2 Meter SSB/CW Operating Primer

This is one of a series of “Notes” I published on Facebook. Since Facebook has discontinued the Notes feature, I am publishing that series here on my blog.

I have recently written about what can be done on the two meter amateur band using modes other than FM. In a recent VHF contest my 25 watt station using a very small yagi mounted in a poor location at 27 feet above ground was able to make contacts to a distance of 350 miles. One should not expect ragchew quality with such a station at that distance, but short exchanges are possible. Reliable ragchew or conversational range with a small station on SSB will be 100 to 200 miles depending on numerous factors. The small station can expect occasional contacts to 1000 miles or more if the operator is alert and understands VHF propagation. As station power and antenna gain/height increase, so does typical working range. Far greater range may be had with a small station operating portable from a mountaintop.

A few of us hope to promote greater local activity in this interesting facet of amateur radio. I thought it would be useful to talk a little more about operating on the low end of the two meter band using SSB, CW, and digital modes. It is very different from FM and repeaters.

This is not like the HF bands which enjoy high activity and constant or frequent propagation. Beyond the normal working range of 100 to 500 miles depending on station capability, propagation is very infrequent and sporadic. The band can go from closed to open and vice versa in seconds. Propagation footprints can be very small with one station making DX contacts 1200 miles out while his neighbor ten miles down the road hears nothing but the locals. Furthermore, highly directional antennas are the norm. This makes it easy to miss signals coming from any direction other than where your antenna is currently aimed. Except in a VHF contest or when the band is known to be open for long distance communication, tuning around looking for signals is generally pointless. So how do we find someone to talk to? How do we prevent our extended local conversations from thwarting our neighbor’s attempts to make calls or long distance contacts if the band suddenly opens up? These are important considerations. The answer lies in understanding proper use of a calling frequency.

The established SSB and CW calling frequency on two meters is 144.200 MHz. This is where virtually every station who wants to call CQ (except in major band openings or contests) will go to do so. This is where you want to call CQ and also where you want to monitor for activity. Why do we call it a calling frequency? Because it should be used for making calls, but not for conversations or extended operating. If we all use the calling frequency considerately in the manner it was intended, we can maximize fun and enjoyment for everyone. If you establish contact with another station and want to exchange more than a signal report and a couple of brief remarks, proper etiquette is to move off the calling frequency with the station you are in contact with. This leaves the calling frequency open for others to make calls and for your neighbors to monitor for unusual band activity including DX opportunities. FM should not be used here, as it has the potential to seriously interfere with SSB and CW operations that you cannot hear on an FM radio.

How long of an exchange is considered acceptable on the calling frequency before moving off? How far off the calling frequency should you move for an extended QSO? These are good questions! I like to QSY off the calling frequency if I am in contact with another station for more than a minute or two. As an experienced two meter operator and DXer, I suggest this as a reasonable rule of thumb. As for how far to move off frequency, that is a little more complicated. Bear in mind that your signal can be extremely strong with your “local” neighbors – those within 50 miles or so of you, perhaps more with hilltop locations or high power. Not every receiver can handle such strong signals without some overloading. Meanwhile, signals from outside the local area that your neighbors may be trying to hear are likely to be very weak. With those considerations in mind, to minimize the potential for interfering with neighbors I suggest moving at least 20 kilohertz away from 144.200. More may be even better.

There are exceptions. Occasionally (OK, rarely) the band may suddenly open and permit even small and moderately equipped stations to make contacts to many hundreds of miles. Under these conditions the rules of etiquette change to permit everyone a reasonable chance of making DX contacts. When the band is really open, there may be many stations CQing and making brief contacts, taking advantage of the DX opportunity while it exists. Chances are operators at the other end of the propagation will be tuning around the band to find stations to work, but they probably won’t tune a huge portion of the band. In cases where the band is obviously open and activity is high, it is still considered impolite to hog 144.200 for extended periods. “Running” a few QSOs there is OK. Beyond that, try moving off a few kilohertz and calling CQ; perhaps up or down five if this is an opening where most are running SSB, up or down two if it is mostly CW (such as would be the case with aurora propagation). If it is really crowded, move off to the first clear frequency you find above or below the calling frequency.

Generally speaking, digital modes are not used on 144.200. There are special calling frequencies for certain types of digital mode operating. For example, 144.140 is used for calling using the FSK441 mode for meteor scatter communication. There are highly specialized operating techniques and special etiquette for this, which is beyond the intended scope of this beginner article.

Let’s get back to everyday operating for a moment. From our area, most signals on an everyday basis are going to be either local (try pointing antennas toward the Bangor area, but look around with the antenna too, so those in outlying areas have a chance to hear you) or from the southwest direction. There is a “VHF alley” (sometimes called “kilowatt alley”) of activity down the coast… southern Maine, southern New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, eastern New York, New Jersey, and so on. This is where most of the non-local signals come from except during long range band openings. Southwest is a good direction to “park” your antenna for listening. Occasionally you may get someone from the west or the east (Canadian Maritime provinces), or even north. Put out a CQ in those other directions from time to time. You may make someone’s day, as they are in areas often overlooked!

Activity tends to concentrate in the evenings. Try 1900 to 2100 local time. Not only is this a convenient time for many people, but tropo conditions often peak up a little around that time, permitting better signals from moderate distances. Sometimes there is a good peak in conditions around dawn and shortly thereafter. The problem with that is lack of activity. There is a group well to our southwest that gets on 144.205 in the mornings. Some of those stations are occasionally joined or worked by stations in our area. I believe some of them also monitor the appropriate ON4KST chat page in the mornings. Speaking of which, the chat can be a good place to find people a few hundred miles away who may be interested in trying to make contact with you on two meters! Give it a try. People there won’t bite, but I can’t promise they won’t growl about poor propagation!

Lastly, a final word on calling frequency etiquette. If you find others ragchewing on the calling frequency, please consider asking Lastly, a final word on calling frequency etiquette. If you find others ragchewing on the calling frequency, please consider asking very politely and tactfully if they could move off. Many do not realize or forget that tying up the frequency with extended conversations can rob other stations of the opportunity for rare and exciting contacts or just the chance to put out a CQ call. Some may feel that talking for long periods of time there is a good way to attract attention. It may be! But, it also gets in the way of others enjoying the band. Please, let’s all consider each other’s enjoyment of this very different and exciting facet of our great hobby. See you on the low end of two meters! (Note as of July 8, 2016: I am not really active as of yet; I need to finish antenna projects before I concentrate on operating and trying to encourage more activity. Give me a few weeks.)

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