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Digital Set Up And Its Ups And Downs

Hi, I am VA7FMR And I am relatively new to the Ham World. I got my licence in November 2015. You may remember my article about antennas and the problems and solutions to making a selection. I have progressed since then and have enjoyed making contacts around North America with my screwdriver Antenna installed on my patio rail.

This is the thing that I like about being a HAM operator, there are so many ways that you can have fun. For example, CAT control of your radio, or “Computer Assisted Tuning” of your radio. Now what could be more interesting than that. You just watch your frequency board in N1MM+ for example and Telnet puts up all of the new contacts that are on the air right now. Just click on one of the items listed on the board and the computer tunes your radio for you, contact made. If on the other hand, you turn your radio knob, the frequency board changes too. How neat is that? And what do you know, this leads us into the next exiting part of HAM radio, Digital Communication.

I was talking to one of our senior club members one Saturday morning and he asked me if I would like to join him at his radio shack to have a look at Digital Contesting. I came away from that morning thinking about all of the contacts we had made with just the push of a button. So again, just like my search for antennas when I first got my licence, I started searching for digital interfaces to hook up to my radio. Unfortunately, I did not learn a lesson from my antenna problems, I just went ahead looking for what I thought would be the best bang for my buck, big Mistake. Since I also have an interest in Morse Code, an advert caught my eye on a web site based in the UK. It boasted that not only did their little black box provide CAT control but it also, in one box, provided two more of what I wanted, digital and CW. I can not of course provide the Manufacturers name of this mistake but I can tell you that it took a long time to realize that this unit did not live up to its claims. I struggled for weeks trying to make this beast work. 

The instruction manual, if you could call a photocopy of 6 sheets stapled together a manual, told me that when the USB cable from the unit is plugged into the computer, 3 com ports are assigned to the unit. It is easy to find out which com ports are assigned by using Windows Settings and then Device Manager to look at the com port numbers. Mine were 3-4-5. The manual told me to run a piece of software on his web page and it would look at the interface and tell me which com port was the CAT control com port. The software told me that CAT was on COM 4. Off I go to N1MM+ logger and in the setup window I tell N1MM that CAT is com 4 and I go through the setup procedure and look to see CAT working, not on your life. My Band Map stubbornly refused to talk to my radio.

This was the start of a six week love and hate relationship between a black box and a very frustrated me. I went on the internet and found instructions that pretty much guaranteed to get you working. I had just replaced the four ink cartridges in my printer and I printed so many documents I ran out of ink in just the first two weeks. The paper and ink Manufacturers loved this black box but I disliked it with a passion. 

On a whim, I went back into the setup of N1MM+ and told it that I was sorry but could I try another com port for CAT Control and I input COM 5 and did the setup thingy again and give that man an orange, it worked. I had CAT control. How could this be? The black box manufacturer told me that CAT was com 4 but here was my black box working on com 5. well winners can't be losers can they? On I went to get started in digital communications. I downloaded MMTTY and FLDIGY. In many of the documents I had downloaded I was told to setup MMTTY as a stand alone entity first. So, that is what I did. Since I had been told by the black box provider that com 3 was digital and com 5 was CW, I started the MMTTY installation with com 3. When setting up MMTTY, there are about 15-20 things that can be changed, one of the downloads gave me a pretty good inclination of what to set and what not to set. Having done the deed I tried MMTTY and nothing happened, no digital for me. 

Now I think you can see where I am going. If CAT was wrong at the black box, could it not follow that the manufacturer was wrong with the other two com ports. Sure enough, after several more days chasing my tail, I got MMTTY to trigger the black box using COM 4 not 3 as the black box manufacturer had stated. It was now time to incorporate all of this junk into N1MM+, you guessed it, not a chance in hell. Although CAT control worked fine the black box did not want to talk about Digital to anyone but it's self. Throughout this debacle I had been in constant contact with John Brodie, now this guy has the patience of a very very patient man. He gave me lots of encouragement and when I felt like wrapping the black box around the refrigerator he came through with calm and patience. A few days into this saga, John had produced a Signalink USB device and suggested that I might like to try it. I wish that I had done as he asked day one. I was now at my Nieces house and had installed My 73' long wire antenna. 

I was going to be here looking after dogs and house whilst the family were away on vacation. The antenna was working like a charm and the BARTG digital contest was due to start in two days. I removed the dreaded black box and installed the Signalink and left it like that until the next day, I had to recoup my own patience quotient and recharge overnight. The next day I had MMTTY talking nicely to the Signalink, incorporated it into N1MM+ and after a false start and a recheck of settings my Icom 7100 went into transmit and I were a digital man at long last. I worked the contest over two days, total about six hours or less and I logged 80 Qso's, including 8 Japanese stations, 1 Mexican station and a Hawaii station for good luck. The remainder were in Canada as far away as Ontario and the United States as far as Connecticut and Florida. I had a ball, I can not impress upon you how good it felt to log stations thousands of Kilometres away.

Well, was there a lesson learned here? There sure was but I should have learned it after my antenna fiasco. Do not go after the super fancy stuff and certainly never rely on a supplier off continent. I read on a public web page that the manufacturer of my unit thought that people who called for installation advice were stupid and inevitably hung up on the caller, what kind of after sale service is that? I can call anywhere in Canada for free on my Cell Phone so that is as far as I should have looked. After sale service is extremely important, particularly to newcomers to the hobby like me and some of you out there. KISS, Keep it simple stupid covers the above problem very well. 

Have I learned my lesson, I hope so.

~ Robert VA7FMR

1 comment:

  1. Robert,
    Thank you for an interesting article. I'm thinking about getting into digital now that VK Foundation licencees can make use of it. I'll definitely stay away from too-good-to-be-true offers. Sorry you had to go through the mill with this.
    Dan VK6FANG



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