My station setup … and findings

Well… I’ve now been on-air for a little over a month. It has been over that time, I’ve made a number of observations, both about the equipment I have, the technologies, and the underlying culture of amateur radio.

Cultural observations…

Since becoming an operator… it’s amazing how many other radio amateurs you see crawling out of the woodwork… it’s like a secret society. 😉 For the most part, the house of a serious radio amateur is covered with numerous verticals, dipoles, loops and other assorted types of aerial. Their car often has several whips attached. But if you only know someone via some online means … it’s often surprising when you discover they also indulge in the hobby too.

I’m getting to understand how nets work, and how to participate in the field, the social aspects of amateur radio. Still have trouble catching peoples’ callsigns, especially 7-character ones such as my own. (Believe me … took me a while to get used to saying it properly.) But this is all stuff I’m learning… and I’m quickly picking up how it works. 🙂

Station setup…

Antenna installationI’ve got my station reasonably well set up now. A fellow amateur dropped around with a 2m vertical (see left… it’s that big white stick poking through the yagi TV antenna) to stick on the roof, which seems to do a good job on both 2m and 70cm. Eventually I’ll mount this antenna up a bit higher so it is above the TV antenna (presently, there’s apparently a little bit of interference when I have a QSO) using proper mounting brackets, but this does the job for now.

Amateur Station: VK4FSJLUsing BNC-terminated RG58 (surplus from the days when we ran a computer network using the stuff), some T-pieces and 50ohm terminators, I’ve been able to run a feed out to the front verandah of the house where I do most of my work during summer (see right), and another feed into my bedroom.

This works well… my line-of-sight is crap in this part of Brisbane, but with the antenna up high, I’m able to work a couple of repeaters in my local area — namely, VK4RBC and VK4RBN. Out on the verandah, I’ve also got the bonus that it’s nice and cool, with plenty of fresh air, and natural light. 2W of power gets me into VK4RBN reliably… and while the ACMA recently upped the limit on Foundation license holders to 10W on all modes (previously, we were limited to 3W on FM), I still prefer to use only what is required to communicate — I stay QRP where practical. 😉

The equipment…

I’ve mentioned the rig I’m using before… it’s a handheld, a Kenwood TH-F7E. So far, it hasn’t been too bad to use, does everything I want. I use it to listen to and talk with stations on the 2m and 70cm bands, but also, as a portable AM/FM radio (commercial stations), HF radio receiver and UHF CB scanner. Some of the facilities such as visual scanning are really handy. There are a couple of niggles, however…

PSU for TH-F7E... Seriously Kenwood... what is that?!My biggest niggle with this set, would be its power supply (see left). It’s a wall-wart power supply, designed for the two-pin power outlets used throughout Europe and Northern Africa (Thanks Tim, again :-D). This is fine… you could get a decent adaptor that will take the weight of the PSU, but it seems that’s not how Kenwood do things. They instead, provided this pissy little converter consisting of a 5cm length of cable, with an Australian power plug on one end, and a line socket on the other. I have to rest the thing on the floor to use it.

The stock power supply is underpowered — sure, you can charge the radio with it… but forget transmitting. Plus, notice the toroidal core? I had to put that in, otherwise when tuned to Triple M (104.5MHz WFM), I’d instead hear ABC Classic FM (106.1MHz) and Triple J (107.7MHz). My advice to people buying this radio — get yourself a 12v switchmode PSU, capable of at least 2A. I’m using a 4A one sold by Jaycar, which works — no tuning inaccuracies, no noise, and I can transmit a full 5W whilst charging without the PSU raising a sweat.

The other niggle, is that the power levels are perhaps a little awkward. When powered by external DC power, I can transmit on 5W (high power), 2W (low power), or 500mW (“economy low” power). If I use the lithium ion battery pack it came with, this becomes a choice between 5W (high power), 500mW (low power) or 50mW (“economy low”). On alkaline batteries, it’s even worse: 500mW, 300mW or 50mW. It’d be nice to transmit on 2W when mobile — this was particularly a bad limitation when my limit was only 3W prior to the ACMA lifting this restriction.

EchoLink experiments…

More recently, I’ve started playing around with EchoLink, a system for linking repeaters via the Internet. It’s similar in many ways to IRLP, however has the added feature of being accessible from a computer with an internet connection. The official EchoLink client is a proprietary Windows-only client, however, there are a couple of free/open-source implementations of the client. I tried two… namely:

Qtel seems to work quite well, except when idle, it does seem to chew CPU time for no apparent reason. EchoLinux didn’t seem to want to play nice at all, and had many sharp edges. For what it’s worth, the svxlink package in Portage is a little dated now, you’ll find however that renaming the ebuild file to svxlink-080102.ebuild and running the usual ebuild foo.ebuild digest ; emerge foo dance will work just fine. I’m not sure what’s being done to maintain this package — I can’t, as it’s impossible for me to test the sysop functions in it (I’m not permitted to run an automatic station on a Foundation radio license).

The other night I connected to the EchoLink node KB9OHY-R which AFAIK is in the same general territory as former developer cshields — I wasn’t on for long as it was getting fairly late at night… but we may just make contact at some point in the future. (Yes… what was that about not making contact due to being only on VHF/UHF?)

The purists would probably say I’m cheating using the internet to contact people, but hey… in my situation, it’s about the only way I make reliable contact with people outside of Brisbane. And yes, if either one of VK4RBN or VK4RBC were on EchoLink or IRLP, I’d use the network that way. 😉

Anyway… some time at the end of the year, I might look into getting a HF rig. The hamfests are apparently a good way to pick up gear like this, so I’ll wait and see. There’s one coming up in a few months organised by the Brisbane Amateur Radio Club, a club I’m now officially a member of. My big concern is where to put the enormous antennas needed, I suppose I’ll figure that out in due course too.