Why Use Voice Over Internet Protocol in Amateur Radio


Why Use Voice over Internet Protocol
in Amateur Radio (or SCARS)?

By Paul Schwan, N4FTD Member #6320

Every time something new comes down the pike, people question it. This happens in every walk of life. People who share a common hobby are no exception. When Amateur Radio operators started using computers and the Internet to supplement their radio hobby, some operators questioned this practice. I’d like to address this issue head-on. Why should we use Internet technologies like Voice over Internet Protocol (VOip) in our Amateur Radio hobby? Or, should we avoid it like the plague because “it’s not radio”?

The SCARS website states:

“This Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOip) net is being initiated based on several considerations. The need and want to diversify in keeping with the state of technology and the varying interest levels of our membership. The need to find and support alternate methods for membership participation in keeping with an extremely fast, vibrant, and growing membership level.”

The FCC’s rules governing Amateur Radio further helps us focus in on some of the reasons why we might want to use the Internet in our communications-oriented hobby. Part 97.1 of our rules state fairly clearly why our hobby exists for us to enjoy:

§97.1 Basis and purpose. The rules and regulations in this part are designed to provide an amateur radio service having a fundamental purpose as expressed in the following principles:

(a) Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications.

(b) Continuation and extension of the amateur’s proven ability to contribute to the advancement of the radio art.

(c) Encouragement and improvement of the amateur service through rules which provide for advancing skills in both the communication and technical phases of the art.

(d) Expansion of the existing reservoir within the amateur radio service of trained operators, technicians, and electronics experts.

(e) Continuation and extension of the amateur’s unique ability to enhance international goodwill.

[Above emphasis by author]

Allow me to touch on each of these five points in turn. First, note that Amateur Radio is a voluntary noncommercial communication service. Hams spend their time communicating voluntarily. Nobody forces us to communicate. We enjoy communicating, and we volunteer to do it in many ways and for many purposes – from handling emergency traffic to practicing for emergencies to just plain chatting with our radio friends! Second, we are able to enjoy this hobby because the FCC recognizes that we contribute to the advancement of the radio art. Amateur Radio operators tend to push the envelope. We tinker with technology just because we can. The result is often that the art and science of communications is improved and enhanced. Third, when we play with our toys we advance our communication and technical skills. How many QSOs have you listened to where two hams were having a technical discussion on the subject of antennas, computers, transmitters, or how to make their packet station work? Often, one ham ends up as the Elmer for the other, less experienced ham in these on-air discussions. This leads to the fourth purpose being fulfilled, as the reservoir of trained operators, technicians and electronics experts is expanded. Finally, with a DX contact, we enhance international goodwill and promote good relations with hams from countries other than our own.

In the true spirit of Amateur Radio, several hams have started tinkering with computers and the Internet. Why? They wanted to find ways to combine their love of one hobby with their love of another.

This is not new. I’ve enjoyed talking with airborne hams who share a love for Amateur Radio and flying. I’ve been able to make many enjoyable contacts from a boat, while fishing, and enjoy combining these hobbies. So, computer tinkerers did what they do best, and came up with ways for us to enjoy our radio hobby and our computer hobby at the same time. The result plays well with our Part 97 reasons for existence. Hams who enjoy using VOip modes of communication do it voluntarily. Meanwhile, they have contributed significantly to the advancement of radio communications. Due to new licensing rules we’ve seen an influx of ham operators who continue to advance our communications and technical skills base using modes we never could have imagined using just a few years ago. As the reservoir of operators grows, its diversity and technical and electronics expertise grows as well. Finally, we can now enjoy a DX contact almost any time of day, regardless of sunspot or propagation conditions, because we’re using technologies that make this possible. We no longer need to rely on band conditions for our communications. But, is this radio?

For some, it is not. It is now possible to buy a $20 mic, plug it into your computer, and carry on a legal QSO with another ham who does the same thing on his end, totally without any radio frequencies involved. The only RF comes from the computer, and that’s not a desirable thing! You still exchange callsigns because you’re using a communications network that has been designed by hams, for hams. But, you don’t use any radios. Is that radio? Certainly, it’s not.

On the other hand, take the earlier, and may I add bad, example one step further. Using the knowledge they both gained while voluntarily engaging in the advancement of their technical and communications skills, the two hams can use their expertise to build up a simple electronic circuit that does three things. First, it passes audio from their transceiver to their computer’s sound card. Second, it passes audio from their computer’s sound card to their transceiver. Finally, it turns on their transmitter at the appropriate time so that the computer audio is transmitted over the air! That final point is the most important one. They can transmit and receive over-the-air communications from each other. In the process, they are using their electronics and technical knowledge and skill to bridge two great hobbies, computers and radio, which makes both hobbies better in the process. Some of the same issues plague both hobbies. Bandwidth is a prime example. Hams have dealt with bandwidth challenges since we went from mostly AM to SSB and now digital modes on the air. It could be argued that the most efficient mode of communication on HF is something like PSK-31, using less than 50 Hz of bandwidth and making available a lot more room for more QSOs nearby, and on the same frequency if you want to simply look at your digital readout. But, many hams enjoy voice communications more than keyboard to keyboard chatting.

Computer users must have enough bandwidth for their communications, too. Tinkering hams and non-hams have made it possible to put more electronic circuits in a box the size of a brick than we formerly could get in a large room with cooling fans and air conditioning to keep the circuits from burning down the place! That’s true of both our radios and our computers. And, speaking of combining computers and radios, how many state-of-the-art tranceivers are really just computers with an RF stage?

Computers and radios have been married, and I say till death us do part! Until one or the other dies, I’m in favor of keeping the relationship going and growing. When we moved from Deltona, Florida where we lived for a decade in the early 90s, to other parts of Florida, all of my relationships with local hams went the way of email contacts and occasional HF QSOs as time permitted. When we moved into an apartment in the Fort Lauderdale area, time and space restrictions prevented my participation in HF communications. When we finally moved into a house, had a little extra time and money, and got a decent Internet connection, I also discovered VOip. Since then, I’ve used the simple $2 circuit mentioned earlier to connect my aging computer, not much good for anything else, to my Icom 2 meter transceiver. Now, using two of my favorite hobbies, I can again keep in regular contact with my friends from ‘045, the local repeater in Deland. Using VOip, I can wade in my pool with an HT in one hand, a beer in the other, and talk with Roger in Ridley Park, PA who checks in often on the ‘045 repeater. Occasionally, since here in Fort Myers we have a lot of German tourists, I hear a local ham calling his friends back home using my “node” on 146.43 simplex to connect to his friend on a 2 meter repeater somewhere in Germany. Finally, when I travel away from the footprint of my 30 foot antenna radiating a 5 watt RF signal, I get on the Internet and look up the other VoIP nodes along my route. Then, I check into their systems along the way, keeping in touch with my friends back home or beyond.

This is ham radio. This is my ham radio, the hobby I’ve loved since age 15. It isn’t for everyone. Many are happy and content doing the same thing each day on the air that they’ve been doing for the past 20 years. And that’s fine. To each, his own, is what I say about that. But, rest assured, the marriage of radio and VoIP communications is in its early stages. Lord willing, I’m looking forward to being there for the silver and golden anniversaries!