KnowledgeQuest - FM Voice Repeaters
TEARA's Repeater Operating Guide
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In March, 1991 the FCC
instituted the Code-Free Technician license. The sky did not fall
and CB did not take over Amateur Radio -- but there are LOTS of new
hams coming on the air. TEARA welcomes all of you to the TEARA
system and its member owned repeaters! We're glad you're here, and
we would like to invite you to join our organization.
The repeater chairman, control operators, and the members of the various repeater task forces are responsible for construction, maintenance and operation of the TEARA repeaters. We have prepared this guide, with great assistance from RARS (Raleigh Amateur Radio Society), to help you better understand how it all works.
WHAT IS A REPEATER?
Let's get basic for a few paragraphs... and if you're an old-timer, you might want to read through this section just to see if we got it right. First, what exactly is a "repeater?" And why do we use them? The communication range between Amateur VHF-FM mobile and handheld radios at ground level is limited -- five to fifteen miles for mobiles, and just a couple of miles for handhelds. This is usually referred to as "line-of-sight" -- you can talk about as far as you can see (if you cut down the trees).
To extend our range, we use repeaters. A repeater is a specially designed receiver/transmitter combination. When you operate through a repeater, its receiver picks up your signal on it’s input frequency, and the transmitter re-transmits -- or "repeats" -- you on the output frequency. For example, one of the TEARA repeaters hears you as you transmit on 147.990 MHz, and repeats you onto 147.390 MHz. You'll hear this repeater referred to as "three-nine."
Repeater antennas are located on tall towers, buildings, or mountains (if available), giving them much greater range than radios with antennas near the ground. When you're in range of a repeater, you can talk to everyone else in range of that repeater. One of the TEARA’s repeaters (147.39) is located just south of Clayton, and it’s antenna is on top of a tower that puts it about 250 feet above average terrain. The site is about 325 feet above sea level, placing the repeater antenna some 525 feet above sea level. A mobile station running about 25 watts can communicate through the repeater out about 35 miles. So if you were 35 miles east of the repeater, you could talk to someone about 35 miles west of the repeater. That's 70 miles between you -- a whole lot better than the 10 or so miles you could cover without the repeater! That, of course, depends on the terrain...the 147.39 repeater has much greater than 35 miles coverage to the south and east where the land is much flatter.
Repeaters can have many features beyond just extending the range of mobile or handheld radios. One especially useful feature is called Autopatch. A telephone line and special control equipment at the repeater allow you to make local phone calls from your radio. Now, this is not exactly a replacement for a cellular phone. You can't do business on Amateur Radio, including on an autopatch. You can't receive calls, you can make only local calls, and your conversation is not private! Everybody else listening to the repeater hears your call. Still, autopatch is handy, within its limitations. Both of the TEARA repeaters, and some of the member owned repeaters have autopatch facilities.
WHY DO YOU USE REPEATERS?
There are literally thousands of repeaters across the US (and the world). Each one can have it's own peculiarities and unique operating procedures, but there are some basics that apply to almost all of them. Really complete instructions would fill a book, bore you to tears, and start some fights about what's correct and what's not (operating procedure is a matter of strong opinion in Ham Radio!). We'll risk all of that now, but try not to fill a book.
PLAIN OLD TALKING...
Mostly, you're here to get on the air and chat, right? OK, first you set your radio for the repeater you want to use. We can't tell you how to do that because we don't know how your particular radio works. So we'll assume you've gotten "on frequency" -- your receiver is listening to the repeater output, and your transmitter is set for the repeater input. The first thing you should do is... LISTEN for a minute. Repeaters are party lines. Lots of people use them on and off throughout the day, and the one you've selected may be busy with another conversation right now. So listen for a minute.
Throughout this article, I’ll use my call sign in the examples...simply substitute your call for mine in the example when it’s time for you to actually get on the air. You’ve got the idea...right? OK....
If the repeater isn't busy, key your transmitter and say something like "WB4IUY listening. Anybody want to chat?" (remember to use your own call...), or just “WB4IUY listening”. When you un-key your transmitter, most repeaters will stay on the air for a few seconds, and many will send some kind of "beep." Then the repeater transmitter drops off the air. The beep (if so equipped) is there to remind everyone to leave a pause between transmissions in case someone wants to break in. Even if there's no beep, leave a pause. Somebody may have just come across a traffic accident and needs the repeater to report it. If nobody leaves a pause between transmissions, they can't break in.
If somebody answers, then have a good time! You can talk about anything you want -- there are few rules about the content of Amateur conversation. You can't use Ham Radio to do business, but you can talk about where you work and what you do. Prime time TV language has been peppered with some "hells" and "damns," and so has language on some repeaters. TEARA discourages that. You're not having a private conversation -- you have lots of listeners, some of them children. Keep that in mind as you choose language and subject matter.
How long do you talk? I see you're catching on to the party-line concept. Maybe somebody else wants to use the repeater when you're done. There's no hard rule. It depends on the time of day (rush hours are PRIME TIME for mobiles, evening is also a busy time, while 2 a.m. is pretty empty), and who else might want to use the repeater. If you've been interrupted several times by others needing the repeater to call someone, maybe you've been on a bit too long.
Not all conversations are strictly two-way. Three, four or five or more Hams can be part of a "roundtable" conversation (five or more will be pretty unwieldy). A free-wheeling roundtable is a lot of fun, and it poses a problem: when the person transmitting now is done, who transmits next? Too often, the answer is everybody transmits next, and the result is a mess. You'll hear this often. The solution is simple -- when you finish your transmission in the roundtable, specify who is to transmit next. "... Over to you, Fred."
WE PAUSE FOR STATION IDENTIFICATION...
The RULES say you must ID once every 10 minutes. TEARA is big on clear identification when you use our repeaters, but you don't have to overdo it. Give your call sign when you first get on (this isn't specifically required by the rules, but TEARA encourages it on our repeaters), then once every 10 minutes, and when you sign off. You don't have to give anyone else's call sign at any time, although sometimes its a nice acknowledgment of the person you're talking to, like a handshake.
Repeaters are shared resources -- the party-line. There are many times and reasons that a conversation in progress might be interrupted. You might break in to join the group and add your comments on the subject at hand. Someone else might break in on you to reach someone else who is listening to the repeater. You might have to report an emergency. How to break in is the subject of debate and disagreement.
Here are some suggestions: Pick a good time. If you have an emergency, a good time is NOW. That's why there's a pause between transmissions. Otherwise, listen a bit. Read the ebb and flow of the conversation. One of the fastest ways to establish a reputation as a jerk is to frequently butt your way onto the air without regard for the people already talking. Give your call, and say what you want. When you've listened and decided it's OK to break in now, transmit before the beep and say something like this: "WB4IUY, I have an emergency," "WB4IUY, can I make a call?" or "WB4IUY joining in."
What about "Break?" The problem with just plain "break" is that nobody knows exactly what it means, and everybody has to stop and find out. You will hear some Hams say "break" means "I just want to join in or make a call," "break-break" means "I have very important traffic," and "break-break-break" means "I have a dire emergency." That's fine, but not everybody knows that. Plain English works better. Maybe somebody's breaking in on you. What do you do? Easy -- let them transmit, right now, unless you know absolutely and for sure that they do not have an emergency.
Maybe somebody hasn't read this guide and isn't the expert operator you are now, and they just say "break" or drop in their call, when what they really mean is "HELP." So let them talk. Say "go ahead." And if they're one of those boneheads who's interrupting your perfectly good conversation for no reason but to hear themselves talk, well, bite your lip and be glad you know better.
The exception is when someone actually announces an emergency. Then CLEAR THE DECKS! DO NOT TRANSMIT. The station who declared the emergency has the frequency, and unless they ask for your help, don't give it. Unless... always an unless... they obviously don't know how to handle the situation... and you DO. (You do, don't you?)
What was that I just heard? A stream of foul language and nasty thoughts on the repeater? A rude noise? Sounds like something straight out of CB! I'm OUTRAGED, and I'm gonna tell that sucker off! He can't get away with that on our repeater! Gimmie that microphone!
Cool down. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen -- it's a big world out there, and there are some bad people in it (I hope this isn't news to you). Some of them find a Ham Radio now and then, and discover the delight of offending an audience. The key word is audience.
Deliberate interference and bad language is designed to make you react. The person doing it wants to hear you get mad. They love it. And if they don't get it, they go away, usually quickly. So when you hear the rare nasty stuff on the repeater, our advice is to please ignore it completely. Don't mention it at all on the air. Sometimes a repeater control operator will decide that the best way to handle the situation is to turn off the repeater for a while, but the rest of us should bite our tongues and be silent.
MAKING AN AUTOPATCH CALL.
An Autopatch allows you to make local phone calls from your Amateur Radio, through special control equipment and a telephone line connected to a repeater.
The autopatch will require an "access code," much like a computer password, but sent in Touch-Tones. Some repeaters have "open autopatch," allowing anyone to use it. Their access code is usually just a "*". Other repeaters have "closed autopatch." where the patch codes are disclosed to members only...although members are encouraged to place calls for hams traveling through town. The procedure for using an autopatch depends on the policy of the repeater's sponsor, and on the design of the control system.
This is a basic guide: First, make sure the repeater isn't busy. If you've just turned on your radio and don't want to wait a minute to see if the repeater is active, you might ask "is this frequency in use? This is WB4IUY." If you have a clear repeater frequency, then here's what you do: on some older patches, you identify "WB4IUY accessing the Autopatch", dial the access code, unkey your transmitter and listen for a dial tone. Then dial the number. On newer patches (like the TEARA 147.30 patch) you dial the access code and telephone number as one string, and it stores and then regenerates the number. You then hear it pick up the line, send a dial tone, dial the number, and ring. The patch control holds the repeater transmitter on, with the phone audio connected. When you transmit, your audio goes on the phone line. The party you called says hello, and you transmit and talk. On the TEARA 147.39 patch, you dial the number first, followed by the #...all as one string. It picks up the line and dials...you never hear the dial tone or the touch tones being dialed.
Most people on the telephone end get a little confused by autopatches until they've had some experience with them. When you're transmitting, they can't interrupt you, but they don't know that. So even though they're being rude by interrupting, they will think YOU are being rude by continuing to talk and "ignoring" them. You can reduce this problem by keeping your comments very short, and releasing your transmit button IMMEDIATELY after your last word. Tell the party on the telephone that you are talking to them via amateur radio phone patch. Another common source of autopatch confusion is the "Dead Phone Effect." When you transmit, some noise accompanies your voice on the phone line, even if you have a very good signal into the repeater. And when you stop transmitting, there's usually a little click or pop on the line. Then it goes dead silent, and the party on the line thinks the phone's gone dead. They will say "hello? hello? Are you still there?" or something like that. We enjoy it.
When you're done with the call, say good-bye, just like on a regular phone call, and let the party on the phone hang up. Then you hit the "kill code," which on many autopatches is the "#" button. And identify again, “WB4IUY clear autopatch”. Listen to make sure you successfully killed the patch (the repeater may talk to you, or beep, or just drop).
For some reason, while the temptation to conduct business on most Amateur Radio modes is small, on autopatch it has been a big problem. This is probably because autopatch is the only mode that puts hams in contact with non-hams via Amateur Radio on a regular basis. It seems so easy to call work and pick up a message, tell the boss you’re gonna be late, etc. But remember, the FCC prohibits all business communications on Amateur Radio (except in emergencies). Not just your business, but the business of the party you call. And that goes for non-profit businesses and government agencies as well! The FCC has been very clear about this. If you try to make a call on an autopatch that even hints of being business-related, you can expect a repeater control operator to terminate your patch. Specific TEARA autopatch instructions are included later in this GUIDE, as well as in the TEARA membership manual.
Well, you probably won't be hearing Albania on two-meters anytime soon, but VHF does have it's own form of DX. A few paragraphs ago we mentioned that the TEARA repeater had about a 35 mile range. Usually... Sometimes, though, VHF and UHF "opens up," and stations can be heard for hundreds of miles. There have been contacts made on our 2 meter repeaters as far south as Florida and as far north as Maryland. This is another book-length subject. We'll just squeeze in that VHF and UHF band openings are a double-edged sword. It's exciting to talk to someone 200 miles away, and it's OK, too. But keep in mind that VHF and UHF repeaters were designed to cover local territory, not half the country. So when the band opens up, there is the potential for lots of interference as well as lots of fun. Repeaters on the same frequency will suddenly be too close together. You could very easily be keying up two or more of them at once. To be responsible, get to know where your signal is going (a repeater directory will help). Use a directional antenna where possible, minimum power and keep your conversation short.
On 147.39, we have to be particularly sensitive to the 147.39 repeaters in Locust NC, and Petersburg VA. On 147.30, there is a powerful repeater in Red Springs that has a fairly wide coverage area as well as another just inside of the VA border. When the band opens, usually in the early morning hours, our mobiles begin keying up their repeaters, and we hear their repeaters in the distance. Their users don’t usually bother us since our 2 meter repeaters require CTCSS for signals less than an S-9 in strength at the repeater sites (that is the reason our repeaters are now equipped with this feature) and another feature on our system called an “anti-kerchunker”. While normally not fatal, this can be irritating. Running minimum power, either mobile or from home, will help.
How much power is too much? Within 15 miles of the 147.30 repeater or 20 miles of the 147.39 repeater, five watts into a mobile antenna is all you need. I often run 5 watts mobile from 30 miles out and still get in OK. 45 watts is excessive in many areas less than 15 miles away. At home, with an antenna up on the roof, 45 watts is _really_ excessive for talking through a local repeater. When the band is open, even a five-watt mobile signal can travel from Wilson to Locust, Raleigh to Petersburg, even from Youngsville to Red Springs. At those times, patience and courtesy will help a lot.
Almost all repeaters have something called "timers." A timer is a clock that starts counting when you begin to transmit through the repeater. Typically, this clock is set to "time-out" after about three minutes. That means that if you transmit continuously through the repeater for more than three minutes, the repeater will go off the air (we call it "timing out"). Repeater timers usually reset to zero when you, the user, stop transmitting. If the repeater has a "beep," the timer is probably reset when you hear the beep. So you have to keep your transmissions under three minutes, and always wait for the beep, to avoid having your transmission dumped by the repeater timer.
The three-minute timers are one way to comply with the FCC rules for stations being operated by remote control (most repeaters are remotely controlled). They are not designed as punitive measures for gabby hams... but come to think of it, given the party-line nature of repeaters, and the potential for that emergency traffic, it's a good idea to keep your brilliant monologues a bit shorter anyway. If you must ramble on, orator that you are, don't forget to let the timer reset, and check if somebody else needs the repeater, after a minute or two. Common sense will take over after you have a little repeater operation under the belt, and you won’t even have to think about when to ID or when to drop your transmission...you’ll operate on “auto-pilot”.
There are two kinds of Coded Squelch commonly available to Amateurs: CTCSS (Continuously Tone Coded Squelch System, also known as Subaudible Tone and "PL" [Private-Line, a Motorola trade name]), and DTMF (Dual-Tone Multi-Frequency, also known as Touch-Tone [an AT&T trade name]). The purpose of coded squelch is to allow special signaling from a transmitter to a receiver, either to turn the receiver on, or to access special functions (like autopatch).
CTCSS keeps your receiver quiet on a busy channel until the station you want calls. It adds a "subaudible" tone to your audio, one of 37 very specific frequencies between 67 and 250.3 Hz. Yes, humans can hear these frequencies quite well, so they're "subaudible" because your receiver's audio circuit is supposed to filter them out. A receiver with CTCSS will remain silent to all traffic on a channel unless the transmitting station is sending the correct tone. Then the receiver sends the transmitted audio to it's speaker. In commercial radio service, this allows Jane's Taxi Company and Bob's Towing Service to use the same channel without having to listen to each other's traffic.
In Amateur Radio, some repeaters require users to send the correct CTCSS tone to use the repeater. This may mean the repeater is "closed," for use only by members, or it may simply be used to avoid being keyed up by users of another repeater on the same frequency, just a little too close. TEARA’s 2 meter repeater in Wilson on 147.30 and in Clayton on 147.39 use a special access system. We call it “Dual Squelch”. Normal users of the repeaters program their radios to automatically send (called encoding) a tone of 88.5 at all times when transmitting into the repeaters. The repeater decoder “hears” the tone and allows them to transmit through the repeater. They aren’t “closed” repeaters, and the tone is public knowledge. It is to eliminate the unintentional interference from users of other repeaters during band openings much like that mentioned earlier in the DX!!! section. The repeater will also allow a user that doesn’t generate the 88.5 Hz tone to access the repeater..._if_ their signal is VERY strong. In that way, travelers who don’t know about the CTCSS requirement can get on the repeater and aren’t completely “locked out”.
You can use CTCSS yourself, if you have a decoder in your radio, to silently monitor a busy channel for stations calling just you. Arrange the tone to use in advance, and set your radio to CTCSS decode mode. Have your friend send your tone when she calls. You won't hear anyone else. But, be sure to turn your decoder OFF before you make a call, or when you answer one, or you might interfere with someone you aren't hearing. Note that many repeaters will not pass these low frequencies, so test the repeater you're planning to use before you count on it as a signal path. Most repeaters will pass the higher tones, but not the lower tones.
DTMF is used all over Amateur Radio, for autopatching and remote control. Many new radios are coming equipped with touch-tone decoders and a mode called "paging." Again, with a DTMF decoder you can silently monitor a busy channel. But this time, instead of listening for a subaudible tone, your radio is waiting for a touch-tone sequence. Once again, please turn off your decoder before making a call -- that "quiet" channel may have been busy for hours!
Helping communicate in emergencies is Amateur Radio's #1 reason for existence. Repeaters, especially with autopatch, are excellent tools for emergency communication, and the most frequent type of emergency called in is the traffic accident. That's why we leave a pause between transmissions -- you never know when someone will need the repeater in an emergency.
SKYWARN / ARES...
We also use repeaters to help the National Weather Service in an operation called SKYWARN. When severe weather threatens the area, listen to the 146.88 repeater, and follow instructions from the net-control station. Details on SKYWARN are available at club meetings. ARES is the Amateur Radio Emergency Service. During any kind of emergency, ARES operators will be using repeaters for local coordination and traffic-passing.
During these operations, the active repeater will probably be "closed" to regular conversations. But unless a major disaster has hit the area, there will be other repeaters available for regular activity. Ask the net control station for the status of the repeater.
Clubs across the country regularly help charitable organizations with communications during fund-raising events like bike-a-thons. We do this within the limits of our rules, which allow us to pass traffic that benefits and protects the safety of the participants. Repeaters and simplex are both used for public service events. Their activity isn't too compatible with other hams "rag-chewing" on the same channel, so during the event a repeater will again be "closed." If you need to make a call or a quick autopatch, call the net control station and most likely you can use the repeater for a minute with no problem.
What's "Giving Directions" doing in a repeater operating guide? Just listen for a while, and you'll hear why. We give a lot of directions on repeaters, to locals in an unfamiliar part of the county, and to traveling hams visiting the area. And, sad to say, too often we do it badly. One person will give adequate directions, and someone else just has to break in to give his favorite shortcut. Or somebody gives a two-minute long string of street names and landmarks, non-stop. The poor, lost ham who asked will then thank everyone politely, turn off the radio, and pull into a gas station to try again. We literally fall all over each other trying to be too helpful!
If someone has given directions that will get the traveler to their destination, let it be. Make a correction only if the directions are dead wrong. If it's your turn to give the directions, keep them short and simple. And it might be helpful to find out where the mobile station is before telling him where to go!
Repeaters are great places for nets, and there are lots of nets. A net is an organized on-the-air activity. We've mentioned a few already, like SKYWARN and ARES, but there can be many other types -- traffic nets, rag-chew nets, specialty topic nets, club information nets, and more. When a net is active on a repeater, the repeater is "closed" to other activity. The net-control is in charge of the frequency, and all communication should be directed to that station first.
Much of this article was written originally by Gary Pearce KN4AQ for RARS. With the permission of the author, this publication was partially rewritten and adapted for TEARA by Dave Hockaday WB4IUY.
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