A few days ago I was tuning around 20m just after lunch time when I heard the unmistakable sound of a California accent in QSO. Thinking that propagation must be exceptional I listened some more, and found that I was listening to K6PLR from San Diego operating via F4JRC Internet Remote. I found F4JRC's website and discovered that he has a TS2000 that can be operated over the Internet using the Web Transceiver software developed by W4MQ. There are also several other stations that can be operated with the aid of this software. Some are free upon request to the operator while others will grant access upon payment of a subscription. This could be the ultimate stealth ham radio station - one where the equipment and antennas are located somewhere else.
I spent the weekend trying out the W4MQ software to see how it worked. Because I didn't have a login to access any remote radios I tried installing the host software so I could try and connect to my K3. The software is designed to work with Kenwood radios such as the TS-2000 and TS-480 but because the Elecraft K3 protocol is based on the TS-2000 it will work with that too, though receiver adjustments like turning the noise blanker on and off or changing the receiver passband don't work. You can't use the K3 data mode either, making PSK31 operation difficult. The PSK31 client is quite primitive and buggy and I crashed the server while trying to use it.
You need to obtain a password from the remote station owner to get access to his station, and in order to get transmit privileges you need to send a copy of your license. I contacted Thierry, F4JRC and he sent me my login details last night. This morning, I set up the web transceiver software on my Samsung NC-10 netbook, plugged in a computer headset and began operating from near Avignon, France.
The first thing I did was ditch the built-in IRB audio and use Skype. This gives amazing audio quality, in fact it sounded just like my 'phones were plugged directly in to the radio. The latest version of Skype has problems with the last version of the IRB software. Fortunately I'm one of those people who never updates software unless the version I'm using no longer works, so the copy I had was just right.
The first station I worked was Telis, SV2HWR. It was our first contact, but he knew me already as he had my WebProp propagation indicator on his blog. Next I heard Peter, DJ0JE calling CQ. He was a big signal, and we had a nice chat. When I signed with Peter I heard an American voice calling me. After QSYing off Peter's frequency it turned out to be Bernd, KC9MOS from Chicago, who was using another Internet remote base at HB9Z. He had often used the F4JRC station that I was using, and this was his (and my) first IRB-to-IRB contact. How cool is that? I was then called by Werner, DL4TJ, who had a question about my K2Net remote control software, but the conditions were poor between us and I lost him. Finally I was called by a G0 who was operating from EA7, but while I was attempting to turn the beam in his direction I lost the connection to the remote station.
This was one of the most memorable hours on the air of my ham radio career, and it raises some interesting thoughts in my mind. What with electronic QRN and troublesome neighbours I sometimes wonder how long it will be before I am forced to QRT from here, and what I would do if I was. This could be the answer.
Some people claim that voice-over-IP (VOIP) systems like QSONet or HamSphere are the solution for those who are unable to put up antennas. I have always argued that I can't see the point: they don't use radio, no propagation is involved, therefore what exactly do you talk about? "The computer here is a Dell notebook, running Windows Vista. You're 5 and 9, but there's some packet loss this morning." But this is using real radio, the only difference is that you aren't actually sat in front of it. I've often operated my K3 from another room in the house, via my home network. It's the same principle, just a bigger distance.
You don't get to handle the radio controls, which I admit is something I like about real radios and one reason why I'm not a fan of SDR. Another difference is that the equipment and antennas aren't yours. But does that matter? They could be. If you subscribe to an IRB station, or got together with a few other people to set up your own, then you could own some of the gear. It's arguable that my K3 and top of the range 2m transverter - or the money I have invested in them - could be put to more effective use at a different location than here. And there's nothing to stop someone whose main operation is using an Internet remote playing about with QRP radios and temporary wire antennas if they need that fix of solder smoke.
As antenna restrictions become increasingly common for those of us who live in towns and cities, perhaps remote operation of jointly-owned (or even commercially operated) ham radio stations will become more common.