The Amateur Amateur: D-Stressing
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
Ah, if only those backordered parts would arrive.