Republish: Journey into Ham Radio and DMR

Republish: Journey into Ham Radio and DMR

I originally published this article in 2015.

For years I have hung out with “Hams” and been interested in the technology.  Guys like ka8jil, w9sn, w9smj, w9cjo, and w9abh have all interested me in ham radio. I remember many years ago, before cell signals were digital, I could pull up to a car and watch my buddy Tom tune his radio in and listen to the cell conversation in the car next to us.  For educational purposes only, of course.  It reminded me of the blue and Red box days of telephone phreaking.  The days of the 300 baud modems and making init strings to make the best possible connection.  For me, and I think I am like many other folks, it wasn’t the draw to the hobby but all of its moving pieces that kept me from taking the step into it.  Traditionally, Hams have tuned and tuned their radio setups, with many building their own antennas.  I can see where tuning a “shack” to get the best you can get out of it can be challenging and rewarding for many.  Picking the right hardline, connectors, and other pieces takes much research and trial and error to make it function cohesively.  Tracking down noise, little hums in your transmissions, and other things is a problem-solving logic that can stimulate the brain.

Motorola DMR Repeater wb9arc

But I am not a true hardware guy.  I am more of a wizard at making it do what I want within the bounds of the software.  If I can make an add-on to interface with something existing, then that is as far as my interest goes.  We were doing this “back in the day” with blue boxes, then moving on to the Commodore 64. Being able to bypass copy protection, spinning up hardware keys to bypass restrictions, and stretching the limits of what the software could do with hardware add-ons.  Then along came the Internet and dial-up modem banks, ISDN, T1s, etc.  All these technologies could be pushed with “add-ons” and “hacks” to something existing.  This is where my attention is really stimulated.  Ham Radio has always been about taking all these different pieces and trying to make something work.  Kind of like getting a total random box of Legos and having to make a replica of the USS Ronald Regan aircraft carrier.  Sure, you can do it, but it will require much effort.  Oh, and BTW, you have to make it float when you are done. I think there is a large group like me who just wish to put something together from a kit and then customize it from there.

300 foot tower with ham antennas installed by the author

So now, fast-forward to 2015.  A technology called DMR is really taking off.  Several of my HAM friends are enlisting my help to bring these repeaters live on IP networks and put them on towers.  After a while, it really clocks with me.  This is like the days of the USR Total Control modem banks.  You have a piece of hardware that does radio-to-IP conversion and a few other functions. It communicates with a server over the IP network and an antenna on a tower. DMR is a standard and has set guidelines on how it is supposed to function.  You aren’t inventing the wheel but optimizing a setup within the bounds of what the repeater should do.  To me, this is a big draw. You have a baseline of how it’s supposed to work, which takes much of the frustration away and can be a demotivating factor in any endeavor.

Tower works on a WISP/Repeater tower

There are guys out there who are intrigued and love the RF side of stuff.  It is a science, but you can get bogged down in it.  If you are making your own antennas, you have to make sure all your wire lengths are just right, you use the correct solder and all these 1000 other factors.  To me, that is not fun.  I admire these folks. It’s not that I want to put in the effort; I am missing the gene that experiences great joy in seeing an antenna I worked 2 months on finally go up in the air and kinda work.  I say it works because I see repeatedly having to adjust or replace this filter or that connector.  To me, that is frustrating. I like starting with a baseline setup and making it perform best. Some say that’s taking what someone else has already put together.  Heck yeah, it is.  That is why I admire the tinkerer folks.  They give folks like me a solid product I can go out and put to use because I didn’t spend those two months doing that piece of it.

Tytera DMR radio

I know many folks see DMR as a hot and sexy new technology.  I see it as something that can be duplicated repeatedly with minor tweaks.  This keeps things interesting without having to start from scratch each time.  Instead of focusing on soldering and programming PLC boards, you can now focus on on-site installation and tuning new and existing installations.   On the radio side, you have the draw of programming radios to work with repeaters, talk groups, and the like.  Repeaters have their own software to learn.  Again, you aren’t reinventing the wheel but rather learning a system.  Within this system, you can find ways to do things better, push the boundaries, and be involved in finding bugs and software suggestions.

Installing antennas for w9smj repeaters

Many other HAMS tell me that since I am a network guy, I should love packet radio and similar technologies.  Not really, I have that in the interconnected networks called the Internet.  More and more effort is being focused on making connections. The hardened and resilient packet radio is more nostalgic to me than anything.  We were doing such things with 300 baud modems in 1987.  Maybe, at some point, I will dip my toe in such things.  But it must be in a way that adds to existing systems, not starting from scratch.  I would have to have a “packet radio kit” to assemble and hook into something. the CBRIDGE software that DMR uses really started my wheels turning.  It was not radio-related, but it was a piece that I could wrap my head around.  CBRIDGE allows the DMR repeaters to talk over the IP network for those who don’t know.  So by learning that piece it motivated me to learn about DMR in general.  One day, my mind said, “Hey, you can use this and not be frustrated because sunspots knock it out for a week.”

w9smj antenna on a water tower install

So, my advice for anyone looking at HAM radio who is not a tinkering type of person is to take a look at some of the other aspects of the hobby.  Things like DMR are “easy” to get into in relative terms.  You aren’t buying a base unit, amplifiers, or hardline and spending hours tuning it all.  After passing your test, you can run quickly without soldering a single connection.  As technology evolves and is incorporated into the hobby, it opens up a new way to get folks like myself interested.


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