Network Radio – Is it real Ham Radio?
Network Radio began gaining some interest as an amateur radio format about a year ago. During the past year Network Radio has gained popularity with Amateur Radio operator as well as with radio hobbyist in general. The most popular aspect of Network Radio has been based around Zello using their mobile phone apps for IOS and Android. Basically Zello is an VOIP service with a push to talk feature that can be used over WiFi or cellular Data. There are two versions available the free personal version and a paid commercial version that offers a larger feature set that would be of interest to business users. Zello allows for the creation of groups. These groups can range from just a friends to thousands of members in a group. When a user presses the push to talk button on their phone’s screen, the voice message will be heard by all users in the group in pretty much real time. Zello claims to have a worldwide user base of 120 million users at the time of this writing.
How does Zello Work?
Since most people use the personal version of Zello, simply download the free app that matches your devices operation system. The device can be an IOS or Android phone or tablet or a Windows PC. Once the app is installed you must create a free user account and user name with Zello. The user name can be anything that is not in use by someone else, but you may want to use your amateur call sign for amateur radio use. Once you have logged in, you search for public groups to communicate with. These groups can cover a wide range of interests and topics. You will find that there are groups that cover various aspects of the radio hobby. In these groups you can discuss you radio interests with other like minded individuals. Once you’re in the group, you can chat with other members, send text messages, photos, and positional information to group members. Keep in mind that what ever you say is heard by all the other group members. Also, Zello will store users voice conversations in the group log so members can review them later. You can also create your own groups. Zello has put a lot of thought into group management. In any group your going to have some “bad actors” so Zello has taken that into account and allows for member management. These features can be turned on by the group owner by the type of group they decide create.
Zello Group Types
Anyone can talk – These channels are open to the public to listen to or talk on. The channel owner may turn on the voting feature that allows the users in a group to vote off a user of the channel after a certain number of negative votes from members.
Listen Only – Anyone can listen but only moderators can talk. A channel owner can also designate other members moderators to help manage the channel. In some cases it might be necessary to switch the channel to this mode if it is being used for emergency situations.
Zselect – In this mode anyone can listen but can’t talk. To be able to talk on these channels you will have approved by a moderator to be able to talk on the channel.
Zselect+ – Only approved channel users can talk or listen to the channel. These channels are basically private and encrypted. Users will need to approved by the channel owner or moderator before they can use the channel.
Ok, what does this have to do with Amateur Radio?
Amateur radio operators have always been really good about adapting emerging technologies to expand their communications toolkit. Network Radio offers certain advantages over existing Amateur Radio communication technologies. Network Radio can offer the following advantages over other communications modes.
Advantages of Network Radio
1. Not range limited. The Zello system reaches world wide.
2. The audio quality is superb. Usually no dropouts ,digital noise , or static unlike VHF, UHF, HF, D-Star, DMR, or C4FM.
3. Very reliable compared to traditional amateur radio communications technologies since communications are accomplished through the cellular data network and the internet. Basically a direct link between the radio users.
4. No expensive repeater system required for local amateur radio communications.
5. No complicated hotspots required. All you need is a cellular network connection or a WiFi connection for a Network Radio to work.
6. Since Network Radio does not require a FCC license, unlicensed individuals can be added to the group if the need arises.
7. Equipment costs can be very inexpensive when compared to other communications methods.
8. No external antennas needed.
9. Easy to setup and use.
10. Non licensed radio hobbyist can be allowed into Amateur Radio channels to gain knowledge of Amateur Radio by interacting with licensed Amateurs. Hopefully to eventually become a licensed Amateur Radio Operator.
11. Can be used easily in mobile or outdoor environments since there is no need for external antennas.
The major disadvantage is that if there is no cell phone coverage or internet then the system doesn’t work. This is the reason that Network Radio won’t ever replace traditional RF based Amateur Radio.
Amateur Radio Applications
Amateur Radio operators are beginning to integrate Network Radio into their arsenal of their communication tech. Here are some applications in use today and some reasons Network Radio is growing very rapidly.
Alternative to modes that require antennas
With the aging amateur radio population downsizing or moving into HOA restricted housing they often cannot always put up a decent outside or inside antenna for Amateur Radio modes that require one. Therefore feel that they often have to give up their involvement in amateur radio. Some have worked around the issue by the use of hotspots that connect to D-Star and DMR radio systems over the internet. Network Radio offers a simpler setup and less expensive way for them to enjoy “rag chewing” with other amateur radio operators around the world. Therefore bringing inactive Amateur Radio operators back to the hobby.
Replace or expand local repeater systems.
With aging and almost abandoned local repeater systems, Network Radios offer a good alternative to local repeaters. Also Network Radio can be added to an existing repeater system to expand its coverage by interfacing a network radio device directly to the repeater. This would allow amateur radio operators to access the repeater from virtually any where. Of course the interface channel would need to moderated to allow only licensed hams to access the VOIP connection to the repeater.
Local Event Coverage
Amateur radio clubs that offer event coverage can quickly set up comms using only the Network Radio system rather than repeaters. This would allow for greater range and more reliable coverage given that there is good cell phone coverage in the area. There is also the benefit of being able to add non-licensed individuals such as event coordinators, medical personnel,etc to the channel using their smartphones rather than stationing an operator with an individual. This also allows everyone that is involved in coordinating the event the ability to hear what is going on. The group can be easily added to on the fly.
ARES, Skywarn, etc.
Some ARES groups are already using Network Radio to supplement their regular communications methods. Again the advantage is being able to link amateur radio operators in the field quickly to public officials since they can be added to a Network Channel via their cellphone. The disadvantage is that Network Radio is only functional if the area affected still has cellular data service. During Hurricane Michael, network radio was used to keep the public informed of the storms progress and to take emergency calls to forward to channels coordinating rescue and relief operations. However, cellular service was interrupted in some areas knocking out Network Radios. This was example where network radio could be used until cellular service and the internet went down in some areas. After that traditional amateur radio HF and VHF communications had to be deployed. However that being said it would be possible to use a portable VHF to Network Radio repeater link to connect to another VHF – Network Radio link that still maintained cellular data service. These types of repeaters can be setup easily and quickly using a Network Radio HT and a VHF HT with a cable like this one SainSonic RPT-2D Two-way Radio Repeater Box for Two Transceivers Station DIY.
Smartphone Phone vs Dedicated Network Radio
Due to the growing popularity of network radio among radio hobbyist, dedicated network radios have appeared in the familiar form factor of amateur radio Handi Talkies and mobile/ base units. These radios are basically based around an unlocked Android phone with a touchscreen. At then end of the day, Network Radios are in essence a stripped down Android smartphone in a HT or mobile / base form factor. They typically contain a small to large touch screen display, dual SIM cards, and a SD card slot. Most of these devices are made to work over the GSM cellular network (usually no CDMA networks like Verizon) carriers such as AT&T, T-Mobile, and others for voice and data. If you add a SIM card with voice and text messaging you can use the radio as a regular cell phone. However to use Network Radio you really only need cellular data. Fortunately Network Radio doesn’t use a lot of data so smaller data plans can suffice depending on your use. Having the dedicated data SIM in the Network Radio will allow you to use the radio anywhere there is cell service. The other good alternative is if you have a smartphone that you carry with you all the time that has a WiFi Hotspot feature connected to the Network Radio rather than pay for a separate service. Using the radio around the house simply requires being connected to your home WiFi. Dedicated network radios all come with a side mounted PTT button on the HT or a PTT hand mic for the mobile/base unit. The HTs are typically constructed out of high impact plastic of varying quality and are rated as IP68 water resistance. So they can be abused a bit but they are not built as well as amateur radios from Yaesu, Icom or Kenwood. The HTs typically contain a 4000ish milliamp battery that can power the unit for several days when compared to VHF/UHF HTs that usually will only last a few hours. The HT’s can be charged via a mini USB port on the radio or a drop in charger. The mobile/base units are powered by a 12 volt source and do not contain a battery. The HTs also contain a front and rear facing camera while the mobile units do not. Both types of radios have GPS built in with the mobile units have an external GPS antenna. The HT models also sport an attached cellular antenna which allow for slightly better cellular reception than most cell phones. The mobile base units typically have a built in cellular antenna with the option of attaching an external cellular antenna. Depending on the model, both types of radio contain additional sensors like an accelerometer and gyroscope. Both types of radios contain very loud built in speakers with generally good audio which make them easy to hear over the background noise in a vehicle or crowded place. Most Network Radios allow you to download apps from the Android Play store. If the radio doesn’t come with Zello pre installed you can download it for free from the Android Playstore. If you intend to use the use the mini USB port to access any photos or data from the HT or mobile/base unit you will need to activate the developer mode to gain access to the internal storage. You can find these instructions easily on the internet.
If you are new to network radio you might want to just download the Zello free app for your smart phone and give the service a try before investing in a dedicated network radio. However, if you use the service a lot you will probably want to buy a dedicated radio. A dedicated Network Radio gives you the convenience of true push to talk operation rather than pressing and holding the PTT button on your smartphones screen. The audio quality on both transmit and receive can be much better than your phone. Especially the receive audio which will be much louder and higher quality than even the best cell phone. The dedicated radio will should be much more durable than your cell phone and probably a lot cheaper to replace than your cell phone if it gets dropped. The dedicated Network Radios shout stand up to more abuse than your cell phone. If you are going mobile then the mobile / base unit will be more convenient than your cell phone. Plus most amateur radio operators just feel more comfortable with something they can clip to their belt or mounted under the dash. By the way the mobile units are typically not very heavy or deep so it is easy to find a place to mount in a vehicle. Another comforting factor for the radio hobbyist is that these radios come with hard buttons that make it easier to access certain functions instead of fumbling with a cellphones touch screen.
However there is a little downside to the radios. While it is pretty easy to set up Zello on these units it can be a bit of a pain when working on the small screen in these units which are typically 2.5 to 3 inches. Using the keyboard on the touch screen can be a real exercise in patience trying to enter information from the tiny on screen keyboard. Usually you just set it up once and don’t have to deal with it that often, however if you don’t already have one it might be worth investing in a Bluetooth keyboard to make typing easier. Another trick is to set everything up on your Zello account via your smartphone. When you are done setting up the Network Radio channels on your smartphone, log in to the same account the Network Radio and all the settings will transfer over you put into your Smart Phone. Be sure to exit the Zello app on your smartphone before logging in to your Zello app on your Network Radio since you can’t be logged into your account under the same user name simultaneously. If you do have more than one Network Radio and want to use them at the same time you will need to create a separate user name for each one under your account. Another possibility for working with the small screen is to install either Vysor or Airdroid to remotely access your Network Radio via your PC. These apps will give you access to your device on a larger screen with access to full keyboard and mouse making some setups much easier. These apps require you to have the developer option on the Android app and plugged into the host computer via USB (except for the paid version Vysor which will work over WiFi). .These apps can be downloaded from the Play Store. A word of caution when using Vysor it can lock up some radios to the point you have to remove power from the radio to allow it restart. Another app that you might find useful for your Network Radio is Button Mapper. Some of these radios may come with extra buttons and knobs that might not do anything out of the box. With Button Mapper you can assign these buttons to various activities like to load a certain application or turn a rotary knob into a volume control.
What to look for when buying a Network Radio
First of all if you are in the USA, dedicated Network Radios can be little hard to come by since 100% of them are made in China. So usually you can’t walk into your local ham radio emporium and buy one.You can order them on Ebay directly from China but you have to wait about 4 to 6 weeks to get it. Fortunately since the popularity of Network Radios are increasing in the USA some US vendors are now providing them in a few days. These are typically unbranded models offered at a low price. A few US Amazon vendors are sourcing these radios, but check the prices carefully. Some Amazon vendors are over pricing the units since they can be a bit scarce. At any rate, you can typically have one in your hands in a few days if you can get it from a US vendor. Secondly brand names mean nothing since a given radio can be sold under several brand names for the exact same radio. As far as warranty repair goes, you can probably forget about that since most of these rigs come out of China. As an early adopter it might be best to just purchase a basic HT or Mobile/Base unit until situation stabilizes. A basic HT will run from around $130 to $225 and a basic mobile will run from around $200. Above all be sure you are buying an Unlocked GSM version with PlayStore installed. Not having these two features can severely limit the functionality of the radio. Alternatively you can find a few inexpensive rugged smart phones for around the same price as a Network Radio HT with a PTT side button that will work well as a Network Radio.
What determines the cost of a Network Radio?
1. Size of the touch screen – The least expensive units will typically contain a 2.5 to 3.5 inch screen. Some models may sport a 4 inch screen but the price increases significantly.
2. Android Version – You will find that most of the Network Radios will run a version 4 to 7. Higher is better.
3. Feature set – This is pretty standard across the board but radios from Boxchip is offering S700A with a 4 inch screen which also contains a VHF or UHF transceiver with DMR(which may not be certified for use in the US market) for $750 They also offer a $499 version without the transceiver. Street prices are around $699 to $399 respectively. These radios are currently the “Cadillacs” of the Network radios.
You can explore Network Radio with Zello on your smartphone before investing in a dedicated Network Radio. The best place to start is to subscribe to the 8 channels called Network Radios. Just search for them with the Zello app and you should see them with a blue logo next to them. There are other amateur related channels that you can also explore. The Network Radios channels stay pretty busy 24/7 with a large number of users. The channels are generally populated with users from the US and Europe. The Network Radios group allow licensed amateurs operators as well as unlicensed operators. Amateur radio communication protocols are observed when communicating on the channels. Users have to be approved to use the channel by a moderator by speaking to a moderator, however anyone can listen to the channels. If your user name is a valid amateur license, typically you will be added to the channels automatically. Usually there are a fair number of moderators around on the channels, so approval can be pretty quick. If a user does not adhere to the channels rules, they probably will be removed pretty quickly. If you wish, you can use an assigned Network Radio callsign by asking for one from one of the moderators. These callsigns are usually assigned starting with NR and four additional digits following.
When you first get started with Zello and subscribe to several channels things may seem a little confusing at first. This is because that Zello works like an old school scanner. Zello scans all the channels you are subscribed to and when one goes silent it jumps to the next active channel. If you want to stay on a channel you must change your status from Available to Solo and Zello will stick on that channel. There are a lot of settings that can affect how Zello works. Here is a pretty good users guide to setting up Zello for PTT Network Radio hardware, as well as a good general resource on Network Radios. Another good resource is the the Network Radio Facebook page with over 2000 members at this writing.
Other Amateur Radio Uses
While the bulk of Network Network radio centers around the use of the Zello app, there are other Amateur Radio modes that can be used that connect to the internet. Other ham related apps that can be installed on these Network Radio devices since they are Android based devices. These include APRS, IRN (International Radio Network) using Team Speak 3, and Echolink. So in essence Network Radio hardware can be a very multi-functional radio that Amateur Radio operators should find useful.
But is it Real Ham Radio?
Getting back to the title of this article, is Network Radio real ham radio? It really just depends on how you define “Real Ham Radio” Amateur radio. Some amateur radio operators contend that because it is not a RF based communications technology it is not real ham radio. Well basically Network Radio is a RF based technology since it transmits a low power RF signal to communicate with a cellular tower or to a WiFi Hotspot. Some say it is not real radio because it is internet based. Well, that would eliminate such widely accepted technologies as DMR and D-Star communications over a hotspot connected to the internet. Also eliminated would be Echolink ,IRN and APRS. So that logic doesn’t really make since. Remember some amateur radio operators don’t see communications technologies such as WSPR or FT8 as “real ham radio”, but yet will claim that the ancient RTTY or even CW technology is. So you see really those that discount Network Radio as a viable Amateur Radio communications technology have sort of a non-forward thinking process going on. That’s ok though because the great thing about Amateur Radio is that everyone can find their favorite niche in the hobby and can contribute. No matter if it’s CW or Network Radio it’s all ham radio. Another objection that pops up is that non licensed users can use the technology. Well actually this a good thing for the hobby. As mentioned earlier, the Network Radio Zello channels accept both. This allows non-amateur radio users and licensed amateur radio operators to mingle and discuss communications technology. Therefore generating interest in Amateur Radio and attracting more users into the Amateur Radio service. There have already been members of the Network Radios channels who have gone on to obtain their amateur radio licenses. Some Amateur Radio operators feel that Network Radios could mean the death of traditional Amateur Radio. Not hardly. You have to keep in mind that Network Radio relies on cellular data and Wifi to work. If you lose those services then your Network Radio basically becomes a brick. So, RF based amateur radio will always be the “Last Mile” technology during disasters or other situations where traditional communications methods are not available. So, is Network Radio “real ham radio”, sure it is. Network Radio is just another technology that can be leveraged by Amateur Radio users to extend their communications ability. Network Radio won’t replace traditional Amateur Radio, but it can certainly augment it.
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