Alfonso Faustino: D-STAR, DMR, & System Fusion — Oh my! Which one?

This BLOG is for relatively new HAM operators interested in getting into the HAM digital network.

HAM Digital Network Requirements:

– DMR ID: You need to get a DMR ID to get on DMR. HAM license required.

– D-STAR Database: You need to register your call-sign into the D-STAR database to get on D-STAR. HAM license required.

– System Fusion: No ID nor database registration — just be a licensed HAM operator.

– Analog/Digital transceiver is required to access the digital HAM networks.

Okay, now that you got the requirements out of the way, let’s move on.

I have been using all three digital HAM networks since getting my license four years ago.

Because of my HAM mentor, Tom, N6MVT, I started out with DMR; and, I have the most experience with DMR and transceivers associated to DMR, specifically, Motorola.

As I met more people on DMR, some people (operators or stations) told me about System Fusion, created by Yaesu.  Specifically, Ben, KC2RXV, invited me to check out System Fusion; AND, D-STAR; hence, as a result of N6MVT and KC2RXV, I use all three platforms, in addition to P25, which I won’t cover; because, the three major digital HAM platforms are System Fusion, D-STAR, and DMR.

You, too, will have this experience once you get onto a HAM digital network.

So, which one of these digital HAM platforms should you use?

Well, here are some things to consider while making your decision:

What digital HAM local repeaters are near you that you can reach with your transceiver?

In the San Francisco Bay Area, local DMR repeaters are more available to me; so, I went with DMR as my first choice.

When I’m in Los Angeles, all three digital local repeaters are readily available: DMR, System Fusion, and D-STAR; hence, I’m able to have a choice of all three to access.

So, consider the location of the local digital repeaters you’re interested in accessing.

If you don’t have digital local repeaters near you, then the SharkRF openSpot2 is your solution — more on this later in this BLOG.

Of all three digital HAM networks, DMR is the most complex to use; because, you will need a code-plug to access the DMR digital HAM network.  Many steps go into creating a DMR code-plug; so, for the sake of simplicity of the BLOG, I’m not going into all the details but just a high-surface gloss of the DMR code-plug.

When you purchase a DMR transceiver, it is not ready for out-of-the-box comms. ops.. You will need to research the DMR local repeaters near you or in the cities you will be traveling, and you need to program those local repeaters into your code-plug. You also need to research the talk-groups you want to access; in addition, you have to research the talk-groups that are approved by the owners of the local repeaters you are accessing.

Once you create your code-plug, you need to write the code-plug into your transceiver.

After writing the code-plug to your transceiver, you need to test your code-plug to see if you can RX and TX  from and to the local repeaters that are in your code-plug. If you make contact with another operator in the talk-group, your code-plug works.

I use the Motorola XPR 7550e (UHF and VHF) to access local DMR repeaters; and, my code-plug covers me from San Francisco to New York City. Transceiver Cost: ~$700.

I also use the Ailunce HD1GPS (UHF and VHF) to access local DMR repeaters; and, like my Motorola’s code-plug, it covers me from San Francisco to New York City. Transceiver Cost: ~$200.

I’ve heard from many HAM operators on System Fusion and D-STAR that DMR is just too labor intensive for them to access; hence, the reason they stick with System Fusion and D-STAR digital networks.

The System Fusion and D-STAR networks are probably the most easiest to access; BUT, they are also the most expensive to access.

They are easy to access; because, they require little to no code-plug programming.

Only one transceiver can access the local System Fusion repeaters: Yaesu.  Yaesu created System Fusion; hence, if you wanna access it via a local repeater, you have to purchase their digital transceivers.

System Fusion transceivers are all set to use — all you need to do is find the System Fusion local repeater that you can reach and program that local repeater into your System Fusion transceiver.  Once you access the System Fusion local repeater with your transceiver, you’re pretty much all set — the System Fusion rooms are all automatically programmed and listed in your transceiver via the System Fusion WiresX repeater of which you are connected. You just select the room number you want to access on your transceiver, wait to get connected, and you’re ready to make contact with an operator.

I use the Yaesu FT1DX transceiver to access local System Fusion repeaters; BUT, I recommend the new model: FT3.  I’m considering getting that one! Transceiver Cost: ~$468.

Like DMR, if you travel to other states and cities, you need to find the local System Fusion repeaters in those states and cities that you are visiting, and you need to program them into your transceiver, which is a lot easier than a DMR transceiver.

D-STAR is also another easy-to-access network.  I use the Kenwood TH-D74A transceiver to access local D-STAR repeaters. There are only two transceivers that are dedicated and exclusive to D-STAR local repeaters: iCOM and Kenwood.  I selected the Kenwood TH-D74A; because, I like the color TFT screen. Transceiver Cost: $519.

Unlike System Fusion and DMR, the D-STAR Kenwood TH-D74A is ready to use out-of-the-box.  No programming is needed. Kenwood and iCOM have an awesome feature…Nearby Repeaters.

Based on your transceiver’s GPS location, it will go through all the D-STAR local repeaters in the world, and the transceiver will provide you with a list of the closest D-STAR local repeaters.  All you do is select the local D-STAR repeater from the Nearby Repeaters list, change your reflector, and you’re ready to make contact with an operator.

Unlike DMR, the Kenwood and iCOM transceivers are very expensive.  I paid $519 for my Kenwood; and, the iCOM goes for around $360.  Whereas a DMR transceiver costs under $200.

How much are you willing to spend?

If you want to access local DMR repeaters, you can get a good DMR transceiver for ~$200.

If you want to access local System Fusion repeaters, you can get a Yaesu transceiver for ~$200.

If you want to access local D-STAR repeaters, you can get an iCOM transceiver for ~$360; or, you can purchase a Kenwood for ~$500.

How about the SharkRF openSpot2?

If you don’t have access to local digital repeaters, or you don’t wanna create more traffic on a local digital repeater, then I recommend the SharkRF openSpot2.

I recommend the SharkRF openSpot2; because this will save you money.  With the openSpot2, you have access to approximately four digital networks in one little plastic module: DMR, D-STAR, System Fusion and P25; AND, you can use one transceiver to access the different digital networks, via the openSpot2 cross-mode feature, as oppose to having a transceiver for each digital network like you would by accessing local digital repeaters.

Another nice feature of the openSpot2 is that it has wireless Wi-Fi — I can access DMR, System Fusion, and D-STAR while I’m in my car, on foot, or at home.  While traveling to different cities and states, using the openSpot2 frees you from the arduous tasks of finding local digital repeaters and programming them into your respective transceivers. The openSpot2 was one of the best purchases I made in 2019.

One limitation to the openSpot2 is no cross-mode to D-STAR. In other words, you cannot access D-STAR, via the openSpot2, with a Yaesu transceiver nor DMR transceiver. You need to purchase an iCOM or Kenwood to access D-STAR through the openSpot2.

Notwithstanding this one limitation in the openSpot2, it is still a viable and cost-effective product.

With the openSpot2, you can use your DMR transceiver to access System Fusion; and vice versa; in other words, you can use your Yaesu transceiver to access DMR; hence, you only need one transceiver.  You can also access P25 with either the Yaesu or DMR transceiver.

So, what’s your set-up?

I use the Motorola XPR 7550e and Ailunce HD1GPS to access local DMR repeaters; and, I use the Yaesu FT1XD transceiver to access local SystemFusion repeaters.

When I use my openSpot 2 to access DMR and System Fusion, I use my Motorola XPR 7550e.

Occasionally, for a change, I use my Yaesu FT1DXR, with my openSpot2, and cross-mode to DMR and System Fusion.

For D-STAR, I use my Kenwood TH-D74A to access D-STAR local repeaters and my OpenSpot2.

Which is the best digital HAM network?

Notwithstanding my statements regarding costs, code-plugs, and ease-of-use, all three platforms are great digital networks.  The audio quality is the same for all three platforms.

Here is a video of all three networks going through the openSpot2 using my Motorola and Kenwood transceivers:

Operators believe DMR sounds the best; others believe System Fusion sounds the best; and, others believe D-STAR sounds the best.

I don’t agree — in my experiences, they all sound the same — they all sound good.

Operators believe DMR is more reliable; others believe System Fusion is more reliable; and, others believe D-STAR is more reliable.

In my experience, I had more reliability with DMR. With System Fusion and D-STAR I’ve had a majority of reliability riddled with connection and modulation issues, such as, but not limited to, bridges crashing, no modulation, drop-outs, and R2D2 modulation.  

If you hit the International Net-control on System Fusion every Saturday at 1800 Hours PDT/PST, inevitably, at least one time in the course of the net-control, you will experience the bridge crashing.  Whereas with DMR’s International Check-in every Saturday mornings at 1000 hours PDT/PST, I have yet to experience a crash in the system.

My belief is that DMR is NOT a HAM digital network — it was made for and used by professional and commercial operators, with heavy and demanding communications activities and requirements; hence, I believe, because of its professional and commercial nature, the DMR network is more reliable and designed for heavy and demanding comms. traffic.  Many first responders, corporations, and government entities use DMR; so, reliability is key when money and lives are in the balance.

System Fusion and D-STAR were built for HAM operators and by HAM operators; so, the intent of use is different from DMR: social versus business.

Several operators liken D-STAR culture and System Fusion culture to be the same; whereas, the DMR culture seems to be different from D-STAR and System Fusion.

Operators feel that DMR’s culture is more technically oriented in topics of conversations; they also feel that DMR culture is more of a quick check-in and hello rather than long conversations. I tend to agree.

Operators feel that System Fusion and D-STAR have less technical conversations; they feel the operators are more open to starting conversations with any operator entering a room or reflector and having lengthier conversations.

For example: I enter DMR TG 91, and I introduce myself. More times than not, no operator will initiate an acknowledgement unless an operator knows me, or I’m requesting a modulation-check.

Whereas in D-STAR and System Fusion, I introduce myself, and an operator will acknowledge me and say, Hi, K6ASF…how are things in San Francisco? This is Ben, KC2RXV, from Long Island, New York.

My experiences with the three digital HAM networks are these: DMR is a professional and commercial network — it was built for commercial and professional use — not at all for HAM-social communications; hence, DMR, to me, the operators are more technical and have more technical discussions. System Fusion and D-STAR were built for HAM-social operations; hence, the environment is more social and less technical.

If I had to make an analogy, the one I would make is this:

DMR is like a business-casual corporate party; and, System Fusion and D-STAR are like a family and friends pot-luck BBQ picnic party: Hey, how ya doin’? Welcome — pull up a chair and join us.

So, what do you recommend?

Package Number 1:

Purchase the Ailunce HD1GPS and Yaesu FT3; because, they both have great analog RX and TX qualities. You will be able to access both local digital HAM repeaters with these two transceivers. In addition, purchase the SharkRF openSpot2 to access System Fusion, DMR, and P25 with both the Yaesu and Ailunce HD1GPS transceivers.

If you just wanna purchase one transceiver, I would go with the Ailunce HD1GPS and couple it with the openSpot2. You will be able to access the DMR local repeaters with the Ailunce HD1GPS; and, you can access System Fusion, DMR, and P25 via the openSpot2’s cross-mode feature.

Like I mentioned, System Fusion and D-STAR are similar and no need to spend the additional big bucks to purchase an iCOM or Kenwood transceivers.

Package Number 2:

Same as package Number 1; but, replace the Ailunce HD1GPS with the Motorola XPR 7550e (UHF). Reminder: the Motorola will be more expensive and more difficult to program, but you will be rewarded with reliability, quality, durability, and the availability of expanding its feature-set.

(The Kenwood D-TH74A, Yaesu, and Motorola are all Super Heterodyne transceivers with effective front-end filters that are capable of mission-critical ICS-based emergency comms. ops..)

Package Number 3:

If money isn’t an issue for you, then get the Ailunce HD1GPS, Yaesu FT3 and Kenwood D-TH74,and couple those three transceivers with the SharkRF openSpot2. In this package, you get access to all three digital networks through the openSpot2; and, you can access all three local digital repeaters: DMR, System Fusion, and D-STAR.

If you wanna get just two transceivers, I would get the Ailunce HD1GPS and the Kenwood D-TH74 with the openSpot2.

Package Number 4:

Same as Package Number 3, but replace the Ailunce HD1GPS with the Motorola XPR 7550e (UHF).

So, these are my package recommendations.

Maybe, in the near future, openSpot2 will have the D-STAR cross-mode feature, and you can use your DMR or Yaesu transceiver to access D-STAR via the openSpot2.

Check 6!

/s/ Alfonso Faustino (K6ASF)

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