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Left: NAVTEX broadcast of hazards to navigation from NMN, Portsmouth, Virginia. Center: Typical DVB-T dongle.

Ruler shows
small size. Right: HamItUp converter from Nooelec.com

Monitoring Utility and Amateur Radio Transmissions


with a DVB-T Dongle
By Mario Filippi N2HUN
(All Photos Courtesy of the Author)

P
revious articles have appeared in Monitoring Times, purchase the HamItUp converter from Nooelec because of the
QST, and The Spectrum Monitor regarding use of the extensive documentation provided and their knowledgeable
DVB-T dongle for VHF/UHF monitoring, but with a staff. The heart of the up-converter is a 125 MHz crystal that
small investment the radio hobbyist can expand the recep- up-converts the incoming signal to bring it into the receiving
tion capabilities of the dongle to include long wave, medium range capability of the dongle.
wave and short wave frequencies. The HamItUp module is composed of SMT (Surface
To review; a DVB-T dongle is a device originally Mount Technology) components and has RF-In/RF-Out SMA
designed to receive DVB-T (Digital Video Broadcast – Ter- (Sub-Miniature Version A) female jacks, an Enable/Bypass
restrial) television and DAB (Digital Audio Broadcast) radio toggle switch, and a USB-B port for supplying a five-volt
reception in Europe, parts of Africa, and the Middle East. power source. I use a spare five-volt plug-type power supply
Creative individuals in the software industry realized the from an old digital camera; these can be found at Staples or
potential of these diminutive, economically-priced receivers Radio Shack, along with a USB-A to USB-B cable. A green
as broad band SDRs (Software Defined Radios) and crafted LED located near the USB-B port will glow when the unit is
software programs to allow the dongle to function as a multi- powered on. In addition, you’ll need to purchase the addition-
mode software defined receiver when attached to a USB al pigtails and adapters to connect the dongle to the convert-
(Universal Service Bus) port of a computer. A typical dongle er and the converter to an antenna. These are available at
costs about $15.00 USD and is available via the Internet Nooelec, Amazon or EBay. The interconnections are seen in
from several different vendors. the photo on the next page.
An example of dongle is seen above. Most dongles
will receive from 24 – 1700 MHz, depending on the chipset, Antenna, Tuner and SDR Software Considerations
giving the VHF/UHF listener a wide range of spectrum to
navigate. For those who are already hams and SWLs, you’ll prob-
The good news for SWLs (Shortwave Listeners), Ute ably have an HF (High Frequency) ham or shortwave antenna
(Utility) and ham radio aficionados is that with an invest- already in use, so it’s just a matter of connecting it up to the
ment of about $45.00 USD one can purchase an RF (Radio dongle up-converter and you’re ready to go. Just like any oth-
Frequency) up-converter that, when coupled to the dongle, er shortwave/ham receiver, a good antenna will dictate how
will expand the receiving range down to about 150 kHz. One well reception with your dongle will fare, and at this QTH (lo-
such up-converter is the HamItUp converter available from cation) I use an S9 43 foot vertical antenna that’s been in use
Nooelec (www.nooelec.com). [See photo above.] for several years on the 40 to 10m ham bands. A counterpoise
Of course, one can homebrew their own converter, or consisting of about 50 radials for transmitting was installed to
purchase other brands found on Ebay or Amazon. I chose to increase efficiency. See photo on page 14. This antenna works

January 2015    The Spectrum Monitor   13 


Partial view of MultiPSK dashboard presents user with a pleasing,
organized appearance with many options and modes.
Dongle/Up-converter combo along with cabling and power sup-
ply.
very well on LF (Low Frequency, 150 – 530 kHz), MF (Me-
dium Frequency 530 – 1710 kHz) and HF (High Frequency,
1.8 – 30 MHz) so it’s a good, all- around omni-directional
antenna for rudimentary hobbyist use.
A general rule of thumb for receiving antennas is to
mount them outside, as high as possible, keep your coax runs
short, and use good quality coax to minimize signal loss. In
addition, the bigger the antenna the better the reception! An- Old and dear friend ARRL headquarters station W1AW, Newing-
tennas can be purchased or home-brewed depending on your ton, CT with 15 WPM code practice on 80m ham band decoded
using MultiPSK.
skills and budget. For those who live in antenna restricted
environments, the solution is to use an indoor antenna or
receiver and offer an array of user options comparable to a
perhaps an active indoor antenna which are available com-
state of the art desktop receiver. HDSDR and SDR# support
mercially, and data mining on the Internet for these types of
all common listening modes including AM, NFM, WFM,
antennas will provide a plethora of hits on where to purchase
CW, USB and LSB, I’ll leave it to the reader to self-educate
one.
him/herself on the specifics of downloading/installing their
DVB-T dongles can easily suffer from front-end over-
software of choice, along with familiarizing oneself with all
load, intermodulation, images, and other spurious emissions
the options available. Since dongle-SDRs aren’t what you
on the HF bands and one method of combating this problem
would term a “plug ‘n play” situation, the best approach
is to connect an antenna pre-selector (or “tuner”), such as
is to take your time, read the software documentation, and
the MFJ – 956, which I use in my shack. (See photo on next
watch as many YouTube videos on this subject as possible. In
page.) The MFJ has selectable bands from 150 kHz to 30
addition, if you have a computer savvy friend to assist in the
MHz and a bypass position along with a tunable air capacitor
endeavor, enlist their help.
to optimize the signals of interest. Tuners, which are com-
posed of inductors and a tuning capacitor, can also be home-
Utility/Amateur Radio Station Monitoring Using Decod-
brewed for those handy with a soldering iron. The three
ing Software
items, which in concert form your SDR dongle station, can
be stacked atop each other using Velcro TM strips to form a
Utility stations, or “Utes” are stations of a commercial,
very neat and orderly appearing, tower and lend some critical
governmental, or military nature found in abundance on the
mass to the components. (See photo on next page.)
HF band using different communications modes such as
Prior to firing up your DVB-T dongle you’ll have to de-
voice (AM, SSB) and non-voice (CW, RTTY, FAX, ALE,
cide on software, consisting of a driver and SDR application
NAVTEX, DGPS, Sitor and SELCAL, for example). While
software. Without those the dongle is useless and there are
not considered utility stations, amateur radio (ham) operators
several out there such as SDR# (a.k.a. SDR Sharp) and HDS-
around the world also use similar modes on HF such as voice
DR (High Definition Software Defined Radio). These are the
(AM, SSB) and non-voice (CW, RTTY, PSK31 and JT65, for
two most commonly used by the author and information can
example). Ute communications can be encrypted and there
be found on their respective websites, www.sdrsharp.com
are a number of proprietary modes that require proprietary
and www.hdsdr.de, which offer free downloads along with
software to decode. In this article we’ll only be dealing with
detailed instructions.
the more common modes of interest by SWLs and hams us-
Both programs turn your SDR dongle into a functioning
14  The Spectrum Monitor  January 2015
Left: Author’s MFJ-956. Velcro strip is used to attach accesso-
ries. Right: Stacked dongle and up-converter in Plexiglas case,
and MFJ tuner.
ing common software available on the Internet.
While the dongle radio is easily capable of receiving
HF voice communications such as time signal stations (e.g.
WWV, CHU), aeronautical/marine SSB, and shortwave
broadcasts, the non-voice modes will require separate decod-
ing software to make sense of what is heard. This author’s
favorite decoding software are MultiPSK, fldigi, YAND, and
MTTY. If you are new to Ute comms decoding then Multi-
PSK is a good choice to begin with and most probably all S9 vertical at author’s QTH
you’ll ever need. Information can be found on http://f6cte. remember the days when you could receive the latest news
free.fr/index_anglais.htm regarding this remarkable software being broadcast to seagoing vessels while your old mechani-
package capable of decoding both common and esoteric cal RTTY machine was clacking away!
modes. MultiPSK’s dashboard contains an array of options MMTTY is an absolutely great RTTY-only software
and mode decoders, all free, but a registered version is avail- decoder with a built-in tuner-indicator for purists; the link is
able for a one-time small fee; this author has the registered (http://hamsoft.ca/pages/mmtty.php). Note that you’ll hear
version, which is well worth the price. (See photo on previ- many RTTY stations on HF but most will use some type of
ous page.) encryption or bit inversion so don’t be frustrated, keep on
Once you’ve downloaded/installed and understand how tuning that dial!
MultiPSK (or other software of choice) functions, one more While we are on the subject of meteorology, let’s use
step is needed; feeding the audio output of the SDR dongle our dongle-SDR to determine how it receives WEFAX
into the decoding software, so programs such as Virtual broadcasts. Those with a good, experienced pair of ears can
Audio Cable (http://vb-audio.pagesperso-orange.fr/Cable) easily recognize the “squeaky wheel” sound of WEFAX
can to be installed on your computer. If you are interested in (Weather Facsimile) transmissions that dot the HF band all
voice-only modes, omit this step. hours of the day, many of these being transmitted by US
Coast Guard Stations such as NOJ (Alaska), NMG (New Or-
Homing in on Utes – “Go Forth Thou and Decode” leans), NMF (Boston), NMF (Point Reyes, CA) and KVM-
70 way out in Honolulu, HI. See Photo 10. And, nothing
Now that the hardware, software, and antenna are con- beats hearing WEFAX transmissions with iceberg warnings
nected, next item on our adventurous agenda is to hunt for a from Canadian Coast Guard Stations on cold winter’s night
favorite utility station, whether it is CW, FAX, RTTY, voice, when one is nice and warm inside the shack. This author has
or NAVTEX. RTTY (RadioTeleTYpe) was much more popu- received WEFAX transmissions as far away as Northwood,
lar years ago but stations still exist that transmit weather and England over station GYA and from VMC in Charleville,
news to ships at sea. One such example is DDK, Pinnebourg Australia! How’s that for dongle DXing? In addition to
Meteo from Germany, with weather reports and frequency MultPSK, fldigi (http://www.w1hkj.com) is another excel-
lists. lent decoding software for CW, WEFAX, RTTY, and many
In general, these days most RTTY stations use 50 or 75 other non-voice modes.
baud rates with 850 Hz shifts, although some use a 425 Hz The oldest non-voice mode is CW (Continuous Wave)
shift. One other interesting station that’s on just about 24/7 or “code” as we hams call it, and while the world phased out
and uses the more traditional ham RTTY parameters of 45.45 CW several years ago, it still lives on not only on the ham
baud rate and 170 Hz shift is WLO ShipCom from Mobile, bands but to a small extent on the HF bands. Newly-minted,
Alabama, on 8.472 MHz. Tune into this one, sit back, and old-timer, and wannabe hams can find an old friend, W1AW
January 2015    The Spectrum Monitor   15 
Screenshot of DGPS beacon information from Sandy Hook, NJ. NAVTEX broadcast of hazards to navigation from NMN, Ports-
DGPS beacons from distant locations can be received when band mouth, VA
conditions are good.
on the HF ham bands several times daily sending slow and conditions are maximal.
fast code practice, and using MultiPSK software one can Since we’re down on the long wave band, there’s an-
decode CW with ‘nary a missed character. In addition, Multi- other digital mode that serves mariners and that is NAVTEX
PSK’s Voice Commander Option will pronounce the words (Navigational Telex), with broadcasts on 490 and 518 kHz
as they are formed on the screen! most hours of the day from stations around the world. On the
You’ll also find other stations such as WLO (Mobile, East Coast, US Coast Guard Station NMN from Portsmouth,
AL), SVO (Olympia Radio, Greece), and XSQ (Guang- Virginia, is one station using this mode that is easily copied
zhou Radio, China) using CW as “markers” to identify their during the hours of darkness due to the nature of this low fre-
stations on a specific frequency, and let’s not forget the CW quency band. NAVTEX sounds like a rhythmic RTTY to the
identifications used by aeronautical radio beacons on long naked ear and my favorite software is YaND (http://www.
wave. Finally, those of you who think you’re pretty good at yand.wavetalk.org), which presents a multicolored informa-
CW should try copying station 4XZ, the Israeli Navy’s trans- tional screen pleasant to the eyes. NAVTEX has a working
missions of five letter groups sent at high speed from Haifa! range of about 200 nautical miles and is a 100 bps/170 Hz
In September’s issue of The Spectrum Monitor, colum- shift transmission. Interestingly, Sitor B decoders will work
nist Kevin Carey penned an excellent, informative article pretty well on NAVTEX too. Broadcasts consist mainly of
entitled “What Is DGPS?” so be sure to get a copy of this weather observations and hazards to navigation warnings
issue because we’re going down with the dongle to the long such as firing practice by Navy vessels, undersea cable rout-
wave band (150 – 530 kHz) where DGPS (Differential Glob- ing, and malfunctioning buoys. See photo above. For more
al Positioning System) beacons are found. Years ago, the information on NAVTEX consult (http://www.nws.noaa.
285 – 315 kHz portion of the long wave band was inhabited gov/om/marine/navtex.htm).
mainly with marine radio beacons that were used by ships to As a finale to our venture into the world of HF utility/
navigate the high seas. ham monitoring let’s get back to a relative newcomer mode
These beacons would continuously send out their call to the ham bands, PSK-31, a digital transmission that has be-
sign in slow CW so ships could use them as reference points come very popular due to its ability to “get out” during poor
while at sea using RDF (Radio Direction Finding) receivers. band conditions. PSK-31 (Phase Shift Keying, 31 bauds) is
Some beacons even transmitted weather information on AM very narrow in bandwidth and allows hams to communicate
voice. See photo above. Alas, most of these marine beacons long distances with low power, using a computer’s sound
exist only in fond memory, but the US Coast Guard inge- card, and typing away on a keyboard at a comfortable speed.
niously re-purposed some of these old beacons with DGPS Hotspots of PSK-31 activity are found on 80 – 10-meters,
equipment to allow ships to navigate with state-of-the-art and using a dongle-SDR along with MultiPSK, you’ll enjoy
accuracy. The good news for us Ute monitors is that these decoding amateur transmissions with ease. (See photo next
transmissions can be decoded and DXed using the don- page.)
gle-SDR in concert with MultiPSK! See Photo 13. At this Well, that about wraps it up for the primer on using a
QTH DGPS beacons as far away as Mississippi and Wis- dongle-SDR/up-converter for non-voice modes. Other modes
consin have been logged. For more information on DGPS are out there such as JT65, HFDL, Domino and ALE, which
beacons and their locations consult the U. S. Coast Guard’s haven’t been tackled yet by this author, but I’ll leave it to
website (www.navcen.uscg.gov/?pageName=dgpsMain). you to venture into these more complex modes. As for voice
DGPS beacon hunting is best during the cold winter months modes, no decoding software is needed so use the dongle to
when QRN (noise from nature) is minimal and ionospheric listen into time stations like WWV from Colorado, and CHU
16  The Spectrum Monitor  January 2015
Cuban station calling CQ using PSK-31 on 15m ham band. WEFAX depicting map of Southeastern US and Caribbean area
from USCG Station in New Orleans. In this case fldigi software
Canada, which have been around since I was knee-high to was decoding in the background.
a 10-meter dipole. On the aeronautical bands don’t forget
Volmet broadcasts if you want the latest weather information
on national and international airports, and tune in to pilot-to-
ground comms on the 8 and 13 MHz aero bands. Listen for
those SELCAL checks (and yes, SELCAL can be decoded
too). And remember to tune into your favorite shortwave
broadcasters, they’ve been going dark at a fast pace these
days. Radio Havana and Radio Romania International are
still on the air, get ‘em while they are still pressing that mic
button!

Resources:

“Software Defined Amateur Radio: Pluses and Minuses,” K.


Kleinschmidt, Monitoring Times, November 2013.

“Cheap and Easy SDR,” R. Nichols, QST, January 2013. Fine example of an old-school Ray Jefferson RDF (Radio Direc-
tion Finding) receiver. Large ferrite antenna on top was rotated to
“Join the FunCube Fun,” S. Nelson, Monitoring Times, get a “fix” on marine radio beacon.
March 2013. “2014 Shortwave Frequency Guide,” (CDROM), Klingen-
fuss, excellent source for utility and SW station frequencies.
“FunCube Dongle Pro+,” Bob Grove, Monitoring Times,
April 2013. Ham Radio Science www.hamradioscience.com Informa-
tional site for RTL-SDR receivers.
“Virtual Radar from a DVB-T Dongle,” R. Nichols, QST,
January 2014.

“Use of a DVB-T Dongle for VHF/UHF Monitoring,” Mario


Filippi, The Spectrum Monitor, March 2014.

“Software Defined Radio with a DVB-T Dongle,” M. Filip-


pi, TELEaudiovision magazine, Nov. – Dec 2014. (www.
tele-audiovision.com)

“The Hobbyists Guide to RTL-SDR,” from the Authors of


the RTL-SDR.com blog. (E- book).

“JUST THE FAX! A Shortwave Radio Listener’s Guide


to Weather Facsimile Reception,” Steven Handler, can be
ordered from Universal Shortwave Radio.
T S M

January 2015    The Spectrum Monitor   17