Diving into D-STAR – 2

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2) Choosing a way forward

Given all the interesting options that are available, how do you actually choose which combination of radio, hotspot, and software to use?

Time to choose one of the forks in the path
Fork in a woodland path
by MarclSchauer, Shutterstock

For me, this involved first doing lots of reading and watching lots of videos (see Links to helpful resources on the Notes page at the end of this article).

Then an Elmer tutored me. A shout out to Starr Aldrich, N0AES, of the Longmont Amateur Radio Club, who generously spent a good bit of time patiently answering my questions.

Next I came across some enthusiastic hams in southern Colorado, the Parker Radio Association, who are doing lots of fun digital radio-related work. Their site helped me gain a broader perspective about digital radio.

The Charlotte Digital Radio Group is another group doing amazing work with digital radio and posting good information. See their Contents page.

Finding all of these resources was a bit like being tossed a life saver … I was still in the soup, but at least my head was finally above water!

As one of my Elmers, George, KA0BSA, says, "When people ask me what ham radio is, I say it is a learning curve."

2a) Answering three key questions

One of the main things I've learned is that choosing a correct way forward comes down to answering a few key questions, the most important of which is:

1) Which systems do the people you want to talk with use?

Because the various digital voice systems are largely incompatible, in many cases you need to be using the same system as the people you want to talk to. For example, I knew that I wanted to be able to talk with groups that use D-STAR DPLUS Reflectors (REF) as well as FREE STAR repeaters and Dextra X-Reflectors (XRF). Knowing that narrowed my focus and eliminated hotspots that don't support linking to non-REF destinations.

Beyond that, as much as is possible I'd also like the flexibility to explore other systems, so the next key question is:

2) How close to the cutting edge can you travel comfortably?

On one end of the spectrum is today's world of personal technology, which pretty much spoils us. The most complicated thing we need to do is figure out which OS we want to buy into. Then we simply download and install some apps and at most tweak a few easy settings. After that, it all pretty much just works.

On the other end of the spectrum are the SuperNERD geniuses designing and soldering their own boards, writing their own apps, and putting up repeaters.

Alas, I'm not a SuperNERD. While I'm willing to do some exploring closer to the cutting edge, I also know I should avoid solutions whose descriptions include terms like "experimental" or that require SuperNERD powers.

SuperNERD ... NOT!

For example, the description of an early iteration of a multi-mode modem board in one of the PRA presentations says: "Requires deep experience in compiling and configuring software, and interfacing with hardware." Nope, not for me.

There's one final question I think is worth considering:

3) Is the technology open?

For what it's worth, I prefer open technology. When technology is open, more people can review it and contribute to its improvement and security. People also can use open technology more easily to experiment and innovate.

This means I prefer DV radios and reflector systems that are open to those that are proprietary and closed. I also prefer a hotspot that enables me to connect to multiple different reflectors over one that limits me to a proprietary system.

The openness factor is one I always carefully weigh when making decisions about the technology in which to invest my time and money. I still use proprietary solutions, but all other factors being relatively equal, I prefer an open one.

How would the Trojans have reacted if the Horse statue the Greeks gave them was made of glass and they could see right through it? They would have seen the malicious implants and removed them before letting the statue into their enterprise. That is my key thought about open-source software. Everyone can examine the code and look for and remove vulnerabilities….

Bob Gourley, Cognitio co-founder, former Defense Intelligence Agency CTO

Deciding on a direction

To begin with, I'll look for a solution that enables me to link to D-STAR REF and XRF reflectors, as well as to the FREE STAR repeaters I know I want to access. I'll see how it goes from there.

2b) Before doing anything else

There are a couple registration processes that can take a few days to complete, so it's a good idea to get them started as soon as you can.

i) Register with the D-STAR Gateway System

To fully use the gateways on many D-STAR repeaters, you need to register with the D-STAR Gateway System, a system that shares callsign routing and other information across all the D-STAR repeaters within the system. It's easy enough to register, so it's worth doing this right away.

The registration form

ii) Optionally, register with CCS7 for DCS (and DMR)

If you're going to be using the DCS reflector system (or DMR), you also need to register with an authentication and routing system called CCS7 (Callsign Communication System, 7-digit).

The DCS system uses the CCS7 ID number instead of your callsign, though its authentication service maps your CCS7 ID number to your callsign. The CCS7 system is now the authentication system for multiple systems.

Registrations for Europe and Africa are handled by the European DMR-ID registration system. Choose "Register services for an individual callsign (including private hotspots and private repeaters)."

Registrations for everywhere else, including North America, South America, Asia, and Oceania, are handled by RadioID.net.

The registration system is administered by volunteers so be patient, it can take a few days to receive your CCS7 ID.

2c) Choosing a D-STAR-capable radio

There are a bunch of good D-STAR radios available from Icom and Kenwood.

Because of my good experience with the Kenwood TM-V71A mobile radio, when I started getting curious about exploring D-STAR and then saw that Kenwood had released a new D-STAR-capable HT, the TH-D74A, I was intrigued.

My HT: Kenwood TH-D74A

I suspected the TH-D74A might be a good choice for me, especially when I saw that the feature set also includes APRS with built-in GPS. Also nice: tri-band, bluetooth and USB connectivity, and IP54/55 weatherproofing. And it has a color screen, which isn't really necessary, but sure is sweet.

Once I got my hands on this radio, I quickly grew to like it. I find the way the interface is organized, especially the menu system, really easy to use.

The menu screen for the TH-D74A

I did swap out the stock rubber duck for a Comet HT-224. However, one thing I didn't like about the new antenna was that, because it is thinner than the stock one, it left a gap between the radio's antenna seat (5/8″ ID) and the HT-224 (3/8″ OD). I solved that by getting a $0.26 rubber gasket (3/8″ ID × 5/8″ OD × 1/16″ groove) at our local hardware store.

TH-D74A with a rubber gasket around the HT-224 antenna

I sliced off one side of the gasket with a razor blade, and it makes a perfect seal: it fits snugly around the antenna, and also fits down in the antenna seat opening nice and tightly. Sometimes, you just get lucky! I think the gasket will help preserve the radio's IP54/55 weatherproofing, and it looks better, too, making the antenna look like a more natural part of the radio.

I think this radio is going to give me years of opportunities to explore and enjoy many areas of analog and digital communication.

2d) Choosing a hotspot

I then needed to decide which hotspot to use. That's when all the great information from Elmer Starr as well as some of the online info I came across really helped. One thing Starr recommended was to try a solution based on the little Raspberry Pi (RPi) computer, as there are several hotspot boards and USB sticks that work with it. That struck me as a good direction to head since I had never played around with an RPi and have wanted an excuse to try one out.

Raspberry Pi 3

As Thorin Klosowski writes in his Lifehacker.com article, What I’ve Learned From Tinkering With the Raspberry Pi for Five Years:

[T]he Raspberry Pi is far, far away from being as user friendly as a PC or Mac. That’s a feature, not a bug. The Raspberry Pi is built to force you to learn troubleshooting, and that’s still one of my favorite things about it.

So I got an RPi 3, and started tinkering with it. By default, it runs Raspbian OS (Raspbian is a version of Debian Linux that was created for the Raspberry Pi). I'm quite impressed with what this little credit card-sized computer can do. It even includes my favorite office suite, LibreOffice. Nice!

Then I turned my attention to the hotspot itself. There are many combinations of hotspot devices and software being developed by innovative hams, many of which support multiple digital voice systems including D-STAR, DMR, YSF, P25, and NXDN.

This is such an important topic and there are so many choices that I spun it off into its own article: Hanging out with hotspots.

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