Hanging out with hotspots
By Toshen, KEØFHS (Updated Apr 2018, CC BY-SA)
A hotspot (personal access point) is a combination of hardware and software that enables a ham with internet connectivity to link directly to digital voice repeaters, D-STAR reflectors, QuadNet Smart Groups, DMR talkgroups, YSF rooms, etc. Basically, these devices act as your personal digital voice repeater and gateway.
This illustration shows what it looks like for D-STAR:
For someone like me who doesn't live within range of a digital voice (DV) repeater, a hotspot is an important key to accessing digital voice systems, a gift that opens doors to the whole wide world.
I've been playing around with hotspots since Oct 2016. During this time, I've tried a bunch of different hotspot devices and software. Overall, it's an exciting area of amateur radio that is evolving and progressing rapidly with some excellent work being done by innovative hams. I'm really grateful for everything I'm learning!
Of course, there also are some disappointments and even abandoned dead-end branches of exploration. In my opinion, digital voice, especially in the area of hotspots, is a Wild West of amateur radio!
Disclaimer: These are my personal notes and opinions based on using hotspots and from what others are sharing. I've tried to be accurate, but please let me know if you come across anything needing correction.
1) Hotspot hardware
There are many different hotspot hardware devices being developed by innovative hams to work with the different flavors of digital voice:
- Many are boards that mount on devices like the Raspberry Pi, but some are standalone units or are like thumb drives that plug into PCs or Macs.
- Some can handle many modes, including DMR, D-STAR, YSF, P25, NXDN, and YSF2DRM, while others work with only one or a few digital modes.
- Some require a digital voice-capable radio to work with them (these typically have stubby or ceramic antennas for nearby connectivity); others 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, or by using a microphone connected to a standalone hotspot.
These are the hotspots I've tried, plus a couple others:
⊙ ZUMspot Pi UHF
Designed by Jim Mclaughlin, KI6ZUM, with software by Jonathan Naylor, G4KLX.
On Apr 3, 2018, Bruce, VE2GZI, who had been responsible for the manufacturing and distribution of the ZUMspot, announced that he "made a decision to stop selling the Zumspot products."
"It was a difficult decision to make and in no way reflects on my partners in this venture. Things will be in a state of flux for a while and I simply don’t know what will happen. So please stay tuned."
Although things are a bit uncertain, an announcement recently posted by Ham Radio Outlet on their ZUMspot product pages states that the original designer of ZUMspot, Jim, KI6ZUM, "has now taken over both design and manufacturing responsibilities." However, as of mid-April 2018, the ZUMspot Pi UHF isn't yet back in stock.
The ZUMspot Pi UHF is a multimode digital voice modem that works with D-STAR, DMR, YSF, P25, NXDN, and even YSF2DMR. It's the same size as a Raspberry Pi Zero W and works really well mounted on it as a hat. It also can be mounted on the RPi 3 and various other boards. Requires a digital-voice capable radio (includes a stubby antenna).
The ZUMspot is currently my default hotspot in my shack for D-STAR and DMR, the two digital modes I use. It pairs well with the Pi-Star software, discussed below, and its firmware can be updated easily via Pi-Star's command line (see: Performing firmware updates via Pi-Star).
See also the note at the bottom of this page: Zooming around with ZUMspot.
Created by Florian Wolters, DF2ET and Mathis Schmieder, DB9MAT.
I'm guessing that "HS" might stand for "hotspot."
The MMDVM_HS_Hat is a Multi-Mode Digital Voice Modem Hotspot Hat board made by hand of quality components that fits nicely on a Raspberry Pi Zero W, and works with D-STAR, DMR, YSF, P25, NXDN, and YSF2DMR. Requires a digital-voice capable radio.
The MMDVM_HS_Hat is available in two versions, one with an onboard ceramic chip antenna, as shown above, and another with an SMA socket external antenna. It's quite reasonably priced, though it can take a while to get one as there tends to be a long waiting list.
It works well with Pi-Star, discussed in the software section below, and its firmware can be updated easily via Pi-Star's command line (see: Performing firmware updates via Pi-Star). Set up was easy, especially because it can use Pi-Star's Auto AP feature for wireless network configuration.
Because of the extra compactness gained by using a ceramic chip antenna, it has become my new mobile hotspot.1 The MMDVM_HS_Hat fits nicely on the RAVPower 10050 mAh battery pack that I use as my portable power supply.
 For mobile use, an SMA socket external antenna seems to me to add a degree of fragility to a hotspot; frankly, I'm always a little concerned I'm going to inadvertently knock it off.
To order, email the creators directly: email@example.com. Be patient, there's a waiting list, and once they have made the board, shipping from Germany to the U.S. takes another ten days or so. It's worth the wait.
Created by Guus van Dooren, PE1PLM, Dooren Electronic Solutions.
The single-mode (UHF) DVMEGA is pictured mounted on a Raspberry Pi 3, and there are other models as well, including dual-mode VHF/UHF, pictured below. With firmware 3.07 and later, the DVMEGA can support D-STAR, DMR, and YSF. Requires a digital voice-capable radio (includes a mount for a stubby antenna).
The DVMEGA was my default D-STAR hotspot in my shop for the first year or so I used D-STAR, and I still think it's a solid choice. It's dependable, pairs well with Pi-Star, and once you've soldered the firmware update jumper wire in place, it's easy to update via Pi-Star's command line. For maximum flexibility, I chose the DVMEGA-DUAL (VHF and UHF); however, I've only used UHF frequencies, so the less-expensive DVMEGA-UHF would've been fine. That said, the DUAL is a more compact board.
One minor irritant: The standoff hole is designed for the BlueStack (see below). When the DVMEGA is mounted on an RPi 3, there's nothing below the hole to connect a standoff to, so the only thing holding the hat down is the GPIO connector. Consequently, since the antenna mount is in the corner diagonally across from the connector, if the connector isn't glued down in some way (for example, with hot glue), the standoff acts like a pivot: if you touch the antenna, the connector tends to lift off the GPIO pin header.
For firmware info, see: DVMEGA firmware update in my D-STAR notes.
The DVMEGA is now available from various shops in the U.S.
Created by Ruud Kerstens, PE1MSZ.
The DVMEGA RPi board also can be paired with a BlueStack-Micro+ board instead of an RPi, which enables bluetooth connection to an Android phone running BlueDV for Android or a serial connection to a Windows computer running BlueDV for Windows. (There also are experimental versions available for iOS, RPi, and Linux.)
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: DVMEGA firmware update in my D-STAR notes.
Note: I originally ordered my BlueStack-Micro+ board directly from Combitronics in The Nederlands, but they're now available from various shops in the U.S.
Created by Ákos Marton, HG1MA, and Norbert Varga, HA2NON, SharkRF.
This is a high-quality, standalone device, but it doesn't have built-in WiFi, so it does require a wired connection to a router. Works with a D-STAR, DMR, or YSF radio. Quite easy to set up and use. Includes a stubby antenna, power supply, and all the necessary cables.
Unique among all of these hotspots, they have excellent documentation, which is posted online.
I also 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. See: On the road with the openSPOT.
Although I liked the openSPOT, once I started using the MMDVM-based hat boards with Pi-Star, I didn't use it anymore and ended up giving it away.
The openSPOT is now available from various shops in the U.S.
Note: I haven't yet tried this hotspot, but if you're looking for hotspot hardware, it looks like one that's worth checking out.
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.
Could be a nice, ready-made solution.
⊙ NW Digital Radio ThumbDV
Note: I haven't yet tried this hotspot, but if you're looking for hotspot hardware, it looks like one that'ss worth checking out.
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. Depending on the hotspot software used, can support D-STAR, DMR, and YSF. [ThumbDV PDF]
Created by Robin Cutshaw, AA4RC, and Moe Wheatley, AE4JY, Internet Labs.
A couple of the earliest personal hotspots that were available, these devices can be connected to a PC running Windows or a Mac. The DV Dongle includes an AMBE chip, the DVAP requires a D-STAR radio.
When running their own software, these Internet Labs dongles work only with DPLUS (REF) reflectors, intentionally block access to XRF, DCS, and XLX reflectors, and don't support DMR, YSF, or P25; consequently, I found this to be a restrictive solution and ended up giving my DVAP away.
Note: Pi-Star supports the DVAP. I don't know what modes it supports; presumbably, at least all the D-STAR reflectors including XRF and DCS.
Created by Uli Altvater, AG0X/DH6SAB, and Torsten Schultze, DG1HT, Wireless Holdings.
Another one of the earliest personal hotspots that was available, the DV4mini is a USB stick that can plug into a PC running Windows or Linux, or a Raspberry Pi. Includes a mount for a stubby antenna, requires a D-STAR, DMR, or YSF radio, and comes in UHF and VHF models. There's also one with an AMBE chip.
The DV4home is a standalone digital voice device that has two AMBE chips as well as its own screen, microphone, and speaker.
While I know people who use and like the DV4 devices, I personally found both the DV4mini and the original DV4home V1 clunky to use when I tried them in late 2016, and ended up giving them away. Too bad, because I had been particularly excited about the possibility of using the DV4home as my digital base station.
2) Hotspot software
There's also all sorts of different hotspot software available:
- Most of the hotspot apps work with multiple types of D-STAR reflectors, as well as with DMR, and YSF. Some even work with additional modes, including P25, NXDN, and YSF2DMR.
- Other hotspot apps work with only one type of D-STAR reflector, like DVTool and DVAPTool, which allow access only to DPLUS (REF) reflectors and intentionally block access to non-REF reflectors.
- Some of the hotspot apps, like Pi-Star, work with multiple devices, while others are device-specific, like the openSPOT, DV4mini Control Center, and DVTool/DVAPTool apps.
- Some of the hotspot apps also enable linking to D-STAR repeaters, which is quite important to me, since our local ARES organization holds D-STAR nets on a FREE STAR repeater.
- Some of the hotspot apps are open while others are closed and proprietary.
These are the hotspot apps I've tried (plus one more):
Created by Andy Taylor, MW0MWZ.
Pi-Star works with many devices, can be used in hotspot or repeater mode, and supports DMR, D-STAR, YSF, P25, and NXDN. I've run Pi-Star on Mac, Windows, Android, and a Raspberry Pi. It works really well, is feature rich, and is enthusiastically developed and supported by Andy and team. It has one of the best communities I've come across, the Pi-Star Users Support Group.
Pi-Star is my favorite hotspot software for the two digital radio modes I use: D-STAR and DMR. At this time, I'm using Pi-Star with a ZUMspot mounted on a Raspberry Pi 3 in my shack, and with a MMDVM_HS_Hat (the genuine one) mounted on a RPi Zero W for mobile use. Initially, I used it with a DVMEGA mounted on a Raspberry Pi. They're all great combinations, though the ZUMspot and MMDVM_HS_Hat have the advantage of P25 and NXDN support.
For more info, see: Playing with Pi-Star.
A hobby project by David, PA7LIM.
This app can be run on Android and Windows (experimental versions of BlueDV are also available for iOS, Linux, and RPi), and is a great solution for creating a mobile hotspot using the BlueStack-Micro+ paired with a DVMEGA board.
For more info about using BlueDV as a mobile hotspot, see: Just can't wait to get on the road again in my D-STAR article.
There's also an interesting new "pre-beta" ¹ feature available: DMR Simple Mode. All you need to do is add talkgroup 9, color code 1 to your radio for connecting to your hotspot, and then you can switch to other talkgroups in the app itself.
 David labels all of his software beta, pre-beta, or experimental. In my own experience, his beta builds are what most people would call release versions, and his pre-beta builds are what most people would call beta. His stuff is really good. Of course, there's room for improvement, but that's true of all the software in the world! He's doing really innovative work to push the boundaries of digital voice, which I really appreciate.
Created by Ákos Marton, HG1MA, and Norbert Varga, HA2NON.
Works with the SharkRF openSPOT device. Relatively easy to use. Supports DMR (Brandmeister, DMRplus), D-Star (DCS, REF/DPlus, XRF/DExtra, XLX), YSF (FCS, YSFReflector), as well as cross mode between DMR and YSF (use your DMR radio to talk on YSF networks and vice versa). The openSPOT was my default DMR hotspot for the first year I used DMR.
Created by Bob Scott, W6KD.
Compatible with the RPi models B, B+, 2B, 3B and Zero/Zero W(ireless). Works well with the DVMEGA device, but also can be used with some other devices.
DStar Commander was my default D-STAR hotspot software in my shack for the first year I used D-STAR, and I really appreciate that it helped launch my journey into digital voice radio. However, it seems to be in maintenance mode now, with no new updates in a long time. Meanwhile, the amateur radio digital voice space is evolving rapidly.
Created by Robin Cutshaw, AA4RC, and Moe Wheatley, AE4JY.
For running the DV Dongle and DVAP Dongle. I tried DVAPTool and found it worked fine, but because of the DVAP's limitation of working only with DPLUS (REF) reflectors ², I found it an insufficient solution and ended up giving it away.
 Pure speculation on my part, but the reason for this may be related to the fact that the DV Dongle and the DVAP originally were designed to enable DPLUS (REF) repeater administrators to remotely monitor their repeaters, rather than for end users playing around with digital voice more broadly.
Created by Uli Altvater, AG0X/DH6SAB, and Torsten Schultze, DG1HT.
For running the DV4mini and DV4home. I found this software pretty clunky when I tried using both in late 2016. I particularly disliked that the DV4home is set up to try to push you into using DMR+ and to make it challenging to use DMR-MARC or BrandMeister. Thumbs down.
Created by Russell, KB5RAB.
I haven't tried and don't know much about this actively maintained image, but it looks like a kitchen sink full of software to run many aspects of Digital Voice on a Raspberry Pi. "Image supports DMR, DSTAR and Fusion and each mode can be enabled as desired." I'm guessing it's aimed at real tinkerers because you end up with all this software loaded onto Raspbian Jessie, and it's up to you to install and configure each of the various components you want to use. Includes:
- MMDVMHost software by G4KLX
- ircDDBgateway (DStar Gateway software)
- MMDVMHost-Dashboard Web dashboard by DG9VH
- MD380Tools Software for creating and loading MD380/390 custom firmware from Travis Goodspeed, KK4VCZ
- YSFGateway software by G4KLX
- BlueDV Linux software by PA7LIM
- DV4mini software and DV4MF2 panel
- Brandmeister XTG Dialer for DV4mini by K2DLS
- DMRGateway software by G4KLX
- P25Gateway software by G4KLX
3) A shout out to Jonathan Naylor
I'm a digital voice end user with a relatively low level of technical competence; however, I love to understand things as much as I can, which has led me to do a bunch of research into all of the digital voice products I use, especially hotspot hardware and software. As I've been exploring this, one name keeps popping up: Jonathan Naylor, G4KLX.
Jonathan operates in a technical stratosphere I don't understand much about. Yet I do know that he has been creating important digital voice-related solutions for years, which he makes freely available to the community of hams who are innovating in this playground and helping to make amateur digital voice radio so exciting.
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.
Even though I don't understand much of Jonathan's work, I know it helps further digital voice radio for all of us. For that, a big thanks!
4) Stay safe
I recommend staying away from software that isn't being actively maintained, updated, and supported. Hotspots connect your personal network to the internet, and given the state of (in)security on the internet these days, it's really helpful if the software they use is being kept current by actively involved developers.
Probably the most important and basic thing you can do to protect yourself is to update the software you use to its newest version. That means using an updated version of whatever operating system you're using, and updating all your apps and software. It also means updating the firmware on your router, connected devices, and any other gadgets you use that can connect to the internet.
– The Motherboard Guide to Not Getting Hacked, Nov 2017
Also, wherever possible, use unique, difficult-to-guess passwords!
5) Beware of unauthorized clones
The MMDVM_HS_Hat board is an open source project. The design was released by the creators under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC-BY-NC-SA) license. As you can tell from the name, this license explicitly does not allow commercial use (unless authorized by the creators).
The creators of the board released their design this way so that other hams could use the design to make these boards for their personal use. Basically, they gave a gift to all of us in the ham community.
Unfortunately, there are unauthorized MMDVM_HS_Hat clones, like the JumboSPOT, made by a few different producers and sold by various vendors on eBay as well as by other sellers who disguise them with names like J-Hat.
The producers and vendors of these boards are abusing the terms of the Creative Commons license; basically, they are ripping off the gift. In addition, from comments I've read online, the clone boards are likely not made with the same level of quality and care as the originals, and appear to be not very well supported.
In my opinion, it's always best to directly support the hams contributing to our hobby by pouring their creativity, intelligence, and passion into making these innovative advances in amateur radio.
6) Zooming around with ZUMspot
For fun, I decided to make some hotspot cases out of some mahogany thinwood I had. I ended up building five different cases. Here are the two winners.
The setup for my shack is a ZUMspot mounted on a RPi 3B with a Pi-UpTimeUPS for uninterrupted power. The Alchemy Power Pi-UpTimeUPS takes two type 18650 3.7V batteries. I use EBL 3000 mAh capacity batteries.
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 with an antenna, on/off switches between the external power port and the UPS and between the UPS and the RPi, and, optionally, a display screen. So I made a simple rectangular box case: 4.5″ wide × 4.7″ deep × 3.5″ high, with the width determined by the display.
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 don't need to leave space (or cut a slot) for inserting a microSD card into the display. That means I can incorporate a 3.5″ display in roughly the same space needed for the width of the boards.
I added a plexiglass base to the stack of boards, and the resulting stack determined the height of the case. The boards slide into the case and are held in place by a rectangle of wood that anchors the plexiglass base. Then the case piece holding the display screws into that front opening.
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.
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 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.
(If I were to do this again, I'd use a short micro-USB male-to-female extension cable to provide the input port instead of the cable with the black switch, because I never turn that switch off.)
"Simplicity is the key to brilliance." – Dieter Rams
The design for my mobile hotspot was influenced by two things, a desire for simplicity, and hunger for battery operating time. I decided on a minimalist design: just the ZUMspot + RPi Zero W, powered by a ruggedized RAVPower 10050 mAh portable charger, which has a similar footprint.
I added a right-angled micro-USB adapter to make plugging in easier (it aligns better with the port on the charger), as well as to reduce wear and tear on the RPi's micro-USB port. The small mahogany case fits nicely on top of the battery, which gives me a full day's capacity. I used a sophisticated solution to attach them together: two rubber bands from some broccoli we bought.
Width Depth Height
Shack hotspot: 4.5″ × 4.7″ × 3.5″
Mobile hotspot: 3.2″ × 2.5″ × 1.1″
External battery: 4.6″ × 2.8″ × 0.9″
Deck of cards: 3.6″ × 2.6″ × 0.7″
⇄ Give me a holler!
ke0fhs at toshen.com