I created this web page, not as much for you as for me. I wanted a place to store all my ham radio information, links, etc. This page is the result of my selfish effort. But, isn’t that the essence of the web – to share information?

Feel free to explore, comment and link to this blog. Or, better yet, contribute something!

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Cutting the Cable - Update

A lot has changed since I first cut the cable in 2017. My previous blog post, "Cutting the cable" is now obsolete. Here is a summary of the changes:

  • I have now settled, for the time being, on the Amazon Fire 4K TV sticks. They work well, and the new remote control with on/off and volume control buttons, does everything. I no longer have to juggle two remote controls. 
  • DirectTV Now, now called AT&T TV,  has not lived up to the expectations. It has frequent outages, and the DVR is just too quirky to be usable. I have switched to Hulu Live and am beginning to love it. It works well, and the On Demand My Stuff feature makes a DVR almost completely unnecessary. Price wise, it is about the same as AT&T TV. In fact, all the streaming services seem to be congregating around a price point. Most start around $50 a month, and with extras, go to about $75 a month. Not cheap, but far less than the $200+ I was paying for Direct TV, the satellite version. I worked for the REAL AT&T for 20 years, but the company called AT&T today is really Southwestern Bell, who bought the name and many of the assets of the original AT&T in 2005, when the real AT&T was liquidated. AT&T/SWB is not the same, not at all. The original AT&T had Bell Labs and Western Electric. Things were well engineered and tested before being marketed to the public. The knock-off AT&T feels like a bunch of hackers are developing the applications and using paid subscribers to test it for them. They should pay US! /end rant
  • I have added an amplifier to the Winegard TV antenna. I bought the Televes 2-input mast mounted amplifier. It is currently showing as not available on Amazon although a single input amplifier is available. I went with 2 inputs because I intend to point a second antenna towards Greenville to try to get an alternative to the local network outlets. This is for when they go nuts with some local issue and preempt normal network coverage. I know that gushing fire hydrant is big news, but is worth about 2 minutes of coverage, not an entire evening.
  • Finally, I replaced the ZOTAC server with a Dell Optiplex 990, still running Ubuntu, and with scads of storage. If the Hulu My Stuff keeps getting better, I may someday retire the Plex Media server, at least for network programming. It is useful for movies and personal videos. It does have an advantage when it comes to skipping over ads, but is, of course, limited to TV networks that can be picked up over the air.
As I said in the first post, cutting the cord is not for the faint of heart. If you are not willing to tinker and just want to watch The View with a glass of wine, get cable. It is far easier to learn and use. If you want to see what can be done, and want to save some $$$, then cord cutting may be for you. But, be forewarned, it may not be a cake walk.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Cutting the Cable - Easier said than done.

Every month for the past several years, I have winced as I paid the DirecTV bill. When it climbed to more than my first house payment, I decided that it was time to do something. But, what? Giving up the addiction to the exponentially growing variety of shows coming to the market was not a realistic option. My son, David, had gone cold turkey and was living on Off The Air TV in Jacksonville. He supplemented this with downloaded content he found using a program called Sonarr.

My first attempt at Sonarr was a disaster. All the different configuration options and the lack of good documentation made it almost impossible to get, and keep, it working. Then, there was the problem of OTA. In Jacksonville, David was close enough to the local stations that he could get them all with a minimal antenna. I am on the west side of Columbia in South Carolina, and all the local stations are on the more populous east side of town, from 15 to 28 miles away. Good news, they are all in the same general direction. Bad news, a couple of them are impossible to get using "rabbit ears" on each TV. Various attempts at distributing a signal from the attic antenna to TVs other than the one in the main living room, failed. Running coax around the house where DirecTV has already run cables, is just too messy and expensive.

Cable Channels, Where Art Thou?

Then there is the issue of cable channels. They are not available off the air, but some of them do stream over the Internet. All I needed was a way to feed them to the various TV sets around the house. I came up on two viable alternatives - Apple TV and Amazon FireTV. I now have a combination of both in use. I keep telling myself I am going to go to one platform, but I can't decide on which one, so I am still using both. I have experimented with using KODI on a Raspberry Pi, but the performance is just not good enough to make it viable, plus the lack of a remote control, make it a no-go.

DirecTV To the Rescue

About this time, AT&T came out with DirecTV Now. It appeared to have some potential for replacing DirecTV, but with a lot lower cost. I just needed good fast Internet to make streaming possible. After some haggling around with AT&T and Spectrum (Time Warner Cable), I ended up with a 100MB Internet connection from Spectrum. It is not perfect and goes down probably an average of once per day, usually at a very critical point in a football game, or when the criminal is revealed in a TV series. But, it does offer an increasing array of cable channels, and lately, even local network TV channels. Well, if you consider Charlotte North Carolina, as local.

It is available on both the Apple TV and Amazon streaming boxes, but not, oddly, on the Android smart Sony TV in the living room. I still don't understand why, since the Amazon box is also Android.


OK, this stuff is not for the faint of heart now and you have to have the soul of a tinkerer to make it actually work. It is annoying, perplexing, frustrating and aggravating, but it is $165 a month cheaper. DirecTV Now is $35 a month, and DirecTV was $200, or thereabouts. It will get better, I keep telling myself, and my wife, who is down to an average of about one on site technical visit a day. 

I discovered HDHomeRun along the way, so they provide the OTA service. These amazing little boxes (I have two) allow you to plug in a TV antenna on one end, and a LAN connection on the other end. Apps that are available on Apple TV, Amazon FireTV and the Sony smart TV allow you to tune the local channels, including the digital secondary channels. To provide Personal Video Recorder, PVR, functions, I have settled on PLEX. I originally had one 2-channel HDHomeRun box, but it soon overloaded, and I bought a 4 channel version and both are now in operation. The PLEX PVR is configured only to the 4 channel box. Kludgey, but it works.

Getting a PLEX server up and running was a job in itself. I started with PLEX running on my iMac. It sorta worked, but if I was doing something heavy on the iMac, it would bog down PLEX. The iMac could not record more than one channel at a time without causing the TV signal to break up. So, after a series of attempts, I have set up a Zotac server, running Ubuntu Linux with PLEX as its only application.

But, and this is a BIG BUT, Plex does not have access to cable channels. Recording cable channels is nearly impossible, if you want HD reception. This is bad news, but the good news is, if you have a DirecTV Now or other cable subscription, you can usually get recent shows on the cable channel's streaming app. Not 100%, but can work. DirectTV Now has promised a PVR "this fall," but I have not seen it yet. It is in beta testing and invitations are reportedly rolling out. 

The Final, for now, Configuration

We start with a Winegard Platinum series HD7694P VHF/UHF antenna in the attic. The NBC affiliate in Columbia is still VHF, so a combination antenna is needed. This goes through a ____ 4 way splitter/amplifier. I am only using one port right now, and that goes downstairs to a 2-way TV type splitter feeding 2 HDHomeRun CONNECT boxes, a 2-channel box and a 4-channel Quatro box. I bought the 2-channel box first, and it was not enough, so I bought the 4-channel box. Probably the one 4-channel box would be enough. Both boxes are connected to an 8-port Ethernet switch.

PLEX is hosted on a Zotac ID-81 mini PC running Ubuntu 16.04.3 server. This is also connected to an Ethernet switch. An external 5 TB USB-3 hard drive is used to store programs.

Around the house, I have a combination of Apple TV (v.3) boxes and Amazon FireTV boxes. I can't decide between them, for now, I have both.

The network is a Arris Surfboard Cable Modem with 100MB service from Time Warner feeding an Apple Airport Extreme Router. There is another switch located near the Zotac upstairs.

For software, I have PLEX with the PVR option, recording on the Plex server. I have a bunch of apps running on the Apple and Fire boxes. I have not found one that works so well I can standardize on it.

For content, I have DirecTV Now, waiting on the DVR option, and a bevy of channel specific apps.

I said this was not for the faint of heart, and I am sure it will get better, and maybe even simpler, but for now, saving almost $165 a month is worth the effort.

More to come.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

$50 100 Amp 12 VDC Power Supply

Wait, a 100 amp, 12 VDC power supply and it is only $50, complete with metering? What's the catch? No catch, just a little homebrewing and you are ready to go. There are scads of server rack power supplies in the market for $30 each, delivered. A couple of simple hacks, a ready made digital meter, and you have a top notch DC supply to power your transceiver and other gear.

To start with, you need to get a server power supply. Go to eBay and search for "server power supply." You will find dozens for $50 or less. I bought mine for $29.99, free shipping. It is an HP Proliant DL580, 1200 w power supply. At 110/120 VAC, 9.9A, it will deliver 12VDC @ 75 amps all day. Hit it with 220v and you can get 100 amps, 1200w out of it. It has a standard office equipment plug, over there next to the red lever.

It is small, about 10" x 3.5' X 1.5" and weighs a couple of pounds. It is a switching power supply, which accounts for the small size.

I KNOW, I KNOW! Switching power supplies are notorious for having RF noise. This one was made for use in a crowded environment with lots of low level signals floating around, so it was engineered to be clean. And, it is. I heard nothing from 160 through 6 meters. My Ryobi drill charger is noisy as Hell, but this is not.

On the business end, it has an edge connector with 5 normal connectors on each side, and 2 - 1" connectors. These 1" connectors are what is used to pull out the 12 V DC. Edge connectors are nice, in that you can solder to them easily.

In order to turn the power supply on, you have to put a 1k resistor (1/4 w will work) between pins 33 and 36. You can also wire an external switch here as long as you series the resistor with the switch. I soldered Anderson Powerpoles directly on the edge connector to match the rest of my station. The positive is on the outside of the edge connector, the negative is in the middle.

You can see how I arranged this in the illustration.

There is a company called Gigampz that sells an adapter that plugs into the edge connector on the power supply and supplies the switching interface as well as power connectors for the DC. It costs $37, so I didn't order one, but it would make a neater installation.

Next, I needed a way to monitor the voltage and current. I found a Hall effect current meter on Amazon for $18. It is a very cool little device, displaying both amperage and voltage. Because it uses Hall effect technology, you do not have to have an expensive shunt. The system includes a current loop that goes around the positive DC lead. The display can be configured to show DC voltage, current or both, by cycling between voltage and amperage. Again, I used power poles and integrated this into a cable. You connect the + and - of the meter to the DC power out and you are ready to go.

Here is the display showing first voltage, then current.

You can integrate this into your station somewhere, or build it into a box or just put it on a steel shelf as I do. The power supply is designed for 24/7 operation, and should be able to handle any amateur radio station requirements.

The power supply was $30, the meter $18, so the whole thing, less connectors and wire, cost me less than $50. I am very happy with it and hope you will be too, if you give it a try.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Bags To Go

If you are involved in emergency communications in any way, you will need a go bag or 2. Or 3. Having them packed and ready to go can save you a lot of time when the time to roll comes. Everybody has their own strategy, but let me share with you my philosophy. I have 3 bags packed. My primary bag is a 3-day assault backpack. This is in connection with my service in the South Carolina State Guard. We are required to have a pack ready to go.

Go Bag #1 - 3 Day Go Pack

The pack should contain everything you need for 72 hours of activity.  Sometime in 3 days, you should be able to get replacement supplies. In this pack, you should include all the things you will need for 3 days, including toiletries, dry clothes, food and medicines. You may have to get an extra prescription from your doctor. I recommend you carry a week's supply of meds, just in case.

Here is a link to the detailed 3 day pack I compiled. Note that this includes things like uniforms, which you may not need, but you can use it as a guide. For example, where it says "Extra Uniform," just substitute "Extra shirt and pants."

You will find that a vacuum sealer is a really good thing to have. Clothes shrink dramatically when vacuum sealed. Also, I don't particularly like MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) that are supplied by the military, so I make up my own using a vacuum sealer. I put stuff like the bags of tuna, crackers, fruit and power bars, and other foodstuffs in a bag, vacuum it up and seal it. You should have 5-6 of these in your 3 Day Pack.  3 days worth. If you can handle MREs, by all means, use them, but remember to field strip them to save space and weight.

Go Bag #2 - Basic Communications Bag

If you are going to be doing emergency communications, you will also need a basic commo bag with the equipment and supplies you will need, again, for a 3 day assignment. The requirements for this will vary, depending on the assignments you may expect. This bag will not be a backpack style, since you may already have one of those, and you probably only have one back. Get a size that is the minimum for what you need. If you get a big bag, like a duffle bag, you may find that you will soon fill it.

Go Bag #3 - Advanced Communications Bag

This bag focuses on advanced communications tasks. If you are aware of Comm-T, this would be the bag that would support that function. It would also include a PC and software for programming radios in the field. Which radios? Well, that depends on the missions you expect. It is obviously impractical to have the software and cables for every possible radio, but you should have cables for the radios you support and the most likely ones you may encounter. 
This bag also has tools that will allow repair of cables, putting connectors on cables and other hardware tasks. I also suggest you bring a wide variety of adaptors, you never know what you may encounter in the field.

Why 3 Bags? Why not combine them?

For me, it makes sense to have 3 different bags, because I am never sure what function I may be called upon to perform. Having my gear segregated like this allows me to quickly grab what I need
without a lot of repacking. If your work is more fixed than mine, you can re-organize in whatever way makes sense. For example, if overnight or extended stays is not a possibility, you may not need the 3 day pack and can pack some of the essentials in Bag #2 or #3. The key idea is to make sure you have everything you need and can quickly grab and go. If you are packing a bag in a rush, it is likely you will forget something. If you have the essentials already packed, all you have to do is add anything additional you need.

I hope this helps with your emergency preparations. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

You Don't Need No Stinkin' XPR5550 Programming Cable

Programming the Motorola XPR5550 Mobile Radio with Bluetooth

When you first get a new Motorola XPR5550 DMR radio, you know what you can do with it? Nothing, until you program it. There is a lot to learn about programming the 5550, and I will not go into that here. But, you need 2 things to do the programming, the Mototrbo CPS software and a programming cable. Motorola dealers sell them for about $80, or you can build your own using the accessory kit that comes with the 5550 and a USB cable. 

There is another alternative, use Bluetooth and wirelessly program your 5550. While it is not intuitive to set up, it can be done with the proper procedure. I was able to get mine working with both my 5550s. 

Here are the step by step instructions to get yours working. I used a Windows 7 PC. If you have a different Windows OS, I can't help you, I'm a Mac, I only use PCs when nothing else will do. (I wonder if I can do CPS with Wine? I bet I can!)

Program XPR5550 Using Bluetooth

On the 5550:
  1. Turn on Bluetooth
  2. Select “Find Me”

On the Windows PC:
  1. Click the Bluetooth symbol on the menu bar at the bottom right of the PC.
  2. Select “Add a Device” from the pull down.
  3. Wait a few seconds, and when the 5550 shows up as a device (it will have the name you gave it in the CPS software).  Click on it.
  4. When the PC asks you to verify the device, click that you see the number on the device, even though you don’t. (Honesty will not get you far with Windows.)
  5. The 5550 will now ask you to accept to connection, click “Accept” on the 5550.
  6. Click on Menu to go back to the normal 5550 screen.
  7. When the Bluetooth devices window opens on the PC, drag the 5550 icon to the desktop.

You are now ready to program. Here is what you do:
  1. Right click the 5550 icon on the PC desktop.
  2. Roll your cursor over “Connect using” and click on “Access point”
  3. Now, open the CPS software.
  4. Click on Bluetooth in the top menu. It will turn the background blue.
You are now connected to the 5550 and can do whatever you can do with the programming cord EXCEPT updating the firmware. That has to be done with a physical cable. You can Read, Write and Clone as you wish. If you have more than 1 5550, you will need to have a Bluetooth connection icon for each one of them, and, if you want them programmed the same, you will have to do one first, then clone it to the second one.

Good luck!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Antenna Tuners - Necessary Evil or Just Evil? - Part I

Nearly every ham who operates HF has an antenna tuner, some have more than one. I do. There is a useful purpose for them, but, they have to be used properly to be an asset. Used improperly, and they can be more trouble than they are worth.

Let's start with the basic idea. If you have a properly designed and tuned antenna, you don't need a tuner. You might need a matching network, but not a tuner.

MFJ 949 Antenna Tuner
What's the difference?

The difference is radiation. What is important is getting your signal out of your radio and into the atmosphere. The objective is to push as much of your signal in the direction you want it to go as possible.

So, the antenna system has two functions. First, to efficiently induce electromagnetic waves into the air. And, second, to couple to the transmitter in a way that will make it happy. No tuner can help with the first function; that is dependent on the interaction of the metal components of the antenna and the atmosphere. But, a tuner can help keep the transmitter happy by allowing it to maximize the transfer of its power to the antenna metal.

Make no mistake, you cannot determine the effectiveness of an antenna by measuring the SWR. You could tune a lightbulb to 1:1 SWR pretty easily, but you won't make many contacts on a 100w table lamp.

Let's look at another example. What about using a tuner to allow a 6 meter dipole to be used on 80 meters? You could probably use a tuner to match the transmitter to the antenna, but a 6 meter beam may not be able to couple 80 meter RF into the atmosphere very efficiently. Just because you can match it doesn't mean it is going to radiate. In fact, in this example, the feed line may be doing more than the antenna elements themselves.

As an former broadcast engineer, I miss the Field Strength Meter in tuning antennas. SWR is not an important measurement in a broadcast transmitter, especially in one operating under 30 Mhz. There are things other than SWR that will indicate mismatch problems. But, measuring exactly how much of your RF is going in what direction is critical. So, broadcast engineers get off their duff, and head out into the world with a meter that measures the relative strength of your signal in various directions at various distances.

I will go into some techniques for measuring your radiation pattern in Part II, but suffice it to say that the key to using field strength measurements is maintaining a database of measurements. For now, just be aware of the value of knowing how your antenna systems interacts with the environment.

Monday, March 4, 2013

EmComm - The Prime Directive

It has been said many times in many places, but it bears repeating, the essence of amateur radio is emergency communications. Let’s quote from the FCC Rules, Part 97,

§ 97.1 Basis and purpose.
The rules and regulations in this part are designed to provide an amateur radio service having a fundamental purpose as expressed in the following principles: 
(a) Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications. 

Couldn't be clearer, the Prime Directive for the Amateur Radio Service is emergency communications, EmComm. And, amateur radio has a proud history of serving the public in times of crisis. It is not necessary to recount all the times that ham radio has been a vital part of emergency response; it is so common as to be in danger of being taken for granted.

The question is, what are you doing to support the Prime Directive? Checking into weekly traffic nets is a good start, but there is far more you can do to support the cause.

What can you do?

For starters, make a plan. You should look at emcomm from two perspectives - as a giver of aid and as one affected by a disaster. Every ham has the potential to play either of these roles. A situation in a nearby community might need your support. You might be called on to go into the area and help with communications, or you might be asked to handle traffic or provide situation awareness information from your home.

Either way, you need to plan ahead. Pack a Go Bag, loaded with the things you might need. Don't wait until a disaster hits, do it now! Remember to pack not only radio gear you will need, but also things for your own sustenance.  I will detail my own plan in a future blog, but most of it is common sense. Just remember, you might find yourself in a situation where you need to be able to operate for 24-48 hours without outside aid. Hint, get, or make, some MREs.

Next, get your act together for when you might find yourself in a situation. Is your shack capable of operating without commercial AC? What about antennas? If your tower goes down, can you get back on the air? Make yourself some wire antennas - a VHF/UHF twin lead J-Pole can be very valuable and a G5RV for hf all wound up, ready for action, could be life-savers.

I will cover these topics in detail in future blogs, but don't wait on me, or anyone else for that matter. Get planning and acting now and you will be on the way to fulfilling the Prime Directive.