The Road Back to Radio – Digital Voice

DV Hotspot

Hotspot for DMR, D-STAR, Fusion, and P25

There are more than 700,000 FCC-licensed ham radio operators in the United States, but only a small fraction are actively engaged in the hobby at any given time. Although I’m often one of those inactive people, every few years I get interested in some new area of the hobby.

Five years ago it was D-STAR, a digital voice mode. This time it’s DMR (Digital Mobile Radio), another digital voice mode mostly used for commercial and public safety applications that’s being somewhat awkwardly retrofitted to the amateur radio paradigm. While the learning curve with DMR is a bit higher, the low cost of entry makes it an easy gamble. It’s not that digital voice is necessarily difficult, but a good portion of the documentation and know-how for both modes is hidden away in haphazardly organized “Files” areas spread across a lot of unconnected Yahoo Groups, most of which require membership. Anybody approaching DMR or D-STAR with simple and reliable methods like scouring Google for technical information is in for a frustrating experience.

Roadblocks aside, my venture into DMR circled back through D-STAR and all the development I’d missed over the past several years. There’s a lot of symbiosis between DMR and D-STAR activity, mostly in the form of the little low cost Raspberry Pi computers. My first goal was to marry the two modes in a single Raspberry Pi box with as many options as possible. The result is the hotspot pictured above.

The hardware consists of a Raspberry Pi 3 B board, a DVMEGA board seated on the GPIO pins, a DV4mini attached directly to USB, and the red DVAP attached to USB by cable.

The software starts with the latest Western D-Star image using Raspbian Jessie Linux, including ircDDBgateway and D-StarRepeater for use with the D-STAR DVAP, and the DV4mini and DV4MF2 software for the DV4mini. I added MMDVMHost for use with the DVMEGA on DMR. The SD Card image also works fine on the Raspberry Pi 2 B board.

Also pictured are the ultra-cheap Tytera TYT MD-380 radio for DMR and the not-so-cheap Icom IC-92AD radio for D-STAR.

The DVMEGA can be used for D-STAR instead of the DVAP, but it’s being dedicated to DMR so that both modes can be used at the same time. The DV4mini doesn’t get much use in this setup, but it covers a few things that can’t be done with the other hardware. For one, it makes this a System Fusion C4FM hotspot, yet another digital voice mode for amateur radio, created by Yaesu. I’m leery of spending the kind of money Yaesu is asking for a Fusion rig until somebody can convince me that activity will actually grow there, so it’s just DMR and D-STAR for now.

Since most DMR and D-STAR networks are closed-source systems, there’s really not much else to do at the moment other than hope for new developments and enjoy some interesting QSOs with other hams in the meantime. The one possible exception to this is the D-STAR X Reflector network that uses open source software and operates without any real central authority. I’ve set up an XLX Reflector and have another dxrfd-based X Reflector in the works, but without an automatic DNS distribution scheme, I’m doubtful that the X Reflectors can ever gain full traction as a mainstream competitor to the original DPlus network. I’m on board to try though.

Edit 2016-08-02: I just bought a Yaesu FT2DR System Fusion rig, so the DV4mini is now getting lots of use again in the hotspot.

(Thanks to Andrew K4AWC for nudging me in the direction of DMR.)

Playstation Vue a Mixed Bag

vueMy wife and I cut the cord (i.e., dropped cable service) in early 2015 and had been using SlingTV – DISH’s live TV streaming service – to replace some of our sports and cooking shows. They have an odd interface, questionable customer service, and ongoing growing pains, but it included enough programming and functionality for us to make the switch.

SlingTV only has the licensing to offer on-demand and pause/fast-foward/rewind on a limited number of channels, and no way to record anything, so after the initial year we were ready for something different. Enter Playstation Vue.

As soon as Playstation Vue went nationwide in March, we signed up. Prior to that, they had been running in a limited number of test markets and only offered Playstation hardware compatibility. I would have preferred a Roku interface, but we already had a FireTV, so that would do for now.

It turns out that Playstation Vue has an even odder interface, even more questionable customer service, and even more growing pains.

On the up side, Vue offers a cloud-based DVR service and a lot more channels for not much more money, and you can pause live on almost any channel. They include the Fox Sports regional channels in most areas, and the Vue login will work with almost all of the networks’ standalone streaming apps and channels. By comparison, SlingTV’s login only works with WatchESPN, at least as of this writing.

On the down side, you’re limited to using Vue in a single location, although you can login with five different devices. With SlingTV, you can use it anywhere, but you can only have one device logged in at a time. Given a choice between the two, Vue’s model works out better for our situation.

Vue’s cloud DVR has numerous bugs on several fronts. Sometimes it will record a second showing days later, instead of getting the first showing. You can’t set extra time for sports or other variable length programming. And sometimes a recording will just skip all over the place, rendering it useless.

The guide part of the interface uses a vertically scrolling grid, the exact opposite of the horizontally scrolling grid that everybody is used to. The small type is difficult to read, at least on the FireTV, and it takes a long time to scroll across the guide to get to what you’re looking for. It seems like they need to do more caching and look-ahead programming with it. Listing information is constantly reloading.

But all in all, the DVR works most of the time, and if all else fails you can log into many channels’ standalone streaming apps/channels. AT&T and DirecTV Announcement have announced a new live TV service for later this year, and YouTube and Hulu have both announced new services for next year, so hopefully the competition for solid service and better interfaces will ratchet up even further soon.

Leonard Nimoy, The Great Paris

Leonard Nimoy as ParisAs a kid, Mission Impossible was one of the few shows made for adults that I liked. I always hoped for an episode with The Great Paris, Master of Disguise, a retired magician whose real name was supposedly unknown. Martin Landau was great as Rollin Hand before Leonard Nimoy replaced him on the series, but there was something about the Paris character and his clever quips that struck a chord with me.

It’s interesting that Landau was Gene Roddenberry’s first choice to play the character of Spock on Star Trek, and he turned it down. At the time of this writing, Martin Landau is still alive at 86! Those tall serious Vulcan types really do live long.

Mission Impossible is still on Netflix, so I believe it’s time for a marathon – but starting with season 4. RIP, Leanard Nimoy.