How to get started on the AllStarLink network
Like a technology or mode we’re not used to, the world of AllStarLink can feel overwhelming. You can use ready-made devices to join the AllStarLink network, you can build your own node, or you can use alternative devices get on the network.
Before I dive more deeply into this, I acknowledge that this may not be the amateur radio content you wanted when you subscribed to the RandomWire blog. Every time I publish something that mentions AllStarLink, I immediately see a couple of subscribers cancel. Within a few days, I usually see a few new subscribers. I’m honored and humbled by the interest shown by you in my blog. Thank you.
What is the use case for AllStarLink?
One aspect of AllStarLink doesn’t seem to get much airtime, and that is: what is the use case for this technology? As amateur radio licensees, we have a myriad of communication options open to us. For example, I’ve enjoyed working repeaters, playing with skip on 6 and 10 meters, chewing the rag on HF, and doing a little DXing. I’ve dabbled in POTA and enjoyed satellites for a time. I’ve been on an ARES team. Being a computer guy, the digital modes began to attract me after about a decade of mainly RF radio play. I got my Worked All States award on one of the digital modes.
In my relatively brief time as a ham, I’ve seen digital radio go from some strange brew consumed by just a few amateurs to a more embedded, everyday communication tool for many hams. For example, digital voice through D-STAR and Yaesu System Fusion are technologies most hams have heard of, and many use.
Echolink has been around for a while, as has DMR and IRLP. Why another digital voice mode like AllStarLink?
For me, the points in favor of AllStarLink are:
It is built on open source software. That is something that is important to me.
It uses high-quality codecs for voice, the same codecs used in many business-oriented voice-over-ip phone systems. Being able to clearly hear what is being said is becoming more important to me as my hearing changes with age. The audio quality is usually superb.
You can buy a solution or build a solution. This appeals to my interest in becoming a better builder.
The technology can be used to control repeaters or operated as an individual node in the AllStarLink network. I like flexibility in the tools I use.
When part of a repeater system, people can connect over radio or over an internet connection. I find this more inclusive than the idea that if you aren’t using a radio (or you aren’t a CW operator, or you aren’t using a vacuum tube radio, or or or), you aren’t really a ham.
You can make simplex contacts or participate in nets, nearby or across the planet. While AllStar works fine for conversations with hams close by, it shines in situations where geographic distance would otherwise hamper conversations.
If you are near a repeater with AllStarLink, you can operate over RF. If no such repeater is near you, you can operate over an internet connection.
Being limited to licensed amateur radio operators, folks on AllStar tend to be intelligent and well mannered, making for pleasant, productive interactions.
All of AllStarLink is open to operators holding a Technician license. If you are a licensed ham, you have access to the entirety of AllStarLink.
Most of all, though, AllStarLink neatly solves problems many hams experience, such as:
Can’t put up an antenna.
Too much RF interference to enjoy using radios over RF.
Living in a facility that prohibits amateur radios that transmit and receive over RF.
I have incredibly bad RF interference where I live. My solutions have evolved to three approaches: RF-based radio in the vehicle, RF radio for portable excursions, and AllStarLink and DMR when I am at home. (Note: I am going to try a UHF band pass filter on my node antenna to see if that helps with RF interference. Now if Amazon would actually give me the locker code for the filter that was delivered this morning, I would be a happy camper!)
Each approach has its place and each provides enjoyment and fulfilment for me.
Is AllStarLink really amateur radio?
I hear this question all the time, either posed as a sincere question or as a loaded comment deriding those who use AllStarLink. I submit that AllStarLink is as much connected to amateur radio as is Morse Code. In the beginning, Morse Code was transmitted over wires, not over the air. Radiotelegraphy required changing the use of Morse Code from something that actually printed on paper to tape to audible pulses of long and short sounds.
AllStarLink is not Morse Code, but like CW, it is a digital mode. Both of these communication modes can be used over the air or over a wire. That intersection with RF radios is why I think AllStarLink falls squarely in the realm of amateur radio. AllStarLink is also a grand experiment in adapting Asterisk for amateur radio use, an activity that is part and parcel of amateur radio. As amateurs, we adapt technologies and adopt methods from other fields. Some of us are theorists and some are pragmatists. All of us find something to enjoy in this very broad hobby of hobbies we call amateur radio.
Let’s move on to the meat of this post which is: what are the easiest ways to get started with AllStarLink?
To run a node, you need a node number
To operate a node on the AllStarLink network, you will need a node number. Here’s how you get one.
Clicking the Begin Registration button opens a details page that looks like this:
You need to hold a valid amateur radio license.
Note that you don’t need to have a physical node to get a node number. This becomes important a little later when I talk about using AllStarLink without a node.
My first node number was 57849 for my ClearNode device (more on this in a moment). Later, I added additional nodes, including my node-in-the-cloud number 57945 and my desktop node 588412.
You don’t need a node number to participate
You need a node number to operate a node on the AllStarLink network. However, you don’t need a node number if you are participating over RF through a repeater that is connected to AllStarLink. This is an important point if (a) you are near such a repeater (like the PSRG repeater in Seattle) and (b) have no desire to operate and maintain a physical node.
Imagine that one of your ham friends or relatives is in an assisted living facility and near an AllStarLink-equipped repeater. That person can participate in AllStarLink nets via RF without a computer or internet connection. Providing this kind of service to older hams and hams with limited means is something amateur radio clubs should consider. You will open up a wider world for these folks by doing so.
OK, on to the meat of this post. When it comes to an actual node, you can buy it, you can build it, or you can adapt other platforms to serve as your connection to the AllStarLink network.
Buying a node device
Buying a node device is the easiest way to get on the AllStarLink network that still involves RF radio.
I bought a ClearNode device from Node-Ventures.com. The ClearNode is based on a Raspberry Pi single board computer with an integrated low-power radio transceiver. This device is not cheap: not in quality, nor in price. I went this direction because at the time, my available time was limited and I wanted to know that whatever I bought would be well supported. There are many options available with the ClearNode and the support I’ve received has been outstanding.
You can buy and assemble a Shari kit. This is also a Raspberry Pi-based system with a radio transceiver.
More recently, David Gleason N9RV has designed a range of AllStarLink devices that can be used with an SBC, laptop, or RF radio. Find his offerings at https://allscan.info. David also provides instructions on building your own node. Full disclosure: my preferred node is one of his ANR100 devices that I’ve paired with an inexpensive Dell Wyse 3040 thin client computing device, a large Heathkit speaker, and a Kenwood desk microphone That package looks like this:
When traveling, I sometimes take the ANR100 device along with a dedicated netbook and an Alinco hand mic. I can operate from a hotel room with ease this way.
I have to say that I think David has hit the sweet spot with his devices. With a real amateur radio microphone, you operate the node as if it was a radio. It feels like a radio. At the same time, his devices connect you to the entire planet via the AllStarLink network. As you can tell, I’m a big fan of David’s work.
If you search eBay, you’ll find quite a few options for a ready-made AllStarLink nodes, ranging from duplex repeaters to relatively simple adaptations of a handie-talkie.
Building a node device
Previously mentioned was a Shari node. This is a relatively simple kit most hams can probably build.
The AllScan.info site has a ton of information on how to build your own node. I would say the fine soldering work required is not well suited for someone unfamiliar with soldering electronic parts. I tried to solder wires to the CM108 USB device and failed each time. I built a complete node but the soldering work on the CM108 was not up to snuff. I resorted to buying a ready-made device from the vendor. However, if you want to go the build-your-own route, the vendor can supply an already soldered CM108. I think this is a very practical approach for someone with beginning soldering skills or some lack of fine motor control. When I built my node, it was only the CM108 that tripped me up.
You can find many, many options through an internet search.
Building a node in the cloud
I pay about $8/month for a cloud server located in Seattle through Vultr.com. There are several companies that offer similar “server in the cloud” space. I chose Vultr simply because I was more familiar with the company than with competitors.
On the Vultr server, I installed the AllStarLink package. This is doable if you’ve worked in the Linux operating system environment before; it’s a bit daunting if you’ve never done so. The result is my cloud node 57945. Jump to https://kj7t.net/ and click the AllStarLink node 57945 link to see it running via the AllScan interface.
Eight bucks a month may sound pretty steep. It’s the equivalent of about two of my preferred coffees a month. However, consider that:
I’m not adding to my home electrical bill.
I don’t have to worry about a relative or pet accidentally unplugging the node.
The environment it is in is climate controlled facility, unlike my home.
I have no equipment with this node to wear out or break.
There is a related solution in that instead of installing AllStarLink on a cloud-based server, you can install it on a dedicated machine in your home or office. I run two nodes at my home on inexpensive Dell Wyse 3040 thin client devices. They work well.
Transmitting and receiving through a node
The downside of the node-in-the-cloud approach is you need an audio in/audio out device to work with the cloud node. I accomplished this three ways: with an IP phone, with an Android phone, and with an Apple device. Any one of these will work.
I started with a Cisco SPA303 phone from PC Liquidations. I got a Hamshack Hotline number and followed their instructions on how to connect my HH line to the cloud node. For a relatively small sum, you can purchase a used IP phone and enjoy great audio from the handset or over the phone speaker.
Once I had that working, it was just a short leap to configure an IAX connection on the cloud node and use DVSwitch Mobile on my Android smartphone to connect. DVSwitch has not been very stable for me, so I also installed the RepeaterPhone app on my iPad Mini and my older iPhone 7 Pro. RepeaterPhone works very well for me.
What this means is if you already have an Android or Apple smart device, you can use it to connect to your cloud node. I’ve done this with a wifi connection and by using your cell phone as a wifi hotspot. DVSwitch and RepeaterPhone allow you to use AllStarLink while traveling, without carrying extra gear.
When configuring a connection to a node with DVSwitch or RepeaterPhone, you’ll need login credentials for that node. I solved that problem by building my node-in-the-cloud. If you have no node, you’ll need to find a node owner willing to give you login credentials.
Usually when I travel, I bring an Apple device and use RepeaterPhone to connect to my cloud node. That works so well that I rarely employ my alternate approach, which is a netbook computer, my ANR100 device, and an Alinco hand microphone. The advantage of the netbook approach is it becomes an all-in-one package with a keyboard and screen, for a portable, complete AllStarLink station.
The cheapest and easiest way to participate in AllStarLink nets? Use a handie talkie or mobile radio to talk over a local repeater that is already connected to the AllStarLink network.
Next up is using an Android or Apple smartphone or tablet that you already have to connect to an AllStarNode, if you can persuade the node owner to share the credentials with you. However (and this is a big one): if you are using RepeaterPhone on an Apple device, you can specify the authentication be “Node” and by doing so, RepeaterPhone will reach out to AllStarLink.org which will issue a token to authenticate your connection. In this way, you don’t have to know the IAX credentials for the node you are connecting RepeaterPhone to. I don’t believe DVSwitch has this capability, so advantage RepeaterPhone!
Then comes building a node on a server, either locally in your home or office, or in the cloud. If you run a node in your home or office, you’ll want to use port forwarding to allow outside connections to your node. Without that capability, you’ll only be able to connect to the home/office node while you are connected to the LAN the node is on.
There is a lot to unpack in this post so feel free to post comments and ask questions. We all learn from them.