What is D-STAR?
The term D-STAR is Digital Smart Technology for Amateur Radio. It is an open protocol for digital communications established by JARL (Japan Amateur Radio League). A more basic understanding is that DSTAR is a digital radio transmission over conventional FM. To communicate using the DSTAR protocol, you must utilize a compatible radio or a computer with an appropriate vocoder (AMBE) stick. Currently the primary manufacturer of DSTAR capable radios is ICOM but Kenwood does also make a DSTAR capable radio. Take a look below for current models.
Why would I want to use DSTAR?
We’re glad you asked! One of the greatest appeals of digital radio methods is their ability to utilize the internet to allow your signals to travel further, even around the world! Amateurs with DSTAR capable radios can utilize DSTAR repeaters and hotspots that are connected to the internet to allow their signal to travel online to other repeaters or hotspot users.
The DSTAR system allows for individuals and DSTAR repeater operators to link their repeater systems to other repeaters across the world, either directly one to one or one to multiple using what is known as a “reflector.” This functionality is great for emergency communications organizations to link multiple county DSTAR repeater systems together to provide a wider coverage range for emergency communicators out in the field. DSTAR reflectors also allow amateurs who don’t hadve HF radio equipment to communicate around the world without investing in HF radios or antennas. DSTAR is great for new technician class operators to be able to make contacts virtually anywhere!
APRS data for location tracking is also possible with DSTAR. DSTAR uses what is known as DPRS. If enabled, your radio will automatically transmit your location when you key up your radio. The GPS location information is emended in your voice transmission so you don’t have to separately operate an APRS capable radio. DSTAR radios can also be set to automatically beacon their location at a preset interval. Be aware, if you’re on a reflector or repeater that is operating a net, you’ll want to have automatic beaconing turned off so it doesn’t interfere with net operations.
What are reflectors?
A reflector is software running on a computer with no radios attached to it that bridges communications between multiple repeaters or “hotspot” users. Think of a reflector as a teleconference bridge. Many of us call into telephone bridges at work that link multiple people together using a common number, a reflector is basically the same thing (even more basic, just like the old 3-way calls linked multiple phone calls together.) Each reflector has multiple modules designated by a letter code. There are 4 main types of reflectors: REF, XRF, DCS, and XLX. What’s the difference between them all? Really nothing. They all do the same basic thing, connect repeaters and hotspot users to each other on a common “bridge”. There’s a great video by the “Commsprepper” on YouTube that explains the terms and ways to connect to reflectors.
- REF – The first reflectors created were REF reflectors. REF reflectors use a protocol known as DPLUS and amateurs that wish to utilize those reflectors must register with a DSTAR gateway system. These are the most common type of reflectors and are natively supported for selection via most newer DSTAR radios using the DR (DSTAR Repeater) mode. It allows you to choose your repeater and link that repeater to reflectors using a menu instead of having to program channels. The authoritative source for REF reflectors is dstarinfo.
- XRF – Up next is XRF reflectors. These reflectors use a protocol known as DExtra. Again, they all do the same thing, just a different backend software. You can find a list of these reflectors here.
- DCS – Originating in Germany, it was ran by German amateur operators. Utilizing the DCS protocol, other hams have now taken over the DCS routing system and are now being used outside Germany but still mostly overseas. A list of DCS reflectors can be found here.
- XLX – Last but not least are the newest of the reflector types but it actually supports the 3 prior protocols, DPLUS, XRF, and DCS. XLX reflectors are primarily used to connect multiple reflectors together. One of the greatest benefits of XLX is that they can connect other digital radio protocols together such as DMR and Yaesu Fusion. A great example is the Quadnet Array which links all the digital modes together.
The biggest thing to remember about reflectors is that they all do the same thing. Don’t get caught up on the different lettering conventions. At the end of the day, it’s just a conference bridge.
Does Florida have any reflectors?
Absolutely! Both REF037 and REF046 are designated for Florida entities (but can be used by anyone anywhere.) REF046A is designated for Florida statewide communications and REF046B is utilized by Northern Florida ARES. Currently the Santa Rosa and Okaloosa county DSTAR repeater systems in Northwest Florida are linked via REF046B. Reflector REF058B is also used by southern states for weather emergencies. The National Weather Service of Mobile, AL also monitors REF058B for SKYWARN reporting.
The primary manufacturers of DSTAR capable radios is ICOM and Kenwood. Below is a list of the most current and user friendly radios. There are older ICOM radios that work just as well, however, they don’t support the menu driven “DR” mode and programming can be a little difficult at first.
- ICOM ID-51A Plus2 – This dual band, dual watch radio is capable of DR mode (menu driven repeater connection), this radio also allows you to connect your radio to a computer or Android phone with an optional cable and transmit text and picture messages.
- ICOM ID-31A Plus – This dual band, single watch radio is the same almost the same as the ID-51A Plus2 but is only capable of monitoring a single frequency.
- Kenwood TH-D74A – A triband, dual watch radio has similar features to the ICOM but does not support photo transfer. The D74 supports not only DPRS but also supports native APRS and has the option to use a TNC for advanced APRS operations.
- ICOM ID-5100A – This dual band, dual watch radio is capable of DR mode (menu driven repeater connection), this radio also allows you to connect your radio to an Android phone with an optional Bluetooth adapter and transmit text and picture messages.
- ICOM ID-4100A – This dual band, single watch radio is the same almost the same as the ID-5100A but is only capable of monitoring a single frequency.
What if I need help?
There is a vast amount of information available online including numerous videos on YouTube. We also suggest joining one of the many Facebook groups, such as D-STAR Users that is full of other amateurs who are eager to help get you started. Also, the ultimate source of DSTAR information is dstarinfo.com