Blog Archive

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Summer 2018 and the short skip is rockin'

For hams who enjoy summer band openings on 10 meters and above, 2018 is shaping up to be a banner year. Here in the northeastern U.S., sporadic E short skip started in early May, and was still going strong on 10 and six meters as June came to a close.

If you're obsessed with digital  FT-8 and 10 meters (like me), it's been the best of both worlds - keyboard contacts have been possible almost every day on 28.074 MHz, the FT-8 frequency. Most of the signals coming into Connecticut are from the south and and midwest, notably the Carolinas, Florida, Illinois and Michigan, all showing up on the software's colorful waterfall display. During the month of June, I logged about 140 digital contacts, two thirds of them on 10 meters.
Screen capture of FT-8 on 10 meters,
June 30, 2018.

Ten meter sideband has been hot as well. A quick listen centered around 28.400 MHz finds lots of operators with regional accents, fading in and out in typical sporadic E fashion. Occasionally, European stations have cropped up on 10 meter FT-8, creating quite an American operator pileup.

It's become a summer tradition for me to monitor 28.425 MHz, home frequency of the quirky KC4TVZ in Atlanta. Todd, the operator, calls CQ on a recorded voice loop that seems to repeat endlessly. Operating style aside, he provides a dependable beacon for band openings into the southeast.

My YouTube recording of him is here: The 10 meter voice of Atlanta, Todd Burnett

Moving to a higher frequencies, I still hear distant police agencies that use VHF low band, long since abandoned in most of the United States.  Missouri Highway Patrol crops up in the 42 MHz range, and this month (June) I started hearing the Smyth County, Virginia Sheriff's Department on 37.04 MHz. Several evenings in a row, I heard the same female dispatcher assigning calls in her light southern accent ("Can y'all head on over to...").

Smyth County is rugged and rural, and low band provides more than adequate coverage for the topography. Follow my link here: Smyth County VA Sheriff's Department.

Finally, there is FM broadcast radio, where catching E-skip is a happy accident. You have to be listening in the right place at exactly the right time, and luck is as important as skill.

During a big sporadic E opening in late June, I came across KKLR-FM ("Best New Country") in Poplar Bluff Missouri - a distance of 1164 miles from my location. Ordinarily, 94.5 FM is home to a low power translator station in Danbury, CT, but not that evening. I listened to the KKLR announcer promote a restaurant and then talk about thunderstorms moving through the Poplar Bluff area, before playing a PSA about preventing opioid abuse.
Photo of KKLR reception on my car radio.
Click the YouTube link in the text to hear the audio.

I'm still keeping an ear on two frequencies - 87.9 and 87.7 FM, both below the authorized broadcast band but popular channels for pirate broadcasters. On 87.7 there is sometimes audio from a licensed LPTV station in New York City, which broadcasts in Korean. This is apparently legal, as the owners are only interested in the audio portion of the LPTV broadcast, which is used as a Korean radio station covering the Big Apple.

Saturday, May 5, 2018


'China syndrome' continues for ham radio

Six years ago, I wrote an article for a news and features website about the popularity of Chinese import radios among ham operators. Then, the trend was just a few years old and labels like Baofeng, Wouxun and TYT were shaking up the established big three: Kenwood, ICOM and Yaesu, which to that point had controlled the portable and mobile market.

Now in 2018, the Chinese import business is bigger than ever, with a dozen or more brands available through eBay, Amazon and ham radio retailers, some of whom are authorized import resellers.

An original VX-8DR
Chinese knock off bearing
a Zastone label
On the downside, there are problems with counterfeit radios bearing big-brand names. ICOM has been plagued by fake IC-V8 transceivers that hit the internet market a few years ago and are still proliferating. 

Another Chinese company is marketing the “Vaesu UV-8DR,” a blatant rip-off of the popular Yaesu VX-8DR, a durable, waterproof quad-bander that sells for more than $300. The knockoff costs about $60.

Sketchy practices aside, the import trend isn't going away,  Keep in mind amateur radio is a hobby, lives are not at stake (because ham radio isn’t public safety) and cheap radios are wallet-friendly. I know there are purists out there who hate Chinese radios. Sorry. Write your own blog.

In April, I made my third Chinese radio purchase since 2012. (My first was the Baofeng UV-3R mini dual bander, and my second was the TYT TH-9800 mobile radio bought in 2016 and still going strong. See my Squelchtale post from August, 2016.)

My WLN KD-C1 with pro-
gramming cable attached.
This time, I invested $19 in a WLN KD-C1, a no-frills 16-channel UHF radio with no channel display and a short, fixed antenna. This radio is sold under several different labels, including the Radioditty R-1, the Zastone ZT-X6 and the Radtel RT-10. I suspect they are all made in the same mega-factory in Fujian Province, China - home of Baofeng and its affiliates.

I ordered the radio through eBay April 7 and it arrived nearly three weeks later, April 25, having been shipped from China. I also bought the $6 programming cable.

Before I ordered, I downloaded and installed the software, hoping I wouldn’t be stuck with a $19 paperweight. I used the R-1 download from the Radioditty website because of its comprehensive list of software and drivers.

My only sweaty palm moment occurred when I plugged the radio into the computer and activated the software, only to get a "device not recognized" message. Eventually, I figured out how to select the proper COM port (COM port#3) and the radio started talking to the software.

Prior to installing my frequencies, I uploaded what was already in the radio and was surprised to see frequencies in the 453 and 460 MHz range, which are mostly allocated to business and public safety in the U.S. That makes the KD-C1 illegal to use as shipped, but I bet lots of people buy these radios in pairs to talk to each other, not worrying about what frequency they're on.
Channel template for the KD-C1.

For my 16 channels, I installed four local ham repeaters, four 70-cm simplex channels, six GMRS/FRS frequencies and two fire departments that use UHF. My intention is to use the KD-C1 with my cross band TYT 9800 and link into 10 meter FM (29 MHz) now that summer season is here and 10 meters will be active.




The radio is minimalist in design. There's an on-off /volume knob and up-down buttons on the left side of the unit. A voice announcement (English with a Chinese accent) tells you what channel you are on, and "scan" is accomplished by holding the channel-down button. Charging is done through a mini-USB port, or with the included cradle charger. The KD-C1 uses a proprietary 3.7 volt 1500mAh battery that is slightly larger than a camera battery and spares are available online.

I love this radio, but if I had a concern, it would be that the squelch seems a bit too tight and there is no way to adjust it. Receive audio is loud and undistorted, and the radio transmits at two watts - more than enough for my needs. I've been getting more than 16 hours of receive time on a single charge - but that's without transmitting.


Monday, February 12, 2018

Winter Olympics present a gold medal challenge
As everyone is aware, the 2018 Winter Olympics are underway in PyeongChang through the end of the month. For ham radio operators, the games are sort of a medal event requiring unique non-athletic skills - contacting the special event station that is commemorating the games.
Korean Special Event QSL card.
The Korean Amateur Radio League has been operating station DT23WOP (which stands for "23rd Winter Olympics") since December 1, from the capital city of Seoul, and will continue until the end of the games on February 28th, says event organizer, Dr. Sungki Lee, HL1WD.

Dr. Lee, an active dx'er (and reknowned Korean opthamologist) e-mailed me the following information:
"Now we are operating from mainly Seoul and some other cities.  (The) PyeongChang Olympic place is about 3 hours driving distance from Seoul to the east coast.
"From Seoul, our station is equipped with IC-775DSP with 500 watts amp into a hex beam (14~28MHz). For 40 and 80M, we are using a dipole. 
"But as you know, high band conditions are poor. Now our main mode is CW but some FT-8, PSK31 and RTTY," he said.
On the DT23WOP QRZ.com page, Lee says the station is using LOTW and that Olympic QSL cards will be mailed from Korea to incoming card bureaus in every country, and there is no need for hams to send their own cards to Korea.
Dr. Sungki Lee, HL1WD at his ham station.
Blogger's opinion: This is a tough one. Under current solar conditions, daytime contact from the United States (with a possible west coast exception) seems impossible.

However, nighttime contacts stand a better chance where there is a path of darkness between Korea and the States. Personally, I'll be watching the spotting sites (such as dxwatch.com, featured on the right side of my page) to see where DT23WOP is being heard.
Obtaining the beautiful DT23WOP QSL card is really worth the effort.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

An old scanner finds new life in 2018

Lately, I've been scanning like it's 1996. No narrowbanding, no alpha tags, no PL tones and no digital P25 mode. The radio is a Radio Shack PRO-60, a sturdy and selective scanner of the pre-digital era, and one that I especially like.

Allow me to backtrack a bit. In 1996, when Radio Shack was still selling scanners like hotcakes, I bought a PRO-60 for the retail price of  $380. The radio covered 30-1000 MHz, but left out cellular frequencies in the 800 MHz band (due to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986.)

My PRO-60 in action.
In no time, I had the radio filled with public safety, ham and aviation frequencies, and listened to it in my car or carried it with me. It even made trips with me to the Firehouse Expo in Baltimore, where the police and fire channels never stop squawking.

The scanner was well designed - solid and professional, with logically laid out buttons and keypad. On its left side, it had two barrel plug DC inputs - one that bypassed the batteries entirely, and the other that was intended to recharge NiCad AA cells installed in the radio.

One day, paying half attention, I plugged the external DC into the recharge jack while using non-rechargeable batteries. A day later when I checked the scanner, the processor was ruined and some of the keypad inputs were shot. Some buttons worked, some didn't, and occasionally the LCD display blinked on and off.

To make matters worse, Radio Shack would no longer repair the PRO-60 because in the year 2000, the company claimed it was too old. Drat. I was a victim of planned obsolesence by the people at Tandy Corporation.

The PRO-60 shown in the 1996 catalog.
So the radio collected dust on a shelf for a few more years, before I finally removed the antenna and battery holder, and tossed the rest of it into the trash. I've had lots of other scanners over the years, digital and analog, simple and complex, but I hoped one day I'd find another PRO-60 and feel better about frying my first one.

Fast forward to 2017. Just before Christmas last month, I spotted a near-mint PRO-60 on eBay, from a seller in Ohio who treated it with respect and observed the correct power plug configuration. Four days and $54 later, the radio arrived at my doorstep.

While outdated by today's standards and mostly a collector's item, the PRO-60 still has a lot to offer - a triple conversion receiver (making it immune to most interference), selectable wide or narrow FM, AM for aviation listening, and the 220 MHz ham radio band - a rarity in older scanners.

There are still plenty of agencies using analog radio to make the PRO-60 useful, and the audio is crisp and loud. Best of all, I feel vindicated over what happened to this scanner's predecessor, and I'm determined not to make to make the same mistake twice.


Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Diving into FT-8, the hot new digital mode
Last fall, my digital mode of choice was JT-65, with its sinister ice cream truck-sounding musical notes and long, tedious turnaround time - the ham radio equivalent of watching grass grow. 
A year later, I'm obsessed with its offspring, FT-8, also a low power mode suitable for weak band conditions and limited antennas. Like JT-65, the information exchange is automated and basic – call signs, grid squares and signal reports (in decibels).
What's different? FT-8 uses transmissions that last 15 seconds rather than a full minute, meaning there's less waiting and four times as many contacts can be squeezed into the same amount of time.
Since its introduction this summer, FT-8 has caught on like a California wildfire. No one expected this kind of popularity, not even its co-creator, Joe Taylor, W1JT. You only have to look at the FT-8 software waterfall to see how popular it is, as dozens of signals work their way down the display on any band that's remotely open.
When operating, you can either call CQ or answer other stations by clicking on them as they appear in the left hand column. A word of advice - FT-8 is very time dependent. 

Your computer clock has to be accurate to within a second, in order to sync up with other signals on the waterfall. Since my elderly laptop tends to lose time, I have it synced to the National Institute of Standards (NIST) clock, found here.
Typical  FT-8 screen showing
waterfall and received stations.

FT-8 is included as part of the free WSJT-X download package, version 1.8.0. There are versions for Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems and other useful information on the page.
Admittedly, FT-8 isn’t for everybody. Like JT-65, it’s impersonal and doesn’t allow any real chatting. There are times when I click the CQ button and walk away. When I return, I see that I logged an entire QSO because the software is smart – it establishes contacts and then runs through exchanges and finally sends “73” to the other station.
FT-8 allows short free-texting and lets operators work “split” by separating the transmit and receive frequencies on the display. Most contacts are simplex, but dx contacts usually work split – just like regular analog ham radio. 

Here are the designated frequencies for using this mode: 1840 KHz, 3573 KHz, 7074 KHz, 10136 KHz, 14074 KHz, 18100 KHz, 21074 KHz, 24915 KHz, 28074 KHz and 50.313 MHz. I generally run no more than 10 or 15 watts of output power - more than adequate to make plenty of contacts.

I hope this is an informative article, and that some of you give FT-8 a try. As they say in digi-land, see you on the waterfall!

Happy Holidays!

W1AMJ







Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Vintage receiver brings the past to life
Thirty-three years ago, when I started in ham radio, the equipment was beginning a shrinking trend - one that continues in some ways today. Mid-80s radios, holdovers of earlier decades, could be big, bulky, warm and drifty. But transistors and ICs gave way to a new generation of small solid-state rigs that didn't use tubes and offered a lot more features.
Famous transceivers of the 1970s were being sold off as their owners traded up for compact HF transceivers, like the ubiquitous Kenwood TS-430 (later the TS-440), the Yaesu FT-757 and the ICOM 735. These little beauties offered carefree operating - no transmitter tuning and the benefit of a digital frequency readout. 
Late in 1984, I was a Novice-level operator, itching to get on the air. New radios were very expensive, so I purchased a classic "boat anchor" - an FT101B that was on the consignment counter at my local ham store, Rogus Electronics. Working the counter that day was Frank, W1FD (now a silent key) who made sure I could safely operate the radio before it left the store. (Maybe he didn't want to be accountable  in the event I electrocuted myself or accidentally set the radio on fire. Either way, he was a good teacher.)
Vintage display ad for the Yaesu Musen FRG-7.
Just before Christmas, I lugged my FT-101B home, set it up on a desk and connected a long wire antenna and a tuner. Lo and behold, it worked well and I made lots of contacts over the next two years.
My ham friends mostly had newer radios, so after scrimping and saving, I sprung for a Yaesu FT-757 GXII when it went on sale in 1986. I sold the FT-101B and swore it would be the last breadbox-size behemoth - legendary or not -  to occupy my radio desk.
And for 31 years, it was – until October, 2017. That’s when I brought home a pristine, like-new FRG-7 (known as "The Frog") modeled after the FT-101 line of radios and still very selective and sensitive. Mostly it shines on the AM broadcast band due to its 6 kHz bandwidth. Sideband and CW sound good, too.
How did I acquire this radio? I have to credit (or blame) my friend Bill, W7YY, who is the ARES director for our town. While working an emergency simulation (the SET test) last month, he mentioned he acquired radio equipment from someone who cleared out an estate, and the Frog happened to be in the collection. My interest was piqued, Bill quoted a very reasonable price, and the rest is now history.
Here are some specs: The Frog is a solid state, triple conversion receiver covering 500 KHz to 29.9 MHz in four bands. It uses an oscillator called a “Wadley Loop” that generates harmonics at 1 MHz intervals. Determining what frequency the radio is on requires a slight bit of math, but with practice, I can tell where I’m listening within one or two kilohertz. A fine tuning dial makes things exact, and clarifies stations operating on sideband.
The Frog was built between 1976 and 1980, slightly later than the FT series of transceivers.  I don’t know who the previous owner was, but he or she kept the radio in incredibly new condition. For that, I am a grateful and proud owner of a beautiful, well functioning boat anchor. See a complete history of Yaesu radios at this link.

Here's my YouTube video of the Frog in action:

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Ham radio task force sent to Puerto Rico
In a year that's top heavy with natural disasters, amateur radio is once again living up to the slogan: "When all else fails, ham radio." That phrase, created by the ARRL to promote ham radio in emergencies, has been decried in the past by public safety leaders who believe professional radio infrastructures don't fail. At least not very often.
In all fairness, public safety radio usually keep working - except when a massive hurricane topples towers and phone lines, wrecks the electric grid and floods stand-by generators.
I’m obviously referring to Puerto Rico, slammed a week ago by Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm that overran the Caribbean island and left 3.4 million residents with no basic services or sanitation in tropical, sweltering heat.
Relief agencies like FEMA, the Red Cross and the Navy are trying to deliver shipments of essentials, but moving it around is nearly impossible because of roads clogged with trees and debris. No repeaters are working, and public works personnel are said to be using the ham frequency of 146.52 MHz - two meter simplex - to coordinate debris removal.
One of the pressing problems is that residents can't get word of their conditions to the outside world and the reverse is true as well.  With this in mind, the ARRL has sent 25 two-person teams to Puerto Rico, equipped with digital HF transceivers, power supplies, dipole antennas, connecting cables and military-grade generators. Once HF radio is established, contact will be maintained with the U.S. mainland and other countries to allow messages into and out of Puerto Rico.

The so-called "Force of Fifty" deployment will last about three weeks. Radio equipment and operators will be sent to Red Cross shelters from San Juan to the western end of the island, Their main purpose will be to gather health and welfare information in the cities and rural areas, even if they have to go door-to-door to get it. The data will then be entered enter into the Red Cross's Safe & Well website, a central clearing house of information.
For a detailed look at the deployment, view this news report from Connecticut television station Fox 61.
"This generous outpouring of response represents the finest qualities of the amateur radio community," ARRL CEO Tom Gallagher said. "These individuals are dropping whatever they are doing how, heading off to an extended hardship duty assignment and offering their special talents to Americans who have been cut off from their families, living amid widespread destruction and without electrical power."

Many charitible organizations are accepting donations to assist Puerto Rico. These include the Salvation Army, AmeriCares, Catholic Relief Services and American Red Cross.