NPOTA and What’s Next?

The National Parks on the Air event has been one of the most popular operating activities in the history of amateur radio in these United States.

The only other event to even come close would have to be the Centennial QSO Party and, guess what, both events were birthed in the minds that congregate in Newington, Connecticut.

The numbers are simply staggering.

Over 500,000 contacts, 9000 park activations, with 488 NPOTA units activated to date. Now more than halfway thru the year-long event, the conversation has already turned to sadness that it will eventually end, and questions about what comes next.

That’s an incredibly good thing for our hobby. I’ve been licensed since 1977 and I’ve never seen such enthusiasm and goodwill surrounding events in our fraternity. Amateur radio evangelists have been on point with local press and the number of positive stories about ham radio in popular media have soared.

What comes next is a good question. Because something amazing has got to follow NPOTA.

The ARRL is in the unenviable position of having set the bar so high with this program and the Centennial QSO Party that there will be pressure to equal them. That may not be fair or realistic, but our friends at HQ had best be working on it.

I’m reasonably certain that if you have an amazing idea for the next big thing, someone in Newington would love to hear about it. You should consider that making use of LoTW and leaderboards have been at the center of the two events.

And in the case of NPOTA, we got to play our radio games in full view of the public.

If you’ve come up with something that fits into that strategy, I hope you won’t keep it to yourself — share it with someone at the ARRL and let’s keep the ball rolling forward into the future.

Immediate Doctor Care

The Doctor is In podcast from the ARRL has quickly become the most interesting and informative online amateur radio media resource. Hosted by QST Editor-in-Chief Steve Ford, WB8IYY and the “doctor” Joel Hallas, W1ZR the bi-weekly program covers a main topic in some detail, like grounding, while spare time is used to answer a variety of questions submitted by listeners.

Technical topics can easily become tedious, but this duo have found the proper balance of light and heavy delivery so that time spent listening is always informative, never boring, and usually leaves me wanting a bit more.

Perfect, right? Well, almost.

The program is excellent, but the supporting Web delivery needs work. The ARRL did a great job of educating listeners on how to subscribe to the podcast feed, but direct program links on the primary Web page are rarely current.

As of this morning, the last program listed is from June 30. That makes it tough to find, or to point someone to the CURRENT program released on July 14.

In addition, the built-in audio player that permits someone to click a link to listen on the Web page uses Flash. Is it possible that the ARRL hasn’t heard that Flash is dead?

No, these links should be current and they should take advantage of modern methods of delivery from the Web page. On top of all that, there are no links for sharing via social media. Visiting the Doctor Web page is like traveling back to 2008.

C’mon ARRL, the program is excellent — let us help you share it with our friends. Give us links for each episode so these can be easily shared via Twitter, Facebook, etc.

That will make me happy, the fraternity happy, and I’ll bet program sponsor, DX Engineering, would be pleased for the extra exposure too!

The Social Network

Like a billion other people, I have a Facebook account. I don’t like Facebook. Never have. My account is purely for amateur radio, none of my family are my “friends”. I’m uninterested in building an audience on that platform or using it to promote another.

Its single value to me is that many ham radio clubs, vendors and other organizations make use of it. Some have out of date Web pages but their Facebook page often provides a fresh, steady stream of information.

Honestly, while the ARRL maintains a great Web site, their Facebook feed is more interesting.

When it comes to individuals, I often find it’s just too much information.

You get to know someone via ham radio, either in person, over the air, via mailing lists or during club events. Or you think you know them. You may even come to think of them as “friends” and believe them to be genuinely nice people. Then you read their frequent Facebook rants and realize, these aren’t the kind of people you would ever align yourself with in real life.

Why pretend to be “friends” with them online?

I un-friended more than 400 people last week. At least that’s what they call it. Truth is, I didn’t know any of them. They were, at best, friends of acquaintances. And to be fair, most of those didn’t fit the description above. I just made a decision to only follow certain clubs and organizations, and only friend a few individuals that I actually know or have met.

It’s what I should have done from the outset but I didn’t know then what I have since discovered.

None of us will ever agree with everyone about everything, but like-minded folks do tend to congregate. When I sit down in the lunch room at work it’s almost never with those who are outspoken about their politics or their religion. I intentionally avoid them because they won’t change my mind, I won’t change theirs, and who needs that kind of aggravation at lunch?

Same goes for Facebook.

Unfortunately, you can’t “un-friend” radio hams on the air. Well you can, but eventually you end up with no one left to talk to and two-way communication kinda needs at least two people to make it work.

Perhaps that’s why they invented contesting? You can makes tens of thousands of contacts without having to endure the world view of others. You just trade 599’s and move quickly along to the next one.

Chicken Soup

I haven’t been on HF for a few months. All but the dipole antenna has been taken down and all the HF gear, except for a lone Eagle, have been sold off. Solar minimum and my renewed interest in satellites have conspired to make me ignore the high frequencies for a season.

But while digesting the news this morning – Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Dallas – I felt the need to escape from the steady stream of insanity that now regularly attends life in these United States and drink from a different, but familiar well.

As imagined, the bands are dead. The only CW signal I can find on 20 this morning is an automated one, being transmitted from W1AW. But given the circumstances, I closed my eyes and copied the mail for over an hour.

I guess it’s still my chicken soup for the soul.

Reading List

While doing some general cleaning in the shack, I found more old hobby related publications. Leafing through some of the mags that are headed for the dumpster, I got to thinking about the volume of information that enters the shack via the postal mailbox and the computer. It’s a lot to read. Almost too much to keep up with for anyone not yet retired. In an effort to get a handle on it all, I decided to take inventory and figure out what, if anything, that I can jettison. 

QST magazine arrives in digital format each month as a result of my life membership in the ARRL. I’m often too busy to read them as they arrive, but I’ve somehow managed to keep up with QST while allowing subscriptions to other print publications expire.

The ARRL Letter – a weekly summary of essential news of interest to active amateurs available in advance of publication in QST magazine. It’s a must-read for any serious radio amateur. An archive of past letters is maintained.

The ARRL Contest Update – published every other week, it offers a useful source of timely information for both the active and casual contester. The Update includes information about events during the following two-week period, time-sensitive news items, upcoming deadlines and other news of interest to contesters.

AMSAT Journal is published six times a year amd arrives via the mailbox. It’s another benefit of AMSAT membership. An excellent treatise covering the technical and practical aspects of ham radio in space.

AMSAT News Service bulletins are a free, weekly news and information service of AMSAT North America. ANS publishes news related to Amateur Radio in Space. Delivered via email.

The Daily DX – a text DX bulletin sent via e-mail Monday through Friday that includes DX news, IOTA news, QSN reports, QSL information, a DX Calendar, propagation forecast and more. It’s has been hitting my inbox daily since Bernie McClenny began publishing it in the late 1990’s. The fact that I pay annually for this subscription is the best endorsement I could offer. Get a free, no obligation two week trial subscription and see for yourself.

Club newsletters are a weakness of mine. There are so many excellent publications being produced and made available for free download that it’s difficult to say which are my favorites, but here are the newsletters I never miss:

  • Cheese Bits – published monthly by the Mt. Airy VHF Radio Club for more than 50 years. Each issue contains a monthly activity calendar, swap shop ads, technical articles, operating news and articles of interest to the VHF community.
  • The Gray Line Report – a quarterly publication of the Twin City DX Association is always chocked full of behind the scenes DX news, information, and interviews.
  • 432 and Above EME Newsletters by K2UYH – published monthly for serious UHF, microwave, and moonbounce enthusiasts. Archives are available.
  • County Hunter News – a monthly publication for those interested in ham radio county hunting, with an orientation toward CW operation.
  • The OPDX Bulletin – Tedd Mirgliotta, KB8NW, is the editor of this DX info letter distributed on the Internet and packet clusters around the world. Tedd spends countless hours on making this one of the best.

Ham radio blogs have been in steady decline since Facebook and Twitter started gaining traction. But there are a few writers who have continued to hold my interest. I usually catch-up on these on my phone while on the go. I suspect I’m not alone in this practice since over half the traffic to this blog arrives via moblie devices.

Mailing lists have fallen out of favor with most online groups but not in the ham radio world where many majordomos are approaching legal drinking age. I subscribe to a couple of them though I frequently pause the emails and just peruse the archives. It’s the best way to avoid the hot topics that can send list traffic soaring to ridiculous levels.

  • AMSAT-BB – carries general AMSAT information and discussion. The purpose of this mailing list is to provide a forum for general discussion of any satellite-related topic.
  • APRSSIG – the APRS Special Interest group for general APRS-related postings is hosted by TAPR.

Tell me about your favorite reads in the comments below.

Solar Analysis Paralysis

There’s been an increase in chatter – of the signal intelligence kind – about the looming solar minimum and what may (or may not) follow it. The uptick in interest and associated gloomy talk is probably related to this recent Forbes article suggesting a bleak future for HF propagation of a favored variety.

This only comes as a “surprise” to those not paying attention. In fact,  It wasn’t long ago that same news source announced, Sun Flatlining Into Grand Minimum.

The last few solar cycles have been so anemic that it has raised concerns about what most had come to expect as predictably normal. Still, the recent stretch with few or no sunspots is unusual, but not completely unexpected.

We’ve been talking about the possibility of a Maunder event for most of the 21st century.

Apparently, many HF enthusiasts have chosen to ignore the data and hope for the “best”. Wishes don’t help and neither do the clueless who often chime into the conversation to say, “don’t worry, in my fifty years of radio activity I’ve seen solar highs and lows, and this too, will pass”.

It probably won’t.

I mean, fifty years in the hobby seems a long time, until you compare it with the 4.5 billion years the Sun has been doing its thing. Sure, we have patterns recorded from the last few hundred years and so long as our star behaves typically then it becomes predictable.

But as soon as it goes off script, all bets are off.

We can’t do anything about the Sun, but we can modify our radio relationship with it. In the same way that investors build diverse portfolios resistant to downturns in a single segment, there are things we can do to minimize risks.

Propagation on 10, 12, 15, 17 and to some extent, 20 meters is negatively impacted by a quiet Sun. Meanwhile, 160 and 80 meters might be enhanced. Don’t have gear or antennas for the low-bands? Time to make an adjustment to your equipment and antenna portfolios.

We have HF spectrum resistant to future conditions, it’s just not of the ‘toss a wire in a tree and easily work DX with one watt’ variety that we have enjoyed in the old days.

It’s going to require more real estate for antennas and more power for HF success in the new millennium so there’s no reason to worry yourself sick about our future. Ham radio can continue to exist with the Sun devoid of sunspots and perpetual solar minimum on Earth.

But if you’re inclined to worry, worry about this: will we still want to play in that new reality?

Recommendation for First Ham Radio Transceiver

If you’ve been around this hobby long, chances are good you’ve been asked to make an equipment recommendation for a newly licensed radio ham. It’s a really tough request. There’s a lot of gear that fits the bill, but any such conversation requires consideration for budget and whether buying new or used makes the most sense.

What you consider ‘affordable’ might be way over the top for someone else. And then what about new versus used? Besides, any hardware recommendation made comes with the risk that it could end up disappointing. It’s indeed a tough question and one I’ve always thought best to evade and avoid.

But when asked again recently, I decided the time had come for me to step up and make the case for what I believe to be the best amateur transceiver for the new radio enthusiast. And that required the aforementioned discussion about the cost of our hobby and the benefits of buying new versus used equipment.

Budget

When I was first licensed, there were still ARRL publications in circulation suggesting that budding radio enthusiasts could assemble a complete HF station from parts salvaged from discarded television sets.

Another publication implied that finding an ARC-5 receiver from any World War II surplus store was a good first step in the hobby. While anything is possible, not everything is practical and frankly, I found these suggestions ridiculous, even in 1976.

I ended up buying an HW-16 transceiver from Heathkit and assembled it. Of course it didn’t work – too many cold solder joints and a few wiring errors. A local ham helped me repair it and get it on the air. Along with the matching HG-10B VFO and a few accessories, I think I had about five-hundred dollars in my Novice station.

I’m aware that a lot of hams got started in the hobby building their own equipment from razor blades and chips of galena. The *maker ethos* runs deep in our fraternity. But I’m also aware that many of those same hams didn’t have indoor plumbing when they built those stations from scavenged parts. Times change.

When it comes to cost, fifteen-hundred dollars seems a reasonable budget for a new operator in this new century. You could spend more. Plenty more. In fact, there’s no limit on how much you could spend, but fifteen hundred bucks will buy all the equipment required for any new enthusiast to be fully baptized in practically everything this hobby has to offer.

New vs. Used

When it comes to used gear, there are plenty of good deals to be had. But I don’t recommend that new radio amateurs buy used equipment. Not everyone who sells used is trustworthy and there’s usually no warranty on used gear — and no returns. If you’re a new ham and have an experienced friend to help guide you thru a used equipment purchase then so much the better — your risk can be mitigated.

But there’s another good reason why your first major amateur radio purchase should be new instead of used. After a few months, you might decide that ham radio isn’t your cup of tea. It happens. In that case, chances are you will be able to sell your almost new gear for a significant percentage of what you paid for it. That way, your cost to take the hobby for a “test drive” is greatly reduced.

Shack in a Box

There are several transceivers that cover HF, VHF and UHF and some of these provide all-mode capability across that spectrum. In earlier days, the inclusion of so much tech in one box required designs that compromised performance.

Most of those shortcomings have since been addressed and this type of equipment provides great value.

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For a lot of very good reasons, I recommend the ICOM IC-7100 as the best “first” transceiver for any new  amateur radio enthusiast.

The head is detached from the main transceiver body making for an incredibly small footprint on the desk. It provides 100 watts output on 160-6 meters and includes VHF and UHF with all modes. That permits access to local repeaters, both FM and D-STAR. All-mode VHF and UHF opens the door to contesting, rover work – or even EME.

On the HF bands and six meters, it’s a rock solid performer. The big touch display makes operation and accessing menu options a snap. I used the 7100 to work dozens of RTTY stations with no other interface. I programmed a couple of memories with my call sign and signal report and copied RTTY right off the main screen — working stations in a contest by pushing just two buttons.

Its USB interface makes pairing it with your computer a single cable detail.

This is a transceiver that can transport the new operator from their first QSO to DXCC and beyond. Long after the neophyte has graduated to seasoned operator, the 7100 will continue to deliver excellent value.

The IC-7100 can be purchased for under $1000 — so why the $1500 budget?

I think anyone buying the 7100 should also purchase the companion AH-4 auto-tuner. It integrates perfectly with the transceiver (one button auto-tune) and matches a wide range of loads. 80-6 meter operation is possible with a 40-foot wire and a ground connection. It performed flawlessly for me and I can’t imagine owning a 7100 without this accessory.

Purchasing those two items will set you back about $1250. With your remaining budget, you can pick up a 30-amp power supply and possibly even a VHF/UHF antenna. There might even be a little change leftover for a telegraph key or set of headphones.

When asked, this is the HF equipment I recommend for any new radio ham.

But understand that I believe the IC-7100 is an excellent value and great choice for radio amateurs of all ages and experience levels. It performs well and provides nearly limitless opportunity to explore more facets of the hobby than almost any other transceiver in a similar price class.

The Hard Stuff

I brought home a Kenwood THD-72A, spare battery, and rapid charger from Dayton. The plan was to employ this handheld transceiver along with an Arrow Antenna to jump back into the world of amateur satellites. The 72A being practically the only choice for a full-duplex package in a modern design, excluding some of the latest gear from China.

This radio has a plethora of features and options, and just reading about all of them would take time. It wasn’t too difficult to figure out how to configure it for what I wanted to do – without even cracking open the manual. Success was measured by a handful of contacts on AO-85 and SO-50.

That was the fun part. Now comes the hard stuff.

Years ago, when the FCC told us we no longer needed to maintain a station log, I took them serious and quit logging. I hate logging. I have to count beans during my day job, why on earth would I want to extend that metaphor into my avocation? But at some point you realize that “the man” won’t give you any awards without logging, so I resumed the chore several years ago.

But my current logging application doesn’t make recording satellite contacts easy or intuitive. I’m told it can handle the task, but I’ve yet to figure that out and that’s something I need to solve quickly. Which brings me to more hard stuff…

When I was a young satellite enthusiast, LoTW didn’t yet exist. Now we can’t live without it. So in addition to working out basic logging, I need to figure out how to get those contacts properly uploaded. Solving the logging problem will likely resolve the LoTW issue, but it’s one more task.

Full-duplex is a wonderful feature that permits me to hear my down-link while I’m transmitting. But with a handheld, the speaker and microphone are separated by a couple of inches at best so while listening to the satellite, I was talking into my own ear.

Annoying.

I need a separate microphone so I can put some distance between the audio-in and audio-out.

Recording every pass is a big help with logging, plus, it’s nice to have an audio recording of every pass I operate. I managed to collect decent audio by using the voice recorder option in my iPhone, but that was purely acoustical. I’d like to find a way to get a line-in for better results.

I want a tripod to support the antenna and a pre-amp might be useful for AO-85.

I’d like to assemble a carrying case for all these things so I can easily take my portable satellite station with me wherever I roam.

And I really need to open the manual and learn about using the transceiver. That could take weeks but the radio has so many interesting features and creature comforts that would streamline satellite operation.

Making contacts is the easy part. Perfection of the craft, that’s the hard stuff.

Back to the Future

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…. I was a satellite enthusiast. In those days, we had assets in both high and low earth orbits. I lived on AO-13 for several years and you could send messages to me via KO-25. Good times. And then it all fell apart. AO-13 burned up and the Internet took the place of messaging via amateur radio — in all forms.

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Most of us retreated to HF, where I’ve been ever since. Until this weekend, when I made a return to the friendly skies. I’d been planning to get back into this facet of the hobby for months. I picked up the required hardware at Dayton last week and next thing I know, I’m in the backyard with a handheld transceiver in one hand, and an Arrow antenna in the other.

Fox-1A, better known as AO-85, was streaking across the horizon when I worked Bill, W1PA in FN42 — my first amateur radio contact via satellite in over 16 years.

It felt familiar though in earlier days my shack was climate-controlled and fully automated. The computer in the shack steered the Az-El rotor on the roof as well as tuning the radio for Doppler while I simply played the role of operator. Being a human rotator and radio frequency manipulator requires dexterity and at least three hands, four is better.

Back to the future, back to space. See you on the birds!

The Speed of Wrong

I walked into the Yaesu booth at Hamvention early on Friday morning. Just before the doors opened, I had a received a message asking me to “confirm” if Yaesu was showing it’s new FT-817 replacement transceiver. So when I walked in and saw the new FT-891, I immediately took a picture and tweeted that it looked like the long-awaited replacement had finally arrived.

But in so doing, I engaged Twitter before my brain because while reading the cut-sheet on the new radio, I saw immediately that this was a 100W transceiver — and it was missing VHF/UHF.

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This was obviously NOT the “replacement” transceiver after all, and I immediately tweeted a retraction. But it was too late. That initial message went round the world a few times while the correction message went ignored.

I’ve received over a thousand replies informing me of the error – and they’re still coming in. It’s  a good lesson and I don’t mind the feedback. It simply reflects the power of social media to quickly disseminate information.

As for a replacement transceiver for the FT-817…

Never going to happen. Low-power enthusiasts have been crying for a new 817 since Moses was in the Bulrushes. That transceiver debuted back in the 20th century and every year for at least the last decade, there have been rumors of a replacement that never come to pass.

Perhaps Yaesu recognizes it has missed the boat in this regard. After all, the QRP market is now saturated with an array of low-cost, energy efficient, technically amazing HF transceivers.

Does Yaesu really want to compete with Elecraft for what would be for them, “low-margin” equipment, in this specific class?

I’d guess not. But hey, I’ve been wrong before — and I’ve got more than 1300 messages to prove it!