Sunday, April 12, 2009

Some observations and plans

Getting back into something after a long absence is an interesting experience. The very familiar is mixed with the forgotten and with the brand new. Amateur Radio encompasses a range of knowledge and skill. Some is immutable (the laws of physics!). Some subject to times and places (regulations and procedure). Some is just good practice and courtesy. Its a very broad church, and there's plenty to interest whether you have more technical or more social leanings.

Given that my earliest passion in amateur radio was packet, I have quickly set about learning how much progress packet/digital has made in 14 or so years. That was somewhat disappointing. Here's the good, bad and indifferent:

  • Regular packet technology in the amateur bands has hardly evolved at all.

    • The speed is still mostly 1200, with only a little 9600 and nothing really faster.
    • Packet is still to all intents and purposes locked into the 2m and 70cm bands, with the attendant challenges on bandwidth/speed. There has been no real push to a higher frequency to better accommodate high-speed comms.
    • AX.25 is still prevalent. TCP/IP is still around, but only as much as it ever was 14 years ago it seems, which is hardly at all!

  • APRS has created a nice worldwide packet service with real utility.

    • APRS is quite exciting as a service and is fun to use.
    • It's still slow though.

  • D-Star has arrived! This looks very promising as a digital technology for the amateur community. But...

    • It uses some proprietary technology for digital voice encoding (ouch!)
    • It is not exactly ubiquitous, having yet to be adopted by some of the big radio manufacturers
    • It is still mostly available on 2m and 70cm radios and frequencies, rather than being offered as a high-speed mode on a higher UHF band. Maybe this is in the works. [UPDATE: I see that Icom offer the ID-1 on 23cm, but apparently it's a tad expensive!]

  • PSK31 has taken off on HF. This looks like a really interesting text message mode for long distance and one that I'm sure to look into closely.

Modern backbone high-speed digital comms (the internet) has augmented amateur services in very interesting ways. For instance:

  • APRS can marshal packets on and off the internet for high-speed routing and delivery world-wide. Very sweet!
  • IRLP links repeaters around the world by VOIP on the internet. This allows DX'ing with your VHF rig at any time!

Other observations:

  • Computer connectivity is still poor with most radios

    • CAT interfaces are still mostly RS232 based or proprietary systems requiring the purchase of an adaptor. Whither USB?
    • Few mobile and handheld radios support computer control

  • Most radios' panel UIs and operation remains pretty awful IMO. As manufacturers pack ever more features into their shrinking radios, the operator interfaces are getting ever more tortured. Some are worse than others, but many models could do with a rethinking in terms of their control ergonomics.

So, a fair amount has changed in 14 years, but things I expected to improve in leaps and bounds (i.e. packet modes) have not.
My agenda for experimentation:

  1. APRS
  2. IRLP
  3. PSK31 as soon as I have my HF installation working

Besides these new-fangled things I have a feeling that I'll be enjoying good old SSB on HF this time around - with some new equipment and if I'm lucky perhaps some sun spots will even start appearing soon ;-)

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