WAPR News February 2004

by Andy Nemec, KB9ALN

Hello everyone, I hope your new year is off to a good start. Let's hope and work for a steadily improving packet radio network not only in this state, but in the country as a whole.

There's only a small bit of news to report regarding the network. The node WIBALD near Baldwin (in the Northwest part of the state) has been reactivated. The eventual goal is to link the Minnesota packet network to the U.P. of Michigan packet network, and then south to Northeastern Wisconsin. Leroy, N8WQG and others involved in the UP Network are working to make the connections complete. As we get closer, I'll provide more details.

We're still no closer to replacing or relocating the Appleton and Tomah node stacks. As a result, most BBSs in Wisconsin have no forwarding feed. A potential sale and relocation of the Appleton stack unfortunately fell through.

All of this means that we will need to work harder and smarter to see the Wisconsin packet network, and WAPR survive and thrive. As I mentioned last time in a not-too-cheery article here, things will need to change. Our officers in WAPR are at a point of not being able to do much more. Which means that we will need new officers, and more people, to keep the Wisconsin Network and WAPR alive and well. Can you help? Contact me if you can.

Speaking of the future, this month we have a special treat. Recently, I was invited to look at and operate a pair of the new Icom ID-1 "D-Star" radios. To make space for the larger article, this will be a short news report.

I think you'll find this article of interest, because it touches on what we might expect from future packet radio. In order to keep packet alive, useful and interesting, it has to move forward. I think the D-Star is one giant leap forward in packet radio technology, and it certainly holds promise for the future. I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I enjoyed playing with these radios.

That's all for this time out, until next time, 73 from Andy.

A Peek at the Icom D-Star

Recently, I had an opportunity to take look at and test the new Icom "D-Star" radios that will soon be released for sale. While this article is not a real comprehensive review with lab tests and such, it is a brief overview of a new radio with a user's impression of the radio.

Because they are so new, I was able to try two of these radios for evaluation. Thanks to Scott KB9AMM and Jill KB9PZF Cole at Tower Electronics and Ray Novak KC7JPA at Icom America for the arranging a test of the radios for this article.

As amateurs, we're used to seeing all kinds of new technology, powered by microcomputers and dripping with all kinds of handy features. The Icom D-Star radios are no exception, they're even a little more than what we're used to seeing. In fact, the Icom D-Star radios are a new kind of radio.

What is D-Star?

Icom's D-Star radios are not only hardware, but a complete digital and analog radio system. D-Star was jointly developed by the Japan Amateur Radio League (JARL) and Icom through grants from the Japanese government.

All D-Star radios are capable of Analog and Digital voice operation, in addition to two speeds of data operation. High-speed Data operation is not limited to conventional AX.25 operation, it is an "open protocol" system. This means that one can relatively painlessly use TCP/IP and in fact, connect to the internet. Anything that can be done on the internet - including web browsing and file transfers - can be done easily with D-Star radios. Note that an internet connection is not required for the operation of the radio, but it can be done. In short, the radio has the capability of allowing internet-style services to be transported via radio, with ir without the internet

There are a number of D-Star models, but they can be classified as falling into one of two types: "end user" and "backbone". The "end user" model has data rates of 128 Kbps (roughly equivalent to the lowest-grade DSL) and operates in the 1.2 GHz band, while the "backbone" model provides for more than one voice channel and data rates of 10 Mbps in the 10 GHz band.

A local D-Star "digipeater" system is similar to a conventional node stack. It has a user port at 128K bps, as well as a backbone port at 10 Mbps. It differs in that no TNCs are used - everything needed to send a packet of data (aside from the data itself and the computer) is contained within the radio. No arcane TNC commands are needed to be learned - although there is some setup of the D-Star radio required.

Unpacking the Radios

Our test radios were the ID-1 128K "end user" models. Unpacking them revealed the radio itself, along with a few optional accessories not included in the "basic" ID-1. Ours included the speaker, microphone, optional control head, ethernet, USB and microphone extension cables, "double-female" ethernet coupler connector, brackets and software. Of course there's the instruction manual, all 108 pages of it. The instruction manual is complete and comprehensive - and even tells you how to prepare cables for connection to the "N" type RF connector used for the antenna.

The radio itself is about the size of a garden-variety dual-band mobile radio - 5 1/2" wide, 1 9/16" high, and 6 7/16" deep. The control head is approximately 6" wide, 2" high and 2" deep. The radio weighs about 2 1/2 pounds, the control head a mere 7 ounces.

Quality of construction appears to be up to Icom's usual standards, at least on the outside (we didn't open the radios up). It operates on standard 13.8V DC, and can be operated as a mobile or base unit (with the appropriate power supply, of course). Transmitter power is selectable at either 1 or 10 watts. It also has fan cooling.

The radio has some standard features you're likely to find on most any radio, such as a VFO, 105 memory channels and alphanumeric display of these memory channels. There are also tone and digital squelches included, and easily accessible call channels. There are also a number of other features unique to this radio, because it's a unique radio.

Making It Work

The radio has the usual microphone, power and antenna connectors, along with an ethernet pigtail and a USB pigtail. The USB port is used to control the radio. There is no conventional serial port on this radio, you will need a computer with USB ports in order to configure and remotely control the radio. In order to send data, the computer used will need to be equipped with a network card (commonly called an ethernet adaptor) that can accept an RJ-45 connector.

Connection was straightforward - in fact, rather easy. Just plug the appropriate connector into the computer or radio, and then install and configure the software.

The software is not what regular packet users may be used to. A healthy part of it is designed to control the radio. Yes, this can be operated as a "black box" radio. However, if you're looking for something like "Pac Term", you won't find it. The  software is designed to configure and control the radio, log contacts and such. In order to engage in a keyboard chat, for example, you might use something like an Internet IRC client. In other words, your web browser would find much more use than any conventional packet software.

The software itself is currently only available for Windows operating systems - a serious problem.  Anyone using these operating systems will have to configure the radio with Windows, then use the control panel to operate the radio. As an ethernet card is standard stuff, it is possible to transfer data from a Linux or Mac computer - to these computers, the D-Star is just another network interface. The lack of Linux and Mac software is a serious limitation for hams, a lot of us use Linux in our experimentation.

Installing the software is fairly straightforward. Install "Wizards" are used, and the dialog boxes ask for such things as IP addresses, subnet mask, and USB port. The instruction manual covers the install process quite nicely, with specific instructions for Windows 95/98/Me, as well as Windows 2000 and XP. Computer novices will find that it's not at all difficult to set up with the instructions provided.

Once installed and configured, you'll see a graphic duplicate of the control head on your computer's screen. You can control anything from either the control head or via the computer. Operation of the software is fairly easy - if you want to adjust the volume, you move the mouse pointer to the graphic volume control, and drag it to the appropriate level. Before you make your first contact however, you will need to supply a few more bits of information - namely, your call-sign, the call-sign of a local digipeater (node) and call-signs of frequently contacted stations.

Once you do that, the fun can begin.

Actual Operation

Our test setup was simple, and done on "short time", so we could not give it an exhaustive test - that will come this spring. For our test, we used the following equipment:

Toshiba 1.2 GHz Laptop Computer with Windows XP
Dell 900 MHz Laptop Computer with Windows 2000
Two ID-1 Icom D-Star Transceivers
Two Comet GP-21 Omnidirectional BaseAntennas (12.2 dbd gain)
Two Astron power supplies (RS-35)

These setups were placed in adjacent rooms about 25 or 30 feet apart and both radios were operated on low power (1 Watt). This provided a decent "baseline" signal to use for comparison purposes.

The radios were reasonably easy to operate, there is nothing unusual or odd about the way they operate. You may not be used to one minor detail - setting your call-sign in the radio for digital operation. This is generally done by entering your callsign in the TNC with the "MYCALL" command. Icom uses this same terminology, by the way. It is easy to do and won't confuse anyone at all. While conventional voice operation is just like any other radio, once you set the call-sign for digital modes, digital voice operates just like a conventional radio. We did not test (and were not that excited about testing) the low-speed data operation, so we'll only talk about high-speed data operation.

Once you have everything set up, high-speed data operation is pretty much unremarkable. By that, I mean that you hardly know it's there. For our crude throughput test, all we did was to use the built-in facilities Windows has for transferring a file.

The other computer appears in the "Network Neighborhood" screen on the Windows computer. We did a simple "drag-n-drop" operation, and in about 6 minutes, a 5 Megabyte Mp3 file was transferred. It works out to roughly 100 Kbps under our near-ideal conditions. Anyone who has gone through the tedium of transferring even a small file via garden-variety packet can appreciate just how painless this is! No need to use YAPP, UU or any other intermediate program to transfer a binary file - it's all done via TCP/IP in a painless way.

The speed of the radios is very impressive. They respond instantly and the transmissions are very short. For a long file transfer, you won't be able to keep up with the transmit light on the front panel of the radio! Think of it, an entire 50K file transferred in one transmission.


The Icom D-Star is just about anything one could want in a data radio, and more. Digital and Analog voice make it multi-mode, and this capability can help when trying to troubleshoot bad signal paths without ambiguity.

Although the estimated (I can't stress this enough) price in the $500-$600 range may seem a bit pricey, consider what one gets for the money: A full-featured FM analog radio, a digital voice radio and a data radio capable of twice dial-up phone modem data rates, without the need to buy a TNC or other interface. You're really getting 3 radios and a very special TNC for that money. Changing modes is a snap, so you don't have to dedicate this radio for digital service. In short, it's not quite as expensive a radio as you might first think.

And even though it's a new radio with new capabilities, it's as painless as can be to operate. As I mentioned before, you hardly know it is there, which is a good thing. Even though it's a full-featured radio, there are a few minor drawbacks. First is the software. Although it operated well enough, there is none available for other operating systems. This is key as we don't want to use Windows-based servers on a large-scale packet network for a variety of reasons. With any luck, either Icom or some other interested party may rewrite the software for other operating environments.

Second is output power. 10 watts should do for most any circumstance. However, additional power may be useful in a few instances. Adding an external power amplifier may not be easy - it would increase the transmit-receive "turnaround" time unacceptably. As time goes on, perhaps we'll see a higher-powered version come available.

Speaking of transmit-receive turnaround time, there is no obvious method to change some of the more technical operational parameters. Most of us are used to "tweaking" things like TXDelay and Slot time, there does not appear to be a set of comparable commands in the D-Star. These radios operated very well, as was pointed out earlier. However, there may be a need to modify these parameters in certain situations and there does not appear to be an easy way to do it.

Then there is the fact that this is brand-new technology for the amateur radio market. There aren't any of these around yet, and in the short term, you may be a little lonely if you expect to make a lot of contacts with it in any mode. Add to that the fact that this is one manufacturer's vision of digital radio and other manufacturers may have other ideas, there may be some incompatibilities further down the road. The Digital Voice part is somewhat standard, though, as it uses the AMBE CODEC.

Of course that's a moot point if they sell well and are embraced by hams. If enough of these radios are bought and used, then Icom's D-Star system becomes a "defacto" standard.


All in all, the D-Star appears not only to be a very good radio, but also appears to be a very good system. It's easy to set up, easy to operate, provides for a host of capabilities we have not seen until now, and can be used for more than one purpose. Not a bad deal, all in all.

If you want more info on the D-Star radios and system, check out: http://www.icomamerica.com/amateur/DStar

73 from Andy, KB9ALN

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