLink

I'll cover more about digital modes with the CTX-10 in a later post, but for now just understand that you can do digital modes with this radio.

So what improvements would I like to see come to the CTX-10? Well, with the understanding that the hardware is pretty much set, it all comes down to software improvements. So here's my wish-list:

  • Introduce CAT control via USB so we can let rig control software drive the radio settings. If the command set is already there in firmware I sure haven't been able to find it 
  • Enable memory programming via USB, and allow alpha-numeric assignments to memory channels
  • Introduce user-settable DNR levels
  • Have the radio remember 'step' settings when changing bands or modes
  • Change the 'lock' function so it only locks the VFO. Right now when you 'lock' the radio it locks both the VFO and TX

But what if CommRadio contemplates a new version, with improved hardware features? That's easy. Here's what would have me gladly shelling out for a new CTX radio:

  • Built-in sound card interface
  • 20 watt output 

At the very least, any upgrade to the CTX-10 should include a built-in sound card modem. In today's world of lousy propagation and strong interest in digital modes any radio on the market at the CTX-10's price point should include this feature.

Is the CTX-10 worth the investment? I think so. It's certainly not for everyone (but then, neither is the Flex 6700), but if you operate in the kinds of conditions and situations the radio was designed for - outdoors, in austere conditions - this could very well be the radio you've been waiting for. It deserves serious consideration. How confident am I in this radio? After the last firmware upgrade that fixed the nagging TX audio issues I decided the CTX-10 had reached a state of maturity that allows it to serve as my sole QRP rig. I went ahead and sold my beloved Yaesu FT-817. 

This is just the first of what I intend to be a series of posts specifically about the CTX-10. As I gain more experience with the radio I'll put up more posts focusing on specific topics, so stay tuned!

One last note. In most of the pictures I posted my radio is wearing a set of protective brackets manufactured by PortableZero. I highly recommend these brackets, not just for the CTX-10 but for any portable radio you own. They make the rigs easier to manhandle and provide a level of protection for the front dials. I use them not just on my CTX-10, but also on my Yaesu FT-891 and FT-991A. They are not cheap, but they are very, very good.


W8BYH out

07 June 2019

Yaesu FT-891. Again

I recently traded some stuff around, sold a few things off, and ended up buying a Yaesu FT-891 for portable work.




I've owned this radio in the past. It was an early production example made in late 2016 and I bought it soon after I got back into ham radio. The FT-891 had been announced at Hamvention in 2016 and hit the shelves soon after. At the time it seemed to be the answer to what I was looking for - a small form factor 100 watt HF radio that offered modern digital signal processing. The radio also allowed me to keep my promise to my wife to keep my ham radio 'footprint' small (and that didn't last long, ha, ha).

I intended to make the FT-891 the centerpiece HF portion of my new downsized shack. After all, it held the promise of being able to do just about everything you'd want an HF rig to do. On paper the feature set looked great - high resolution display, 32-bit DSP, CAT control via USB, maybe a built-in sound card (some early chatter about the radio hinted at it), band scope, backlit buttons. I even went so far as to purchase the matching Yaesu FC-50 tuner.

When I put the FT-891 into play the good things immediately popped out -
  • Yaesu's traditional rugged construction - the thing is built like a tank
  • Really, really good DSP
  • Outstanding cooling - the dual fan cooling system moves a lot of air
  • Overall excellent SSB performance, both on TX and RX
  • Ease of navigation through the menu system. A lot of folks on Facebook and on places like eHam griped about the menu interface, but given the small form factor Yaesu actually did a pretty good job (with a few exceptions, as we'll see below)
  • A surprisingly useful band scope
  • The radio's current draw is much lower than Yaesu's own published numbers. It's perfectly reasonable to expect to operate this radio for extended periods of time using just a 20 amp hour lithium-ion battery pack
  • The FC-50 tuner is well implemented and handled just about every antenna I hooked it up to

I have to emphasize that as an SSB voice rig the FT-891 is as good as anything out there in its price class and form factor. In fact, its better than most. What makes the difference is the really well implemented DSP.

I used the radio mostly in a semi-portable mode on my back porch or in my car port, hooked up to an Alpha-Delta DX-CC antenna I had hanging in my trees. As I mentioned, SSB performance was all I could hope for and the menu interface was easy to figure out. The radio was a lot of fun to use for voice communications.

But from the beginning the FT-891 was problematic on digital modes when using a Tigertronics SignaLink sound card interface. The rumors about the radio having a built-in sound card were just internet myth; the radio did come with a USB interface for programming and CAT control, but no soundcard. I bought a SignaLink and tried my damnedest to get the whole setup to work reliably, but the radio would run for a few minutes and then lock up, and often required a full factory reset to get working again. I sent the radio to Yaesu for testing and troubleshooting, but they reported the radio was working 100% and sent it right back. In frustration I got my hands on a Yaesu FT-857 and tested it on digital modes with the exact same setup - same computer, software, cables, SignaLink and settings. It worked on digital modes without a hitch. Substitute in the FT-891 and like clockwork the radio would lock up. It could have been operator error, but I don't think so. The radio also acted squirrely when hooked up to various CAT control programs, most notably N4PY's rig control software. I became convinced that the radio was the issue - I either had a one-off lemon, or the entire design was a kludge.

Very quickly a few other nagging issues revealed themselves: 
  • There is no way to easily change between LSB/USB from the Band button or other top-level menu setting. Switching between LSB/USB requires a deep, deep dive into the radio's system-level settings, and switching between LSB/USB changes the setting for all bands on the radio; if you set the radio for USB for 40 meters, it is set to USB for 160 and 80 meters too. Virtually all digital modes operate in USB, even when on 160/80/40 meters. The FT-891 can be configured to handle this with the top level 'Digital' menu setting, which puts the radio into USB, but there are some digital mode applications (like WinLink) that require the radio to NOT be set to digital mode when running. This requires the deep menu dive and sets USB as the default mode for all bands on the radio. This was a rookie mistake on Yaesu's part, and one that should be easy to fix in firmware. 
  • No supply voltage readout in the display. This is a feature many modern portable & mobile rigs provide. After all, it's expected that the radio will be powered by a battery and it would be nice to be able to monitor battery voltage. There's no reason the this radio can't provide the information. We get a momentary voltage reading when the radio is first turned on, so we know the capability is there. The Yaesu FT-857D (a far older design) has a continuous supply voltage readout. Why not the FT-891? Again, another rookie mistake. This should also be a fairly easy firmware fix.
  • Tick, tick, tick. I, like so many FT-891 owners, noticed a distinctive 'tick, tick, tick' coming through the audio chain when the radio was configured for digital mode operations and hooked up to a computer to run software packages like Fldigi. Reports were that some - but perhaps not all - FT-891's had this problem. It took a few months for the user group to figure out the issue (without, I might add, any assistance from Yaesu) - the ticking noise was generated by the radio CIV interface 'polling' the rig control software on the computer. The 'fix' was easy to implement - turn the radio's 'Monitor' function off AND turn the Monitor volume to zero, but this 'fix' was just a work around for what was apparently a hardware issue, and one that can't be fixed in firmware.



To pile insult upon injury, in 2017 the ARRL reviewed the FT-891 and reported that "...the transmit phase is about the highest we've yet seen in the Lab. For this reason alone, I would be wary of pairing this transceiver with an RF amplifier." Considering the ARRL Lab has been testing transceivers for decades, this is a pretty damning report. Many Yaesu fanboys say that this phase noise issue is irrelevant in the real world, while at the same time cautioning that you need to keep the FT-891 away from other radios when operating in a Field Day-like environment. I don't think the issue is irrelevant, and it's something an experienced, top-tier manufacturer like Yaesu should have caught in development and testing.

If you take these issues in total it's clear that Yaesu rushed this radio to market without proper development and testing. It was half-baked.

After a year of using the radio and getting more and more aggravated that Yaesu didn't seem to want to address these issues I sold off the FT-891 and tuner (with full disclosure to the new owner). My operating needs had changed and the FT-891 wasn't getting used much anyway, so off it went to a new home.

____________________________________________________________________________


Fast forward almost two years and a strong use case has emerged for which the FT-891 is the best candidate in a very narrow field. I needed a 100 watt portable HF radio with DSP and which could run digital modes using a SignaLink interface. There were other radios in the same market segment that could have fit the bill, particularly the Yaesu FT-857 and the Icom IC-7100. Both are good radios, but the FT-857 is what can charitably be called 'old technology' and lacks the FT-891's advanced filtering and TXCO, The Icom IC-7100 has a great feature set and I gave it a hard look, but I didn't need the IC-7100's VHF/UHF side and the additional cost it added to the radio. Plus, the form factor was not a good fit for how I intended to use the radio.

But what about all the issues that plagued my first FT-891 - why buy into them again? This second time I wasn't looking for a radio that would serve as my main rig. This time I was looking for a robust 100 watt radio I could take to the field and operate exclusively on digital modes for extended periods of time. Think HF Winlink in a disaster scenario. And everything - radio, tuner, SignaLink, cables, microphone, headphones, manuals, etc. - needed to fit into a Pelican 1520 case.

In current production FT-891's the inability to switch dynamically between USB/LSB is still there. One thing that mitigates this issue is that the radio's CAT command set allows rig control software (like Ham Radio Deluxe) to dynamically switch between USB and LSB from the software interface. The lack of a supply voltage readout can be mitigated by using an inexpensive in-line volt meter. Both of these are acceptable work-arounds.

The 'tick, tick, ticking' was a bit more serious because it interferes with digital mode operations. Chatter on the internet indicates that Yaesu has quietly fixed the hardware issues that caused the ticking problem, and may have addressed 'hissing' or feedback issues coming through the speaker and headphone ports. There is some discussion indicating that Yaesu did a major board re-design. What is clear is that purchasers of new production units seem to be reporting fewer problems.

What about the locking up in digital modes? That was a HUGE concern, but recent videos by amateur radio operators I trust, like OH8STN, report that current production FT-891s work just fine on digital modes using a SignaLink.



In short - it appears that Yaesu has cleaned up some issues. But Yaesu is completely silent on this. They have neither acknowledged the radio's problems nor indicated they've addressed them in firmware or hardware.

So I took a leap of faith and ordered a new FT-891. I was immediately re-acquainted with all the good and bad points. One thing that did hit me when I took the radio out of the box for the first time - Yaesu excels at making HF radios in this form factor. The FT-891 is compact and solid. Solid like a brick. There is a LOT of manufacturing technology crammed into this radio. I'll admit that any other Amateur radio manufacturer (Icom, Kenwood, Alinco) could easily produce a radio with the FT-891's feature set (and many already do), but none of these other makers has exhibited the ability to stuff it all into a package the size of the FT-891 and make it work.

Yaesu also knows SSB, and DSP. The SSB voice signal reports I get when using this radio are universally good. And I'll step out on a limb and say that the digital noise reduction in this little radio is better than the noise reduction in my Yaesu FT-991A. How can that be, considering the DSP engines in both radios are the same? Simple, on one of the last firmware updates Yaesu released for the FT-991A they buggered up the digital noise reduction settings, and it is now far too aggressive. It's almost like it's either all the way on, or all the way off - no in-between. The FT-891 firmware controls noise reduction better, providing a more gradual imposition of noise reduction as you step it up between 1 - 10.

So what about digital modes? In the limited testing I've done it works just fine on digital. I've only tested it running PSK on Fldigi, but so far zero issues, and this is using my original SignaLink and all the original cables. This further reinforces my conviction that the first radio was a lemon.

But in handling this new radio I'm also struck by what could have been. Considering the technology options available in 2016 when this radio was still in development it would have been easy for Yaesu to incorporate an on-board sound card interface, eliminating the need for an external device like the Signalink. Yaesu could have also chosen a better display technology. A higher resolution dot matrix display would have provided more screen 'real-estate' and a more readable display. And of course there are the firmware issues like the LSB/USB mode switch and the lack of a supply voltage display that remain unresolved and likely will never be addressed by Yaesu.

Sadly, the FT-891 will always be the good little radio that could have been great. All Yaesu had to do was pay a bit more attention to the hardware and software when the radio was in development. Unfortunately it seems as though the key design goal for the FT-891 was that it not compete with the FT-991, and because of that it was shortchanged on some of the features that could have made it an outstanding little rig.

I believe the market is ripe for an FT-891'A' model that incorporates a sound card interface and cleans up the firmware and phase noise issues. That could be game changer, with the potential to impact the 100 watt HF portable/mobile market in the same way the Icom IC-7300 has impacted the desktop market. But it seems Yaesu is content to just keep cranking out the original FT-891, and to be fair they seem to be selling just fine.

So it is what it is, and for my purposes it works well. I'll continue to report on the FT-891 'from the field' with some experiences with it as a portable digital station. Stay tuned!

W8BYH out


02 June 2019

Clocking In

I grew up in a profession obsessed with time, and the management of time. The US Army places great emphasis on coordination of events by time, whether it's the start of happy hour at the local officers club, or the firing of an artillery salvo marking the start of the latest ground operation. In the Army, time matters.

In my profession within the Army - mapping and surveying with the Corps of Engineers - time is of even greater importance. Accurate surveying requires extraordinarily precise tracking of time, whether it's marking the exact time you took an observation on Polaris (the North Star) to determine latitude (Polaris actually 'wobbles' a bit, so knowing the precise time of the observation is critical to accurate surveying), or making sure your survey grade GPS units are properly synchronized with the GPS satellite time signals.

I'm so enamored with time that back in 2010 I wrote a treatise about it on one of my other blogs. But today we'll talk not about the history of time or uses of time. Instead we'll take a look at how communicators, including Amateur Radio operators, kept track of time down through the years.

I believe radio operators - commercial and amateur - first started watching the clock right after the Titanic disaster. New maritime radio rules introduced in the wake of the Titanic sinking required commercial ships at sea and maritime radio stations on shore to observe a 3-minute 'silent period' starting at 15 minutes and 45 minutes past the hour. During these silent periods all radio traffic on the main maritime frequency of 500 kilocycles stopped and the frequency went quiet. Vessels in distress were assured their pleas for assistance would be heard during these silent periods. To help radio operators comply with the silent period requirement clocks soon appeared with special markings on the dial face marking out the 3-minute periods. Most of the early ship-board clocks I've seen were marine chronometers with the silent periods marked out in a red highlight. These were likely the first communications specific timepieces ever developed.


A US-made WWII-era Chelsea maritime radio room clock with the silent periods marked out in red.
Based on the dial design this clock likely has a marine chronometer movement. Chelsea still makes
radio room clocks today, but with quartz movements.


A WWII-era US Maritime Commission radio room clock (also made by Chelsea) installed on the
500 kc. transmitter aboard the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, a restored WWII Liberty Ship based at San Francisco.
This clock has the far more common Bakelite phenolic housing


Nice example of a WWII-era British radio room clock made by Smiths.

In my military world oceans were few and far between. When I searched the horizon from the deck of my HMMWV I was usually looking at a line of pine trees or a sandy ridge 😄. But the Army was just as dependent on accurate time as maritime communications. All Army operations take place in 'Zulu time'; they are referenced to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), known in military parlance as Zulu. The US military has divided the world up into 25 time zones, so planners and operators always know how to calculate local operations in relation to Zulu time. This makes coordinating military operations and assets around the world much easier.



To make sure everyone was on the same sheet of music, time-wise, the Army developed its own version of the marine radio room clock and brought it into use right around WWII. The Army Signal Corps had the greatest need to coordinate time, since their signals and communications circuits spanned the globe. So the Army standard case clock was labeled the 'Clock, Message Center' and were designated either the M1 or M2 model. They were made in the thousands by Chelsea Clock Company of Boston and M. Low of New York City (likely a sub-contractor to Chelsea or a job shop 'assembler') and perhaps others. These clocks followed a standard design - Bakelite cases, 6" diameter 12/24 hour black-face dials, radium paint on the hands and the hour points on the face. All were key wound and were not chronometers, just highly accurate cased clocks - the War Department accuracy standard for these clocks was something like +/- 20 seconds in 24 hours.

Chelsea Message Center clock, The red hand can be used to track
a second time zone

 In service these clocks were usually mounted in custom wooden cases - pop the top open, wind and set the clock and you're in business. These clocks were normally authorized to Signal units for coordinating communications schedules, and were also authorized to regular headquarters units of all Army branches for accurate time coordination. I remember seeing these in use in Army organizations well into the 1980s, both in headquarters units and in mobile communications shelters (RATT rigs).

A WWII-era cased Message Center clock made by M. Low of NYC

A partially gutted M-46 Radio Teletype (RATT) shelter, designed to be mounted on old Dodge M-37
three-quarter ton truck. Note the message center clock mounted on the left wall, just peeking
around the corner. The Clock, Message Center M2 was a standard issue item in most
RATT shelter right up through the 1980's. This RATT shelter is being restored by the
owner of the RatRig.com website

Starting in the 1980's the mechanical message center clocks started to disappear from Army units. Why? Two words - quartz, and GPS.

Mother Army figured out that the inexpensive plastic battery powered quartz wall clocks - the kind that were available from every installation supply center - were more than accurate enough to meet the need. Why buy an expensive, fragile mechanical clock that requires specialized service when for the same money you can buy about 50 equally accurate quartz clocks. If one breaks just throw it away, stick a battery in a new one and keep pushing on. Overnight the old message center clocks disappeared and plastic clocks by Skilcraft, Franklin and others were hanging on every wall. The Army bought them by the gross, and broke them by the gross, but who cared?

Over the years I (a-hem) 'liberated' a few of these wall clocks. They were headed to the trash, directed there by Soldiers who didn't understand that all it took to get them running again was to replace the battery. Most of what the Army bought were the simple 12-hour clocks. Mundane but useful. What I kept my eye out for were the less common 24 hour clocks. The Army operates on a 24 hour clock - none of this AM / PM crap. There's 24 hours in the day and, dammit, the Army is going to count every single one of them! So it never made sense to me that we were using mostly regular old 12 hour clocks. If I found a good 24 hour clock headed to the dumpster I grabbed it.

A 'liberated' 24 hour quartz wall clock.
It's been keeping time in my ham shack for almost 18 years
  
Then in the early 1990s the Army introduced new communications systems, like the first generation SINCGARS radios, that used time sequenced frequency hopping for communications security. Overnight the Army became obsessed with incredibly precise time, and the way to get that precise time signal to synchronize frequency hopping was via GPS. Every GPS satellite is hauling around a couple of atomic clocks, and a precise time signal is part of the GPS data stream transmitted by the satellites. Suddenly the Army had access to accurate time anywhere in the world. Want to know what time it is? Just ask  your radio.

Display of a Harris Falcon III AN/PRC-158 tactical radio.
Note the time display at the top, and the latitude and longitude
coordinates at the bottom. All current military radios have built-in
GPS so they can take advantage of the highly precise time signals
transmitted by the GPS satellites

But what's available for the Amateur Radio operator to put in his or her ham shack? Actually, any old clock will do. The simplest solution may just be your computer. Most ham shacks today are computerized and every computer has an accurate clock built-in. You can simply take advantage of the time display on your computer's desktop or use one of a number of clock applications like Anuko, which connects to a network time server for its time signal.

Anuko Wold Clock app running on my ham shack computer

Then there is the radio itself. Most modern radios have built-in clocks. These internal clocks are not 'disciplined'; they are not regulated against a GPS or network time server so their accuracy needs to be monitored, but they are actually pretty good.

Screen shot from my ICOM IC-7300 showing the time display
in the upper right hand corner. It keeps pretty good time for an
'undisciplined' clock

Years ago a number of Amateur Radio manufacturers like Yaesu and Kenwood offered unique clocks specifically designed for ham radio or communications use. Most of these were quartz (battery powered) or electric (plug-in) units that helped the ham radio operator keep track of time around the world. When you are talking to a ham in Australia from your QTH in Chicago it helps to know what time of day it is for the guy on the other end of the conversation. Sadly, most radio manufacturers stopped selling these clocks back in the 80's or 90's and good working examples can be worth a bit of money. But if you manage to snag one at a hamfest or at an on-line auction you have a very unique piece of ham radio history.







Are there dedicated ham radio clocks available today? Yes! Most are simple quartz movement clocks that have been re-badged for ham radio use. Some are digital display models. All will meet the need - just find one that works for you.

MFJ Enterprises out of Starkville, MS seems to be the most prolific ham shack clock retailer, with 20 or more clocks - digital and analog - in their current catalog.

Just some of the clocks offered by MFJ

The ultimate expression of 'money is no object' when it comes to ham shack clocks has to be the current offering from Geochron. The Geochron Ham Radio Edition, only available through DX Engineering, starts at a whopping $1,899. If you've ever seen a full sized Geochron map in the flesh you know they are visually stunning. Sure would look good perched on the wall above that new Elecraft K4.



But for me the neatest ham shack clock available today - one that hearkens back to the early days of radio communications but doesn't cost an arm and a leg - is the replica ships radio room wall clock sold by Cafe Press. This clock has been in the Cafe Press lineup for well over a decade. It's a simple 12 hour quartz movement with a replica US Maritime Commission radio room clock face. I've owned a number of these down through the years, and I've given several away as gifts to fellow hams. One of these clocks has been running in my office at work for over 10 years with no issues, and it keeps great time. For $30 they can't be beat.

The Cafe Press Ships Radio Room Clock. A neat reminder of our
radio history, for just a few bucks.


Well, I see it's time to get on the radio. Good luck with your own radio room clock search, and if you find anything unique or interesting let me know in the comments!

W8BYH out