Work the world with Echolink !
Is this always amateur radio ? (III)
Without wishing to initiate a controversy, a question is often asked that might anger some of us : will the "old fashion" amateur radio survive this true revolution ? Because it is ! This is much more than one more "big chat room", or another Skype or HamSphere system as say some hams. Of course EchoLink and other VoIP systems do not (yet) transmit video as other could do. But most of them if not all do not connect to repeaters located in the middle of nowhere either !
Some hams resist to the idea of integrating VoIP among the modes accessible to amateurs for several reasons, some acceptable others much less. Here are some :
- Using Internet, this is no more ham radio. This assertion is only true if both hams work without RF linking and communicate only from their computer or smartphone in single-user mode like do HamSphere.
- VoIP is not ham radio as you do no more work on the air. This argument is valid for purists and some "oldtimers" who still do believe that a ham radio has to use a transceiver, an antenna and shouldn't incorporate new modes and technologies to make a QSO. But in that case we can also answer them : do no more work in SSB neither because in the first time of ham radio all OM worked only CW with a dipole or so...
So where have you to place your technical approbation ? In that case what technology or accessory do you "accept" or not to work a station ? For some radio amateurs clusters as all digital modes are already consider as "artificial" modes. And even if these new modes work with RF some hams refuse to use them... At last there are indecisive people that should accept to use EchoLink but refuse it because if it can use repeaters and VHF/UHF transceiver, it works with VoIP which is not an RF linking. Right. This is an individual opinion that we have to respect too.
Personally and like most users, I do not find many arguments against this tool, except these ones :
- You need to be in contact with your correspondent to hear him, except when you are in conference mode (one ham or a conference server is contacted by more than one user)
- If your contact has a bad upbringing he can disconnect without notice (never or very rarely practiced on the air)
- QSL are not valid for the DXCC, HI !, but you can send eQSL if you like.
- The application is limited to voice transmission, it is VOICE over IP. There is no option yet to work CW, SSTV, DATV, etc, even if some tools can solve this problem (e.g. InterAce to send images, etc).
- An option (the white hand, "List Me as Busy") allows you to close the access to a conversation that you initiated. This let the door open to all private conversations. In respect with the ham spirit and the near-public access to the EchoLink network I consider that this option should be disabled. However there are situations where groups of users involving emergency services do not wish to be disturbed while discussing local issues. There are also clubs who wish to have a local-only net. So while most do run an "open system" there are those who do not, and EchoLink support team decided to respect their wishes.
- ...anything else ? I don't think so.
In the end Echolink is not very different from the famous TNC used by thousands amateurs since the years '80s that allows to link a computer to a VHF transceiver, base or hand-held. Today packet radio is interfaced with many services including DX Clusters, chat bridges, networking, emergency communications, satellite operations, APRS, and much more. Most amateurs also consider that these new modes of transmissions are an integral part of the "Art of radio". Then why not Echolink ? ...
In fact whether or not EchoLink is amateur radio depends on how you use it. If you are talking computer to computer, of course it is just like any chat program. But EchoLink is much more...
Examples of RF linkings handled by EchoLink
The difference between EchoLink and Internet chat rooms is that you can talk to stations that are mobile or portable in V/UHF going through their locally linked repeater. You can also use wireless adapters. Thus you are no more limited to computer to computer connections. Beside of my Japanese contact worked via the 3A2MZ-L simplex repeater, here is another and more complex example.
You can use EchoLink to talk from your portable RF transceiver (e.g. UHF), connected to a local UHF repeater, then out over EchoLink, itself connected the local CATV company RF fiber optic line, then to a satellite link to Oceania, to another RF link, to a VHF repeater, to talk at last with a ham working mobile on his 2m portable located somewhere in Australia in the middle of nowhere ! In this special case, both amateurs radio picture that this transmission uses much more RF than "wired" lines ! In fact, technically speaking each of them does not really work DX but only to their nearest repeater.
You can complexify this link in using wireless PC connections too. Imagine that you want to use your portable computer outdoor, in your garden, but of course there is no Internet connection available outside your house. This is not a problem. There are two possibilities : Wi-Fi and Air-base. The first is a public wireless network requesting one base station using a DSL or cable modem connection linked to the Internet. This connection can be shared at no charge by several remote users (you can always share you telephone bill with them, HI!).
Air-base is more respectfuly of the ham spirit. To use your portable PC running EchoLink a few hundreds meters from your home, you have to plug in the portable an USB or PCMCIA wireless adapter (e.g. D-link). This card emits a RF signal to its "Air-base" and links your remote portable to the Internet.
The Air-base consists in an small external peripheral equipped with an antenna and wired to your main computer serial adapter. The signal is then handled by EchoLink.
So EchoLink is great for "on the fly" linking of/to V/UHF repeaters, wireless stations, or even "link" stations. But of course it can also be nothing more than two hams sitting at their computers talking like in a "chat room" to each other via the switched line... But even connecting directly computers, EchoLink is useful to lighten your phone bill if you are regularly in contact with ham friends abroad !
The old-fashion nostalgy
However it is sometimes difficult for some radio amateurs to grasp this new technology. They remain intimidated, timorous, and most than probably misinformed about how it really works, how to connect all that stuff, and therefore they seem to compensate for their lack of knowledge by criticizing new tools. These same folks are probably intimidated by computers too.
Those who do not accept EchoLink appear to know very little about the actual operation of EchoLink, or what it is really capable of (e.g. most resistants ignore the RF linking feature). Their arguments seem very similar to those "oldtimers" who criticized AM saying that it would never replace the spark gap, or those elders who criticized SSB saying it would never be "real ham radio" like should be CW, or at last those who criticized digital displays in the '80s and who bought later a VCR or a digital radio.
If you are strictly amateur radio-oriented and you won't involve other applications that "spoil your hobby", what are you doing in reading this electronic article dealing with amateur radio, what are you doing in SSB, on ham radio forums, with APRS and other digital modes like packet radio ? Internet is definetly not ham radio, but you are probably using it too to share or to get information dealing with amateur radio, isn't it... Up to now we have never say that these hams didn't practice an amateur radio activity... EchoLink works not a different way than the other digital modes, but it is only more complete.
But we can help people resisting to new technologies. We have maybe to share our knowledge about this product and educate these "naysayers" to help them understand exactly how EchoLink works. That will not be easy, but if they demonstrate a willingness to learn, they may someday come to understand it and appreciate its features.
So, although I am using a computer at one side and a transceiver equipped with a digital display on the other side, like you I am still using RF to talk to other hams, I still have to follow my national ham regulation, and I still have to follow all these undocumented rules of the ham community because I want to respect the ham spirit using actively amateur radio bands. As many hams I am just using occasionnally remote repeaters to get contact with close friends. That still sounds like amateur radio to me, doesn't it ?
A new mode, right, but keep preserving our rights on bands too
There is another side to Echolink, much more subtile that could ruin our activities on bands. With EchoLink of course, you could never work EME or by satellite, at least up to now. It is right. You could never hear noises on bands, tuning made by fool hams on your frequency, ducky voices of hams in QSO a fraction of kilohertz up, or participating in pile-ups or contests. Of course.
However I would like to highlight a fact that could have consequences in the future if we do not care of it. In the "full Internet" mode of EchoLink, single-user, you do no more use the least amateur equipment. In working this way, you lost most of the advantages you have won in entering the ham community : the protection of ham bands for which IARU and national ham associations have fought hardly at WARC/WRC conferences against all civilian and military services, quality transceivers, antennas and accessories, contests, QSL buros, awards without to forget the feeling that offers the fact to be on the air, free to call DX or ragchewing.
Echolink is a fine new mode, right, but keep preserving our rights on amateur radio bands too. So, I warmly recommand you to keep using your transceiver in as many modes as you can, CW and SSB being the most important, far beyond all digital modes. If one day we lost these modes or even amateur bands because of there is no more amateur working, do not blame your neighboor connected to the Internet...Another way to work in preserving in the same time our bands, is buying a V/UHF FM transceiver and activating EchoLink relays, HI !
Looking at the other systems EchoLink is really fantastic. Already from a pure accessibility point of vue : it is accessible to all licensed amateurs (and only them), contacts are easy, it uses the power of your computer if necessary (for sendings mails, etc), contacts are free of QRM and fading, there is no propagation problems, no dedicated material is required (in single-user mode), no other connection except Internet, and last but not least, if you are already using an Internet connection, the price of your connection time is already included in your fixed price.
Today many countries including the U.S.A., Germany or the small Luxembourg allow EchoLink to use V/UHF relays or, say differently, they allow amateurs to use VoIP. However some countries are opposed to this mode because private (ham radio) and public (Internet) networks are interconnected (e.g. France and Belgium) but until further notice exceptionally they accept that repeaters work this way. In fact, legally most national regulations do not regulate such systems (e.g. interconnections of stations with Internet) but they focus on how stations are operated (manually or automatically, using or not simple VoIP node, and on what frequencies). These issues are more important than checking how your station is feeded... So guardianship ministeries (FCC, ART, IBPT, OFCOM, SRR, etc) have recognized that EchoLink counts among ham tools, like SSTV or PSK31 to name a few. Like packet radio, EchoLink allows you to enlarge the spectrum of ham activities, experimenting new antennas or interfaces if you want to work with a repeater.
In the mind of many users like in mine, EchoLink is only a new mode, nothink else, but an easy mode to work DX that every licensed ham, even the one restricted to V/UHF can use freely and that gives to amateur radio a new breath through the use of new technologies. So I really think that both activities, the "old-fashion" radio and the VoIP of EchoLink or any other software, have each their place in the ham world, each of us finding plus and minus sides to both activities. Now if you really want to contact your family or friends living abroad using a webcam, sure Messenger is for you, all the more that it is free.
To close this thought, remind you that amateur radio is much more than just radio. But it is nothing without radio. So let's put it into context and stay balanced.
Before giving your opinion on the air or on forums about this tool, I suggest you to check by yourself, to validate your call sign and to work only once with EchoLink, simplex of course but also via repeaters... If you are open-minded I bet that like many amateurs you will appreciate its features. Once accepted you can no more ignore EchoLink, still less when you will use repeaters to call abroad, à la DX !
Have fun with EchoLink !
Thierry, LX4SKY, node 2273.
A summary of this article was published in December 2005 issue of CQ magazine, VHF Plus column.
For more information
The History of Amateur Radio (the invention of Packet radio, on this site)
Echolinker (dedicated forum)
ARRL QST review of EchoLink (599 KB)
Echolink SysOp Mode, by NPARC
Port Forwarding (router setup)
Comment fonctionne un router (in French)