Ham Radio Adventures – Episode 1

After thinking about amateur radio off and on from around age 14, I finally went and did a course and got certified. My son, who is 14 now, also took the course with me.

On February 8, 2020, we both passed the Canadian Amateur Radio Exam, with honours. Shortly thereafter, we received our Certificate of Proficiency in Amateur Radio certificates in the mail, with my call sign being VA7TPH.

After an avalanche of learning all about antennas and batteries, circuits and diodes, transceivers and frequencies, the question was: “OK, what now?”

I figured I’d share my adventures in the form of a blog. I’m doing this for a couple reasons:

  1. It’ll probably be interesting to look back on it in a few years.
  2. Maybe some of what I go through on this journey will be interesting to others.

I want to give a huge thank you to Les (VA7CBN) and Gary (VE7RVT) and the Cowichan Valley Amateur Radio Society for all their hard work putting on the course in Duncan, British Columbia.

The first night of the course was in January, the same night as a massive snowfall that shut down most of the city. Somehow we made it to the class, and back again alive.

The day we passed the exam, we purchased a Baofeng UV-5R+ … mine is the red one, and his is the blue one. We also got decent antennas for them (the ones that came with them wasn’t great), the ear apparatus to extend the audio output and microphone from the device itself, and a lovely carrying case.

The first week or two was a lot of listening and figuring out the devices. There are some decent YouTube videos, but none I felt were super concise … instead, little bits of wisdom from a few sources helped me learn the power of this unit.

Also during that period I set up an old PC at home for my radio explorations. It’s upstairs at the moment, but will eventually migrate to the basement, and plug in to the ham radio antennas and equipment I currently only imagine I may own one day.

I install the Mint distribution of Linux on the box. Funny enough I have used Linux a fair bit over the past few decades, but not much in the last 8 years. This was the first time I installed the desktop version of Linux in at least a decade. And it was pretty easy; much easier than it used to be. And, the Mint distribution seems pretty good to me.

We named the new computer HamBench3000, in honour of the ham traditions we have only began to hear the legends of.

One of the first things I downloaded to HamBench3000 was the Chirp software. It allows you to download the configuration of the channels in the Baofeng radio (and others) to your computer through a fancy USB connector cable. You can then modify any of the channels to your liking, and upload the changes using the same cable. (I didn’t change any of mine, as mine came pre-programmed with a bunch I wanted to learn more about first.)

On a cool Wednesday evening, my son and I went to our local fire department to participate in the regional emergency “NET” – where all the stations check in with each other to make sure (a) they’re manned, and (b) they’re functional. In case of an emergency where local communications goes down – wires down, cell networks bottlenecked, both of these things will inevitably matter for communication of critical emergency information. This was an eye-opening experience! I plan on returning again, and maybe getting more involved in that group.

One thing that intrigued me on the course was Packet Radio. Being an old-school BBS guy who cares about things like packets and handshakes, it felt like familiar territory. The local group had a WINLINK connection, and the ham showed me how it worked. It was very interesting.

I went home and watched a few unremarkable YouTube videos on the topic, and eventually went to install it myself. I discovered that the native WINLINK software isn’t available for Linux, but there is a program called PAT which works great.

I installed that very easily, figured out the command line to launch it as a server, then went into my browser and loaded up the program. Very simple, mostly intuitive. I sent off a message (not over radio, but over the Internet) and got my own WINLINK email set up.

It felt like the BBS days all over again. Very cool concept, and I could see how this sort of network could be very valuable in an emergency.

I also joined the Radio Amateurs of Canada last week. I figured it would be a great resource to learn more, and a print publication is always fun to get in the mail these days, so I opted-in to that.

I took my radio up a local mountain last weekend for a hike with my son and my wife. I didn’t hear much on the radio the whole time. I tried to get somebody from the top, and had no response. Too bad. Nonetheless, a beautiful day with some great photos… until my wife slipped and injured herself on the way back. It was a scary situation for a bit, but she’ll be OK after a few stitches.

My latest detour was purchasing a simple SDR USB device from Amazon, and see what this thing could do. It’s pretty neat. (You don’t need a license to own one, as it’s just a receiver, not a transmitter, but without the basic understanding I received in the course, I’m sure I would have found this device even more baffling than I did.)

The one I received came with it’s own antenna, and a remote control device (the purpose of which still eludes me).

After plugging it into HamBench3000 and playing around for a bit, I discovered the magic command lsusb, which tells you details of what’s plugged in to your USB ports in Linux. It turns out ours was a Generic RTL2832U OEM SDR-RTL device. This was good, because there’s a whack of software written for it.

So far, I’ve used Gqrx with some success. Got the local radio stations tuned in, the weather station, and played with a few others.

All of this definitely underscored the need for a better antenna!

Tomorrow will be a ham radio swap meet in Crofton, British Columbia. Not sure what will happen there, but I’m hoping to meet up a few other hams and hear some of their war stories.