The Amateur Amateur: D-Stressing

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
June 2014

ID-5100A still in the box

Icom ID-5100A still in the box. What mysteries will it contain?

D-STAR stands for “Digital Smart Technology for Amateur Radio” and was developed by the Japan Amateur Radio League. That summed up everything I knew about it. I was somewhat interested in giving it a try, though, since there was repeater in the area and I knew some folks that used it. So I went online to take a look at what transceivers were available and....

Whoa! Those prices couldn't be right, could they? Hand held transceivers cost as much as mobile units, and mobile units cost as much as small cars.

That ended my first foray into D-STAR. I had another short flirtation with it when my brother Chris, K1KC, gave me a dongle so that I could get into the system through my computer.

I occasionally looked at the Internet to see if the prices had gone down, but that never seemed to happen. There didn't seem to be any competition going on between the transceiver manufacturers. Icom was the only outfit that sold D-STAR equipment. Moreover, I'd heard that there was a proprietary chip involved, and that seemed to be keeping the cost unreasonably high. If I wanted a mobile radio, I had to buy an already expensive unit and then spend hundreds more dollars for a D-STAR chip to plug into it.

Just how badly did I want to talk on the local repeater?

Well, I must have had some residual desire to do so because I found myself checking eBay for used D-STAR transceivers. That experience was like getting a bucket load of cold water in the face. I had no idea how eBay really worked. Truth be told, I still don't. Every time I thought I had it figured out, and in fact, was on the verge of getting a transceiver at a bargain price, I got that bucket of water in the face again. There was always some rule or procedure that I hadn't known about or didn't understand.

In short, I never got the radio I bid on.

So I'd towel off the cold water, and swear I'd never go near D-STAR or eBay again. But a month later I'd be back, trolling the offerings yet again. I was primarily looking for an Icom IC-2820H, which is a mobile unit. And I wanted one with the optional D-STAR chip included. They would pop up from time to time. And while I never mastered the art of winning the bid, I did learn to read the fine print very carefully (“no microphone, no power cord, no internal parts...”).

Brand new IC-2820H transceivers were also available on eBay, and I was amazed at the wide variety of prices listed. Sometimes one vendor would be selling them for 50% more than the next vendor, and I wondered how he expected to make any sales that way. I guess, though, that he'd only need to sell one radio to make a pretty good profit.

The special cards with the D-STAR chip were always high-priced, though. No discounts there.

And then one day the price of both the IC-2820H and the optional D-STAR card started dropping.

Aha! I thought. I'll bet Icom has come out with a new model D-STAR transceiver! This will be my opportunity to finally snatch up an IC-2820H.

I didn't, though. I bought the new ID-5100A model instead. Hey, it was newer, had more features, and didn't cost much more than the older units.

Just so you know, I bought it from one of the well-known dealers rather than on eBay.

ID-5100A on the desk

Icom ID-5100A propped up on the desk. No mounting bracket.

Here's where I ran into some real aggravation. Most of my radios are Yaesu models. I'm used to ordering them and then receiving a box that contains everything I need to get the radio up and running as a mobile unit. Icom doesn't even provide a mobile mounting bracket with the ID-5100A. In fact, the telephone-book-sized manual doesn't even mention a mobile mounting bracket. There is one, but you may have to do some serious searching to find it. If you can't, your brand new ID-5100A will just have to bounce around on the floor of your car.

Nor was that the only problem that I had. While getting ready to order the transceiver I had a devil of a time trying to figure out which options were truly optional and which I was absolutely going to need. The manual did list most of them, but I got very confused, especially when it came to data cables. Did I need all of them? Did some of them effectively do the same thing? They all seemed ridiculously expensive in any case. In the end I just took a guess and ordered the additional items that I thought would be necessary.

Most of them are still on backorder.

So, I hate this radio, right?

No, I love it.

For all the annoyance and distress leading up to getting the transceiver, some of which is, admittedly, ongoing, I really like the ID-5100A.

The control head is huge. If you can figure out a way to hold it until your backordered mounting parts arrive it is really neat. (Usually I just hold mine in my hand while I play with it.) The whole display screen is interactive. If you touch any part of it, something will happen. More than that, a lot of the simpler operations are fairly intuitive. I was able to enter a frequency and get on the air without even looking at the manual.

Manuals plural, I should mention. The unit does come with a real, printed “basic” manual. To understand how the memory works, how to operate D-STAR and so forth, however, you're going to have to mount the accompanying CD and peruse the basic manual's 342 page big brother.

Can anyone actually do that? I absolutely have to have a printed version. I went through a lot of paper jams trying to create a double-sided copy, but it was worth it.

Once I had the manual in my hands I found that the radio's memory system was rather elegant and easy to use.

After I'd figured out and played with the radio in normal FM mode, I was anxious to try D-STAR. That, after all, was the whole purpose of buying it.

Let me note here that to get into a D-STAR repeater, and the whole D-STAR universe behind it, you will need to register your call sign. It's not a big deal and I took care of that back when Chris sent me the dongle.

Anyway, since my call sign was already in the system, I made the few programming adjustments needed to access a D-STAR voice repeater and voila! Success! And I made an immediate contact. Instant gratification.

ID-5100A parts box

Icom ID-5100A optional items box, for when they eventually arrive.

That was pretty cool. I chatted with Rick, W0PC for a while, and then Roger, K0GOB. Rick had been a great help in getting my APRS station going and Roger has been involved in constructing quite a number of important local Amateur Radio systems, including the D-STAR system we were using. Both gentlemen are local legends.

I spent a few days, reading the manual, toying with the ID-5100A, and trying out its various features. Since it was a dual-band radio I programmed in both the local D-STAR 2 meter repeater and its companion D-STAR 70 cm repeater. On the second day I was checking out some of the more esoteric functions when I heard a beep indicating that someone was using the repeater. Since I had the display in a special mode, I couldn't tell which repeater. I switched the screen back to normal mode and waited.


So I returned to my explorations and.. beep! There it was again. I jumped back and waited, but once again saw and heard nothing.

The third time it happened the beep was accompanied by an automated female voice with a distinct Japanese accent. She/it said, K0GOB. So at least I knew who was calling, but still didn't know which repeater he was using.

So I called back on both repeaters.

Roger responded on the 70 cm repeater. He was testing a complicated remote system, perhaps a D-STAR soup can or something. We chatted a bit but eventually we lost the connection. I know that Roger was having difficulties, but I also knew that part of the problem was my own antenna system. The only spare antenna I had was an old Radio Shack police scanner discone with half of its radials missing. The result was that the ID-5100A did much the same as HDTV does when it receives a borderline signal. Sometimes it sounds just perfect, but when the signal drops below the noise level, it “pixelates”. I don't know what the audio version of the phenomenon is called, but you get the picture.

My final assessment is that I'm glad that I got the radio. I've already ordered a better antenna and plan to dedicate it specifically to the ID-5100A. I'm anticipating having a lot of fun experimenting and exploring D-STAR.

Ah, if only those backordered parts would arrive.

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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