Maximize digital features for a progressive amateur radio net

Amateur radio involves innovation; Here are some best practices in making the most out of the benefits of digital tech

My amateur radio club, DX1ARM, hosts an almost-daily net from Mondays to Saturdays at 9:30 AM to 10:00 AM Philippine time (that’s 0130Z-0300Z). This is done on the following channels:

  • BrandMeister TalkGroup 51518
  • YSF (Yaesu System Fusion) Reflector “DX1ARM” or 78427
  • C4FM repeater at 431.600 MHz in the Greater Manila Area

Alternative access through:

Aside from the digital net, the club also hosts a 2-meter (VHF) net Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays from 8:00 PM to 9:00 PM (1200Z to 1300Z) at 144.880 MHz, usually reachable within and around Greater Manila through simplex and repeater access.

I also offer DVSwitch Mobile server access to hams who don’t have DMR radios yet but want to get on DMR networks through analog-digital bridge on their smartphones.

Optimizations and lessons learned

The digital net started out as a daily roll call back when TG51518 did not see much use. We were the first to be assigned a “named” 5-digit TalkGroup within the Philippines “515” TG prefix, and part of the requirements was to have reasonable activity on the TalkGroup.

It has since evolved into a wider net with an average of 20–25 checkins during a 20–30 minute period. Not that much, right? We never intended it to be focused on quantity, but rather the quality and efficiency of checkins. We didn’t want to get the net “host” to get operator fatigue, so the net is done as efficiently as possible.

Here are some things we are doing.

1. We organize the net into several parts for check-in

The net has three parts.

  • First, we pull out stations already seen on the dashboard in the recent minutes,
  • Second, we have the roll call, wherein we call on club members who are digital users,
  • Third, we open the net to other stations,
  • Fourth, we acknowledge alternative or late check-ins.

The digital net usually lasts 20–30 minutes.

2. We take advantage of digital station ID

Digital radio, when connected to a network like BrandMeister or YSF, provides a dashboard accessible on the web. Ours, for example is at dashboard.dx1arm.net. This means stations who transmit or connect already appear on the system.

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DMR radios also have caller ID, and some have “last heard” lists or basically a list of recent callers.

Digital net controls (or the “host” as we prefer to call it) can take advantage of this, instead of waiting to hear everyone shout first, as is the case with analog nets.

This takes away guesswork in terms of determining callsigns, except when stations check-in using Echolink, during which it will be necessary for the stations calling in to properly identify through audio in order to be acknowledged.

3. We simplify check-in procedures for stations without traffic

It’s common in analog nets for a check-in to include information like “This is 4I1RAC, Angelo, from Antipolo City, checking in with no traffic. You are coming in 5×9, etc.”

With our digital net, we advise stations who are busy or otherwise preoccupied that they can simply key up or press their PTT button once again when called. Once their callsign appears on the dashboard, they are already acknowledged. No need for lengthy messages if they don’t have anything to say anyway.

Some people are simply listening in and don’t necessarily want to talk. Some are busy or might be driving or in a meeting. So we give them an opportunity to do a no-frills check-in.

Of course, we always accommodate voice traffic if the station chooses so, even if it’s just to say hello, good morning or good evening (remember, it’s digital so it’s essentially an international net).

If a station is seen on the dashboard but no audio is heard, we assume they intend to check-in, and we already acknowledge them on the air.

Remember, when a DMR radio keys up on a hotspot or repeater to connect to a TalkGroup, the hotspot, repeater, or station ID, already appears on the digital dashboard.

4. We offer alternative check-in mechanisms

We have the web check-in at dx1arm.net/checkin or at dx1arm.com. We also list the daily logs, which are accessible by anyone at dx1arm.net/logs. The host also advises that late checkins, key-ups or QSOs will still be listed on the log up to a certain time.

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Some improvements still needed

Granted, some of these might not work as well when there is already a hybrid or bridged network, e.g., if a net is bridged to other modes that don’t necessarily display their station IDs (e.g., analog), or for stations who don’t currently have credentials within the digital network (e.g., stations who connect via C4FM repeater without a DMR ID only appear as “DX1ARM”).

Still, amateur radio is an evolving hobby and service. We do what we can to help innovate. I hope these concepts prove to be useful to my own club or others that intend to pursue digital nets.

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