Friday, October 12, 2018

Hammy Stuff

Procrastination -- it's been a month since I posted, and I haven't even been out of town! -- results in multiple posts, some of them short, being consolidated.

Part of the procrastination is due to disgust with The National Scene, ifyouknowwhatImeanandIthinkyoudo. Part of it is laziness and inertia, part waiting to see what will happen...

Anyway. The 98-Double-Ought-3 Amateur Radio Club celebrated its 20th Anniversary yesterday. Yay, us!πŸŽ†πŸŽ‰ Yes, there was cake and ice cream. πŸŽ‚πŸ¨
Now, there are bigger and older clubs out there; Western Washington is pretty "radio-active", so to speak. The Radio Club of Tacoma is over a hundred years old, and the club "radio shack" -- yes, hams really do use that term -- is an actual house that the club purchased 50 or 60 years ago. Which is pretty cool, and yes, there is a certain amount of envy there. But. It isn't our club, and it doesn't really serve our needs.

Speaking of which...
On the Fifth Saturday of the month -- which happens quarterly, check a calendar -- The Washington State Emergency Management Department sponsors the Fifth Saturday Drill, AKA the "EOC to EOC Drill", in which municipal Emergency Operations Centers "check in" with their county and adjacent municipal EOCs, and also with the state EOC at Camp Murky Murray.

Clubs and/or ARES/RACES¹ groups are encouraged to have their own internal drills or exercises, which may be as low-key as an extra weekly net for everyone to check in.

Which is what we've done in the past, but this time we decided to mix it up a little bit. In addition to the net, we ran a sort of scavenger hunt (or, as hams call it, a Fox Hunt), in which we reported to a central location, and were given a list of 25 sets of coordinates in Latitude/Longitude, and were expected to program them into our navigation devices, go there, and report when we arrived. Rather than announce what was there, we would say "Arrived point 'R'", and make a note for later that "Point 'R'" was the Deseret Industries store, or Methodist Church, or whatever.

The scenario, or rationale if you will, was that there was a "Point of Distribution" (POD) or other  emergency/disaster response activity set up at that location and they had requested communication support. And, yes, if the scenario was actually taking place here in town, they could just tell us "Go to the Safeway on 320th" and we'd be fine, but what if we were operating in an unfamiliar town, and the landmarks had been wiped out?

The initial intent was that those using a cell phone's navigation app would put it in airplane mode, so as to disable the ability to ask Skynet "What's at XX° YY' ZZ" -AAA° BB' CC"?"², but it turns out that airplane mode disables the phone's GPS, so we had to make do.

Some of us were also experimenting with APRS, the Automatic Packet Reporting System, sometimes mis-called the Automatic Position Reporting System, because it's most common use is tracking the geophysical location of a station.

Yes, I know, you don't want Skynet/Big Brother tracking you. Neither do I.

But in a Disaster/Emergency Response situation, if I am driving in my car, whether it's because I am responding to a POD or doing a "windshield survey" of a neighborhood, it would be helpful to the Incident Command/Emergency Operations Center to be able to track me. Makes it quicker and more precise for me to be able to call in "Tree down blocking road at my position", if I don't actually have to transmit "my position." Plus, the easily re-route me if new in formation, or a new request for assistance, came in.

You can also use APRS to transmit things like weather data, from a backyard weather station.

Now, transmitting this information requires a connection to a "Terminal Node Controller", which is best described as a "Radio Modem". These have been fairly expensive over the years. You can now get a radio which has one built in, for a fairly hefty price tag, and, unless your radio has a GPS built in as well -- some do -- you need a GPS, too. You can also purchase a device that connects to your radio and has a GPS and the TNC built-in. Also pricey.

Along comes cheap Chinese electronics to the rescue.

You can now get a Chinese made handheld radio, a "handy-talky"³ or HT, for dirt cheap. There are many different labels, and they probably all come from Peoples Liberation Army Factory #27, and may well be made by underaged slave labor. They first started hitting the market here in the States about 10 years ago, and thanks to Amazon are somewhat ubiquitous. People whose interest in amateur radio was primarily Search and Rescue or CERT⁴ were snapping these things up for the price of a weeks' worth of lattes.

I had disdained these for quite a while, until I realized that this was a cheap entreΓ© into a mobile rig with a little more oomph than the HT I was checking into the nets with (or trying to...)

Then I decided that $25 bucks for a functional HT was cheap enough that I could afford to put one into each emergency kit. One for each car, one for the Bug Out Bags...

And then one of the outfits selling these, BTech, started selling a cable that had a chip in it, that lets you hook up a cell phone to your radio; the chip allows the cell phone to emulate a TNC, running an APRS app that uses the phones' GPS.

Or it's supposed to.  I'm still trying to get the squelch and VOX settings right, and may need to tweak some settings in the app. But the cable costs $19.00, so what the heck?

Well, "The heck" turns out to be that the FCC has finally woken up to the fact that there are thousands if not millions of these cheap Chinese radios here now, and there are a myriad issues with them:
  1. Signal quality is not great, and they are more likely to have "spurious emissions" (i.e., "interference") problems than the higher-priced Japanese-made radios.
  2. The Chinese make these things to transmit on a wide range of frequencies. Unfortunately, the radios are not certified to transmit on much of the spectrum they can operate on.
  3. People are buying these things to use in commercial or service applications where they are not licensed to operate. Yes, you're a hospital, and you need to communicate internally. No, you may not communicate internally on those frequencies. Yes, we mean it. Here's your fine.
So, back in August the FCC  issued an opinion that basically warned importers they were violating regulations by importing radios that could operate on frequencies that said radios were not certified on. The opinion pointed out that the only radios that could be imported without a "Part 90 Certification" were those that could operate only on amateur radio frequencies.
But wait! There's more! After saying "Yes, licensed hams (only) may use these radios on ham freqs" the FCC reconsidered:
My personal opinion is that we will see the supply of handheld radios that cost a Tubman and a Lincoln dry up, and start seeing radios that are largely identical in appearance but will only transmit on authorized amateur radio frequencies. This is largely a matter of "flashing" an EEPROM  these days anyway.

It is common for the afore-mentioned Japanese amateur radio manufacturers to have slightly different versions of the same model radio, to account for the different frequency allocations in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. So, again, I believe that the Chinese and their importers are going to have to modify their business model a bit to account for government regulations. Frankly, cheap radios seem like a boon if we want to encourage people to enter the hobby, although the Government and the Hobby may need to step up their efforts to educate newbies.

However. I can't help wonder of this is all part of the current trade and Realpolitik tensions with China.

Which (to bring this post back full circle to the top of the page) is why, over cake and ice cream last night, we were joking about keying up our cheap Chinese HTs and having an FCC SWAT Team bust down our doors...

1. ARES: Amateur Radio Emergency Services. An Emergency Communications group sponsored by a club, usually with Memoranda of Understanding with one or more government or non-government organizations.
RACES: Radio Amateur Communications Emergency Services. EmComm group organized by and supporting a government organization.
2. In digital format Lat/Long, West Longitude and South Latitude are represented by a "negative" sign.
3. Contrary to popular usage, in WWII a "walky-talky" was a backpack radio, the handheld version was a "handy-talky."
4. Community Emergency Response Teams. Citizens trained, and possibly organized, at the municipal level to perform "light" emergency/disaster response.

1 comment:

Old NFO said...

Congrats to y'all! :-)