Monday, October 2, 2023

Fall 2023: Global Digital Repeater Roundup (+ HVDN PSA)


If you build it, they will come is how the saying goes, right?  When it comes to digital voice modes today in amateur radio, the best way to chart the growth of the most popular modes is by looking at repeater deployments.

No individual, club or group of people will invest the time, money and annoyances to deploy a repeater on common amateur VHF and UHF spectrum unless they know there are people who will use it.   And, for people to use a repeater they need the appropriate radio which uses the appropriate mode or modes of communication. This means that people need to coordinate and that is not always easy.

Going into our 13th edition of the global amateur radio repeater round up over the last seven years, no one can argue where the direction of digital voice is headed, but where are the actual users today?

Please review any of the past linked articles for expanded commentary on mode specific drivers such as new radios or features related to different modes because this update will take a different direction.

As we can see in above chart, DMR continues to grow but there are so many splintered networks such as Brandmeister, TGIF and FreeDMR which make it frustratingly interesting for new joiners to figure out how to find people given that each network is separate and each uses its own talk groups/destinations unless they are content with using a hotspot.

A hotspot is under 100% control of the user compared to a repeater, so allowing your hotspot to go to different networks (on DMR) or other modes as well as any of the destinations (talk groups, bridges, reflectors, etc) is possible. Repeaters do not permit that, but that is not the intent anyway.

DMR Networks:  Lessons in diplomacy

While Brandmeister is still the most popular, not every DMR repeater will support talk groups the same way which forces some users to use a hotspot.   This make programming radios a challenge for some people as well as those that are experienced in keeping radio programming up to date as it relates to repeaters.

For new users who look for local repeaters that have DMR, the same talk group (Example:  31368) will not reach the same people if they are on a different network, unless someone created a bridge but that sort of defeats the purpose for different networks anyway. This frustrates people since DMR is not just DMR, its DMR that is implemented at the network level differently.

This network flexibility has proven to be a benefit and a curse at the same time for DMR, but that is ok because its still the most popular and lowest cost entry to digital voice. DMR has also proven to be the driver behind many innovations on network capability which the others did not focus on.

Any Pi-Star or the WPSD/W0CHP variant running on an inexpensive hotspot is just like having your own repeater though and you can set it up however you wish. 

It is estimated by HVDN that there is 70:1 ratio of hotspots sold compared to digital voice repeaters currently online.  At any given moment according to Brandmeister, there are well over 15,000 hotspots connected at any time. Currently, there are only a little over 11,000 digital voice repeaters, so that means that its possible there have been over 700,000 hot spots sold. 

There are many amateurs, including myself that have had multiple hotspots over the years and those I no longer used, were sold/given to others in the hobby.   Its easy to think that many interested in digital voice likely have or have had in excess of three or more hotspots so that 700,000 number is actually pretty modest and is probably too low.

Digital voice repeaters do not all need the internet

DMR also as a reminder does not need the internet and there are repeaters that provide only local coverage and users do not need to be registered via a central user database, even though it helps to have an ID linked to your callsign from 

Yaesu Fusion and Icom's D-Star have a more tightly controlled network to connect repeaters to for those wishing to communicate via the aid of the internet, but also can be configured for local only coverage, but there are likely far less repeaters using these modes which operate that way. Registering on the Icom D-Star network can be annoying and Fusion while easier, still requires registration for internet access.

The commercial modes like P25 and NXDN can be deployed any way the repeater owner wants, but these will never reach the same scale as DMR or dedicated vendor modes because handheld or mobile equipment is not designed with the radio amateur in mind as its main buyer.

Here is the actual data for repeaters globally by mode and surveyed twice a year along with matching compound annual growth for period by period and total growth.

Eight Repeaters:  And growing.....

Now lets look at the M17 mode again which was designed by amateurs for amateurs, but there are no commercially made handheld or mobile radios available to support this just yet.  

Instead, for the time being its easy to purchase a few auxiliary devices which connect to 9600bd capable mobile radios to allow them to transmit and receive M17 protocol. 

There are also a few other devices such as transceiver capable SDR devices like a HackRF, Caribou or LimeSDR which can be used with software like SDRangel on a computer to communicate M17 mode.

Ready to purchase equipment will be available so anyone can use M17 for radio to radio communications, or radio to repeater to radio communications with or without the internet. Pictured above is the small batch run M17 board that only maybe a dozen people in the world currently have which converts any 9600md radio into a M17 radio.

Currently there are eight listed M17 repeaters on and this is three more since May 2023. 

North America as of the time of this article has a four M17 repeaters

And the remaining four elsewhere in the world can be seen below.

The current state of M17 is the "sweet spot" for HVDN given our focusing on emerging technologies that have evolved from ideation to "beta release"  easily accessible for those motivated to hands-on experiment and collaboratively discover versus appliance focused push button operators.

Over the last seven years as digital has become mainstream, those who consider themselves early adopters have moved on to other things.  It appears that M17 is the going to be the new playground for those looking for something new.

M17 is also not just voice communications since it also handles text. All the digital voice modes allow for this, but not many people use them.  It is this non-voice capability which HVDN will be spending more time focusing on in our build out.

Let's Just Wait:  Club Excuses

When HVDN was created in 2016, it was to partially provide intelligence to the local area here in New York who needed education about the most popular digital modes and assist those with becoming familiar with what turned out to be DMR as predicted. Now seven years later, not much has changed in the region. This has been a success, but only if you add up all the people who bought DMR radios and hotspots and not who use them every day, like an HF radio or 2m analog radio.

Eventually, just talking radio to hotspot to internet to hotspot to radio sort of gets boring. Am I wrong?  No.

The challenge is that still seven years later, the New York area and Hudson Valley specifically has not done anything innovative when it comes to embracing digital voice or infrastructure.  

The local ARRL  leadership excluding a few recent changes and leading clubs in our area continue and constantly fall back on "low effort" activities like HF contests, actual hamfests that do not get cancelled, recurring entry-level presentations, etc and ignore the fact that in order to attract and retain members, various leading edge activities and the infrastructure to connect them are needed

Amateur radio is different things to different people and many clubs complain about dwindling membership, lack of treasury or lack of engaged members.  None of them actually try to fix this known issue or make it hard for those willing to fix them. Events and new technology are needed to maintain and grow.

HVDN started off strong but only to be overwhelmed by some who just wanted the same thing, so now we will further distance ourselves from the general interest community's instead of being forced to embrace the failures by other clubs.

Tell me where the freaks at!

As 2023 now comes to a close, the seven year experiment ends and moves to the next phase.  HVDN will be focusing on building out its network in order to put the Hudson Valley on the map even more so and to attract like minded individuals to its membership ranks. 

Our first experiments with membership driven models did not allow us to target the right people, so those who were paid members have not been asked for dues in about three years to bring us back to zero and move to our new membership model. 

Between technologies such as M17 and LoRa, there will be some interesting things ahead for HVDN. Our suggestion is other area clubs better get ready or get left in the analog dust.

The member rates for HVDN will also be changing to raise the bar even higher and to act as a nice filter to retain and reward our contributing members in current standing. Let the rumble begin! 

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