My Longest Ham Radio Contact Yet!

Every morning when I’m having my coffee I like to make a few amateur radio contacts with other operators throughout the world. This morning I noticed that my signals were reaching into Australia from my home here in Connecticut!

These signals were being logged by other amateur operators running the WSJTX software that listens for transmissions generated using the FT8 protocol.

I immediately sent a Tweet (or whatever X calls them these days) to my friend Hayden who runs the awesome Hamradio DX YouTube channel. He’s located in Tasmania, an island off the southern coast of Australia. He fired up his rig and we were able to reach each other!

FT8 is a specialized digital communications mode that can send limited messages over very long distances. The combination of the signal’s characteristics and the WSJTX software makes these transmissions readable even when a human listening may only hear static. Hayden’s software reported receiving my signal at -15db which is actually pretty good given the distance involved.

What’s most impressive is that these signals are not being relayed through satellites or the Internet. This is a direct point-to-point communication with the signal bouncing off the atmosphere. These super long range communications won’t happen every day, but when atmospheric conditions are right these long distance contacts are possible as we demonstrated.

To find out more check out Hayden’s channel where I learned a lot about radio technology when I was just getting started out. And of course you can take a look at my growing playlist of amateur radio topics including a video where I detail how FT8 works.

Why and How I Upgraded to an Amateur Radio General License

Over the last year I’ve been exploring amateur radio, a technology I’ve been learning quite a bit about over the last year. I started by just listening to signals using an RTL-SDR adapter and then went on to earn my FCC amateur radio technician license.

Last week I upgraded to a General class license that opens up many more long range frequencies I can use to communicate with other amateur operators all over the world at any time of day. You can find out more in my latest video.

The decision to upgrade was driven by my desire to explore the high-frequency (HF) bands, which are largely off-limits to those with a technician license. Technicians are able to access the UHF and VHF bands for local communications along with the 10 meter band for long range communications – but 10 meters is only active during the day.

Now as a General I can access the more popular 20 meter band along with some of the lower frequency bands like 40 and 80 meter that work better in the evening.

To prepare for the general license exam, I used the free website hamstudy.org and its companion mobile app. This platform tracks your progress and aptitude, providing a clear picture of your readiness for the exam. I also used the website to schedule a virtual exam I could take via Zoom as opposed to driving an hour both ways to my closest local in-person exam.

One thing I learned from this experience is the importance of not rushing into the exam. I initially attempted the exam when my overall aptitude level was only about 73 percent, and I fell short of passing by just one question.

After this experience, I took the time to really understand the questions and answers, using the “I don’t know” button on hamstudy.org when I wasn’t sure of an answer. This approach ensured that the questions I was struggling with kept coming up, allowing me to learn the correct answers. After a few more days of focused studying, I was able to pass the exam with only one incorrect question.

Looking ahead, the only other license above mine is the Amateur Extra license, which would give me access to some of the gaps in the bands that Generals are not able to access now.

This journey has been a rewarding one, and I’m excited to continue exploring the world of ham radio. I encourage anyone interested in this field to dive in and start learning – the world of ham radio is vast and full of exciting possibilities.

My radio playlist is a good place to start to learn more!

My Amateur Radio Exploration Continues!

In my latest YouTube video I update you on all the things I’ve been doing lately exploring amateur radio with my technician license.

Technician licenses are mostly limited to the 10 meter high frequency band for long-range communications, which is what we’ll focus on in this video. Right now conditions on the 10 meter band are at their best in years, allowing me to talk to people over great distances using voice and digital communication modes. In the video you’ll see me make contact with somebody over the radio in Texas from my home in Connecticut and I talk about how I’ve reached people in other parts of the world too.

In addition to voice communication, I have also experimented with digital modes like FT8. FT8 allows communication over even longer distances, thanks to its weak-signal performance. I’ve also been playing a lot with tried VarAC, a robust keyboard-to-keyboard communication method allowing for long distance chats, email and even file transfers. Towards the end of the video, I give a brief demonstration of connecting to a packet radio bulletin board system.

I’m currently working on obtaining my general license which will open up even more possibilities for communication and exploration. My journey as a technician license holder in the world of ham radio has been both exciting and educational, and I’m eager to continue sharing my progress as I advance to the next level. Stay tuned for more updates!

You can communicate with the ISS using just a handheld radio with its built in “rubber duck” antenna!

Now that the ISS’s digipeater is active there are several opportunities per day to try out different ways of confirming a radio contact with it.

Yesterday I wanted to see if it’s possible to get a data packet heard by the station 250 miles up with just the “rubber duck” antenna that came equipped with my super low-end 8 watt Baofang BF-F8HP radio (affiliate link).

Normally for satellite communications I use an Arrow Antenna designed specifically for satellite work. But is it possible to use something smaller and more portable? The answer is yes but it’s going to be much more challenging.

I attempted this contact when the station was almost directly over my location for the best results. I attached the radio to my computer with the BTECH-APRS-V01 (affiliate link) cable that converts the radio’s mic and headphone jacks into a three prong TRRS connector for smartphones and laptops with a single headphone/microphone jack on board.

After sending a ton of packets into the air while tracking the station with my smartphone it looks like one of them actually made it according to ARISS.net that listens for packets beamed back down from the station.

I was traveling when I did this so I didn’t have my Windows computer with me. I used an iOS app called PulseModem running on my Mac in its iOS compatibility mode. It was having trouble triggering the radio’s VOX so I probably sent less packets than I thought I did. I ended up holding down the PTT button on the radio and pushing transmit on the computer’s screen.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this works with a more reliable set up on future passes!

The ISS Digipeater is Active!

The astronauts turned on a data packet repeater on the space station last week. When the station is overhead licensed amateur radio operators can send short messages to the station and it re-transmits those messages back to the ground. I had a successful transmission on my first shot!

Somebody from Virginia heard me through the station and sent a message back:

To hit the repeater I used a handheld radio, an Arrow Satellite antenna, and a Signalink USB soundbox that I talked about in this video. I used a piece of software called PinPoint to manage the data packet traffic which connects up with another piece of software called Direwolf that listens for the packets and passes them to Pinpoint.

Here’s a fun video from RetroRecipes where they made contact using a Commodore 64! This worked because the packet data protocol used is the same one that was used in the 1980s to transmit data over the radio. Sometimes when something works it doesn’t need to change all that much.

This repeater isn’t always active. But the voice repeater on the station is usually going all the time. Sometimes you can even catch an astronaut operating the station during their break periods!

You can learn more about amateur radio on the ISS by visiting the ARISS website.

A Visit to the National Association for Amateur Radio (ARRL) Headquarters!

My journey into the world of amateur radio continues. This week we took a tour of the ARRL headquarters in my home state of Connecticut. We ended up with so much footage we had to split this piece into two parts!

In this first video we look at W1AW, also known as the Hiram Percy Maxim Memorial Station. Maxim was the co-founder of the ARRL and an early pioneer of radio technology. You’ll see one of Maxim’s radios towards the end of the video. It still works but it’s rather dangerous to use around modern electronics due to the electrostatic fields it generates.

W1AW is where the ARRL transmits their morse code trainings and digital bulletins and is known throughout the world as an important entry to get into contact amateur logbooks.

W1AW is open to licensed amateurs and the public to operate from too which is what we’ll do in part of the series!