What’s the Vector 4000, uh Victor?

Preface

This began as a journal blog entry just about a newly acquired antenna however I have expanded it to include some backstory about the early days of my youth before I became a fully licensed radio amateur, a little bit of my life from the age 14 and up.

I hope you enjoy the read, please let me know if there are things that you would like to hear about in the future. This story is not embellished, though it does lack some pieces I had originally intended to publish but the things I wanted to include with the permission of a friend unfortunately didn’t materialize in time but will hopefully make it into another journal entry at some point in the near future.


QRM

That afternoon, my radio had been particularly noisy with the usual noisy pest- skip from the continent. All the channels were full of it, just a splatter of constant atonal screeching- the all too familiar FM carriers colliding from people too far away to hear one another. The whine and raspy hash of mashed up signals mixed with Italian and Spanish SSB wobble & warble breakthrough- it was useless trying to get out anywhere “local”.

While clunking the channel selector on the radio I settled on some unusually strong signals. I’d heard POCSAG pagers from the local hospital before but these were entirely different and I could tell that some, but not all were coming in on the skip. I really didn’t know what I was listening to but the tones were pleasant and definitely structured in packets. A header, a data burst and a tail, each one a little bit like the loading sounds from a cassette loaded computer game.

It just to happened that I’d actually been flipping through the Maplins catalogue while sat on the bog. Looking back now, it was probably a bit weird but for me at the time, it was how I chose how to blow all of my saved up birthday & pocket money.

I’d seen the kit several times in the mag already but not really bothered to read the item description before, but I’d got a spark from the idea that it might actually be for this type of signal so I looked it up. A packet radio modem kit, 1200 baud speed. Hmmm.

I had a hunch. After a neatly coordinated bus and train trip to and from the Maplins in Coventry, I’d bought home a pile of components and a plastic box.

After successfully constructing and then setting up the modem with the radio and then configuring the terribly old and slow Compaq Deskpro XT PC with the Baycom software, the first packets decoded floored me.

Readable data traveling through the air from France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Spain and probably more- incredible!

This was gonna be huge for me and my mates. Unlimited “online” chatting, connected so no need to use the mic to talk all night- we could chatter & trollolol on about cheese without any distractions or interruptions or sleep- today in the age of smartphones this is seriously taken for granted.

Ramsey Packet Modem PDF


The BBS

By 1996 ENG01A BBS had served quite a large portion of the Midlands during its four or so years of operation. The radio also served as a digital packet repeater (digipeater) during frequent radio path openings to the continent as well as a “hotspot” for forwarding mail up to Cannock and across to Birmingham. Some of my mates even used my system to hop to distant stations on the continent during “sporadic-E”-layer ionospheric propagation– it was awesome to watch in action!

The BBS in its final form was a machine comprised of a “custom built” 486 DX built from 2nd hand scrap, with a Kantronics KPC-3 Terminal Node Controller (TNC) connected to a “Superstar 3900” CB radio- operating on Channel 24. (27.235MHz). Running inside a shed that would easily spike at over 35°C during the summer months, the gear was punished pretty severely!

Networked to the secondary machine located in my old teenage bedroom via a massive run of RG-213 coaxial Ethernet cable, enabling remote access, saving uncountable trips down to the owl house attached shed during freezing cold or miserably wet British weather.

Teenage Bedroom & secondary BBS circa 1997: Beige

Fast Moves

By aged 17, having passed the RAE (amateur radio exam qualification), and then diving head first into the internet, it was not long before an online relationship quickly matured to a very real life getting-engaged situation. A sudden and swift decision on my part to save money on the phone bill and weekly plane tickets- I ultimately quit my job and moved to live in the Netherlands, with some hard graft put in at Ericsson R&D, we finally purchased our first home together in 2001.

The shack, as it arrived from England in the Netherlands.
All but one of these radios originally belonged to Pete (G4KQU, now EI4JR).

Early Bloomers

CB radio had been booming & blooming in the Netherlands with digital packet radio networks for almost a decade. Dutch legislation had effectively enabled the digital adoption by deregulating the Citizens Band entirely. This lead the way for manufacturers to legally advertise and sell packet radio equipment to quite a substantially larger market then just radio hams. A stark contrast compared with the UK.

Later, unlicensed usage and the allowance of data over RF would be ratified and somewhat protected in the CEPT specification with several channels/frequencies specifically set aside for packet/data.

The CB and ham packet stations in the Netherlands eventually began to decline beyond a sustainable network in the mid-2000s. For the CBers, The sunspot cycle had come to an end and so too did the interest in long distance (DX). For the hams, there were fresher new digital-mode pastures to play with now that the internet had most certainly won.


COVID-19

The lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a noticeable increase of activity on amateur radio as people- perhaps likely perturbed by everything going on- have come back to their radios. As a consequence the packet community has been busy helping a number of hams set their packet stations back up again. Yay! 🎉

The idea to put up a new 10 meter band antenna began to gather momentum as personal forecasts for 2021 predicted it likely to be up to another year locked indoors- something we are already quite familiar with due to Ilona’s cancer treatment in 2019. So I purchased a shiny new antenna from the local ham shop and it was delivered the very next day:

Woah.

The Vector 4000 is a J-Pole style antenna.

The radiator is the short stub on the lower left that couples to the large vertical in the center.

At the top of the antenna is a wire ball for hypothetically reducing corona discharge- high voltage RF (radio frequency) sparking into the air when running very high power. Though I suspect this is yet another window dressing feature of CB antennas- its probably for the looks. I operate almost exclusively within my limits and I have consideration for my densely packed in neighbors so it’ll never be presented with more than 100 watts of power.

The circular basket? Probably extra capacitive coupling for the radiator element, though- jury is still out on this one… Looks cool though 😎 📡

If only we could see RF with our eyes… 👀

The Vector 4000 next to the 20 meter band inverted Delta Loop. The Loop is roughly 9 meters wide, as you can see the Vector 4000 kinda dwarfs it.

Performance

Yay! 😁 I’m once again able to work 10 meter band digital modes, so you may hear me on FT8 or WSPR from time to time.

I have checked the packet signals on 11 meters (CB)- there is a bit of “local” FM packet activity from stations about 80-100km away, but it is too weak to decode- unfortunate!

Luckily I am able to log into those packet stations remotely via the internet gateway and can remotely trigger their transmitters, so far I have worked out who I can hear: NL9UTR and NL9SHB – Utrecht and Den Bosch respectively. Bit of a reach to Rijen apparently. 😿

Due to quite high levels of neighborhood interference from power-line networking, solar panels, crappy laptop chargers and ISM band encroachment- its a constant S5 of noise here, even with local phase cancellation mitigation on the packet frequency. However, during good skip conditions, signals from abroad can easily be 20db+ so its a bit of a mixed bag- now on to some testing ⚡️

Early Signal Reports

Above are a couple of maps showing my experiment on the 10 meter amateur band with FT-8, an insanely narrowband slow digital transmission capable of penetrating signal-to-noise ratios previously only touchable by Morse code.

With the use of advanced digital signal processing machine FT-8 can decode signals that are barely perceptible to the human ear.

Read up on WSJT-modes here.

The maps were created with the use of the reverse beacon network– a bunch of automated listening stations. The RBN is mostly unmanned ham equipment left running while the operator is away, decoding and reporting what they can hear to a central database on the Internet, (pskreporter.info for example).


Conclusion

So the Vector 4000 is basically as good as I remember it being back in the 90s. It is limited in use though, as one cannot tune it to anything other than the designed band.

The resonance drops way off after 1.5MHz bandwidth curve so don’t be expecting this to work as a multi band antenna.

For 10 meters, the Vector 4000 is an exceptional performer, the reception across the shortwave spectrum is also decent but not overwhelmingly as you might expect for a vertical.

Weather robustness – this Vector 4000 has happily survived some close-to-gale force winds recently, metal fatigue is a factor I may yet have to contend with as the aluminum joints aren’t all that large or convincingly strong. My previous Vector 4000 back in the 90s suffered from a severe clobbering from an Oak tree, breaking it in half, though if not for that, it probably would have lasted many more years.

All of the bolts, joints and connections have been triple wrapped in “Scotch 23” electrical self amalgamating tape which does offer some extra tensile strength as well as waterproofing, so we will have to see!


Bonus quiz round: what “B” was the name of a successful British television game-show popular with the 90s youth?

Go to Page 2 to find the answer!

Packet Radio: COVID-19 Web Portal and Introducing Other Non-standard Packet-based Services

This is a demonstration of several cool features I have added to a regular packet radio switch, one of which enables access to crucial information that would otherwise have be unobtainable for a vulnerable and isolated radio amateur without Internet (they exist!)

Packet Web Portal: COVID-19

The idea was initially sparked by Sholto, K7TMG who had expressed the desire to fiddle with websites over packet during a casual discussion in the round table packet chat.

At first, I wasn’t too keen on the idea namely because of restrictions on the type of information permitted over amateur radio links, however after some thought it occured to me that it would be possible to implement a portal with some precautionary measures in place, but the idea was then shelved for a few weeks.

While it may have been fun to play with, on its own merit- it was likely to be a total waste of time!

A couple of weeks passed and a series of packet mails arrived from a elderly fellow OM who was in total lockdown due to heightened measures surrounding COVID-19 in the UK. He had no Internet and his only contact with outside was via a volunteer who came by his home once a week to bring groceries.

This bothered me perhaps more than it should, but in these mail exchanges over packet radio he was asking me to look things up on the Internet for him. Uh… eureka much?

My reaction

Software

LinBPQ – (BPQ32) by John Wiseman, G8BPQ

BPQ switch is the system that connects all of the bits and pieces together: Radio, Computer, Internet, Services and applications.

For simplicity, a simple telnet terminal is sufficient
to interface with BPQ32, and BPQ32 also provides a web-browser based terminal.

Hey, I designed this icon!

UZ7HO’s modem has been ported to multi-platform by G8BPQ. The sound-modem is used for interfacing radio with the BPQ switch, in turn providing access to users via RF. Released currently under alpha and beta test as QtSoundModem Software-Terminal Node Controller.

QtSoundModem (Alpha Test)

A terminal program. The DOS program Paket 6.2 running in DOSBOX is for demonstrative purposes only, it is not necessary to run this when more modern alternatives exist…

However for this test case, Paket 6.2 is actually the terminal used by the fellow ham mentioned in the introduction. It has been used in this scenario to optimise the appearance of the web portal for the end user.

Paket 6.2 for DOS

I mentioned earlier the restrictions on certain types of data over amateur radio links, this is where OpenDNS FamilyShield came into play, and a HTTP proxy server that serves as the filter for requests going to the internet. This is accomplished by setting the proxy to use OpenDNS’s DNS-servers, therefore inheriting their DNS-based safety features.

Another risk reduction measure is the Express Menu- this makes getting information directly pertaining to COVID-19 easier and a simple matter of entering two or three digits. One of the choices available enables one to enter any web address if desired, and those requests are logged, and if necessary- filtered (denied).

Screenshot of the WEB Portal via QtTermTCP Client

Source Code

All of the tools demonstrated in the video such as Packet Web Portal, Games, Graphs – are all available from my GitHub:

https://github.com/pe1rrr/packet-scriptlets

Do you have a Raspberry Pi* and fancy having a go?


A ready-to-go build of (pi)LinBPQ combined with QtSoundModem and QtTermTCP is available via GitHub, and an introduction posted right here.

* The minimum-fuss specification for running all of the software is a Raspberry Pi 4.

Unfortunately, the RPi3 has some issues with the ALSA libraries and PTT timing on GPIO and serial ports, meaning any PTT-timing sensitive application may not work as intended out of the box.

This bug affects not only QtSoundModem but Direwolf TNC as well.

The OSS-ALSA sound bridge workaround for RPi3 is included in the GitHub repository. However, if you are looking to purchase a Pi specifically for this purpose, definitely go for the RPi4.

Words of Encouragement

You may find this additional info useful, in response to a comment posted on the original unedited video:

“Is this TCPIP over AX25?”

No, technically the big difference is that we are using AX25 encapsulated over IP rather than the other way around to link nodes together over the internet where RF either isn’t available or practical.

The software TNC with the waterfall visible in the background is linked into the switch over KISS-over-TCP. This means we can run dedicated little boxes like Raspberry Pi4s and radios bunched together in one place with the switch physically located else where.

QtSoundModem is then linked into the switch (the node) running on a separate Raspberry Pi elsewhere in the house.

Setting this up is not easy, as there is no one-size-fits all. It can be just as complex as setting up a enterprise-level Cisco router- where there may be technical manuals out there but basically your network design is unique to you and mine is to me, depending on your needs.

This means there is very help on offer that would not have some huge bias towards a certain intended purpose.

The documentation for linbpq is thorough, but requires full assimilation before even picking up and starting to write a config file as boy is it modular as heck!

This also applies to other network stacks like JNOS, the manual for that is thick, so it is not a problem with the software itself- but mostly a mild case of PEBCAK.

Not to be too discouraged, I have put together a bundle to get some basic functionality up and running but it will still require some due diligence and has a dependency on basic Linux operational competence (LinBPQ RTG).

Hopefully the README.md included with linbpq_rtg is sufficient to get most started. You can leave a comment if you have questions below 👇 or better- join the BPQ32 Groups.io Support Group.

Packet Radio: QtSoundModem Auto-Starting from Systemd

I don’t run the QtSoundModem on the same machine as the node so I use a systemd service script to automatically start up QtSoundModem and put it on a virtual-VNC session that is independent from the physical desktop.

The following systemd scripts call a pair of bash scripts located within the home directory, so that modifications can be done to them without having to reinitialize the systemd service.

Packages Required

sudo apt install realvnc-vnc-server
sudo apt install screen

Note: realvnc is free on the Raspberry Pi, alternatives that may work for other platforms: tightvnc or tigervnc

Systemd Scripts

/lib/systemd/system/qtsm.service


[Unit]
Description=QtSoundModem Start Script
After=vvnc.service
Wants=vvnc.service


[Service]
Type=forking
WorkingDirectory=/home/pi/bin
Restart=always
RestartSec=20
StartLimitInterval=60
StartLimitBurst=3
User=pi
Group=pi
ExecStart=/usr/bin/screen -S QTSM-Console -d -m /home/pi/bin/startqtsm
SyslogIdentifier=QTSM-Debug


[Install]
WantedBy=multi-user.target

/lib/systemd/system/vvnc.service

[Unit]
Description=Shack Desktop Start Script by PE1RRR
After=network.target


[Service]
Type=forking
WorkingDirectory=/home/pi/bin
Restart=always
RestartSec=20
StartLimitInterval=60
StartLimitBurst=3
User=pi
Group=pi
ExecStart=/home/pi/bin/vvnc
SyslogIdentifier=Shack-VNC


[Install]
WantedBy=multi-user.target

Virtual Virtual VNC?

vvnc for virtual-VNC, yep its a virtual virtual desktop, one that runs independently from the default usually found running as a clone of the desktop monitor display.


This script starts a virtual VNC screen that can be attached from any device such as a smart phone, iPad or other desktop Pi.

/home/pi/bin/vvnc

#!/bin/bash
vncserver -kill :1
vncserver :1 -geometry 2732x2048

Set permissions to execute:

chmod 755 /home/pi/bin/vvnc

QtSoundModem Start Script

/home/pi/bin/startqtsm

cd /home/pi/bin

# Launch invisibly
# /home/pi/bin/SM nogui

# Launch with GUI

# Set the display number here. If HDMI connected monitor, this is usually :0

# For VNC sessions, this is determined in the desktop- check it with “echo $DISPLAY” in a shell within the VNC.

DISPLAY=:1
export DISPLAY
/home/pi/bin/QtSoundModem # path to your QtSoundModem binary

Set permissions to execute:

chmod 755 /home/pi/bin/startqtsm

There are a couple of ways of launching QtSoundModem, I prefer to have the GUI to keep and eye on the waterfall and monitor packets etc.. there is an option to start it invisibly in which case- you can opt to use the nogui mode, and remove all references to vvnc.service in the previous scripts as they won’t be needed.

Initialise systemd

Need only doing once:

sudo systemctl enable qtsm.service
sudo systemctl enable vvnc.service

To Stop/Start manually:

sudo service qtsm start

If the vvnc service is not yet running qtsm’’s service will auto-start it for you. This is due to the “Wants=“ directive in qtsm.service.

Restarting the vvnc service will kill any vnc server running on the display defined in the /home/pi/bin/vvnc file before starting up again.

Displaying the VNC Session

If all has gone well, then QtSoundModem should be displayed on your Virtual VNC screen. That is, assuming you’ve connected a VNC client to it to display it!

The common way to connect to the VNC server is using the address and the display number. 0 (zero) nearly always refers to the hardware-wired display, and the first virtual server after that is :1

e.g IP-address:1

vncviewer 192.168.0.44:1

Monitoring the Consoles

As these systemd scripts launch with the screen command, this provides a way to keep an eye on the console output without it thrashing the SD Card with continuous writes. To attach to the running screen console, try the following:

screen -r

If you only have one screen session running then it will re-attach automatically, if not then it will show you a list from which you must provide a string after the -r that can be wildcard-matched either with the process number or the console’s name.