21 March 2020

Coronavirus, Part 2

"EVERYBODY is a carrier!" - The XYL

One full work week into self-isolation with the XYL while home schooling our granddaughter...

Everybody survived.

The XYL is an elementary school teacher in a school system that a few years back tossed their local (and poorly performing) IT infrastructure overboard and adopted Google for Education. So for her, the transition to a 'distance education' paradigm was relatively easy. At least the school system had the tools in place, and a good experience base among both the teachers and many of the parents. Not all. But many.

Since our granddaughter's school was closed and both parents work in law enforcement (and HAD to show up for work), we volunteered to home school her. Her 'classroom' was set up right next to the XYL's, on the same table. Kind of a cute setup, actually. But the granddaughter went through something of an adjustment process - it took her a while to realize the lady she was sitting next to wasn't her normally squishy grandmother, but was in fact her hard nosed teacher. There were a few bumps along that road.

As for me, my employer (a very busy commercial airport) sent most people home to 'telework'. Most departments were utterly unprepared for 'telework', and the technology base - laptops and web-based services like Office 365 - were not in-place to enable this new work-from-home concept. My particular group was one of the exceptions. Years ago we transitioned almost everything to cloud-based services, even going so far as to adopt Amazon Workspaces to host our desktop production software. Moving everyone to a home-based work paradigm was relatively easy.

I also took the time to play radio. I'm interested in tracking how this particular pandemic situation - enforced isolation, yet with full and uninterrupted services - impacts how groups like ARES provides communications support. If you think about it, what we are facing with the Coronavirus is almost the exact opposite of what ARES normally trains for. Most of our disaster scenarios involve a disruption of essential services (electricity, internet, phone), and an aggregation of individuals in shelters or other meeting places. So far the comms support requirements seem to be little more than the old Army concept of 'stand-by to stand-by'; open your nets, exercise them, and wait for further instructions. After listening to a few nets through the week, here's some observations:

  • The bubbas need to stay off the air
  • DSTAR is getting a good workout

Why do the bubbas need to stay off the air? Well, if you listened to the first Georgia ARES HF net that took place the day ARES started daily net ops, you'd understand. Net discipline was awful. The concepts of critical information only, brevity, and proper net protocols went right out the window. Bubbas from one end of the state to the other reported on everything from the health of their pet cats to the tread depth of their pickup truck tires. It was embarrassing. Things seem to be under control now, with better net discipline in-place. I just pray to God that nobody from GEMA was listening to that first net.

Next, DSTAR seems to be clicking right along. More accurately, Georgia ARES use of DSTAR seems to be clicking right along, and DSTAR's use as an EMCOMM backbone in Georgia may have actually found its place. There are several well run DSTAR status update nets every day, and folks with limited DSTAR proficiency are getting good training. The Coronavirus experience may cause me to change my normal sour opinion of DSTAR in this role.

I've taken the time to evaluate my personal equipment and training status. It's rare when I say "I've got enough toys", but I really do. I found I lack a few odd connectors for this-and-that, and my mix of coax lengths may be a little off (too many 200' runs, not enough 50' runs), but other than that, I'm set. In preparation for next week's Fayette ARES NVIS Day event I still need to set up my antenna(s) and test them, but I'm waiting for a break in the weather to do that.

So that's it for this week. Stay healthy.

W8BYH out

15 March 2020

Coronavirus, Part 1

For the love of God, will ya'll get a grip on yourselves?

When all this is over (and it will be soon) there's going to be plenty of people sitting in their living rooms, staring at their mountains of toilet paper, paper towels, bottles of Clorox, gallon jugs of liquid soap, cases of canned soup and pallets of ramen noodles, and and suffering from buyers remorse. Someone posted earlier today that once things calm down we'll see all this stuff flow back to the stores as the Wal-Mart crowd realizes they spent all of their rent money on useless panic supplies. I believe it.

As you may imagine, the Coronavirus is spurring a lot of Amateur Radio activity, as ARES winds up to provide whatever EMCOMM support may be needed. My disaster scenario planning had always focused on short term, high impact events like hurricanes, earthquakes or tornado swarms. With COVID-19 we're facing a scenario that I never gave much thought to:

  • a world-wide pandemic brought on by an easily transmitted virus with a relatively low mortality rate
  • proactive self-isolation measures that keep healthy, productive individuals temporarily out of the workforce
  • health care measures put in place to spread out the infection rate over time, to keep hospitalization rates at a manageable level. The disease is relatively easy to treat, we just can't treat everyone at the same time
  • A generally calm but watchful outlook, and no impact on basic services and utilities. Other than the aforementioned panic buying, everybody's behaving themselves and the lights are staying on

This has put ARES and other EMCOMM services into a watch, wait and evaluate mode. There's increased emphasis, and interest, in state-wide and regional nets, folks are boning up on their digital communications skills, and evaluating their equipment.

This morning I decided to play 'carport portable' to test and practice a few things. I set my current EMCOMM station up on my work table and stuck a 40 meter hamstick dipole up in the air. The goal was to test JS8CALL and WinLink.

I'm a big supporter of hamstick dipoles for EMCOMM work, as a fast deployment antenna system that gets you on the air as quickly as possible. Yes, I know they are very narrow banded (particularly in the lower bands), are not at all efficient and don't 'hear' very well, but if  you need to get up and operating ASAP these things can't be beat. While my Chameleon vertical antenna that mounts on a similar tripod is more broad-banded, it takes at least 50% more time to set up. It's worth the effort, but if you are in a real-world emergency and only need to operate on one band, take a look at the hamstick dipole setup.

As far as other equipment goes, it looks like I'm very well set up. My biggest concern right now is battery capacity. The limiting factor for digital operations now seems to be my laptop battery. Maybe it's time to head over to Amazon or eBay...

More later.

W8BYH out (and Coronavirus free)

08 March 2020

Yaesu FT-991A vs. Icom IC-7100

Right now I'm following an odd on-line discussion on QRZ.com regarding the Yaesu FT-991A. There's no small amount of FT-991A bashing going on. But what makes this discussion odd is that it's taking place on the 'Online Swapmeet' portion of the website, and it's the guy selling the radio who started the bashing!

Heck of a way to make a sale. It's almost like he really doesn't want to get rid of it.

A number of people in the discussion are comparing the FT-991A to the IC-7100. After some thought I figured that was a fair comparison. These radios offer very equivalent feature sets, and are based on the same technology. So why is one almost 50% more expensive than the other? Honestly, I can't really say for sure, but I can speculate...

But first, let's do a quick comparison (because of the limitations of Google's Blogger platform I can't format for a side-by-side setup, so we'll just stack the comparisons):

Yaesu FT-991A
  • 32-bit DSP
  • Triple conversion super heterodyne on SSB/CW/AM
  • Double conversion super heterodyne on FM
  • 100 watts HF/50 watts VHF/35 watts UHF
  • C4FM digital mode on VHF & UHF
  • 3kHz roofing filter
  • TXCO
  • Built-in sound card interface (for HF digital modes)
  • Built-in antenna tuner
  • Real time band scope
  • Color touch screen display
  • Hybrid touch screen & conventional button interfaces
  • USB interface

Icom IC-7100 (major differences with the FT-991A highlighted)
  • 32 bit DSP (in fact, it looks like Icom & Yaesu use the same Texas Instruments chip in this application)
  • Triple conversion super heterodyne receiver on SSB/CW/AM
  • Double conversion super heterodyne on FM
  • 100 watts HF/50 watts VHF/35 watts UHF
  • DSTAR digital modes for VHF/UHF/HF
  • 3kHz roofing filter
  • TXCO
  • Built-in sound card interface (for HF digital modes)
  • NO antenna tuner
  • NO real-time band scope
  • B&W touch screen display
  • Hybrid touch screen & conventional button interfaces
  • USB interface
This is a comparison of the basic feature set, and based on what we see here I can spot some of the reasons for the price difference - the IC-7100 lacks an antenna tuner, a real-time band scope and only offers a black & white touch screen. Of course this accounts for much (but not all) of the price difference. Another chunk of the price difference is likely product age. The IC-7100 has been on the market for a few years longer than the FT-991A, and Amateur Radio manufacturers tend to slowly drop the price of their radios as their competitors introduce equivalent products and demand starts to sag. Plus, I honestly believe that IC-7100 sales were (and are) unfairly hurt by the non-conventional form factor.

But there's more to the comparison of these two radios than just the basic feature set. The big questions is, how do they work in the real world? Is one better than the other for my specific needs? From this perspective the answer is, both are good, neither is perfect, but one comes out the winner.

Before we move on I have to say that as basic ham radio both are very, very good. If all you need is a box that lets you speak and hear, either of these will do admirably.

Now lets fashion a scenario that fits the theme of this blog. I spend about 60% of my radio time on digital modes - usually one of three modes; Winlink, JS8CALL and MARS using the MS-DMT modem package. The other 40% of the time I spend on formal voice nets. I may play in a contest or two throughout the year, but my real focus these days is emergency communications. For the EMCOMM role I already have an excellent station radio - a MARS modified Icom IC-7300. What I need is a radio that can serve as a main rig back-up AND is fully functional in a deployed, or portable, mode. Having VHF and UHF on-board is desirable, but not absolutely essential.

When operating portable my main scenario, the one that I focus on, is emergency communications. Yes, yes, yes, that's a thinly veiled excuse to go to a park and 'play radio', but I'm serious about getting the mix of radio, antenna, power source, computer, and software right to support a real-world emergency communications scenario. Given that, there are enough small differences between the FT-991A and the IC-7100 that actually allow a winner to emerge. It all comes down to ease of use and some seemingly minor feature differences between radios.

First, the winner:

I've discussed the IC-7100 in the not-too-distant past, so I'll just say that in overall feature set and implementation the IC-7100 is the clear winner. While the FT-991A is no slouch, the IC-7100 races ahead with some characteristics that stand out when talking about emergency communications support in Georgia.

  • DSTAR. While I'm no big fan of FM digital modes, Georgia ARES has 'adopted' DSTAR as an FM digital standard and has actually seeded DSTAR repeaters across the state. Sure, I could handle this requirement with an HT, but having DSTAR built into the base radio makes life a little bit simpler
  • SD card compatibility. The IC-7100 has an SD card slot, and SD cards can be used to store configuration files, audio recordings, logs and other key data. But the real benefit of the SD card feature is the ability to distribute radio configuration files via radio (HF WinLink) to update other IC-7100's at remote locations, and without the use of the internet. The FT-991A does not have an SD card slot
  • Feature implementation. While both radios share a mostly equivalent feature set, the IC-7100 just does a better job. The combination of touch screen commands and physical buttons is better thought out (and laid out) than on the Yaesu. The command set makes more sense. It's just an easier radio to live with.
  • HF digital modes. This is where the IC-7100 shines. Icom just does a better job with its sound card configuration command set. As of this writing I have more experience running the FT-991A on digital modes (it's running  Winlink as I type this) so I understand the Yaesu digital mode command set as well as the next person. I have to maintain a 5-column 'cheat sheet' of digital mode settings for the FT-991A, so I know what menu settings to adjust for various digital modes. The IC-7100 doesn't require a 'cheat sheet'; there's really only one or two settings I have to remember. In addition, the Icom command set is better supported by many of the digital mode packages I run. In particular, the MARS MS-DMT software modem. MS-DMT is relatively simple to configure for use with the IC-7100, but does not work at all (in my experience) with the FT-991A. This is really a limitation of the software, but it is a real-world restriction that needs to be taken into consideration
However, it's not a perfect world. The IC-7100's display can best be described as 'adequate'. It's not the lack of snazzy color options that's the problem. It's the relatively low resolution of the dot matrix display. What could have been a crisp, clear character set with just a slight bump up in pixel count is instead rendered like the poorly formed characters on an old Atari game console. Space Invaders anyone? If Icom could do one thing to improve this radio it would be to incorporate a higher resolution display.

How about the lack of a real-time band scope? I have to admit, the band scope feature on the FT-991A is slick, and useful. I do miss it on the IC-7100. The Icom does have a band 'sweep' function that gives you a snapshot of what's happening on the band, but it's not real time and it's relatively crude by comparison. Useful? Yes. As good as the FT-991A? No, it's not even close. 

Is the lack of an internal tuner a real problem? While having a built-in tuner is a nice feature, my experience is that most tuners can only match 'almost resonant' antennas, say 3:1 or 4:1. In EMCOMM applications I might have to tune up some odd antenna installations and configurations, so I carry an external tuner anyway. I really don't miss an internal tuner.

Now, the second place finisher. Lost by a nose...

So what good things to I have to say about the FT-991A? Plenty. 

The build quality is excellent. It's a tough, rugged and compact beast. Yaesu knows how to pack a lot of technology into small packages and it shows with this radio. Although the menu options are complex, once you learn the 'system' it's easy to navigate around. Once you conquer the labyrinthine digital mode settings the Yaesu works fine on digital modes. Just have your cheat sheet handy. 

There's a lot of controversy on the web about how Yaesu 'hybridized' the touch screen display. I think the criticism is overblown. The digital display, while not super high resolution, is more than adequate enough to convey all the critical info in one glance, and the integration between the touchscreen and the manual buttons and knobs is well thought out.

And last, I've gotten more unsolicited "your audio's great" reports with the FT-991A than I have with any other radio. Yaesu knows SSB audio, and it shows.

Both radios will stay in my stable for the foreseeable future. But if a CAT 5 hurricane swept across south Georgia tomorrow and I was asked to deploy, it would be the IC-7100 that gets tossed in the truck.

W8BYH out

06 March 2020

A Radio

A few weeks ago we lost my father, James P. Haren. While at 91 his death was not unexpected, it did come suddenly, and his close family and friends are still mourning his loss.

As my sister and I were going through his few remaining belongings I spied a dusty old portable radio sitting on his closet shelf, and I told her, "I want that".

The radio is just an old GE SuperRadio, but to me it represents something special about Dad. Born in 1929, he grew up during the heyday of broadcast radio. Dad had no interest in Amateur Radio that I am aware of. He was a chemical engineer by trade and generally good with mechanical things, but I don't think he had much interest in electronics beyond being fascinated by consumer gadgets. Dad was a great one for gadgets.

But to the end, Dad loved listening to radio. I think it's because radio was closely associated with the milestone markers of his young life. It makes sense - he would have grown up listening to the classic radio shows of the era that were designed to capture the imaginations of millions of young boys. Shows like Dick Tracy, Death Valley Days, and Jack Armstrong, All American. He also came of age in the era when radio delivered the immediate news of all important national and world events - FDR's Fireside Chats and the nation's efforts to claw its way out of the Great Depression, the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, the Japanese brutality in Manchuria, the Nazi invasions of Poland and France, the events of December 7th, 1941, and the long, hard struggle for victory in WWII. And that news would have been delivered by some of the great voices in early radio news reporting, like Richard Harkness, H. V. Kaltenborn, Lowell Thomas, Edward R. Murrow, and William L. Shirer. I can only imagine what it must have been like as a young boy, sitting on the floor of his parent's living room on cold, snowy winter nights in Buffalo N.Y., listening to world events unfold via the soft warm glow of a tube radio. Dad was not much for nostalgia, so his occasional stories of listening to the radio while growing up led me to believe that he marked the experiences as something special and important in his childhood.

Later in life the family home was never without a radio. While both my parents loved TV - Walter Cronkite informed us, and Ed Sullivan entertained us - a radio was always close by. At some point Dad became fascinated with shortwave. This was triggered, I believe, by the gift of an old 1950's-era Grundig table-top receiver, presented to him by a close friend who was a German ex-pat. This great old radio (which I now own) has the dial marked out not just with frequencies, but also with locations. It hearkens back to the days when shortwave broadcasts were identified by the cities they originated from - 'Moscow', 'Berlin', 'London', 'New York', 'San Francisco', 'Tokyo'. In my mind's eye I can still see Dad laying on the floor of our family room in Ohio, fiddling with the tuning dial, trying to bring in the latest broadcast from the BBC World Service. He would have been around 50 years old at the time, but he was still just a little boy in his parent's living room, captivated by world events delivered through that magic glowing box.

But time and technology marches on and, ultimately, the transistor prevailed. There was always at least one portable AM/FM radio sitting on the kitchen counter. We lived in northwestern Ohio, just south of Toledo, and the radios seemed permanently parked on the frequency for WJR out of Detroit ('The Great Voice Of The Great Lakes'). That's how the familiar voice of WJR's longtime host J.P. McCarthy became one of my listening milestones. It seemed no matter where I was during my long Army career, coming home to Ohio meant tuning in to AM 760 and the familiar sound of J.P. McCarthy (and later, Paul W. Smith).

Dad was pretty agnostic in his choice of radios. Like I said, he was a gadget guy and he loved fiddling with technology. I remember seeing a Panasonic or two occupying that kitchen counter space, along with a Toshiba, and even a series of wind-up emergency radios (again, that 'gadget' thing). But eventually he settled on the GE SuperRadio series. He went through a couple of them, and the one I grabbed out of his closet is probably at least 15 years old. But it still works great, and it's still parked on AM 760. Looking at it triggers my own flood of radio memories. And so the cycle continues.

Thanks Dad.

W8BYH out