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Starting in the wonderful hobby of Amateur or HAM Radio can be daunting and challenging but can be very rewarding. Every week I look at a different aspect of the hobby, how you might fit in and get the very best from the 1000 hobbies that Amateur Radio represents. Note that this podcast started in 2011 as "What use is an F-call?".
Updated: 2 hours 8 min ago

Weaving radio into your life.

1 hour 10 min ago
Foundations of Amateur Radio

A great deal of energy is expended on the notion of operating portable. I've talked about this plenty of times. Issues like power, antennas, suitable radios, logging, transport and time of day all come to mind. Some activities are framed specifically as portable operations. Things like Summits On The Air, or SOTA, Parks On The Air, or POTA, World Wide Flora and Fauna, or WWFF. There's field days, portable contests and specific activities like the 2014 activation of FT5ZM on Amsterdam Island and the 2016 activation of VK0EK on Heard Island. I mention those last two specifically since I had the distinct pleasure of meeting those teams and had the opportunity to interview each amateur whilst enjoying a typical Aussie BBQ. I'll point out that no shrimps were thrown anywhere. You can find those interviews with FT5ZM and VK0EK on my website at vk6flab.com.

Each of these activities are framed in the context of the activity, as-in, you climb a mountain with a radio and then you make noise.

That's not the only way to go portable. One of my friends checks in to the weekly F-troop as a portable station most weeks. Glynn VK6PAW gets in his car, drives to some random location and participates from wherever he happens to be at the time. In doing so, the radio part of it, is the add-on between leaving home and arriving at a destination for a cup of coffee.

Charles NK8O works all over the United States. When he checks into F-troop, he's rarely in the same place two weeks in a row. In between work and sleep you'll find him activating a nearby park. He's been doing this for quite some time. While this is a POTA activity, he finds parks that fit into his life, rather than point at a park and make a specific trip there to activate it.

Before I continue, I'd like to mention that I'm not dismissing making a specific trip. Far from it. The point I'm making is that making any such trip is extra work. It's an added activity in your life. Whilst entirely enjoyable, there's plenty of times where that's just not possible.

Instead I'd like to look at this from the other side.

Both Glynn and Charles have a radio with them. Perhaps not all the time, but often enough that they can activate their station when they happen to be in a suitable location.

I've similarly put a radio into my luggage when going on a holiday. It might transpire that it stays there, or it might be that I happen to find a picnic table at the side of a water reservoir that happens to be in the shade and just begging to try a radio at.

In other words, if you have a radio handy, you can handily use it when the opportunity comes to pass.

So, what do you bring with you? If you're like Charles, you'll have a QRP radio, a Morse key, a battery and a wire antenna. Glynn has a vertical that lives in his car and the radio is bolted in.

For a while I had my radio permanently mounted in my car and I suspect that will return there in the not too distant future. It was removed for a service that involved the transmission being replaced after it failed after only a 140,000 km on the clock. Thankfully a fellow amateur had a spare car we could use, but I wasn't game to drill holes for an antenna and I'm pretty sure they were pretty happy about that.

The more I look at the activities that others report on, the more I have come to realise that the people who get on-air the most are the ones who have found a way to weave radio into their day-to-day life, rather than rely on specific amateur radio activities and plans.

I confess that I miss sitting by a local lake making noise or finding a random car park with shade that is just begging for someone, anyone, to turn on a radio and have a go.

So, how do you approach radio in your life, and how might you find ways to incorporate it into the gaps?

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

RF is all around us ... starting your own station frequency survey

Sat, 04/13/2024 - 12:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

As a self-proclaimed radio nerd I'm aware of the various amateur bands. Depending on your license, your familiarity will likely vary. I've never been on 6m for example, but I have a good working relationship with the 10m band.

Amateur bands aside, there's plenty of other activity across the radio spectrum. It occurred to me that I've never actually stopped to take note of what specifically I can hear from my own station. Think of it as a station frequency survey.

Obvious sources are AM and FM radio broadcasters. Then there's the aviation frequencies, the local control tower, arrival and departure frequencies as well as Perth airport ground on occasion. There's the ATIS, the Automatic Terminal Information Service. There was a time when I could hear various aviation non-directional beacons, or NDBs, that are near me, but many of them were switched off in 2016. I haven't yet found a current list of which of the 213 remaining navigation aids that form part of the Backup Navigation Network across Australia are still on the air.

As it happens, there's currently some horrendous noise on HF with several new potential sources that I have not yet identified, a pool pump, a bank of solar panels, plasma TV, you name it.

Staying with aviation, I've briefly played with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, better known as ADS-B, or ADSB, on 1090 MHz. If you have a PlutoSDR, I updated the dump1090 program to use Open Street Map several years ago. You can find it on my VK6FLAB GitHub page. If you want to see some very interesting visualisations for ADSB, have a look at the adsb.exposed website.

Further up the frequencies are things like 2.4 and 5 GHz Wi-Fi. In a previous life, before I was an amateur, I played with Ku-band satellite frequencies in the range between 12 to 18 GHz, specifically DVB-S, or Digital Video Broadcasting - Satellite.

While that's an impressive list of things, it leaves an awful lot of unexplored territory. For example, the local trains and public transit authority, the fire and emergency services, the volunteer bush fire brigades, water bombers and the like.

I've not even looked at local digital services like DVB-T, that's the terrestrial standard, or the local radio version, DAB+, or Digital Audio Broadcasting.

Then there's pagers, and countless marine services and channels, the ubiquitous CB frequencies and a couple of pirate ones, and global services like GPS, weather satellite and other Earth monitoring services.

Note that I'm specifically highlighting things that I can hear at my station, or more precisely, should be able to hear. I'm in the process of figuring out which particular tools I need to actually have a stab at hearing and decoding things like weather satellite.

I wouldn't be me if I didn't try this with my hands tied behind my back. I'm limiting myself to things I can hear using the antennas that I already have. I don't, well not at this stage, want to start building and installing more antennas, probably because in the not too distant future I plan to finally erect a replacement HF antenna, but that's a story for another day.

As for now, I'm plotting noise levels using a tool called rtl_power. I'm working on figuring out what extra noise has joined my environment. I'm also starting to make a concerted effort to document specifically what I've actually heard. Not so much a continuous log, more of a one-way log if you like, some might call it a shortwave listener log.

What RF sources have you heard in your shack and how many of them did you document?

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

It's all just text!

Sat, 04/06/2024 - 12:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

The other day I had an interesting exchange with a contest manager and it's not the first time I've had this dance. As you might know, pretty much every weekend marks at least one on-air amateur radio contest. Following rules set out by a contest the aim is to make contact or a QSO with stations, taking note of each, in a process called logging.

Using logging software is one way to keep track of who you talked to, a piece of paper is another. If your station is expecting to make less than a dozen contacts per hour, paper is a perfectly valid way of keeping track, but it's likely that most contests expect you to transcribe your scribbles into electronic form. Which electronic form is normally explicitly stated in the rules for that contest.

While I mention rules, you should check the rules for each contest you participate in. Rules change regularly, sometimes significantly, often subtly with little edge cases captured in updated requirements.

On the software side, using electronic logging, even transcribing your paper log, can get you to unexpected results. I participated in a local contest and logged with a tool I've used before, xlog.

Contests often specify that you must submit logs using something like Cabrillo or ADIF. There are contests that provide a web page where you're expected to paste or manually enter your contacts in some specific format.

Using xlog I exported into each of the available formats, Cabrillo, ADIF, Tab Separated Values or TSV and a format I've never heard of, EDI. The format, according to a VHF Handbook I read, Electronic Data Interchange, was recommended by the IARU Region 1 during a meeting of the VHF/UHF/Microwave committee in Vienna in 1998 and later endorsed by the Executive Committee.

The contest I participated in asked for logs in Excel, Word, ASCII text or the output of electronic logging programs. Based on that I opened up the Cabrillo file and noticed that the export was gibberish. It had entries that bore no relation to the actual contest log entries, so I set about fixing them, one line at a time, to ensure that what I was submitting was actually a true reflection of my log.

So, issue number one is that xlog does not appear to export Cabrillo or ADIF properly. The TSV and EDI files appear, at least at first glance, to have the correct information, and the xlog internal file also contains the correct information. Much food for head-scratching. I'm running the latest version, so I'll dig in further when I have a moment.

In any case, I received a lovely email from the contest manager who apologised for not being able to open up my submitted log because they didn't have access to anything that could open up a Cabrillo file. We exchanged a few emails and I eventually sent a Comma Separated Values, or CSV file, and my log was accepted.

What I discovered was that their computer was "helping" in typical unhelpful "Clippy" style, by refusing to open up a Cabrillo file, claiming that it didn't have software installed that could read it.

Which brings me to issue number two.

All these files, Cabrillo, ADIF, TSV, CSV, EDI, even xlog's internal file are all text files. You can open them up in any text editor, on any platform, even Windows, which for reasons only the developers at Microsoft understand, refuses to open a text file if it has the wrong file extension. This "helpful" aspect of the platform is extended into their email service, "Outlook.com" previously called "Hotmail", which refuses to download "unknown" files, like the Cabrillo file with a ".cbr" extension.

With the demise of Windows Notepad, another annoying aspect has been removed, that of line-endings. To signify the end of a line MacOS, Windows and Linux have different ideas on how to indicate that a line of text has come to an end. In Windows-land, and DOS before it, use Carriage Return followed by Linefeed. Unix, including Linux and FreeBSD use Linefeed only; OS X also uses Linefeed, but classic Macintosh used Carriage Return. In other words, if you open up a text file and it all runs into one big chunk of text, it's likely that line-endings are the cause.

It also means that you, and contest managers, can rename files with data in Cabrillo, ADIF, CSV, TSV, EDI and plenty of other formats like HTML, CSS, JS, JSON, XML and KML to something ending with "TXT" and open it in their nearest text editor. If this makes you giddy, a KMZ file is actually a ZIP file with a KML file inside, which is also true for several other file formats like DOCX to name one.

Of course, that doesn't fix the issues of broken exports like xlog appears to be doing, but at least it gets everyone on the same page.

Word of caution. In most of these files individual characters matter. Removing an innocuous space or quote might completely corrupt the file for software that is written for that file format. So, tread carefully when you're editing.

What other data wrangling issues have you come across?

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

Are you up for a global party?

Sat, 03/30/2024 - 12:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

Did you know that on the 18th of April, 1925 a group of radio amateurs had a meeting in Paris? During that meeting they formed an organisation that still exists today. Before I get into that, let me share a list of names.

- Wireless Institute of Australia - Radio Amateurs of Canada - Radio Society of Great Britain - Vereniging voor Experimenteel Radio Onderzoek in Nederland or if you don't speak Dutch, can't imagine why, the Association for Experimental Radio Research in the Netherlands, - Deutscher Amateur Radio Club, I'll let you figure out what that translates to, - American Radio Relay League

Language aside, one of these is not like the other.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, at a moment likely before either of us was born, Hiram, wanted to send a message from his amateur station in Hartford to a friend in Springfield. That's 26 miles, or less than half an hour up the road via I-91.

One minor problem.

At the time, in 1914, using amateur radio for anything beyond 20 miles or so was considered a miracle, so Hiram asked a mate at the halfway point in Windsor Locks to relay a message on his behalf. Soon after he convinced his local radio club in Hartford that building an organised network of stations to relay amateur radio messages was worth doing and the American Radio Relay League was born. Co-founded with radio experimenter Clarence Tuska, Hiram Percy Maxim became its first President. He held many callsigns, most recently W1AW.

At the time, longwave, the longer the better, was considered the pinnacle of communication technology. The airwaves were becoming crowded, so amateurs, in search of more space and always up for a challenge, started experimenting at the edges. The shortest wavelength available to amateurs at the time was the 200m band, or 1,500 kHz. In December 1921 the first successful transatlantic transmissions were achieved. Hundreds of North American amateurs were heard across Europe on 200m and several were heard in reply.

In a dance that continues to this day, new technology replacing old, spark gap transmitters were replaced by vacuum tubes and using those amateurs were able to use even shorter wavelengths. While technically illegal to operate on higher frequencies, the authorities put their fingers in their ears and let those crazy amateurs play on those useless bands.

This is a world without international prefixes, no VK, PA or G stations, so amateurs were forced to come up with their own system to indicate the continent and country.

This was clearly organised chaos at the edges of legality, in many countries amateur radio operation was actively discouraged or even illegal. Soon the same person who came up with the notion of the ARRL led the way and organised a meeting in Paris. That meeting, on the 18th of April, 1925 marks the forming of the IARU, the International Amateur Radio Union and as I said, it exists today.

That date, the 18th of April is globally, well at least in the amateur radio community, uh, well, small pockets of the amateur radio community, known as World Amateur Radio Day.

2024 marks the beginning of a year of celebration for the centenary of the organisation that brought together this global rag-tag group of enthusiast experimenters that we fondly refer to as our community.

The IARU theme for this year is: "A Century of Connections: Celebrating 100 years of Amateur Radio Innovation, Community, and Advocacy" and you're invited.

So, what types of activities are you planning, what kind of celebration do you have in mind, and who is bringing the birthday cake?

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

What's with all that lack of noise?

Sat, 03/23/2024 - 12:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

During the weekend I participated in a contest. Before you get all excited, it was only for a couple of hours over a few different sittings and while I had plenty of fun, of the eleven QRP, or low power, contacts I made, nine were on VHF and UHF, two were on 10m HF. Mind you, 3,200 and 3,500 km contacts are nothing to sneeze at.

It has been a while since I've actually been on HF, so long that it felt like turning on a new radio and getting used to it all over again. If you're not sure what I'm describing, let me elaborate. A new radio takes a few goes to calibrate your ear and brain to learn what you can expect to hear and work. On some radios if you can hear the other station, you can work them. On others, unless they're pegging the S-meter, you've got no chance. QRP adds an extra layer of challenge.

A few hours earlier I'd been discussing HF band conditions and one comment that stuck in my mind was that the bands appeared to be more quiet than normal. At the time, nobody could put a finger on why or how, but there appeared to be a general consensus that this was the case.

So when I tuned to 10m, after having switched off my beacon, which I promptly forgot to turn back on for 36 hours or so, I went hunting for stations to contact. I heard a few, but their signals were very weak. Noise levels were amazing, very quiet, but stations were very low down. I thought nothing of it, given the discussion we'd just had, and persisted and as I said, I made two contacts.

Since contacts were hard to come by, I started playing with another experiment I'm working on. Specifically I'm using something called USBip to connect to some USB devices across my network. The way it works is that you plug the devices, like a CAT cable and a USB sound-card into a Raspberry Pi, then using another computer, you can access those devices wirelessly as-if they're physically connected to the other computer. This is useful if you don't want to subject an expensive computer to any stray RF that might be coming in via a USB port. I've written some hot-plug support for this, so you can just connect and disconnect USB devices without needing to fiddle. You'll find the code on my github page.

Given that stations were few and far between and not staying in one place, I moved to a local AM broadcast station, so I could test the USBip sound-card link and all I heard was absolute garbage audio coming from that station. I turned on another radio and it too had the same rubbish audio. After a couple of hours fiddling with RF-Gain and still not getting anywhere I started searching online for an answer. One thread, 27 posts long, seemed to describe what I was hearing. Bill N8VUL supplied the answer: "Make sure AGC is on"

So, no. It wasn't, on either radio.

Why it was off on both radios I will never know. It did make me start exploring again just what other settings I have access to on my radio and what they sound like. Turns out that there's not a lot to be found that has any basis in fact. There were a lot of videos showing amateurs pushing lots of buttons uttering phrases like: "Can you hear the difference?" with nothing much materially changing.

The closest to something useful was a YouTube video by Doug N4HNH, called "ATT, IPO, [and] RF Gain" in which he shows some of the effects of each of those options on a Yaesu FT DX 5000. One thing I noticed is that the radio has a neat display that shows the signal path as it passes from a selected antenna through those options and more, highlighting which ones are in use.

I started hunting around to see if such a block diagram exists for my FT-857d. Unfortunately I didn't manage to find any such diagram, not even for another radio. The closest I got was the image on page 30 of the FT DX 5000 Series Operating Manual.

I did learn that the attenuator on my radio is 10 dB and it doesn't function on 2m and 70cm. As for the AGC, the user manual doesn't help much. It states that it's used to disable the Automatic Gain Control and normally it should be left on. There's some discussion around the interaction between the "RF Gain" knob and the AGC, but I must confess that finding useful examples of this managed to elude me.

At this point I have no idea what the difference is between the block diagram on the FT DX 5000 and my FT-857d, other than the obvious single antenna port and plenty of missing features. I find it surprising that for a radio that was introduced over 20 years ago, this kind of information appears to be lacking. Especially since it would help any new amateur operate their radio better and understand the impact of each particular setting on the signal that they were hearing.

If you know of any such resource, reach out, my address is cq@vk6flab.com

Meanwhile I'm going to spend some quality time with my radio and the manual and see what other hidden gems I can find and if you know me at all, you'll know that this isn't the first, second or even third time that I'm going through the manual of a radio that I've now owned for nearly as long as I've been an amateur.

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

The skyhook dilemma ...

Sat, 03/16/2024 - 12:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

Whenever I'm out in the bush in the process of erecting some or other wire contraption, uh, antenna, I cannot help but think of the iconic Australian rock band, Skyhooks, not for their glam rock inspired music, nor for their pure mathematics and computer science degree holding guitarist, but for their name.

In antenna erection, a skyhook is called for when you point at a spot in the sky and will into being an attachment point for the wire antenna in your hand. It's always in the perfect spot, holds any weight and of course it's made from unobtainium.

Absent a skyhook, there are other ways of hoisting an antenna into the air. A recent discussion revealed that in some places catapults and trebuchets are frowned upon, if not outright illegal. Can't imagine why. Depending on their size, they may be difficult to transport.

In the same vein, antenna launchers, lightly camouflaged spud guns, are essentially a gas pressurised tube, causing a projectile to be launched by releasing a valve. Those too are pretty restricted and for good reason.

Fortunately there are plenty of other ways of getting things to be in the right place.

Let's explore.

One option is to bring along a pole, made from whatever is at hand, a multi-element fibreglass pole made by Spiderbeam, mine is 12m long, has always worked for me, though I will confess that I have managed to break one. It did take a 135 degree bend in the tip to achieve that. I'll hasten to add, I didn't set out to do that. Previously it had easily sustained 90 degree abuse in heavy wind. I purchased a new one. I've used it for years. It's not cheap, but it works.

Alternatives, much less strong, are using fishing rods or much less flexible, aluminium tubes, pool cleaning extension poles, even painters poles and at a pinch, lengths of wood screwed together, or if you're a Scout, logs lashed into some contraption.

Then there's using the nearby landscape.

Getting a wire into a tree is an activity that's fun for young and old. Not so much for the person attempting it. Often this starts with throwing things at the tree. You might find a spanner, tie it to a rope and whirl it around, letting go at just the right moment to get it to where you're going. This is not a safe activity and not recommended away from emergency medical assistance, you've been warned.

This graduates to using things like a monkey's fist knot. I was given a brightly coloured one, lovingly hand crafted by Alan VK6PWD. It's reminiscent of a Sea Scout woggle knot. Truth be told, it's too beautiful to use, or rather risk losing. Tie it to a line and whirl and throw. Then there's the arborist throw bag, same deal.

Each of these whirling activities are fraught. Mainly because you need to strike a balance between the strength of the line, strong enough to be chucked, uh, thrown, but weak enough that you can break it if it gets caught and believe me, it will.

There's the option of co-opting your dog's ball launcher. Tie a rope to the ball and hurl. Success depends on how quick your dog is in catching low flying tennis balls.

The last time I went fishing was in 2003 when I used a string and a safety pin to catch an, admittedly, tiny fish at Harry's Hole using a tiny piece of bread, took all of 5 minutes. That said, I have a new fishing rod, well, it was new when I purchased it, but now it's a couple of years old. It was the absolute cheapest one I could find. I also bought a box of sinkers.

Purchased on the advice of Bob VK6POP, I've used that rod many times to launch a sinker at a nearby tree and used it to pull through some line and then an antenna. It's still a balance between using a fishing line that's strong enough to handle the weight of a sinker and weak enough to break when you want to. The sinker needs to be just the right weight too. Too light and you'll launch it at the right branch where it will stay for the rest of the life of the tree. Too heavy and it will end up somewhere in the bush, never to be found. Grey sinkers tend to vanish in the grass, so if you can find it, look for something nice and bright, fluorescent is best. In a pinch you can use a couple of sinkers, like when you've run out, but in my experience they tend to wrap themselves around a branch.

Of course you could also just climb into a tree, or hire a cherry picker, but I'm not that flexible, either in my joints or wallet, so those options don't do it for me.

If you have a friendly arborist nearby, there's no shame in paying them to attach a pulley to the required branch in your backyard. Just make sure that the line you use on the pulley cannot escape the groove and get jammed between the wheel and the cheek, don't ask me how I know.

So, what ways do you use to summon a skyhook and does it include a Siberian jukebox?

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

Technology at its finest ...

Sat, 03/09/2024 - 11:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

So, the 19th of February 2024 came and went. As it was, my day started with the highest minimum that month, 27.5 degrees Celsius, that's the minimum overnight temperature. The maximum that day here in Perth, Western Australia was 42.3 degrees. The day before was the highest maximum for the month, 42.9. If you're not sure, that's over 109 in Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit's scale.

That same day the Australian regulator, the ACMA, launched a new era in Amateur Radio. Moving from personal amateur licenses we legally became part of a class license regime. We have the option to hand our license back and get a refund, but the cautious side of me prevailed and I've not yet handed back my license, since it's currently the only proof that my callsign is valid, the one issued to me in December 2010.

I contacted the ACMA to ask about this and was told that they were having display issues with their system and was sent an image showing both my callsigns and email address. I'm not saying that I don't trust the person sending this to me, but I'm fairly sure that "but your honour, it was in an email" isn't going to cut it if push comes to shove. Curiously my name appears to be missing, showing the word "Blank" instead. Their IT team has been working on displaying F-calls for weeks now. I mean, seriously, these were first issued in 2005. Do we really need to spell this out?

The ACMA continues to actively encourage amateurs to hand in their license and points out that any delay in doing so will reduce the amount that may be due. It also points at Schedule 4, Part 2 subclause (7)(1)(d) of the Radiocommunications (Amateur Stations) Class Licence 2023, to assure me that my callsign is mine and mine alone, irrespective of what's in the register. It goes on to say that the letter they sent back in January, the one they had to resend, since they got my callsign details wrong, explained that I could hand back my license and that my ability to operate hinged on my qualification, not my callsign.

Here's the rub. Let's say that I'm qualified and that the letter I have proves it. I am required to identify myself on-air, the regulations say so. This means that in order for me to claim that I am who I say I am, there needs to be a register with that callsign. Apparently I'm in the register, but nobody other than the regulator can prove that.

One thing that appears to be missing is a solid understanding that the register of callsigns is used by the amateur community to determine if a callsign heard on-air is assigned or not. I mean, I could call myself VK6EEN and without the register who's to say that it's mine?

It's not confidence inspiring to say the least.

Then there's the register itself. There's an online component, which you can use to search for a callsign. As I said, mine isn't visible, neither is any other four letter F-call. As a test, I've been scrolling, one page at a time, for the past hour, to get to VK6F, starting at VK6A, to see if it shows up, but I'm not holding my breath. For some reason the developers who built this appear incapable of rendering a simple table in anything less than 36 seconds per page, so much so that Chrome thinks that the page has crashed and offers to kill it, every time.

Funnily enough, if you extract the URL from within the page and copy it, you can download all 176 pages for VK6 callsigns in less time than it took me to write this sentence. Unsurprisingly, F-calls are not there. Did I mention that this software, released a month ago, is already using depreciated features in my current web browser, which came out a week before the new register went live?

It gets better.

If you actually want to manage your callsign, you need to create an account on the regulator's portal, called ACMA Assist. When you load the ACMA Assist URL and click the "Sign up or log in" button, 134 different URLs from all over the Internet are hit, across 34 different domains, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Markmonitor, Monsido, several content, font, icon and javascript libraries, and plenty more. This is a Government website, requiring that I authenticate to it, and to do that, I'm required to provide more identity documents than the tax department needs and wait for it, authentication is outsourced to some random domain, so you're entering your details into a third-party service.

You have the choice of using the Government identity provider, one that requires a mobile phone and an app, or use a Government owned company that prefers a mobile and a different app, but offers access via a website on yet another domain.

Now it gets funky. If you pick "driver's license", you'll discover that everything that's on your license is information that the form wants. So anyone with a photo of your license can sign up and identify as you, like the chemist who required a photocopy of it so you could buy Sudafed for your debilitating hay fever, because instead, you might use it to create methamphetamine, or the nightclub that required it so you could enter the venue because of course they do, or the telecommunications company that provided access to your details during a recent hack.

Just so we're clear here. I'm now required to validate my identity to access a callsign that is already in the database, already has my email address linked to it and is for an amateur license that I already have been in possession of and paid for since 2010. Never mind that I used to email the regulator to have them issue an invoice that I paid for via credit card, no authentication at all, and that was for a personal license, issued specifically to me.

We'll also ignore that if you signed up with ACMA Assist a year ago, you don't need to validate, not then, not now.

Speaking of email. The ACMA has just sent me one telling me that I can request and fill in a form and email or fax it to them to update my records instead. That's interesting, but what about the privacy implications of tracking by the worlds mega corporations on a Government site or even the security theatre for something that according to the regulator isn't even my permission to operate?

I'm all for giving the regulator the benefit of doubt, but if this is the future of Amateur Radio Licensing in Australia, I'm beginning to wonder just which Wild West Orwellian landscape I stepped into and I'm asking myself is this the best that our limited tax payer dollars can achieve?

If you want to see this for yourself, open up your browser, press F12 and have a look at the network connection tab while you visit the ACMA Assist portal.

Finally, I have one question.

Why are our so-called representative bodies, the WIA and RASA, not jumping up and down about this?

Apparently,

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

The Art of finding an operating location

Sat, 03/02/2024 - 11:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

When you operate your station portable, either for fun, or for points, you might be surprised to learn that getting on air and making noise isn't quite as simple as bringing a radio and turning it on.

Aside from the need for a reliable power supply, batteries, generator, solar panels, or a magic mains socket, there is the requirement for bringing enough gear to get on air, but not so much that setting up takes days, or even hours.

The decisions you make are influenced by where you decide to operate from. If you want to stay in your car, the location is not nearly as influential as when you decide to find a park where you want to have some fun.

Finding a location is not a trivial process. If you only plan to get on air for an hour to activate a park, you pretty much get what you find, but if you plan to be on air during a contest for the day, other things start to come into focus. For example, what are the toilet facilities like, are we digging a hole, or is there a public facility nearby?

Depending on the time of year, the temperature and weather will influence your choice. For reasons I'm still unsure about, most of the contests in Australia are in the middle of summer, so wearing long sleeves, sunscreen and a hat is the starting point for your adventure. Sitting in the midday sun for any period of time, absent a breeze is not fun, so shade becomes a requirement, not a nice to have. Mind you, at least we don't need to contend with meters of snow, well, not where I am. In other words, what works for me might not work for you.

Finding locations is tricky. You can drive around, consult satellite maps, look for desirable attributes and still be rudely surprised when you get to the point of turning on your gear.

One of the best lessons I learnt was operating from my car during a contest that awarded points for operating in as many different locations as possible. I used a satellite map to find a location within each boundary and then drove from point to point. If I recall, I set-up in over 30 locations across a 48 hour period. It taught me a great deal about discovering high voltage power lines on a satellite map, the impact of trains on your HF radio, the difference that geology has on your antenna and what a safe location looks like and what the typical hallmarks are for a scary one.

My most recent discovery tool is a public toilet map. It's not perfect, the user interface is horrid and for some reason it needs to navigate from the Timor Sea to each toilet, but those issues aside, it does help eliminate locations that lack facilities.

I am in the process of cross referencing the Parks On The Air map with the Toilet map to see if there are some nearby parks that have shade, a loo and the opportunity to park nearby to reduce the amount of lugging required for the gear we intend to bring to the next field day.

So, what are your tips for finding a place to operate? What kinds of things have you learnt that influence what choices you make?

Before I go, one pro-tip. Keep a record of where you actually operate and whilst you're at it, what you used, and not. You can thank me later.

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

Getting things done .. or not.

Sat, 02/24/2024 - 11:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

Have you ever had a day when nothing you started actually got anywhere? I've had a fortnight like that. Several weeks ago I wrote a couple of articles about emergency communications and its tenuous relationship with our hobby. As a result I managed to get a week ahead of myself and started using that week to do some long overdue analysis of the WSPR or Weak Signal Propagation Reporter data set. I've started this process several times and I finally had a whole fortnight to come to grips with 6.7 billion rows of data. Spoiler alert, it hasn't happened yet.

The data contains a record of every reception report uploaded to WSPRnet.org since Tuesday 11 March 2008 at 22:02 UTC. It's published in compressed comma separated value text files and after previously spending weeks of wrangling I managed to convert each one into an sqlite3 database. This wrangling was required because some amateurs used commas in their callsigns or grid squares, or backslashes, or both, and SQLite import isn't smart enough to deal with this. After doing this conversion, I could actually query 191 different databases. I could collect the results and three weeks later I'd have an answer, just in time to download the next month of data.

Garth VK2TTY suggested that I look into parquet as an alternative. No joke, This Changed My Life. I managed to convert all the compressed CSV files to parquet, a process that took a day, rather than a week with SQLite, and then I could start playing. If you're going to do this yourself, make sure you have a big empty hard disk. After a few false starts, the report that previously took three weeks, returned in three hours, and if we're getting technical, since I know this will make at least somebody laugh, the parquet files are stored on a USB drive connected to an iMac that has the directory mounted via sshfs to a virtual Linux desktop machine that's running the duckdb binary inside a Docker container running on a different virtual Docker machine. If you're keeping track, the database travels across USB via two SSHFS mounts to duckdb and it still only takes three hours. So, impressed doesn't even begin to describe my elation. If you're asking "why?" - the answer is that I don't run untrusted binary executables on my host machine.

This allowed me to start doing what-if queries when I discovered a fun issue. A chart I generated with minimum, average and maximum power levels over time showed that there was at least one station that was claiming that it was transmitting with 103 dBm. For context, that's multiple times the power of HAARP, the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program which in 2012 was the most powerful shortwave station using "only" 95.5 dBm, or 3,600 kilowatts, and only 2 dBm shy of the 105 dBm or 32 megawatts used by AN/FPS-85, part of the US Space Force's Space Surveillance Network, able to track a basketball-sized object 41,000 km from Earth.

In other words, 103 dBm is less of a whisper and more of a roar. Funnily enough, not every receiver on the planet reported these transmissions, but more than one did, so the issue is at the transmitter. Unfortunately, when I started looking for reports using more than 60 dBm, there were plenty to choose from, over 18 thousand. While that's less than 0.0003%, it made me wonder how much of the data is dirty and what should I do about it?

There's other examples of dirty data. My beacon has been reported on 24 MHz, which is odd, since my licence conditions do not permit me to use that band. Odder still is that several other beacons, normally on 28 MHz like me, were also reported on 24 MHz by the same station. How often does that happen?

I've previously reported the missing data from the hybrid solar eclipse in 2023, just under two hours and 12 minutes before the eclipse and the 38 minutes following it was missing. I've not yet checked to see if it magically reappeared.

Then there's the faulty decodes. I've talked about this before. Different WSPR versions are better or worse at decoding and the point at which it breaks down varies. In other words, some decoded data is inevitably wrong.

I have previously charted activated grid squares. Apparently, all of Earth, yes, all of it, has at one time or another been used both as a transmission or reception site. Including point Nemo, the top of Mount Everest, all of the arctic and antarctic and plenty more out of the way places, like say the Surveyor Generals Corner located in the Ngaanyatjarraku shire - look it up. Interesting patterns emerge when you split activations down per band. It's not clear if those are decoding artefacts or man made claims.

I've asked the HamSci community for guidance, since dropping incorrect data on the floor doesn't seem to be the right way to go about things, and whilst correcting data seems obvious, what do you change it to and how do you know what's correct?

So, no progress to show for two weeks of work and barely enough to whet your appetite to get on air and make some noise.

Some days are like that.

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

Writing to the regulator about amateur beacon and repeater licenses.

Sat, 02/17/2024 - 11:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

A few weeks ago I discovered that the regulations for amateur radio in Australia had some definitions that caused me to wonder if 2,312 amateurs in VK, me among them, had been operating illegally?

Specifically it appeared that using a WSPR or Weak Signal Propagation Reporter transmitter of any kind, both computer controlled and stand-alone beacons, was contrary to what was permitted in the rules, since in Australia an "amateur beacon station" means a station in the amateur service that is used principally for the purpose of identifying propagation conditions.

The rules go on to say that you must have a specific beacon license and not having one is not permitted.

I suggested that it was time to send a letter to the regulator, seeking clarification.

Well, let me tell you, that set a cat among the pigeons, not at the regulator, but within the amateur community. Between posting a draft of my proposed email to a local mailing list before sending it to the regulator, and publishing my article, I received responses that ranged from "let sleeping dogs lie", "you are now on their radar", "you will be prosecuted because you admitted to breaking the rules", "carry on and ignore the rules because I am", and plenty more in that same vein.

There were two amateurs that indicated curiosity about what the response might be while pointing out that none of this was legally binding since it hadn't been tested in court.

I also discussed the matter on my weekly net and I learnt that DMR hotspots come in a duplex version, meaning that what you transmit into the hotspot is also transmitted by the hotspot on RF whilst sending it to the Internet. If you've been paying attention, you'll notice that this fits the definition of an "amateur repeater station", which also requires a specific license.

I received a prompt reply from the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the ACMA, the Australian regulator. Here's what the regulator had to say in response to my query:

"I can confirm that you can continue to operate your WSPR beacon and Duplex Hotspot as described without requiring an Amateur Beacon or repeater licence."

It goes on the say:

"Operation of these types of amateur equipment is permitted under the current amateur non assigned arrangements and as such will continue to be permitted under the class licence arrangements."

As a result, if you've been listening to WSPR on 10m, you'll have discovered that my 10 dBm beacon went back on the air 45 minutes after receiving this information. The letter confirms that both WSPR and Duplex hotspots have previously been, and will continue to be, allowed under the new rules from the 19th of February 2024 when they come into effect.

The final paragraph from the regulator sets out the boundaries of where the rules apply. It says:

"The definitions in the Interpretation Determination are broad definitions of amateur repeaters and beacons. For the purposes of amateur licensing the ACMA only considers apparatus assigned licence services, where individual frequency coordination is carried out and specific licences are issued, to be amateur repeaters and beacons."

In my opinion this is significant because you only need to apply for a separate amateur beacon or repeater license in very specific circumstances related to frequency coordination. It makes me wonder if the local beacon operators require an ongoing license for all of their beacons or not.

What I learnt from this process is that there is a high level of fear in the amateur community towards the regulator. I do not know where this originates, since I've interacted with the regulator on dozens of occasions since obtaining my amateur license in 2010 and in every case the response was courteous and informative. When the response wasn't what I expected I replied asking for extra clarification and received it. This enquiry was no different.

Going back through decades of old publications I've previously seen letters between the community and the regulator and I have yet to see anything that warrants the level of fear that appears to permeate our community.

So, why are we afraid of the regulator and why do we keep spreading that fear to anyone within propagation range? What have they ever done to you?

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

What is amateur radio as an emergency response?

Sat, 02/10/2024 - 11:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

I recently discussed some of the notions of amateur radio as emergency response. The idea that you might jump into the breach and be a hero is appealing and often celebrated.

The American Radio Relay League, or ARRL, proudly tells the story of two amateur radio emergency communication events. One, of a person who fell in their bathroom and happened to have a handheld radio that they used to contact another amateur who contacted emergency services. The story goes on to say that being part of the Amateur Radio Emergency Services or ARES had taught the amateurs the ITU phonetic alphabet, as-if that's not a requirement for getting your amateur license. Then there's the story of two teenagers who were critically injured in a remote area and amateur radio rescued them due to a contact with a random local amateur. Never mind that there was a local off-duty EMT who actually stabilised the patients.

While you might point at this as "amateur radio to the rescue", to me this is a case of people attempting to make the story about amateur radio. If the person in the bathroom happened to have a mobile phone nearby, the story would not have even made the nightly news and if the people in the remote area had actually prepared properly, they'd have had an emergency position-indicating radiobeacon or EPIRB and a satellite phone, rather than accidentally bumping into a random radio amateur.

Moving on. Have you ever noticed that your mobile phone stops working after a couple of hours during a power outage? It's because mobile phone towers run on batteries that depending on load might last up to 12 hours, often much less than that, anywhere from down when the power goes out to 3 hours until the batteries fail. Note that I'm not talking about the battery in your phone, I'm talking about the ones in the tower serving your phone.

I mentioned previously that there was a network outage affecting 40% of the Australian population. The get-out-of jail card was that the rest of the population still had mobile, landline and internet connectivity. What would happen if the other network operator also went down?

Is there a place for amateur radio in those scenarios?

Let's explore. If all mobile, telephone and internet networks were down, what would that look like? Could you call an ambulance or the fire department using amateur radio? Who would you talk to, on what frequency and on which radio would they be listening? Would you set up your portable shack in the local hospital or fire station? Would ambulances and fire services be able to coordinate during such an outage, or would you have your local amateur club ride-along on every ambulance and fire truck?

What does such a system look like in actuality? Has there been any planning or training for this? Are there refresher courses and special certifications? Does your local community have anything like this in place, or are you starting from scratch?

During widespread and long lasting fire emergencies in Australia, radio amateurs have acted as emergency services radio operators. There is at least one amateur club where, years ago, the members underwent special training with the local State Emergency Services to learn their language and procedures, just in case it becomes short staffed when an actual emergency occurs.

I've often said that doing contests is a good way to learn how best to operate your station and how to work in adverse environments with lots of interference, man-made or otherwise. The reality is that it's more likely than not that you'll be using a line-of-sight FM radio in the emergency services communications bunker than sitting in the rubble of your shack using HF with a wire antenna running off battery trying to get someone, anyone, to help you and your community.

There are official amateur radio emergency organisations, WICEN in Australia, ARES and RACES in the United States. Much is made by these organisations about joining and training, but very little in the way of actual emergency response. Is that a marketing issue, or are these types of organisations obsolete and waiting to be disbanded?

My point is this.

If amateur radio is really a service as the WIA states, "A Trusted Partner in Emergency Response", or as the ARRL puts it, "When All Else Fails", even making that a registered trademark, where is the evidence of their activity, where are the annual reports, the after action lessons learnt, the inter-team competitions, the talks at local clubs, the league tables of emergencies handled, lives saved and babies born?

To give you insight into just how broken this is, any licensed amateur can become a member of ARES, but you can only read their newsletter if you're a member of the ARRL. In Australia, for a while, the WIA offered a course for Public Safety Training for Radio Amateurs, but only to amateurs with an Advanced license, which I discovered after spending $633.92 to print out, collate and bind the 973 pages of course material, as-if those of a lesser amateur radio qualification somehow were less able to read a map, operate communications equipment, follow defined occupational health and safety policies and procedures, work effectively in a public safety organisation, as part of a team, or in an emergency operations centre.

So, what's your plan for providing amateur radio as a service?

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

What is the right mode for emergency communications?

Sat, 02/03/2024 - 11:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

Amateur radio is an activity that falls between two camps, those who think of it as a service and those who approach it as a hobby.

I think that the notion of amateur radio as a service is often repeated, but in my time as part of this community, I've seen little evidence of actual service. That said, the idea of amateur radio as a service is often linked to emergency communications, for example, a phrase used by the Wireless Institute of Australia is "Amateur Radio - A Trusted Partner in Emergency Response" on a page outlining the long and fabled history of our hobby in service to the community in times of emergency, mind you, none of them in the past decade.

If we look at the idea of amateur radio as an emergency response, what does that look like today and how might we best be of service?

The question that prompted this discussion centred around the best mode to use for emergency communications and was presented in the context of a tool that links HF radio with email, but is that really the best way to communicate in an emergency?

I mean, picture this, you're on a boat in the middle of the ocean, it's the small hours of the morning, you're asleep, and your boat just sailed into a submerged container and now you're sinking, so the first thing you do is, fire up your laptop, your radio, and link the two to send an email over HF to get help?

Alternatively, your community has just been hit by a natural disaster and the power grid went down, and the first thing you do is use as much battery hungry complex technology as possible to get the word out?

So, until we can send email or a short message directly from our amateur radio transceiver, and I have no doubt that some bright spark is working on that, there are better ways to make contact in case of an emergency.

From a mode perspective, at the bottom of the pile is Morse code. I say bottom, not because it's a poor way of communicating, but it doesn't require much in order to get working. You could essentially use a car battery and splatter your emergency communications around. One downside is that you'd need to learn Morse code and while you're in the middle of an emergency is probably not the best time.

If you're on a sinking boat in the middle of the ocean, you're likely going to use a HF radio, or an emergency beacon, or even a satellite phone, but if you're on land, dry or not, and if you're not an amateur, your best bet is to find a 27 MHz AM Citizen's Band radio, so you can make enough noise to have people come and find you.

The reality, more likely than not, is that emergency services are outside the danger zone waiting for authorities to permit entry.

It should be clear by now that there are several levels of emergency communications before we get to amateur radio. That said, if you have an amateur radio, then you're likely going to use voice communications over SSB on HF or FM on VHF or UHF.

Now you might ask about communications going the other way, from outside the emergency zone, where power and sunshine are plentiful, where you can use a computer without issues. Only thing is that if it's all peaches, why are you attempting to link your radio to HF when on the balance of probability there's a mobile phone sitting in your pocket?

A couple of months ago there was a 12 hour network outage at one of the two main telephone networks affecting nearly 40% of the population of Australia. It was recently revealed that during that time almost 2,700 people could not call emergency services on either their mobile or land-line, let alone use the Internet.

You could argue that this is an actual emergency, but is amateur radio really the vehicle for making contact? I mean, you're trying to call emergency services, your phone isn't working, so rather than use a telephone on another network, you go and find your nearest radio amateur and ask them to call for an ambulance, on their HF radio?

Where does this leave us?

In my opinion, the notion that your shack is going to be used for emergency response is fanciful. That's not to say that there isn't a place for radio amateurs. Far from it.

If you really want to be of service, learn how to operate your radio well, make a plan to work through if you hear a distress call while you monitor emergency HF frequencies, visit the local emergency services to see if they offer training for radio amateurs and make yourself available in case of emergency and you're more likely to be of service than if you sat in your shack polishing your valves.

If you're so inclined, planning for the next emergency, start asking questions. Find out what the plans are for your emergency AM broadcast network, learn how things might break and perhaps then you might consider amateur radio as a service to the community, just not in the way you might have thought.

Next time I'll explore the reality of amateur radio as an emergency response.

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

What is a repeater or a beacon ... really?

Sat, 01/27/2024 - 11:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

The other day I came across an amateur who expressed concern that someone was using a frequency set aside for repeater use with their hotspot. Band plan issues aside, and you are encouraged to send an email to cq@vk6flab.com with the link to the official band plan that applies to your DX entity, in my experience it's not unusual for an amateur who is configuring their so-called hotspot to use such a frequency.

While you might be familiar with the concept of a mobile phone hotspot that allows you to connect a computer through your phone to the Internet, in this case we're talking about an amateur radio hotspot. Similar in that it allows you to connect through the device to the Internet, but different in that this is essentially a device that connects radios to the Internet, and yes, if we're being pedantic then computers and mobile phones also have radio, well spotted.

Anyway, an amateur radio hotspot is a radio with an Internet connection and in that it's much like a modern repeater. Often they use low transmit power, have limited range within a building or vehicle and because of that are hardly "unattended". That said, if you connect a more effective antenna and an amplifier, you could make such a device into a full blown repeater. In other words, the line between hotspot and repeater is likely in the eye of the beholder.

Given that the regulator in many countries requires a license for operating a repeater, or a beacon, I wondered what the official definition of a repeater was, so I went looking. Note that this applies to Australia only, but you'll find the journey illuminating I'm sure.

The current "Radiocommunications Licence Conditions (Apparatus Licence) Determination 2015" does not have either the word repeater or beacon.

The new "Radiocommunications (Amateur Stations) Class Licence 2023" which comes into effect on the 19th of February 2024 uses both repeater and beacon several times but does not define what they are. It has an interpretation section with a note that lists both "amateur repeater station" and "amateur beacon station" and states that the regulator can define terms under section 64(1) of its own act.

The "Australian Communications and Media Authority Act 2005" section 64(1) states that "The ACMA may make a written determination defining 1 or more expressions used in specified instruments, being instruments that are made by the ACMA under 1 or more specified laws of the Commonwealth." It should come as no surprise that neither repeater nor beacon appears in this document.

I then thought to go sideways and search the "Register of Radiocommunications Licences" for a repeater license. It reveals a PDF for a license with all manner of detail, frequencies, power levels, location, antenna type, etc. for a license, but no definition of what a repeater is.

I then looked at the 481 pages of the "Radiocommunications Act 1992". It uses both beacon and repeater. Unfortunately beacon is in relation to the operation of lighthouses, lightships, beacons or buoys. Repeater is in relation to two or more digital radio multiplex transmitters.

I then searched through the "Federal Register of Legislation" for the phrase "amateur beacon station". It returns 27 results of which 9 are in force. I downloaded all 9, including any explanatory text if it was available. In all, 340 pages of legal documents.

Finally we have progress. In the "Radiocommunications (Interpretation) Determination 2015" we find the following definitions:

"amateur beacon station" means a station in the amateur service that is used principally for the purpose of identifying propagation conditions.

"amateur repeater station" means a station established at a fixed location: (a) for the reception of radio signals from amateur stations; and (b) for the automatic retransmission of those signals by radio.

So, if your hotspot is in a vehicle it's not a repeater, but if you have it sitting in your shack, it is.

Similarly, apparently, my 10 dBm WSPR transmitter, which I use solely for the purpose of identifying propagation conditions, is a beacon. Apparently if you have your computer controlling your radio using WSPR, that's a beacon too. You can apparently apply for a license and pay the regulator for the privilege, the price of which went up by 510% according to their own documentation from $29 to $177, no idea if that's a once off or an annual charge.

So, now we have a situation where, apparently, the rules state that I'm not permitted to use WSPR without a beacon license. In fact, the "Explanatory Statement to the amateur class licensing reform instruments" explicitly states that "Subsection 13(2) prohibits the operation of an amateur station for specified purposes, including for the purpose of obtaining a financial gain or reward. The subsection also prohibits the operation of an amateur beacon station or an amateur repeater station under the Amateur Stations Class Licence, and, subject to subsection (3), the transmission of an encoded signal to obscure the meaning of the signal."

I've just hit send on a letter to the regulator asking for clarification. Perhaps you should write one too.

I've also just switched off my WSPR transmitter and if you're one of the 2,312 amateurs who made a WSPR transmission last year in Australia, perhaps you should too.

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

New arrangements for Australian Amateur Radio

Sat, 01/20/2024 - 11:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

From the 19th of February 2024, the ACMA, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the regulator, is modifying the rules for amateur radio in Australia by moving to an amateur class license where all amateurs will operate under the same license instead of under an individual one.

You must be qualified to operate under the new class license and all currently licensed radio amateurs should now have been issued with a recognition certificate for their current qualification level.

Keep this certificate safe, it authorises you to operate as an amateur and shows which callsigns you currently hold. I've just received a revision that now correctly identifies my callsign VK6FLAB as a four-letter callsign, rather than three-letters which caused concern over the longevity of my call.

There's no annual charge to operate as an amateur, no charge to keep a callsign, and no charge to do an exam, however, if you operate a repeater or beacon, you'll continue to require a transmitter license. There are once-off charges for applications to consider and issue recognition certificates and callsigns but those are not new.

The document that legally defines amateur radio in Australia, colloquially the LCD, is replaced by the Radiocommunications (Amateur Stations) Class Licence 2023. The regulator carefully states that: "To operate an amateur station under the amateur class licence, you must comply with the conditions within it", but doesn't clarify if those conditions have changed or not. External commentary claims they haven't, but it was completely re-written and it's difficult to compare the precise actual wording side-by-side.

This has happened before, for example, when the regulator introduced the Limited license in 1954, the Novice license in 1975, abolished Morse in 2004, and introduced the Foundation, Standard and Advanced licenses in 2005. It was replaced again in 2015 and has been revised since, most recently on the 17th of November 2021.

I suspect lawyers will find potentially unintended but material differences between documents, but to my knowledge, that investigation has not yet occurred. I think this is a perfect example of where the peak bodies claiming to represent amateur radio in Australia have a responsibility.

There are many rules around the who, how and where to conduct a qualification exam. For example, the regulator has decided that online or residential exams are not permitted, leaving venues, printed exams and postal delivery as an ongoing cost and concern.

There are plenty of questions left.

An amateur at Advanced level can hold a club station callsign but it appears that at a Foundation or Standard level you can no longer hold a club station license like VK6BSG and VK7HSD. You still need to log usage of a remote club station. Describing the requirements the regulator uses both "revise their arrangements" and "current arrangements will be retained" in the same paragraph, apparently contradicting itself.

The regulator will ask you every five years if you want to keep your callsign. This infers a system to contact you. What does that look like, how will it be maintained, are there requirements for keeping it current, does it need to have the location of your station, an email address, or just any means of contacting you, and is it public? The official register of radio communication licenses will no longer hold amateur licenses so it's unclear how you'll be able to contact another amateur, or how we'll be able to know who holds which callsigns at what level in which location and when a reminder is due. The details around the new callsign register are incomplete to say the least.

What does breaking the rules look like? With individual amateur licenses your ability to operate is directly linked to you and if found in breach, your license can be cancelled. Under a class license, your ability to operate hinges on knowledge that cannot be taken away.

The regulator publishes the relationship between some international amateur licenses and qualification levels in Australia and as an international visitor you can apparently operate in Australia for 365 days if your current license is recognised. After that, unless you hold a Harmonised Amateur Radio Examination Certificate or HAREC, you need to apply for a recognition certificate after either paying for recognised prior learning or passing an exam, even though you were already automatically recognised as having the appropriate qualifications when you entered the country. Does the list of recognised licenses get longer as more international amateurs pay for prior learning and if you leave the country and return, will the clock reset?

There's more. For example, the date that you got your US Technician license determines your recognition. Before 23 September 2016 you're recognised at an Australian Advanced level, after that at a Foundation level.

And finally, if I were an accredited unpaid volunteer assessor, authorised to administer an amateur exam on behalf of the regulator, would I be permitted to comment like I am here, or would I be expected to speak directly with the regulator about my concerns? What happens if speaking directly to the regulator breaks down? What's the penalty for speaking out? Is the regulator going to stop you from being an unpaid volunteer?

Before you ask why I didn't put these concerns to the regulator, I'll point out that it's not up to me to fix these issues, nor is it my place to make recommendations. I don't represent anyone and in my opinion this should be a community wide public conversation, not held in secret talks behind closed doors.

As an amateur outside Australia I'd recommend that you pay attention, because I'm sure that bean counters will be taking notes to see if there's money to be saved at your regulator.

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

How to see 56 MHz of bandwidth...

Sat, 01/13/2024 - 11:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

The other day I stumbled on a project called Maia SDR by Daniel EA4GPZ. Maia, spelled Mike Alpha India Alpha, is a star in the Pleiades cluster. The Maia SDR project homepage proclaims that it is "An open-source FPGA-based SDR project focusing on the ADALM Pluto".

Now, I can completely understand if that collection of words is gibberish to you, but take it from me, it's not, let me explain.

PlutoSDR or Pluto is the common name of a piece of hardware which is officially called the ADALM-PLUTO Evaluation Board. It's a sophisticated device made by Analog Devices that provides a radio platform with some very interesting properties. Specifically it's both a radio transmitter and receiver with the ability to use frequencies between 70 MHz and 6 GHz. It runs embedded software you can tinker with because it's all Open Source and it's all very well documented.

Many people have used the Pluto as a remote transceiver by controlling the on-board radio with a USB cable. While that's neat, it's not what I have been wanting to do for a number of reasons.

The Pluto has the ability to sample data at a rate of 61.44 mega samples per second or MSPS. That translates to a bandwidth of 56 MHz. A typical amateur radio has a bandwidth of 2.5 kHz.

This bandwidth comes at a price. For starters, USB on the Pluto isn't fast enough to handle 56 MHz of data, so if you're using it as a remote radio over USB, you need to lower your expectations.

However, the hardware itself can process data at that rate, as long as it stays inside the radio. So, if you had a way to process data inside the radio and a way to show what you did with the data across USB, you could use all of the 56 MHz at once.

The Maia SDR project does exactly that. It processes the data and presents it to the world as a waterfall image, like the one you might have seen in WSJT-X, fldigi or SDR++. If you've seen the voice version of my podcast on YouTube, you'll also have seen a waterfall. It's an image that scrolls vertically, showing frequencies left to right, and signal strength by colour, traditionally, a rainbow that uses blue for low power and red for high power. Every time period the image scrolls adding another row representing the radio spectrum at that time. It's a very useful way to show massive amounts of radio spectrum data in close to real-time.

The waterfall that WSJT-X produces is about 2.5 kHz wide. The waterfall that Maia SDR produces is 56 MHz wide. To give you some context, the entire HF spectrum, between 2200m and 6m easily fits within 56 MHz.

Now, there's a wrinkle. As I said, the Pluto frequency range starts at 70 MHz, so that means we can't use it to listen to HF. Well, not without the help of another gadget, called a transverter. Essentially it moves a set of frequencies from one range to another. The gadget I have, a SpyVerter 2 HF Upconverter, translates anything between 1 kHz and 60 MHz and moves it to between 120 MHz and 180 MHz.

If you combine the Pluto with Maia SDR and a SpyVerter, you can plug your antenna into the SpyVerter, connect that to the Pluto, connect to the Maia SDR website that's running on your Pluto, tune it to 120 MHz, and see 56 MHz of HF bandwidth scrolling past as fast or slow as you want. You'll find the 10m band at 148 MHz, the 15m band at 141 MHz and the 20m band at 134 MHz.

Now if that's not cool enough for you, Maia SDR is as I said Open Source. This means that the project publishes all of the code that makes this happen. The Pluto comes with a number of devices on-board that process information. At the antenna end is an AD9363, essentially a chip that converts RF into digital and back. The digital information is processed by a device called an FPGA, a Field Programmable Gate Array. Field Programmable means that mortals like you and I can change the software that it runs.

Essentially an FPGA is a programmable circuit board used for information processing. To scratch the surface of what that means, you could for example program an FPGA to behave like a microprocessor, or you could use it to do accelerated matrix multiplications used for neural networks like you can with a graphics chip, or in this case, a device that does all of the digital signal processing. Finally the Pluto has a dual core ARM processor. You'll find those inside most Android phones and Raspberry Pi's to name a few. It's used to extract data from the FPGA and present it on a web page. Oh, and there's a progressive web app for your phone, so you can see this waterfall on your mobile phone if you want.

So, thank you to Daniel EA4GPZ for sharing your project, it's very much appreciated!

There are some caveats. The Pluto is easily overwhelmed by strong signals, so you probably need filters. I'm using a wide 2m band pass filter between the SpyVerter and the Pluto, just so that my local WiFi network doesn't overwhelm the whole thing. You're receiving between 0 and 56 MHz, so you'll need an appropriate antenna. The frequency response for the Pluto isn't linear, so the same colour on two bands might not be the same signal strength. You need to update the firmware of the Pluto, so make sure that you have a copy of the official firmware before you start because some of the FPGA functionality has been removed by Maia SDR to make this stuff work, most notably, the ability to use the Pluto across USB as a remote radio which is restored if you re-install the official firmware.

It's all documented really well and I'd encourage you to have a go if you're so inclined. If you're a software developer, Maia SDR aims to encourage FPGA development in the radio sphere using Amaranth, the project About page has more details.

As random Internet searches go, Maia SDR was a lovely surprise and I can't wait to dig deeper, but that will have to wait until my computer stops processing something like 6 billion WSPR records, which it's been doing for the past two weeks.

What have you found worth sharing?

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

The Art of operating QRP

Sat, 01/06/2024 - 11:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

The attraction to amateur radio for me lies in the idea that it provides a framework for experimentation and learning. There's never an end to either. Each time you go on-air is an opportunity to do both and every chance I get, I cannot help being sucked into another adventure. My weekly scribbles are an attempt to both document what I've been up to and to encourage others to take a step on the path that I'm discovering, moment by moment, week by week.

One of the more, lets call it, comment inducing, activities I like to explore is low power operation. This is not to the liking of many operators who are happy to run their shack at full legal power. For me, full legal power is 40 dBm, or 10 Watts. That's not to say that I've never experienced the thrill of running a pile-up on a contest station, I have. What's not to like? You speak with people from communities far-and-wide, they're clamouring to talk to you and making contact is pretty easy, almost effortless. The lure towards more power, bigger antennas, more bands and more radio is always there, but it's not all there is to this hobby.

My year-long efforts of running a 10 dBm, or 10 mW, Weak Signal Propagation Reporter, or WSPR, beacon, is evidence that you can make it 13,945 km from me in VK6 to PA where it was heard by Jaap, PA0O in Zuidwolder, just outside Groningen in the North East of 't kikkerland. In fact, across 2023, my 10 dBm beacon was reported 4,849 times by 58 stations, many inside Australia, but there were reports from Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, Taiwan, Antarctica, Sweden, and as I said, the Netherlands.

One of my friends, Charles NK8O, is a mostly mobile operator who loves to set up for both Parks On The Air, also known as POTA, as well as World Wide Flora and Fauna, WWFF. His chosen mode is CW, but you'll find him using digital modes like FT8 and even as a rare DX event you might strike it lucky and hear his voice. Most of his activity uses batteries, so you'll rarely make contact with him when he's using more than 47 dBm or 50 Watts. A couple of weeks ago during the weekly F-troop net he announced that for the duration of 2024, Charles intends to operate using low power, or QRP.

Operating QRP isn't for everyone, but I'd hazard a guess that if tried, there's plenty to learn and experience by dialling the power down to play in a low power environment. Think of it like this. If you're into cars, it's the thrill of driving fast. It's not the only way to drive and enjoy yourself. Driving sedately, touring the back roads, will get you to your destination just as well and along the way you'll have the opportunity to look out the window, to even have the window down and to enjoy the environment, rather than spending every second being on a hair trigger.

If fishing is more your thing, high power radio is like dynamite fishing. You'll easily catch all the fish in the pond, but once you have, there's nothing left to do. Fly fishing on the other hand gets you a different but perhaps just as satisfying experience.

So, if you've never done this QRP thing, what can you expect when you turn the power down? First of all, reception works just the same. So, everyone you heard before will continue to be heard. Transmission is going to be a little different. If you've ever changed over radios you might already have experienced the jolt between what you can hear and what you can work which can differ significantly between two radios. If you're used to high power operation, you'll essentially work most stations you can hear, but when you're using low power, there's going to be stations that you have little or no chance to work. Most of those are obvious so-called alligators, all mouth, no ears. That said, plenty of loud stations have years of honing their skill and station and your QRP call can just as easily be heard as the next station.

You'll likely sharpen your calling skills. There's no point in calling when other stations are blotting out your call, so you become adept at dancing around other signals. You'll spend more time considering propagation and the best band to make your signal count.

Another side effect you'll likely notice is less wear and tear on your gear. There's also little chance of having RF inside your shack upsetting your computer, or getting complaints from the neighbours who happen to have a crappy TV that stops working as soon as you key up. If you make mistakes, your station is more forgiving and less likely to be damaged when an unexpected fault occurs.

Speaking of faults. The other day a coax switch in my shack caused my radio to stop transmitting. Luckily with the power setting at its lowest, there was no permanent damage. After testing with a multimeter I discovered that it shorted the centre pin to shield in one position. When I opened up the switch, I discovered that the blade that gets moved between ports had become slightly twisted, which in turn caused it to ground against the body. A slight turn with some needle-nose pliers fixed the problem, well, at least for now. I have begun searching for alternatives in earnest. I am quite taken by the notion of building my own switch from relays and controlling those via a network connection. More research and experimentation is needed because there's plenty I don't know about this subject.

Between you and me, it's never too late for another experiment and I'd encourage you to spend some time testing the QRP experience and given the current state of the solar cycle, there's no better time than right now.

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

Finding the right frequency.

Sat, 12/30/2023 - 11:00
Foundations of Amateur Radio

Today I'm going to spend a little longer with you than usual, but then, I think this is important and it's good to end the year on a bang.

Have you ever attempted to make contact with a specific DXCC entity and spent some time exploring the band plan to discover what the best frequency might be to achieve that? If you got right into it, you might have gone so far as to attempt to locate the band plan that applies to your particular target. If you have, what I'm about to discuss will not come as a surprise. If not, strap yourself in.

When you get your license you're hopefully presented with a current band plan that is relevant to your license conditions. It shows what frequencies are available to you, which modes you can use where, and what power levels and bandwidth are permitted. It should also show you if you're the primary user or not on a particular band. If you're not sure what that means, some frequency ranges are allocated to multiple users and amateur radio as one such user is expected to share. If you're a primary user you have priority, but if you're not, you need to give way to other traffic.

It should come as no surprise that this is heavily regulated but as a surprise to some, it changes regularly.

Across the world, frequency allocation is coordinated by the International Telecommunications Union, the ITU, and specifically for amateur radio, by the International Amateur Radio Union, the IARU. It coordinates frequencies with each peak amateur radio body. The ITU divides the world into three regions, Region 1, 2 and 3, each with its own band plan. Within each region, a country has the ability to allocate frequencies as it sees fit - presumably as long as it complies with the ITU requirements. As a result, there's not one single picture of how frequencies are allocated.

And this is where the fun starts.

In Australia there's an official legislated band plan, cunningly titled F2021L00617. It contains the frequencies for all the radio spectrum users as well as a column for each ITU region. The document is 200 pages long, and comes with an astounding array of footnotes and exclusions. It's dated 21 May 2021. There's a simplified version published by the Wireless Institute of Australia, which comes as a 32 page PDF. It was last updated in September 2020. When I say "simplified", I'm of course kidding. It doesn't include the 60m band which according to the regulator is actually an amateur band today. The 13cm band according to the WIA shows a gap between 2302 and 2400, where the regulator shows it as a continuous allocation between 2300 and 2450 MHz. The point being, who's right? What can you actually use?

Oh, the WIA does have a different page that shows that 6m "has had some additions", but they haven't bothered to update their actual band plan.

To make life easier, the regulator includes helpful footnotes like "AUS87". This is particularly useful if you want to search their PDF to determine what this actually says, since it only appears 156 times and it's not a link within the document. In case you're curious, it's related to three radio astronomy facilities operated by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, better known as the CSIRO, two by the University of Tasmania and one by the Canberra Deep Space Network. Interestingly the Australian Square Kilometer Array and the Murchison Widefield Array don't feature in those particular exclusions, they're covered by footnote AUS103.

If that wasn't enough. The regulator has no time for specific amateur use. You can find the word Amateur 204 times but there's no differentiation between the different classes of license which means that you need to go back to the WIA document to figure out which license class is allowed where, which of course means that you end up in no-mans land if you want to discover who is permitted to transmit on 2350 MHz.

If we look further afield, in the USA the ARRL publishes half a dozen different versions, each with different colours, since black and white, grey scale, colour and web-colour are all important attributes to differentiate an official document. Of course, those versions are now all six years out of date, having been revised on the 22nd of September 2017. The most recent version, in a completely different format, only in one colour, has all the relevant information. It shows a revised date of 10 February 2023, that or, 2 October 2023 because of course nobody outside the US is ever going to want to refer to that document - seeing as there's only amateurs in the USA, well at least according to the ARRL.

Interestingly the US Department of Commerce, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Office of Spectrum Management publishes a colourful chart showing the radio spectrum between 3 kHz and 300 GHz. You can't use it as a technical document, but it's pretty on a wall to amaze your non-amateur friends. The FCC has a band plan page, but I couldn't discover how to actually get amateur relevant information from it.

If you think that's bad, you haven't seen anything yet.

The British are special. The RSGB publishes a variety of versions, each worse than the next. It appears that their system creates a single HTML page for each band, their 32 page PDF is a print out of that and their interactive viewer wraps all that into some proprietary system that makes using it an abysmal experience. Fortunately, they also link to a band plan made by the regulator, presented as a five page PDF which is much more concise and has the helpful heading: "The following band plan is largely based on that agreed at IARU Region 1 General Conferences, with some local differences on frequencies above 430MHz."

Unfortunately it doesn't specify which particular General Conferences apply, but it does helpfully tell us that it's effective from the first of January 2023, unless otherwise shown. That said, 2023 only appears in the headers and footers and 2024 doesn't appear, so who knows what date exceptions exist.

One point of difference is that the RSGB also publishes their band plan as an Excel Workbook. This might start your heart beating a little faster with visions of data entry, sorting, filtering and other such goodies, like figuring out which frequency to use for a particular mode. Unfortunately the authors have used Excel as a tool for making tables like you'd see in a word processing document. Start and Stop frequencies in the same cell, random use of MHz, spacing between bandwidth and frequencies and descriptions intermingled. In other words, this is not an Excel Workbook and it does not contain information in any usable form, unless you want to do some free text searching across the 32 worksheets - what is it with 32 anyway? Perhaps this is their authoring tool and they save as HTML from within Excel or print to PDF. Who knows?

One point that the British do get right is version control. You can see specifically what change was introduced when. For example, on the 6th of March 2009 the 17m QRP frequency was corrected to 18086 kHz. Mind you, there's several pages of updates, helpfully scattered across multiple worksheets. Yes, they're really using Excel as a word processor.

Before I dig into any other countries, I should mention the United Nations Amateur Radio peak body, the IARU, presumably a model that countries should aspire to. The IARU has links to three different sets of band plans. Region 1 breaks the band plan into HF and higher frequencies and the higher frequencies are broken into notional bands, each with their own PDF. Regions 2 and 3 each provide a single PDF, but the Region 3 document is hosted on the Region 2 website. Region 1 documents contain a revision and an active date as well as an author. Region 2 and 3 documents contain a date and are formatted completely differently.

In Germany the DARC attempts to link to the IARU-Region 1 band plan, but the link is pointing at a non-existent page.

In the Netherlands, VERON points at a 2016 edition of the IARU-Region 1 HF band plan and the current Region 1 mixed band plan for higher frequencies.

In Canada the RAC points at a HTML page for each band and presents all the HF frequencies as a single image, yes an image. All the other bands are essentially text describing how to use a particular band. The HF image states that it applies from the first of June 2023, the rest of the pages carry various dates that conflict with each other. For example, the 2m band states on the landing page that it was updated on the 23rd of September 1995, but the page itself refers to a new 2m band plan that was approved in October of 2020. The linked band plan contains all the credit, who is responsible for the plan, naming the entire committee, adding notes and requesting donations, straight from the RAC newsletter, page 36 and 37 of the November / December 2020 edition, rather than providing a stand-alone technical document.

Let's hop back across the Atlantic and see what else we can learn.

In Switzerland things are a little different. Its regulator publishes a frequency allocation plan that is a thing of beauty. It presents as a table on a web page, but it has a search box you can use to filter the frequencies that you're interested in. So if you use the word "amateur", you end up seeing the whole amateur radio spectrum as it exists within the borders of Switzerland. You can also set frequency ranges and as a bonus, if you type in 1 MHz and change the unit to kHz, it actually changes the number to 1000. As I said, a thing of beauty. Oh, and the footnotes? Yeah, they're links and they open a new window with the relevant information, and you can keep clicking deeper and deeper until you get to the actual legislation driving that particular entry. If that's not fancy enough for you, from within the search, you can download an offline HTML copy, you can pick services, rather than use search terms, and the PDF version, because of course there is one, actually has the same active links to footnotes.

That said, it has some idiosyncrasies. It specifies when amateur radio is the primary or the secondary user of a band, except when it doesn't. I presume that this is a regulatory thing and that it's a shared resource, but as an outsider I'm not familiar with Swiss law, but if I was inclined, I could become familiar, since the documents are all written in multiple languages, including English. Another oddity is that some frequencies show no text at all, but I presume that's a bug, rather than by design.

Speaking of bugs, or features, depending on your perspective. Consider the frequency 2300 MHz. Every single document I looked at mixes up how this is shown. Some have a space between the number and the unit, some don't. Some countries put a space between the 2 and the 3, some a dot, some a comma, the Swiss use an apostrophe. Just so we're clear, these are technical documents we're talking about. They're not literary works, there are standards for how to do this, but it seems that the people writing these documents are blissfully unaware of any such references. Even the IARU cannot agree on how to represent the same number, let alone use the same formatting for the same band plan in each of its three regions.

At this point you might come to the conclusion that this is all an abhorrent mess and I'd agree with you. In my opinion, it goes directly to how important our hobby is in the scheme of things and just how little funding is allocated to our activities.

It also shows that there are contradictory sources of truth and not a single unified view on how to present this information to the global amateur community. In case you're wondering why that matters, electromagnetism doesn't stop at the political boundaries of the location where we might find ourselves and if that doesn't matter to you, consider again how you'd best talk to an amateur of any given DXCC entity and on what particular frequency you might achieve that.

So, aside from whinging about it, what can you do about this?

I have started a project, of course I have, that attempts to document two things, well, three. First of all I use the WIA version of the DXCC list - since the ARRL doesn't actually publish that for free anywhere - and use that to track a list of hopefully official frequency allocation documents. I'm also in the process of capturing the content of each of those documents into a database, so we can all figure out what the best frequency is to talk to another country.

I'm still in the design stages for the database, for example, do we want to store a frequency in Hertz, in kHz, or pick a magnitude and store a number? Each of these choices has long term implications for using the tool. Then there's things like discovering which band plan applies to Scarborough Reef, the San Felix Islands and Pratas Island to name a few, since I've really only scratched the surface with the plans I've explored.

I had visions of putting this on GitHub, but perhaps this should be part of the Wikipedia collection and it should live there. I'm still considering the best plan of attack. In the meantime, you can help. Please send an email to cq@vk6flab.com with the official band plan link for your own DXCC entity, and if you have thoughts on how best to structure the database or where this project should live, let me know.

For example, should the database include just band plans, or should we also include things like modes. For example, the official VK calling frequency for 40m is 7.093 MHz. Should that be in the database and should we include the preferred Olivia calling frequency? While looking at that, consider the band labels we use. Australia doesn't have a 75m band, but others do. Some countries refer to the 4mm band, others refer to it by frequency.

So, over to you. Let me know what you think. I'll leave you with a quote by Daren 2E0LXY:

"It is not the class of licence the Amateur holds but the class of the Amateur that holds the licence."

I'm Onno VK6FLAB