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Friday - November 01, 2013 - Amateur Radio at the Beach - Amelia Island - KH2D.net
VoIP and Ham Radio
A Brief Technical Overview

VoIP stand for Voice Over IP. IP stands for Internet Protocol. VoIP, in simple terms, is the protocol by which analog sound (your voice) is changed to digital data, transmitted over the Internet, and then again changed back to analog sound on the other end so you can speak to someone over the Internet. Voice communications over the Internet are not really anything new - programs have been around for a number of years that accomplish the task. Most were given away free as Chat programs to anyone willing to download them, as they were beta test software for what has evolved into the migration of the telephone system to the Internet. The newer programs offer better sound quality and smaller bandwidth, so they are more efficient.

Anyone familiar with the Internet has heard the term 'Chat Room' - a server that a number of people can connect to and chat with each other, either by typing or by talking with a computer sound card microphone. All of the major 'messaging' programs now support voice communications - MS Messenger, AOL Messenger, YAHOO! Messenger.

You may be thinking, what's this got to do with ham radio? Well, the Internet has become an integrated part of ham radio - we use it to forward DX Cluster spots, we use it to download software relating to ham radio, we use it for accurate time keeping on shack computers, and a multitude of other things related to the hobby. So an application for VoIP relating to ham radio was destined to evolve.

Amateur Radio Software Using VoIP - IRLP

I don't have any firm historical datelines to present, but the first application to use VoIP in relation to ham radio seems to have been the IRLP Project (Internet Radio Linking Project). IRLP is a system where 'nodes' (VHF/UHF repeaters) can 'connect' to one another using VoIP protocol thru the net. So, for example, a repeater in Florida could be connected to a repeater in Hawaii, and then the repeater users on either end could talk to each other. IRLP had several drawbacks that seem to have kept it from becoming very popular in the amateur community. One, it runs on the Linux operating system (doesn't work with Windows), and two, it requires some special hardware be purchased from the people who created the software. Linux is not a really popular 'end user' operating system, and it's not plug and play like Windows.

Amateur Radio Software Using VoIP - ILink

ILink is the software that brought VoIP to the blubbering masses. It not only runs under Windows and installs itself, but it also allows different types of 'users'. Where IRLP was a node to node (radio to radio) system only, ILink introduced the 'user' concept, along with the 'conference server' phenomenon. An ILink 'user' was anybody who could figure out how to get a plastic microphone hooked to a computer sound card. No messy RF required. Since it was 'FREE' (AOL Ham Keyword) and didn't cost money like IRLP software did, hams flocked to get some like the proverbial bats out of hell. User numbers were issued, and soon numbered over 20,000. ILink could be interfaced to a radio, but it also required special hardware that had to be purchased from the author of the software or from several other industrious hams who immediately set up Internet businesses selling 'ILink boards'.

ILink had several drawbacks as far as I was concerned personally. First, the software looked like it was written by a six year old with a box of crayons, the user interface was a total kludge, and a simple homebrew interface between the radio and the computer wasn't possible because the software was designed NOT to work with one. Probably with the hopes of selling interface boards. I know what is required to hook a sound card to a computer, because I'd done it years ago with one of the first VoIP programs that showed up on the net, one called MediaRing Talk. I've also built a number of radio/computer interfaces for PSK-31, software DVK's, SSTV, etc. Very simple hardware interface, basically key the radio and run the audio back and forth, so being the skeptic that I am, I thought I immediately smelled a rat in the ILink design.

Several articles were published about ILink in major U.S. ham radio magazines (by one of the guys who's in business selling interface boards - go figure) and that brought the bats out of the caves in much larger numbers. But shortly thereafter, the plan fell entirely apart when the author of ILink declared it would no longer be 'FREE' (AOL Ham Keyword) and that if you wanted some, you'd have to spit up a credit card number and 'donate' over the net. Now the rat was beginning to get really ripe.....

The author of ILink didn't understand a few things about ham radio. The reason that over 20,000 hams had downloaded the program (although I don't remember ever seeing more than 200 using it at the same time) is because it was 'FREE' (AOL Ham Keyword) and not because it was GOOD. And he didn't understand that if you do come up with a product that a ham can use that is computer related, and you convince him to pay $20 for it, you're going to have to give him $2,000 worth of support to help him make it work. So the demand for donations and the 'I paid for it and now I own the author' mentality coupled with the fact that some other programmers had already begun work on similar software virtually put ILink out of business overnite.

Boasting that a 'commercial version' is available for sale, and promising that a a new and improved ham version is to be available soon (while still begging for donations), the ILink web site is still going, but I think at this point we can rename ILink to EXStink and forget about it.

Amateur Radio Software Using VoIP - EchoLink

While ILink was still enjoying it's brief life span, another ham started working on a similar program that was designed to run in harmony with ILink called EchoLink. When I saw ILink I was totally unimpressed - I think I used it twice after I downloaded it. When I heard about EchoLink I read all the information available on the web site and downloaded the software and was immediately impressed. Drastically better user interface and full of features. EchoLink was configurable for the simple homebrew interface option, so about an hours worth of soldering produced my homebrew interface and I had a radio on the air connected to the net.

EchoLink still allows the use of a computer sound card microphone (no radio required) to participate in the fun.

A quick note on homebrew interfaces and the advantages of rolling your own. To put it together and make it work, you have to have some basic idea of HOW it works. Which is a good thing, because A) if it breaks you'll probably be able to fix it and B) knowing how the hardware works give you an advantage in understanding how the software works. Understanding ham radio is much more fun than Plug & Play ham radio, at least it is for me.

Anyway, the world seems to have migrated to EchoLink. The author is responsive to suggestions, releases new versions of the software on a regular basis, and has a handle on features and functions that are useful. He's written the software to include the use of the ILink interface board, so the guys who bought them aren't left out in the cold.

Amateur Radio Software Using VoIP - eQSO & HamLink

I haven't done much investigation, nor have I tried either eQSO or HamLink. eQSO has a web site, and from looking at that and what I've read elsewhere, eQSO is strictly a plastic microphone/chat room concept. I'm not really interested, as I'm licensed for ham RADIO, not ham PLASTIC MICROPHONE.

HamLink appears to be an ILink/EchoLink clone. It appeared out of nowhere on a half assed web site for sale. Reading the web site gave you the immediate vision of VaporWare (computer talk for software that's for sale but doesn't really exist). Complaints from hams (AOL Ham Keyword 'DUMB') who paid for it seem to confirm that suspicion.

That concludes the technical explanation. Now we'll move on the practical application....


My Views On Using VoIP Software Related To Ham Radio

ILink was fun for about 10 minutes. The user interface was SO bad it was a pain in the ass to use. And it didn't seem much like ham radio sitting here holding a plastic microphone in my face and ID'ing with my call sign over the Internet. If I wanted to do that I could use YAHOO! messenger and not have to worry about when it was time to ID...

EchoLink, on the other hand, has been a pleasure to use and a great deal of fun. No more plastic microphone, I can talk to the Internet with an handy scratchy while I'm around the house, and I even put my VHF radio back in the truck so I can talk to the Internet while I'm riding around the island. It's been a lot of fun to talk to my ham friends in Guam, Hawaii, Las Vegas, Kentucky and a few other places. No, I don't think I'm working DX with my 350mw HT. But I'm using the Internet as an EXTENSION of my radio to expand the coverage and by doing that I can talk to guys anytime I want to that I could normally only talk to at 3 am IF conditions on 20 meters were good.

EchoLink has a lot of neat features - from a touch tone pad I can connect to another radio in Guam. It allows multiple users to connect to the same computer, so a three way with a ham friend in Kentucky and another in Guam is possible. It has a 'buddy list' feature so I can limit connections to ham calls that I have configured, leave my radio on 24 hours a day, and not have to be pestered by net surfers who are banging around looking for someone to listen while they talk.

The downside to EchoLink is that the design concept is the same as ILink - it runs on a central server. All the users connect to the server to get information about other available stations to connect to. If the server goes away, the whole system is out of the water. For my application, I don't really need a server - an option for a direct connection to another computer running EchoLink or a small 'built in' server that handles a dozen users would be all I really need. Those options have been discussed and are being considered in the future.

I see EchoLink as a permanent addition to my ham shack - it's a convenient and fun way to keep in touch with far away ham radio friends.


Will The Effect of VoIP Software On Ham Radio Be Good Or Bad?

The news is never all good. Technology is an inanimate object - it just sits there, doing nothing, until someone picks it up and applies it to something, finds a use for it. A computer does nothing but run up the electric bill until a human comes along with a program that gives it a job to do.

Over the years, ham radio has been credited with creating new technologies. What they were, I'm not really sure. I guess they were created longer ago than the 25+ years I've been a ham. I don't remember seeing anything that ham radio radio invented, but I've seen ham radio abuse and destroy a few 'technologies' in those 25+ years:

Packet Radio. Fantastic idea, great technology. Shared frequency, multiple users on the same frequency. Relay capabilities to extend the communications area. So what did hams do with it? Kludged together a nonexistent 'global packet network' and forwarded a thousand tons of garbage around in circles for ten years. We never could get coordinated. We never could could fix the fact that we could forward a message three quarters of the way around the world in two days and then some monkey who was more infatuated with calling himself a SYSOP than he was interested in paying attention could make everyone else's efforts worthless by throwing the message in the bit bucket. What did hams do with packet radio? We ran up the electric bill.

PSK-31. Marvelous technology. Copies signals not audible to the human ear on HF in the noise. Software adjusts the frequencies of the stations in communications so they are exactly the same. Extremely narrow bandwidth, so narrow that 100 PSK-31 QSO's can fit in the same spectrum as three CW QSO's. The gentleman who applied PSK-31 to ham radio said it was intended to be a "low power rag chewing mode". So what did we do with it? We decided we needed to have PSK Contest Weekends. We programmed our buffers with mountains of baloney (ever notice that hams on RTTY can't type? Hams on PSK can't either) and we impressed ourselves by banging function keys and spewing the same baloney QSO after QSO. We ran up the electric bill.

Technology is a tool. So is a hammer. And it appears to me that we're doing the same thing with VoIP tools as we did with packet radio and PSK-31 - we're hammering ourselves in the head with them.

As I sit here writing this, I have EchoLink running on the same computer. With over 400 stations connected (Repeater, Links (RF), and Users (plastic microphones)) a quick look at the stats shows 3 Repeaters busy, 6 Links busy, and 57 Users busy. Some simple math seems to indicate that if 9 of the 57 Users are talking to the busy Links and Repeaters, then the other 48 (or 90 percent) must be talking to each other. So 90% of the hams who are using EchoLink at the present time appear to be talking to each other over the Internet using plastic microphones and sound cards. What the HELL does that have to do with ham RADIO? A RESOUNDING NOTHING!

I'm subscribed to a YAHOO! email list for the discussion of EchoLink. But it finally got to the point that I had to turn off the email, and every time I attempt to read the list on the web, I give up after the first few messages as I just can't seem to stomach the 'discussion' anymore. Seems we are having a contest to see who can build the biggest 'conference server' (Chat Room). How many of these plastic microphone wanna be hams can we talk into connecting to our 'conference server' at the same time. What the HELL does that have to do with ham radio? A RESOUNDING NOTHING!

We have the EURO NET and the TECH NET (that slays me) and the HAM TRADERS NET. Check in please, no radio required. I've been tempted to try the HAM TRADERS NET because I'm starting to wonder what they trade over there besides plastic microphones and sound card head sets. The TECH NET must be a real winner too, because the technical discussion on the EchoLink YAHOO! group where it's advertised (every 15 minutes) would make the average AOL user look like SysAdmin at UUNET.

Most of the 'hams' using (or trying to figure out how to use) EchoLink on the YAHOO! discussion group appear to be so totally computer illiterate that they probably believe Al Gore invented the Internet. And the sad part is, it doesn't appear that many of them are trying to LEARN anything about what they are doing (if they were they'd be banging around in Google trying to solve their own computer problems), they simply whine like wounded monkeys until someone comes along and figures how how to turn that plastic mic into a Talking Machine for them.

If Dudley, the Clueless Newbie ham ever had any intention of actually buying a radio, you can bet your last cold 807 that once he's got that plastic microphone working those intentions are gonna go straight out the nearest window and be forgotten forever. Dudley will be perfectly happy to sit and PRETEND he's a ham with his plastic microphone.

Ham radio used to be full of curiosity. How's it work? Why's it work? What's inside if I take it apart? What can I fiddle with inside to make it work better? What happens when I take that piece out or stick this piece in? Along with curiosity comes knowledge, because curiosity causes the learning process to start.

But then along came Plug & Play. Add a dose of Type & Whine to that, and here we are. Nobody wants to know HOW to do it, they just wanna DO IT.. Nobody wants to learn NOW and DO IT later, they just want to DO IT NOW.

The IRLP guys had the right idea. While I doubt I'll ever bother to learn about Linux, (because there's too many other things I need to learn about that I don't have time for), and while I'd rather roll my own interface than buy a Plug & Play Ready Made one, I'll give them credit for one thing. The IRLP guys understand the effects that playing poker has on the players. That's why they designed the game of IRLP to be played under the rule that you need one RADIO or better for openers.

After all, this is amateur RADIO. Not amateur INTERNET CHAT ROOM, not amateur PLASTIC MICROPHONE - amateur R_A_D_I_O.

Is VoIP software for ham radio bad? No it's terrific. A wonderful tool. Are the authors of ILink or EchoLink bad? No, they provided us with tools. It's not their fault that we are not capable of figuring out what the tools are for or how to best use them.

Is VoIP software going to stimulate the growth of ham radio? Sure it is. About as much as a gallon of RoundUp will stimulate new growth on your lawn..........


Friday - November 01, 2013 - Amateur Radio at the Beach - Amelia Island - KH2D.net
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