If you’re an avid follower of FrugalFloridaFun.com, then you know I have been recently featuring quite a few articles about HAM radio as this is a family friendly hobby that really compliments man of our other activities. I have mentioned how to get an Amateur Radio license, but what if you don’t know if you want to go through all that trouble of studying? You could possibly just get a scanner to hear local frequencies and activity, but that’s in many cases, not very frugal. While researching a completely different topic, I ran across something that can help you make up your mind about the radio hobby in general. I’m referring to SDRs or Software Defined Radios! Remember it has been years since I have really been in the amateur radio hobby so lots has changed over the years. Software defined radios are a way for you to listed to local broadcasts, and frequencies without the need for an expensive radio scanner. It can act a bit like a preview of what you might find on the air. You can listen to local amateur radio conversations, and in many cases so much more! In my area I can listed to local EVAC, Fire, Police, as well as all sorts of frequencies. This must be expensive right? NOPE! It’s probably the most frugal radio project I have ever worked on, and the bonus is that it takes ZERO skill to do!
OK so some basics first… Software defined radios some in two basic varieties, but they serve the same purpose. The first option costs you absolutely nothing, and you can start listening today! This is an awesome bonus, but has a few limitations. There are quite a few Software Denied Radios that are connected to the internet for listeners to be able to control and “tune” around. This is a great way to see if you would like to spend a few dollars to get your own Software Defined Radio at home.
Known as Web Software Defined Radios, individuals allow other to control their equipment. Unlike just streaming audio where you have no control, web Software Defined Radios allow many people to listen and actually tune the radio remotely. Don’t worry, you can’t transmit. The drawback is that you are limited to signals or segments that the person who setup their gear allows and those signals are as received from their particular location. For example, if you are listening to web software defined radios in another state, don’t expect to hear your local emergency frequencies. You can checkout an entire world wide list at WebSDR.org. Many require java functionality, so you probably can’t tune them with your phone or tablet, but from a PC you can get a pretty good idea of how it works. One of my favorites to show people is LiveHams.com, as it works with HTML5 and Java, so it’s pretty compatible with just about any computer setup. What’s even more awesome is that the owner of the site setup his gear to share with everyone for only $66! Don’t worry if you want to get into Software Defined Radios, it can be done much cheaper than this!
OK so now I have peaked your interest. How much will this cost you as a Frugal Florida Fun reader to setup on your own? For right around $20, you can get all the necessary equipment to setup your own listening post! Let me explain hot this is possible. I’ll try not to get into too much techie stuff, but a quick understanding of a few things might help. First, you know how the US just changed how over the air television is broadcasted? Remember a few years ago, everyone descended into chaos because people either needed to buy a new TV or one of those digital converted boxes? Well, different parts of the world have completely different ways of broadcasting television signals. Well, a few years back, a brainiac who is much more talented at the technical stuff than I am, discovered that the very inexpensive USB TV receivers that are used in Europe are actually nothing more than just very inexpensive radio receivers. OK, so that’s not an Eureka! moment or anything, but he discovered that those cheap receivers can receive much more than just TV signals! Their receive capacity spans quite a bit of the radio spectrum.
So how does all this apply to Software Defined Radios? Well quite a few well-intentioned individuals started developing free, open sourced software that converts those expanded signals into something readable for your computer. The inexpensive USB receiver pretty much just takes in all the data and radio signals, and lets your computer do the actual work to figure out what’s a radio signal and what’s just static. Ok so I’m over simplifying the concept behind Software Defined Radios, but you should get my point.
After sifting through some recommendations, I bought my setup from an amazon vendor. There are quite a few that you need to be aware of, but just stick to the ones sold by NooElec inc and you should be fine. They sell quite a bit of SDR gear. So I waited a few days in the mail, and low and behold my brand new USB European TV receiver arrived in the mail! It was a complete setup including a TV remote control, antenna, and the USB receiver itself. I was amazed at just how compact this was. I don’t plan on using the remote control, so the antenna and USB stick are great for traveling!
Ok so now what? You just plug it in? Not quite. I had to select one of the many FREE SDR radio programs that are available online. I’m in a bit of a unique situation as a mac user so my choices are a bit limited right out of the box, but boy was I surprised when I downloaded the software, plugged in the equipment and it just worked! No crazy settings, no having to fight with it or anything! Ok, I admit it. I actually downloaded the software almost after I clicked the buy button on amazon, but when I plugged in the hardware and opened up the GQRX it just worked! There are lots of alternatives for other operating systems including linux, Mac, Windows, and even the Raspbery Pi! Checkout the list below for additional resources.
Once you get into the SDR software of your choice, they usually all have similar features. Once connected to your hardware, you literally see what is referred to as a “Waterfall”. You’ll see why when you actually do it, but it’s pretty cool. You can tune to specific frequencies and see a visual representation of the radio signals that are being broadcasted all around you. If you don’t quite know what to check for in your area, you can always tune to a commercial radio station to get your bearings. This is usually a good test to see if your equipment is working and to see how the waterfall and tuning works for your particular application.
Once you have your software defined radio up and running, you’ll very quickly want to see what else is in your area. I would recommend checking out RadioReference.com, as you can drill down to your local county, state, or metro area to see who is using frequencies around you. Here you can find your local EMS, Fire, Police, and many more frequencies to monitor! It’s fun to see what’s out there. When we travel for our adventures I usually bring along my laptop and the SDR gear is always in my bag. Keep in mind that if you purchase the SDR USB stick from the amazon link, your frequency range for listening is about 24-1766 mhz. Most of your local frequencies will be in this range.
So now that I have told you what Software Defined Radios actually are, where to buy them, and will be providing a list of the software below, what are the limitations? Well, it’s not a traditional “scanner” that you might be familiar with. Many of the new modern scanners made by Uniden and Radio Shack literally keep looping or scanning through local frequencies until they “hear” something and stop. Many have the ability to list in to the new modern “trunked” radio systems. Software defined radios are good, but they aren’t really a replacement for a traditional scanner if you want to just turn it on and forget about it. Although there are some projects involving using two software defined radios to automatically change the channel when you’re listening to trunked frequencies, you may only hear pieces of conversations with the new modern police radios.
For around $20, you really can’t go wrong buying your own equipment. If it turns out you really enjoy listening around, you may want to purchase an adapter to attach a much better external antenna. I happen to have one on my roof, fairly high up, but you would be surprised what you can hear with just the little magnet mounted antenna that you get with this package!
Want to Connect an External Antenna?
SDR Software Defined Radios Details:
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