Hanging out with hotspots

Revised: May 2020, CC BY-SAOpen in new tab regular
Most up-to-date version:  amateurradionotes.com/hotspots.htm Translations: 简体中文  Español  हिंदी  русский  日本語  韓国語 Open in new tab

Disclaimer: These are my personal notes and opinions based on my experience playing around with hotspots, as well as by learning from what others are sharing. I'm not affiliated with any hotspot projects, except as an enthusiastic user. If anything needs correcting, please let me knowOpen in new tab regular.

1) Overview

A personal, low-power hotspot is a combination of hardware, firmware, and software that enables an amateur radio enthusiast with internet connectivity to link directly to digital voice (DV) systems around the world. Hotspots can link to DMR, P25, and NXDN talkgroups; D-STAR reflectors; YSF rooms; and so on.

Basically, hotspots are your own personal digital voice repeater and gateway, which can be really fun. Here's a simplified diagram of what it looks like when you connect via your hotspot to a BrandMeister-hosted multiprotocol talkgroup, which enables people using different modes to talk with each other:

Diagram of DV HTs connecting via hotspots
Note: Some multi-mode hotspots are themselves capable of directly communicating to different modes.
HBlink (Home Brew Link) = An open-source, amateur radio networking protocolOpen in new tab regular
OpenBridge = An open protocol to link DMR serversOpen in new tab regular
NXDN and P25 work similar to YSF.

For someone like me who doesn't live within range of a digital voice repeater, a hotspot goes beyond being fun to being a critical key to accessing digital voice systems, a gift that opens doors to the whole wide world.

Overall, this is an exciting area of amateur radio that is evolving and progressing rapidly with some excellent work being done by some very innovative hams (there's a shoutout to some of these folksOpen in new tab regular at the end of this article).

1a) Background

This is an article about personal, low-power hotspots, also known as personal access points1, not repeaters. (For info about digital repeaters, see: How to make a MMDVM Digital Repeater by N5AMDOpen in new tab regular and Repeater BuildersOpen in new tab regular.)

I've been playing around with personal, low-power hotspots since 2016. During that time, I've tried a bunch of devices and apps including: a whole range of MMDVM-based hotspots running an app called Pi-Star (discussed in more detail in the Playing with Pi-Star articleOpen in new tab regular); three generations of SharkRF openSPOTs running their own software; the DVMEGA, first running DStar Commander, then Pi-Star; the BlueStack-Micro+ running BlueDV; the DV Access Point (DVAP); and a couple DV4 products. I discuss my experiences with all of these in this article.

1b) Digital ham radio nets

A great way to make use of hotspots is to join some of the many digital radio nets that are run every day by hams throughout the U.S. and around the world.

Colorado Digital Multiprotocol logo

I particularly enjoy participating on the Colorado HD (Hotspot Discussion) netOpen in new tab regular, a Colorado Digital MultiprotocolOpen in new tab regular net held at 7:30p MTN each Tuesday:

They also have a Telegram group: Colorado Digital MultiprotocolOpen in new tab regular.

Additional Telegram groups

There's a good list of Amateur Radio Telegram groups that was compiled by Tom, W2XQ, which is posted on the Colorado Digital website's Resources page: Ham Radio Telegram ChannelsOpen in new tab regular. One that I really like is for finding DMR nets: Ham Radio DMR Nets. It has a quite comprehensive list of active DMR nets. Each net is displayed an hour before it goes live, making it easy to find out what's currently on the air: https://t.me/HamRadioDMRNetsOpen in new tab regular

1c) Hotspot best practices

The regulations and best practices that apply to amateur radio—including use of frequencies, control of our stations, and on-air courtesy—also apply to our use of personal, low-power hotspots. It's our responsibility to understand and adhere to these regulations and best practices.

My personal practice is that I power on my personal, low-power hotspots only when I'm monitoring and in control of them, adhere to my local band and frequency use plans, and leave adequate pauses between transmissions. For more about this, see Hotspot best practicesOpen in new tab regular.

2) The hotspots

Disclaimer:  Again, these are my personal notes and opinions based on my experience playing around with hotspots, as well as by learning from what others are sharing. I'm not affiliated with any hotspot projects, except as an enthusiastic user. If anything needs correcting, please let me knowOpen in new tab regular.

  1. These are the hotspots I use, have tried in the past, or have heard/read about, in mostly alphabetical order:
    1. My current personal favorites [★]
    2. Amateur Radio Toys
    3. D2RG – something new coming?
    4. DMRspot
    5. DVAP dongle
    6. DVMEGA
    7. LoneStar MMDVM devices [★]
    8. MMDVM_HS_Hat devices
    9. Nano-Spot [Out of business]
    10. OpenGD77
    11. SharkRF openSpot [★]
    12. ThumbDV
    13. ZUM Radio ZUMspot [★]
    14. Others

2a) My current personal favorite hotspots [★]

My current favorite personal, low-power hotspots among the available ones are the SharkRF openSPOT2 & 3, and the MMDVM-based ZUMspot and LoneStar. They all are dependable, high-quality products, and are versatile, supporting multiple modes including DMR, D-STAR, YSF, P25, NXDN, various cross modes, and POCSAG (for digital voice paging).

[★] Here are some additional reasons I like the SharkRF openSPOT2 & 3: