Intro to AllStarLink
What it is, how to get started, and how I use it
What is AllStarLink?
A few months ago I dove into the world of AllStarLink (abbreviated: ASL). What is ASL?
AllStarLink is a network of Amateur Radio repeaters, remote base stations and hot spots accessible to each other via Voice over Internet Protocol. AllStarLink runs on a dedicated computer (including the Rasperry Pi) that you host at your home, radio site or computer center.
The ASL network consists of amateur radio operators with nodes. An ASL node is “a dedicated computer wired to a repeater, home station radio or low power ‘micronode’.” Nodes connect two or more amateurs. Some repeaters are joined to nodes so that amateurs can converse locally over amateur radio and regionally/nationally/internationally over an internet connection. Voice conversations over ASL are generally very clear because they are digital, not analog.
Asterisk is an open source framework for building communications applications. Asterisk turns an ordinary computer into a communications server. Asterisk powers IP PBX systems, VoIP gateways, conference servers and other custom solutions. It is used by small businesses, large businesses, call centers, carriers and government agencies, worldwide. Asterisk is free and open source.
For most of us, the differences between HamVoIP and AllStarLink just don’t matter. Unless you are going to install custom software or modify the installation, we can safely ignore whether a node is running AllStarLink or HamVoIP.
ASL gives you worldwide access to conversations with individual nodes and with nets on repeaters that are linked to the ASL network. As I write this, the ASL network consists of 26,427 nodes. A map of ASL nodes by AllStarLink.org depicts the distribution of ASL nodes in North America.
Some popular hubs (which are configured as nodes that support multiple connections) include the WIN System, DoDropIn, the East Coast HUB, and others. I regularly listen to the Puget Sound Repeater Group’s daily nets (9:00 am, noon, and 9:00 pm) on node 2462. The PSRG repeater is connected to AllStarLink and EchoLink, providing access to amateurs via radio and internet.
One of the interesting things about ASL conversations is that most are duplex. As amateur radio operators, we are accustomed to simplex conversations. When you participate in an ASL net, you may hear two or more stations identifying at the same time, particularly during check-ins. This comes about because ASL is based on Asterisk, an open-source voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) system designed for duplex conversations, just like a phone call.
Getting started with AllStarLink
To use AllStarLink you must be an Amateur Radio operator with a current license. That's because AllStarLink is a network of ham radio stations which only hams may transmit on. However, you may use AllStarLink for any other lawful purpose without an AllStarLink account. We use QRZ or other public databases to check the information you provide. If you are not listed in any publicly accessible database we will ask you to email a copy of your license.
You need to sign-up with AllStarLink. Once that is completed, you will receive your Allstar link node number and Allstar Link access password. There is a thorough introduction to AllStarLink on their wiki.
The signup page asks for information about you:
Password (you choose your password)
Name (first and last)
Address (street or PO Box, city, state, ZIP, and country)
How to get connected to an AllStarLink node
If you are within radio range of a repeater that is linked to the AllStarLink system, then you can participate over the radio without a node number. It helps if your radio has a DTMF pad (DTMF means dual-tone multi-frequency signaling). If you are participating over the internet, you will either need a node number or the system you are connecting to must allow connections from other services such as EchoLink.
While you can get handie-talkie radios with either Yaesu System Fusion or D-Star digital codecs, you can’t get a handie-talkie with AllStarLink installed. That means to connect to an ASL network over the internet, you need a separate device or a node installed on a server.
Must you have a node number to access AllStarLink?
Generally speaking, when you connect to the ASL network over the internet you need to have your own node number. However, if the repeater you wish to connect to is configured to accept connections from other programs such as EchoLink, then you can join via EchoLink without an ASL node number.
If you are within radio range of a repeater that is connected to the ASL network, then you can join directly with your radio, no node number required.
To connect your device, you will need a node number and password
The AllStarLink wiki has instructions on registering for a node number for your device or server instance.
Some people choose to build an ASL node and some buy a preconfigured node. One of the most popular configurations is called a Shari. For example, you can buy a Shari kit that connects to a Raspberry Pi device.
The Shari is just one of many ways to enter the ASL universe. Rather than build a unit, I chose to purchase a preconfigured ClearNode device from Node-Ventures. Doing so gave me a quick on-ramp to ASL. As I’ve used the ClearNode over the past few months, I’ve found that Node-Ventures did a very good job of integrating several services.
I’ve posted before about ASL:
October 6, 2022: ClearNode AllStarLink is Up
October 13, 2022: AllStarLink: Still Learning
October 16, 2022: AllStarLink: Status and To Do
October 23, 2022: AllStar: Summary of What I’ve Learned
This is a small device that doesn’t take up much room wherever you choose to put it.
What I’ve found is that there is a fairly steep learning curve for AllStarLink, but the more I use it, the easier it becomes. Since I have exceptionally high radio frequency interference in my Portland apartment, running digital voice is one of the few ways I can work around that RFI.
I operate two nodes
Node 57849 is my ClearNode device situated in my Portland, Oregon apartment. I can connect with it locally with my handie-talkie radio. This node is not accessible to the public, but through the ClearNode app on my smartphone, I can control it and listen in on AllStarLink nets when I’m traveling.
Node 57945 is a radio-less node on a cloud server located in Seattle. I’m using a Vultr.com high performance plan at $6/month to host this instance. (If you want to try Vultr, please consider using my affiliate link: https://www.vultr.com/?ref=9261098. AWS and Digital Ocean are also good, low-cost choices.) You can see node 57945 via the node home page at http://www.tomhub.us/supermon/ and see if there are any active connections at http://www.tomhub.us/supermon/link.php?nodes=57945. Node 57945 is publicly accessible.
I can connect to both of my nodes from inside my home network and also while I’m traveling. In fact, when I’m traveling, I can connect to my cloud node using my smartphone to listen in and to participate in nets…as long as I have a good, strong internet connection. I maintain a node in the cloud so that I don’t have to bother moving my ClearNode device from place to place when I travel.
What are the differences between my nodes?
The ClearNode vendor (Node-Ventures) maintains Android and iOS apps that make it easier to configure, manage, and use the ClearNode device. My cloud instance of ASL does not have this kind of interface so managing it requires connecting to the cloud server and opening a terminal window. If you are more comfortable with a graphical user interface (for example, this), you might be more comfortable with the ClearNode. If working at the command line in Linux doesn’t sound intimidating, a cloud instance could work nicely for you.
When I boot up the ClearNode, it transmits my callsign in Morse Code, followed by the IP address of the node. This is very helpful because sometimes IP addresses change on a home network, so if that happens to you, it can be hard to find the new IP address of your device. The ClearNode makes finding the IP address very simple because it simply transmits the new address over the radio.
How I use AllStarLink
I connect to my ClearNode via handie-talkie and over my smartphone. When using my Android phone, I use a program called DVSwitch to connect to my ClearNode. After that connection is made, I can connect my node to other nodes using DTMF commands entered through the DVSwitch interface. If that sounds complicated, consider that you’ve already used DTMF signaling when you dialed a number on a touch-tone phone.
I enjoy listening in on several nets, including the daily nets on node 2462. This is the Puget Sound Repeater Group’s ASL node.
Node 51018 is the W6EK repeater in the Sierra Nevada foothills above the Sacramento Valley in California, operated by the Sierra Foothills Amateur Radio Club. This is an active repeater.
I am also running a special program on my ClearNode called AllScan. This program lets me save my favorite nodes directly on the ClearNode and displays that information in an easy-to-use table. Once I connect my smartphone to my ClearNode via DVSwitch, I connect and disconnect from nodes using AllScan through my home computer or my smartphone.
My current favorites:
Example: DVSwitch to ClearNode to W6EK
My ClearNode usually runs all the time (it’s a Raspberry Pi so it doesn’t consume much power).
Step 1: Open DVSwitch and connect to ClearNode 57849
The interface looks like this before I connect to my ClearNode (left) and after connecting to my ClearNode, node # 57849:
Step 2: Connect to a remote node
Once connected to my ClearNode, I can access another node in a couple of ways. The most obvious is to enter a DTMF command using the DVSwitch keypad. For example, to connect to the W6EK repeater in California, I could enter *351018. The simplest DTMF commands are *3 to allow one to transmit and receive, *2 to receive only (i.e., monitor), and *1 to disconnect. Appended to each command is the node number, so:
Connect to transceive: *351018
Connect to monitor only: *251018
Disconnect from remote node: *151018
(Note that modern radios generally allow entering DTMF commands directly over RF. I’ve tested that with my Yaesu FT5DR and the ClearNode and it works. However, I have so much radio-frequency interference in my Portland apartment that I can’t use the handie-talkie for transceiving. A big reason I have the ClearNode and use DVSwitch is to have better transmissions during an AllStarLink conversation.)
AllStarLink.org also provides a bubble chart that shows how you are connected to other nodes. Here’s the bubble chart for my ClearNode (shown in blue) during a conversation yesterday on the W6EK repeater:
Step 3: Listen or participate
Once connected, listen in or key up and join the conversation! In my installation of DVSwitch on my smartphone, I need to hold down the PTT button in the app while transmitting. But your implementation may be different, so it is important to know how your DVSwitch installation acts so that you don’t accidentally leave the transmit open!
One way I connect to the ASL network is through a telephone portal from my voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) desk phone to my cloud node. I have programmed a long string in my phone dialing directory that allows me to initiate the connection to my cloud node with just a couple of button presses. Once I’m connected to my cloud node, I can connect to other nodes using DTMF commands.
Digital voice can be very inexpensive as long as you don’t count the cost of your internet connection. One of my VoIP phone lines has cost just $6 since November 1st. My Vultr node costs $6 a month. It is interesting to think about only having the Vultr node, especially considering the radio frequency interference in my location. At less than $10 a month, one could go a long time before the cost exceeded the purchase price of a ClearNode device!
However, I believe in redundancy, because two is one and one is none. Having the ClearNode and a node in the cloud gives me the kind of redundancy I feel most comfortable with.