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D-Star First Impressions

Posted on June 29, 2014

Background

I (KF5RJQ) bought a D-Star capable radio, the ID-51A, last week. As a new user, I thought it might be useful to describe my first impressions of the D-Star system.

I’ll try to keep snarky comments to myself.

Oh who am I kidding. I’ll be snarky as usual.

I will rank each experience with a score, which indicates my “out of box” happiness with that part of the “D-Star experience.”

Buying the Radio

Score: 80% happy.

Purchasing the radio was of course the first step. This part worked quite well. All I had to do is fork over a lot of cash. As usual, there was as little in the box as the manufacturer could manage and still make it usable. I was actually shocked I didn’t have to buy the belt clip, as that was the only part of the package that isn’t strictly necessary.

The battery was partially charged, so I was able to use it on the way back. Almost. Sort of. Kinda.

Finding a Repeater

Score: 80% happy.

This part was also quite easy, as the ID-51A has a list of repeaters programmed into it. Unfortunately, they had names like “San Jose.” In fact, there were two “San Jose” entries, two “San Francisco” entries, etc. After some fiddling, I did mange to connect to one of the San Jose ones, WD6BAY I believe it was.

While I don’t want to make this into a review of the ID-51A, I will say it is dissapointing that it won’t update without manual intervention and a computer. It seems like we have a digital mode that could be used to transmit a low bandwidth stream of new repeater data between or inside a voice stream. It also would be nice if the radio could hold a few tens of thousands of memories, organized by geographic location. It’s disappointing that the radio’s memory can’t even hold all the US repeaters, let alone the world’s. Sure, eventually that list could outgrow even the 10,000 I propose, but by that time, my radio would likely need replacing anyway.

Awesome Digital Audio

Score: 50% happy.

Selecting the San Jose repeater got me there, mostly. Later, I found out I actually needed to program repeaters into regular memory to make things work out better, like using the gateway. Perhaps this is still user error. However, I was able to transmit locally, and even had a short QSO.

For a system that proports “crystal clear digital audio,” I will say I was not impressed. It sounded like everyone was talking down a long tunnel, and I was at the other end listening at the emergency exit door with a plastic cup. Sure, I could hear no background noise. It gets full marks on the “full quieting” score card, but the voice quality was not at all “crystal clear” from my point of view.

Perhaps to some old dude it sounds better, but I have rather good ears. I hear what people call “a good MP3 encoding” of songs, and cringe. To me, the audio quality is not at all worthy of the price paid to use a proprietary audio encoding. I know there are better, and many of them open source, which means no $150 DV-Dongles. But, once again, I digress.

I also hate that the D-Star community has started calling the frequent audio mangling as “R2D2.” R2D2 is cute. You’re poking a stick in his eye (well, camera) each time you refer to the annoyingly frequent corruption of human speech with his name. I prefer to call this “speaking Martian” since clearly Martians would be ugly, and probably sound a lot like D-Star does when it’s corrupting voice.

Registering My Callsign

Score: 0% happy. Seriously.

Summary

The only thing registration does is make it harder to use a very expensive radio in a rather expensive hobby that is suffering from diminishing numbers due to high death-based attrition. If you want more D-Star (and amateur operators) in general, make it easier not harder to get on the air, and make the experience wonderful, not sucktastic. Don’t put up stupid road-blocks. The FCC makes enough of those. Don’t add more.

Rant

This is a stupid step. It really, really is. It’s nothing more than a way for people who likely say they want less government every day to install themselves into a permission chain to make my first experience on D-Star suck.

And when did we go back to the 1970s? “Enter a single space in this field” – for real? Come on, this is 2014. I’m sure the computer can put a damned space in there for me. “Pad out callsigns with spaces if they are too short” – WTF? Was this system designed by a goldfish flopping on a keyboard?

Oh, and I am bound forever to the repeater I choose to use. How smart! It’s not like repeaters ever go down and never return. It’s not like all this stuff doesn’t go into a global trust database. Surely we can store passwords securely and let me update my data securely. I do it all the time in web application development.

But of course, I’m not actually bound to that repeater. I can request… somehow… to be removed and re-register myself. That was so much fun, I’d want to do it again and again! And imagine the fun caused by every repeater operator to also be a system administrator, and perform reliable backups so when their hard drive dies from being put in a dusty, dirty, hot place near a repeater installation, they won’t make my D-Star usage another level of hell.

Bullshit Reasons for a Bullshit Step.

Why do we need to register a callsign to use the gateway and reflector system? Let me list the reasons I’ve been told so far:

It is an authentication step, and necessary to protect the network.

It in no way authenticates or verifies anything, other than I can fill out a web form. I don’t have to click anything in the email I get, so I could have entered some random callsign, a fake email address, and I would likely still get accepted and stored in the system.

I don’t have to put something special (other than my callsign) into my radio. It’s not like I enter a digital certificate that securely binds my identity to my callsign, or to my radio.

I could just as easily put your callsign in my radio, and transmit. The thing that prevents me from doing that are the FCC rules. The registration system does not do this.

Do you think someone who is going to interfere with D-Star (stolen radio, or just a bored ass-hat) would not do this? If you really think registration is an authentication or security step, you need to do some research in what those words mean.

Clubs should be able to say who uses their system.

They already do, without registration.

I have to find some repeater that will accept me. Each club has its own rules, and most of them say “go away” in various words to those who are not in their club. Sure, they run the repeater, and they can control who uses it, you say.

But that’s not what registration does. It makes it so someone other than FCC has to tell me it’s OK to use my radio. If I start transmitting on some club repeater, they can tell me to stop. If I don’t, they have other options. The have in fact the same options as they had before D-Star: they can complain about my transmissions to the proper authorities.

Perhaps they can un-register me. But, if I’m the kind of person who would not respect a request to not use a repeater, do you think I’d not do the actions in (1) above and just be an asshole?

It’s just how D-Star works

We can change that. We could just make it so gateways automatically authenticate people on their first transmission. Or, even if I had to go to a web site to register, we could make it not take hours to days.

It’s part of the agreement to use D-Star with Icom (or the Japanese)

Who knows, this claim might be true, but it is still bullshit. If we run a US-Trust server which is not run by Icom nor the Japanese, then we should have control over its content.

Learning Curve

Score: As an “end user”: 60%.

I get the “your callsign”, “my callsign”, “RPT1”, and “RPT2” stuff. It seems to work well enough for QSOs. I have yet to target a specific user’s callsign, so I don’t know how well that part of it works, nor have I tried to transmit out a remote repeater without using a common reflector.

My 40% reduction here is because we are still hacking in something that should damned well be done better. The destination “callsign” field is overridden to mean “callsign”, “repeater command”, and “broadcast.”

It would be far more logical to me to put the repeater’s callsign in the “your callsign” field, and then have a way to send it command strings. But no, we don’t do it that way. Perhaps that’s too advanced for 1970s technology.

Oh, and “UR?” and “RPT?” seem to mean different things. For instance, each time I transmit to my now local repeater’s gateway as RPT2, I get the “RPT?” error. But my transmission goes through! So, is “RPT?” an error or is it not? Who the hell knows. It’s a system built by goldfish.

Teaching Bad Habits

There appears to be a common trick of “quick-keying” to mean anything from “check in on this net” to “I would like to interrupt the current QSO.”

I feel this is a very bad habit. Sure, my radio happily says the callsign. However, when mobile, do you think I’m safer by having to look at my radio and catch a callsign as it scrolls by?

We should not abandon current strategies for saying “I have additional info” or “comment” or whatnot. Other digital modes may work by just transmitting your callsign to interrupt a QSO in progress, but this is digital voice and the digital part should augment, not replace, the voice.

Conclusion

For a system built on 1970s technology by goldfish flopping around on a keyboard, it’s a great system. I think they should have hired a cat to do the QA by eating the goldfish.

I think we could have better than D-Star.