If goTenna can encrypt, why can’t hams?

I’ve written here before about encryption and whether or not amateur radio operators should be allowed to use encryption. I’d like to throw another log on the fire.

I just read an article in RadioWorld that describes the goTenna, a device that uses Bluetooth and the Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS) to allow users with smartphones to text one another even if there’s no WiFi or cellphone link. The goTenna device communicates with the smartphone via Bluetooth and then transmits in the MURS band (151 – 154 MHz).

The goTenna manufacturers claim a range of  a half mile to three and a half miles. That’s probably reasonable. In the city, you’ll get a half mile or so range, while out where it’s more open, you’ll get more range.

Among the “key features” are the following:

  • Automatic message retry & delivery confirmation
  • Individual & group messaging
  • ”Shout” broadcasts to anyone within range
  • End-to-end encryption (RSA-1024) & self-destructing messages

I have often thought that handhelds should include some kind of text-messaging feature. I suppose you can send text messages using D-STAR, but it seems like an awful expense to do that. It seems that adding this functionality to something like a BaoFeng would make it very appealing.

Also note that this device encrypts the messages. If goTenna can encrypt, why shouldn’t hams be allowed to do so? I’m really not convinced by the arguments put forth by those who are anti-encryption on my previous blog post. I think that someone—someone more knowledgeable about the topic than me—should petition the FCC to allow encryption in certain situations.

Amateur radio in the news: Lighthouse/Lightship Weekend

Here are a couple of reports of ham clubs taking part in International Lighthouse/Lightship Weekend. I actually worked W2GSB this weekend, but unfortunately didn’t work the Irish lighthouse…Dan

Ham radio operators participate in International Lighthouse Lightship Weekend.
As part of International Lighthouse Lightship Weekend, amateur radio operators were at Robert Moses State Park teaching visitors the history behind lighthouse communication. The radio operators, part of the Great South Bay Amateur Radio Club, say ham radio is still an important means of communication. (video)

Unravelling the Loop Head Code. A group of amateur ham radio operators will wind back the clock at Loop Head Lighthouse this weekend when they attempt to communicate via radio and Morse Code with hundreds of radio clubs thought the world. The Limerick Radio Club, which features members from Clare, Kerry, Limerick, and Tipperary, will broadcast non-stop for 48 hours from the West Clare lighthouse as part of the 17th International Lighthouse and Lightship Weekend (ILLW).

Operating Notes: Fun down at WA2HOM

The bands have been pretty good lately. I was down at WA2HOM this morning from 10am to noon and really had a blast.

When I first got there, I tuned around a bit on 20m. 20m sounded to be in pretty good shape, so I decided to see if 15m was open. I pointed the beam at Europe, tuned around a bit, and was disappointed not to be hearing much. Nevertheless, I set up on 21035 kHz and started calling CQ. In short order, I worked R1DX (who had a true 599 signal), OH8MBN, and IZ5RKC.

After that, I QSYed back down to 20m and started looking for stations working the International Lighthouse Lightship Weekend operating event. Since the band was in such good shape, I worked lighthouses/lightships all over the country, including:

  • W1SYE, Newport, RI. Goat Island Lighthouse
  • K2VN, Long Island, NY. Horton Point Lighthouse
  • K6PV, near Los Angeles, CA. Point Vicente Lighthouse
  • W3LRS, Lewes, DE. Overfalls Lightship
  • W6A, San Pedro, CA. Point Fermin Lighthouse

The QSO with K6PV was fun because as it turned out, Bob, the operator there, is a graduate of the University of Michigan, and we had a nice chat about Ann Arbor, our QTH and the home of U-M. Also, as it turned out, Bob’s own call is W6HIP, which fits nicely into my collection of QSL cards from stations whose call signs spell words. I’ll be sending off two cards to him, one from WA2HOM and one from KB6NU, tomorrow.

ARRL to promote diversity?

In the August 7 issue of the ARRL Letter, in the report on the ARRL Board meeting, there was this little tidbit:

In other business, the ARRL Board of Directors voted, without offering specifics, to support “a significant increase in the resources directed to generating new amateurs, with particular emphasis on increasing diversity.” The ARRL staff was directed to propose a course of action to meet that goal.

Being a ham radio instructor, I’ll be very interested in what the ARRL staff comes up with. I would certainly urge them to diversify the group working on this, and get a good cross-section of the current amateur radio community to assist them in coming up with a plan. The ARRL could be so much more successful if they would just tap into the talent that’s out there.

Love from my readers

One of the coolest things about writing my No-Nonsense study guides is the e-mail I get from my readers. At least once a week, I get an e-mail thanking me for the help that my study guides provided. Here are some samples:

I wanted to thank you for the materials I found on line for preparing for the Technician and General Class exams. I passed my Tech test in Feb 2014 and upgraded to general today. I could not have done it without your no nonsense study guides. 73, Joe

Hi Dan. Thanks for your wonderful guide. I used it and passed Tech exam (with zero -0- incorrect). It was perfect for explaining and as a study guide. I wish I studied and taken General. I’ve started and already am passing General practice exams. I used eham and AA9PW for practice exams. Yours is a great addition/resource. I’m joining the SF Amateur Radio Club. I got into this from emergency training (and childhood). Thanks again. I hope you can promote this for schools, etc. –Big Stu KK6NKZ

I’ve been visiting your site for a few weeks, now. I recently downloaded
and printed out your Tech Class study guide, and carried it around with
me, reading, re-reading and basically used it as a security blanket for my
study. Just this past Saturday – I sat for my Technician Class and General Class exams. I am grateful. Your guide worked. 73! Terrylee KK6NNO

The No-Nonsense Extra Class Study Guide is exactly what I needed to focus on passing the Extra Class Amateur Radio Exam. The cost was trivial compared to the time saved. Thank you very much! Tait KE6PWP

Hi Dan. I just want to drop a quick email and tell you that I took the Tech Exam last night and passed. I used your No-Nonsense Tech study guide. Now, to start studying for the General. Thanks, Johnny KG7NIC

Just wanted to say thank you and your study guide. Took my test last Saturday at the Duke city ham Fest, and scored 85. My son kd5viq is now studying for his. Thanks, Mark KD5VCV

NASA Looking for Out-of-This-World Mars Communications Services

As you may or may not know, the ARRL has an award called the Elser-Mathers Cup that is to be awarded to the amateurs that complete the first amateur radio contact between the Earth and Mars. It’s been sitting on a shelf at ARRL HQ since 1928.

Well, apparently, NASA isn’t waiting for hams to make this happen. A story in Network World reports that NASA has issued a Request for Information that explores options to buy commercial communications services to support users on Mars.

NASA’s current Mars relay infrastructure is aging, and there is a potential communications gap in the 2020s, which is why NASA wants to explore alternative models to sustain and develop the Mars relay infrastructure. Mars landers and rovers are constrained in mass, volume, and power, all of which contribute to a substantial restriction in the data rates and volumes that can be communicated on the direct link between Mars and Earth.

To address the limitation in direct-to-Earth bandwidth, the Mars Exploration Program has developed a strategy of including a proximity-link telecommunications relay payload on each of its Mars science orbiters. The relay payloads establish links with landers and rovers on the surface, supporting very high-rate, energy-efficient links between the orbiter and lander.

CW Geek’s Guide to Having Fun with Morse Code: Learning the Code

My next book is going to be about having fun with CW. Below is the chapter on learning CW. Comments welcome….Dan

Learning CW

Of course, before you can make a CW contact, you are going to have to learn to send and receive Morse Code. This may seem like a daunting task, but remember, thousands of amateur radio operators and millions of commercial operators have learned to send and receive Morse Code. There’s no reason you can’t learn it, too.

The first step in learning Morse Code is simply to get started. You’ll never learn it if you don’t start.

If you have a PC, I suggest starting by downloading the G4FON CW Trainer from http://www.g4fon.net. There is no charge for the program. The program teaches Morse Code a character at a time, using what is called the Koch Method. The Koch Method teaches you to recognize characters by sound and not by counting the dots and dashes.

If you don’t have a PC, but do have an Apple computer, or a CD player capable of playing MP3 files, you can obtain the K7QO Code Course from FISTS, the International Morse Preservation Society. This course is also free of charge. To get a copy, send an SASE big enough to hold a CD and with enough return postage to Fists, PO Box 47, Hadley MI 48440. [[correct this!]]

Is everbody ‘appy?
These days, everyone seems to be using a cellphone or a tablet. I’ve never used any, so I asked my followers on Twitter what they would recommend. Here’s what they had to say:

  • Matthew Williams @W2MDW – @kb6nu Ham Morse is the most flexible, feature packed. Morse Coach is simple & clean.
  • David Pechey @KD2BMU – @kb6nu I’ve been using Koch Trainer – $0.99 and Morse Code Trainer – Free. @W2MDW told me about Learn CW Online, which I really like.
  • M0TEF – Alistair@M0TEF – @kb6nu I really liked using dah dit on the iPhone for drilling through the alphabet as well as training modes. It has worked for me.
  • Chris Kelling @n1wko – @kb6nu I’m using “dah dit”
  • g4tny @classicfibre – @kb6nu I’ve used ‘morse trainer’ on iphone with some success curing my rustiness ;))
  • Richard Daily@rdaily – @kb6nu Morse-it, Ham Morse, CWSpeed and Codeman are good. Codeman is free.
  • D. Robinson KK4PWE @DRobinson6268 – @kb6nu I second the Dah-Dit app on iPhone. That’s all I’ve ever used and it’s fun.

If you have a favorite, let me know, and I’ll include it in a future edition of this book

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
There’s an old joke that goes something like this: Two tourists are walking around New York City, when they spot someone carrying a music case. Thinking that the musician might know, they ask, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” He replies, “Practice, practice, practice.”

It’s the same way with Morse Code. Once you get one of these apps or courses, you’ll have to practice. Many hams advise newcomers to practice daily, but not to overdo it. Too much practice and you’ll burn out. A good suggestion is to limit yourself to two, fifteen-minute sessions per day.

What some people do is to use idle moments to go over the sounds of Morse Code in their heads. Say that you’re in your car and you notice that the car ahead of you has the license plate number ABC 123. Sound that out in your head (di-dah dah-di-di-dit dah-di-dah-dit di-dah-dah-dah-dah di-di-dah-dah-dah di-di-di-dah-dah). You can use this technique with traffic signs, signs, and billboards.

Another suggestion is to use the “buddy system.” Get a friend or spouse to learn the code with you. If you’re a member of an amateur radio club, ask around and see if there are any other guys who’d like to learn with you. If you can, find an “Elmer” who is an experienced CW operator.

If no one in your club currently operates CW, consider joining the SolidCopyCW mailing list. On this list, you’ll find many CW operators, including yours truly, who are willing and able to help out in any way they can.

Don’t do it
There are several code courses out there that purport to teach you the code by using various catchphrases that sound like the character. For example, one of the courses, uses the catchphrase “dog did it” for the letter D. That sounds very much like dah-di-dit, which is the sound for the letter D.

In general, most Morse Code teachers do not recommend learning the code this way. The reason for this is that while they are effective in learning the sounds of the letters and numbers, they are a hindrance when it comes to improving your code speed. The theory is that translating back and forth from the mnemonic to the actual character slows you down. You want to be able to recognize a character by its sound alone, not some crazy image that gets conjured up in your mind.

Stick with it
Don’t be discouraged if it takes you a while to master the code. Learning the code has a steep learning curve, but if you stick with it, you’ll master it. Also don’t get discouraged if you don’t copy 100%. Just as you don’t need to hear every word when conversing with someone, you don’t need to copy every single character to take part in a QSO.

If you do miss a character, just ignore it and listen for the next one. Don’t let missing a character bog you down. If you like, you can write an underscore or just leave a space to denote a character that you missed, but even that’s not really necessary. When you look over what you’ve written down, you’ll be able to get the gist of what was sent by characters that you did copy correctly.

Learning to send
Learning to receive is by far the hardest part about learning Morse Code. When you start out, you’ll be able to send much faster than you can receive, so learning to send is not a big deal when you’re just starting out.
Even so, I think it’s helpful to practice sending as you’re learning to receive. I’m not a cognitive scientist, but I think that there’s something about thinking about what sounds to make and then using a key to make those sounds that helps solidify that sound in the mind.

To practice your sending, you’ll need a key and some kind of code practice oscillator to produce the sound. As for the key, I usually suggest that even newcomers use a paddle instead of a straight key. I’ll write more about this in the chapter, “Choosing a Key,” but the two biggest reasons that I suggest using a paddle is that you’ll send better code right away with a paddle and using a paddle is easier on the arm and wrist.

To use a paddle, you’ll need to have some kind of keyer. Most modern HF transceivers have built-in keyers and a way to disable the transmitter so you can use that rig as an expensive code practice oscillator. On Icom radios, for example, you set the break-in function to no break-in.

You can also use an external keyer for this. To use the keyer as a code practice oscillator, simply set it so that the internal speaker is enabled and the keying output is disabled, so that you don’t key your transmitter while practicing. You can, of course, also unplug the cable connecting the keyer to your radio.

To get some feedback on how well you’re sending, you could pipe the audio into a program like fldigi or  CW Skimmer. These programs do a decent job of decoding CW, especially with a solid signal, and you can compare what the program receives with what you sent. Another way is to send to your “code buddy.” If he or she can copy what you’re sending, then you know you’re doing a good job.

Ditch the pencil and paper to get faster
When operating Morse Code, there’s always a debate over how fast one should go. Many hams are happy to plod along at 16 – 20 wpm, or sometimes even slower. The FISTS CW Club even uses the slogan, “Accuracy transcends speed.” While there is some truth to this, There’s no reason that you can’t have both accuracy and speed, and I would encourage you to work at operating as fast as you can.

One reason for this is that at somewhere around 25 wpm, operating Morse Code becomes nearly as conversational as phone. And the more conversational a QSO is, the more fun it is for me. I can get beyond signal reports and equipment descriptions and actually learn something about the other operator or the town he or she lives in.

When I got back on the air, I was one of those operators who was stuck somewhere 15 – 16 wpm, but I wasn’t happy about it. Then, I read an article in QST or CQ that the biggest obstacle to getting faster is copying on paper. According to the article, you can’t really write any faster than 20 wpm, and most people can’t even write that fast. So, if you insist on copying down each individual character, then the fastest that you’ll be able to copy is 20 wpm.

That made sense to me, but also I think it’s also a multitasking issue. I don’t know about you, but I have a limited amount of brain power. If I have to use a portion of that brain power to write letters on paper, then it’s brain power that I can’t devote to decoding Morse Code.
After reading that article, I decided that I needed to learn to just copy in my head. I went cold turkey. I put away the pen and the paper, and aside from giving demos to visitors to my shack, I only copy code in my head.
I immediately started getting faster and can now copy at 35+ wpm. I don’t know if the cold turkey method will work for you, but undoubtedly, the key to getting faster is to ditch the pencil and paper and start copying in your head. And remember: practice, practice, practice.

Another way to get faster is to stretch. I don’t mean getting up out of your chair and stretching your arms above your head (although it’s not a bad idea to do that once in a while while operating Morse Code), but rather your code-copying muscles.

You do this by having a contact with someone who’s sending just a little faster than what you’re comfortable copying. With a little bit of concentration, you should be able to copy that operator and next time it will be a little easier.

Another tip for getting faster is to participate in contests. You don’t have to get serious about winning just to participate. Often, I’ll work a contest for a couple of hours just for the fun of it.

How does contesting help you get faster? The key is that in a contest what is sent is very well,-defined. For most contests, only call signs, a signal report (almost always “599”), and a state, ARRL section, or zone number. Because this information is so well-defined, it’s easier to anticipate what is being sent, and you’ll therefore be able to copy it more easily, even if it’s being sent at a speed higher than what you can normally copy. It’s just another way of stretching.

I’m ba-a-a-a-ck


This is an aerial shot of Elk Lake. The patch of blue that you see in the upper left-hand corner is Grand Traverse Bay, which is on Lake Michigan. The little patch of blue you see in the upper right is Torch Lake, which is just to the east of Elk Lake.

In case you were wondering where I’ve been, I’ve just returned from a very nice week at a cottage on Elk Lake in northern lower Michigan. It’s a beautiful spot, and for the past 20 years now (!), our family has rented a set of cottages up there. The people who come is a little different from year to year, but we normally number 20 people or more.

One interesting feature of these cottages is that there is no phone, no TV, and no Internet connection! There is cellphone service now, but since I don’t have a cellphone, I was pretty much incommunicado. I did go down to the Elk Rapids (the town near Elk Lake) library one day, but that was really a mistake. I should have just stayed disconnected.

This year, the weather was just perfect. Every day was sunny, with the high temperature reaching the upper 70s or lower 80s.

While I was up there, I did not neglect my amateur radio activities. I took my little KX-1 up there, threw my 30-ga. wire dipole up into the trees, and made some contacts. Band conditions were really good this year, and despite an output of only 3.5 W, I made some really solid contacts.

I also visited Ovide, K8EV, who has a summer place in Empire, MI, which is close to the Sleeping Bear Dunes. After showing off his tower and FTdx-5000, he and his wife, Cindy, took us on a nice tour of the dunes.

Finally, I did some serious work on my next book, The CW Geek’s Guide to Having Fun With Morse Code. I’ll be posting chapters from that book here soon.

While pounding away on my laptop, one of our visitors, who was sitting across the picnic table from me commented on the “Hams Obey Ohm’s Law” sticker attached to the back of the screen. I did my best to explain to him the concept, and I think he mostly got it, but it was kind of nerdy for a setting like we were at.

A selfie I took down by the lake with my table. I don't know why I'm not smiling here. It was a wonderful vacation.

A selfie I took down by the lake with my table. I don’t know why I’m not smiling here. It was a wonderful vacation.

Bad news for SW broadcasting

Several months ago, I participated in a survey of shortwave listeners by the Broadcasting Board of Governors. According to their website, “The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is both the name of the independent federal agency that oversees all U.S. civilian international media and the name of the board that governs those broadcasts. The BBG’s mission is to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.

Today, I got the following:

Greetings from the Broadcasting Board of Governors.  Our Special Committee on the Future of Shortwave Broadcasting, formed by the Board last fall and led by Governor Matt Armstrong, today released its report assessing current and projected use of shortwave radio as a platform for programming by U.S. international media.

Thank you for your contributions to this effort.  Many people from a variety of perspectives provided ideas and views, which broadened the committee’s understanding of the issues involved.

The report is now online here http://www.bbg.gov/wp-content/media/2014/08/SW-Committee-Final-Report.pdf, along with a fact sheet, which is posted here http://www.bbg.gov/wp-content/media/2014/08/SW-Report-fact-sheet.pdf.

We hope you find these items informative.

For any questions, please contact us at ShortwaveCommittee@bbg.gov.

I don’t have time to go over it in detail, but the fact sheet contains the following:

Main findings

  • USIM must optimize delivery by audience/market. While there is still a critical need for shortwave in key countries, it is a medium of marginal and continuously declining impact in most markets.
  • Even in countries with currently significant levels of shortwave usage, audiences will migrate to other platforms as they become more accessible.
  • The Committee recommends that BBG take an aggressive approach to reduce or eliminate shortwave broadcasts where there is either minimal adience reach or the audience is not a target audience based on the BBG’s support of U.S. foreign policy.
  • Evidence suggests that availability of high-quality content on preferred platforms is primarily responsible for the declining use of shortwave. AM and FM radio, podcasts, and mobile streamingare more widely used for audio consumption.
  • Shortwave users generally have viable alternative means of accessing USIM content. Top target demographics are unlikely to use shortwave exclusively or at all.
  • The BBG has found no evidence that shortwave usage increases during crises. Audiences continue to use their existing platforms (TV, FM, and the Internet) or seek out anti-censorship tools including online firewall circumvention, private chat software, flash drives, and DVDs to access content.
  • Shortwave is a relatively expensive platform to operate and maintain.
  • Digital shortwave, or Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM), is unlikely to become an established mass media distribution methodology in enough of the BBG’s current or future markets to justify the costs.
  • The Committee supports almost all of the shortwave broadcast reductions previously approved by the Board under sequestration and the implementation of the FY14 Operating Plan. However, given current situations in Ukraine and other nearby states with large Russian-speaking populations, the Committee recommends revising the FY14 Operating Plan and ensuring that shortwave broadcasts in Russian to Russia and the Caucasus be continued at current levels, subject to re-evaluation during FY16 budget formulation processes.

Amateur radio in the news: London ARC, Skywarn


London ARC members activate the Blackfriars Bridge for Bridges on the Air.

London ARC members activate the Blackfriars Bridge for Bridges on the Air.

London hams bridge communciations gap. Since 1920, members of the London Amateur Radio Club (LARC) have filled the airwaves with banter both about the hobby itself, and about emergency preparedness. On July 19, a handful of LARC members put their talents on display at the Blackfriars Bridge in London.

SKYWARN WARRIORS: Local ham radio buffs work front lines for National Weather Service. The National Weather Service has radar, satellites, Doppler, and double Doppler. But even with all of that high technology, it still needs boots on the ground to know how the weather is affecting people. So when the power is out, many of its 6,500 Skywarn weather watchers in southern New England go the traditional route, using ham radio to file reports.

Hospital has SPARC of security. Beaumont is ready for any kind of natural disaster: the city and the San Gorgonio Pass Amateur Radio Club (SPARC) have partnered to provide ham radio operations at City Hall in the event of a disaster that could interrupt communications between cities and residents. The service is now in place in the Emergency Services Department office at the civic center. Rick Cook, emergency services coordinator, said he is very pleased to be working with the amateur radio club.