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D-STAR For VHF UHF

D-STAR For VHF UHF

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V
HF/UHF D-STAR radios are mak-ing their way into the U.S. hamradio community. What is this newtechnology and how will it benefit theham radio enthusiast?
Digital Modulation
Unless you were unconscious for thelast two decades, you have noticed thatdigital technology has swept throughmost types of electronic devices, creat-ing more capability and changing pri-marily analog devices into digital won-ders. Analog music media such as theconventional LP record and magnetictape have been replaced by digitally-encoded CD-ROMs. More recently, therise of the Internet and digital audio for-mats (e.g., MP3) has changed how musicis created and distributed. Closer to homefor ham radio enthusiasts, the cellulartelephone, originally deployed with ana-log FM technology, has largely migrat-ed to digital-modulation techniques.Digital technology allows mobile-phoneservice providers to provide cost-effec-tive voice communications while addingservices such as text messaging and websurfing, all while improving the spectralefficiency of their networks.
Meanwhile, those of us who enjoyusing FM simplex and repeaters on theVHF and higher amateur bands are stillusing good old analog FM. Edwin H.Armstrong first described the use of 
 fre-quency modulation
in 1936.
1
The firstpractical two-way FM radio-telephonemobile system in the world was imple-mented in 1940 for the Connecticut StatePolice. Let’s consider 1940 the start of what we know today as two-way FMradio. That was 65 years ago! Perhaps itis time to move to new technology.
We have already seen digital technolo-gy wiggle its way into our inherently ana-log radios. Modern FM transceivers havedigitally-synthesized frequency controlcircuits, digital storage of channel infor-mation, serial ports for loading configu-rations, and computer software to controlthese rigs. Packet radio uses AX.25 digi-tal protocols to provide an error-free datatransmission mechanism, but the underly-ing modulation generally is still analogFM. The next step may be a truly inte-grated approach to voice and data.
Digital Modulationin Amateur Radio
The Japanese government funded thedevelopment of the D-STAR standard, adigital radio format designed specifical-ly for amateur radio. The Japan AmateurRadio League (JARL) administered thedevelopment of this open standard, andICOM is the first equipment manufac-turer to market D-STAR radios.
There are three distinct types of D-STAR transmissions with varying band-width required. The
DV
format is the nar-rowest modulation scheme, using a datarate of 4800 b/s to support simultaneousvoice and data transmissions. Digitizedvoice is transmitted using 3600 b/s, leav-ing 1200 b/s for data transmission. D-STAR transceivers on 146 MHz and 440MHz use this modulation format, since itresults in a narrow 6-kHz signal band-width. I think of this mode as having a sin-gle voice channel, plus a digital channelsimilar to 1200-baud packet rates. Thismode won’t be great at moving large files,but it will handle lower speed data require-ments. Photo A shows a 2-meter rig thatoffers D-STAR operation as an option.
The
DD
format is a
data-only
mode thatprovides a 128-kb/s transfer rate, occu-pying a bandwidth of 130 kHz. This modeis too wide for the VHF bands and is
D-STAR
Digital Voice for VHF/UHF
FM
FM/Repeaters—Inside Amateur Radios “Utility” Mode
By Bob Witte,* K
Ø
NR
*21060 Capella Drive, Monument, CO 80132e-mail: <bob@k0nr.com>
Modulation TypeBandDigital Rate
DV146 MHz, 440 MHz, 1.2 GHz4.8kb/sDD1.2 GHz 128 kb/sBackbone10 GHz10 Mb/s
Table 1. Summary of available D-STAR modulation formats.Photo A. The ICOM IC-2200H is a conventional 2-meter FM transceiver with D-STAR digital operation available as an option. (Photo courtesy of ICOM America)
Reprinted with permission from the Winter 2006 issue of CQ VHF Magazine. Copyright 2006, CQ Communications, Inc.
 
offered by ICOM only on its 1.2-GHz rig.(The 1.2-GHz radio also offers DVfor-mat, as well as conventional analog FM.)Rounding out the D-STAR system is a10-GHz backbone link that operates at 10Mb/s. This radio link is intended for link-ing repeaters together on the ham bandswithout depending on any phone line orInternet connection. The data rates listedfor these D-STAR formats are the nomi-nal bit rates, but the use of 
Forward Error Correction (FEC)
means that the actualthroughput will be somewhat less.I’ll focus on D-STAR from the pointof view of a typical FM ham radio user,most likely operating on 146 MHz or 440MHz, using the DV D-STAR format.
D-STAR Technology
D-STAR is an open protocol, but onethat was developed with amateur radio inmind. While being ham radio oriented,D-STAR still takes advantage of tech-nology and standards from other com-munications industries.Since D-STAR uses digital modula-tion, the analog voice signal is convertedto digital format by an analog-to-digitalconverter.
2
These digital samples are fur-ther compressed by an AMBE®(Ad-vanced Multi-Band Excitation) vocodercircuit. The vocoder takes advantage of the characteristics of human speech tocompress the digital data stream into amuch more compact set of data, mini-mizing the on-the-air bandwidth re-quired. Vocoders vary in the quality of speech that they reproduce, and theAMBE vocoder gets high marks forspeech quality.
The digital stream of bits goes out overthe air using the modulation methodknown as 0.5GMSK (Gaussian MinimumShift Keying). Roughly speaking, GMSKpasses the digital input stream through aGaussian low-pass filter which rounds off the edges of the waveform. This roundedwaveform drives an FM modulator to pro-duce the GMSK-modulated signal, result-ing in a signal that is very efficient in termsof occupied bandwidth.
D-STAR transmissions are not com-patible with the existing analog FM andsound like white noise when received onan FM radio. D-STAR radios providebackward compatibility with existingradios by including a conventional FMmode. The user selects whether he or shewants the radio to operate in analog ordigital mode.The D-STAR standard includes a posi-tion reporting feature that is similar toAPRS®. D-STAR radios have NMEAinterface for taking in position informa-tion from a GPS receiver. Basically, thisdata stream transmits the GPS coordi-nates at a time interval specified by theuser. This transmission is
not 
directlycompatible with APRS, since APRS usesconventional packet radio, while the D-STAR information is encoded in the D-STAR digital format. Some hams areexperimenting with gateways that pipethe D-STAR data into the APRS InternetSystem (APRS-IS), a collection of servers that track APRS reports.Every D-STAR transmission has thestation’s callsign embedded in the digitalstream. This makes identification auto-matic, sort of like Caller ID on a tele-phone. This enables other features suchas “call sign squelch” so that you canmonitor for transmissions from a specif-ic station.
Repeater Systems
D-STAR supports a comprehensivelinked repeater system. Repeaters can belinked together digitally either via theInternet or via radio on the 10-GHz hamband. When you transmit to a D-STARrepeater, your callsign is automaticallyregistered with that repeater and sharedaround the D-STAR system. Each trans-
mission contains routing informationfor where on the system the signalshould be heard.
This may sound like a capability simi-lar to the repeater linking that can be doneusing IRLP or Echolink®. These Internetlinking systems use conventional FMover the air and convert to digital beforesending the information over the Internet.D-STAR uses digital data throughout thesystem, including the initial RF link. Thedigital encoding in the signal makes therouting of signals from one repeater toanother automatic, without the need forestablishing (and later breaking) a com-munications link. In fact, D-STAR usesa different paradigm entirely, where eachtransmission is routed according to itsembedded callsign-routing information.Since the signal routing is all digital, therewill be no degradation of signal-to-noiseratio as the signal traverses the system.Compare this to repeater systems linkedvia analog methods, where each link tends to introduce a bit of noise.
D-STAR Benefits
Some hams look at D-STAR technol-ogy and get hooked instantly because itis new, cool digital technology. Of course, others ask the question “What isthe benefit of D-STAR, as my analog FMrig works just fine?” Like most emergingtechnologies, the benefits of D-STARmay not be understood completely untilthe technology has been around for awhile. The benefits of D-STAR fall intothree major categories:
Spectral efficiency.
The DV format of D-STAR has a bandwidth of 6 kHz, com-pared to 16 kHz for analog FM with 5-kHz deviation.
3
This implies that wecould at least double the number of repeaters or simplex channels in a par-ticular frequency band. Given that allrepeater pairs in the 2-meter band are inuse in many locations, this could have adramatic impact on how the band is used.(Of course, this raises all kinds of stickyissues on how this change would occur.That is, existing repeater owners andusers may not be motivated to change outtheir equipment.)
Routing information encoded invoice channel.
The DVformat has thetransmitting station’s callsign, the desti-nation repeater, and other information
Photo B. The ID-1 transceiver is a 1.2-GHz transceiver that includes analog FM and  D-STAR formats (DV and DD). (Photo courtesy of ICOM America)
www.cq-vhf.com 
Winter 2006
CQVH
43
 
encoded into every transmission. This encoded data enablesautomatic identification (“Caller ID”), selective calling (“CallSign Squelch”), automatic logging of stations heard, and sig-nal routing through a D-STAR repeater system.
Text and Position Messaging.
Digitally-encoded positioninformation can be sent, assuming a GPS receiver is connect-ed to the D-STAR rig. The user can also manually enter theposition information or a short text message. An external TNCis not required.These benefits are from the perspective of an FM voice user.Clearly, D-STAR also offers other benefits for data-only radiouse. In particular, the DD format offers the fastest turn-key dig-ital radio baud rates for amateur radio use.
D-STAR Deployments
Not surprisingly, D-STAR usage took off first in Japan, withan unknown number of 1.2-GHz D-STAR repeaters on the air,all operated by the JARL.This technology is in the early stages of deployment in theU.S., with a number of D-STAR pioneers trying out this newham radio format. According to Ray Novak, N9JA, of ICOMAmerica, there are approximately 15 D-STAR repeater sites onthe air in the U.S., with three of them linked to the Internet. Theactivity on these three repeaters (and any others that add theInternet connection) is shown on the D-STAR users’ websiteat <http:// www.dstarusers.org>.The most active D-STAR group seems to be the TexasInterconnect Team, in the Dallas area, with club callsignK5TIT. This group has an active website devoted to D-STARtopics at <http://www. k5tit.org>. They have D-STAR repeaterson these bands: 146 MHz, 440 MHz, and 1.2 GHz (photo C).The group recently conducted the first U.S. field trial of ICOM’s146-MHz and 440-MHz D-STAR repeaters.The Chester County Amateur Radio Special Interest Group(W3DES) in Chester County, Pennsylvania is a hotbed of activ-ity on 1.2-GHz D-STAR, with several 1.2-GHz repeaters onthe air.New York City also has a 1.2-GHz D-STAR repeater in place.Rich Moseson, W2VU, the editor of 
CQ
magazine, recentlyhad the opportunity to use that system to talk with Jim, N5MIJ,on the K5TIT Dallas machine. Rich reports that the systemworked well and the digital audio was “crystal clear.” A recentarticle on the ARRL website (December 14, 2005: <http:// www.arrl.org/news/stories/2005/12/14/1/>) announced thedeployment of a 1.2-GHz D-STAR repeater at W1AW. Thismachine was donated by ICOM and is being configured to con-nect to the Internet.
D-STAR is not just for repeaters, and there are a number of people out there running D-STAR 2-meter simplex. Since thedigital transmissions are incompatible with analog FM, it is bestto avoid any popular FM simplex frequencies. Most of the 2-meter D-STAR activity takes place in the “miscellaneous andexperimental modes” section of the ARRL band from 145.50 to145.80 MHz. There is no designated D-STAR calling frequen-cy for use on a national basis, but 145.60 MHz, 145.61 MHz,and 145.67 MHz are often used. A recent poll on the ICOM D-STAR forums chose 145.60 MHz as an easy-to-remember D-STAR calling frequency.
Performance
When digital technology is used to transmit a voice signaland compression is used to minimize the required bandwidth,it raises questions about the audio quality. If the audio is notsampled often enough or the analog-to-digital conversion is toocoarse, the audio quality can suffer. I have not used D-STARon the air, but I have listened to recordings of D-STAR trans-missions under varying conditions. John Habbinga, KC5ZRQ,recorded a weak-signal audio test using a mobile station andcomparing DV audio and analog FM. This audio recording isavailable in MP3 format on the web at <http://www.lubbock-radio.net/D-STAR -vs-FM.mp3>. My impression is that withreasonable-strength signals, the D-STAR audio quality is verygood, with just a hint of the digital vocoder “twang” that is com-mon in digital cell phones. Reports from D-STAR users seemto agree with this assessment.Like other digital-modulation techniques, D-STAR audiotends to drop out when in a fringe area, as opposed to gradual-ly getting noisy like analog FM. If you listen to the KC5ZRQrecording, you will hear these dropouts when the signal getsweak. When John switches over to analog FM under the sameworking conditions, the signal is recognizable, but covered innoise. (Make sure you listen to the whole recording, since theweakest signal strength occurs near the end.)
Photo C. The K5TIT rack of D-STAR gear includes (in order,starting near the top of the rack) a D-STAR repeater controller,1.2-GHz voice repeater, 1.2-GHz data radio, 146-MHz voicerepeater, and 446-MHz voice repeater. (Photo courtesy of Jim McClellan, N5MIJ)
44
CQVH
Winter 2006
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