Pi-Star hotspots are becoming more common place with the lowering price of digital radios. They provide a great convenience to ham radio operators as they allow for 1) access to a mode that may not be available in a given area, 2) give freedom in for individual operators to access various digital talk rooms without tying up a repeaters, 3) allow for access to home repeaters when away, and 4) give technician class license holders world-wide DX ability from their home. While there are some operators who don’t view Pi-Star hotspots or digital radio in general as “doing radio,” the benefits are undeniable, especially for those wishing to expand their amateur radio tool kit. We must not forget, however, that a Pi-Star hotspot is still amateur radio and best practice should be utilized.
The ARRL hasn’t yet outlined which frequencies should be used for hotspots. Local repeater councils have started to address the issue. In Indiana, the Indiana Repeater Council has allocated 438.000-439.000 for use with Pi-Star based hotspots. This is to prevent interference with satellite communications, which we all know that I love dearly. Since most satellite operators use headphones to better hear signals, we do appreciate not having a digital tone come through our radios when working birds. The IRC has not addressed the 2 m band since most hotspots are designed for 70 cm. There are some, like the DVMega models, that are dual band. If you wish to set your hotspot up for 2 m, check with your local repeater council or local club for the appropriate frequency. Also, verify that the frequency isn’t in use before setting up your radio. Tune a base station radio to the desired frequency and listen. If it is clear, it is probably good to use.
Here is a link to the Indiana Repeater Council article over hotspots. It is a good read for any repeater council looking to address the issue. Remember, these are tools to be used, not feared. Just because they exist doesn’t give you the privilege to blast a digital signal how you please. Be courteous. Work with your local repeater council and come up with a solution that works.
Pi-Star hotspots are not designed to run really high power. There are some local clubs are installing them as an option for DMR or D-Star repeaters. While this is a low cost option, clubs should be doing this, not individual operators. In your own home, limit the power to 500 mW or less. This will prevent blasting out a massive digital signal and possible cause interference with another hotspot or radio. Program your radio to the lowest power. There is no need to run 5 W on a handheld or 25 W on a mobile/base radio. Set your power to the lowest setting. On the FT3DR, I have it at 1 W, and on the FT-991A, I have it set to 5 W as that is the lowest power setting. This can help save battery on handhelds, but also reduce wear and tear through heat in your devices. Be smart. Amateur best practice is the key word.
Not all antennas are created the same. This will be a sensitive subject as hams get sensitive over antennas. They know what the best is and there is no convincing them otherwise. The antennas that come with these hotspots may be a little questionable. Rugged Spot makes good hotspots, but they sell the counterfeit Diamond SRH805S. While spending a lot of money on an antenna for a hotspot is not ideal, purchasing a false antenna may compromise the life of your MMDVM hat. A Rugged Spot hotspot is $249.95. Is it that much to spend an extra $35 to get an authentic Diamond SRH805S? Be careful. DO NOT plug in the power without an antenna. This is the same as keying up a radio without an antenna. Power should be the last thing your plug in for your hotspot. If you change antennas, unplug the power, swap out your antenna, then plug the power back in.
Tailgating is the practice of immediately keying up as soon as another operator lets off his signal. With FM repeaters, this is okay, but not ideal. This is not good practice on a digital repeater or hotspot. I will use WIRES-X as an example. Pressing the WIRES-X button on my FT-991A, FT3DR, or my wife’s FT-70D sends a signal to the hotspot. The hotspot responds by sending a digital signal back to the radio that allows us to connect to the internet through the hotspot and do anything from check messages, news, or images to change our current room. The hotspot will always give priority to voice traffic. Another user talking will delay or deny our ability to access all of the WIRES-X features. If users tailgate, it stops any user from changing rooms to leave the conversation.
What is best practice? Best practice is to leave a small gap between transmissions. Give it around three to five seconds. Digital signals are fast so it doesn’t take much time for the connections to happen. Digital hotspots do not allow someone to just change the channel by switching their VFO. It involves sending and receiving a digital signal. Provide a small gap so others can use the their hotspot. In a busy room like America Link, there can be over 300 users at any time. I have been stuck listening to a conversation because of tailgating. Be courteous to your fellow users.
Note: I don’t comment on D-Star or DMR in this section as I don’t have any experience in those modes. More information can be found online or by asking local ham operators who use those modes.
It is okay to have a QSO, but there may be others in line. Some rooms, like America Link, have a lot users, sometimes over 300. If you want to have a lengthy QSO, you could move to another empty room. This website has a list of all reflectors (YSF chat rooms) that can be searched and sorted. You can use one of the many empty rooms. There is a guy from Japan that regulars America Link. It is okay to talk. It isn’t a satellite where basics are traded. You can talk but be aware that others may want to use the room too. If you want to cut into a conversation, just put in your callsign between the gaps. Remember to provide gaps as outlined above. Nets, round tables, and rag chew should use appropriate rooms. One last thing. Digital radios take a second to establish their signal. Unlike with analog FM, if a digital signal is weak, it won’t connect rather than provide a weak signal. Key the mic, count one-one-thousand, and talk. This will ensure you have established your connection. Below, I will talk about parrot rooms where you will be able to hear this for yourself.
All modes have a parrot talk group. A parrot talk group is a room that you can hear yourself. It is easy to use and to setup your hotspot. With your admin page of your hotspot pulled up, join the parrot room. You want to admin page pulled up so you can see your bit error rate (BER) and easily make changes. Next, you key up the mic and give your callsign followed by radio check. Wait for a few seconds and your message will be repeated to you. Use this for a radio check. Don’t go into America Link or another busy room and ask for a radio check. Do a radio check, adjust your RXOffset to get your BER under 1%, and THEN move to a room. If you need help with this, ask for help. You can email myself, and I can guide you through the process. I would rather have you ask for help than to fumble through.
Away From Home
Pi-Star hotspots can be great when away from home. You can connect to a hotspot and communicate with your local repeater, if it is setup for digital. This means that I could be in another state and connect to my home location repeaters. This also means that you can do the same, just be aware of how many repeaters you may be switching on with a state talkgroup. If you leave home and there will be no operator at home, you can unplug your hotspot. This won’t delete any setting. This does two things. First, it will reduce power use, which will reduce the load on your hotspot and save money on your electric bill, though not much. Second, it prevents the hotspot from transmitting any unwanted signals. A Pi-Star hotspot is not a repeater, and therefore, does not get the same privileges allotted to a repeater operator. This means that there should be a control operator with the Pi-Star. Will the FCC come knocking at your door? No, probably not. But remember the key words, amateur best practice. We want these devices to circulation. We want to be able to use them. For us to do this, we have to follow all recommendations, even if they seem trivial.
Follow amateur best practice. Digital hotspots are amazing and provide many benefits, but we need to follow simple recommendations for everyone to enjoy those benefits. Remember your fellow hams. We are all out here to enjoy the hobby. To do that, everyone needs to participate. Thank you all for reading. If you have any questions or comments, leave them below, send me an email, or talk to me on the net. I usually hang out with WIRES-X since I have all Yaesu radios. Follow on Twitter and Instagram for updates. YouTube is coming. I promise. I have two videos in the works. I will post on here when they go live. Thank you for reading.