Digital Voice Modes   June 29th, 2013

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At a recent meeting I was asked what I thought of digital modes and how it was fairing in the ham radio market. I should explain that we were talking about digital speech and not data transmissions.

I well remember the launch of D-Star and the tremendous backing that Icom gave to the mode. Of course they had a commercial interest in this new mode and, judging by our dales, and sales reported around the world, they did very well out of it. Yaesu did have a foot in the door during the early discussions and development, but failed to follow it through into production. I never understood why this was, but with all the excitement and hype, Icom had the market all to themselves.

We have had a D-Star repeater here at Hockley for several years, and although our village is not on the top of a hill, the antenna is well sited for signals to the north and reasonable to the south. I well remember using an Icom handheld from home and working quite a few stations through it. But today the picture seems to have changed quite a bit.

Our repeater gets far less traffic and the demand for D-Star, whilst still there, is far less than it was. I don’’t currently operate D-Star myself, but the feedback I get from customers suggests, that in our area at least, the activity has dropped noticeably. The question of course is why has this happened? Is it not offering what it promised? Is it because only those who own Icom can use it. Certainly the more modes that are introduced, the more widely spread operation becomes, diluting the interest in each mode. In addition there is the novelty factor. This always produces an initial steep upward curve, followed by a variable gradient downwards. And a follow on question must be, is there much of a demand for any speech digital mode anyway?

Ham radio is different from the commercial market. We frequently operate in conditions where signal levels are low and interference is ever present. Is there currently a digital mode that can offer improved speech intelligibility under these conditions compared with SSB going through a narrow filter supplemented with DSP? I guess that one of the limitations is that unlike digital data, speech currently does not have any error correction capabilities or sampling ability. Maybe that will come. Maybe it won;t, and we will have to rely on the printed words on a screen! Only time will tell. Peter G3OJV

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