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A brief Pictoral History of early micro-computers

I enjoy history, perhaps more so than others.  My first computer was an Apple IIC, purchased in 1985.  It had a single 5 1/2 inch floppy drive, no hard drive, and a wee little monochrome monitor.  Basically, it was a glorified word processor until I figured out how to connect it to my Amateur Radio transceiver.  Here is a picture of my radio room, circa 1988 on Guam:

Radio Room, KH2R Guam Circa 1988

Radio Room, KH2R Guam Circa 1988

Finding more things to do with it became a hobby of sorts.  After a while, I realized that what I wanted was what we termed an “IBM clone,” what is know as a PC today.

When I came across this blog post; History of Computers, I found it interesting and thought I’d share.

Enjoy!

Those Shortwave Sites

How is our Alaska doing?

How is our Alaska doing?

It is a joke in circulating in Russia at the moment.  Kind of funny when you think about it.

In light of the developing situation in Eastern Europe, it may be wise to retain some of those HF broadcasting (AKA Shortwave) sites.  It may be too late for Canada, however, the US government still has a few high powered HF sites that they may want to hold onto for a while.  There are several ways that shortwave broadcasting can be beneficial.

  • Like all radio broadcasting, quality content is needed to attract listeners. Most of what is available on shortwave is religious or transparent government propaganda. There are exceptions to this, but they are rare. Introduce quality programming, and shortwave listenership will increase.
  • DRM 30 (Digital Radio Mondial) is still in its experimental phase.  It has been demonstrated to work reasonably well on HF.  Several digital data formats are successfully being used on HF; HFDL, ALE, STANAG 5066, PACTOR and others.  DRM 30 has an advantage that H.264 video can also be transmitted.
  • The VOA has been experimenting with images transmitted via MFSK, AKA the “VOA Radiogram.”
  • HF is always susceptible to changing propagation.  However, it can be reliable enough, especially when frequency diversity is employed, to overcome these issues when no other method of communication is available.
  • DRM and MFSK can be decoded using a simple shortwave radio and a computer sound card.  A DRM CODEC is required, but those are readily available for download.
  • Analog shortwave broadcasting using AM is still viable.  AM has the advantage of being extremely simple to receive and demodulate.  Simple receiver kits can be built and run on 9 volt a battery.
  • While the Soviet Union had an extensive jamming network, those sites have long since been non-functional.  Most countries have discontinued the practice of jamming with the exception of China, North Korea, Cuba and perhaps some countries in the middle east (the usual suspects).

Sample of DRM reception via shortwave:

If the internet is censored or somehow becomes unavailable in that part of the world,  shortwave may be the only method to convey an alternate point of view.

Hopefully, things will settle down and return to at least a civil discourse.  However, it never hurts to have a plan.

Decomissioning a NEXTEL site

Remember when “NEXTEL (b-b-b-beep), how business gets done…” Well, not anymore. NEXTEL was purchased by Sprint in 2005 and their product lines were combined.  Thus, all of these old NEXTEL sites have become redundant and switched off.  This particular site was co-located with one of our FM radio clients, which required a power reduction while the old equipment was removed from the tower.  I took the time to grab a few pictures of the process:

Former NEXTEL communications equipment room

Former NEXTEL communications equipment room

All of the equipment was removed from the equipment shelter. This site has been switched off since June of 2013 and everything in it is destined for the scrap yard.  This equipment worked on the 800 MHz band, which has been re-purposed for Public Safety and Critical Infrastructure, e.g. government users.  These racks and radios look like they were expensive:

NEXTEL equipment racks and radios

NEXTEL equipment racks and radios

Speaking of expensive, this site had over 4,500 feet (1,370 meters) of 1 5/8 inch foam coax, which was cut up and scrapped.  At today’s prices, that cost $13.25 per foot.

Scrapped transmission line

Scrapped transmission line

The tower was rigged:

Rigging tower to remove antennas

Rigging tower to remove antennas

Each of the three panel sector mounts were removed and lowered to the ground.

Dropping cellular panel antennas

Dropping cellular panel antennas

The NEXTEL antennas were mounted at the 260 foot (80 meter) level of a 395 foot (120 meter) tower. It took some time to remove all of the antennas and equipment from the tower.

Cellular panel antenna array being removed from a tower

Cellular panel antenna array being removed from a tower

I looked on the Sprint website and could not determine if they still offer a push to talk service option (direct talk).  With all of the communications options available today, I do not expect there would be much call for it.

For old times sake, here is an old NEXTEL commercial from many years ago:

They did have a good marketing department…

Engineer Killer

That was the title of the email with this photo attached:

Disabled high voltage shorting bar, Collins 820D-2

Disabled high voltage shorting bar, Collins 820D-2 AM transmitter.  Courtesy Pete Partinio

Seems about right.

For many, many reasons, this is a bad thing to do.  First of all, that shorting bar is the last point of discharge for the high voltage power supply.  When all else fails, this is designed to route the 3,500 volt plate supply safely to ground.  Having a stray 3,500 volts floating around inside of a transmitter is never a good idea.  Fortunately, it was spotted and removed before anything bad happened.

Secondly, it looks like somebody used a 12 VDC cigarette lighter plug as an insulating device.  Wow, did they get lucky.  This could have started a fire.

As to exactly why it was there in the first place, I cannot rightly say.

And this is why only properly trained people should be working on transmitter, especially tube type transmitters.

Hello, Radiodiscussions.com

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that after a two month sabbatical, Radiodiscussions.com has returned with an updated look and all of it’s archived posts intact.

Radiodiscussions.com screen shot

Radiodiscussions.com screen shot

I am pleased that the current owners had a change of heart.  Radiodiscussions.com was not perfect, however, it was a good place to gain insight, take part in conversations, read up on rumours and innuendo, follow the flame wars on various threads, etc.  In other words, observe radio people in their natural habitat.

Happy New Year

I wish everyone a Happy New Year and hopefully, a prosperous 2014.

Another year has gone by, and there were few things remarkable about it. Among those are:

From the digital radio front; HD Radio continues to be a non-factor in the bigger broadcasting picture.  FM HD Radio continues to make very small inroads, especially with public radio groups who’s HD Radio expenditures are mostly tax payer subsidized.  AM HD Radio continues to backslide slowly from it’s high water mark of 310 stations in 2007.  It is difficult to nail down the exact numbers of AM HD Radio broadcasters, however, Barry McLarnon notes that 177 stations are currently transmitting AM HD Radio.  No official numbers are available from either the FCC or iBiquity itself.

The great 2003 translator log jam (Auction 83) was finally fixed so that the FCC could move ahead with the LPFM application window in October.  In the end, some 1,240 translators were granted, with more conflicting applications still in the works.

The LPFM filing window opened in October amid the government shutdown.  Many groups were predicting 10,000 new applications for 100 watt LPFM licenses.  The actual number is closer to 2,800.  The final number of Construction Permits issued with likely be somewhat lower as defective and competing applications are dismissed.  This number seems low to some LPFM proponents.  When I approached a local interest group about launching a low power radio station, I was basically met with indifference.  With a very complex set of application guidelines and operating rules, plus very low power levels, it is not surprising at all.

The NAB and the FCC have been working diligently on revitalizing the AM broadcasting band.  Results of these efforts are yet undetermined as the proposal works it’s way through the regulatory process.  The so called “analog sunset” still lurks in the background somewhere, waiting to be trotted out at the most opportune moment.  I remain skeptical of the current proposal.

Cumulus Broadcasting purchases Dial Global and renames it West Wood One.  Some people lose their jobs.

Nielson buys Arbitron rating service and renames it Nielson Audio.  Some people lose their jobs.

Clear Channel tries to fly under the radar with “staff reductions.”  Some people lose their jobs.

Long time online radio forum “Radiodiscussions.com” ceased existence.  Starting out as Radio-info.com in the mid 1990′s, radio discussions was largest, longest running radio forum in the country.  It held tens of thousands of posts on almost every radio topic under the sun.  Unfortunately, it was bought and sold a few times over the last few years and the new owners could not figure out how to monetize it.  The end.

Bernie Wise passed away on December 13th.  This is truly unfortunate as Bernie was a character perfectly suited to the radio business.  He started working for RCA and is responsible for UHF television broadcasting in the US.

On the blog front, we continue to grow in page views and readers.  As of this date, Engineering Radio gets approximately 540 page views per day and has 227 RSS subscribers.  The split is 60/40 percent domestic/international readers.  The top five international traffic sources are; Canada, UK, India, Germany and Brazil.

2013 stat counter image

2013 stat counter image

There are some 634 articles with 2,640 legitimate comments and 429,600 spam comments.

Regarding site outages, there were 343 minutes of server down time.  Two DDOS attacks lasting six and three hours respectively and one incident of a corrupted .htaccess file rendered and error 500 message for six hours.  Total down time 1,243 minutes or 20:43 hours which gives a 99.87% availability for the website.  Not bad, but we can do better as the uptime goal is 99.99%.

On a personal note, my college studies are progressing well.  I have three more classes or 10 credit hours left until I am done.  My GPA is 3.90 which is not terrible considering I am working full time and going to school almost full time.  Truth be told, I cannot wait until it is finished.

Failed High Voltage Contactor

This contactor was used to replaced the Furnas contactor installed as original equipment when the transmitter was manufactured in 1986.  Furnas is no longer in business, thus the ABB A145-30 was substituted. It purchased from directly from Broadcast Electronics for an FM35A transmitter:

ABB A145-30 contactor

ABB A145-30 contactor

It was installed about 18 months ago and has been in nearly continuous use since.  The broken white plastic housing surrounds the contactor coil and is responsible for pushing and holding down the contact fingers.

ABB A145-30 contactor coil cover

ABB A145-30 contactor coil cover

Looks like the coil is running too hot and damaging the plastic. This resulted in a failure of the contactor to make and no high voltage to the transmitter PA.  Obviously a problem.  I spoke to BE about this and they did not have a good answer.  Actually, what they said was “That contactor is rated for 220 amps,” which is true enough. The only thing that I can think of is the coil is rated for 208 volts and the transmitter is connected to a 240 volt delta service.

A new contactor was ordered and installed yesterday.

I will investigate the coil voltages further, but for now, the 27 year old transmitter remains on the air.

Broadcast Electronics FM35A

Broadcast Electronics FM35A

New Broadcast Engineer

The new engineer

The new engineer (banana for scale)

Update and bump: The many great comments about the SBE certifications got me thinking about what a Broadcast Engineer actually does. I remember typing something about it quite some time ago, thus, I dredged up this old post originally from August 8, 2009 out of the archive.

Enjoy:

The other day, the NTR (Non-Traditional Revenue) person came to me and said “Great news!  We hired a new web guy, he knows all about engineering too!”

Really?

So I spoke to the new Web Master/Broadcast Engineer for a bit.  As it turns out, he knows how to do things like reboot the XDS satellite receiver, reboot an Audiovault server, he has been to a transmitter site a few times to take meter readings.  I suppose these days, that is what counts as being a broadcast engineer.  Someone with this level of experience could get by for a bit until something really bad happened.

Sadly, I think (my former employer) upper management and ownership believes that this guy could do my (old) job.  To them, I am an employee number, with a salary and benefits package worth X.  If they can replace me with someone that makes <X, that would represent savings.  Plug that guy into this spot, everything will go on as it did before.

I don’t think they understand exactly what a Broadcast Engineer does.  On any given day, I may:

  • Program an automation computer
  • Change the battery on a backup generator
  • Change the battery bank in an 18 KVA UPS
  • Clean a transmitter
  • Aim a satellite dish
  • Trouble shoot a DS-1 Circuit
  • Trouble shoot a T-1 MUX
  • Repair a microwave transmitter or receiver
  • Take a set of monitor points
  • Repair a tower light flasher circuit
  • Install a console (analog, digital, IP routing, TDM routing)
  • Repair a CD player
  • Trouble shoot a transmitter RF module
  • PM a generator
  • Work with a tower crew to place an antenna on a tower
  • Install an RF connector on 3 inch transmission line
  • Wire an air conditioning unit at a transmitter site
  • Repair lightning damaged ATU
  • Trouble shoot an AC unit
  • Aim an STL antenna
  • Repair an RPU transmitter
  • Design a computer network
  • Trouble shoot and repair a FM transmitter
  • Wire a new rack room
  • Coordinate a complex format change
  • Install a translator
  • Program and wire a new satellite receiver
  • Wire a transmitter remote control
  • Hike to a transmitter site to after a natural disaster
  • Trouble shoot an audio hum
  • Pass an FCC inspection
  • Install and program an EAS unit
  • Wire a new studio
  • Design a tower light monitor circuit
  • Fix a studio phone system
  • Install an audio router
  • Match an AM transmitter to a new tower
  • Wire an ethernet patch panel
  • Program a wireless access point
  • Install an IP router
  • Manage a new tower project
  • Install a new transmitter
  • Re-install an old transmitter
  • Make NRSC measurements on an AM transmitter
  • Repair a corrupt OS
  • Replace a hard drive
  • Reboot a server
  • Fix a reel to reel machine
  • Install a computer program
  • Clean a console
  • Pass an inspection by the fire marshal

To name a few.  In other words, there are a lot of complex systems at a multi station radio facility.  Some of this can be learned at various schools and colleges.  A lot of it is experience.  There is no substitute for an experienced veteran broadcaster who has seen almost everything and can think on his or her feet.

I have had this discussion with the market manager, and he gets it.  I know that he understands who knows more about the ins and outs of all of our studio and transmitter sites.  Things like, where is the water shutoff, the handle is broken off of the toilet on the second floor.  Of course, I know it is down stairs in the furnace room next to the fire sprinkler system.

I know where the skeletons are buried.  I have the inside numbers for the utility companies and the phone company.  I know the code enforcement officer for most of the municipalities where we own buildings and property.

Yet, the only thing they see is X.

SBE Certification

SBE-banner

I am toying around with the idea of reinstating my SBE certifications. At one time, I was certified as a Senior Radio Engineer.  That certification lapsed several years ago for a variety of reasons.  The first and foremost was my desire to find another career outside of radio.  At the time, I was working for a giant flaming asshole who prided himself in causing his subordinates health problems; things like strokes and heart attacks.  The sign over his desk read “The floggings will continue until morale improves.” I was also busy at home with a new, very young child and an old, broken down house.  There was not enough time to come up with enough professional points to re-certify or study for a test.  So, it went by the wayside.

Lately, however, I am beginning to see some advantage in having an SBE certification:

  • It comes in handy as a skills benchmark for potential clients and others
  • It lends some amount of credibility among fellow broadcast engineers
  • There is a support network for job searches

Thus, when I went to the SBE website and found the Jubilee Project, I was intrigued.  The SBE is offering to reinstate those former members with lapsed certifications until April of 2014 provided the applicant can supply enough recertification points.  I am also contemplating taking the Certified Broadcast Networking Engineer test for much the same reasons listed above.  I will let you know how it goes.

Incidentally, my ability to deal with giant flaming assholes as increased in the intervening years.  What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Goodbye, Radiodiscussions.com

The popular discussion board, which was started in the mid 1990s has been terminated by it’s current owners, Streamline Digital. It seems that the site was not making any money and thus the plug was pulled.

radiodiscussions

There are other engineering type discussion boards such as The Virtual Engineer and… Hmm, Anybody?

Where a vacuum exists, nature abhors it.  The question is, will anyone step up and fill the void?

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Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
~1st amendment to the United States Constitution

Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.
~Benjamin Franklin

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is hard business. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
~Rudyard Kipling

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~Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, Article 19

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~Alan Weiner

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