31 December 2020

The Death Of The Basic HF Rig?

Something happened during the COVID year. It appears the Big Three manufacturers (Icom, Kenwood, Yaesu) have abandoned the basic 100 watt HF rig market. The thought struck me as I was perusing the radio offerings on the Gigaparts website earlier today.

I define a 'basic' HF rig as a tabletop radio that cost less than $800 new and covers 80 thru 10 meters and offers 100 watts of output power. The basic rig doesn't have to have a tuner, or a sound card interface, but it should come with a CAT interface. Right now the only tabletop rig for sale that meets this criteria is the 'venerable' (that's my way of saying 'really old') Icom IC-718. This was my first rig when I got my General ticket back in 2002, and it was a few years old even then!

Icom IC-718. Older than many Amateur Radio operators,
and still in production

In fact, you have to look down into mobile rig territory to find anything else that fits the basic rig definition, and that's the Yaesu FT-891 and the Icom IC-7100. The FT-891 is arguably a much better HF rig than the 718, but it's a radio with its own set of issues

The Icom IC-7100 gets special recognition. Rebates put the street price right around $760 (retail is $860) and the price/performance ratio is very high. In my mind this makes the IC-7100 the single best option for a basic rig. It is a very, very good rig, and in the basic category it sweeps all before it. But it stands alone in a field that used to be fairly crowded.

The IC-7100. The best 'basic' HF rig currently available.
But for how long?

In the past year or two a number of really good basic HF rigs were dropped by their manufacturers and replaced with... nothing:

  • Yaesu FT-450D
  • Yaesu FT-857D
  • Icom IC-7200
  • Alinco DX-SR8, and maybe even the DX-SR9
  • Kenwood TS-480
To be fair, most of these radios (with the possible exception of the IC-7200) were really old designs, and for many of them parts availability started to become an issue. Some radios, like the Yaesu FT-857D, were pushing a 20 year production life and needed a mercy killing. Others. like the Yaesu FT-450D were still very viable and competitive little rigs, and still had a lot of life left in them. The real problem is, the manufacturers didn't introduce anything to backfill the market gaps created when they stopped production on these radios.  

At some point, maybe as soon as 2021, currently manufactured basic rigs like the IC-7100 and the IC-718 will be pulled from production. It's inevitable. Every radio goes out of production at some point. What then? Does the market definition of a basic HF rig move up to the $1,000 price point? Do one or more of the Big Three introduce a new 'affordable' rig? Do the Chinese step in with new categories of low cost 100 watt rigs? Do new players enter the market? For example, why haven't the Koreans played the ham radio market? They certainly have the technical and manufacturing expertise, and market presence (think Samsung, Hitachi or LG). Do boutique manufacturers like Elecraft or FlexRadio step up?

Or... are we truly seeing the end of the basic low cost 100 watt HF radio?

One thing's for sure - 2021 will be a very interesting  year in Amateur Radio.

Happy New Year!

W8BYH out

28 December 2020


This happened a few days ago, and it is looking like a lone-wolf suicide attack that is not terrorist related. The bomber's motivations are still unknown, but there is some discussion about it being a targeted attack against AT&T. One thing is known - a single well placed explosion shut down air traffic control services at Nashville International Airport, and took out phone, internet and 911 services across middle Tennessee and parts of Kentucky, Alabama and Georgia. 

To their credit, AT&T responded quickly and most outages were mitigated within hours. But consider this - a deliberate, coordinated attack against just two or three well selected communications nodes - AT&T, Verizon, Comcast or T-Mobile - has the very real potential to knock out regional communications and shut down services for an extended period of time. No cellphone, no internet (which carries a lot of voice-over-internet (VOIP) traffic), no landline comms. 

On this blog I spend a lot of time discussing the very real and very likely communications threats posed by hurricanes, tornados, wildfires and earthquakes. Terrorist attacks are far down on my list, mainly because the US government does a good job of tracking coordinated terrorist groups like ISIS, and we generally know more about their attack plans than they do themselves. But every once in a while fate says "hold my beer" and hands us something like the Nashville attack. One bomb, millions without communications.

An alternative communications plan isn't just an interesting 'what-if' intellectual exercise. It's a necessity. Be ready.

W8BYH out

23 December 2020


It's long past time that the Icom IC-7300 gets its own post. It's odd that I've written about other HF radios I own, and have used far less, but I've virtually ignored discussing this excellent rig. Let's change that.

I've owned my IC-7300 for about three years now, and it's my 'daily driver'. I mean that - this radio gets used every day, and for a wide variety of tasks. I use it to talk on nets, pass digital traffic, monitor frequencies for activity, participate in informal rag chews, and when the mood strikes, participate in contests. It's had the 'MARS mod' (really, just a wide-band TX mod) and I've installed the RadioAnalog PTRX-7300 RF output board (discussed in an earlier post). Although the rig has its own built-in (and very capable) antenna tuner, I have mine hooked up to to an external LDG AT200ProII tuner so I can run digital mode communications (JS8CALL, MARS MSC2020, PSK-31 and others) at full 100 watts output. The radio is a digital mode workhorse, and has become a backbone radio for a lot of heavy duty cycle applications like message center operations and ALE within the MARS system. And it's no slouch on voice modes, either.

My dusty, smudgy IC-7300 working PSK-31 via Fldigi

With the IC-7300, Icom fundamentally changed the mid-range HF transceiver market. It is a moderately priced (currently a squidge under $1,000), high performance SDR with a very well thought out user interface and feature set. How good is the IC-7300?  Five years after its introduction the IC-7300 absolutely dominates its market space, and Icom still sells them by the boat load. Literally, by the boat load. Yaesu and Kenwood still don't have anything on the market that competes with the IC-7300. To be fair, Yaesu just announced their new FT-DX10, which seems to be aimed at the same market space. The FT-DX10 feature set is impressive, and one-ups the IC-7300 in a lot of areas. But remember, Yaesu had five years to watch this market space, study the IC-7300, and develop their response. Oh, and Yaesu's introductory price on the FT-DX10 is almost $700 higher than the current price of the IC-7300. That means Icom will still be selling boat loads of IC-7300's a year from now. 

Is the IC-7300 perfect? No, of course not. But its real-world flaws are few and far between and, on balance, insignificant. Some internet commandos gripe about a lack of 'dynamic range', or poor selectivity, or poor receive audio performance, poor auto tuner performance, or complex menu systems... well, some folks will bitch about anything. Here's my evaluation - in the real world, when you are focusing on communicating, the IC-7300 is an outstanding radio. But it's not just me saying that. Go read the ratings for the IC-7300 on eHam.net

Personally, my only gripe about the IC-7300 is the lack of back-lit buttons. That's it. 

If you are looking for an all-mode radio, and particularly if you are looking for a radio to run high duty-cycle digital modes, you really don't need to look any further than the Icom IC-7300.

Very, very highly recommended.

W8BYH out

06 December 2020

Radio-based Situational Awareness Tools

Hey kids, let's play a game. It's called Global Thermonuclear War.

If you don't know the reference you need to hand in your Geek credentials

Too much? OK, I'll dial it back just a bit. Pick a scenario, any scenario, that is likely to occur where you live:

    • Hurricane
    • Earthquake
    • Wildfire
    • Tornado
    • Winter storm
And for the win:
    • A Carrington Event-level solar storm. Much like thermonuclear war, but more widespread and without all the mushroom clouds, or dead people (at first).
When the Sun gets pissed and takes aim at us all we'll be able to do
is hang on and watch

In this blog I've spent a lot of time talking about establishing 2-way communications in scenarios like these, but let's assume, for some reason, you can't transmit. It could be because your transmitter is damaged, or atmospheric propagation is so disrupted that you can't get through to anyone. You still need to be able to listen - to monitor the airwaves on as many modes (AM, FM, sideband, digital, etc.) as possible to establish and maintain situational awareness, and to evaluate propagation.

The most fundamental tool in this scenario is a simple battery powered AM/FM radio. Nothing too fancy. One of the inexpensive wind-up emergency radios like the C. Crane Solar Observer will do fine. The point is to be able to monitor broadcast bands for updates. 

A very capable little wind-up radio.
Not very sensitive or selective, but ideal for basic situational awareness needs

A step up from this would be a radio that offers improved sensitivity and selectivity and adds shortwave (but not SSB) reception into the mix. Several all-band radios like the Tecsun PL-310ET get surprisingly good reception performance ratings. This inexpensive little radio (less than $50 on Amazon) has actually spawned a cult following among DXers.

This cheap little radio is so good it's developed a cult following among serious reception DXers

Most of these inexpensive radios only offer shortwave (AM) reception outside of the commercial broadcast bands. This is OK for basic situational awareness monitoring, but if you also want to monitor Amateur Radio, military, marine, SHARES, Red Cross or other activity in the sideband regions you'll need a radio capable of single sideband (USB/LSB) reception. This requires a bit more of an investment, but the options are still reasonable. The Eton Elite (formerly badged as a Grundig) is another 'cult' radio, with many claiming it offers best-in-class performance along with USB/LSB reception.

Eton Elite Executive. Offers both USB & LSB coverage.
About $150 on Amazon

All of these radios will require an external longwire antenna for best performance on the lower bands, and to be honest, none of them are 'screamers' when it comes to low band reception, but they are good enough for the situational awareness mission. You can easily make a simple longwire antenna (nothing more than a piece of random wire with an alligaor clip on the end - just clip it to the external antenna), or you can get one of the inexpensive reel antennas made by Tecsun or Sangean. I prefer the reel models because they are easier to set up and deploy. 

The Tecsun clip-on reel antenna.
They also make a model with a 1/8" audio plug
for use with radios with a built-in antenna jack.
Very, very handy

One word of caution when looking for a radio in this category. Several excellent radios, like the Tecsun PL-880, use non-standard lithium-ion batteries rather than off-the-shelf AA or AAA batteries. In my mind this disqualifies them for use in the situational awareness role. If I can't run a portable receiver using replacable batteries that I can get at any grocery store, then I want nothing to do with it.

Many of you are probably asking, "Why not just set up my ham radio?" Valid question. One of the objectives with a situational awareness receiver is ease-of-use - something a non-technical family member could pick up and intuitively use. Most desk-top ham radios have somewhat complex operating interfaces, power requirements (12 volt battery or power supply) and antenna requirements, making them unsuited to the portable situational awareness radio task. There are a few, mostly small QRP rigs like the Yaseu FT-817/818 and the new Icom IC-705, that would fill the role nicely, but most other rigs require a specialized setup and/or don't cover things like the FM broadcast bands. 

There are a few handheld Amateur radios like the Kenwood TH-D74 that could fill this role, but they are pricey and SSB reception is compromised by the antenna arrangement.

A strong contender in the situational awareness radio category is a simple SDR receiver plugged into your laptop computer. Something like the inexpensive RTL-SDR USB receiver ($25 on Amazon) offers amazing performance. These little receivers are all based on the RTL2832U chipset (hence the name 'RTL-SDR'). The computer software that controls the receiver is free and, although a bit complex, allows monitoring AM & FM broadcast bands, Amateur Radio bands, utility bands, just about everything bouncing around the ether (except for the cell phone frequencies, which are blocked by law). These receivers are optimized for performance in the higher bands (above 30 mHz) and performance is less than optimal on the lower bands, but still usable. I can't recommend these little USB dongles enough, and there's always at least one in my computer bag. Plus, they are just fun to play with!

These amazing little devices are no bigger than a USB thumb drive

The software that drives these RTL2832U chip based receivers is available on the RTL-SDR.com website, and the user has a huge number free and paid packages to choose from - more than 25 at last count! A great way to spend a lazy rainy day is fiddling around with one of these receiver dongles and the various software packages that drive them. And yes, there are Linux, Android and MacOS packages available.

While I admit that the software interfaces are not necessarily 'intuitive', many are easy to quickly figure out, with things like frequency changes or mode changes handled with a simple mouse click. Getting non-technical family members up-to-speed on how to use them should be quick and easy. 

HDSDR software interface for RTL-based SDR receivers.
One of over 25 packages available on the RTL-SDR.com website

If you want to step up in receiver performance, particularly on the low bands, there are more capable (and more expensive) SDR receivers available from companies like AirSpy and SDRPlay. I've been using an SDRPlay RSP2 for a few years now, and recently slaved it to my Icom IC-7300 using the RadioAnalog PTRX-7300 add-on board. I'll be upgrading to the new RSPdx model that offers much improved performance below 30 mHz., and the old RSP2 will go into my field kit bag for portable receiver operations.

RSPdx receiver, offering much improved low-band reception

So there you have it. This post is not a comprehensive treatise on situational awareness radio tools, it's just intended to get the thought processes started. Honestly, this topic deserves wider coverage and can quickly descend down the rabbit hole of emergency service scanners, military-grade receivers, beacon networks, magloop antennas, and tin foil hats. 

So what's my plan if I need to go into the monitoring mode? Simple. I'll plop a very capable AM/FM portable radio (likely my trusty C. Crane EP analog radio) on the kitchen table for the XYL to use to listen to local broadcast stations, and I'll go down to the shack and fire up the SDRPlay receiver and start monitoring Amateur Radio frequencies in the 20, 40 & 75 meter bands.

To wrap this up, let me point you to Thomas Witherspoon's excellent write-up on his list of the best portable shortwave receivers over at the SWLing.com website. It's a fun, and very informative, read, and will help point you in the right direction if you are in the market for a portable situational awareness receiver.

W8BYH out (for now on this topic...)

29 November 2020

HP Calculators

 I read today on the HP Calculator Facebook page that Hewlett-Packard (HP) has taken its HP-35s calculator out of production. I quickly checked Amazon and sure enough, they were down to just one in stock. Wanna' guess who bought it?

If true, if HP has closed down production of the 35s, it's a sad day. While the HP-35s was never a great calculator when compared to its predecessors, it was a very good RPN (Reverse Polish Notation) calculator and represents what may be the last in the line of classic HP RPN pocket calculators that started back in 1972, with the introduction of the HP-35.

I closely followed the development of the HP-35s, about a decade ago. The developers in HP's calculator division (at the time never more than two or three individuals) maintained a running dialog with HP calculator fans via the Yahoo email reflector, and they allowed fans to have direct input on the features and design. It was a very collaborative development process, and the HP calculator community was proud and delighted to have been included. The name HP-35s was deliberately chosen as an homage to the classic HP-35. When HP released the calculator I purchased one directly from the on-line HP Store. When it arrived I noticed that the display was slightly mis-aligned in the frame. I called HP support and the lovely lady sent me a second calculator and told me to just keep the first one. So I ended up with two - one for home and one for work. 

My love affair with HP calculators started back around 1976 when my brother, who worked in a testing lab, started bringing home one of the HP-25's the lab made available for the technicians to use. At the time I was using a Texas Instruments calculator, probably a TI-51 or 55. Texas Instruments calcluators were significantly less expensive than HP's offerings and it was the only thing this struggling college student could afford.

But the HP-25 was a glorious instrument! Incredibly well built with that wonderful signature HP mechanical key 'click' that let you know, without a doubt, that your data had been entered or your operation had been selected. By comparison, Texas Instruments keypads were mush, and were notorious for crapping out, usually in the middle of a final exam.

And then there's HP's famous implementation of Reverse Polish Notation, or RPN. RPN is a calculating methodology that eliminates the use of parenthases in mathmatical operations, and instead uses the concept of 'stack registers' to manage calculations. Once you learn RPN and stack management you can fly through calculations faster and more efficiently that using TI's algebraic operating system. If you want to learn more about RPN you can skip over to the RPN Wikipedia page for more info.

My love/obsession with HP calculators was fed by the US Army. In 1979 I graduated from college and took a commission as an officer in the Corps of Engineers. I found myself tracked into the Corps' topographic field (today known as geospatial engineering). There soon followed some very heavy courses in geodesy, surveying and mapping. The Corps of Engineers had gone 'hog wild' for HP calculators and early desktop computers. In fact, when reporting for class at the Defense Mapping School's Mapping, Charting & Geodesy Officer's Course we were issued HP-31E calculators and given an hour of instruction on RPN before being tossed into the deep end of the pool - survey network adjustment using least squares.

Over the years I accumulated a fair number of HP calculators. Some I bought, some just floated in my direction. There has always been an HP calculator on my desk or in my briefcase since 1981, and I have two strong favorites - the HP-11C and the HP-32S. They are just excellent, rugged work-a-day calculating devices. Many consider the HP-11C one of the best calculators ever produced, and I have no argument with that. 

Just part of my collection of HP calculators

Even if HP shuts down production of all of its calculators (sadly. a very likely scenario), the spirit of HP's classic calculators will live on. There are a number of excellent iOS and Android-based emulations of various HP calculators (many written using HP's own RPL programming language), and a company called SwissMicros is manufacturing a series of excellent HP calculator 'representations'; each SwissMicros model follows the layout and operating pattern of classic HP units like the HP-41, the HP-42 and the HP-15, but they are not straight clones and incorporate modern features like USB connectivity, SD card storage, advanced graphics, etc. 

The SwissMicros HP-41 'clone'.
I have a strong feeling there's one in my future

I'm also of the opinion that calculators and Amateur Radio go together like peas and carrots (as Forest Gump would say). Amateur Radio is, at its heart, a science-based hobby, and there's always a need for a calculator in the shack. And in my shack there will always be an HP calculator.

Sitting on my desk as I write this blog post..

W8BYH out.

22 November 2020


 A few months ago I purchased the PTRX-7300 panadapter interface board for the Icom IC-7300 from DXEngineering. The PTRX-7300 is manufactured in Europe by a company called RadioAnalog. The board is installed in the 7300 (no soldering required!) and it 'sniffs' the incoming RF without otherwise burdening the radio (the 7300 doesn't even know it's there). The PTRX-7300 outputs that RX signal tap to an external software defined receiver (SDR) of your choice. With the SDR radio connected to a computer and running SDR software you now have a panadapter display that is shows not just the small slice of the amateur radio band visible on the IC-7300's front panel, you get to see the entire band in one view. Even better, the incoming RF line that the PTRX-7300 'sniffs' is tied to the radio's RX/TX circuit. When you transmit on the 7300 the RX circuit is shut down, so the PTRX-7300 is protected.

About a week ago I found the time to open up my IC-7300 and do the install. I had read reports and watched YouTube videos that talked about how easy the installation is. They were all right. It literally took me more time to get all the screws out of the IC-7300 case than it did to install the PTRX-7300. The board is extremely well designed and built, and very cleverly ports the RF 'tap' out through the radio's external tuner port. Don't worry, you can still use an external tuner. You just end up with an extra cable that you connect the tuner to. It all works just fine.

For an SDR, you can use whatever you want, even one of the inexpensive SDR dongles like the RTL-SDR. However, keep in mind that many of the SDR dongles are optimized for VHF & UHF frequencies and don't do well in the HF spectrum. I chose to use an SDRPlay RSP2 that I've had for a few years. The RSP2 is a single receiver/two anetnna input design, which works great in this application. The RSP2 has been discontinued, and is replaced in the SDRPlay lineup by the RSPdx. Hmmm... may have to ask Santa for an upgrade.

SDRPlay also develops the SDRuno software application that drives their line of receivers. This application is best-in-class for controlling SDR receivers (and not just SDRPlay units, but the software can also control other receiver models, like the RTL-SDR units). Even better - the application is free! The SDRuno user interface can be a bit daunting at first, but within just a few operating sessions you'll have it down.

So let's see how this all goes together.

The PTRX-7300 board installed. The install kit includes all necessary cables

The cable on the left is the external tuner extension.
The cable on the right is the RF 'tap' cable that connects
to your SDR

Everything buttoned up and showing the cabling

View showing the RSP2pro connected to the IC-7300. For convenience, I attached the receiver to
the 7300 using double-sided tape

Once all the hardware is connected it's time to take a look at the software. The SDRuno application is Omni-Rig 'compliant', which means if SDRuno sees the Omni-Rig software running, it automatically slaves itself to the rig control software. All you have to do is configure your IC-7300 as RIG 1 in the Omni-Rig interface and the 7300 and SDRuno will be driven simultaneously by Omni-Rig. Change frequencies on the radio, SDRuno follows along. Change to a new band in Omni-Rig, the 7300 follows along. You get the idea.

Configure Omni-Rig to sync with
the IC-7300 as RIG1.
The RSP2 acts as a sub-receiver, controlled
via Omni-Rig

When launched, SDRuno is a sea of floating windows, but that's one of the keys to its versatility. You can launch multiple virtual receivers, each with its own panadapter window, you can tweak the passband settings, you can install and manage frequency libraries, and lots more. Basic functionality is easy to figure out; the more complex functions involve a bit of a learning curve.

One of the neat features introduced with the newest version of SDRuno is the ability to use third party plug-ins. For example, SDRuno can not decode any digital modes like FT8 or PSK. It can hear them, but can't make sense of them. With the third party plug-in concept, a developer can make an FT8 plug-in and you will be able to decode FT8 traffic right within the SDRuno interface. The SDRuno install packages includes a few 'trial' plug-ins, and in the image below I'm running the DXCluster plug-in. It superimposes DX stations on the panadapter display, making it easy to visulaize them in relation to the spectrum. I'm really eager to see what other developers bring to this new plug-in environment.

Note the DXCluster indicators in the right side of the panadapter display.
I'm using the DXCluster plug-in to display the stations on a 5 minute refresh interval

One of the neat tricks you can do with a dual-antenna input receiver like the RSP2 is run the receiver without the IC-7300 in the chain. This allows you to poke around the band and frequency segments that the IC-7300 can't handle, like VHF and UHF. The concept is simple, and there's no need to plug or unplug cables or re-configure software. Just choose 'ANT2' (antenna 2) in the SDRuno interface to bypass the IC-7300:

Wire up the IC-7300 and the RSP2 via the ANT1 connector on the RSP2 to
make it a sub-receiver controlled by Omni-Rig

Want to explore frequencies beyond the IC-7300's capabilities? Just turn off the 7300 and switch
over to ANT2. You'll have to push the audio through your computer speakers vs. the 7300

I'm still playing around with and tweaking this setup, and I have run up against a few issues users need to be aware of:

  • You need to set your matching baud rates in both the SDRuno interface and the Omni-Rig settings, and they must match what's set on the IC-7300. If all three don't match then SDRuno will kinda'-sorta' look like it's running properly, then stop responding. It took me a day or two to figure this out
  • For some reason, either SDRuno or Omni-Rig changes the IC-7300 CI-V Transcieve mode to OFF (default is ON). While this doesn't impact voice transmissions, it does lock out TX controlled by digital mode software like Fldigi or JS8Call. I'm still trying to troubleshoot this issue, but it's easy to reset the CI-V Transcieve mode back to ON from the radio's front panel display (it's under the 'Connectors' menu setting)
  • I have not tested this IC-7300 - Omni-Rig - SDRuno setup in conjunction with digital mode software such as Fldigi or Winlink; I'm not sure yet if you can simultaneously run another software application that requires control of the radio's settings. After I test I'll report back
So that's it for now. My overall opinion of the PTRX-7300 add-on board is pretty good. It's a very well designed and built piece of hardware that adds real capabilities to the IC-7300 setup. If you want a panadapter for your IC-7300 this is the most versatile and elegant way to get it. Highly recommended.

W8BYH out

13 November 2020

Dedicated Digital

I spend a lot of time on the air each week, and most of that time is spent either sending digital traffic, or testing digital software setups, or troubleshooting hardware interfaces (damn you, Windows COM port management!), or giving instruction, or testing digital nodes.

Until recently all this digital activity was done using a collection of different radios - whatever happened to be on the bench. Sometimes it was a QRP rig, sometimes it was a 100 watt rig of one manufacturer or another, in one configuration or another. I eventually figured out that I spend too much time fooling around with radios and not enough time building software and operational expertise.

The other issue is that I never built the level of standardization I felt I needed for effective communications - a single system configuration that was easy to figure out and support. Most of what I do is on Winlink, Fldigi (PSK31) and JS8Call. The station needed to have three components - an effective HF rig, a VHF rig with a companion TNC for VHF Winlink, and a computer to tie it all together. So I made the decision to set up a dedicated HF & VHF digital station using on-hand equipment. I didn't want to spend a single dime on new gear, but I wanted the setup to be effective, and cool looking. Because looking cool is everything in EMCOMM. Like this:

"Private, patch me in to GlobeSat Niner-Six on the next ascending pass.
I need to call Pizza Hut to see if they got my order"

Or, more likely, this:

I mean, a leather helmet, uniform blouse and field scarf are all 'de rigueur' for EMCOMM operations, right?

I was lucky in that I've got an excellent HF rig for the purpose - the Icom IC-7100. The 7100 is Icom's current rendition of the 'shack-in-a-box' concept. I traded into this radio about a year ago, attracted by it's ease of operation, good filtering, and the fact that it has a built-in soundcard modem for HF digital operations. I wrote about this IC-7100 in more detail in an earlier post. I did the MARS mod on it, and used it on and off as a field radio and in my shack as a back-up. But over time it got shuffled aside, packed away and almost sold before I came to my senses. I didn't know precisely why I needed to hang on to it, I just knew I needed to keep it around. It doesn't do any one thing spectacularly, but it does all things very well.

In this use a radio doesn't need any fancy front panel interfaces - no watefall displays, no band scopes. A simple frequency and mode display is all that's really necessary. The radio is driven by the software application - it's merely an extension of the computer. That said, the IC-7100 actually has a very good monochome touch screen display and the rig is extremely easy to use in the stand-alone mode.

HF digital modes tend to be full duty cycle (unlike SSB voice). Also, this is not a QRP operation; full output power is what's called for - key down, 100% power for extended transmit periods. Resonant antennas and/or robust antenna tuners are necessary. My end-fed long wire antennas are 'mostly' resonant on the ham bands, but often need tweaking with a tuner to get the SWR below 2:1. This means a tuner that can handle 100 watts at full duty cycle. Most tuner ratings are based on SSB voice duty cycles (which are often less than 50%), and most of those tuners would be damaged in short order by the 100% duty cycle of full power digital modes. This is why 100 watt tuners often state that they can only handle digital modes at 30 - 50 watts. I needed a tuner that can handle 100 watts at full duty cycle, so this meant a tuner that's rated for twice the radio's output power. I settled on the LDG AT-200Pro tuner. I'm using this model with another radio for MARS digital work so I know it does a very good job, plus it interfaces seamlessly with Icom radios using the appropriate cable from LDG.

What about VHF? The only real need I have for VHF digital is VHF packet for Winlink. The DSTAR capabilities are nice, but I've got an IC-D5100 set up specifically for DSTAR and it handles those chores better than the 7100 (except for HF DSTAR, something I have yet to try). Unfortunately the 7100 does not have a built-in packet TNC. But what radio does these days? Except for Kenwood the industry seems to have abandoned this market, and Kenwood's offerings are getting long in the tooth. This means an external AX.25 packet modem. I use a Coastal Chipwoks TNCX, but those recently went out of production. The old (but still manufactured) Kantronics KPC3+ seems to be the standard these days. 

There are two VHF Winlink nodes in my county, along with a Winlink digipeater (KK4GQ-15). I can reliably hit the digipeater on 10 watts from my QTH. During exercises I've set the Winlink application to auto-connect with a local node every 30 minutes (a neat feature built into the software) and the radio just loafs along for hours on end, automatically logging in to send or receive waiting traffic while I attend to other chores. 

The IC-7100 digital stack; TNC, radio & tuner on the right, the rig interface on the left

The EMCOMM football (Panasonic CF-31) on the left, driving the IC-7100
digital stack and external monitor

Of course you can't do digital without a computer, and I recently wrote a companion piece on what needs to be installed and running on an effective ARES computer. The EMCOMM football holds all the software and references needed to effectively run HF and VHF digial modes in a 'grid down' power out situation.

This dedicated digital station is extremely versatile. It can run:
  • Winlink on HF and VHF
  • Fldigi (all modes)
  • D-RATS (DSTAR-based digital messaging)
  • MARS MSC and ALE
  • Conventional AX.25 packet
  • Digital voice (DSTAR) on HF, VHF & UHF
  • Conventional voice on HF, VHF & UHF

Now, it can't run any of this simultaneously - it's single mode operation only. But that's OK, because I rarely have a need to operate on multiple modes at the same time. When I do run up against that requirement I just use a back-up radio such as a VHF/UHF HT or mobile radio to monitor the second mode or a coordinating frequency, and then switch the IC-7100 between modes as needed.

Is all this capability unique to the IC-7100? No, of course not. You can easily achieve this with any combination of HF and VHF/UHF radios. The IC-7100 is just what I happened to have on-hand. Remember, it's not the hardware or software, it's the concept - broad capability and flexibility on digital modes. How you achieve it is up to you, and that's the fun of it!

W8BYH out

07 November 2020

Smart Book

In the Army we had smart books for everything. A 'smart book' is nothing more than a highly condensed set of instructions or references a Soldier needs to do a particular task. We had smart books for inspectons, for combat operations, for vehicle maintenance, for barracks cleanliness. for change-of-command ceremonies. Heck, we even had smart books that told you how to make a smart book. No joke.

For years while assigned to 18th Airborne Corps and the 1st Cavalry Division I carried a smart book in my BDU cargo pocket that contained all refrences I might need to give impromptu briefings on garden spots such as North Korea and Iraq. Old habits are hard to break, and when I got serious about portable radio operations I decided I needed to put to gether a smart book that held important references for things like radio configuration settings, frequency allocations, net scripts, band plans, operating schedules, etc. 

If you are having difficulty conceptualizing what a smart book should be, the best examples I can give are the National Interoperability Field Operations Guide (NIFOG) and the companion Auxillary Communications Field Operations Guide (AUXFOG), both put out by the Department of Homeland Security. Small, compact, stripped of fluff, but stuffed full of useful information in a logical and easy-to-use format. The NIFOG and AUXFOG are smart books extrodinaire. Sadly, both of these publications are no longer printed by the US Government Printing Office and are only available in digital or PDF formats - not much use in a grid-down scenario. 

My smart book is far less polished, but just as useful. In keeping with the military theme, I use surplus Flight Crew Checklist books, which are simple ring binders with clear sleeves sized to hold 5" x 7" index cards (after you do just a wee bit of trimming). Nothing fancy here - the idea is you develop and add your own content to meet your specific needs. 

Our unit supply guys would buy these by the dozens and hand them out as needed, so I managed to leave the Army with a few spares. But, they are still easy to find from on-line sources like aviation supply houses and eBay. The books are about 6" x 8" and the thickness is determined by the number of pages you add. They are not 'pocket sized', but are a good compromise between portability and usefullness. The idea is, you scribble or tape your important information to 5" x 7" cards, slip them into the clear sleeves and there you have it - a personalized smartbook!

I actually use two smart books, one for Amateur Radio/ARES operations, and a separate one for Army MARS operations. The smart books sits at my operating position in my shack and are heavily referenced almost every day for things like radio settings and net schedules. Highly recommended.

W8BYH out

01 November 2020

The Football

 "Drop kick me Jesus through the goal post of life"

Today's post is inspired not by football the game, but by football the metaphor. The 'nuclear football' is the metaphor for the rugged computer that is always within a few dozen feet of the President. You know, the laptop that holds the nuclear launch codes that will trigger mutually assured destruction. 

No, this is not the real nuclear football. In fact, nobody really knows what it looks like on the inside.
But hey, it's a cool concept!

The nuclear football is really a large briefcase that holds the computer, some communications equipment and documents. And maybe a bag lunch for the guy who got stuck with football duty for the day. They used to be aluminum Halliburton cases with a leather outer cover, but who knows what they use today.

The US nuclear football is really a large briefcase that contains (we imagine) a computer,
some communications equipment, documents and 
maybe even a secret decoder ring!

In EMCOMM we spend a lot of time talking about the radios we plan on bringing to the next disaster. Occasionally we'll talk about antennas and power. We almost never talk about computers. But if you are serious about emergency communications, I make the argument that you need an EMCOMM version of 'the football' - a rugged portable computer, documents and supporting hardware that holds all the necessary software and files you need to get the job done.

I've been thinking about and prototyping this concept for a few months now, and I'm pretty close to my vision of an EMCOMM football. Let me start the discussion with hardware. In my day job I manage a fleet of mobile computers - laptops and tablets. I've been in this business on and off for decades, and I've developed a very mercenary view of computer hardware. To me computers are like toasters - I develop no sentimental attachments (although I do have favorites), and when one doesn't meet the need or stops working I just toss it and get another. In my discussions with others on the topic of EMCOMM dedicated computers there seems to be two schools of thought. The first is buy cheap and toss when it breaks (which would be often). The second is to buy high end and make it last. For EMCOMM use I fall into the buy high category. The EMCOMM computer needs to be as failsafe as possible. The worst time for a computer failure is when trying to send 'safe and well' messages via Winlink during a huricane. Wal-Mart will be closed (or looted), so you can't run there for a replacement, and you wouldn't be able to load up your software anyway. So this doesn't just mean good build quality, it means a high level of survivability under a variety of conditons - heat, high humidity, freezing temperatures, rain, dust. We're talking ruggedized computer territory here. 

However, ruggedized lapops that meet a defined spec like MIL-STD-810G are not cheap. In fact, for the hardware specs they offer, they are eye bleedingly expensive. The kind of thing only a free spending money-is-no-object government agency would buy. New. In bulk. 

But we underlings get to take advangage of Big Gov's leavings. You see, unlike the run-of-the-mill Dell or HP laptops that get destroyed in daily use, a large percentage of these hardened laptops survive their tours of duty in police cruisers, ambulances, fire trucks, utility service trucks, etc. in good servicable condition. They may look like hell on the outside, but they still work fine on the inside. This means a lot of them turn up on the secondary market, selling for pennies on the dollar compared to new models. Now, even at pennies on the dollar the are not cheap, but they are a lot more reasonable, and ideally suited to EMCOMM use.

I've used Panasonic Toughbooks, Dell Tough Rugged laptops and specialized rugged tablets, and they all work great in this application. But I've settled on Panasonic Toughbooks mainly because there's so many used ones out there. It's fairly easy to find one with the features you want at a reasonable price. My personal favorite is the Panasonic CF-31. This model hits the sweet spot - a full sized back-lit keyboard, plenty of USB ports, an HDMI port and a traditional 9-pin serial port. This model still has the goofy square(ish) screen aspect ratio that can make some applications and websites look odd, but that's ususally a minor annoyance. Most refurbished Toughbooks come with traditional hard drives. The first thing I do is yank those out and install a solid state drive. The only other hardware change I may make is additional RAM (to get up to 16 gig) and installation of a CD/DVD drive. I also try to have at least one fully charged spare battery available.

My EMCOMM football computer driving a Yaesu FT-991A during the
2020 ARES Simulated Emergency Test

As far as operating systems go, I've made my feelings known in a previous post. Until Winlink is ported over to Linux (which may actually happen soon), an EMCOMM operator is better off sticking with Windows 10.

Most rugged laptops are not screamers when it comes to computing performance.
But these are not gaming machines. These are specifically designed to provide 'good enough'
computing performance and high survivability in extreme conditions

What about application software? This is where the football concept matures out. Think of the use case for this computer - off grid, austere environment. This means no internet. So, no web-based office applications like Google Docs or Microsoft's equivalent. No access to cloud drives. No access to websites like VOACAP or PSKReporter. No access to software updates. EVERYTHING you are going to possibly need has to be loaded on the laptop, updated and ready-to-go. 

So for our purposes, the football software suite needs to include:

  • Winlink
  • Fldigi
  • A stand-alone office automation suite like OpenOffice, LibreOffice or Microsoft Office (I recommend LibreOffice - it's free, very stable and well supported)
  • The stand alone version of VOACAP or HAMCAP for propagation prediction
Additional software to consider based on your specific operating and support requirements:
  • JS8Call (weak signal chat and messaging)
  • D-RATS (for message handling and chat over D-STAR)
  • A packet radio management suite like Outpost (useful if you want to 'sniff' AX.25 packet data or manage a temporary digipeater)
  • Are you a MARS operator? Then all the required MARS digital suite software AND supporting files and documents
  • Radio programming software and current programming files - CHIRP, RT Systems, etc. Think about it - if you have to do a factory reset on your D-STAR radio are you going to want to hand-jam all the settings back in?
  • Rig control software/contesting software like Ham Radio Deluxe (HRD). The rig control interfaces in these packages can make operating the radio easier. 
  • Net control management software like NetLogger
Remember, no internet access! So that means you'll need digital or physical copies of key documents included as part of your football:
Next to consider is supporting hardware:
  • Battery charger and cords. I've been to more than one exercise where someone shows up with a dead laptop and no charger, and nobody has compatible charger (if you show up with a Panasonic and everyone else is using Dells, well...). Remember, a dead laptop is useless
  • Additional fully charged laptop battery. Again, a dead laptop is useless
  • GPS receiver. For some digital modes, like JS8Call, time synchronization is important. With no access to the internet your laptop can't synchronize the internal system clock with a network time server. Internal computer clocks can be 'drifty'; they are not precision instruments and rely on checking regularly with a network time server for adjustments. With an inexpensive GPS receiver like the U-blox7 dongle and appropriate software you'll be able to update your laptop system clock using GPS time signals

USB GPS dongle - $15 on Amazon

  • Computer mouse. Just makes the laptop a bit easier to live with
  • USB thumb drive and SD card. Remember, no internet, no email (I know, I know, dead horse...). How do you move files between computers? By having a spare tumb drive and SD card (or two) you are assured you can transfer data in an austere environment
  • DVD/CD ROM drive. Don't underestimate the ability of government agencies to cling desperately to old data formats. There are boxes of DVDs and CDs holding legacy data squirrled away in EOCs and government offices from sea to shining sea. That one odd report format the EMA needs may only be available on a DVD that was burned a decade ago and found sitting in the CD tray of a dead Gateway desktop that was headed to the dumpster. Don't ask me how I know. Be the hero. Have the only working DVD drive in the EOC
  • Cables, cables, cables. Have a cable for everything, and for critical pieces of gear, have two cables. 
    • USB cables for everything you run. Not just the old school USB A to B, still so common in Amateur Radios today, but also USB mini, micro and USB C.
    • An HDMI cable for attaching your laptop to an external monitor. If you use a Panasonic CF-19 laptop you'll need a powered VGA-to-HDMI adapter
    • Specialty cables for things like TNCs, CAT control cables for older radios, audio interface cables if you connect directly to the computer soundcard
    • Still running old DB9 serial devices (like some older TNCs)? Don't forget cables for those. Also consider a DB9-to-USB adapter
  • A bag to carry it all in. Forget the metrosexual murse that seems so popular in today's computer tote-wear. It may be fine for a MacBook Air, with enough leftover room for a Starbuck's gift card, but you are going to need a roomy and tough shoulder bag or backpack to haul all this stuff around in. Or even better, a hardened case like a Pelican
Now it's time to talk about user accounts. You are the administrator on your laptop, but you shouldn't let anyone use it while logged in as admin. Instead, create a guest user account (easy to do in Windows 10) that keeps the curious away from your system settings. That way, if you have to leave the laptop in the hands of someone else while you go get a few hours of sleep you won't come back to find your hard drive loaded up with malware and half your applications re-configured.

Be sure to tag everything that's your property, and record serial numbers. A fully operational EOC is a hectic place, and things tend to move around a lot (and disappear). I recommend using your callsign to tag your gear. It makes the item uniquely yours, yet doesn't specifically identify you by name. Plus, it lets the served agency know that it's a piece of Amateur Radio gear that shouldn't be messed with. I hate to have to say it, but if your laptop has a security cable slot (like the ones compatable with the Kensington cable system) I recommend you lock it down to the desk you are set up on. 

Be a Boy Scout. Be prepared - for any data exchange format

Next, power. In an ideal disaster response situation (if there were such a thing), clean commercial power would be readily available from the moment you show up. But we all know that's not going to happen. So, show up with a fully charged battery and, if possible, have fully charged spares. I think a reasonable expectation is that you should get 6 hours of continuous use out of a single battery before you have to swap in a fresh battery or go looking for a charging station. Not all of my Toughbooks have spare batteries, so I bring along a 'power pack' - a 30 amp hour lithium-ion battery connected to a sine wave inverter. What's neat about this power pack setup is that I can power the laptop while simultaneously charging the battery using a 100 watt solar panel.

Have spares

Last, internet. Earlier in this post I focused on last-ditch grid down operations, and I counseled that web services will not be available and you need to be prepared and equipped to operate within that scenario. But we all have to admit that life is better with bandwidth. If internet connectivity is available, use it! It allows you to do things like run Winlink telnet sessions, grab software updates, connect to key commercial services like Weather.com, PSK Reporter, APRS.fi, etc., check personal email, and upload images and documents that can't be moved via Winlink (hint - use the concept of shared photo and document folders using services like Google Drive, DropBox or Microsoft OneDrive, and just share the folder or individual document links). 

There are several related issues to be aware of. First, the agency you show up to support may be so anal regarding computer security that they won't allow your laptop on their network. I actually understand and sympathize with this policy, and you should be prepared for this as the norm. But the supported agency's IT team may also not have any provisions for 'guest' or public wi-fi access, particularly if they are running on a very thin bandwidth string. Parallel to this, the cell service providers have done great work over the past decade in hardening their own infrastructure, and it's common for cell and data services to still be available when all else has failed. Consider supplying your own bandwidth. Many service providers offer cheap unlimited data plans, or even cheaper plans with very generous data caps. Your phone can act as a very effective personal hotspot that can get you on the internet when and where you need it.
The guts of the EMCOMM 'football'

So there you have it. The Amateur Radio EMCOMM Football. Of course this package will vary depending on your needs, supported agency and the current state of technology. Will the football concept look the same in five years when things like wi-fi enabled radios and embedded IOT functionality becomes more prevalent? No, of course not. But for today and into the forseeable future, the concept I lay out here is based on extensive real-world experience and is, I believe, very sound.

All packed up and ready to go

W8BYH out