What is AllStarLink?
A few months ago I dove into the world of AllStarLink (abbreviated: ASL). What is AllStarLink?
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.Source: https://www.allstarlink.org/
Some people choose to build an ASL node. One of the most popular configurations is called a Shari but there are many ways to enter the ASL universe. I chose to purchase a ClearNode device from Node-Ventures. Doing so provided a quick on-ramp to ASL. As I’ve used the ClearNode over the past few months, I’ve found that the implementation by the vendor is very good.
I’ve posted before about ASL but not here. Check out these posts on my ham radio blog for more:
- 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 steep learning curve for AllStarLink. The more I use it, the more potential uses I discover for it. 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.
How to get started with AllStarLink
There is a thorough introduction to AllStarLink on their wiki. You need to be a licensed Amateur Radio Operator to get a node number. 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. Otherwise, you need a node to participate over the internet.
While you can get handie-talkies with either YSF or D-Star, you can’t get a radio 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. If you are within radio range of repeater that is connected to the ASL network, your radio is all you need.
I operate two nodes
Node 57849 is my ClearNode device situated in my Portland apartment. I can connect with it on 433.500 MHz using a handie-talkie. I’m using a Yaesu FT5DR to connect over RF but I plan to get a single-band HT to dedicate for this purpose. 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 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.
What are the differences between the two nodes?
One fundamental difference between the ClearNode and the cloud node is that one runs HamVoIP and one runs AllStarLink. In the programming world, an offshoot of an existing application is called a fork. HamVoIP is, essentially, a fork of ASL. Both instances are based on an open-source project called Asterisk. For most of us, the differences between HamVoIP and AllStarLink just don’t matter. Unless you are going to install custom software or “hack” the installation, we can safely ignore whether the node is running HamVoIP or AllStarLink.
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 opening a terminal window connected to the cloud server. If you like graphical user interfaces (for example, this), you might be more comfortable with the ClearNode. If working at the command line in Linux doesn’t sound frightening, 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 address very simple because it simply tells you the new address over the radio.
What can you do on AllStarLink?
If you have ever used EchoLink or DMR, then you know there are individuals and amateur radio nets all over the world that communicate via digital voice. EchoLink can be accessed via a radio, smartphone, or computer.
AllStarLink is much the same. For example, I connect to my ClearNode via handie-talkie and over my smartphone. For 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 (DTMF means dual-tone multi-frequency signaling) 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.
There is much more that you can do. For example, you can connect EchoLink nodes to your AllStarLink node. You can connect to DMR and other systems using a digital bridge:
If you are trying to use analog hardware to operate AllStar, DMR, D-Star, NXDN, P25, then you can add DVSwitch Server to your AllStar node and access all modes from an analog radio (and Android, HTML)Source: https://community.allstarlink.org/t/linking-allstar-to-a-mmdvm-hotspot-dmr-to-allstar-node-bridge/18146/4
Nets I enjoy
I enjoy listening in on Node 2462. This is the Puget Sound Repeater Group’s ASL node. PSRG has daily nets at 9:00 am, noon, and 9:00 pm.
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 on my ClearNode. Once I connect my smartphone to my ClearNode via DVSwitch, I connect and disconnect from nodes using AllScan through my home computer.
My current favorites:
How to get a node number
A node registration explanation is available on the AllStarLink wiki.
Is AllStarLink the only game in town?
There are many flavors of digital voice that are similar to ASL. I’ve already mentioned HamVoIP which is one of those flavors. There is also PTTLink, created when organizational changes were made by the AllStarLink board of directors. RasLink is a distribution for PTTLink.
In my view, the two most stable systems are AllStarLink and HamVoIP.
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. This is a big reason I have the ClearNode and use DVSwitch: so that I have a clear transmission 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 today (shown in blue), connected to a conversation on the W6EK repeater:
Step 3: Listen or participate
Once connected, listen in or key up and join the conversation! In my install 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!
Digital voice using voice-over-IP technology requires a good internet connection. I run a couple of different VoIP phone lines plus a Hamshack Hotline account on a refurbished Cisco IP phone. A big advantage of digital voice is the clarity of transmissions. On AllStarLink, whenever I hear transmissions that are hard to understand, it is usually because the operator has a poor radio connection to the repeater or the audio output from their radio is too high or too low.
Digital voice is also 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 $6 a month, I could go a long time before the cost exceeded the purchase price of a ClearNode device!
If you want to dive deeper into DVSwitch (app and server), that can become a deep well. Here is a good place to start if you’re interested: https://n2rac.com/how-to-setup-a-dvswitch-server-and-use-your-android-phone-as-a-dmr-radio-through-digital-analog-8435fb671ce3
The possibility of connecting a repeater to the AllStarLink network is intriguing to me, but I don’t know enough about repeaters to speak intelligently about this. People do it. Many people do it. When it is implemented, I hear conversations that extend much farther than the reach of radio waves from a repeater.
To me, amateur radio enthusiasts fall into two general camps: some folks like to talk, and some folks like the play with the technology. I know that I lean toward the latter group so I expect I’ll learn a lot more about this tech as time goes by! It’s all amateur radio, whether one chooses to talk or not.
I left one part out. You can access the AllStarLink Network by dialing in from a phone *if* you have a 10-digit PIN from AllStarLink. To get that PIN, you have to have a node number. Dialing in is a little bit cumbersome but it does work. Directions are in the first part of this post: https://w2ymm.home.blog/allstar_phone/.