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So right toward the end of the first day of the conference, TAPR reps promised a special visitor and announcement.  I didn’t even have enough context to guess who that could have been.  Who would be prestigious enough, bright enough, nerdy  impressive enough to be considered special in this crowd?

Dennis, K7BV, as it turns out.  Or as he is known elsewhere, Dennis Motschenbacher, Executive VP for Yaesu North America.  That’s a fairly august personage, and the applause was (I thought) genuinely welcoming.  The announcement, alas, was not quite so well received.

I can’t even hope to explain the complexities of the situation, but it seemed to be raising Bruce Perens’ blood pressure a bit, so it’s worth a shot.

What’s digital voice and why do I care?

What most people think of as “radio” is FM analog commercial radio.  This is changing with HD radio stations and receivers becoming more common for casual use, but that’s a pretty recent development.  If you’ve got an HD radio receiver in your car, you have probably noticed the difference as you go through a poor reception area and your radio switches back and forth between analog and digital signals.  The analog sounds “warmer” perhaps, but has static, whereas the digital radio signal is cleaner (and maybe “brighter” or “harsher”)–or absent altogether.  You’ve either got signal or you don’t.

So aside from the “cleaner” output, one of the big highlights of digital radio is that it takes less bandwidth, a smaller channel, than conventional analog radio.  This means that in a limited bandwidth space, you can have more channels (i.e. more people able to talk at once).  Think about when television switched over to digital: suddenly, there were a bunch more channels that hadn’t been there.  Each is taking less bandwidth than the old analog broadcast methods.  (There is, of course, still nothing on.)

Digital signals are smaller and cleaner, more precise.  In general.  Potentially.  (I’ve probably made a bunch of radio people cry with my drastic oversimplification and horribly imprecise analogies from other applications, but I’m trying to write in between taking care of the sorts of crises that 5- and 2-year-olds have, so I can choose to be precise or to finish before heat death of the universe.)

Smaller and cleaner are very important characteristics in an increasingly crowded electromagnetic spectrum, so there’s a lot of interest in moving to digital modes (including digital voice modes) where appropriate.

Digital good, analog bad.  Got it.

Well, no, not really, but we’ll accept that as a premise for the purpose of this conversation.  If anyone asks, I deny this conversation ever took place.

One of the challenges (not a problem, exactly) is that there are lots of competing standards, and they are generally mutually incompatible.  What’s worse, some of those standards rely on proprietary protocols that can’t be reproduced by the amateur community–only licensed.  Keeping in mind that this is a community which has been building and sharing to increase the state of the art for a century or more, there are a number of people who really want to see a free standard that anyone can build and everyone can improve upon.

Enter FreeDV (and Bruce Perens, K6BP):

Amateur Radio is transitioning from analog to digital, much as it transitioned from AM to SSB in the 1950’s and 1960’s. How would you feel if one or two companies owned the patents for SSB, then forced you to use their technology, made it illegal to experiment with or even understand the technology, and insisted you stay locked to it for the next 100 years? That’s exactly what was happening with digital voice. But now, hams are in control of their technology again!

FreeDV is unique as it uses 100% Open Source Software, including the audio codec. No secrets, nothing proprietary! FreeDV represents a path for 21st century Amateur Radio where Hams are free to experiment and innovate, rather than a future locked into a single manufacturers closed technology.

Where do I buy one?

Well, right now you don’t.  But you can plug your computer into your existing radio and turn it in to one.  Or, someday soon, you could build one.  This was the focus (nominally) of Bruce Perens’ talk the following day–the HT (handheld transceiver) of the future, using a free and open digital mode.

An aside about Bruce Perens

Bruce, not at all incidentally, is in a very real sense responsible for my being there at all.  First, years ago he established No-Code International, which lobbied for the eventual change to the rules that allowed dopes like me to get amateur radio licenses without learning Morse code first.  (That was a serious bar to entry, albeit one I still hope to hop over in the next year or two.)

But zeroth, he was instrumental in the whole concept and popularization of open source software, without which I would not have ever gotten beyond playing commercial computer games on commodity hardware running Windows.  I would never have been able to afford to just play and learn on commercial Unix systems, so I wouldn’t have become interested in *nix text mode BBS systems, and I wouldn’t have stumbled across amateur radio in the search for modern applications thereof.  Since that just happened in June, in a very real sense I would not have been in the room at all.

Stop being a fanboy.

Totally not.  If you read me at all, you’ll grok that I think his stance on self defense is um, ill-considered at best.  But let’s respect the expert in his field.

So what was wrong with the nice Yaesu guy’s announcement?

Yaesu’s big announcement was a mixed-mode repeater using the C4FM digital codec to go along with the FT1DR handheld transceiver they released last year.  There are a few things “wrong” with this, from an amateur radio consumer/advocate/technology perspective:

  • Incompatible with the existing digital systems
  • It’s not an improvement over the existing systems: up to twice the bandwidth usage of D-STAR for no greater data rate
  • Employing the same proprietary codec problems as other systems

(This would be a wonderful time for someone to link to a real analysis, rather than the bits I was able to glean from my notes.)  [EDIT: See comment #1 from Bruce Himself.]

I felt bad for Dennis, because he is a non-technical guy selling uphill to a very technical crowd.  Watch the whole video, or skip ahead to 27:12 to see Bruce’s questions and poor Dennis’ attempt to answer.  I was glad that they sort of let him off, because he was not able to answer the sorts of questions the technical people needed to ask.  For a while, I was afraid they were going to eat the poor man.

Basically, it was a big to-do about old technology presented in a not-very-exciting new way.  Worst of all, it came not an hour after a fairly inspiring “dream big” sort of talk from NW Digital Radio’s Bryan Hoyer, so it was really a bitter pill to see Yaesu regurgitate the little dreams (and legacy data rates) at us.

What should it have been?

I don’t really know.  I don’t know what the current state of the art is.  But let’s say something like magic and cool like the UDR56k, an SDR transceiver.  With USB ports and multi-platform polished software for fast configuration, remote control options (i.e. Ethernet, 802.11n), automagical networking protocols for these things to find and mesh with each other, exhaustive documentation (in English!), expandable hard disk storage for recording and post-intercept processing, built-in upgradeable active-development digital BBS software, magic unicorn network bridging interface, something.

Show us something with the imagination of the clever people in the crowd that day, backed by the funding and infrastructure of a major company.  Impress.  Dream big.  That’s what I saw at TAPR DCC, at least what little I understood of it: terribly clever people making terribly clever things in the finest sense of “amateur”: not for personal profit or riches (although kits are for sale in the lobby!), but to advance the state of the art and make better things for everyone and anyone, even the no-code technician in the wing.

I can’t program. I never made it past Algebra II. Honestly, I don’t even transmit. But I can kind of hear the dream–it’s a bit out of tune, and my antenna sucks, and maybe the noise floor is high, but I can sort of hear it.  Unfortunately, all we got from Yaesu this time was static.