*Getting Started with EchoLink*
By: Gottin_Himmel
07 April 2007

You just got your Tech class ham radio license and you're waiting to buy your first rig. Everyone talks about how great hams are and you just can't wait to get on the airwaves and make some contacts.

Well, you do have a computer, or you wouldn't be reading this article. What if I told you that you can use your computer like a ham radio? No antenna, no transceiver, no problem with RFI, no cables snaking across the floor to trip the dog.

"Huh? What? Say that again, sis. No radio, but you can talk to hams? This must be one of those dumb stories you're always telling."

Sorry to disappoint you, but I'm not joking. There's this neat software package known as EchoLink that you can download for free.

Find it here: http://www.echolink.org

EchoLink operates via VoIP technology. You have the choice of using your computer or of using a more traditional ham transceiver. For our purposes in this article, I'll describe the computer setup.

Step One
First things first. You have to have a valid ham call sign to download the software from the site. After downloading the software, EchoLink will request validation via an e-mail message. There are several ways of supplying validation. The easiest method to my way of thinking is to just send them a dollar by way of your credit card. As soon as you do this and your call sign is verified, EchoLink activates your account and you're good to go.

Step Two
Second thing, plug a headset into the audio jack/s on the side of your computer. Your soundcard is going to take the place of a ham transceiver. This is where the magic happens. You may have some firewall issues unless you allow Echolink as an exception. Go into your computer's Control Panel feature found in the Startup menu, click on Security Center, click on Firewall, and then click the Exceptions tab. Enter EchoLink as an exception. You're done.

Step Three
Take some time to look over the manual before you jump in. It's a good idea to connect to the EchoLink test server and check your audio levels, both for your mike and for your speakers/headphones. The test server records your test messages which you can replay to check for quality. At the same time, you have the option of calibrating your computer's soundcard to interface optimally with EchoLink. This is also a very good idea.

Step Four
When your audio quality suits you, it's time to take a look at the main display. You have a choice of two views, Index and Explorer. Explorer is probably more recognizable for most of us, so we'll use that in our little tutorial.

Everything is arranged in the familiar Windows folder scheme. Click on the Locations folder. You'll get a list of global areas to choose from. For most of us in the Rubicon, we'd select North America. As I live in Pennsylvania, I'll select United States from the options. This opens another list labeled Areas. Pennsylvania is in Area 3 so I click on that. Boom. Another list appears with all the callsigns in that area.

Take a closer look. Some of the callsigns have R appearing after them. These are repeaters. Others have L after them. These are links. When you're first starting out with your computer version of EchoLink, don't mess with these. The repeaters are generally reserved for the hams using radios.

The callsigns appear in black and blue type (not black-and-blue type, because that's something we're not supposed to talk about here). The black ones are EchoLink users who are "on" and standing by waiting to talk. The blue ones indicate those users who are already talking to someone.

You're going to be using the space bar on your keyboard as the push-to-talk button, just like you would on a radio. This is the EchoLink default setting, but there's a feature to change this to another key in the Tools/Preferences/Controls/PTT section if you like.

When you find someone you'd like to talk to, click on his callsign and tap the space bar of your computer to talk. A screen appears indicating that you're transmitting (Tx). Speak into your mike, using accepted ham procedure for initiating contact. When you're done transmitting, tap the space bar again to end the transmission. If you're successful and someone answers, a message occurs in the same screen with (Rx)appearing there. Your contact will come through loud and clear. Bingo! Your first QSO!

By using EchoLink this way, I've made contacts throughout North America. By far, my best was a 92-years-young man living in British Columbia, formerly of Birmingham UK. That was a real treat for both of us.

You'll find that the regular users of EchoLink are a friendly crew who go out of their way to welcome newbies. Many of them can tell that you're new by your area number and your callsign. Don't be surprised by the number of welcoming contacts.

In a disaster situation, EchoLink is another hammer in my toolbox. Although it won't take the place of traditional ham transceivers and the revered Morse code, it's still a means of getting some practice using what I've learned. I also think of it as a form of community building before TSHTF.

IMO, EchoLink is very user friendly. The developers did a great job of providing another layer of commos. I can't wait to try this with a ham rig.


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