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 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 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!

Unihertz Atom XL Review – a Phone with a Built-in Two Way Radio

I don’t think you’ll find a more creative smartphone maker than Unihertz. They make a lot of different phones and no two are alike. Some cater to Blackberry fans with physical keyboards and others cater to those who want something really tiny. All of the phones they make are super rugged and built like tanks. You can see my full playlist here.

This latest phone in their lineup does something I’ve never seen a smartphone do by adding a full function two-way walkie talkie radio to the mix. This is not some app that works over Wi-Fi but rather an actual radio transmitter that will interoperate with other radios on the same frequency. It even works with the digital DMR standard. See my full review here!

As a phone it seems to perform well – good battery life, adequate enough performance (but definitely on the low end) and compatibility with T-mobile and Verizon here in the United States. It has 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage with the option to also add an SD card to the mix. Without the SD card installed it’ll support two nano sim cards.

The phone is waterproof and super rugged with a nice compact 4″ display. It’s small but not tiny and I think would work well for those looking for a supplementary phone while traveling. It’s not all that expensive either at around $340 unlocked.

The two-way radio feature delivered far more features than I expected but users need to be mindful of what frequencies you’re operating on to avoid being fined by the FCC!

The radio is tunable from 400-480mhz – a huge swath of the “70 centimeter” band. Only a sliver of this band is accessible to unlicensed consumers in the FRS frequencies. Licensed amateur radio operators can use it between 420 and 450 mhz in the United States but should follow the ARRL’s band plan for proper operation.

But if you’re not licensed you need to spend some time programming the two way radio function properly. Unihertz provided no documentation or warnings in the box nor was my phone programmed with FRS frequencies out of the box. In fact it was operating on channels the US government uses for satellite communications and work its way into amateur frequencies that are not authorized for non-licensed use.

Although the phone is not type rated for the unlicensed FRS frequencies those are the ones that you should operate on being mindful of not using the phone’s two watt transmission power on channels 8-14.

The phone offers some additional features for amateur operators including support for repeaters with differing input and output frequencies, CTCSS tones, etc. I was surprised that its support for the DMR digital standard is extensive and worked with my local DMR repeater along with my Anytone handheld DMR radio. I was also able to send DMR text messages.

Overall this is another fun and quirky phone from Unihertz that delivers a lot for a low price. But users need to be very careful to program its two-way radio feature to avoid being fined by the FCC.

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 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.

Part 2 of My ARRL Tour Video: The Future of Amateur Radio

In the second part of my visit to the headquarters of the National Association for Amateur Radio we get on the air at W1AW station and make my first international contact. Following that we take a look at what the ARRL envisions to be the new digital future for amateur radio.

Some may consider amateur radio an obsolete technology given all of the ways we can connect to others over the Internet. Unlike the Internet nobody owns amateur radio and it’s relatively easy to reach people over super long distances with nothing more than a low cost radio and a wire in a tree. As I’m typing this I’m remotely logged into a PC in the basement making contacts in South America using a digital mode called FT8.

Working within the limitations of small bits of bandwidth and the physics of radio communications is a ton of fun for those of us who like tinkering with technology.

You can watch my full series on amateur radio and software defined radios here.

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!

New Video : My Ham Radio Adventure Continues with Base Station Equipment

My latest video is a “haul” of some of the Ham radio gear I picked up to begin building out my base station. For equipment I went with the Yaesu FP-991a which a solid all-round radio that covers HF, VHF, and UHF frequencies in a single unit. It has separate antenna connections for the HF and UHF/VHF sides.

I went with an HF (high frequency) antenna that blogger Tom Costello built for some of the same things I’d like to do with mine – exploring the 10 meter band with a technician license. Technicians here in the USA get a small sliver of that band to experiment on but need a General and/or Extra license to go further into the lower frequency bands.

So far the set up is working quite well – I’ve made some very long range digital FT8 contacts into Europe and South America and even talked to somebody briefly in Georgia from my home in Connecticut!

There will be much more to come on this topic as I get antennas installed and begin exploring the portions of the radio spectrum this new equipment will give me access to!

Until then, 73 KC1RGS.

Ham Base Station Acquired

I just ordered a bunch of stuff to begin my amateur radio station. I still only have a technician license which limits a lot of what I can do on lower frequencies but there’s still plenty to explore.

For the base unit I went with the Yaesu FT-991A. I like it because it integrates HF, VHF and UHF bands all in one unit and its powerful enough for the things I want to do. There’s room to grow here as it also works on the frequencies I’m not currently licensed to operate on. For power it can do 50 watts on UHF & VHF with another 50 on the HF bands. Because my HF interests are mostly in the “weak signal” domain that’s more than enough power. And the 50 watts on the UHF/VHF side should be more than fine to do some of the local packet stuff I’m interested in exploring.

Somebody told me that in photography you can’t have enough lenses and in amateur radio you can never have enough antennas! In my case I’m limited to the UHF/VHF bands and a small sliver of the 10 meter HF band. So that helps a bit to narrow things down.

For UHF/VHF I went with what DX Engineering suggested – a Diamond X50A. It’s a simple vertical fiberglass antenna. For HF I found a great blog post from Tom Costello who’s doing exactly what I want to do on HF with a technician license. He built a simple dipole using a pair of MFJ-1610T antennas to make 10 meter contacts. So I bought exactly what he is using.

Because I am not all that handy I will be hiring somebody to mount the antennas and run cable into the house. In the meantime I bought a portable antenna tripod that I’ll set up when I’m exploring the spectrum. I am eventually going to get the UHF/VHF antenna up on the roof but will keep the HF closer to the ground as I’ll be needing a different antenna after I get my General license for the lower bands.

My plan is to try and reach out to a few viewers using the weak signal FT8, JS8talk, and whatever other protocols might work over 10 meters. If you think you are in range let me know and I’ll add you to the list! I’d love to do a few livestreams experimenting with it.

Great Photo of the ISS HAM Station

There’s an amateur radio on the International Space Station. Usually it’s configured in repeater mode which is how I was able to contact a fellow HAM in upstate New York. I communicated through this ISS radio in repeater mode which received my signal and re-broadcast it out.

Sometimes the astronauts talk to people on the ground too. This weekend was the National Association for Amateur Radio‘s annual Field Day event where amateurs around the world make contacts out in the field using battery or emergency backup power. Astronaut Kjell Lindgren was participating in the event making contacts on the ground. You can see a list of stations he received on his notepad in the photo.

Contacted a Packet Radio BBS!

My amateur radio adventure continues. This evening I finally managed to get my gear connected to a packet radio BBS! These are simple bulletin board systems that have been around since the 80’s.

What’s cool about packet BBSes is that they do not require any type of communications infrastructure other than the radios on both ends.

New Video : HAM Radio Update!

The last time we talked about my amateur radio adventure I had just passed my technician license exam but didn’t yet have the license! In this latest video I fill you in on all of the things I’ve been doing on the air. Here’s what I’ve managed to figure out:

Contacting the Space Station
The International Space Station has a pair of amateur radios on board and it’s possible with just a handheld radio to communicate through it! Most of the time the astronauts aren’t available but the radio is set in repeater mode so people on the ground can communicate with each other over great distances. In the video I demonstrate how I was able to talk with some 300 miles away using the station as a repeater!

Digital Voice Communications
The Anytone 878UVII Plus radio I purchased works in analog and digital modes. I was able to connect to a local repeater and communicate with the Connecticut ARES group digitally. I’ve found so far that experienced Hams have been very welcoming and helpful with this newbie :).

Packet Radio
I am very interested in sending data through the air without having to use phone lines or Internet connections to do it. In the video I demonstrate how I was able to send an email through a local Winlink server using my handheld radio and a laptop.

What’s next? I need to get a proper antenna mounted on my roof for VHF & UHF communications along with a more powerful base station radio. That’s my next project although I’ll probably hire a professional to install it. I welcome any tips, recommendations and advice !

HAM Radio Update

Still having fun with amateur radio! I’ve made some progress on a few fronts.

Last night I made my first successful contact with another HAM through the International Space Station’s repeater! The person I reached is in Ithaca, NY – about 300 miles from my home in Connecticut. He offered to send over an Mp3 of his side of the transmission which I’ll post here soon!

Typically my radio can reach about 20 miles give or take so having the space station relay transmissions is a huge range booster. What’s remarkable is that my radio only transmits at about 6 or 7 watts and the station is 250 miles up.

What I’m finding with this hobby is that you need the right antenna for the job. So I recently picked up the handheld monstrosity pictured above which is designed for making space station contacts. It’s also useful for regular local contacts until I get a proper antenna installed here.

Additionally I was also able to send my first message through the Winlink email system without using any Internet infrastructure! This is a hybrid email network that can work via local radio receivers but can also route email either from station to station or over the Internet. It was fun to watch the transaction on my laptop. I bought a special device called a “SignaLink USB” which can switch on my handheld radio’s transmitter when the PC sends out the audio.

Once I get an antenna installed I’m going to set up a little BBS on a Raspberry Pi for the local HAMs to use.

I’ll put together an update video soon once I have a few things ironed out!

KC1RGS is on the Air!

I was assigned my callsign from the FCC last night so now I’m officially an amateur radio operator! I already made my first contact with somebody off a local repeater station. He’s located about 20 miles away from me. The cool thing is that he’s been into contacting the ISS and other orbiting satellites which is something I’m interested in too.

I’m sure we’ll have more to come on the radio topic!

Weekly Wrapup: Getting my HAM Radio License and What You Can and Can’t Do on Amateur Radio Bands

So I took my technician test and passed it with only two incorrect answers out of 35. Now I’m waiting for the FCC to process my application and assign me a call sign. I won’t be able to start transmitting on my radio until I show up in the FCC’s database a little later this week or next.

On the Weekly Wrapup this week I talk about a few of the things you can’t do on amateur radio bands:

  1. You can’t encrypt any communications – even when when using digital modes. There is one carve out for sending commands to orbiting amateur radio satellites but that’s it as far as encryption goes.
  2. Anonymous transmissions are prohibited. Amateur operators need to identify themselves with their call signs. And the database of call signs and licenses is public information available to all. I did discover a few good friends of mine locally are licensed operators! I had no idea they were until now.
  3. No swearing or obscene language. This one speaks for itself.
  4. No broadcasting. Amateur radio is typically a 1 to 1 communication between two operators. While you can make more general calls for testing your radio you are prohibited from reporting the news or having a nightly radio show. There are exceptions for emergencies where providing a general broadcast can help save lives and property but that’s the only exception.
  5. Stay in your lane: The FCC has assigned specific radio bands to amateurs where they are allowed to operate. As a holder of a technician license I am limited mostly to local communications. Operating on the longer range high frequency (or HF) bands requires upgrading to the general license. I am allowed to operate in a narrow stretch of bandwidth in the 10 meter space, however.

There will of course be more to come on this topic! Stay tuned!