Hanging out with hotspots
By Toshen, KEØFHS (Updated Aug 2018, CC BY-SA)
A hotspot (personal access point) is a combination of hardware, firmware, and software that enables a ham with internet connectivity to link directly to digital voice (DV) systems like DV repeaters, DMR talkgroups and reflectors, D-STAR reflectors, YSF rooms, QuadNet Smart Groups, and so on. Basically, hotspots act as your personal digital voice repeater and gateway, which can be really fun.
This illustration shows what it looks like for D-STAR:
For someone like me who doesn't live within range of a digital voice repeater, a hotspot goes beyond being fun to being a critical key to accessing digital voice systems, a gift that opens doors to the whole wide world.
Overall, it's an exciting area of amateur radio that is evolving and progressing rapidly with some excellent work being done by some very innovative hams.
Disclaimer: These are my personal notes and opinions based on my experience as a non-technical user playing around with hotspots, as well as by learning from what others are sharing. I'm not affiliated with any hotspot projects, except as a user. If anything needs correcting, please let me know.
This is an article about personal hotspots, not repeaters. (For some extensive info about repeaters, see: Repeater Builders⩘ .)
- Many hotspots are boards that mount on computers like the Raspberry Pi; others are thumb drives that plug into computers.
- Some can handle many digital modes, including DMR, D-STAR, YSF, P25, NXDN, and various cross modes; others work with only one or a few modes.
- Most require a digital voice-capable radio to work with them (these typically have stubby or onboard ceramic antennas for nearby connectivity); a few include their own AMBE Vocoder chip so you can operate them without the need for a radio at all, for example, by using a headset with a microphone that is connected to the computer the hotspot is plugged into.
I've been playing around with hotspots since late 2016, during which time I've tried a bunch of hotspot devices and the apps they work with, including the DVMEGA, BlueStack-Micro+, SharkRF openSPOT, DV Access Point (DVAP), and a couple DV4 products. While all the initial hotspots I tried are interesting and taught me something, ultimately they all had various limitations I didn't like:
- Some have clunky hardware.
- Some have ugly software. (The 1990s are calling!)
- One works only with a wired internet connection.
- Some are limited in the digital voice systems they support.
- Some tried to push me into using their preferred digital voice system rather than the one I wanted to use … no thanks!
And then …
I tried an MMDVM-based* hotspot called the ZUMspot with an app called Pi-Star⩘ , and all the rest of my hotspots got given away or tossed into a box and forgotten. For me, the combination of the ZUMspot and Pi-Star is taking digital voice hotspots to a whole new level. *Multi-Mode Digital Voice Modem
3) Zooming around with the ZUMspot
The ZUMspot Pi Board by ZUM Radio is the same size as and works well mounted on a Raspberry Pi Zero W. It also can be mounted on the RPi 3B (a bit faster) and various other RPis.
It's a multi-mode digital voice modem that works with DMR and D-STAR (the two digital modes I use), and also with YSF, P25, and NXDN, as well as various DMR and YSF cross modes.
The ZUMspot also supports POCSAG, which is used to transmit data to pagers.
The ZUMspot pairs well with the Pi-Star app⩘ , and its firmware can be updated easily via Pi-Star (see the note Performing firmware updates via Pi-Star⩘ ). Set up is relatively easy, especially because it can use Pi-Star's Auto AP feature for wireless network configuration. It requires a digital-voice capable radio.
The ZUMspot is designed by Jim Mclaughlin, KI6ZUM, with firmware by Andy, CA6JAU (juribeparada / MMDVM_HS⩘ ), based on the Multi-Mode Digital Voice Modem (MMDVM) software by Jonathan Naylor, G4KLX (g4klx / MMDVM⩘ ).
3a) In case you're interested …
For fun, I decided to make some hotspot cases out of some mahogany thinwood I had left over from my woodworking projects. I ended up building a bunch of cases as I experimented with different combinations of RPi boards, batteries, displays, and shapes, before I settled on one design for my shack and another for mobile. In addition, I have a few other hotspots that are in nice cases from C4Labs⩘ .
The setup for my shack is a ZUMspot mounted on a RPi 3B with an Alchemy Power Pi-UpTimeUPS, which uses type 18650 3.7V batteries, for uninterrupted power. (Adafruit has a good battery tutorial⩘ .)
Since Pi-Star can run headless, the hotspot really doesn't need any external ports except for power in. It basically can be a black (or mahogany) box, optionally with on/off switches between the external power port and the UPS and between the UPS and the RPi, and maybe a display screen. In this case, I made a simple rectangular box case: 4.5″ wide × 4.7″ deep × 3.5″ high.
The height of the case was determined by the stack of boards, which has a plexiglass base. The stack slides into the case, with the base sliding under a rectangle of wood to secure the stack in place.
The display fits into the opening in front of the stack of boards. To reduce the footprint of the display, I soldered wires directly to its back rather than using the connector that plugs into its side. Since I'm using those same soldered wires to connect the display directly to my PC for programming via a USB to TTL UART CH340 Serial Converter, I also didn't need to leave space or cut a slot for inserting a microSD card into the display. That means I can fit a 3.5″ display into a space that's nearly the same size as the width and height of the stack of boards.
For the on/off switches, the best option I could find is the LoveRPi Power Switch, which includes a green status LED showing when it's on (important in a black box scenario). It includes three different colored rubber covers for the switch.
The cables and switches determined the depth of the box. Here you can see them crammed into the remaining space. The case piece with the switches exposed screws into the back opening.
The power switches and the single port (the micro-USB power input) are located on the back of the case. The cable with the green switch controls power between the UPS and RPi. The cable with the black switch controls power between the input port it provides and the UPS, which it's plugged into.
Theoretically I could leave the UPS powered on all the time, but ever since we had a (fortunately relatively small) fire in our home several years ago that was caused by an electrical short sparked by some poorly done wiring by a previous owner, I've been a bit paranoid about leaving things on when I'm not using them.
3b) Nextion screen customizations
My screens are a customization of the Nextion_ON7LDS⩘ screens. My goal was to be able to look at the display from anywhere in my shop and tell at glance what's being received, so I made the screens look quite different from one another, with colors related to their logos. I also like simple, calm screens, so the different text fields are displayed in various subtle colors, and there are no other eye candy embellishments.
Thanks to Rob van Rheenen, PDØDIB, the Dutch ham and digital voice enthusiast who moderates the Nextion Ham-Radio Screens⩘ Facebook group, and who generously provides excellent tutorials and mentoring. Thanks also to the hams who are sharing inspiring designs and support in the group.
- To connect the Nextion to my PC for programming, I used a RobotDyn USB to TTL UART CH340 Serial Converter, along with some breadboard jumper wires. I also used breadboard jumper wires for soldering onto the display.
- The Nextion Editor can be downloaded from Itead⩘ .
- Tech Tip from Rob, PDØDIB: You can control the active and idle screen brightness via Pi-Star's MMDVMHost Expert Editor, which should help preserve battery life for a mobile hotspot. For more info, see: Brightness settings for Nextion Screen⩘ .
- For a basic selection of Nextion screen layouts as well as the more detailed readme explanations of the differences between the layouts, see the Nextion subfolders of the g4klx/MMDVMHost GitHub page⩘ .
- Ryan, WA6HXG, also posts some nice screens and good explanations on his GitHub project page: WA6HXG/MMDVM-Nextion-Screen-Layouts⩘ .
Conclusion: While I enjoyed learning how to program the Nextion display, in the end I don't really look at it all that much and don't think a display is in any way a necessary component for a hotspot using Pi-Star. That said, I found it worth it to add a display simply because doing so broadened my knowledge about hotspots and electronics. And it's fun.
3c) Putting the vroom in zooming around
The design for my mobile hotspot was influenced by two goals: a desire for simplicity and a hunger for operating time. I decided on a minimalist design: just the ZUMspot + RPi Zero W protected in a box and powered by a rugged external RAVPower 10050 mAh portable charger, which gives me a full day's capacity.
I added a right-angled micro-USB adapter inside the box to make plugging in easier (the plugin port aligns better with the port on the charger), as well as to reduce wear and tear on the RPi's micro-USB port. The mahogany case fits nicely on top of the battery, attached with Soft Touch Velour cinch straps.
Width Depth Height
Shack hotspot: 4.50″ × 4.70″ × 3.50″
Mobile hotspot: 3.25″ × 2.50″ × 1.75″
External battery: 4.60″ × 2.80″ × 0.90″
Deck of cards: 3.60″ × 2.60″ × 0.70″
A good video about setting up a ZUMspot with Pi-Star
Don Arnold, W6GPS, has a good video out: ZUMspot setup with Pi-Star for the Kenwood TH-D74⩘ . In the first half of the video, Don explains the general initial configuration of a ZUMspot using Pi-Star. In the second half, he explains setting up the Kenwood TH-D74A for use with a hotspot.
3d) C4Labs cases
C4Labs⩘ in Tacoma, Washington makes some nice cases for ZUMspots mounted on either the RPi Zero W/WH or the 3B/3B+. Even though I like making cases, I also use several of their creative cases. C4Labs ZUMspot cases⩘ .
ZUM-PI Zero case
4) Other hotspot hardware and software
Alphabetical list of some other hotspots and apps I've tried or heard about:
- BlueDV apps by David, PA7LIM.
David makes some really fun and innovative apps, and he's continuously trying new things and pushing boundaries. BlueDV can be run on Android and Windows (experimental versions are also available for iOS, Linux, and RPi), and is a good solution for a mobile hotspot using the BlueStack-Micro+ paired with a DVMEGA. Website: BlueDV⩘ .
- BlueStack-Micro+ by Ruud Kerstens, PE1MSZ.
A companion board for the DVMEGA. The DVMEGA RPi board can be paired with the BlueStack-Micro+ instead of an RPi, which enables bluetooth connection to an Android or iOS phone running BlueDV or a serial connection to a Windows computer running BlueDV. Website: pe1msz.nl⩘ ; Supplier: Combitronics⩘ .
- When powered by a portable battery pack, the BlueStack + DVMEGA combination provides a mobile solution that can be used with D-STAR, DMR, and YSF radios. For more about this mobile solution, see: Just can't wait to get on the road again⩘ in my D-STAR article.
- The BlueStack board also can be used to facilitate a DVMEGA firmware update. For more info, see the note: DVMEGA firmware update⩘ .
- DStar Commander app by Bob Scott, W6KD. I cut my teeth on DStar Commander, but it appears to be in maintenance mode, with no new updates in a long time. And it seems that Bob may not update it for the RPi 3B+, and is instead pointing people to Pi-Star and the KB5RAB image⩘ . Website: DStar Commander⩘ .
- DV3K, DV Dongle, DVAP by Robin Cutshaw, AA4RC, and Moe Wheatley, AE4JY. These devices, which were among the earliest personal hotspots available, can be connected to a PC running Windows or a Mac. The DV Dongle uses a DVSI AMBE-2000™ chip, the DVAP requires a D-STAR radio, and the newer DV3K uses a DVSI AMBE-3000™ chip. When running their own software, these dongles work with only DPLUS (REF) reflectors, intentionally block access to XRF, DCS, and XLX reflectors, and don't support DMR, YSF, or P25 modes. Websites: DV Dongle⩘ , DV3K Dongle⩘ , and DVAP Dongle⩘ .
- DV4 hotspots by Uli Altvater, AG0X/DH6SAB, and Torsten Schultze, DG1HT. Another one of the earlier personal hotspots that was available, the DV4mini was a USB stick that could be plugged into a PC running Windows or Linux, or a Raspberry Pi. The DV4home was a standalone digital voice device that had two AMBE chips as well as its own screen, microphone, and speaker. While I know people who have used and liked the DV4 devices, I personally found both the DV4mini and the DV4home V1 clunky to use when I tried them in late 2016. The DV4home's rotary knob was particularly poorly implemented—I found it almost unusable—and I've heard similar feedback from someone using V2. I also didn't like its bias for the DMR+ network. Too bad, because I had high hopes for using the DV4home as my digital base station. All their current products appear to be discontinued or out of stock. Website: Wireless Holdings⩘ .
- DVMEGA by Guus van Dooren, PE1PLM.
Comes in single-mode (UHF) and dual-mode (VHF/UHF) versions, both of which can be mounted on Raspberry Pi computers, and there are other models as well. The DVMEGA also can be mounted on a BlueStack board. With firmware 3.07 and later, the DVMEGA can support D-STAR, DMR, and YSF. Requires a digital voice-capable radio. Website: DVMEGA⩘ . Twitter: Guus van Dooren⩘ .
- Works well with Pi-Star, and once you've soldered the firmware update jumper wire in place for Pi-Star, it's easy to update via Pi-Star's command line as well. It's also possible to update the firmware when the DVMEGA is mounted on a BlueStack board (with the jumper wire soldered to different pins) and connected to a PC. For firmware info, see the note: DVMEGA firmware update⩘ .
- Guus also recently released a couple new products: the DVstick 30, a thumb drive with an onboard AMBE-3000™ Vocoder chip, and the DVMEGA Cast, an AMBE-3000™ based multi-mode IP radio for DMR, D-STAR, and YSF.
- MMDVM_HS_Hat by Florian Wolters, DF2ET and Mathis Schmieder, DB9MAT.
Handles D-STAR, DMR, YSF, P25, and NXDN, as well as YSF and DMR cross modes. Currently, they are on version 6 of their board and keep adding new features and refinements. Comes in two versions, one with an onboard ceramic chip antenna and another with an SMA socket external antenna. Works well with Pi-Star, and its firmware can be updated easily via Pi-Star's command line. Requires a digital-voice capable radio. GitHub: mathisschmieder / MMDVM_HS_Hat⩘ . Twitter: Flo (DF2ET)⩘ and Mathis Schmieder⩘ .
- If you're good at assembling electronics, you can Build your own MMDVM_HS_Hat⩘ . There's a pre-configured Mouser cart for several versions, including one for MMDVM_HS_Hat version 1.6⩘ .
- Mathis, Florian, and Andreas Meier, DO7EN, are also working on a duplex board, the MMDVM_HS_Dual_Hat: phl0 / MMDVM_HS_Dual_Hat⩘ .
- Nano hotSPOT blueBOX and Duplex hotSPOT for RPi by Huang Huorong, BI7JTA, who is quite enthusiastic about amateur radio. I tried the Nano hotSPOT blueBOX and found that it worked reasonably well, though it's quite slow, presumably due to the specs of the NanoPi computer it uses. Website: jTA blog⩘ .
- Nano-Spot by Mark Guidbord, K7IZA. The Nano-Spot appears to be a nifty little plug-n-play device. It includes built-in WiFi, RF and WiFi antennas, and an OLED display, all in a durable extruded aluminum case. Runs Pi-Star. Requires a digital radio and supports D-STAR, DMR, YSF, and P25. I haven't tried this hotspot, but if you're looking for hotspot hardware, it looks like one that may be worth checking out. Website: Micro-Node⩘ .
- SharkRF openSPOT by Ákos Marton, HG1MA, and Norbert Varga, HA2NON. Works with a D-STAR, DMR, or YSF radio. Has some cross-mode capability. Website: SharkRF⩘
- Out of stock; a new product is said to be coming, but no release date.
- Unique among all of these hotspots, they have excellent online documentation: openSPOT User Manual⩘ .
- Although the openSPOT includes only wired network connectivity, I was able to use the openSPOT to create a mobile hotspot by connecting it to a nano router that was in turn connected wirelessly to my Android phone acting as a portable WiFi hotspot. For more info about this, see: On the road with the openSPOT⩘ .
- ThumbDV by Bryan Hoyer, K7UDR, Basil Gunn, N7NIX, John Hays, K7VE, and Dennis Rosenauer, AC7FT. The ThumbDV is a USB device with a built-in AMBE chip, so it can be plugged into a computer that has a microphone and speaker, and doesn't require a digital radio. I haven't tried this hotspot so can't share much about it. Apparently it can support D-STAR, DMR, and YSF, depending on the hotspot software used. As of mid-2018, their website and product line are both a bit stale, for example, they haven't published an update about the "upcoming" product they feature on their homepage, the UDRX, since early 2017. NW Digital Radio ThumbDV⩘ .
5) Be wary of cheap clones!
There are some really good quality, cutting-edge hotspot modem boards available right now. And then there are the clone boards called JumboSPOT (a.k.a., J-Hat). It has been challenging for me to find info about them, but from what I've learned so far, they appear to be inferior unauthorized copies of an early MMDVM_HS_Hat.
From what I have read in forums, a significant number of people have problems with the JumboSPOT. In particular, it uses cheap versions of the oscillator/TXCO chips, which can cause some serious issues, up to bricking the board.
Many of the vendors of the cheap knock-off clones appear to not even know much about amateur radio; instead, their focus seems to be making a quick buck. Many also don't provide much support to the hams buying their products.
The hams creating the genuine hardware, the firmware it runs, and the MMDVM software are personally contributing to the amazingly rapid innovation we're seeing in the digital voice space right now.
At first glance, the clone boards may seem to be a bargain because they're a few bucks cheaper than the original boards. But spending a few extra bucks on one of the original boards is probably worth it; not only do you get quality components and better support, you also get the satisfaction of supporting the innovation that is happening in our hobby.
6) A shout out to the innovators and enablers
In general, hotspots really put the amateur in amateur radio. For the most part, the creative innovation driving this branch of amateur radio forward is being done by passionate hams around the world with day jobs and families who are pursuing various projects in their spare time.
The upside is that we get this really innovative playground to mess around in; the downside—or, depending on how you look at it, another upside—is that this really is an amateur endeavor: things don't always work; there are some rough edges; updates sometimes break stuff; it can take a while for new features that many people want to get implemented; sometimes the only way to make something work is with a soldering iron, a bit of cussing, and a lot of stubbornness; and some features aren't fully documented so it can take a lot of trial and error to figure them out. In other words … lots of fun to be had for an adventurous amateur!
Here are some of the hams driving all of this forward:
Jonathan Naylor, G4KLX
Jonathan operates in a technical stratosphere way above my head. What I can comprehend is that he has been creating important digital voice-related solutions for years, which he makes freely available to the hams who are innovating in this playground and helping to make amateur digital voice radio so exciting.
The fact that he does this as a side project is truly amazing. (In a video of a talk he gave about MMDVM, he mentioned how at one point his job took him away from home during the week for a period of time to a place that had few disturbances. This, he said with a somewhat mischievous grin, made it possible for him to spend his evening doing something useful … which turned out to be MMDVM!)
Here's what Pi-Star's Andy Taylor says about this:
There are some more special people who we all owe a debt of gratitude for their willingness to release their software for free. Jonathan Naylor (G4KLX) for his most excellent DStarRepeater, ircDDBGateway suite, and more recently MMDVMHost and DMRGateway. These applications form the core of what makes Pi-Star what it is, and without these excellent applications Digital Voice for Amateurs would be an entirely different and barren landscape.
Andrew Taylor, MWØMWZ
Andy's work has made a huge difference to the thousands of us who use Pi-Star to run our hotspots and repeaters. If this were his full-time job, I still wouldn't understand how he manages to crank out so much code as he keeps updating Pi-Star with the latest cutting-edge features and advances. The fact that he does this as a side project and somehow still manages to find time for his real full-time job, his family, and his studies totally baffles me. Website: www.pistar.uk⩘ .
José Uribe (Andy), CA6JAU
Andy makes the firmware that powers many ZUMspot and MMDVM_HS-based boards. If you ever hear a rumor about some awesome new feature or functionality, check out his GitHub page; chances are he'll already have a release ready with it ! GitHub: juribeparada/MMDVM_HS⩘ .
There are tinkerers in countries all around the world who are designing boards and wielding soldering irons faster than any of the legendary six-shooter gunslingers of the Old West.
Jim McLaughlin, KI6ZUM, is one of them. He worked closely with Jonathan and Andy on the original MMDVM project, and is the guiding hand behind the ZUM Radio products. There are several others listed in the Other hotspot hardware and software section above. And there are many more I've read about (try searching Twitter for MMDVM!), and I'm sure there are even more I haven't yet heard about.
For someone like me who thinks it's a pretty amazing accomplishment when I manage to solder on a GPIO header without melting the whole board … well, let's just say I'm in awe!
There are a bunch of hams hanging out in forums and groups around the internet answering question, solving problems, and giving guidance for all the various aspects of digital voice and hotspots. For the Pi-Star project, this includes Craig, W1MSG, who also makes the tutorial videos, Adrian, MØGLJ, and Andrew, M1DNS, as well as many others. Thanks to all the hams who are helping out in this way; I really appreciate the opportunity to learn by reading your posts!
And all the other enablers
Finally, a shoutout to all the clubs and individuals who are putting up repeaters, reflectors, servers, gateways, bridges, and other equipment, as well as providing trainings for how to use it all.
Thanks for making it possible for all the rest of us to enjoy the rich variety of systems and features that are now available in the digital voice playground!