DMR for Beginners

One of the hottest sellers at Dayton in 2016 was the Tytera MD-380 handheld UHF radio. At just over $100 dollars it opened the door for many more hams to explore Digital Mobile Radio (DMR). There are a lot of great web resources to learn about DMR. So this piece will be brief, just enough to whet your appetite and give you some places to go to learn more.

There are a number of digital technologies hams use for voice communications. P25, D-Star, Fusion and DMR are three of the more well known. Each has it’s pros and cons but over the last year, DMR has emerged as one of the most popular digital protocols for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, the standard is open and there are a lot of manufacturers making radios. So it can be inexpensive to get involved.

D-Star, for example, has largely been the province of Icom. In the past, you’ve typically had to rely on Icom radios and repeaters, although smart hams have figured ways to leverage the D-Star infrastructure with things like DVAPs and hot-spots. There are DMR radios available at about 1/4 the price of a comparable Icom rig.

DMR repeaters have been almost exclusively Motorola machines due to the ways that hams interconnect them with one another. Both DMR and D-Star have functionality which allows many people to converse within a series of common audio chat rooms. DMR nomenclature calls these Talk Groups. D-Star calls them reflectors. In Echolink language, they are conference servers. Their allure is that it’s possible to talk with someone on the other side of the continent and around the world with a low power handheld, regardless of sunspot conditions.

The hard work in the DMR world is the upfront time spent programming your radio to work within the system. DMR uses a combination of codes that are programmed into radio memory via something called a Code Plug. Local DMR groups often distribute code plugs for various makes of radios, making it easy to quickly program your radio for use on local DMR repeaters.

Your radio is identified by a numeric identification code which can be obtained through the DMR-MARC organization. Once you get the code, you add that to your code plug. This identifies your radio and admits it to the DMR-MARC network.

Within the code plug are numbers associated with popular talkgroups that are local, statewide, regional, national and international in scope. Radio memory also allows for programming a variety of zones into your rig which allows you to easily reorient your radio, depending on where you may travel. I grabbed a codeplug for Jacksonville, Florida from the excellent First Coast DMR group when we were visiting our kids, input my radio ID and was up and running quickly when we headed south recently. When we returned to East Lansing, reseting the radio was as easy as plugging it into my laptop and reloading the MI5 code plug.

Which brings up another point. You’ll need software and a computer to program your rig, or an appropriately equipped friend nearby who is willing to help get you going. Motorola radios require expensive, proprietary programming software, but there are a number of solutions that can save you from having to make the investment. With the plethora of new manufacturers in the DMR space, you’ll find that people like Tytera and Connect Systems provide the programming software for free.

There is a learning curve to understand how DMR works, especially programming code plugs. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll be DMRing with the best of them with confidence. The audio quality is great and your ability to talk to interesting people well beyond the typical range of the local FM repeater is great fun.

So give it a whirl! On VHF/UHF, all you need is a Technician license and you’ll soon be talking to the world. If you’re in Michigan, look for me on the MI5 Network – Statewide2 Talkgroup. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that your radio can also be programmed to work with the analog FM machines in your area. DMR rigs were originally made for commercial use, so the dual-banders we’re used to that handle both 2 meters and 70 cm aren’t widely available yet. That’s ok, because in most places, DMR can be found almost exclusively on 44o, so you’ll only need a 70cm rig to get rocking.

Learn more about DMR through the links, below. And I hope to hear you on the digital airwaves soon!

The Ham Radio 360 Podcast on DMR