The N3CVJ repeater was conceived in 1988, as the solution to our newly formed VHF ham radio group's coverage issues. Back in 1987, Piero (N3FVG), Art (N3GFB), Al (KA3TBD), myself, and a bunch of other people, who had just recently vacated the CB band after obtaining ham licenses, had started a simplex group on the lower part of 2 meters. We were impressed by the wide area coverage and generally had no problem communicating amongst ourselves when we were all at our homes utilizing our high gain antennas, and otherwise remaining relatively stationary. This improved (over that found on 11 meters) range provided us with the opportunity to expand our group to include people who were 40 to 50 miles or more away. But thanks to the many hills and valleys which make up the terrain in our local area, those of us who spent any time operating mobile, soon found out that maintaining a good comfortable signal with everyone on the frequency was difficult at best especially for those guys more than a few miles out. So when someone ran mobile, signals would often go from full scale to down in the noise just by moving forward a few feet in many cases. Mobile flutter from multi-path cancellations, and interference from ignition noise, traffic signals and other sources, only exacerbated the problem. Plus, the characteristics of FM was such that weak signals, which were down in the noise, were not easy to copy. So on the one hand, base station-to-base station range on 2 meters was usually much better than what we had been used to on 11 meters. But on the other hand, base-to-mobile or mobile-to-mobile range was often much less, and it left us with a less than reliable, or pleasant mobile experience in most cases. So we found ourselves with a bit of a problem.
So then, an astute observer might ask, why not utilize one of the many existing 2 meter repeaters (and there were plenty)? After all, most hams who talk on 2 meters use repeaters. This is the question that I usually faced in response, when outlining our dilemma to other people. The answer to that question was not a simple one, and it's also an answer which contained multi-facets. In some cases, we would switch to repeaters to make mobil'ing a bit more bearable. But we would never spend much time there because we just weren't very comfortable. For one thing, most of the repeaters were owned and maintained by various clubs, who insisted (sometimes not so subtly) that if we wished to use their "machine" for any length of time, that we should join the club. This was not an unreasonable request, considering that maintaining a repeater is not without associated costs, which the members shared. So consequently, many of our group did join one of the few local clubs which operated the better repeaters in the area. In most cases though, we would've had to use more than one machine to cover every area where our group traveled to on a regular basis. But the biggest impediment to our using repeaters on a regular basis was that our group was somewhat "renegade" in our operating habits. We were not cut from the mold of the stereotypical "stuffed shirt" ham, who had cut their teeth in ham radio from the very beginning. The members of our group, conversely, had gotten our feet wet in the no-holds-barred, free-for-all atmosphere of CB radio. As such, we were more "laid-back", way more informal, and far less technical in our conversations. And while we didn't use the dreaded "CB lingo", we generally weren't indoctrinated with "Ham lingo" either. We also liked to yack it up with open ended roundtable chats for long periods of time, and that was a tough thing to do on a busy repeater where people were always coming and going, and long winded conversations were usually frowned upon. Not surprisingly, the differences in our operating "style" often placed us at odds with some in the ham radio establishment. We just didn't fit in with the traditional repeater groups, some of whom viewed guys like us as examples of the parasites which were slowly destroying ham radio as they knew it. It's no wonder, when presented with attitudes like this, that we preferred to hide out on simplex, and away from that sort of prejudice. We weren't looking to cause trouble, we just wanted to be able to hang out on a frequency and comfortably chew the fat without having to worry whether we were "hogging" a particular repeater. Compounding this was the problem of trying to monitor both the simplex frequency and one or more repeater frequencies at the same time, while listening for one of our guys when they came on.
After some time had gone by, the group began mulling over the idea of creating our own repeater. Why not? I had had some experience with them in the past, and we all felt confident that we could handle the challenge. At that time, Steve (WA3RQO) already had his own coordinated 2 meter repeater (WA3RQO/R) on 145.210, which would have been ideal. The problem with Steve's repeater was that it was located at his house, and the antenna was mounted on a ground mounted pole, barely 30 feet in the air, so consequently, the coverage wasn't all that great. Because of a lack of activity on his repeater, Steve had lost interest in maintaining it, and so we began talking to him about the possibility of taking over the maintenance and coordination of his repeater and moving the machine to a more suitable location. At first, Steve was receptive to the idea, as he liked the idea of the repeater becoming useful to a larger audience. He even lined up a potential commercial Motorola Micor repeater to use as a more reliable replacement. But some time shortly afterward, Steve suddenly changed his mind, and decided that he didn't want to go through with our project. It was a rather abrupt change of mind and I think someone else talked him out of it for reasons which I never found out. But that's neither here nor there and, regardless of the reason, that window of opportunity had suddenly closed.
When that project fell through, we started looking at other options. We contacted the area frequency coordinator to obtain our own frequency pair, and soon found out that there were no open 2 meter frequency pairs available in our area. Uh-oh....... We found the same to be true for the 440 Mhz UHF band. In fact, the only frequency pairs available were on the 6 meters, 220 Mhz and the 1.2 Ghz bands. 6 meters was too difficult to find practical FM-only amateur grade equipment for, and the duplexers for a repeater were too large and expensive. 1.2 Ghz was not all that popular in our area, equipment was much more expensive, and coverage was generally very spotty in our hilly area. So we were forced to take a long hard look at 220 Mhz. 220 Mhz was a sort of "skipped over" band. There was a lot of activity on 2 meters, and a fair amount on 440 Mhz as well. But 220 was like a dead zone, despite the number of "paper repeaters" listed there as active. 220 also shared many of the propagation characteristics of 2 meters, and was not quite as line-of-sight as 440 (or 1.2 Ghz). Because of the relative lack of demand for radio gear on 220 Mhz, equipment was not as plentiful, and it often cost a bit more than equivalent 2 meter stuff. But we did have some hope. The F.C.C. had recently created, what was then known as, "Novice Enhancement", where Novices were given voice privileges on 10 meters, 220 Mhz, and 1.2 Ghz. We thought that this would create new demand for 220 equipment and therefore increase the selection available from the manufacturers. Other guys who were still working on upgrading their ham licenses, could now talk on 220 with just the Novice license. With the "off the beaten path" nature of 220, we could be less concerned about being accused of "hogging" a repeater as it would be far less likely that transient users would want to break in on a regular basis. Plus it would be our machine and we would make our own rules. Since it was a separate band, we could maintain our operation on 2 meter simplex, and simultaneously monitor 220 when people were "out and about". The 220 Mhz band was starting to sound like a very viable option.
Once we decided to go with 220, we started planning the repeater project. Most of us didn't have a lot of money to spend (the story of my life), so we decided to home brew whatever we could. Unlike 2 meters and 440 Mhz, there wasn't much in the way of cheap, second hand commercial equipment which we could use without major modifications. A popular method to home brew a 220 repeater, was to use a Midland 13-509 radio. The Midland was a 12 channel crystal controlled radio with a 10 watt power output. This radio was ideal for repeater use, as the transmitter and receiver sections were housed on separate PC boards, which made separation easy. So I decided to go that route. The project basically became the technical and financial responsibility of myself, Piero, and Art at that point. In the spring of 1988, I got a lucky break and managed to land a company paid trip to the Dayton Hamvention to look for certain illegally produced electronic devices. What better place to start gathering parts for our 220 Mhz repeater? As luck would have it, while perusing the many rows of stuff there, I managed to find someone selling an already filleted Midland 13-509 along with a simple Controller/I.D.'er. I also found another pristine 13-509 for $50. I also bought a brand new Kenwood TM321a 220 rig to use in my mobile. When I got my prizes home, I got to work in earnest. I had to decompile the controller ROM to decipher where the call sign I.D. was stored, in order to make the change to my call and then reprogram. I also built a multi-function DTMF decoder to remotely control the repeater and some ancillary functions. The three of us pooled our cash and ordered a duplexer from TX/RX Systems, as well as a Hustler G7 antenna.
While our equipment was starting to come together, at this point we still hadn't secured a suitable location for our repeater. None of our homes were located at workable elevations. You might say that we were all a bit "altitude challenged". Piero's was the worst at the time, as his home was in a deep valley which ran along a creek bed, barely 75' ASL. But Piero ultimately ended up finding the solution to our problem. Thanks to his job related connections, he was able to obtain permission for us to locate the repeater at a company at the top of one of the tallest hills in the West Conshohocken area. We had also gotten the ok from the frequency coordinator to use 224.020 Mhz. We also managed to find a 100 watt amplifier at a local hamfest, and I located a fully enclosed cabinet to mount the whole thing in. Things were really starting to come together now. It was now pretty much late in the summer, and as the parts came in, I started wiring the whole thing together. Once I got the frequency crystals, we were soon running on-air tests from my house to set audio levels and fine tune other parameters. It really looked like this thing was going to become a reality. But as luck would have it, the road ahead was about to get a bit bumpy........
The first bump occurred during one of our testing periods, when a person with an unknown call broke in and inquired as to what was going on. He initially expressed his gratitude that we were finally getting the machine "back" (?) on the air. This struck me as a bit strange, and when I informed him that this was a brand new machine, he seemed confused and then abruptly left. A day or two later, another repeater signal appeared on the frequency. It was not operating properly, as it broke up, self oscillated a great deal, and often remained keyed for several minutes at a time. We all wondered what was going on, but we went ahead with our plans to put our repeater up at our site on the following weekend. So on a chilly, drizzly morning in November of 1988, Piero, Art, and myself erected the repeater at its site for the first time. We had some problems with receiver de-sense but, at the end of the day, it was up and running. The other repeater started having activity as well. It soon became apparent that we were engaged in some sort of "turf war" for the frequency, but at that point, we had no idea who it was that we were "at war" with. Ironic, since for the last 5 months that we had been given the frequency by the coodinator, and were testing on and listening to the frequency, there had been no other activity. This little "war" brought back memories of the channel skirmishes that we had fought back on the CB band. But I thought that this type of behavior was something that wasn't supposed to happen on the ham bands. Hams were supposed to handle everything like gentlemen.....
As the weeks rolled by, we eventually got the straight story. It seems that 224.020 had been the frequency for the Pottstown area repeater club's 220 machine. For whatever reason, it had fallen into a state of neglect and disrepair, then was supposedly hit by lightning and finally went completely off the air. The club initially was not overly motivated to fix it, and it sat inactive. To compound an already bad situation, as a result of an administrative faux-paux, the club had inadvertently allowed their frequency coordination to expire, which is why the frequency had come up as available when we applied for (and got) coordination for it. Since we were relative newcomers to the 220 band, we were not aware that this frequency had been used not that long before we applied for it. But human nature being what it is, as soon as those guys got word that another group was squatting on "their" frequency, they scrambled to do in a few days, what they didn't want to be bothered with for many months prior. Their repeater was literally kludged together, running on battery power, and not all that stable, and their users were dusting off old rock-bound rigs that they really hated using, but felt that they had to do whatever they could to fight for what they perceived as theirs. In retrospect, I can't say that I blame them. I'd have probably done the same thing if I had been in their shoes.
Operating on the frequency was a bit tacky as there was a constant heterodyne when the two repeaters came up in tandem. We added fuel to the fire by kicking on our 100 watt amp. Things really got out of hand when someone began crossbanding the Pottstown club's much more active 2 meter machine to the 220 machine to artificially increase activity. Naturally, the frequency coordinator was contacted in order to mediate the situation. We felt that since we had followed all the correct steps in attaining coordination, that we should prevail in this situation. The other guys felt that since they were there first, and that since their club's members mostly had crystal radios which would make a frequency change for them problematic, that their administrative mistakes should be overlooked and they should be able to regain coordination.
It took a few weeks, but eventually, the frequency coordinator came up with another open frequency pair on 224.200, and a deal was tendered where the Pottstown club would purchase a set of commercial grade crystals cut on 224.200 for us, and we would then officially receive coordination for the new frequency and make the move. Since our group all had synthesized radios, it didn't really matter much to us which frequency we used. We all agreed and the deal was done. A surprisingly simple and smooth ending to a period of tension, and mutual contempt. The lesson learned here was that CB'ers aren't the only ones capable of resorting to "dirty" tricks when it comes to defending their radio territory. I often wonder what might have happened if there had been no other open frequencies for us to go to...... Thankfully we never had to find out.
Once we settled on our new frequency, and our interference problems went away, we could then concentrate on determining coverage area and improving performance. We still had a nagging de-sense issue, and I was unable to eliminate it with the duplexer alone. To gain some additional isolation, we finally decided to run a twin antenna setup. We kept the G7 as the transmit antenna, and added a 4 element beam for the receive. This configuration provided enough additional isolation to do the trick and eliminate all desense. Since our coverage area was already a bit lopsided due to the terrain, the use of a directional antenna on receive did not affect our overall coverage all that much. It was certainly better than trying to run the single antenna along with the desense. The repeater stayed in this configuration for the next 7 years afterward. There was some down time, when the transmitter blew and had to be replaced. But all in all it was a reliable system which allowed us to mobile around the area and maintain an "armchair copy" with other members of our group. But ironically, after all the initial encouraging talk which precipitated the repeater project, not that many of the 2 meter simplex group opted to buy 220 gear once the repeater became active. The repeater became home mostly to myself, my wife, Piero, his wife, Art, Al, my father-in-law, and a few others who did buy 220 radios. Novice enhancement ended up being a bit of a bust as most Novices opted to play on 10 meters working DX, rather than investing in 220 equipment. As a result, we didn't attract many new people to the group. But the repeater served its purpose. I could use it for the entire distance of my work commute, and never had a problem trying to understand what anyone was saying.
In the mid 90's, Piero moved from his former home at the bottom of the valley, to a place at the top of Fairview Village which, at 500' ASL, was also the highest point in central Montgomery County. When Piero erected his 70' crank-up tower, we put a new repeater antenna at the top of it, and relocated the repeater to his home. The improvement in coverage was significant. We already did well to the north and west, but had some problems south and east. From its new home, the repeater's coverage balanced out much more evenly. At Fairview, the repeater now covered about a 40 mile radius depending on terrain, and it still could cover my entire trip to work, which had pretty much tripled when I moved in 1999. I also managed to return to a single antenna system, with negligible desense.
Until mid 2006, the repeater was humming along fairly reliably at Piero's house. We had some issues with water contaminated feedline (Never use Belden 9913 for feedline, it acts like a garden hose), forcing us to erect a new antenna and feedline (Piero was not too keen about dropping his tower again) on a separate mast. We also upgraded our controller to a new, high tech NHRC unit with voice ID and many other features. We had been approached and had considered the idea of linking with another 220 repeater. But interest in the idea faded (as did the other repeater). Not having much in the way of cash to part with for upgrades, things are pretty much just holding their own. Piero has become busy with local politics, and the responsibilities of a new job, and has pretty much lost interest in radio. I can foresee that it's only a matter of time before the repeater becomes more of a hassle for him than it's worth. Until that time comes, it'll hopefully continue to be used on a daily basis by the few remaining locals, and whatever transients who happen by.
During mid September 2006, another chapter in the N3CVJ 220 repeater saga was started when the repeater moved locations from Piero's home in Fairview Village to the site currently being used by Pete's (AA3RE) 6 meter repeater in Skippack Pa.. We had been linking the two machines through a remote base 220 radio on the 6 meter repeater. Now we will be able to hard wire them together for much better performance. The initial install was not anticipated to yield great coverage. We had been planning the move for several months when Pete expressed interest in buying out Piero's share in the repeater. But the move was hastened after the standby repeater antenna at Piero's was the victim of a lightning strike in July, after the main antenna turned into a lawn dart as the result of a nasty windstorm in March (The Murphy factor hard at work). Having no other practical antenna to use for the repeater, this situation hastened our move just so that we could get the repeater back on the air. The repeater was set up using Pete's 220 link antenna, which happened to be a 7 element beam, attached to the side of the repeater's tower at about 38'. With the directional characteristics of the beam in mind and the lower elevation of the site in general, I did not expect very usable coverage, but I was pleasantly surprised. I could pretty much still use the repeater for my full journey to work, with the exception of a few dead spots. I could actually utilize my HT at home with similar signal potential. This has given me cause for hope that once the final new Hustler G7 (Thanks Art!) is placed at the top of the new (Actually Piero's old) tower, we should gain 20' of elevation, and provide an omni-directional pattern, which should improve the overall performance of the system. Although due to the fact that we've lost over 100' of elevation, the coverage will not be as good as it was in Fairview Village.
As of 2009, the repeater is still humming along. The G7 antenna was given the prime spot at the top of Pete's tower, while the 6 meter dipole is mounted on a standoff, just below the G7. We still have not replaced the tower with Piero's old tower yet. It's tough to get everyone together and the weather never seems to cooperate. But hopefully we'll get it done soon enough....
As of 2015, the repeater is now running at my house. Over 2 years ago, the repeater was struck by lightning. It blew apart the Hustler G7 antenna, leaving only the bottom half wave section (which surprizingly still had a 1.3:1 SWR). The repeater suffered some receiver damage, and then the replacement receiver crapped out as well. Now on the 2nd replacement receiver, the repeater has been operating near flawlessly since then. There is still an issue with the amplifier, which means we're running at only a 10 watt level. Time constraints have kept me from moving the machine back to its home. But hopefully I'll find time this spring to do it.
And the story continues.........