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By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
My first 220 MHz transceiver, the Alinco DR-235T
My friend Chuck, N0EIS, tells jokes that are either so corny that I can't believe he has the nerve to say them aloud, or so profound that I'm overwhelmed by his wit and wisdom. He oscillates between lunatic and genius, and much of the time I have no idea what he's talking about. Therefore, whenever he brings up a subject that I actually understand, I pay close attention.
That's how I became interested in the 1.25 meter band (220 MHz). Chuck is always lauding its attributes. He tells me that it works well in the lumps and bumps that constitute the terrain of St. Louis County. Of course, Chuck can get anything to work, whereas I can get just about nothing to work, but I thought I'd give the band a try anyway.
This was several years ago, so as you might imagine, I didn't find much in the way of 1.25m equipment on the market. Ideally, I wanted something like I already had, except with the extra band.
Hmmmmmm. Yaesu didn't seem to make a mobile transceiver like that (I was hung up on Yaesu products at the time). Icom didn't make one either. And neither did Kenwood. Alright, I couldn't get my ideal 144, 220, and 440 MHz tri-band mobile. How about something with just 144 and 220?
Still no luck. Good grief. Was I going to have to settle for a mono-bander? Oh well, if it was cheap enough I'd consider it.
None of the big three radio manufacturers made one. (Forgive me if I only considered Yaesu, Icom, and Kenwood at the time, I'm much more open-minded these days.) Oh, I could find old radios that worked in the 220 MHz band, but they tended to scare me. I worried that they might not have the more modern features which I took for granted (CTCSS tones, more than 10 memory channels, running on electricity rather than whale oil, etcetera). I'd seen a lot of used equipment at hamfests, but as cool as it looked, I wasn't sure I could actually operate any of it.
Time to broaden my search, and my perspective.
Aha! 1.25m transceivers were still being made, but they tended to be hand held radios instead of mobile radios. That wasn't what I was looking for. I did, however, find one mobile mono-bander on the market, the Alinco DR-235T.
I chewed my lower lip and thought about it. I actually did own two Alinco 144 MHz transceivers. They weren't exactly "high end" models. I really only used them for packet radio operations, not voice, but they worked well enough. I dithered for a while, searched some more (same results, virtually nothing out there), and finally bought a DR-235T.
I like the Yaesu FTM-350R, but the 220 MHz feature only cranks out 1 pitiful watt.
So, how did it work?
Well....... for a long time it was hard to tell. There were a few 220 MHz repeaters in the area, but I was only able to hit one of them, and then only sporadically. I didn't have an actual 1.25m antenna and was using a multi-band discone instead. That may have had something to do with it, as was the fact that my house is just in a bad location (wrong side of a hill). Regardless of where the blame lay, I never succeeded in contacting anyone. And having had little success with the band, my interest in it waned.
Now let's hop in our time machine and jump forward a few years.
I purchased a Yaesu FTM-350R dual-band transceiver for ARES field work (ARES is the Amateur Radio Emergency Service). It's actually a tri-bander, having 220 MHz in addition to 144 and 440. I can't remember if I knew that beforehand, but that wasn't the reason why I bought it. Whereas the 144 and 440 bands operate as you might expect, the 220 band is restricted to the left side of the dual-display, and will only transmit with 1 watt of power. In other words, the extra band is a meaningless "special feature". (It's kind of like spending a fortune on a luxury car that includes a "special feature" that turns out to be a plastic air freshener dangling from the rear view mirror.)
Nevertheless, I now had two transceivers that operated on the 1.25m band, so I could at least experiment a little. And these experiments led to a startling discovery:
Well, that was certainly a revelation. Clearly the Alinco wasn't working properly. Or perhaps it was just a piece of junk. My ego insisted that it had to be the former, so I decided to have it repaired. Having had success using Burghardt Radio Repair in the past, I boxed up my DR-235T and sent it to them.
At this is the point in my tale you're expecting me to tell you a horror story about how they initially lost my radio, then waited for six months before telling me that they couldn't repair it, and finally whacked me with a huge service charge and wanted even more to ship it back to me.
Surprise! None of that happened. (How's that for an unexpected plot twist?) Burghardt was able to fix my radio, it didn't take too much time, nor did it cost too much. And hurrah! The repaired unit worked better than it ever had before.
Sadly, there were still very few hams in the St. Louis area using the band, so once again my focus drifted away from 1.25m.
Up until that point the Japanese had dominated the Amateur Radio transceiver market. The equipment that they manufactured was sold worldwide. Most transceivers that they produced for the United States could also, with slight modifications, be marketed in Europe. The exception was the 1.25m band. Only operators in the United States had that privilege, so it wasn't all that profitable for the Japanese companies to make anything that operated in that band.
And then the Chinese got into the Amateur Radio market.
This Wouxun dual-band hand held has a cute accent.
I don't quite know why, but the Chinese companies have no reservations at all about manufacturing transceivers for the 1.25m band (or any other band, for that matter). In fact, the reasons I first purchased one of their hand held transceivers were that (1) it was dirt cheap, and (2) it included the 220 MHz band. (Another feature that I discovered was that when you turn it on, a female voice tells you what mode it's in. For some reason I find it's high-pitched Chinese accent rather endearing.)
Realizing that the sudden availability of 1.25m equipment might spur widespread interest in the band, I began to think seriously about getting a unit to put in my car. I'd considered doing so before, but I could never find a 220 MHz mobile radio that had a detachable control head. I still couldn't, but my search did lead to some interesting facts.
The first was that there was a Facebook page called "Ham Operators Who Use 220 MHz". Now that was a real find. I joined the group (yes, they let me in) and posed the question, "Is there any 220 mobile transceiver out there that has a detachable control head?" I got several responses. Some mentioned obsolete models that might still be obtained at hamfests or through ebay. Others brought up commercial equipment that could be modified to operate in the Amateur Radio portion of the band. And yet more indicated which Chinese models fit the bill. The real surprise, though, came when someone in the group revealed the second interesting fact.
There was an American company that was currently manufacturing 220 MHz hand held and mobile transceivers... and repeaters! The name of the outfit was BridgeCom Systems and it was right here in Missouri! Could it be? Was I hallucinating? I thought I might be after I discovered that their mobile unit did, indeed, have a removable control head. I became convinced that it was all true once I found that there was a slight hiccup. The mobile units aren't available yet, but will be Real Soon Now.
So, I'm closely watching the Facebook page, BridgeCom's announcements, and the latest Chinese offerings. I'm still very interested in the 1.25m band, partly because I anticipate a surge of new operators will soon appear....
Also check out the 220 MHz Group on Facebook