Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Unlimited" means "limited" at Skype

Some of the local hams have been talking about Skype a lot lately, presumably because someone introduced it to them and it is kinda neat at first and it is free in its basic incarnation. Now I used to use Skype because of a few Wikipedia-related things that made use of it, but I haven't for quite a while now.

On their front page Skype is advertising, in big letters, that you get "unlimited" calls to cell phones, mobiles, and land lines with its subscription service. But the careful reader that I am notices that there's a suspicious looking asterisk on "unlimited" and notes that there's a Marketing Qualification on that "unlimited": a "fair use policy" applies to your "unlimited use", and in fact you're only allowed 10,000 minutes a month, six hours a day, and not more than 50 distinct numbers a day.

To be fair, there are only about 40,000 minutes in a month, so in order to exceed this "fair use policy" you'd have to be on the phone six hours a day, every day, but still, that's a limit. "Unlimited" means "no limits", not "a high limit that you're unlikely to reach".

What Skype doesn't say explicitly, but is clearly intending to do, is prohibit the use of their service for commercial purposes, more specifically for telemarketing. Which is reasonable. I'm just peeved at the idea that "unlimited" has defined, fixed limits.

Still, it beats Comcast's notion of "unlimited", which is "unlimited unless we decide you're using too much according to no defined standard, in which case we'll suspend your account without warning". At least Skype sets forth a standard and tells you the consequences for exceeding them up front.

Closed repeaters: to ban or not to ban

This morning (well, by now yesterday morning), while cruising the Internet (as I am wont to do in the mornings), I noticed a link to a site called the Rain Report at which, according to Bob, had something about a petition to outlaw "closed repeaters". Getting there I didn't find a whole lot of detail except for an audio file which I was not about to take the time to listen to, and a call sign: K3BEQ, who turns out to be Murray Green. A bit more digging found not the current petition, but instead an older petition from K3BEQ on a completely unrelated topic (extending the time between required identifications to thirty minutes, which was denied by the FCC) as well as a much older proposal by WB4RTP which does have something to do with closed repeaters, and an current online petition also seeking a change in the regulations related to closed repeaters.

None of the sites I found, though, detailed Mr. Green's specific proposal, nor could I find it at the FCC or at the GPO site. Fortunately, I lucked out and found an old ARRL news article that gave Mr. Green's email address. A quick email to him and he was gracious enough to send me a copy of his petition. Calling it a "ban on closed repeaters" is perhaps a bit overstating it, but let's set some background first.

I've written a bit on this before, arguing (somewhat in passing) that closed repeaters should be refused coordination. A "closed repeater" is a repeater, set up by some group, the use of which is only available to members of that group (and invited guests), and not available for the general use of any amateur. This may be enforced by the use of selective calling methods (such as CTCSS or MDC) or merely be a matter of custom enforced by social controls, and when necessary legal threats. The principle behind this is that the repeater is the property of its owner, and its owner has the legal right to control who can use it and how, pretty much without limitation.

Most repeaters are available for the use of any amateur; if there is a CTCSS tone in use (as there often is to mitigate interference and reduce inadvertent retransmissions), it is published and widely known, and any amateur with the technical ability to transmit on the repeater's input is welcome to use the repeater as long as they do so "in accordance with good engineering and good amateur practice". However, nonsubscribing amateurs are typically not permitted to use a closed repeater, and may face the risk of civil lawsuits, criminal prosecution, and suspension or termination of their licenses, if they should use a closed repeater without permission. Closed repeaters are relatively rare in most parts of the country, but in some of the more densely populated areas (Southern California and the Potomac River Valley are two that come to mind) there are quite a lot of them; so many, in fact, that it may not be possible to get a coordinated frequency pair for a new repeater in any of the commonly used repeater bands. There's a few of them here in the Chicago area.

Mr. Green clearly believes that the situation has gone too far. (It should be noted that he lives in the Potomac River Valley, one of the most ham-dense areas of the country.) His petition asks the FCC to amend the regulations to remove the language in §205(e) to remove the language that explicitly permits a repeater operator to restrict access to the repeater and replace it with language that would prohibit anyone from "limiting the use of frequencies used by repeaters". His main argument is that the current rule is inconsistent with §101(b) (which states that no frequency will be assigned to the exclusive use of any station), and that it also results in poor utilization of amateur radio frequencies. In further support of his position, he argues that closed repeaters are intimidating to newly licensed amateurs, and may create a negative atmosphere within the community and harm the public perception of amateur radio. Unfortunately for his proposal, he provides no evidence in support of any of these claims.

Now, I'm a bit sympathetic to K3BEQ's position here, but I think there's no chance of the FCC adopting this proposal as it stands. While Murray does at least set forth an argument why the current regime creates harm, he provides no evidence of that harm, and my experience is that the FCC will generally not act on the assertion of harm without evidence to back it up. Also, he doesn't provide any clear explanation how his proposed change mitigates that harm. In addition, the language of his proposed replacement for the final sentence of §205(e), "Because repeaters and their coordinated frequencies are inseparable, and to make more effective use of amateur radio service repeater frequencies, limiting the use of frequencies used by repeaters, directly or indirectly is prohibited, except where a user blatantly violates the Commission Rules," goes much further than required to remedy the alleged harm. And, finally, there's the problem of the claim that "repeaters and their coordinated frequencies are inseparable", which is neither supported by evidence nor in fact even true.

If I were to contemplate sending a petition to the FCC on this issue, here's how I'd go about it. First, I'd get the coordination rosters for some of the more densely populated areas, such as southern California, DC metro, New York, Boston. Using those rosters, document that most or all of the available frequencies for repeaters within the repeater plans in use in those areas are currently allocated, breaking down what percentage of those allocations are to closed repeaters. Also document, by affadavit if by no other means, that many of these repeaters are silent most of the time (many of them in reality are barely more than "talking clocks"). Document, if possible, how long it takes for a new coordinated pair to become available in one of these regions. This would demonstrate a particular harm that the current system is creating, that being frequency exhaustion (a problem the FCC completely understands, since it is struggling with it constantly in the other services it regulates). Finally, document (by anecdote if by no other means) how closed repeaters conflict with the mission of the amateur radio service as set forth in §1; I know of at least one incident where a closed repeater's configuration prevented, at least for a time, the effective provision of public service communications (during a severe weather event) because of the technical measures used to restrict access to the repeater.

If the evidence thus collected does in fact show (as I expect it would) that closed repeaters are strangling frequency plans in at least some areas, preventing willing amateurs from setting up new open repeaters, and hampering the provision of public service and emergency communications, then the next step is to come up with a solution that would tend to mitigate these problems. The problem with K3BEQ's solution is that it doesn't reduce the number of "talking clock" machines taking up spectrum without actually utilizing it; it just means these people can't complain to the FCC when people use their machines (which would be a plus to the FCC, to be certain). If the data does tend to suggest that closed repeaters are more likely to be underutilized, then an argument could be made for altering the rules to prohibit a repeater station from enjoying the protection from interference granted by §205(c) unless that repeater is operated so that it is available for the use of any amateur whose is himself not violating the Commission's rules. That would then give frequency coordinators a reason to be less generous in coordinating, or to deny coordination entirely, to closed repeaters. You could still run one, but you'd be running barefoot.

Of course, another option is to petition one's local coordinating body to alter its rules so as to not coordinate closed repeaters, or to give preference to open repeaters over closed repeaters when granting coordinations (so that, e.g. a closed repeater might lose its coordination if an open repeater comes along and no other frequencies are available). However, most repeater coordinating bodies are going to be unlikely to agree to such a change, because the voting membership of these bodies is the operators of coordinated repeaters, including closed repeaters. In an area where closed repeaters dominate, such a proposal would be unlikely to gain a majority, for obvious reasons. Getting action from the FCC, as difficult and unlikely as that is, is probably easier than convincing some of the old boy clubs that are coordinating councils to change their minds on this issue.

The FCC denies virtually all petitions for rulemaking that come from amateurs, and I don't expect this one will be any different. It's still a pretty important issue, and I think one that is ripe for some attention, especially with the spectrum audit that is currently underway. We've got a large chunk of spectrum in 70 centimeters especially and there's plenty of people who'd love to grab a hunk of it.

Monday, July 27, 2009

You know you're a ham when you...

The other day I got a referral to my blog on the search "You know you're a ham if". This piqued my curiosity, so I asked my Twitter followers to complete the sentence "You know you're a ham when you...". I got quite a few responses; here's the best, for your satisfaction. (Some have been edited to undo IM-speak imposed by Twitter's 140 character limit.)

Obsessive operation:
  • "... stand in your driveway with two HT's watching an approching thunderstorm giving continuous updates on the radio" Dave Hoffman (via FriendFeed)
  • "... see a meteor fall and wonder who you could've worked on meteor scatter" k4hsm
  • "... participating in SkyWarn is more important than your brother's wedding." karmagurl, channeling her husband
  • "... go to bed with your wife and an HT in case someone calls you on the local repeater" AF3LMike
  • "... can predict the weather better then the weatherman by noises on the bands" N3PRO
  • "... look forward to new solar activity cycle instead of fearing it" ttanilsoo
Too much equipment:
  • "... have an aerial farm covered in tinsel at christmas" ai4ri
  • "... other people are no longer surprised when you pull an oscilloscope from the trunk of your car." N9VLS
  • "... get excited that Radio Shack starts carrying a new style connector/adapter that you don't have already" charlieray
  • "... there's not enough room in the passenger seat of the truck for you; ham equip. takes it all up!" karmagurl
Obsessive jargon:
  • "... end your work emails w/ 73s and reference your RL-in-person convos as QSOs" enjaysauce
  • "... tell your friend there's QSB when a cell phone is cutting out" thebuca
  • "... start giving RST reports over the telephone" AF3LMike
Just obsessed:
  • "... see a radio station / TV tower and wonder how a repeater would work from up there" k4hsm
  • "... are walking in the city and stare at the antennas on the rooftops of the buildings and analyze their type" ttanilsoo
  • "... know 23cm means more than just a really good date." Ben Hallert (via Facebook)
  • "... named your kid Yagi" enjaysauce
Morse code pervades all
  • "... tap out hi on your car horn to another ham" AF3LMike
  • "-.-- --- ..- / - .... .. -. -.- / .. -. / -- --- .-. ... ." gwbrown1
And for the more culinary crowd:
  • "... continually find yourself covered with mustard" strategy_samba
  • "... find yourself between a bit of bread and some cheese" wwward

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Unexpected associations

The other day I dropped something off my desk, which is something that happens from time to time. It rolled behind me, and my first thought was "I should make sure that didn't fall down into the heating vent." This was immediately followed by the thought, "What heating vent?", which left me so confused that I didn't actually pick up whatever it was that fell.

Our current house has hot water baseboard heat. There are no heating vents, just baseboard heating elements around the exterior walls of each room. The fact that this house has baseboard heat is one of the reasons we bought it: I think hot water baseboard heat is an entirely superior heating methodology, compared to central forced air heat. We've lived here now over two years, so you'd think I'd be used to it by now. So where'd the idea of something falling into the vent come from, you ask?

Simple. Behind me at my desk is a buffet cabinet that, at our old house, used to sit over the main return vent for the first floor. The grate over that vent was less than fully adequate, and things did routinely fall through it and into the vent. We lived there for six years, and I guess on some level my mind associates that buffet cabinet with the concept of a heating vent.

It took me a while to figure out where I was getting such a bizarre thought from. It's strange how the mind works. (Or maybe it's just me.)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Weather radios

A friend recently sent a link to this desktop weather alert radio, which is manufactured by a company called Reecom. Reading through the manual, it has a few features that make it slightly nicer than the Midland WR-300 I'm using now, the most significant of which to me are the ability for it to turn off at the end of the alert message (the Midland continues to babble at you until you walk over and whack the 'silence' button, which is somewhat annoying) and the ability to select different audible alerts for different messages. I'm not immediately in the market for another weather radio (for no other reason than that my virtually nonexistent income at the moment doesn't support nondiscretionary spending), but this looks like it might be a good additional radio (I've wanted a second one so that the alerts can be heard through the entire house instead of just in the back, which is the effect with the current radio in its current location).

We originally got this radio because we realized that we cannot hear the alert sirens inside the house, and given that we rarely listen to broadcast radio and watch nearly all of our television via TiVo did not have any means to receive weather alerts in real time. I'd rather not find out about a tornado when it rips the roof off the house.

I'm also interested in options that will capture the message off the air and make it available to a computer. The Reecom radio (and the WR-300) can be used to detect that an alert is active, but without hacking the radio I don't know how to get the details of the alert (e.g. type of alert, duration, affected areas) into the computer. I could, of course, obtain this information from the NWS's website, but that's not much help if the network is down. I assume that there's a specification somewhere for decoding the EAS data bursts, and that someone has written code for this. Just haven't found it yet. Not to mention it'd be nice if I didn't have to dedicate a whole soundcard to that (that is, a hardware solution would be much nicer than a software one).

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

How Do Ten Meter Repeaters Work

Here's another topic discovered from search engine referrals. I'm unclear whether the searcher is looking for information on how repeaters of any sort work, or the specific differences between ten meter repeaters and other types of repeater, so I'll cover both topics.

Just about anyone who's been involved in amateur radio for any time at all will have encountered a repeater, and for many hams (especially those in the US with Technician licenses) repeater operations are the majority of their activity, so it's probably safe to say that repeaters are at least somewhat important to hams. (They're also important to other radio services, but I won't get in to that in this article.) Fundamentally, a repeater is an automatically controlled station that receives a signal and immediately retransmits that same signal back out. The idea behind this is to enable two stations, each of which has relatively limited power, and more significantly, relatively limited antenna systems, to communicate with one another by way of the repeater station, which will typically have more power and, more importantly, a much better antenna system (where "better" in this situation means "installed at greater altitude").

As an example, a typical VHF mobile installation will have an antenna with center of radiation at perhaps six or eight feet above ground level and a power level of perhaps 50 watts. Two stations thus equipped will be able to communicate directly with one another at a range of about ten miles in relatively flat terrain. However, if the repeater is equipped with a 100 watt transmitter and an antenna installed at 200 feet above ground, it should be in range to mobile stations equipped as above within about 25 miles. Furthermore, any two mobile stations within this range will be able to communicate with one another via the repeater. This represents about a six-fold increase in the ability to communicate.

So how does the repeater accomplish this? Fundamentally, a repeater is a receiver connected to a transmitter, combined with various control circuits (e.g. to prevent the repeater from transmitting when there's nothing to transmit, and for other purposes, some obligatory, others not). Now, one of the things that confused me when I first heard about repeaters back in the early 90s is how the repeater could receive a signal and transmit it back out on the same frequency without interfering with itself. The simple answer to this is that repeater don't do this: virtually all repeaters receive on a different frequency than they transmit. (There are some "repeaters" that operate "simplex" by delaying the transmission until the receiver message is complete, but that's technically not a repeater; the definition of a repeater requires simultaneous retransmission. And there are other repeaters that do operate on the same frequency in and out by using separate antennas at well-separated locations; we'll come back to that later.) Because the receive frequency is different from the transmit frequency, the transmitter doesn't interfere with the receiver and both function can proceed simultaneously. The difference between the receive frequency (or "input") and the transmit frequency or ("output") is called the "offset". There are customary offsets for most repeater operations, which vary by region (for various reason). In the United States, the customary offset for two meters is 600 kHz, and for ten meters it typically 100 kHz.

And here's another aspect of repeaters I failed to get at first: most repeaters use the same antenna for both receive and transmit. Of course, this raises another question: how do you put a 100 watt signal onto an antenna to be sent out, and at the same time pull in a signal measuring often in the nanowatts without the receiver being overwhelmed by the transmitter's raw power even if it is on a (somewhat) different frequency? That was another one I didn't really get until I started studying for my Extra. The answer is, of course, filtering, and the two main techniques for doing this are the duplexer and the circulator.

A duplexer is a set of filters that are designed to pass signals on one frequency with very little loss, while at the same time rejecting signals on another (often nearby) frequency with very high attenuation. In the repeater case, you want a filter on the receiver side that passes the input frequency with as little loss as possible, and attenuates the output frequency as much as possible, while on the transmit side you want the exact opposite. Because of the very tight tolerances required (only 600 kilohertz separation for two meters), these filters have to be very tight, too tight to be built out of ordinary discrete components like capacitors and inductors, so for virtually all repeaters these are resonant cavity filters. Resonant cavities provide much tighter pass bands and reject bands than any discrete circuit could. Even so, two, three, or even four filter pairs are typically required to provide sufficient isolation.

The other component that is useful in providing this isolation is a little piece of electronic voodoo called a circulator. A circulator is a device, typically constructed out of ferrite disks, with three ports that allows a signal to pass from port 1 to port 2, from port 2 to port 3, and from port 3 to port 1, but not in any of the reverse directions. To be honest I still don't fully understand how they work; it has something to do with the signals setting up a rotating magnetic field in the ferrite disks that cancels the reverse signals; at this point I'm happy to call them "electronic voodoo" and leave it at that. In any case, connecting the transmitter's output to port 1, the antenna to port 2, and the receiver's input to port 3 will also provide a significant chunk of the signal isolation required to protect the receiver from the transmitter. Many stations use some combination of duplexing filters and circulators to achieve the required isolation (which is a mininum of at least 60 decibels, more if possible) between transmit and receive.

This is really the hard part of the repeater from an RF standpoint. The rest of the repeater is just a more or less ordinary receiver tuned to the receive frequency, a more or less ordinary transmitter tuned to the transmit frequency, a little bit of audio-frequency circuitry to ensure that the transmitted signal is well-balanced, and some control circuitry to do things like transmit the station's callsign periodically, and turn the transmitter on and off as required. Of course, nearly endless features can be added to a repeater, but these are ancillary functions, not the core of the repeater functionality.

Now, on to the more specific question of ten meter repeaters. One of the characteristics of resonant filters is that one of the factors that determines their size is the wavelength of the pass frequency (the other, of course, is the filter sharpness, or Q, required). This is why two meter "cans" (as they're called, as they really do look like cans) are typically about the size of two paint cans stacked on top of one another, while cans for 70 centimeters are much smaller, about the size of a can of spray paint. This is because 70 cm is a third the wavelength of 2 meters, and in addition the customary offset in 70 cm is 5 megahertz, instead of the much smaller 600 kilohertz used in 2 meters. As a result, 70 cm machines (hams often refer to repeaters as "machines") can use physically much smaller cans. For ten meters, this goes the other way: ten meters has five times the wavelength of two meters, and the customary offset of only 100 kHz is even more demanding than the 600 kHz of two meters. A set of cans for ten meters capable of providing a reasonable degree of isolation would be at least the size of hot water heater tanks. If you read the article I linked above you'll note that the designer of those filters silver-plated the interior of the cavity filters to minimize loss; the cost of silver-plating that much surface would be quite substantial. Also, the very narrow offset would necessitate very finicky tuning.

Mainly because of this, it's more practical for 10 meter repeaters to use "diversity antennas" instead of filtering to achieve the necessary isolation. Separating the antennas by a mile or so will achieve as much signal isolation as would even the best possible filtering arrangement. In this approach, the receiver and the transmitter are at different locations, and the audio received at the receiver is conveyed to the transmitter's location either by a landline link (a physical hardline cable, a dedicated telephone circuit, or some other non-radio connection including possibly a VoIP circuit), or alternatively by transmitting the audio via a radio link operating in some other band. Typically these links are in the 70cm band and use very directional antennas that are carefully aimed at one another. (The same approach is use for multi-input repeater systems, but that's beyond the scope of this article.)

This same approach can be used in any band, but using diversity receive in any band other than ten meters (and perhaps six meters, where it is also occasionally seen) creates the problem that the coverage area where the repeater can be heard (which is based on transmitter location) may not correspond well to the area where the repeater can hear remote stations (which is based on receiver location). This is less of a problem for ten meters because ten meters has much broader propagation, due to skywave propagation modes including near-vertical incidence skywave (NVIS), and so the nonoverlap areas are likely to be smaller.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The "Syfy" Channel

So, this past week the Sci Fi Channel recently changed its name to the just atrociously misspelled name of "Syfy" Channel. The ostensible reason? Apparently there's this nagging feeling at NBC Universal (who owns the Sci Fi Channel) that the name "Sci Fi" is holding them back, because that term is associated with nerds in basements and such not. The alternate spelling of "Syfy" is supposed to be more appealing to women.

Well, ok, whatever. They sound the same and for most people that's going to evoke the same feeling. Won't affect my tendency to watch their channel: I have almost no idea what channel anything in particular is on because I have been a TiVo user now for almost ten years. I just tell my TiVo what to record and it finds it and records it whatever channel it's on. (Besides, I watch maybe three hours of TV a week these days.)

That said, I miss the old Sci Fi channel, in the days before the new Battlestar Galactica (which I detest). They used to have much more science-fictiony content, but lately've they've definitely moved much closer to the mainstream perception of "sci-fi", such as the new BG. Frankly "Lost" is more science-fictiony than BG. So while I do occasionally watch some of their content, it's not often, and I don't seek it out.

Still, the real reason they changed their name? Branding. You can't trademark "sci fi" as a universal mark; it's a common phrase and trademark protection in common phrases is always limited in scope. But "Syfy" isn't a common phrase or term, and so the trademark they can get for that is exclusive; this gives them a much more powerful trademark and much broader branding opportunities. (This is why so many products have deliberately misspelled names.) That, dear friends, is the real reason for the name change.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Philadelphia Experiment

This is one of the odder things I've seen pop up on the Google Hot Searches list. The "Philadelphia Experiment" refers to supposed research done by the United States Navy in World War Two into the teleportation of warships, and more specifically the USS Eldridge, which, according to legend, was teleported from Philadelphia to Norfolk sometime during 1943. This apparently comes up often enough that the Naval Historical Center has a FAQ sheet on it.

Of course, conspiracy-minded individuals (of which I'm sure I have a few in my regular readership) will be inclined to find obvious proof in the Navy's denial of involvement. Can you imagine, though, being assigned to the Naval Historical Center and being given the assignment to research the records to provide proof that the Navy has never attempted to teleport a 1240 ton destroyer over 200 miles away by purportedly eldritch means? I wonder how many times the requesting officer had to explain to whoever he ordered to do this research just what it was he wanted.

(It also amuses me that the ship's name is so close to "eldritch", which any reader of Terry Pratchett will know actually means "oblong".)

The supposed incident was memorialized (if such is possible regarding an event which never occured) into an eponymous movie, which I have never seen (and not even heard of before yesterday). Apparently the movie and the underlying hoax are recurring elements in government conspiracy theories, especially those popular with ufologists.

Just had to share this, being one of the stranger things I've read about lately.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Change we don't quite know what to make of

So the big question on everyone's mind right now (now that we're done with the Michael Jackson funeral, which occupied way too much of our collective attention, thank you very much) seems to be "Why did Sarah Palin resign as governor of Alaska?" It's not like she got caught having sex with a hot Argentinian (e.g. Sanford), or just generally being a prick (e.g. Blagojevich). Yeah, Palin's commitment to ethics does seem to have been a bit soft, but she's in a group of people that includes Rod Blagojevich, and in that company just about anything seems reasonable.

The title of this blog post was the caption of a political cartoon I saw today by Chip Bok. It really captured my bestartlement at hearing that she had resigned, and the complete lack of understanding that can be gleaned from her subsequent statements.

On a related note, Language Log has an interesting article today on the odd use of "I know that I know that I know" (or similar formations) that occurs in recent speeches by both Mark Sanford and Sarah Palin. Apparently this is yet another example of linguistic divergence within the American evangelical community; see also "dogwhistling", a common practice for Bush's speechwriters when he was President. To me it is somewhat scary that, to a large fraction of our country, ordinary sequences of words have special, nonobvious meanings. We risk becoming a country divided by a common language.