Full life-cycle approach to RF radio software implementations

Directional "yagi" antennas force all energy in one direction creating a stronger radio signal

Directional “yagi” antennas force all energy in one direction creating a stronger radio signal

As covered in previous posts, modern day two-way radio systems run on software, and software applications require incremental updates to improve performance.  Those software updates are developed over time then implemented when fully tested and approved by the user community.  This approach is referred to as the full life-cycle of software development.  Long story short – servers, including repeater software, get upgraded which changes many things about a repeater.

You, the listener, will not know when a system is being upgraded unless the details happen to be published in the media for public record purposes.  The frustrating thing about software upgrades is that they’ll many times change scanning patterns which, in turn, breaks your scanner programming such as changing frequencies or narrowing broadcast bandwidth.  You may be wondering how you fix this problem which results in a tricky answer.

sdlcIf you are really bored, you can correct it by manually listening to each frequency in the system then find a way to track audible radio traffic which results in patterns.  Those patterns can be documented over time where you’ll find the newly programmed sequences to follow.  Most people are not that bored.  The easiest thing to do is wait until someone else has done all the research then download the latest updates from RadioReference.com.  Once updates are made to the website (as evidenced by the latest modified frequency dates), you can download the updates then reprogram your scanner.  The speed of updates depends on your voluntary scanning population since they will be the ones submitting those updates to RadioReference.


The control channel plays air traffic controller

pic credit: redstate.com

pic credit: redstate.com

last covered how the control channel is the software brains behind modern day trunked radio repeaters.  But how exactly does a control channel work?  The system itself can be compared to an air traffic controller.


An air traffic controller is the logistical gateway for airplane movement both on the ground and in the air.  The airplane pilot may steer the plane, but he isn’t allowed to move or fly until authorized by the controller.  The controller also keeps planes separated on the ground and in the air ensuring no ramp or mid-air collisions occur.

The Control Channel

The control channel of a repeater performs these same operations.  No communication occurs until the control channel gives the go ahead just as an air traffic controller would for airplanes.  From the moment the two-way radio is turned on, the radio checks in with the control channel and electronically asks permission to join the radio network.  Once approved by the controller, the radio is told to hold until for its next task is issued by the control channel.  Just like an airplane pilot, the two-way radio must communicate with the controller before being allowed to talk with other radios on the network.  And similar to runways at an airport, the control channels separates radio traffic to different frequencies (think runways) ensuring no two-way radio traffic collides with each other.

It gets even better

Certain radio towers are part of a regional network and have the potential to be part of a global network using IP based technologies.  This regional network has its own separate control channel which regulates regional traffic just like ATC regions (aka: air centers).

Why the Need?

Radio tower destroyed during the 8+ hour pounding of winds and rain during hurricane Katrina. pic credit: getty images

Radio tower destroyed during the 8+ hour pounding of winds and rain during category 5 hurricane Katrina – the costliest natural disaster in US history.
pic credit: getty images

I agree the systems I am describing are much more complicated than 1990 systems, but there is a need as evidenced in hurricane Katrina when all communication stopped including cell phones.  Temporary satellite towers were strategically positioned in the affected areas after days of no power, towers, or communication in the area.  The resulting advancement of the MSWIN radio and data network is a good example of mission-critical vendor neutral communication network.  Pre-trunk systems were sporadically located and loosely funded resulting in lackluster communication across the full state of MS.  There is a lot of politics involved considering this is a government funded entity working through governmental delays and bureaucratic administration, but today’s MSWIN network is extremely advanced post-Katrina.

noaa Katrina path

noaa Katrina path

As a final side note, you may be wondering how Mississippi inherited the MSWIN network considering New Orleans got all the news coverage of Katrina.  That’s cause the majority of the state was without power in the aftermath as highlighted by Katrina’s path in the adjacent picture.  As a result, most of Mississippi was dark and off-grid for days in major cities and weeks in rural areas.

Where 1990 scanning is exactly the same in 2016 – RF Scanning 101

Because “Where 1990 scanning is exactly the same in 2016 – AND – where it’s completely different” was too long of a title.

I’ll start building off my previous post.  As a reminder, in 1990, your programmed RF Radio scanner looked like this:

Channel 1 – 460.025
Channel 2 – 460.050
Channel 3 – 460.075
Channel 4 – 460.100

Modern day radio towers are lower to the ground than 1990 radio towers.

Modern day radio towers are lower to the ground than 1990 radio towers.  There are also more of them.  1 radio tower in 1990 is usually split into 2 or 3 regional towers in modern day systems since the tx/rx of higher frequency radio waves require it.

Fast forward to 2016 where your receiving scanner (trunked under the hood) looks like this:

Frequency 1 – 460.025 (control channel; aka computer)
Frequency 2 – 460.050
Frequency 3 – 460.075
Frequency 4 – 460.100

Notice the addition of the computer, or control channel, in 2016.  Modern repeaters, known as digital infrastructure radio systems, are computer software driven.  To simplify the functionality, the computer (freq 1) is constantly listening to all computer programmed frequencies to see if someone wants to talk.  The computer knows who wants to talk by the pressing of the push-to-talk (PTT) button on the radio.

To better understand how the radio system functions, I’ll play out the following case scenario:

Freq 1:
Reminder, the computer is constantly waiting for someone to talk then temporarily assign them to one of the available freqs.  Freq 1 is listening on this system and is using freqs 2, 3, and 4 as available freqs.

Freq 2:
When Mayberry police officer 1 presses the talk button on her two-way radio, the control channel tells her portable radio to use the selected frequency (we’ll say freq 2 since nobody is using it).

Freq 3:
At the same moment freq 2 is assigned by the computer, Mayberry fireman 1 starts using his truck radio to call the dispatcher.  The computer searches then tells the fireman’s truck radio to use freq 3.

Freq 4:
Assume the officer on freq 2 is still talking but her partner is on a foot chase and presses a mayday emergency button on his portable radio.  The mayday signal (a HELP alert) is sent to the computer.  The computer is smart enough to override the police officer on freq 2 and tell the dispatcher that he (the officer now assigned to freq 4) needs help.  The computer is programmed to know the mayday call is a higher priority than regular communication so the dispatcher is now in direct communication with Mayberry officer 2 even though officer 1 was originally talking.

So this scenario is as follows before freq 4 in use:

pic credit: policemag.com

pic credit: policemag.com

Frequency 1 – 460.025 (control channel; aka computer)
Frequency 2 – 460.050 (Mayberry police officer 1)
Frequency 3 – 460.075 (Mayberry fireman 1)
Frequency 4 – 460.100 (available for use)

THEN, after Mayberry police offer 2 pushes the HELP emergency button:

Frequency 1 – 460.025 (control channel; aka computer)
Frequency 2 – 460.050 (Mayberry police officer 1)
Frequency 3 – 460.075 (Mayberry fireman 1)
Frequency 4 – 460.100 (Mayberry police officer 2 – HELP)

Isn’t this stuff great!

So we have learned that your scanner in 2016 can scan the exact same freqs as in 1990, but the modern scanner has morphed in functionality and is basically a mini-computer programmed through software to understand it should constantly listen to the radio tower computer (control channel).  The control channel computer does exactly what software programmers have told it to do, and your scanner is constantly listening to the control channel for the same reason – so the scanner will know what freq to choose and listen to at any moment.

Because this is all software driven, any changes to the system software may require you, the listener, to modify your scanner settings to match the system software.  You may also notice a delay in how fast your trunked scanner receives audio from the tower making it sound as if you joined the middle of a conversation.  That’s partly because scanners are searching wide ranges of freqs – they’re not tuned exactly to your local tower.  You can finely tune the programming of your local system since pre-programmed frequencies usually scan a full range (A – Z) rather than specific freqs (just G instead of A – Z).  But that’s getting a little too complex for this post since a site like RadioReference.com usually updates their frequencies by the time the listener realizes there is a problem.

Next RF Scanning 101 post > The control channel plays air traffic controller.

Scanning in 1990 – RF Scanner 101

Scanning in 1990 was so simple it involved 3 steps:

  1. Set scanner to manual
  2. Input desired frequency on the numeric keypad (such as 460.025)
  3.  Press the enter button to save the change
Old school Uniden BearCat 175XL

Old school Uniden BearCat 175XL

It really was that simple

… and still is that simple –  at least the fundamentals are that simple in 2016.

Every modern radio system is made up of frequencies and they’re just like the ones from 1990.  Notice the 460.025 frequency (aka: freq) in the adjacent image.  Assuming you’re located in a densely populated area, you could input that same freq in your scanner today and hear someone or something making noise because the same old freqs are still in use.  It was common in 1990 for 1 “agency” (think police precinct) to be assigned to 1 freq.  So here is what your scanning list looked like in 1990:

Channel 1 – 460.025
Channel 2 – 460.050
Channel 3 – 460.075
Channel 4 – 460.100

Most old school scanner functionality stopped here and left the translation up to you.  So you, the listener, had to know that Channel 1 was “Town Police Department”, Channel 2 was “Town Fire Department”, Channel 3 “Sheriff’s Department”, and on, and on.  This is where the simplicity of 2016 radio scanning changes.

Simple?  Then why is it so complicated to program modern scanners?

To de-complicate today’s scanning, I’ll build on the 3 simple steps from 1990 (presented above).  To make things more efficient, today’s radio systems (the term used for modern repeaters) share freqs with multiple agencies. So 1 freq (such as 460.025 MHz) may be used by 10 to 15 different agencies.  But these agencies don’t just share the 1 frequency – they share anywhere from 10 to 15 different frequencies.


Police Call 1990 (Old School) Edition. Police Call Radio Guide was the pre-internet RadioReference.com commonly sold at Radio Shack stores.

It’s time to stop talking and start playing so get that shiny new scanner out.  Use the RadioReference.com database to find your local police department freqs.  Just click here, choose your state from the map, then narrow down to your local county and city.  This will give you the freqs needed for your locale.

Next, use your scanner vendor website (such as Uniden.com) to find instructions so you can manually input 1 freq as a “conventional” type – as opposed to trunked systems.  Once entered, turn the volume up and listen for a few minutes to hear audible chatter.

That brings us up to the next RF Scanning 101 post – Where 1990 scanning is exactly the same in 2016.

Note: If you happen to hear sound similar to a machine gun while listening in conventional mode, that means you found the control channel.  The control channel is the software running the shared freqs on the repeater, but that detail will be explained in the next post.

RF Scanner 101 for 2016 – It’s Like Yesterday – Just More Complex

Most everyone has heard of RF radio scanners but probably through different terms like police scanner, fire radio, airplane pilot monitors, and even the newer terminology like digital trunk-trackers.  Maybe you came here looking to buy a new scanner and are confused since 1990 was the last time you touched a megaHertz receiving scanner.  I’m here to de-confuse the situation with RF Scanner 101.

…the fundamentals of scanning have not changed since 1990

pic credit: ebay.com

pic credit: ebay.com

First, find comfort knowing the fundamentals of scanning have not changed since 1990.  You’ll probably think I’m crazy if you’re sitting there trying to program a modern day scanner like the Uniden BCD-996-P2.  But it’s true.  Every RF radio system broadcasting today still uses a frequency (eg: 155.700 MHz) to transmit and receive.  Where it gets more complex is the introduction of software that drives these modern day transmitters.

I’ll take the next 5 blog posts to break down each element of scanning in 2016 so we can make sense of the last few decades of changes in scanning technology.  Here is what I’ll cover:

  1. Scanning in 1990
  2. Where 1990 scanning is exactly the same in 2016
  3. The control channel plays air traffic controller
  4. Full life-cycle approach to RF radio software implementations
  5. Digital encryption stops you from having fun
  6. Bonus: Enjoy scanning today since it won’t exist in the future

I agree – number 6 is a buzz kill. But we’ll learn how to use the technology while possible.  See you in the next post.

Why Your Mac is Not Enterprise Software – The 5 Minute Synopsis

appleLet’s get the haters out of the way first…

Yes! I know Apple has a large enterprise customer base, but it’s nothing compared to Microsoft Windows.  Apple has brilliantly moved into the mobile enterprise space and may overwhelm Microsoft in the future, but I don’t have the ability to see the future so we’ll deal with the here and now.

Apple originally sold itself as the unique computer made for those trying to be different as seen below in this 1984 commercial. Microsoft on the other hand was designed with “corporate” in mind using “domains” to categorize and define corporate security environments. Things have changed dramatically in the last ten years much less the last few decades, but history dictated that these two methods (Apple vs Microsoft) originally didn’t communicate with each other since they used different protocols (NetBIOS vs AppleTalk).  In turn, corporate environments chose what worked most profitably and efficient which was generally the IBM designed NetBIOS.

…the next story is being written now…

macrumorsBut, the next story is being written now as Apple uses the common TCP/IP protocols and is pushing software products into many different business areas including healthcare.  My theory – Apple wants to take over your personal life then absorb you into the Mac kingdom so you’ll never leave for PCs again plus they’ll be able to anonymously mine and scrub your health data.  Thinking in this realm, the Apple Watch now wirelessly ties into iPhones and Mac computers using common bluetooth standards.  This makes software setup and syncing as easy as possible.  That data is then uploaded to corporate environments using HL7 and FIHR – common communication standards in healthcare.  Apple is still distinguished in its own right by being different in sales channels and product branding.  Only time will tell if Apple will take over the corporate environment, but they are making great strides.

Choose a website host based on your needs

cloudhostingThe 2016 Technology Checklist continues…

“Hosting” is a term attributed to keeping your website visible on the internet.  Any website on the internet is sitting on a “host” including the major sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.  There are all kinds of hosts from good to bad, small to big, secure to insecure, and everything in between.

If you are in the market for a host, you’ll want to pay attention to the details since distinguishing factors in hosts include government regulations and data security.  Some hosts are small startups comprised of a few college graduates who just set up a few servers and aren’t too concerned if your files get hacked since they assume your website is a toy.  Other hosts specialize in securing data to HIPAA or SOX compliance standards which increases associated costs since they require more human skill and manpower.  There are loads of choices but I’m only covering two for time constraints: WeeblyAWS and HostGator.

The Weebly website is the simplest interface I have come across for creating a quick website.  Plain and simple – you enter your business name then choose a related template that fits the look you prefer.  There are very few technical details to understand for this website.  Because it’s so simple, most support is self-directed using a support based forum.  The downside of simple is a higher cost in monthly fees and little help.

If you want to custom build your website, have source code access using electronic file transfer abilities (FTP), or the ability to create a WordPress website then a host like HostGator is a good start.  HostGator may be a funny name but they’re one of the larger and more affordable US based firms – located in Houston, TX to be exact.  I feel they’re a good start for non-compliant small businesses.  The downside of many hosts like HostGator is lack of bandwidth expansion. Only so much internet (bandwidth) can get through the pipes to a server so your website goes dead if too much traffic hits it at once.

Think of AWS as HostGator on steroids.  Expansion through AWS (Amazon Web Services) is a superb feature for a moderate cost since it expands bandwidth as needed.  Where does this make a difference?  Imagine you spend a few thousand dollars airing late night TV commercials for a product.  Traditional hosting only allows as much traffic as the server and bandwidth can handle which means your server freezes up and won’t respond if it gets too many customers at one time.  An AWS expandable server will keep taking as many customers as come since it “expands” on the fly.  You, the customer, pay for what is used so you will pay more for all the visitors, but it’s well worth the cost since losing those customers to a dead website would mean losing revenue.

Your Choice
So as you can see, there are many answers and many more questions.  You’ll have to put some research into it and find the right answer for your project.

Plan your full circle techno-marketing cycle

entreleadership_podcast_139I love absorbing information related to business so listening to podcasts has become a daily occurrence.  That said, I had already written a marketing related article based on my business and marketing background when I inadvertently came across a podcast that summarized all my thoughts and a lot more.  Donald Miller is a digital marketer, but he specializes in full life-cycle business branding which gives your business a consistently branded approach across all marketing platforms.

Take a listen at this link.  It’s the EntreLeadership Podcast number 139 featuring Donald Miller.  Enjoy and get more tips from the 2016 digital checklist!

Spirit Airlines – Myth vs Reality from DFW to LAX 


pic credit: fortune.com

We’re all looking for ways to be cheaper when flying. I am a Dave Ramsey fan which means I’m more frugal than the average person although my close friends might refer to me as cheap.  In my frugal nature, I researched the cheapest flights to and from Los Angeles. I also looked at on-time ratings using Flight Aware considering I needed to be on the ground and in a rental car as quick as possible to make an appointment.

I read so many scathing articles about Spirit Airlines prior to my trip from DFW to LAX.  Some of the articles were so bad that I even thought about paying more to fly other airlines – mainly American which was only $50 one way to include one personal item and a carry on. This article will hopefully set the record straight for Spirit.

The flight I booked was only $38 one way. That’s so frugal that I couldn’t believe it at first which made me nervous.  The flight even got cheaper over the three weeks I watched it. The lowest fare I saw two days prior to departure was the $34.10.  The price steadily climbed over 48 hours as the plane filled. Last price I saw was around $180. The funny thing is the seat directly beside me was empty, the row diagonal behind me only had one person lounging across three seats, and four other rows had empty seats for our 6:30 am flight. Considering the dramatic change in price, I would guess the increase was generated by an automated system to catch those in need of last minute flights.

The Luggage


My black backpack “personal item” storage location

Spirit has strict limits on luggage which is part of the way they keep fares low.  I packed a small backpack for my day trip so I could avoid any carry-on or baggage fees. My backpack (pictured) falls into the free “personal item” category – no extra fees.  My backpack was also technically two inches too long according to Spirit website guidelines, but I took a chance since it is very thin.

I lined up to board the plane and nobody questioned or measured my backpack. Some carry-on items (not personal items) of other customers were being measured at the gate while I boarded, but I was never given a second look. As you can tell from the pictures, the bag fit well under the seat in front of me which is the required for personal items.

The Splurge

I’m 6 foot 4 with long legs so confined spaces are not my thing. I originally expected to take any assigned seat until I researched that Spirit seats are the tightest of any airlines at 28 inches between seats (back to front). They gotta make money somehow so I can’t fault them.

Considering I was testing Spirit on this flight and didn’t know what I was getting into, I upgraded online the day before my flight for $20 so I could sit at the exit row. Even with long legs, I had plenty of space on the exit row!   The only issue with my long legs was the food down table being mounted lower than normal causing it to sit on top of my knee. I could be wrong, but I don’t remember having that problem with Delta and American Airlines A320 jets.


Food tray mounted low – sitting on top of my knee

Point to note: our equipment for this flight was an A320 which accommodates two exit rows – one directly behind the other. I chose the second exit row which means the person behind me was in the smaller 28″ seats. I had plenty of leg room in my exit row, but I felt someone else’s knee pressing into my back a few times during the flight. If you’re booking an exit row on the A320, choose the first row.

The Verdict

Overall, I have to say I was impressed and this was a very pleasant flight for an extremely low $38.  Flight attendants were very nice and polite, and the captain communicated well.

Spirit does business well. I expected a WalMart style airline based on the reviews I read prior to flying, but Spirit is straight up like their website claims. This leads me to think most of the complaints I saw online were riders who either didn’t read policies before flying or thought they were special and could get away with breaking the rules. That’s just not my style.

As for me flying out of DFW to Los Angeles, I will most likely book American next time simply because they normally charge $50 for a similar flight, offer a free carry-on item, plus a personal item, free snacks, and because I have a prior relationship with them even though they previously broke a brand new checked bag of mine… errr. Still bitter, but they credited me after 30 minutes of me being a donkey at the luggage counter.

Back on point, Spirit is exactly what they claim: no frills and cost saving. You’ll be fine as long as you follow the guidelines on the Spirit Airlines website which includes printing your boarding pass at home plus showing up at the specified check-in time.

The Details

In case you wanted to know, this article was based on flight 867 on February 23, 2016.  We had an on time departure and arrival.  By appearance, customers were 60 percent families / 40 percent professional.


The 2nd Exit Row