Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Could D-Star destroy ham radio?

In a comment to an old posting about D-Star in G4VXE's blog, Lee N2LEE accuses me of being closed to new ideas. Does it matter that the AMBE codec is patented if it is the best one for the job, he asks? And how can you compare Echolink/IRLP to D-Star when D-Star is an digital end to end system with routing, linking and networking built in to the system so you can just enter someone's callsign and the network will find them automatically?

To me, ham radio is not and never has been about reliable point to point communication. Communication is just the end-product of a process of experimentation and construction, or a pastime (think contests, DXing) where the unreliability and unpredictability of it is what makes it a challenge.

D-Star's use of a proprietary codec closes that aspect of the system to experimentation. It doesn't even permit interested amateurs to look at the code and see how it works. This is contrary to the spirit of amateur radio and the openness that has facilitated most developments to date by letting one idea lead to another. But to be honest I'm not all that bothered about the issue because codec technology, whether proprietary or not, is a closed book to most. I am more concerned about the possibility that digital voice modes might one day make analogue modes obsolete so that building a simple phone transmitter using SSB, FM or AM becomes a pointless activity. Ham radio does not have to slavishly adopt new technology, especially if that technology forces more of us to become appliance operators by making simple rigs that anyone can build obsolete.

As for digital end to end routing, why do we need it? We already have a system that can do that. It is called the mobile phone network. I didn't get into ham radio in order to be able to do something ordinary people can already do. I want to be able to do things that they can't. The unpredictability of propagation and the uncertainty of who you might work on a given band at any time are what makes a ham radio contact more interesting and more of an accomplishment than making a phone call. D-Star may be very clever technology but what it delivers is not what ham radio is about.

If the time ever comes when I think to myself "why am I struggling to make this contact on 20m SSB or whatever when I could simply type the guy's call into my D-Star radio and have a comfortable chat" then that is the day I will give up the hobby for good. And I make no excuses for resisting the adoption of technologies that will bring that day closer.


GW0KIG said...

I think D Star is likely to die a death, at least here in the UK. I have yet to hear a convincing argument as to why it is any better than an analogue system linked to EQSO or Echolink for example. It strikes me as something of a gimmick.
I'm not aware of anybody here locally that has the slightest interest in Dstar and thefact that only one major manufacturer produces Dstar equipment doesn't bode well. I don't think that for simplex use Dstar would have anything to offer above normal FM. 2 metres FM is quiet enough in this area, personally I would rather invest time and effort into HF rather than a local chat system which is going to be very sparsely populated.

73 Kevin

Dick said...

Well written and insightful. Your next to last paragraph stands on it's own. I think cw operation might fall into a two-sentence statement found in that paragraph.

Jeff, KE9V said...

D-STAR has already failed to attract enough interest to give it the momentum necessary for it to be implemented widely making the issue of the closed codec moot. But even if there were to be some tiny wave of interest beyond what has already been shown by the early adopters, there's no reason to lose any sleep over it. A century of ham radio history shows clearly that radio amateurs are always the very last to adopt any new technology. We resist any sort of change, kicking and screaming all the way to the precipice while clinging dearly to the notion that all we really need is Morse code and a battery and anything beyond that is pelf.

If something REALLY new comes along we won't even know about it for at least twenty years by which time most of us will be long gone...

Heck, I just recently learned that mankind had actually landed on the Moon. It was quite the surprise! :-)

73, Jeff

Rickyscouts said...

I'm afraid I'm with you julian - I just can't see the point: No matter how clever or innovative D-Star is, it's just replicating a telephone system.

Most telling for me is that no one other than Icom seems to be willing to buy in to it - A bit like the Vertex "WIRES" system then. I think it will die on it's own.

Paul M6PCZ said...

Hi Julian, for me these modes, and others such as echolink or PSK31 are another side of the hobby to be used if thats what you want in conjunction with the more traditional forms of amateur communications.

For me it's always been about the unreliabilty of propogation, the thrill of being called back by that rare DX on an antenna you've built out of some old wire, that cant be beat, as you all know, but most people certainly dont understand.

I like my dare I say 'niche' hobby.

Theodore said...

Hi Julian, when the rebuttals get around to the "closed to new ideas" gambit as used on the mentioned blog, one knows we are dealing with "company men". These are the people who will sit and nod in a meeting where "change" is espoused as the cure for all ills. As some of the commenters have stated, this is Amateur radio. We are supposed to be a cadre of people who are interested in radio, propagation and technology for its own sake, that is for the joy of discovery. D-star, apart from being boring, is just a company specific attempt to carve out a "niche" market of gullible amateurs who think they are doing something cutting edge. In fact it is nothing more than a wi-fi type of interface to the internet, where the other chat rooms are other D-star nodes. Compared to the thrill of seeing who responds to a qrp signal bounced off glowing clouds in space heated by a fusion reactor (the sun) where is the thrill? D-star, as many other amateur technologies, have their place, but when it suppresses innovation it is a negative force. For those who lampoon ham innovation, please tell Amsat, Digital modes users,fdmdv, Ham radio deluxe and fldigi developers that they are in the nineteenth century. And for goodness sake, when you turn on your radio, take off the company shirt.

Norm said...

There are enough of us who have no intention of adding D-Star that we don't have to worry a death to regular amateur radio, quite yet.

g4ilo said...

I'm glad to hear these comments. Today I read in the digitalradio Yahoo group a posting suggesting that even D-Star is now old technology and advocating the development of trunking systems on the UHF bands. Of course, this suggestion came from someone in the USA where ham radio appears increasingly to be regarded as primarily an emergency communications service where traditional activities are, for the moment, tolerated. Perhaps I am being unduly alarmist and my headline was, of course, meant to attract attention, but I don't like where this is going.

Steve Silverman said...


The unpredictability and the unreliability of ham radio communications, as you said, is what attracts me to this wonderful hobby. Whether it's HF propagation in a lousy part of the cycle or a handheld 70 cm EME receiver, we never know what to expect when we turn on our rigs. Then we get to use our gear and skills to extract whatever kind of QSO we want in whatever modes we enjoy. Thanks for your thoughtful piece.

Steve KB3SII

andrew said...

it is clear to me that most of the postings relating to this blog are from people who do not use or own dstar radios, and probably do not realise that the dstar system had to use a established codec source so it could be pushed through all the red tape concerning a world wide project..

i own and use my dstar radios on a reqular basis i also use it on analogue, as it can do both, for sstv aprs drm , i also use my private echolink node for other contacts as well as the d-star reflectors when things are a little quiet locally RF wise.

i have a private d-star gateway linked to the open dstar reflector ( a system that is not dependant on icom hardware) and is built around computer controlled analogue radio gear, and also i have a hybrid skype / RF remote link,
i also use the radio on a local net each thursday evening and here is the point, i am a RF data "freak" i love it and just cant get enough, and its that simple, the dstar audio is only better because it removes all the back ground noise from the transmission....... the point is its data, im not interested in working hf, im not interested in old valve rigs, And this is what makes amateur radio so good, there is a mode for all comers new and established, and long may it continue..
Andrew M1DNS

Johan en Lida said...

Julian and others,

Why this crusade against D-Star. If you don´t like it, do something else. We have the same discussion over and over. For instance when we had the introduction of FM repeaters.

As it seems we are in the 21st century now and digitalisation has become part of our live. HAM radio has always been on the forefront but nowadays with SDR and D-Star we are already behind world standards. The used AMBE chip is a CODEC technology used already in the last century on Iriduim phones.

The nice thing about our hobby is that we can approach it from so many angles and find your own added value. APRS not for me, Echolink was nice, ATV did it, HF every now and then and yes, D-Star is hot for me at the moment. We are not far from building our own D-Star transceiver, but who will do that. Most of us are working with commercial transceivers. So I think this is a non discussion.

Hope to work you in the future on D-Star or with one of the other modes we can use as HAM Radio lovers.

Johan, PA3ANG

Tim said...

I'm here with Johan and Andrew as someone who enjoys using D-STAR amongst many other modes. Julian knows well that I respect his point of view too!

If people don't like D-STAR or don't want to use it, then fine. Personally I find it a great way of keeping in touch with friends across the globe. It adds to my amateur radio operating rather than replacing anything more traditional.

D-STAR won't be the death of amateur radio any more than SSB was. Lack of activity, lack of experimentation and general inertia are the threats as I see it.

Steve GW7AAV said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve GW7AAV said...

I am on your side here Julian. Personally I find a mobile phone is a great way of keeping in touch with friends across the globe and they don't need an amateur radio licence.
Anyone fancy a hunting trip? We will be shooting fish in a barrel. The problem with D-Star is there aren't enough fish in the barrel and there never will be.
Personally I would be quite happy to see the back FM repeaters too.

Gruvin said...

Say what? The codec closed experimentation? That's rather odd thinking, to me. You might as well say that you won't support magnetic wave propagation, because god never shared the design details with us.

Conversely, consider what would happen if the D-Star network was opened up to option use of dozens of competing codecs. That would be utterly USELESS.

I say it's best to have the codec locked up tight and calved in stone. Otherwise there will be no foundation worth a damn to build upon.

Also, imo the D-Plus network today is far from "reliable point to point" communication and does in fact often require significant "experimentation" -- and plain old good luck. I find it to be less predictable in some ways to HF.

"Destroy Amateur radio". Good grief. The hobby is being destroyed by old timers refusing to move with the times -- and trying to sell their old junk radios (FT-1000's and the like!) with their half dead capacitors and warn out bearings for 3/4 the price of brand new stuff, for goodness sakes ... all the while making it silly expensive for new comers to get involved!! Don't talk to me about destroying a hobby already in the death grip of greedy, stayed, conservative, "golden years" thinkers.

73 de ZL1HIT -- for the record!