Digital and the internet: Is it even radio, or not?
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on n2rac.com in April 2017. My interest in digital has since had a resurgence, being active on DMR and C4FM. I am mostly active on BrandMeister TalkGroup 51518, DX1ARM C4FM 431.600 (YSF DX1ARM), and the openGD77 community.
Nostalgia and purism may be chief reasons for a seeming resistance to new digital modes, but I think the spirit of amateur radio calls for us to be explorers, wherein digital is just another frontier.
In one of my recent articles about amateur radio, I mentioned that digital modulations are not yet something I was interested in. But how wrong I would be just a few months after. I got the opportunity to acquire a Yaesu FT2DR at a very good deal, and I’ve been since bitten by the digital bug. I’m now experimenting with WIRES-X, the FCS reflector network, hotspots, and other things related to C4FM.
I know digital modulations are not exactly new, and hams have been experimenting with the likes of RTTY, PSK, PAKTOR, SSTV, etc., since decades ago. Even the likes of Dstar and DMR have been around for a couple decades now.
But now, the in thing with digital modulations involve inter-connectivity with the internet. I think that’s something that Yaesu’s WIRES-X is doing quite elegantly. And I think that aside from the audio clarity, this is where the true potential of digital lies.
What’s new, and what’s hot?
Again, that’s also not exactly new, since we already have Echolink, and even Yaesu still runs its own WIRES analog network. However, I think WIRES-X is a more elegant solution to radio-over-internet (or RoIP), since it allows better control for end-users, particularly those whose devices have an interface wherein they can control WIRES-X rooms, messages, etc.
Yaesu has actually upped its game with WIRES-X — the Japanese company has been aggressive in marketing its C4FM standard, going as far as selling its DR-1X repeaters to clubs at cutthroat prices, in order to ramp up demand for its radios.
Some think they’re trying too hard to market their otherwise expensive Fusion radios.
However, I think that’s a good thing, since it will encourage more users to get into the new digital modes, particularly C4FM. Fusion repeaters are known for their hybrid capability, anyway, which means even analog users can enjoy continuous use of the repeater systems, unlike pure-play DMR or Dstar repeaters, which do not support analog modes.
What’s that noise?
There’s this prevailing perception that local hams are not exactly warming up to the newer technologies. True enough, digital usage can sometimes encroach on non-digital users, who only hear the “noise” of the stream, but not the clarity of the audio.
Perhaps it’s just a perception on my part. Or perhaps it’s part of being in a community — that there would always be differences in views and opinions. For one, a lot of hams are still fond of old technologies and practices, which includes maintaining vintage gear, sharpening our CW skills, coming through swap meets for radios and accessories older than us (they don’t make ’em like they used to).
Is RoIP still radio at all?
The big question here might be this: What’s the difference between making an international QSO through WIRES-X or through the bridged/connected networks like FCS) with a regular Skype call or Facebook voice call with friends?
Therein goes the clincher: For many, going through the internet would mean it’s not even radio anymore. I mean, understandably, spending a sleepless night to make a DX contact is infinitely more exciting than making a voice or text contact via the internet.
To frame it differently: If most of your modulation doesn’t take place on RF, is it even radio, at all?
For me, I think the better way to approach the issue is this: Think of the opportunities and possibilities that bridging your radio contacts through the internet can do.
For Filipinos, especially, diaspora is quite significant. There are around 2.4 million Filipino workers and professionals abroad. There are around 10.2 million overseas Filipinos, including descendants of Filipinos and people with partial ancestry.
This means going radio-over-IP opens up more bridges to amateur radio enthusiasts who happen to be outside of DU land and who happen to enjoy the continued QSOs locally here.
In fact, many of my recent QSOs through WIRES-X and FCS have been with Filipinos who are either working or living abroad. To them, bridges and uplinks like WIRES-X and FCS open up another opportunity to contact hams back home. Sure, you could do this through HF purely through RF, propagation permitting. But it’s not as clear and accessible as going through ROIP.
The amateur spirit
Secondly, I think being open to different modulation standards is part of the amateur spirit. It’s 2017, and we have taken the internet for granted, since it’s pretty much part of every day life already. Compare that with the earlier days of the internet, wherein it was a novelty that only a few could enjoy. In the earlier days of amateur radio, exchanging data packets without wires was a truly exciting experience. Today, we do it every day through our mobile phones and pervasive mobile data connections.
Sure, now everyone has a connected device in our pockets anyway, but that does not mean that we should no longer experiment with transmitting radio signals through the internet. In the case of WIRES-X and FCS, this means transmitting the digital stream directly from your end to the other end. Here, the internet acts as just another medium.
A final word
Amateur radio is all about community, experimentation, and personal development. Digital modes might be for you, or they might not be. What’s important is that, whatever floats your boat, not to let the naysayers discourage you from exploring your specific interest in the hobby.