Blog Archive

Monday, March 1, 2021

Hobby radio during these tough times

Miss me and my blog? Somehow I managed to skip the entirety of 2020, but it had more to do with personal ambition (or lack thereof) than the Covid pandemic. (Plus, it took forever to clean out the garage.)

To put things in perspective, no one heard of Coronavirus when I last posted in December 2019, and no one foresaw the disruptions that were in store for our lives. 

But the radio hobby is resilient and strong. With many people quarantined at home, ham radio reestablished itself as a way to make friends and maintain human contact during isolation. This was especially the case in the U.K., as highlighted in this BBC article, "How amateur radio is connecting people during lockdown."

Another growing trend is the marriage of the internet and ham radio, where apps allow radio contacts through a computer or Android device - no radio or antenna needed.

The Peanut as shown on my laptop.
My favorite is The Peanut, an oddly named but easy to use app created by a ham operator in the Netherlands. The Peanut gives users a radio dashboard and access to D-Star and DMR servers, plus other digital modes.  There's an S-meter, drop-down boxes to select talk-groups and even six channel scanning on the PC version.

You will need to e-mail proof of a ham radio license to the administrator, and will then receive a return e-mail with an access key. The Peanut also includes chat rooms that are not linked to radio repeaters, so you can meet up with other hams around the world.

Another hot hobby trend is SDR, software defined radio. SDR displays radio spectrum on a computer, with signals showing up as waterfall traces across a section of bandwidth. You only need to mouse-click on the signals you want to decode or listen to, then select the correct mode. Tuning an SDR correctly takes a bit of practice so that voices don't sound off-frequency - either like Donald Duck or Tubby Tuba.

Screenshot of my SDR.

Setting up your own SDR receiver can be done on the cheap. The hardware can be as simple as a plug-in dongle, running on free software. I have been successfully running SDR Console V3 software powered by my NESDR Smart RTL dongle. Hours of fun can be mine and it’s pretty to look at.

If you don’t want to set up your own SDR receiver, you can use others that stream online at no cost. My go-to online SDR is found at in Milford, PA. This system may be the most widely used online receiver in the world, with more than 2,000 hits a day.

I have also become addicted to Zello, the push-to-talk cellphone app that has blossomed into a worldwide radio-over-internet system. With massive growth over about 12 years, Zello now has 150 million users and is home to thousands of channels, all created by users themselves. 

Some channels link directly to ham radio and GMRS repeaters, while others stream fire, aviation and police audio. I use Zello for all of these purposes, and it makes a great scanner as well.

Zello offers commercial dispatch software for business and emergency services, which includes GPS tracking and emergency buttons for each user. Unlike Zello for individuals, Zello for businesses isn't free.

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