5/10/09 - Is D-Star Dying a Slow Death?

Tweetbutton tweet

kg7hq Sun, 05/10/2009 - 12:03

The title was a question posed to me during a recent amateur radio swap meet.

It is a valid question that I couldn't honestly answer without looking at some of the demographics. About a year and a half ago, I had bashed the D-Star system due to it's expense, single vendor source and in part being closed sourced with a proprietary chip set supplied by a single manufacturer. This weakness to this day makes this technology vulnerable to the flavor of the day.. (money).

I had also made comment on how Icom's approach was, in todays world, backwards to the trend of communications technology. This being that they marketed a anolog voice radio design with a digital after thought instead of designing a digital radio with VOIP (Voice Over IP) system added on. I did step out on a limb back then stating that it was a nice first step but seriously lacked the thunder to be a serious resolution to emergency communications.

That was then.... This is now. Though this website has readers and followers throughout the world, I am going to focus a little more locally as this is where the questions presented originated.

The first step in evaluating a technologies acceptance and health is to take a snapshot of usable systems within a given region. My thoughts are to look right in the back yard of Icom America, Redmond Washington. After all, if there is any indication of long term health you would expect to see it in the vendors back yard.
I know there are many who will disagree with what I'm saying here in this article and that is fine with me as I only represent a single voice. But it's hard to over look the obvious.....

In my first look around... I'm seeing a very sad state of affairs for the D-Star infrastructure.http://www.jfindu.net/DSTARRepeaters.aspx and zooming in on Washington State (The home of Icom America) I see only four systems active.

Yes... That is only four. That is very sad considering that two of them reside on Icom's front porch in distance. The stations noted are only in Western Washington and don't have a wide area of coverage to be effective under emergent situations. I can't help thinking this is due to what my initial impressions of the equipment and protocols used. If this was to be the future backbone to emergency communications systems deployed by amateur radio, it would of been adopted by Yaesu, Kenwood and others.

There was a little arrogance by Icom as they tried to push this down the communities throats by donating full systems thus forcing a foot hold in common place USA. That my friends failed. Questions and concerns were being buried by free-bee's and those who bought into the hipe went out and invested into it. Now there are many rigs that sit on shelves or if still in use, being so as a very expensive analog voice rig.

The interesting thing is that besides what we see here locally in Washington State, there are pockets of D-Star networks functioning and being expanded on. Just to my North in Southern BC, Canada, there is a vast integrated network infrastructure in place supporting their communication needs. So to say that this technology is dead would be very much premature. As questionable as the design is, Icom is providing a solution that does meet the needs of certain areas. It just not the worldly solution as they tried to promote over the last few years.

On a side note. As I page through the write ups about the cool applications that are in constant development, I see a truly focused following that will keep this system alive for years to come. Many of these individuals will stand behind this technology, nay saying anyone who defies them. As with any other group within our ranks of ham radio, these few don't speak on behalf of us all, but do have voice. This is proven out by looking at the above mentioned site, zooming in and truly observing the lack of infrastructure throughout the country.

With the onset of open sourced software defined radio systems, it will not be long before you see a truly adaptable Digital transceiver. VOIP and other digital modes will be second nature leaving the D-Star system in the dust. The technologies are here right now.... So it isn't rocket science anymore.

Nope, D-Star isn't dead..... It is however just a slow fizzle.


Is DSTAR dying? The simplest answer is clearly NO. You can check the DSTARUsers.org web site and clearly see significant growth in user base and installed systems world-wide. I’m seeing an average of 12 new users an hour. This data comes live from the DSTAR gateway servers and doesn’t even show the whole story. There are still systems on the air acting as stand-alone repeaters, not using the gateway. There are also users operating simplex or through repeaters without activating the gateway. Japan is also still on an older system that isn’t shown here so none of their systems or users are represented.

If DSTAR is growing and there aren’t any systems in your back yard, there must be another reason(s). There are in fact, many reasons. If Icom’s back yard had anything to do with it, then APRS must be huge in Georgia where Kenwood has been producing APRS-ready handhelds mobiles and base rigs for almost 10 years now. If you look at APRS.fi, you’ll see the Atlanta area map isn’t even as crowded as Western Washington.

The real question is about the future of ham radio. Commercial and government users will be mandated to move to narrow-band (12.5kHz) analog (FM) and digital modes (largely P25) modes next year. Despite a lack of available repeater pairs in many areas (including Western Washington), hams have made no move to improve spectral efficiency and are quickly falling behind their commercial counterparts. DSTAR is already narrower than what is being required of commercial/government users.
The first two radios produced by Icom were the ID-1 and ID-800. Those were DSTAR radios with backward compatibility to FM (not the other way around). In fact, to achieve the narrow bandwidth, DSTAR uses GMSK modulation which means DSTAR cannot be a simple add-on to an FM rig.

Rarely is donation of hardware seen as “pushing it down anyone’s throat”. Any future mode will have similar acceptance issues. It’s a chicken and egg problem. Why buy a radio with no infrastructure and why build infrastructure if there are no users? Icom wisely gave a system to each qualifying dealer to seed their areas. Many of these dealers had contests and accepted proposals to identify a group that would be the best steward of the equipment. Unfortunately, Western Washington no longer has an amateur dealer, so no system came here. Those 4 systems on the map were purchased privately. In many of these areas, once a system was in place, the user base grew to justify a second and so on. As a result there are some areas with substantial DSTAR penetration; Dallas, New York, Alabama, Florida and even Kenwood’s home in Georgia.

There are three common objections to DSTAR that are mentioned in the BLOG entry. They all have merit if we assume we will use FM forever, rather than newer modes. If we anticipate any future new modes, we can expect these same issues to appear.

Cost – Newer isn’t always better but it is almost always more expensive. The DSTAR radios have to provide both FM and DSTAR (GMSK) operations in a single unit. This WILL be more expensive. The average price premium is $200. Interestingly, this is about the same price as a KPC3+ packet TNC to allow 1200 baud data over an FM radio. DSTAR can do 1200 baud data and voice simultaneously with nothing required but a cable (one you can buy rather than build).

Open Source – The JARL owns the D-STAR specification and it is published at http://www.jarl.com/d-star/shiryou/STD4_3.PDF (in Japanese). Icom does not own the spec and cannot deviate from it. The only proprietary part is the codec (voice encoder/decoder) that Icom buys from DVSI. This part is available for about $20 for amateur use. This is the same codec used by AOR in their HF voice modems and for “Open Source” P25 radios. Codecs are a hard problem to solve and almost all work on an open source HF digital voice solution has stopped when the new owners of the MELP codec decided to enforce their patent. There is some effort to find an alternative, but there is no better option at this time.

Additionally there is work through the Open DSTAR project to identify ALL the interfaces and document them. It has already produced extensions to the gateway software, the DV Dongle, DSTAR Hotspot and a number of other projects in the works. Although the repeater programming software is Windows-based, the gateways are Linux. There is also work to rewrite the programming software to Linux as well.

Single Source – There aren’t too many players in the amateur market and it’s not a large market. The Amateur DSTAR market is even smaller. Icom and Kenwood both signed an MOU with JARL to support only DSTAR as their digital solution for amateur radio. Kenwood did market radios in Japan for some time (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D-STAR). They will likely return when the market has grown enough to sustain two vendors, cleverly allowing Icom to take all the risk of pushing a new mode.

None of this addresses the reasons one might want to actually use DSTAR.

Solid high-quality voice audio until the signal become unusably weak
Rather than the slow degradation heard in FM signals
Greater spectral efficiency
Allows more repeaters in our limited (already full) spectrum
Digital voice AND data at the same time
The radios ID themselves and display IDs– no voice ID required
APRS-like functionality over the same channel in real-time
Applications like D-RATS allow any data to be sent via DSTAR
Automatic routing of calls
A called user can be anywhere at any time – the system will locate them
Calls can be routed to another band on the same repeater or via the Internet
Linking of repeaters and reflectors available
Any repeater can be linked directly to any other
User-created “reflectors” on the Internet allow multiple repeaters to connect
No audio level issues that plague analog machines
Some degree of “security through obscurity”
Most scanners can’t receive DSTAR traffic
Decoding the data channel requires a DSTAR radio and the same software
High speed data available at 1.2GHz
Data cables are simple 3-wire RS-232 or RJ-45
The low speed data connections are the same as Kenwood radios
Operation is simple and integrated (radio and data in one unit)
Set the MyCall and you’re ready to go
Unlike packet where there are dozens of settings which can break comms

There are undoubtedly more benefits but these are off the top of my head. The next question is if these have benefit to emcomm users. As more emcomm systems move into the digital domain, FM becomes less valuable and a newer digital system becomes more attractive. I can see several.

No need to exchange current frequency lists
Only need to know a callsign and let the DSTAR system find their current operation
If Whatcom County went offline, they could switch to southern BC and I could still find them instantly
Repeater coverages can be expanded to meet the needs of a disaster by linking repeaters or using a reflector
Tracking assets in the field in real-time with DPRS without using a second channel or any additional bandwidth
PIO can control information flow because the media won’t be monitoring (for a while anyway)
Data can be sent between stations with virtually no configuration
Chat, maps, forms, images (automatically resized), weather events, files
DSTAR radio can be accessed over a network allowing EOC users to access DSTAR in radio room via D-RATS
DSTAR system can be accessed through any network connection
All this functionality can be available from a dispatch center or EOC with no radio required but can still interoperate with RF users with DV Dongle
Integration with VoIP phone systems and more is coming

The repeaters have been available for about three years now. The original gateway software has some significant limitations that slowed their installation. The current (version 2) gateway addresses many of the early issues and has been available for about a year and a half. Much of the growth we’ve seen came after version 2 of the gateway. Not bad for less than 2 years…