Why I support the ARRL (and why I might not)

June 11, 2017 in Amateur Radio and Scanning

The American Radio Relay League catches a hard time from the amateur radio community. Sometimes it’s deserved, sometimes it’s a matter of personal opinion, but it seems to always be a controversial topic. The fact that a national non-profit organization that was established to support a hobby is controversial speaks volumes about how large they are and the breadth of their mission. I can’t sell you a membership, but I can tell you why I support them.

The League has a paid staff in Newington, in addition to a very large all-volunteer field staff. And because many of these positions are regionally-elected and the elected are able to make further appointments, it can be a surprisingly political — and at times, divisive — organization with goals and ideas that vary by region.

Volunteering as a communications specialist during the Boston Marathon for the Boston Athletic Association in Natick, Mass., on April 17, 2017.

Volunteering as a communications specialist during the Boston Marathon for the Boston Athletic Association in Natick, Mass., on April 17, 2017.

I do feel that the team in Newington moves slowly and can do a better job of allocating their funds better shaping their public-facing message for the era we’re in, but that’s part of the deal. I’m not a huge emergency communications advocate — I do a few events here and there where I feel valued in my position as a radio operator — but the ARRL spends a lot of their focus and money in this portion of the hobby while neglecting some others. I think they generally do try good things for the hobby but the internal politics and the structure of the League will keep the good ole’ boys and their stale marketing approaches in place.

With that said, the number one reason I attribute to my ARRL membership is their influence in Washington. We see spectrum being auctioned off regularly or rules being changed. Amateur radio as we know it today is always under threat and I think it’s only a matter of time where under-utilized spectrum like the 902 MHz band is taken away from us and sold to the highest bidder. It’s good to have an organized lobby with a decent treasury on our side and I feel good knowing that a lot of my membership goes to this cause. The FCC listens to the ARRL and I want to ensure my voice is being heard. Even if they do use it to support frivolous legislation I disagree with, I think their lobbying efforts bring value to my membership.

Many do complain about the membership rates, but since I found value in being a member and I’m in the younger demographic, I found it worthwhile to become a lifetime member before rates went up again. I essentially pre-paid for 25 years of membership at the current rate, after that I’m breaking even. Unless you plan on dropping dead within 25 years, it’s a good buy.

The QST magazine, while I don’t read it as often as I used to, is a nice benefit. Their archives are a trove of information and a lot can be learned from their more technical articles. I also think they are fairly even-handed when picking letters to the editor for publishing, so it’s interesting to see what radio operators have to say about past QST articles or general practices in the hobby.

The ARRL also sponsors many contests. While I don’t have a contesting station set up right now, I do enjoy it and I hope to participate more outside of Field Day — another event that the ARRL coordinates. I really don’t think I could ask for a better organization to coordinate these events.

Aside from Google, the ARRL website sends the most prospective local hams to my club’s website through their club locator. It’s a good way for local residents to connect with their local clubs (assuming they have a decent online presence and returns e-mails) to reach out for help with getting started. But, that’s about where their club support ends — I think they can do a better job in this arena.

Likewise, they do a good job of organizing and encouraging testing, but their VEC (the division that coordinates the licensing exams), is sorely in need of updating. I went for my general exam through a different VEC (W5YI) in a small rural eastern Iowa town and the test was computerized — it was a fantastic experience. Similarly, the ARRL VEC is slow at getting the licenses to the FCC — I’ve heard other VECs like CAVEC has uploaded applications to the FCC promptly and callsigns were given in a matter of hours. The ARRL needs to stop relying on paper and mail and start understanding the value of going paperless.

I really also think testing should be free — if the ARRL wants to encourage youth to join the hobby, bolster their membership, and encourage a diverse group of intelligent operators to drive innovation, this is a great way to do it. The Missouri S&T amateur radio club recently announced free testing at all of their club meetings starting this fall, and I think it’s a great step for them to take.

While the scholarships the ARRL awards aren’t particularly large, they are numerous. I think encouraging students to study in STEM fields is absolutely important today and I appreciate that the League contributes these scholarships to many deserving students to help support their studies in STEM.

Even though I listed a lot of the reasons why the ARRL is controversial, it doesn’t equate to the ARRL being a poor investment. Despite its internal politics and other flaws, the ARRL generally does good things and I often feel grateful to them when I catch them doing really good things in the right way. For better or for worse, they are the national organization that supports our hobby and that’s why I’m willing to support them.

Survey of amateur radio operators yields interesting results

March 6, 2017 in Amateur Radio and Scanning, Links

Dustin N8RMA recently published a survey of amateur radio operators on Sway. The survey, he said, wasn’t meant to be exhaustive or scientific. Most of the 688 respondents found the survey on either Facebook or Reddit, so I think much of the sample was from the younger and more technically-inclined amateur radio operators. Here are some data points I found interesting:

  • Respondents were licensed for 32 years on average, but active for 23 of those years on average. Not only is the longevity remarkable, but it truly is a hobby where many operators fall out for a while and then are drawn back in later on.
  • 46% of respondents are extra-class licensees, but 2-meters (144 MHz) is the most popular band in the survey with 40m not far behind. I’d love to be able to drill down to only extra-class operators and see what their favorite bands are.
  • One of the respondents got into amateur radio for “chicks.” Should we tell him?
  • A large majority said the health of the hobby was “good” or better on a scale from 1-5 with 3 being “good.”
  • “Lack of interest” was perceived as the singular, main threat to the health of the hobby. “Old operators” was cited as another threat to the health of the hobby followed by poor operating etiquette. The survey defined “old operators” as “the cantankerous type.”

There are also some other interesting data points, including a section dedicated to digital radio modes. Head over to the survey or read the Reddit thread where it’s prompted a lot of discussion.

This was a fun survey to look at and it provoked a few more thoughts of my own. This is the first time I’ve seen data presented on the Sway platform. I’d love to be able to drill down and isolate data a la Tableau, which I’m really getting into at work now.

Amateur radio installation in a 2016 Ford F-150 SuperCrew

November 17, 2016 in Amateur Radio and Scanning

I traded up my 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee for a 2016 Ford F-150 this fall. I liked the Jeep, but lately I’ve been finding myself in some situations where a truck would have been more useful. So far, I haven’t regretted the trade one bit, it’s by far my favorite vehicle I’ve owned. I can’t wait for the snow to start flying.

So there were some new challenges I had to work around going from the Jeep to the truck in terms of the radio install. The number one challenge was clearance. I park in a ramp daily and I wanted to fit into my garage at home. On the Jeep, I used the Sti-Co nitinol Flexi-Whip antennas (guaranteed to bend but not break) and those worked fine, but on the truck these would scrape the drywall ceiling in my garage and they were so loud when I tested them in the parking ramp at work.

Another challenge was roof real estate. It’s a SuperCrew, so maybe it wasn’t that bad of a challenge, but I wanted to make sure antennas were spaced apart per manufacturer’s specifications and wanted to reduce the risk of desensitizing the scanner, so that antenna had to be somewhere else.

Yaesu FTM-400XDR, top, and the Whistler TRX-2, on a RAM Mount on the transmission hump.

Yaesu FTM-400XDR, top, and the Whistler TRX-2, on a RAM Mount on the transmission hump.

Here’s the parts list:

  • Whistler TRX-2 scanner. I had been utilizing a Uniden BCD-996T, but it’s since been obsoleted by new simulcast P25 Phase II systems in the area, and more coming. I would have gone with Uniden again, but they halted manufacturing of remote heads and expect you to use a cell phone or tablet to control the scanner while mobile. The Whistler decodes P25 Phase II simulcast systems admirably, but I do miss location-based scanning and the TRX-2 has some quirks about the way it operates that makes it borderline unusable for mobile. The volume is too low, it doesn’t power on automatically, you have to hold the power button down and release it when it tells you to, and it’s slow to initialize. I’m not sure what they were thinking manufacturing a scanner meant to be mobile like this. I’m hoping the startup process is improved through firmware, but that seems to be an unlikely solution.
  • Yaesu FTM-400XDR dual-band radio. I had previously had and Icom ID-5100 in the Jeep, and I loved it, but I missed APRS and wouldn’t mind giving System Fusion as a try since it has exploded in my area with the cheap repeater offerings. I have found System Fusion to be more active than D-STAR and the conversation more substantive. I do miss the near-repeater scanning the ID-5100 had, and the menus can be more intuitive, but Yaesu would be expected to make improvements as the System Fusion lineup matures to compete with D-STAR on functionality and not price alone.
  • RAM Mount 1″ Ball Short Length Double Socket Arm with Diamond Base (RAM-B-103-A-238U) plus a 1″ Ball Mount with 6.25″ X 2″ Rectangle Base & 2.5″ Round Base AMPs Hole Pattern (RAM-B-111U)
  • Havis ChargeGuard CG-X-100 on automatic detection mode. The ChargeGuard senses the AC ripple voltage produced by the alternator and then turns the equipment on when the voltage has stabilized. It also turns the equipment off after a specified amount of time after the AC ripple voltage has stopped. The length of time is determined by dip switches, which I have set to 15 minutes so there’s enough time to squeeze out another APRS packet or listen to the radios without needing to idle.
  • Comet 4160J duplexer that separates VHF from UHF between the radio and the two antennas
  • Laird ETRAB1440 Phantom Elite antenna for 144-148 MHz mounted on the rear driver’s side
  • Laird ETRAB4303 Phantom Elite antenna for 430-450 MHz mounted on the rear passenger’s side
  • Laird QWB8063 open coil antenna for 806-866 MHz, 3 dB gain, mounted upside-down in the grille
  • Sti-Co nitinol Flexi-Whip antenna cut for 430-450 MHz (leftover from the Jeep) mounted front and center
  • Two Motorola HSN4039 speakers mounted under the rear bench
Clockwise, from top left: Laird Phantom Elite VHF antenna, Sti-Co nitinol Flexi-Whip cut for UHF, and a Laird Phantom Elite UHF antenna.

Clockwise, from top left: Laird Phantom Elite VHF antenna, Sti-Co nitinol Flexi-Whip cut for UHF, and a Laird Phantom Elite UHF antenna.

Here is video of the SWR on the VHF antenna and the UHF antenna. So… yeah, not that great, especially around the band edges. With these Phantom Elite antennas, you really are trading off performance for the low-profile design. The UHF antenna performs better than the VHF antenna. This is OK for me on most days, since a) I hardly ever pick up the radio, b) when I do, I don’t talk long, c) I prefer UHF, and d) I can always swap for a regular 1/4-wave when I need better performance. My APRS beacons are a good indicator of performance — I can rarely hit any digipeaters reliably near my house but always at a certain point on my daily commute, my beacons start to get picked up. Right now, the radio is hooked up to the front/center UHF antenna while the UHF Phantom Elite is just a placeholder and to balance out the antennas on the roof.

To resolve the desensitization issues between the radio and the scanner, the 800 MHz antenna was mounted upside-down in the grille. It works pretty well. It’s right between the grille and the active louvers. The antenna fits perfectly length-wise. Any longer and it wouldn’t have fit.

A view of the Laird 800 MHz antenna mounted upside-down in the grille.

A view of the Laird 800 MHz antenna mounted upside-down in the grille.

To get power into the cabin, a hole was poked in the rubber boot on the passenger’s side and ran under the doorjambs to behind the back bench. Everything is mounted on plywood behind the bench. This works well, except the scanner bracket is just tall enough that I can’t raise the bench seat up and have it close all the way which is mildly infuriating at times. The bench back is still able to latch to the back of the cab. Everything is grounded to the same ground bolt the rest of the truck uses on the back of the cab interior. The cables to the control heads and the mic are routed under the doorjambs, under the driver’s seat, and up to the tranny hump. The RAM Mounts are attached to the hump with three sheet metal screws and is surprisingly sturdy.

The electrical and main radio units mounted behind the rear bench.

The electrical and main radio units mounted behind the rear bench.

Des Moines police asked the scanning public for help after shootings

November 6, 2016 in Amateur Radio and Scanning

Something pretty awful happened in my neighborhood this week — two police offers ambushed and shot and killed within 20 minutes of each other. It’s something that I never thought would happen in this town, let alone three blocks away from where I was sleeping. Since then, both the Urbandale and Des Moines police departments have received an overwhelming show of support from the community. Continue reading »

Copying GRLevel3 settings to another computer

September 23, 2015 in Amateur Radio and Scanning

I recently updated all of my Windows machines to Windows 10, starting with the upgrade path and then a full wipe of the disk and re-installation of the operating system via Microsoft’s media creation tool to rid the machines of any bloatware or other bugs to ensure they’re all running around like young spring chickens. This of course meant spending a few hours re-installing software and getting everything back to normal. Of course, this involved installing GRLevel3 on all of these PCs and loading placefiles and other GIS settings I’ve become accustomed to. I’m definitely a creature of consistency, especially when it comes to using multiple workstations, so I like everything to be the exact same from computer to computer — right down to the order of placefiles loaded in GRLevel3’s placefile manager window.

GRLevel3 does not provide a native way to export and import settings, and you can’t simply copy the AppData folder from one machine to another. But, like many other Windows programs, preference data is stored in the registry, and this provides a somewhat easy workaround. Here are the steps to follow to copy settings from one machine to another, including favorite radar sites, FTP settings, placefiles, city/county/places of interest labels, and other settings:

Note: these instructions are for GRLevel3 2.0 on Windows 10. The instructions may be the same or at least very similar to GRLevel3 1.0 on previous Windows operating systems.

  • Grab a fresh copy of GRLevel3, download, and install it like normal on your second machine.
  • On the original computer with the custom GRLevel3 settings, type regedit in the search box to enter the registry editor. Hit enter or click on the registry editor icon in the results.
    grlevel3 search
  • In the left pane of the registry editor, navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USER > Software > GRLevelX > GRLevel3_2.
    grlevel3 regedit
  • Go to File > Export… to export the key. Ensure selected branch matches HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\GRLevelX\GRLevel3_2. Save it somewhere handy and accessible by your second machine, like a USB drive or Dropbox.
    grlevel3 export
  • Make sure you do not have GRLevel3 open on your second machine.
  • Enter the registry editor on your second machine following the same process outlined above.
  • In the registry editor, go to File > Import… and navigate to the location you saved the registry file, and import it.
  • If everything was imported successfully, you will get a dialog box letting you know the keys were successfully imported.
    grlevel3 success

Now fire up GRLevel3 and all of your custom settings should be there.

Race report: 2015 ALA Iowa Fight for Air Climb

March 22, 2015 in Amateur Radio and Scanning, Featured, Health and Fitness

The event organizers of the American Lung Association’s Iowa chapter calls the Fight for Air Climb in Des Moines a “vertical mile.” The ALA holds similar events all over the country. I became familiar with this event last year when I volunteered to provide communications support via the Polk County Amateur Radio Emergency Service. Polk ARES is a group of amateur radio operators — often colloquially known as hams — that assists municipal, county, state, and federal agencies with communications in times of disaster, but more commonly assists non-profits with routine communications at their events, like the ALA and the Fight for Air Climb. It’s actually written into the law that amateur radio licensees must participate in public service in exchange for the radio spectrum they are granted. Radio operators are stationed throughout the course and are often partnered with race organizers to pass messages such as injuries, logistical needs, and any other issues that may arise that require immediate attention from event staff.

Last year, I was paired up with the Renee, event coordinator and registration. Around the same time, I was about three months into my health and fitness kick, having lost about 25 pounds at that point by running and eating better (I am now down 80 pounds and maintaining my weight while running, lifting weights, and biking). At the event, I saw people from all walks of life and different fitness levels complete the event and thought that I could do this, too.

March is still in that awkward not-quite-winter-but-not-quite-running-season stage and was having a hard time coming up with a race that wasn’t a cheesy novelty St. Patrick’s Day race. This was the perfect opportunity to register for the Fight for Air Climb as my March race. I opened up a page, paid my $30 registration fee, and posted my fundraising page to raise the required $100, and met my goal within a few hours. Now that others have pledged money, this is for real. No backing out now.

The Ruan Center, left, the Marriott downtown, center, and EMC Insurance, second from right, are the three tallest buildings, in order from most to least tall, in Des Moines' Fight for Air Climb.

The Ruan Center, left, the Marriott downtown, center, and EMC Insurance, second from right, are the three tallest buildings, in order from most to least tall, in Des Moines’ Fight for Air Climb.

Each ALA chapter’s Fight for Air Climb is set up differently, but the Des Moines event is split between four buildings totaling 93 floors. Just as a comparison, the New York City Fight for Air Climb held at One Penn Plaza is only 55 stories high.

You start out at the EMC Insurance building (371 stairs, 15 floors), move to the Hub Tower (364 stairs, 18 floors), then the newest and tallest addition to the event for 2015, the Ruan Center (637 stairs, 32 floors), and then finish up at the event headquarters, the downtown Marriott (429 stairs, 28 floors). The event is chip-timed with mats placed at the top and bottom of each staircase. We go between the buildings via the skywalk system, and the time spent walking between buildings does not count towards your time. You take the elevators back down to the skywalk level, no need to go down the stairs you just came up on.

I volunteered again this year and had the same assignment with the event coordinator at the registration desk. Once the initial flurry of walk-in registrations, donations, check-ins and change of volunteers died down around 9:30, I left my assignment and headed to the door. Checking in is a breeze since the tables were arranged in a logical manner and ample volunteers were available to check you in and give you your packet and shirt. Then you head over to the chip table, where you sign the waiver and pick up your timing chip. There’s also a gear check across the atrium that is secure and free-of-charge.

Everyone is assigned a “wave” — a specific start time — so everyone doesn’t show up at once and start climbing at once. There were 46 waves this year. Once you reach the start line for each staircase, participants’ starts are spaced out by about 20 seconds to avoid congestion in the stairwells. This worked particularly well as I never had to go more than two abreast when passing someone (or getting passed).

Before I left, I debated whether or not to take my phone and earbuds along with me for the race. I’m glad I didn’t, because it only took around 3-5 minutes to climb to the top of each building. I would have barely been able to finish a single song from start to finish! Each climb felt really short. I remember getting to the top of the first building, a little confused, looking for another staircase, because it seemed so quick. Not that I wasn’t winded — I was a little — but I thought it would take me a lot longer.


The commute between buildings in the skywalk was pretty nice, too, giving you as much time as you needed to catch your breath, get some water, or socialize, but I kept going with very little time spent between the buildings. The skywalks can be pretty confusing, especially to visitors and people that don’t spend much time downtown, but there are plenty of volunteers, signs, and water stops throughout the skywalk route.

Some buildings were harder than others. I found the Hub Tower to be the easiest with brightly-lit stairwells, cool air, and the steps weren’t too deep. The EMC building is a close second for many of the same reasons. The most difficult stairwell, without a doubt, was the Ruan Center. Seemingly never-ending, dingy, narrow stairwells, stale air, and carpet on the steps of some floors which can tire you out in an event like this. Ending up at the Des Moines Club on the top floor and sweating on their fancy furniture is an interesting experience. As for the Marriott, I was in a hurry to use up all of my energy to get to the top, but it did have a nice, wide stairwell and it was neat to see construction workers’ names drawn into the concrete on each floor when the building was built in the 1980s.

One thing I really took note of was all of the encouragement along the route. There were signs on each floor of every building reminding you of why you started or other motivational phrases. There are also volunteers every few floors encouraging you. But all of the participants are very encouraging to other, which is something I did not expect. If you pass someone, you should encourage them. See someone on a landing catching their breath? Encourage them. Tell them they’re doing great. As mentioned before, people from all walks of life and fitness levels are participating.

I was also lucky enough to have my own group of people, um, encouraging me along the route. Maybe it wasn’t as much encouraging as it was smack-talking. As amateur radio operators working the event caught wind that I was on my way to the climb, radio operators started relaying my position to central command. Once I got to the Ruan Center’s start line, where Brad W0ELI was stationed, he turned the radio’s volume so I could hear Tom N0VPR and someone else taking about how I’m pretty good at making “the rest of us” look bad. It was certainly encouraging going into the halfway-point of the race. At the top of the Ruan Center, I stepped out of the staircase and into the Des Moines Club and was greeted by Leila WA0UIG, who had come in from Cedar Rapids to assist with the event and had been listening to the traffic on the radio tracking me.


Going into this race, I didn’t have a goal other than to finish all four buildings. I had no idea what kind of time I could expect. Most veterans didn’t either since the Ruan Center is a new addition to the event this year. With that said, I did not find this race to be hard. I’m not saying it isn’t tough — it certainly is tough — but it was not as difficult as I expected. To give you an idea of my fitness level, I currently run about 15 miles a week at 8:40/mile and bike about 25 miles a week. I did zero preparation for stair climbing, other than considering taking the stairs to my desk at work occasionally, four floors up. I did all of these stairs at my normal stair-climbing pace just as I would going to work or at my apartment building, something I consider to be a faster-than-walking pace. I really was expecting to have to stop on a landing to catch my breath, or catastrophically trip and fall at some point from inattention and/or fatigue, but neither of those happened. I definitely felt the burn in my quads about halfway up the Ruan Center and most of the way up the Marriott.

Floors Time
EMC Insurance 15 3:22
Hub Tower 18 3:03
Ruan Center 32 5:57
Downtown Marriott 28 5:34
Overall 93 17:56

A look at the Fitbit data

Being the huge wearable data geek that I am, one of the most exciting parts for me was seeing how my Fitbit Surge captured data for a vertical race. At last year’s climb, I saw a lot of Fitbit Force devices and this was about a month after the recall. At that time, the Force was the only device that tracked number of floors climbed and the wearables market wasn’t as crowded. In my observations this year, the device I saw the most was the Garmin Vivosmart followed by the Garmin Vivofit. I saw perhaps one or two Fitbit Charges, and no Fitbit Surges, Microsoft Bands, Nike+ Fuelbands or Jawbone UP24s. Chatter overheard about wearables at this year’s event was also a significant decrease over last year.

EMC Insurance: 470 steps, 37 calories burned, 113 bpm average. Official stats: time 3:22, 15 floors, 371 stairs

EMC Insurance: 470 steps, 37 calories burned, 113 bpm average. Official stats: time 3:22, 15 floors, 371 stairs

Hub Tower: 441 steps, 32 calories burned, 136 bpm. Official stats: time 3:03, 18 floors, 364 stairs

Hub Tower: 441 steps, 32 calories burned, 136 bpm. Official stats: time 3:03, 18 floors, 364 stairs

Ruan Center: 780 steps, 69 calories burned, 120 bpm. Official stats: time 5:57, 32 floors, 637 stairs

Ruan Center: 780 steps, 69 calories burned, 120 bpm. Official stats: time 5:57, 32 floors, 637 stairs

Marriott downtown: 699 steps, 53 calories burned, 118 bpm. Official stats: time 5:34, 28 floors, 429 stairs

Marriott downtown: 699 steps, 53 calories burned, 118 bpm. Official stats: time 5:34, 28 floors, 429 stairs

fight for air fitbit floorsFitbit’s step counts also includes steps I took on landings and at the top and bottom of each staircases, which explains the difference between “steps taken” and the ALA’s official “stair count” for each building.

And, while the official floor count for the event is 93 floors, my Surge recorded 114 floors by the end of the day. Keep in mind, not only does this include a couple extra floors from taking the stairs up to my apartment, but Fitbit devices use an altimeter to count the approximate number of floors based on atmospheric pressure and assumes each floor is about 10 feet tall. In commercial buildings, floors tend to be a little taller than 10 feet. I sure did rack up a lot of new Fitbit climbing badges that day, including Lighthouse, Skyscraper, Ferris Wheel, and Rollercoaster.

Would I do it again?

This was a challenging but fun event, and money raised goes to a great cause. I would definitely like to do this again and would recommend it to others.

Sending photos and messages over D-STAR with Bluetooth, the Icom ID-5100, and RS-MS1A

June 1, 2014 in Amateur Radio and Scanning

I finally got enough of the components to reconfigure my mobile radio setup (more to come on that when it’s finished). I installed the new Icom ID-5100 with the optional UT-133 Bluetooth board. This allows me to connect my Android phone or tablet to the radio wirelessly and use Icom’s RS-MS1A Android app. The app’s most notable functions are being able to send pictures and text messages over D-STAR.

Not long after I got the Jeep all buttoned up and tools put (mostly) away, I started playing around with the new radio and app. There aren’t any other ID-5100 users in the area, so I used the DPLUS echo function (the letter “E” in the last position of URCALL) to echo the voice and data stream after the repeater stops hearing my transmission.
Continue reading »