ShopTalk: Handheld Radio Network

Prepping a 2-Meter Ham Rig…

Here’s a question that comes up all the time:  “I got a 2-meter ham radio…now WHAT?”

Yes, there are dandy books put out by the ARRL (American Radio Relay League) such as their ARRL :: Operating :: ARRL Operating Manual are excellent technical references.  Especially the chapter “VHF/UHF FM, Repeaters, Digital Voice and Data.”

But, if you’re not an old-school hands-on tinkerer, actually getting where you’d like to go with a VHF radio can be daunting.  And did I mention time consuming?

A Typical Use Case

My long-time buddies (45 years now!) Gaye (htttps:// and hubby Shel both have two-meter ham radios.  With licenses and chargers and so forth.  But, learning how to build a highly functional personal network is a daunting task.  And it takes time…and “George, can I send you our radios to program?

Which I did – with pleasure!  (It’s fun if you have the geek gene…)

It’s not that Gaye lacks the brainpower (she’s smarter than me)…it’s just that messing with cables and radio interfaces, antenna heights above average terrain (HAAT), and other obscure variables aren’t her cuppa tea.  In short, she’s normal.

If this sounds like an obstacle that has kept you from enjoying your VHF ham radio, read on.  We can get you fixed up in short order!

First You Need Some Basics

Almost everything you can ever need to know about radios is in the new ARRL 2021 Handbook.  It’s all searchable (.PDF) and fast.

It’s also big.  Takes up almost a gig of hard drive space.

With that much pure volume (the Handbook is also available as six softbound volumes, so probably over a thousand pages in all) if any of the terms I’m about to use go “over your head” just search the Handbook and you’ll find answers.

Step 1:  RKA and Workflow

We’re going to “eat knowledge” now in a very Ure-like manner.

Starting Resources:  We start with a reference book, a charged up VHF ham radio, an instruction manual for the radio, computer, Internet access,  and the all-important programming cable to get from an open computer USB port to the radio.  Normally it’s the external speaker-mic jack where this cable plugs in.

RKA means Rapid Knowledge Acquisition.  It’s a suite of skills – I think we’ve dealt with RKA more on the Peoplenomics side of things.  But essentially, if a strategy to get you the knowledge to accomplish a [new/never-before done] task in the shortest possible time.

In other words, we have the pile of “radio stuff” – so how do we squeeze high performance out of it?  (Gaye was lucky:  “George can you….”)

But Elaine (KG4YHV) and I don’t live in Phoenix or up in the Arizona mountains…so how did I program radios “remotely?”

Part of the answer is RKA:  I knew a) where to get the frequencies, b) how to use software to load it all into radios quickly, and c) I’ve done this “workflow” a couple of times.  There were few surprises.

Workflow:  This was not taught in school when a lot of us were younger, except maybe touched on when talking about Henry Ford and the evolution of the Production Line.

We can already see some of the “workflow” parts.  Got radio gear, got this discussion as a road map.  What else will we need?  Let’s make a shopping list.  And we will do it in workflow order so it will make sense.

Some Key Definitions:

  • A transceiver is both TRANSmitter and recEIVER.
  • A frequency is an absolute measure of a radio transmitter. E.G. WOAI (San Antonio, TX) is on 1.2 MHz or 1,200 KHz.  (yeah, decimal slides 3-left to convert KHz to MHz.
  • channel is a “convenient local radio memory slot” where a frequency (and tones, offsets, and more) can be stored.
  • bank is a “collection of channels.”
  • Typical radios will cover a range of frequencies.  Which can be stores in whatever channel number you assign them to.
  • Typical handheld transceivers have 100 (available) channels you can assign.  More advanced radios (covering more bands (wider frequency ranges) have multiple banks of channels.
  • An Icom 7000, for example – covering longwave receiver, all of HF spectrum and up through the 440 ham band has several banks.  The operate can assign one bank to favorite digital modes (for computer to computer comms) and another to HF voice while another might be employed for VHF/mobile voice comms.  (slick, huh?)

If you’ve stayed with it so far, we’ll keep trudging along:

  • Repeaters have an input frequency and an output frequency.
  • The output frequency is the number displayed by the radio when listening to others.
  • When you transmit, that will be on a different frequency.  Up (or down) 600 KHz on 2-meters.  If the transmit is on a higher frequency, it’s called a + (positive) offset.  And if lower, – (negative) offset.
  • Few repeaters are “wide-open” anymore.  There is normally [PL=private line]  “tone” required to key the repeater.
  • When you collect frequencies for transmit, don’t forget to include the PL tones.  You won’t need them for general public service traffic (marine and weather, for example).  But more ham repeaters require PL tones.

Workflow Parts

Let’s to through the steps (workflow) and we’ll point to resources along the way:

  1. First thing you will need will be a computer (we’ll use Win10 in this example), an open serial port, and a fast internet connection.
  2. Second will be to download a radio frequency managing program called CHIRP which you can grab from here.  (A contribution to their coffee fund is worth it – CHIRP saves all kinds of agony of trying to remember complex button-presses to enter a frequency.
  3. Install CHIRP.
  4. Now visit the website of your local ham radio club.  Say, for example, you wanted to program a handheld and lived near Chandler, AZ.  Click here and if you have a Baofeng  UVR5 radio, you would simply  download the “image file” and upload that (via the programming cable which we will get to in a sec.).
  5. You will also want to get a few local fire, police, and state patrol plus maybe a Coast Guard channel (16 is general marine calling) along with the two or three strongest NOAA Weather channels.  (Around 162.55 or 162.45 in many areas.
  6. If you do NOT have the radio-specific file (an img file) then open CHIRP and follow the prompts to lay out how you want the radio to operate.
  7. When you have a file list done, SAVE IT.
  8. Next, whether you load CHIRP channels by hand after looking up channels of interest (using data found on, or whether you download an img file, the next step is to plug in the serial cable and (following the manufacturer’s (sometimes incomprehensible) directions, dump from CHIRP into your radio.

Which Repeaters Will Work?

Once a handheld radio is programmed, it’s then a simple matter to see if you got things right.

All you need to do is go to a channel you wish to test:  (Let’s say Channel 4)

You turn up the speaker a bit and briefly transmit.  2-seconds ought to do it.

If – upon releasing the transmit button you here a “click” then a [pause] and another “click”.

What you are hearing – when you stop transmitting – is the receiver at the repeater location having its squelch come on silencing noise.  The second click is the squelch on your handheld coming on.

In-between, with a carefully calibrated ear (which takes a while to develop) you can get pretty good at judging whether the repeater you just keyed will be useful.

In this way, you can begin to develop your “best signal” repeaters without having to mess with a complex radio, signal strength meters – no science needed, just some “common sense” (OK which isn’t so common…).

Signal Strength via Squelch?

Sure – first step in the evolution of highly robust emergency comms is having a “mental look-up table” in your mind that pays very close attention to the “back porch noise” you hear on a repeater.

Let’s go through some use cases:

Case #1:  The first squelch is clear, the pause is silent, and the second squelch pop is crisp.  This should be in your #1 list of best repeaters to hang out on.  Because – and this is key – even if the repeater is crystal clear between squelch noises, you may still have a bit of noise (popcorn) around the edges of your handheld signal.

Radio paths are equal (inverse square law is bi-directional).  But the repeater likely has a full-sized antenna.  Most handhelds have a short (10-12″) “rubber ducky” type antenna.   If you want to improve your handheld range, a long (read: high-performance) antenna will help.

Case #2:  You can still hear the two distinct “squelches.”  But, instead, you hear from “fuzz” or occasional “popcorn.”

This repeater may still be useable.  But remember, even if you can hear the other station well, a shortened (however rugged) antenna will be harder to hear in most cases.

Especially inside the house if you let the contractor use foil-backed insulation… (See how everything is connected?  Foil insulation is the bane of wifi and high performance VHF ham gear!

Case #3:  You can make out the other person talking, but there’s a good bit of static on them.  This is when that orchestral ear comes into play.

Listening closely to the other station, is it their signal that is fuzzy?  Or, is it the repeater that is fuzzy?

When the other station unkeys – and if the space between squelches is “clean” then you likely have good comms.  Because the other station is weak into the repeater.

On the other hand, if there’s also “popcorn” and “fuzz” on that “back porch” then you will have a hard time being understood.

Another Hint?

On FM signals – unlike AM stations – yelling will usually only make communications worse.

Here, we can insert a long discussion of bandwidth and noise, and the finery of ERP = effective radiated power (which varies on AM as modulation increases – yelling may help).  But, on FM when the carrier power is the same, speaking in a normal well-articulated not overly soft, but not screaming will be as good as it gets.

Depend on receiver, if you yell, the deviation index will increase, potentially widening the signal far enough that squelch drop out can be induced on the receive location.

Optimizing a Personal Net

The idea for this morning’s column was proposed by my buddy (the Major) who wondered “How can half a dozen of us up in Washington state, all figure out when is the best repeater frequencies for each of us?”

Now we’re into the serious workflow part:  Step by Step:

  • One member of the ‘net is elected (drafted) to be the “CHIRP Keeper.”
  • The group meets on Skype for a half hour every week until the project is done.
  • The group builds a “frequency list” which would include the public safety, weather, fire, yada yada along with all ham repeaters.
  • Next, the group (*we assume all have Excel or OfficeLibre) all get a list of possible ham repeaters.
  • Then, each net member go through “squelching” a few times (remember try this day and night, good weather and bad because precip path loss may factor in the Seattle area, lol).
  • Each repeater is scored 0 through 5
    • 0 – Couldn’t even break squelch.
    • 1 –  Broke squelch only upstairs or in front yard.
    • 2 –  Broke squelch but noisy as heck.  Very poor comms.
    • 3 –  Fairly “fuzzy” or “Redenbacher.”  Useful, though.  Doesn’t work in basement.
    • 4 –  Occasional pops but pretty enjoyable chatting.  Fuzzy in basement.
    • 5 –  Full quieting between the squelch points.  Great repeater from my location. (Warms up coffee in basement…)

What comes out of it is a spreadsheet that does (as a manual project) what HF ALE (Automatic Link Establishment) does on the HF bands (without the nuisance of repeaters and such):  Transmit, exchange LQA scores *(link-quality analysis) and frequency hop).  (Huge fan of ALE – so for more go read more at the website .Every SERIOUS prepper should have reliable, nuclear survivable comms, right?  Message store and forward…real the End kinda stuff…Somewhere in here you may figure out what my Icom M700 commercial SSB radio has in its future…)

OK, but back to point:


Ends up looking something like this:

This report (done with actual data, not this mock stuff) makes it possible for a group of friendly hams to prioritize their personal comms into something workable.

The boxes in yellow (read horizontally left) tell you what frequency not everyone can hit.  On the other hand, the blue boxes indicate workable channels and overall, in this example, the repeater BREMER(ton) might be best (or Gold Mountain) because at least everyone ought to be heard.

Or, you could use this as a prioritizing tool.  MicNKey repeater might be great if the group can work with the “Chirp Keeper” to change up to a different handheld, better antenna, and or similar.

Not Too Mysterious…

…but not terribly obvious, either.

Useful?  We hope not.  But, better to have comms and plans than have a disaster come along and not have reliable comms when you need them.

Off to today’s real “shop project” – first run of the wood-fired pizza oven this afternoon.

Write when you get rich,

20 thoughts on “ShopTalk: Handheld Radio Network”

  1. The current ARRL Radio Amateur’s Handbook is large, expensive, and VERY dense. I do not recommend it for beginners.

    Better — for beginners — is one of those infamous “Dummy” Black & Yellow books. On Da “Zon they go for $20 or so, and give one a good overview and enough practical detail to get rolling, Back when I gave license classes, I used it as a text, and suggested everybody buy one. Nobody ever complained, and many said it was The Best Get-Started book.

    The ARRL stuff is good and is thorough — but isn’t “light” in any way.

    “Dummies” strikes a very nice take-of roll experience.


    • Totally agree – this was aimed more at friends of mine who – in a moment of zeal – got the ham radio license and ended up in the “Now what?” pile. This was purely about making basic local repeater programming.
      But you’re right, only few geeks like me (and maybe Hank) would read the ARRL handbook (circa 19670 cover to cover) and then read Shrader’s “Electronic Communications” cover to cover. I read the third or fourth ed/. and now a used copy of 6th edition is still $35 in good shape.
      Best investments ever, though. Never been jobless in 50-years of working life as I always had a trade (and fun) to fall back on.
      3D printing may end up there, fixing HVAC systems…lot of things will be around for as long as humans are.
      At least to PHX runs out of water and such…

    • I am not really interested in becoming a licensed ham operator and have a huge expensive setup. but I would like to have an emergency receiver with the ability to call out in an emergency .

      What would you all suggest…

      • How ’bout becoming a licensed HAM and acquiring a really cheap setup?

        It is hard to beat a cheapie Baofeng hand-held transceiver. Were you to purchase one, you would be able to get both licensed and on the air for less than a hundred bucks.

        Pretty much every place which sells new HAM equipment also sells used equipment. For instance, this:

        is the used equipment page at Universal Radio.

        You’re not going to get much of an answer, asking about the ability to make an emergency call-out, because without a license, that ain’t legal. We’re all required to use our radio rigs legally and ethically, and no HAM is going to give you advice which would encourage illegal or unethical radio use.

        Now, if’fn yer askin’ what you should get for cheap, AFTER you’re licensed to use it, I’d say pretty much anything Icom, Yaesu, or Kenwood that’s mobile* and will do at least 10-meters to 2-meters ( roughly 30Mhz to 174Mhz) — one that will reach 80 meters would be much better, but the more “bands” a transceiver covers, the more money it costs, and an 80m-2m or -70cm transceiver (3.7Mhz-440Mhz) will run you an easy thousand bucks, used. This is one reason HAMs own multiple radios. It is cheaper to buy a (used/working) 80-20 meter rig, a 10 meter or 10-6 meter rig, and a 2m/1.5m/70cm rig than it is, buying a single transceiver which covers this entire bandwidth (and the “separates” tend to work better…)

        *Radios come in three flavors: Base, mobile, and hand-held.

        A “base” station is a radio that’s mounted or stuck on a shelf in a building, and generally not moved from that place.

        A “mobile” station is a radio that is mounted in a vehicle.

        (In actual practice WRT business, HAM, and marine radio, most transceivers are sold as “base/mobile” and what they “are” is dependent on how they’re used…)

        A hand-held radio is a “walkie-talkie,” and is called an “HT” — a “Handheld Transceiver,” in HAM parlance.

        An HT and a Technician-Class license is enough to get you started and get your feet wet. For the most part though, the “Tech” won’t let you use the lower-frequency bands, which are the ones you need access to, if you want to reach out and touch someone across the country or around the world. Examination costs are for the examination session, not the license. In a friendly club, the volunteer examiner (VE) will let you pay one fee, then take exams until you fail to pass one. IOW you go in to take a Technician Class exam – if you pass, you’re instantly a Tech, and the VE will offer to let you take the General Class exam. If you pass that, you instantly become a General and (s)he will then offer to let you take the Extra Class exam. 3 exams, one fee…

      • Listenin’ isn’t for free, but it is a lot cheaper than transmitting, and doesn’t require paperwork, at least not yet. A high percentage of the affordable AM/FM/SW radios are made in China. You might want to buy a couple of spares in the current operating environment, then put’em up in foil and a properly shielded metal enclosure. Three layers of protection is about right..

        For reviews, try:

      • Don’t thank me, thank George. I’d never heard of Baofeng until about 7-8 years ago when George started talking about their HTs.

        You should notice the link “n____” posted. I AM familiar with Kaito (and Tecsun, and Sangean.) Kaito is Japanese, Tecsun, Chinese, Sangean, Taiwanese, and those three, along with the German company Grundig, have manufactured virtually all of the shortwave or “World Radios” sold since the 1980s, and all of today’s “emergency” or “weather” radios. Tecsun (most Radio Shack) and Sangean (most C.Crane) are especially prolific “private label” manufacturers.

        There is no “best” amongst these manufacturers. They are all really good. Each of them will lead in some evaluation categories, and they “play musical chairs” year-onto-year WRT actual specifications.

        IMO unless you’re a geek, the Kaito is last on the list. They are a fine receiver — maybe the best of the bunch — and do more stuff than the others, but have, in some cases, literally hundreds of individual settings (IIRC I was 120-some settings into mine when I said “f-it” and bought a Sangean…) An “emergency” or GO-Bag radio should be “tough” and “reliable,” but it also needs to be simple to use, and that ain’t the Kaito. Now, as a “shelf radio?” That’s where my Kaito ended up…

      • Ray- I believe that what was once Grundig is now sold under the Eton label. I am very fond of my 7000-series Tecsun. I have seen a Sony pocket radio which I paid $10 for in a blister pack advertised on Amazon for $200+. I wish I had bought a case of ’em.

        With all the affordable AM/FM/SW radios being made overseas, any event which shuts down US imports will cut off the supply. I also suspect that a lot of the parts for ALL the radios you mentioned come from China these days.

        Radio stations will stay on the sir when all other public sources of information go silent. Keep a couple of spare radios stored in shielded enclosures.

      • Thanks, I had forgotten about Eton. IIRC Grundig builds both it’s home label and Eton (but that might have changed in the last 10 years or so.) I don’t know whether Grundig still builds ANYTHING in Germany though. They (with Blaupunkt and Uher) made some of the finest RTV stuff on the planet (Uher was simply untouchable, as the top-shelf battery-portable tape recorder manufacturer. When I bought my Sony cassette portable in the ’70s {for half-off $59 — after Christmas} the cheapest Uher cassette was $229. The reel-to-reel the “Secretary’s liaison” burned-up every week after “Jim Phelps” got his “Mission Impossible” assignment was a $239 Uher…) Dunno what happened to Uher. Blaupunkt was bought by a Chinese conglomerate, and now puts out some of the worst junk electronics with which I’ve ever had the displeasure of dealing…

  2. I am not really interested in becoming a licensed ham operator and have a huge expensive setup. but I would like to have an emergency receiver with the ability to call out in an emergency .

    What would you all suggest…

  3. Reading dome of the sites today theres a story that the president came back early.. supposedly he received a phone call saying they have the kraken..

    “Trump to Release “KRAKEN” on 6 Januar”

    ????… does anyone have any ideas on what that’s all about?
    For some reason I have the idea that it’s going to end up a lot like pizzing in the wind.. just like that hard drive.. I think it’s time to accept the defeat and let’s move on..

    • Some days I wake up thinking early onset Alzheimer’s is kicking in but then I get some lucidity and realize it’s the MSM just screwing with my head.

      Kraken as it applies to the current U.S. political story:

      “It’s … become an internet meme representing a sprawling, unsubstantiated set of claims that purport to outline the case for widespread fraud in the US presidential election…

      Lawyer Sidney Powell – who was until recently part of Donald Trump’s legal team and is now acting independently – has described the case she was mounting as a “Kraken” that, when released, would destroy the case for Democrat Joe Biden having won the US presidency.”

      • LOL LOL LOL … Well lizzard people I am not to sure about.. LOL LOL LOL

        But I worked one place where there was a den of vipers working.. you stayed away from them or take the chance to get bitten…. LOL LOL LOL…

        cute blonde girl was working and I was doing my charting.. and the young lady came up and was saying she had a hot new years eve date.. not even considering that I was sitting next to a pit viper I said.. “enjoy it while your young.. when you get to be our age if something like that happens we drop to our knees and praise god….” LOL LOL
        the viper tried to get me fired for talking about her sex life LOL LOL LOL LOL… she did get the young girl fired though.. a young man the viper had the hots for liked the young blonde.. and she was ruthless to the poor girls..

      • another guy.. LOL LOL it was xmas eve and he came out and put his arms around two of the vipers.. and said it looks like a merry xmas ladies…..
        he then went to get supplies.. I asked him.. my god man.. those snakes bite.. you’ll be lucky if you don’t get in trouble..

        He was marched out fired an hour after he did that.. LOL they all split up and started charting and calling …. the ladies didn’t want to work xmas anymore than anyone else.. and he really made them mad….
        that group you stayed away from… I was in a bubble because I was basically working a debt off and the company didn’t pay me in cash LOL LOL even so.. stay away..
        One of the nastiest vipers though.. LOL LOL it was hilarious.. there was a patient that was female only… her call light came on.. and the lady says.. could you send in one of the ladies.. I said well absolutely..
        I went out to the desk viper..( their den was the desk.. you stayed away from the snake den.. they didn’t leave it either ) and I said so and so would like to have you come visit her she needs something.. I was the only one on except for the snakes.. and she got all nasty and right up in my face that it was my job.. to take care of the patient.. so I went back and said.. I am sorry but she isn’t able to come right now can I help you.. the nice lady patted me on the shoulder and said no honey.. its ok…
        I went about my business in a half hour the cops were there the administration was there the DON was there anyone that was someone from the company came into see the viper.. the lawyers and family were there and on the phone it went ballistic.. LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL the viper quit and went someplace else.. LOL LOL LOL LOL one of the vipers.. that I am still friends with would write up this huge page of crap.. cover the butt page.. just like the STP rule taught to everyone ( stabilize and transport patient.. let the one making the bucks make the million dollar decisions) and she did it to confuse.. which irked me.. so I would add a name or two for her to report on… LOL LOL LOL… confessions .. LOL LOL… it was hilarious.. and we are still friends.. have been for thirty something years she is retired now .. LOL..

  4. ARRL 2021 Handbook – 551 files, 78 folders installed in “Program Files”! That seems like the least useful way of actually reading such a manual. I’d much rather have it as a PDF or even as a book. I don’t doubt that the 2021 handbook is helpful, but for anyone that’s not a total HAM geek, it seems to be unnecessary. A 10 year old version of the manual would probably be helpful on anyone’s virtual bookshelf.

    I’m recommending learning the basics of amateur radio to my daughter as a pathway to enhancing her knowledge of electronics. Unfortunately, she’s as busy as I am and I can’t even imagine “free” time for this. It might be a good idea to get an intro technician license, but time with clubs, etc., is totally off the table. At least listening on any band is still unlicensed! All the info here should be legal for anyone to use as long as they keep their fingers off the transmit button.

    • Mike, I have the 2020 Manual in print. It is the first print Manual I’ve owned in many years, and the last I’ll ever buy. The basics don’t change. The rest changes so quickly that unless it is in a searchable format, possessing the information is utterly useless…

  5. After giving away my oldest one, I STILL have three copies of the ARRL HANDBOOK. Most recent version is 2018. Our (several) ham radio clubs seem to have each ‘local’ neighborhood repeater for CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams) operations, and we all congregate otherwise on the wide area repeater up on the mountain. The clubs nets start on the repeater and then change to a ‘simplex’ (direct) frequency so individuals can assess who their radio neighbors are and who they can contact directly without the repeater.

    I have a big Icom IC-910 Vhf/Uhf rig designed for satellite operations and it has a good, calibrated S-meter for received signal strengths. It is always popular on the nets, as I am in an advantageous location near the shoreline where I can ‘hear’ stations along the shoreline and far up the elevation of the mountain with minimal terrain blockages. I give out s-meter signal reports to all the simplex stations on the net, much to their appreciation. It lets them know how their antenna/location/elevation/power are working out for them.

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