Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Adventures in EchoLink

In my ongoing quest to upgrade our family communication network (and avoid the cell phone trap) I have recently gotten an EchoLink node going at my QTH. This will allow me to call back to the house when I'm out on the road, especially when I take business trips up to the Twin Cities.

For hardware, I'm using a garbage-picked Toshiba laptop; most of the keycaps are popped off of it, so somebody dropped it into the dumpster. I got it up and going using an external keyboard, but now I don't really need the keyboard at all. More on that later. A homebrewed sound card interface and 2 meter transceiver completes the package.

I've set up the node in my shack for the moment, running to a simple copper pipe J-pole up on my roof. This has let me play around with different hardware and software configurations without too much stress. The Linksys router you see there is a WRT54G-TM running the extremely cool Tomato firmware (actually, it's running the Tomato VPN firmware because I hope to have a personal VPN connection going soon.) This was the result of one more excellent bit of advice from Chris, KF9OP. I was going to buy a dedicated wireless card for the laptop, but he suggested spending just a bit more and getting a router that can be flashed with new software to do any number of sophisticated wireless tasks. Great idea. I picked up a few of them for pretty cheap off of EBay. One is configured as my main Internet wireless access point, with gain antennas on it so the signal is available throughout the whole house. But then I've connected another, configured to operate as part of a Wireless Distribution System (WDS), to the computer running EchoLink.

It needs to be wireless because ultimately, when I have all the bugs worked out, the whole shebang is going up on my silo. The rig, computer, router, and power supply will sit just under the dome and I'll extend a mast above the dome with a nice 2 meter gain vertical on top. Then I should really get out like gangbusters. I've also got a gain vertical for 2.4 GHz that will be connected to the router, to boost the wireless path back to the house.

Since it's going to be at the top of the silo, I don't really want to have to climb up there every time I want to tweak a setting on the computer. So I installed the TightVNC server on the laptop. It allows me quick and easy remote access to that PC from my shack. In fact, there's even a TightVNC client for Puppy Linux, so I can access the laptop running Windows and EchoLink from my Linux machines. Now how cool is that?

I have not used the EchoLink much for family communications, although I have a business trip in the near future that should be a nice time to try it out. But I have had some delightful QSOs from hams who have just decided to "drop in". One afternoon I chatted with a student at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, connecting through their W9HHX node. Then later that evening, Al (W6AAX) called from Simi Valley, CA. He has family in the area and was wondering about the ham radio activity here.

And about fifteen minutes after I signed off with Al, Daryl (N5SCA) called from Lampasas, TX. It turns out he grew up in the La Crosse, WI area and was, again, wondering about ham radio activity in the area prior to a trek to a family reunion here later this year. Again, we had a nice chat and hopefully will be able to meet when he visits the area.

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