Saturday, October 24, 2020

Peter, VK3YE, presents to the Melbourne Electronics and Radio Club (MERC)

One positive of the current pandemic is that many people have become familiar with video conferencing. In lieu of the regular Friday club meetup on 146.700MHz, the club has started presenting guest speakers. This week it was a great pleasure to have home brew hero, QRP advocate and prolific author, Peter, VK3YE.

Peter talked about gear, including commercial, kits and home brew, antennas, and operating to get QRP contacts. It was a great presentation. Thanks to all who organised it, and thanks to Peter for his time.

Here's the video:

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

ABC and the Digital Revolution: what’s next?

The ABC has historically been flexible with the technologies it uses to transmit its content to consumers. Today’s technology landscape is changing faster than ever and the ABC must continue to straddle the old and the new if it is to remain available to contemporary as well as traditional audiences.

ABC Technology timeline

The rate of change to technologies affecting ABC broadcasting has accelerated over time. New technologies have not replaced older ones but added to the technical overhead of the organisation.

Changes in broadcast technology can be painful. Some people are left behind. Old technology is often expensive but effective and is missed by many when superceded. New technology can slash costs and create new opportunities but the landscape is crowded.

The ABC’s technology usage is as follows:

1930 - Today Analog medium wave AM Radio

1939 - 2017 Analog short wave AM Radio

1956 - 2013 Analog Television

1975 - Today Analog FM Radio

1985 - Today Geostationary Satellite (Aussat)

1997 - Today Audio internet streaming

2001 - Today Digital Television

2004 - Today Internet podcast audio

2008 - Today Internet catchup video

2009 - Today Digital Radio

The switching off of analog TV in 2013 disrupted some viewers but happily low cost set top boxes were available to enable their old TVs to pick up the new digital signals.

The ending of Australia’s short wave services in 2017 has made it impossible for Australian inland communities and the Asia Pacific nations to hear ABC broadcasts unless they are served by local relays or satellite services.

Analog FM remains, for now, but the clock is ticking.

The Analog AM broadcast band continues to be used, and arguably forms a backbone for communication in times of widespread disaster such as fire or extreme weather. But AM radio is falling from favour as it is increasingly interfered with by devices such as mobile phone chargers and soon electric cars. The US FCC is considering switching AM to a digital alternative.

DAB+ (Digital Audio Broadcast) is in the largest cities and is slowly being extended. Receivers are becoming standard in new cars.

Podcasts - recorded audio, distributed via internet file feeds that users subscribe to in applications that now come with all modern phones - have emerged as an important new form of media. Smart speakers provide a convenient new way to listen to these programs in the home.

Broadcaster Video On Demand (BOVD) - which the ABC was early to deliver through the iview service via apps, web and smart TVs or set top boxes - continues to grow. During the first half of 2019, BVOD recorded in excess of 20 billion streaming minutes (Live + VOD), up 52% on the same period the previous year

Linear TV is on a long slow decline and has already been abandoned by millennials. US figures from Nielson 2020 show “In percentage terms, the amount of time 18-34-year-olds as a whole spent watching traditional TV (live and time-shifted) in the first quarter of 2020 dropped by about 15.3% from the previous year.” At the other extreme, over 65s remain loyal linear TV viewers watching over six hours a day. Nonetheless, the writing is on the wall.

The fight for attention

Media that competed for our attention in the past was divided between newspapers, magazines, radio and television. Despite fears at the time of their introduction, each new technology did not kill the earlier modes. 

Today, however, attention is more divided than ever with social media capturing reading, podcasts capturing listening, and video on demand (Netflix etc) capturing viewers.

Highly tuned recommendation systems, tailored to each consumer, are designed to keep their attention and create a fear of missing out during breaks in consumption.

Emergency broadcasting

Australians turn to the ABC when there is a fire, storm, flood, heatwave or pandemic. During times of mass disruption, internet and mobile communications may be congested or down and power may be out for long periods. Low cost, widely available, medium wave battery AM radios can reliably pick up the ABC’s high power AM transmitters located in each state.

There is a high cost to the ABC to continue to provide this network of transmitters from its existing budget, but it is a valuable resource that should be maintained just as other emergency assets are kept intact. There is a case for additional funding for the ABC as part of Australia’s emergency preparedness.

The (near) future - internet from space

Internet access direct from low earth orbit satellites to anywhere on the Earth will be commercially available from Starlink by the end of this year in the US and Canada and “near global coverage” is expected by 2021. While pricing has not been announced, it is likely that the pizza-box-sized ground unit will cost around US$300 with service costing around US$80 a month.

Starlink has registered in Australia and received ACMA permits for four ground stations in remote Australia.

SpaceX Starlink is just one of several competing systems under construction, including OneWeb, Amazon, Samsung, Boeing and others. 

Early tests of the internet performance of Starlink show latency (response time) from 20ms, download speeds of 100Mbps and uploads of 40Mbps, matching NBN speeds in capital cities. 

While internet from satellites won’t currently work from hand held or even car based terminals, it will open up the entire Australian and neighbouring regional landscape to a reliable and fairly fast internet service that can be the backbone for broadcasting and not be affected by outages from disasters on the ground.

It is conceivable that eventually technology will evolve to connect mobile phones directly to low earth orbit satellites.

Being where the audience is

As always, the ABC needs to be where the audience is. 

As long as ABC programs are clearly branded and do not have advertising embedded or surrounding them (at least for Australian audiences), there is further potential for these programs to be made available on popular platforms:

  • Social media. Facebook, Twitter

  • Social video: YouTube, Instagram

  • Video: Netflix, Apple TV

  • Smart speakers: Google Home, Apple Siri, Amazon Alexa

  • Podcast apps

  • News aggregators: Apple, Google, Twitter

The future role of “linear” broadcast

Linear broadcasts, where there is a stream of programs scheduled by time, suit consumers who favour “appointment” viewing or listening.

Traditional radio and TV continue to be valued by older consumers, but it can also serve more widely as a “showcase” for programs available by direct streaming or download. 

Rather than filling TV hours with British police shows, samples of the best of the ABC’s productions could be shown with instructions on how to access full series through digital platforms. For example, the first episode of, for example, a drama, might be shown on the linear service with the remainder available via streaming (iview).


Custom applications, such as those for iOS, Android, TVs and future platforms are expensive to create and support but provide the smoothest, most responsive experience for users.

Apps tailored to a particular device are easy for the user to understand, and particularly convenient on mobile phones which are constantly carried by the consumer.

The current ABC app catalog includes:

  • ABC News

  • Iview

  • Listen

  • Kids

  • ME

  • Triple j

  • Triple j Unearthed

  • Kokoda VR

  • Vegie Guide

Building the bond with the audience

There is much to be learned (for both emulating and avoiding) from the techniques of social media and video platforms such as Netflix, TikTok and YouTube, which monitor each individual’s viewing and use the information to make further viewing recommendations. 

To better customise ABC content suggestions to users, we need them to be uniquely identified. ABC consumers must get value from logging in. ABC systems should identify what content keeps each users attention and suggest more that might be of interest. 

Users should be able to create anonymous accounts but still be recognised. Households should have personas so that different consumers sharing a device can identify themselves easily.

Tracking should be transparent and the history editable by the consumer. Recommendations should explain why they are being made.

Future options

The Internet is rapidly becoming the dominant carrier for all content, and innovations, and with the introduction of technologies such as 5G wireless and low earth orbit satellite it will be ubiquitous.

Very little of the ABC content needs to be live, aside from:

  • Breaking news and emergency coverage

  • Sport

  • Talk back

  • Parliament (as per the ABC Charter)

Most content is more conveniently consumed on-demand in the form of catch-up or podcast subscriptions.

Smartphone penetration in Australia is approaching 80% and these devices are ideal for consumption of audio and increasingly video.

Smart TV penetration in Australia is relatively low at about 12.1% but the use of set top boxes or dongles capable of showing Netflix and other video services is increasing rapidly and ABC content should be available on these platforms.

News and other primarily text content can be delivered through web pages or news apps. The news aggregation world is changing but having ABC content prominent on aggregators such as Google News and Apple News is an excellent way to reach that audience at low cost, provided appropriate branding and non-advertising agreements can be made.

Difficult decisions

The ABC makes high quality, much loved content. Choosing the platforms on which to distribute its output is going to be tough especially as, if the past tells us anything, options will continue to proliferate.

This is the digital dilemma - which technologies to focus on in the years ahead and when to let go of the past.

Note: This piece was written for the ABC Alumni and first published here.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Worth buying an iPhone 12 with no mmWave 5G?

A recent article by Dr Stanley Shanapinda published on The Conversation warned against purchasing iPhone 12 phones because they don't include mmWave 5G outside the US has triggered some controversy.

I respectfully disagree with what he's saying for a number of reasons:

  • mmWave spectrum hasn't been auctioned in Australia yet and won't be available probably until 2022.
  • 4G LTE in Australia is already very fast
  • Future 5G modems are likely to be more power efficient
  • mmWave is a very high frequency, around 26GHz, and is suitable for very small - line of sight - areas.
Modern phones often cover different frequency bands for different countries. I understand that iPhone 12s include the mmWave 5G bands in the US because there are some places there where 5G is only available on those bands.

Stanley and I were guests on ABC Sydney Radio program "Focus" hosted by the fabulous Cassie McCullagh. You can hear the interview here.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Micro Mountaineer 40m Xtal locked CW transceiver review

I've just completed a build of a kit I haven't seen before. The Micro Mountaineer is a crystal locked 40m CW transceiver that is a step up from the widespread Pixie kits that you see on Ebay.

I purchased mine for AU$20 from AliExpress here. It came with crystals for 7023kHz (it uses one as an oscillator and the other as a bandpass filter).

The printed instructions appear to have been machine translated. Presumably from English to Chinese and then back again. Documentation is therefore a bit strange but understandable.

The circuit is credited to W7ZOI (he mentions it here) and K7TAU. The design is an NE602 mixer and LM386 audio stage. Receiver is based on the Neophyte design.

The original description and circuit is in the wayback machine here.

My kit arrived with a tiny surface mount LM386 and a little carrier board but happily I have full sized chips in the junk box so I used one of those.

There's no keyer circuit so this would be easy to use with Feld Hellschreiber mode - a great trick for those of us who have failed to learn morse but like the simplicity of these CW rigs.

The waveform doesn't look great. (This is via a 10x probe). Getting about 1W into 50 ohms.

I enjoyed building the kit and it was good practice before I take on the uSDX when the board arrives. All parts were supplied and even some extra passive components were added. It's a pity the supplied LM386 was surface mount but the carrier board would work - I guess it's a sign of the times that full sized through-hole components are getting harder to find.

After several months, the TinySA arrived. Initial impression is good.

Appeared on ABC Download this show - Tinder abuse

It was my pleasure to participate in the ABC's Download this Show again this week. On the radio show we discuss a range of topics but the bit for TV was some comments on the 4Corners/JJJ Hack story about Tinder being used by sex abusers.

We also talk about AI face to do your video calls for you? The push to break up huge tech companies coming from Washington DC. You can hear the radio show on ABC RN or here. It's also in most podcast apps.

Friday, October 09, 2020

uSDX - Modern multi-mode SDR radio with class E output

Like many home brewers, I've been patiently waiting for the QSX from QRP-Lab. I hope it gets finished as it sounds fantastic and the QCX was such a great kit radio. 

In the mean time, clever Guido PE1NNZ, has come up with a modification of the QCX that turns a simple CW radio with class E output into a software defined SSB capable radio. The great thing is that it's open source and being actively developed. 

From Soldersmoke: "The SSB transmit-stage is implemented in a completely digital and software-based manner: at the heart the ATMEGA328 is sampling the input-audio and reconstructing a SSB-signal by controlling the SI5351 PLL phase (through tiny frequency changes over 800kbit/s I2C) and controlling the PA Power (through PWM on the key-shaping circuit). 

In this way a highly power-efficient class-E driven SSB-signal can be realized; a PWM driven class-E design keeps the SSB transceiver simple, tiny, cool, power-efficient and low-cost (ie. no need for power-inefficient and complex linear amplifier with bulky heat-sink as often is seen in SSB transceivers)."

There is an active discussion board about the evolving circuit and parts bill of materials (BOM) on here

There are two board designs, one is a "sandwich" that supports multiple bands, the other is a single board shown above. (Photo by Dan Reynolds posted in the group).

The CAD files for the board, now at revision 1.02 are available in the group and I found someone selling them on Ebay so I ordered there (currently sold out).

While I have some of the parts on hand I decided to order the full parts list from Digi-Key and this would normally be a tedious task but I've found the secret! Digi-Key has a feature called BOM management. 

  • From the files area on get the file “Bom_8397236.csv”
  • Log in to Digi-key
  • Choose BOM manager from the menu top right
  • Click upload bom, select the CSV file.
  • Adjust the column headers to make sure digi-key product codes and quantity are correct.
  • Click Add to BOM.
  • Click Add to cart.
    I got a few items which it said had “improved values” for. I just accepted them all - we’ll see how that goes.

    The order came to $64.52 which is over $60 so gets free shipping. In the end it was $70.97 including GST.
    They claim it will be here in 5 days which will certainly beat the board which is coming from EU.

    Manuel K has made a video showing how the transmitted SSB audio sounds at the moment:

    Here's Guido PE1NNZs original QCX-SSB off air recording:

    Interesting times in the home brew radio world. I hope Hans finishes the QSX soon or he may have missed the boat!

    Dave Russel, VK2DKE, has died

    I've just heard that a friend I met through the wonderful Malcolm Sinclair, Dave Russel, VK2DKE has died. Here he is in his wonderful under house workshop.

    Dave lived at Tascott, in mid-NSW and I visited on a few occasions. Dave would catch the train down to Sydney where another mate of Mal's, Merv Sinden and I would meet up at one of the clubs for a few hours of beer tasting and interesting talk.

    When Mal was about, there was a regular sked on 20m where they would talk with old friends in New Zealand.

    A few pictures of Dave.

    Saturday, October 03, 2020

    Ripping my CD collection in lossless FLAC format

    There was a time when I bought a lot of CDs. Years ago I ripped them to AAC files to save space but now disks are cheap and I've decided to repeat the process but using the lossless flac encoding

    For a while I used fre:ac on macOS to rip the CDs. It's free and does the job but is a bit annoying to use when ripping a series of disks - it doesn't reliably recognise disks when they're inserted, doesn't find cover art, and doesn't eject the disk when done.

    Now I've switched to Linux and am using the excellent command line utility called abcde. (A Better CD Encoder).

    Not much of a screenshot! It works and does all the things I want. Installation on Ubuntu 20.04 was easy using apt to install abcde and flac.

    abcde -o flac -B -x -N

    One speed bump is that the only CD drive I have is an old Apple external USB SuperDrive and when plugged in to anything except a mac with high power USB it refuses to power up. Happily smart people have been here before and figured out the little string of data it needs to be sent to wake it up. 

    I can play these files on the computer but I also use, and recommend a FiiO M3K player.

    Listening back to music I'm very familiar with from my teens, such as Jean-michel Jarre's Equinoxe, track 4, it's clear to me that my hearing has deteriorated. I guess I could try to boost the high frequencies to compensate. It's nice to know that I have all the bits backed up without loss, but I'm not sure I could tell the difference any more. There is some evidence that the tricks that audio compression does taxes the brain as it tries to restore the missing signals so I figure I'm better off, if only unconsciously.