Digital systems and amateur radio?

At the moment there seem to be several competing digital modulation schemes First there was ICOM’s D-star system, then C4FM from Yaesu, and of course DMR, which is gaining ground in the commercial PMR world.  There are even a few experimenting with TETRA, as used by the public services. Like Betamax and VHS, the best system may not win in the end.

At the moment, I am just not interested. I’ll wait to see who wins in the end. My bet is DMR will win in the end as there will be a plentiful second hand market from PMR. This will never be so with any proprietary system. DMR is an open standard, so there will be plentiful radios around and at decent prices before too long.

Roger Lapthorn, G3XBM, is a regular contributor to and writes from Cambridge, England.

19 Responses to “Digital systems and amateur radio?”

  • Goody K3NG:

    Hey, let’s not forget P25! Digital radio systems is one area I wish ARRL would have stepped in and set a standard. It’s too late now as the horse is already out of the barn, multiple horses in fact. Of course when I look at LOTW and Winlink, perhaps it’s good they didn’t get involved.

  • Harry k7zov:

    Digital Yawn…. I am at my mother in laws house. She pulled the plug on DISH when her son told her they have a lot of HDTV digital stations in the ares. All she needed was a antenna, which now had. Well she does have 14 stations of HD digital broadcast stations… Beautiful pictures and great sound… except when storm come though, and we had a ton of them here during our visit. Then the picture gets choppy and breaks up, or goes black until enough digital signal can be decoded and then I noticed some good picture with bad sound.

    What I am leading up to is will DV really give good reliable communication or will it be like HDTV and be either great most of the time and crap the rest… I betting it will be crap. For now, until proven wrong I will stick with SSB, CW, FM. I will leave my digital to PSK31,63, Olivia etc. And not waste my limited income to silly radio.

    My 2 cents… I am sure others will disagree, but then again maybe not.
    73 happy new year one and all
    Harry k7zov

  • Remco PE1PIP:

    Of course, like analog voice, there will not be one standard that prevails in the end, there will be multiple. Despite the advantages of DMR, I’m inclined to think that it will not prevail as an amateur standard. D-Star and System Fusion are open standards as well, with the added bonus that they only suffer from a patent on the vocoder, where DMR itself is also encumbered by patents on the protocol.

    73, pe1pip

  • Tom KJ9P:

    As we sat at our coffee gathering this morning, discussing this very subject, I said “I will bet that fifty years ago, a group such as ours, was discussing these same pro’s and con’s about Single Sideband vs. A.M.” Another fellow volunteered that “Samual” had the discussion with those espousing the use of
    “voice” communication!!
    Don’t you think we have all benefited by new paradigms in the long run?

    Tom, KJ9P

  • Craig - N7LB:

    Since a great many hams nowadays are in the habit of being able to simply purchase (rather than build) what they want, if digital ever overtakes analog the winner of the digital wars will likely be the standard with equipment that can both be easily purchased and programmed.

    Looking at what’s out there (so far), only Icom and Yaesu have new products available to amateur’s that are both easily obtained and easily programmed by the ham.

    Try walking into your local HRO, AES, GigaParts, etc. and asking for a new Moto-Turbo radio (you won’t find any), or the ability to purchase your own software and cable kit (you won’t find any).

    Sure, you can dig around and find very good deals on used equipment for the various other digital standards, and find a ham friendly Motorola dealer that will program your radio (for a fee), but little chance you’ll ever be able to actually purchase new Motorola equipment and programming equipment at amateur radio level pricing.

    Until that changes (and yes I’m aware that CSI and TYT are both showing Moto-Turbo compatible HT’s), only the diehard digital folks will go through all of the additional steps necessary to support other standards.

    Every supporter of a digital standard can give you multiple reasons why their standard is better than the other guys, but only Icom and Yaesu have the current ability to allow you to walk into a ham radio store and leave with a new digital system that “you” can program, and of those two vendors, the number of Icom DStar repeaters worldwide (and available DStar radios to use) currently dwarfs Yaesu’s C4FM system.

    So every other digital system out there can point out their technical advantages over DStar, but just like BETA vs. VHS, the number of VHS users killed the commercial success chances of BETA, which most folks thought was technically superior to VHS. Plus Icom’s not standing still either, their support of DStar continues to show up in radio after radio (including HF DStar) and you can add DStar support to any VHF/UHF radio with a third-party dongle should you choose to.

    For the record, I don’t work at Icom (never did).

  • Howard VK3QA:

    Hi, does any one have a list of available add on dstar dongles?

  • Tom, KA4CSG:

    With the large installed and operational D-Star systems, other systems should be fighting a very uphill battle.
    If you are coming to the Gulf for hurricane support or any other natural or man made disaster, bring your D-Star if you wish to be of service.
    From Lower Alabama with no Gulf Hurricanes for 9 years. It will not last forever.

  • Dennis KK0DJ:

    I’m glad to see that there are others who are waiting to see what comes of the present digital voice mess. I think both Icom and Yaesu have great products and ideas. I fear that Kenwood, TenTec and possibly Elecraft may come out with rigs using yet another protocol as well. As some rightly said, it is very similar to the Beta vs. VHS battles. I was sad when VHS took the lead since Beta was a better format. I am casting my vote for all to find a way to force the issue and have a standard (preferably open source) and then for the manufacturers to follow suit with standard protocol radios, repeaters and accessories. The view from here is of a battle being fought for an excruciatingly long time. If there is a way to suggest to the ARRL to adopt a standard and thereby set a world standard with other radio leagues around the world… I think we’d all benefit. Just sayin. 😉

  • PA0ETE:

    I really don’t think there will be one system that will prevail in the end. And I also think it is quite probable that the most popular system of the future at this moment isn’t even available.

    Looking at the text-oriented digital systems in 35 years (or longer if you also account for RTTY and CW), there also hasn’t emerged one system that satisfies all. And even with analog this isn’t the case…

    There also are a lot more systems in use than you mention. Alinco has a digital voice system, that although expensive and unknown is still available and the oldest of the amateur systems. And in Germany there are experiments with the European cell phone system GSM by hams on 70 cm. In the US indeed Apco P25 has some popularity, as does NXDN. Next to that there is a rather cheaply available system dPMR. Quite promising is a system completely developped by amateurs called FreeDV. But let’s not forget that D-STAR is also open source and completely developped by amateurs. OK, it’s vocoder isn’t, but in 2001 there was no alternative.

    My guess is that the most probable systems that will be most popular are systems that 1. are designed by or at least for the ham radio community (quite simple the radio’s will all have a kind of VFO and other options hams will like and they transmit real call sign eliminating the need to identify in spoken word), and 2. there will be quality radios available for it by Chinese manufacturers or by a hybrid manufacturer (combined US design and Chinese built) like the products from CSI.

    73, John, PA0ETE
    QRV on D-STAR, dPMR, Tetra and DMR

  • Jonathan KA8KPN:

    I think that digital voice is a dumb idea for radio amateurs. Tom KJ9P talks about how the conversation 50 years ago was about SSB vs AM. Perhaps it was, but there’s a reason that SSB signals dominate now when AM did way back when. You see, an SSB signal gives you a 6db advantage over an AM signal at the same power level. All in all, people felt the additional transmitter complexity was worth the additional signal strength they gained.

    Now, comes digital voice. While FreeDV (the only digital voice modulation scheme I have ready information about) offers a modulation scheme that works down to a signal to noise (S/N) ratio of 2db. However, an analog signal is readable down to an S/N of -6db or so, and at even lower levels of signal you can usually communicate well enough to get the QSO, (even though you’ll probably give a signal report of 59, which is a discussion topic for another time.)

    Certainly, digital modes can be designed for low S/N, and I’ve got the JT65 and JT9 Q’s to prove it, but those modes are fundamentally incompatible with the requirements of digital voice, which rely upon high data rates and compression techniques that don’t deal with dropped data very well.

    So, using digital voice effectively turns my 100W transmitter into a 10W transmitter, except for the substantially higher wear-and-tear on my final amplifier. What is the offsetting advantage? Anybody?

    Tom, KA4CSG suggests that you need a D-star radio to do Emconn. Do you really have so many volunteers for that sort of thing that you can arbitrarily exclude the vast majority of hams who have no D-star equipment? That’s not what it’s like in Southeast Texas. Compared to FM, which most hams have at least some capability to operate, what is the offsetting advantage? Anybody?

    Craig N7LB and Dennis KK0DJ talk about VHS vs Beta. The only advantage that Beta had over VHS was a slightly better picture. The consumer television market never prized picture quality very highly. If they had, then Beta would have outsold VHS by a wide margin in the consumer market, as Beta owned the market for television stations until digital techniques took over. Consumers prized running time and purchase price far more highly than picture quality, which is why VHS won in the market place because it was the superior format.

  • Goody K3NG:

    Remco – Saying D-STAR is an open standard except for the vocoder is like saying the water is pure, except for that 20% that is mercury. 🙂

  • PA0ETE:

    DV is not an obligation. I also don’t think it isn’t suited for Emcom at all. But wasn’t the amateur radio hobby one of experiments? Why suggest then to fix to one standard and enforce it from above? Let’s first see where developments get us.

    DV is not ideal. It is relatively new (at least to hams it is). What makes it interesting is exactly that is isn’t ideal. And that there is room for improvement, to which even amateurs can contribute. Why settle for FM and SSB that are already chewed out more than thouroughly, and that have been with us since the fifties and the sixties?

    It always amazes me that so many people who even won’t have a part in the joy that such a new development obviously gives a lot of hams, don’t approve of such a new thing. This I have never experienced with the DV people. They just stay operating analog as well, mostly don’t even ask for the analog people to go digital. Why then want to deprive a group of amateurs in something you weren’t interested in to begin with?

  • Jonathan KA8KPN:

    I’m sorry, I must not have been clear. I wasn’t attempting to argue that digital voice shouldn’t be explored. I may even do some of the exploring myself. It is, after all, on my list of things to do. I was attempting to explain why I think digital signalling won’t ever come to dominate amateur voice communications as FM and SSB have.

    For the record, I have absolutely no problem with people experimenting with digital voice, using whatever modulation and codec they want. I just think it’s always going to be a fringe mode, and so, for example, bemoaning the fact that the ARRL has not selected a preferred standard for digital voice is kind of silly.

    I am, in fact, hoping to find out what the offsetting advantages to digital voice were supposed to be. I am unmoved by the arguments that digital is the future because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of logic in that. The future belongs to stuff that works better, where “better” is defined by the people using the stuff. For what hams want to do most, analog voice seems to me to be the best choice. For what things that hams do right now does DV seem to be the best choice? For what things that hams might do in the future does DV seem to be the best choice? These aren’t rhetorical questions. They’re the heart of the matter.

  • Goody K3NG:

    I don’t think the ARRL selecting a standard is silly. It would prevent the mess we have developing now. If there’s one good way to kill a new technology, it’s having multiple standards. Remember AM stereo? At the very least ARRL could have insisted on an open vocoder in D-STAR and coordinated volunteers for its development. (As much as people say the vocoder can eventually be changed out with an open one, it’s never going to happen with the sunk costs we have in existing D-STAR equipment.)

    I agree digital voice will probably be just a niche mode. I don’t think having the voice digitized offers any inherent benefits. It’s having the messaging that can ride along with it that has potential. If we could do hand offs between repeaters like 1G cellular did, that would be a good application.

    Let’s not forget to keep the lawyers happy: “D-STAR is a registered trademark of Icom, Inc.”

  • PA0ETE:

    Let’s first of all not forget the truth. Just to keep the lawyers happy. 🙂

    Why do you think that Icom writes ‘Digital’ on it’s current D-STAR-radio’s, and not ‘D-STAR’? Because the trade mark world wide is in hands of two clothing companies (one in Italy, and one in Brazil if I am not mistaking). This is also the reason why in the manuals of Icom you never see the circle with ‘R’ next to D-STAR.

    D-STAR as a standard is owned bij the Japanese amateur radio society JARL.

    D-STAR was designed around 2001 by amateurs within the JARL, largely payed with a sum of 1 million US dollars from the Japanese ministry of science. Icom was just the first brand to make equipment for D-STAR. (There are others now, mostly small companies with roots in the ham radio community).

  • PA0ETE:

    I am really stunned by this. What I wrote above I heard from an Icom official. What I said about the claim with the (R) in manuals is true, and the designation “D-STAR” on the radio’s as far as I am told is only used in Japan. For example the IC-92D has the designation ‘Digital’, and the Japanese version is called ID-92 and is designated ‘D-STAR’ on the housing. Only early IC-92’s in Europa also had D-STAR mentioned on the radios.

  • PA0ETE:

    I see that several Icom radio’s in the US version have the name D-STAR. This is not true voor the three D-STAR radio’s that I own myself (UV-82, IC92 and ID-31). They are designated Digital. I have understood a couple of years ago this is because of the clothing brands using the name as I mentioned. But for the moment I am not sure of anything no more…

    I will surely research further into the matter. I am a communications journalist, can’t have my facts not straight 🙂

  • Jim K6JM:

    New modes keep coming out and few go away. I got into Ham Radio during the transition from AM to SSB. There was a lot of anger from the AMers about these new-fangled squawking SSB signals. But after SSB won, you can still have an AM QSO if you want.

    What’s different now, with the marriage of radio and computers, is the effect of 3rd party developers. Both D-Star and DMR are growing fast because of the creativity of these developers. While interoperability across modes is beginning to happen, it is still a bit illusive, but we are moving in that direction. D-Star still has the upper hand in terms homebrew systems, but with the BrandMeister network, DMR finally allows 3rd party Hotspots and Repeaters to participate.

    This is an exciting time for digital voice modes. For people who choose to experiment, there is a lot of fun to be had, no matter which mode you choose. I would not wait for things to settle. Life is too short. Jump in and have some fun. You will learn a lot when you do.

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