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K6SBW: Amateur Radio Notes by Steve Williams

In August, 2018, I finally obtained my FCC Amateur Radio (HAM) license. My call sign is K6SBW.

I'm primarily interested in learning about packet radio. But who knows, I might set up a voice rig in my camper!

For now, I'll use this web site as a blog to save my notes as I learn more about amateur radio and packet radio. In future, this web site may support packet radio services I set up.

More about Steve: sbw.org

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HAM California License Plates

Sep 22, 2021

California License Plate
K6SBW I applied for California "Special" License Plates with my call sign on June 25, and they arrived today!


Programmed My Handheld with West L.A. Repeaters

Mar 25, 2021

I finally got around to using the RT Systems software and cable to program the West L.A. repeaters into my Yaesu FT-70D handheld.

I used the RepeaterBook Search to load the repeaters within 25 miles of me here in Venice, and then wrote them out to the radio. It was easy.

With the frequencies loaded, I'm listening as the radio scans all the local repeaters. I picked up several conversations at my desk inside, with just the rubber ducky antenna. Now I'm monitoring the closer Culver City repeater K6CCR, but not hearing anything yet.

And I can more easily monitor the Thursday WARC/LAERA Net on the Mount Wilson repeater N6CIZ. I don't know whether I'll hear it down here near the beach. I'll try going outside and try several of my antennas.

There's also the Wednesday WARC UHF Net on K6CCR. I expect that'll be easier to hear.

Update after the Thursday net: I had no trouble receiving the net on my handheld, even at my desk inside. A little less static when I went out in the front yard. I listened using all three of the handheld antennas I have: the rubber ducky that came with the handheld, a Diamond SRJ77CA, and even the little Diamond SRH805 I have for the PicoAPRS. They all worked equally well, so N6CIZ is more powerful than I thought. I didn't try to check in, maybe next week!

I have the full RepeaterBook database installed on my Android phones, too. (Apps: Android or iOS.) In an emergency outside of the Venice area, I might use that to look up a local repeater and key in the details to the radio. But when I'm here, the radio's memory is way easier. Of course, the radio's computer is powerful enough to search RepeaterBook directly, but it doesn't have enough memory to hold the whole database. When I travel in my VW camper through remote areas, I'd sure like to have a mobile rig that knows the local repeaters from just the GPS location!

It still bugs me that there seems to be no open source alternative to the RT Systems software. I haven't yet looked into whether Yaesu documents the hardware and software interface to do the programming. I don't know what the hardware in the RT Systems USB cable does to interface to the FT-70D's mic/phone jack, but it wouldn't be hard to put together with DIY parts.


SCCARC General Membership Meeting

Dec 13, 2020

It was fun to attend a special meeting of the Santa Cruz County Amateur Radio Club General Membership this morning, to cast a vote to elect officers and board members for 2021. I keep my membership up to date, even though I've moved to Los Angeles for now.

I attended through a boring teleconference service over the internet, but it was fun to hear club President Becky KI6TKB via the K6BJ repeater's phone patch and the teleconference session of Cap KE6AFE.


Learning About Pico Balloons

Oct 5, 2020

At the AREX LAX meeting last Saturday, Brian N6CVO gave a very interesting presentation on "Pico Balloons," small balloons with payloads so small that the entire vehicle–balloon, electronics, and antenna–is less than 20 grams. I was attending the CVARC General Class Session, but I watched the presentation later, thanks to David Goldenberg W0DHG, who posted it on the HamRadioNow YouTube channel. I was interested to learn:

ZachTek WSPR-TX Pico Transmitter There are lots of tracking modules available, such as the ZachTek WSPR-TX Pico Transmitter, and lots of DIY possibilities using open source software.

Pico Ballonists use dime-store balloons or more expensive scientific balloons like the SBS-13.

At the time of his presentation, Brian's N6CVO-13 balloon was still aloft after 86 days and 4.5 circumnavigations. He polls WSPRnet and repeats the data to aprs.fi, so we can track N6CVO-13 there.

When I wrote about the WB6TOU-11 Circumnavigation, I didn't realize pico balloonists almost never recover their vehicles. Still, I can see they learn a lot from each flight!


Today's CVARC General Class Session

Oct 3, 2020

A few topics that came up today.

A Recommended Transceiver for Mobile/Base Station

Bill Willcox KF6JQO says he his Icom IC-7100 tranceiver because it serves well as a base station or a mobile. I've been thinking my HT isn't the best radio to put in my Westy, so I'll look into this one. Looks simpler and smaller than some of the mobile rigs I've seen. The angled touchscreen head is connected to a controller that can be mounted remotely in a mobile installation.

Companion Web Site to ARRL Manual

There's a companion web site to the ARRL General Class License Manual we're using. From the web site:

While studying the ARRL General Class License Manual to prepare for your exam you may find that you need a bit more background to fully understand a topic. Maybe you'll just be curious and want to know more detail. Either way, this General Class License Manual web page is intended to act as your "study buddy."

How Remote Testing is Handled

CVARC Editor/Published Andy Ludlum K6AGL joined the session today to go over remote testing procedures (PDF).

Andy directed us to hamstudy.org to find a test session when we're ready. Two GLAARG volunteers are currently organization sessions: WB6OHW and W8WOT

HamTestOnline Does Test Prep Well

Today I renewed my HamTestOnline subscription, so I can get back to studying for the General License that way. Even though I haven't used it since last summer, it's inexpensive to renew. I remember it does a good job of tracking which answers I'm still getting wrong and directing me back to detailed study materials for those questions. I almost passed the General last summer, so I know it works!


General Licensing Class from Conejo Valley Amateur Radio Club

Sep 26, 2020

I'm attending the General license class offered by the Conejo Valley Amateur Radio Club, 8 am-noon Saturdays for five weeks. (I missed the first week.) This is a club over in Thousand Oaks, not far from me in Venice. If I combine the class with reading the ARRL General Class License Manual and HamTestOnline, I think I'll be able to pass the General test this time.

For remote testing during the pandemic, the instructor Bill Willcox KF6JQO referred us to GLAARG VEC. From their web site:

The Greater Los Angeles Amateur Radio Group VEC is one of the fourteen FCC-recognized Volunteer-Exam Coordinators conducting amateur radio exams. GLAARG is a VEC testing organization, not a radio club. Our exam fee is $10 for remote exams and $5 for in-person exams. Exam fees are waived for minors 18 years and under, students with a current ID, first responders, Active Military, Veterans, and GLAARG VEs upgrading to Extra.

During the class, Bill mentioned how useful he finds antenna analyzers. He spoke of Raspberry Pi-based analyzers. Since I've been experimenting with Raspberry Pi and other single-board microcontrollers lately, I did a quick search. An interesting example is the Arduino-based EU1KY Antenna Analyzer Kit, based on the W8TEE analyzer, but upgraded to a more powerful processor with digital signal processing. Interesting stuff! Thinking of my camper, I asked Bill whether antenna analyzers are important in mobile rigs, and he said they are. Not surprising, since mobile antennas have compromises, since they must fit under overpasses. And mobile installations natually have a lot of variables.


Help Rebuild W6WLS Repeater in Santa Cruz County

Sep 8, 2020

I try to stay connected to the Santa Cruz County amateur radio since moving to Los Angeles. Today the Santa Cruz County Amateur Radio Club email list alerted me to the fundraiser to rebuild the W6WLS repeater tower on Empire Grade above Bonny Doon, destroyed by the recent CZU Lightning Complex fire. I made a donation.

The W6WLS repeater tower and building were owned by Matthew Kaufman and J. Rebecca Jacobs. In addition to the repeater, Matthew and Rebecca allowed several amateur radio services to use the towers. Read more on the fundraiser page. Their home in nearby Bonny Doon was also lost in the fire.

I hope one day to return to Santa Cruz County and continue to use and benefit from the healthy amateur radio volunteers there!


APRS for Data Logging

May 17, 2020

For logging data from the Westy, I'm looking at the Adafruit Feather Arduino compatible microcontrollers. To log the data to the cloud, I'd like to use APRS. On Hackser.io, John Weers posted a project, "Arduino APRS Tracker," that uses APRS in the usual way, to report position periodically, on a standard frequency, through repeaters available throughout the civilized world.

But I believe APRS may be used to send any kind of data, so I should be able to send the relatively small data structures I'm planning over APRS.

Now, a downside to APRS is that it's a one-way transmission, with no guarantee it will be received. Even if a repeater is in range, my transmission may be blocked by a simultaneous transmission from another station.

That's OK: Receiving only some of the data through APRS is fine, because the logger will store the data locally, too, so it can be uploaded later, when an internet connection is available. So maybe my logger will have both APRS and WiFi (or BLE).

Now, John Weers's project transmits APRS through his handheld HAM radio, where I want the Westy's logging to be independent of such devices. So I need to find a HAM transmitter that's relatively low power.

Like, does the PicoAPRS use a module that can be adapted to an Arduino? Or maybe I could just use the PicoAPRS as a Digipeater? So much I don't yet know/understand.


WB6TOU-11 Circumnavigation

Mar 22, 2020

On aprs.fi, we can to track the flight of WB6TOU-11 under an SB-13 weather balloon from the departure near Sacramento March 7 to the last ping northeast of Vancouver March 19.

As expected, there are gaps in the data at night and over oceans and remote terrain. But I was able to follow it through the northern tier, over Newfoundland, back ashore in northern Europe, across China and Japan (where the winds at 40,000 feet were light, evidently, as it took 17 hours to go only about 200 miles), across the Pacific to the mountains near Cache Creek, B.C.

The last ping is only a couple of miles from Highway 99, but it may be difficult to recover the balloon, since it's in a mountain valley about 3,500 feet above sea level, about 2,000 feet above the higway. You'd have to hike up through this swale (Google Street View below). And I doubt it's still pinging for direction finding.

Congratulations to David Voit WB6TOU and his crew for a successful flight!

See the San Francisco High Altitude Ballooning group for some discussion of the flight. Sounds like David may try again to achieve more than one trip around!

Google Street View of the mountains near Cache Creek, B.C.


Joining the Westside Amateur Radio Club in Los Angeles

Nov 17, 2019

I moved from Santa Cruz to Venice, California, in October.

Today I'm sending my membership application to the Westside Amateur Radio Club (WARC), where I'm hoping to make contacts to continue learning.

I still haven't been on the air, and my handheld is still programmed with only the Santa Cruz area frequencies. That programming was done by Bob Fike KO6XX, one of the Santa Cruz area Elmers. I haven't even tried to use the software I bought to learn how to do it myself. I need to do that and find out if WARC can provide a spreadsheet with the L.A. area frequencies.

In a few weeks, I'm traveling to Santa Rosa to visit family. Along the way, I'll be camping at Pinnacles National Monument the day before a Santa Cruz County Cycling Club ride from Paicines to Mercey Hot Springs via Panoche Road. There's no cell coverage at Pinnacles or along Panoche Road, so it'd be nice to figure out how to program my HT for the repeaters in the area. I have the Repeater Book app installed on my phone, and it works off-line, so theoretically I have everything I need to stay connected when camping and even on rides, if I carry the radio. I just need to take the time to learn how to do it.


Failed the General Test, Next Steps

Jul 8, 2019

Last Wednesday, July 3, was the last session of the Technician course put on by San Lorenzo Valley ARES. It was a really good course. I learned a lot, and I collected a lot of great resources and local contacts that should help me make more progress.

SLV ARES also offered the FCC tests last Saturday, July 6, in Felton. Since I already passed the Technician test, I thought I'd try the General test, even though I had spent only a few hours prepping for the General through HamTestOnline, recommended by the SLV ARES instructors and several of my fellow students, who said they found it very helpful and smartly designed.

So Saturday I biked up to Felton and took the General. I missed 10 of 35 questions, so I failed by one question! No problem. I already learned a lot, and now I know what to expect from the test. I'll finish the prep and find another exam when I can.

I struggle with stuff that requires memorization, like the details of the Amateur Bands. I'm not yet comfortable relating the colloquial names of the bands, like "2 meters" and "70 centimeters," to the exact boundaries in megahertz, how the bands are divided up for various uses, and which pieces of each band are allowed for each license. As a computer programmer, that's the kind of detail I don't try to remember, instead relying on reference materials day to day. Which makes it hard to prep for a test where I won't be allowed to have my notes at hand!

But I'm sure I can work up to passing the test, then try to forget everything and go back to using references.

Today I received a Diamond K400S mount and NR-770HB antenna for the rear hatch on my Westy. The instructions are a bit sparse, so I sent an email to the K6BJ email list asking for a friendly Elmer to advise me. I'm hoping to have the antenna set up in time for DWeb Camp next week, up the coast in an area with little cell coverage. We'll see!


I'm Now K6SBW

Jun 28, 2019

Overnight I received the email from FCC with a link the new version of my license with a new vanity call sign: K6SBW!

Last September, I received the vanity call sign WA6SBW. That was cool, but I think K6SBW is slightly cooler. I guess decades of working on the web, where short domain names are valuable, made me want the shortest call sign that includes my initials.

For now, WA6SBW.net will redirect here. I don't like to give up domain names once I've made them public, since I haven't gotten on the air yet, probably there's not much value in preserving that domain forever.


Planning to Create a Mobile Station

Jun 27, 2019

Today I signed up for the Internet Archive's DWeb Camp, a retreat coming up July 18-21 for people like me "who want to create a Web that is more open, private, secure and fun." (That is, a web that resists the damage done to culture by big tech and especially the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.)

I'm planning to take my VW Camper, and I may try to show up Monday, July 15, to volunteer to help build the camp.

DWeb Camp takes place up the coast near Gazos Creek, in an area where there's no cell service. So naturally I want to set up a mobile station while I'm there. The event invites everyone to demonstrate the projects we're working on. I'm hoping the Westy will have a web server running. But how much fun would it be to also demonstrate amateur radio?

I guess that means I should go ahead and get the antenna, cable, and mount for the Westy, and practice getting on the air before I go.

I think it'll be a lot of fun!

(I'm riding the Santa Cruz Mountains Challenge that Saturday, July 20. So I'll miss that day of DWeb Camp. But I want to be there, to do what I can to make the internet a better place.)


A Bit More Equipment

Jun 17, 2019

I got a bit more equipment for my HT. Thanks again to Bob KO6XX for the advice.

For the camper, with its fiberglass roof, Bob recommended the Diamond K400 mount for the rear hatch. I have't pulled the trigger on that yet, because I need to ask Bob to recommend an antenna. Depending on where I put the mount, I'll need to consider carefully where the antenna will go when I open the hatch, or when I pull into my garage, which has quite a low roof.


A Very Valuable Class

Jun 16, 2019

Tonight was the fifth of six sessions of the Amateur Radio Licensing Course offered by the Santa Cruz Public Libraries and the local HAM radio clubs, primarily San Lorenzo Valley ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service). Next Wednesday is the last class, then the test will be administered Saturday, July 6.

The class tonight was the easiest yet for me, because it covered basic electronics. I've always been an electronics hobbyist, and I went to vocational school to be trained as an avionics technician. So I've already got Ohm's law memorized.

Next week will be harder, because it covers antennas, which have always been a mystery to me. (Us avionics techs just mount the specified antenna and check the signal strength. We don't have to do the math!)

Since I already have the Technician license, I don't need to take the test with the rest of the class. But I might take it anyway, because the class covered the new set of test questions released by FCC after I passed the test last fall. So I'll be interested to see how I do on it.

And Dan N6RJX suggested taking the General test that day, because I might just pass it. Dan took it on a whim and passed it. Might be worth a try. (Dan says the Amateur Extra class is a lot harder.)

The class has been great so far. In the six 2-hour sessions, the primary goal has been to prepare us for the test. But that's enough time to ask questions and learn a lot more than the few hours of self-study in the HAM Cram I took last fall. (But, hey, I aced the test.)

Also, the class was an opportunity to meet lots of experienced HAMs and even watch them operate. Tonight was the regular net (over-the-air meet-up) for SLV ARES, so we paused the class at 7:30 pm to listen to the net. Several SLV ARES members in the room checked in and were acknowledged by net control.

I had my HT tuned to the WB6ECE repeater so the students near me could hear the net clearly. I thought about checking in by just mimicing the calls that the experienced operators had made. But I wasn't sure if the net wanted people like me to check in, when we haven't been introduced. (Later, Dan said that would have been fine.)

From the ensuing discussion, I leared that WB6ECE is quite a sophisticated repeater network that's really useful throughout Santa Cruz County, for people in areas with no cell service who need to communicate, for emergencies or even routine chats. WB6ECE is run by volunteers, of course, but they've set up a nonprofit to accept donations to help pay for the equipment, facility, and services needed to provide such extensive capability to the public at no charge.

And that led to a discussion of the Santa Cruz Mountains Challenge, bicycle tour coming up July 20, organized by the Santa Cruz County Cycling Club. SLV ARES volunteers will be stationed at each of the rest stops and probably riding in the SAG cars. That will help the club to respond to riders with emergencies or just mechanical problems along the route, some of which is out of cell coverage.

I'm a member of the cycling club, and I'm planning to ride 100 miles that day! So I ran home after class and made a substantial donation to support WB6ECE. And I'm planning to find out from the cycling club leadership how to propose making a grant to WB6ECE. After all, the HAM volunteers providing support for the Mountains Challenge can't accept payment, so this is a way for the cycling club to support all HAMs in the area and the people who benefit from their volunteerism.

So, yeah, I think it's clear that I'm learning a lot from this class!

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