Category Archives: DX

Mowable Temporary Cables

What? Mowable cables? That doesn’t make any sense! Let me explain. Throughout my nearly four decades exploring radio, I have often had occasion to run a “temporary” cable to some antenna. Usually these end up laying on the ground where they quickly become a nuisance, having to be moved every time the grass needs to be cut. This often continues for some time. After all, in a ham radio sense the definition of temporary is “anything expected to be in service for less than the life expectancy of the operator”. About year ago I had a sudden explosion of “temporary” cables. I needed to run coax and a variometer control cable to my new 2200 and 630 meter transmitting antenna, as well as coax to a receiving antenna for those bands in another location. These were put down just after the last lawn mowing of the season, but were at risk of damage from the snowblower as I kept a path cleared to the transmitting antenna during the winter. This summer they have been a constant source of irritation as I had to move them every time I mowed the grass.

Since I still can’t afford good coax and conduit to do this job in a permanent (meaning less irritating) fashion, something had to be done. One obvious solution is to dig a shallow trench and lay the cable in it — with our without burying afterward. This tends to be a lot of work and it’s messy, disturbing the grass (uh, I mean the weeds) and leaving dirt strewn all over. I was looking for a cleaner and, hopefully, easier method. One morning about 2 AM it came to me. I sat bolt upright in bed, sending Boo (the cat, who had been asleep on my chest) fleeing for cover. Who said you had to dig a trench? I have soft, sandy soil. Surely one could press a trench into the ground without the mess. It just might be easier, too. The following series of pictures depict the process, which worked very well.

Step One: Mark a line. Drive in stakes at each end and at any locations along the run where a bend is required. Run string (or small wire) from end to end, then spray paint a line on the ground along it.

Details of the string (wire) and painted line at a bend point.

Step Two: Hammer a slot into the ground. I used an 8″ x 8″ dirt tamper and a 10″ length of 1.6″ OD steel pipe. Lay the pipe on the painted line and hammer it in until its top is flush with the surface of the soil. In my soil this takes two to three blows, and the flat plate of the tamper makes it easy to know when you’ve reached the correct depth. This photo shows the pipe in place before being driven into the soil.

Here is a photo showing results after the pipe has been driven flush with the soil. To continue I simply pull out the pipe and move it forward 9 inches (just a bit less than the length of the pipe), then drive it into the soil again. The process moves along quite quickly.

Step Three: Lay the cable into the trench. I make 15 to 20 feet of trench at a time, then lay cable into it, then do another section of trench.

The completed job. There is no messy strewing of dirt, the paint line has virtually vanished, and the cable can barely be seen if one is not standing very close to it or directly in line with it. The top o of the cable is 3/4″ to 1″ below grade, so it is out of danger from the mower. Of course it is still subject to damage from any number of things, but with temporary, zero cost cable runs that is usually a fact of life.

First USA to Europe Amateur Radio 2200 Meter QSO

It was early morning on the 28th day of March, 2018. Most people were sound asleep but not me. I was in my ham shack, hands trembling, heart pounding as I typed a few letters and numbers into my logging program. I could barely breathe. I had just completed one of the most exciting QSOs of my nearly four decades chasing DX. This single QSO cost more money and time than any other I had ever made. It was a QSO with England. You may wonder what is so exciting about that when any ham with five watts and a piece of wire can contact England from Maine. Well, this was special because we did it on the 2200 meter band. It was the first amateur radio USA to Europe QSO on what is, for us, a new band. This was no easy feat. It required months of station building and four nights just to complete the QSO. Some would call it a ridiculous folly and see no sense at all in it. But to me this is the true spirit of amateur radio, finding a way to communicate against the odds, adapting equipment and technique to accomplish the desired result. It is man and his machine against nature, determined to succeed under the most difficult circumstances.

The 2200 meter band allocation is 135.7 to 137.8 kilohertz in the long wave part of the radio spectrum known as LF or low frequency. In some ways this goes back to amateur radio’s early roots on 1750 meters, but it had been more than 100 years since U.S. amateurs were allowed to transmit in this part of the radio spectrum. These frequencies are not easy! Normal size antennas would be huge. A half wave dipole would be 3400 feet long; a quarter wave vertical towering to a height of 1700 feet. Natural and man made noise tend to be very high in this part of the radio spectrum and ionospheric propagation is feeble compared to the short waves. On top of that, we are only permitted to run one watt effective isotropic radiated power (EIRP). That is flea power compared to what we can use on most any of our higher frequency allocations! By comparison, when I was doing EME (moonbounce) on the two meter band I was legally running about 450,000 watts EIRP. But ham radio DXers who like a good challenge can be a very determined lot. The greater the challenge, the greater the reward.

I became interested in 2200 meters in late 2016 after the local club asked me to prepare a report on this and the 630 meter band, which were expected to soon be opened for amateur radio use in the U.S. At that time the only way to legally transmit on either band was to get a Part 5 FCC license under the experimental radio service. One could almost write one’s own ticket on power limits and frequency allocations but this wasn’t amateur radio. I did apply for and was granted a Part 5 license but never used it since FCC opened these new bands to amateurs just as I was getting a station put together. I found receiving on 630 meters to be relatively easy, if somewhat plagued by noise and available antennas. But 2200 meters was a very different thing. It took weeks of experimentation and testing to detect the first trace of signal on this band. Many weeks later after more trial and error I was rewarded with my first reception of a ham radio signal from Europe on the band when DC0DX appeared in my WSPR decodes. I confess it was then that I first started to dream of someday making a two way QSO across the Atlantic on long wave.

I thought I had plenty of time to build a station, since the FCC process on opening these bands had been dragging on for years. But in the Spring of 2017 the announcement came that we would get these new bands in a few months! Now the race was on. I frantically began building transmitting apparatus. I didn’t quite make it for opening day in October but I was on the band a few weeks later. Early amplifiers were plagued by budget shortfalls and poor performance. By mid February, 2018 I had managed to achieve 0.5 watt EIRP, just three decibels below the legal limit. The flood gates opened and to my amazement I started receiving numerous WSPR decodes from European stations. Wow!

I believed a two way trans-Atlantic QSO was in my future but was not sure when. I was eager for an attempt but still very much struggling with equipment and budget. I was hearing stations from Europe. Stations from Europe were hearing me. But for the most part, those who heard me did not have transmitting capability or not sufficient to reach across the Atlantic. The best bet would seem to be 2E0ILY. We had conducted tests earlier in the season and I could often copy his JT9 beacon. Chris could occasionally copy my WSPR signal but not at sufficient strength for JT9 to be viable. I knew there were ways to get it done, but this would take several nights. I was hesitant to ask anyone to commit such effort and time to a QSO.

As the relatively quiet season was drawing to an end I realized another season is never guaranteed for any number of reasons. I had given the matter considerable thought. There were no practical digital modes which would work with the low signal levels involved. Two old school modes came to mind: QRSS and DFCW. Both are very slow, trading time for weak signal detection capability. QRSS is extremely slow CW, so slow in fact that it can only be copied by reading it off a computer screen. In this case, a speed of QRSS60 would be best, meaning that each dot would be 60 seconds in duration. A dash is three times as long, just as in normal CW. This mode requires nothing special for equipment, as it uses on/off keying of a carrier and is fairly tolerant of frequency drift. But, the shortest element, the dot, sets the achievable signal to noise ratio. There is no advantage gained from the dashes being three times as long, so it is essentially time wasted. Time is valuable, as signal fading means you have a limited amount of time to copy the message. DFCW, or dual frequency CW is an offshoot of QRSS in which dots and dashes are the same length but sent on slightly different frequencies so that one may be differentiated from the other. This saves considerable time with no reduction in signal to noise ratio but requires more complex transmitter keying and reasonably tight frequency stability. In a typical DFCW60 transmission, the dot to dash frequency shift is a small fraction of a hertz. Transmitter and receiver drift must be held to less than this in order to avoid dot-dash ambiguity at the receiving end. It would take about an hour to send two call signs at DFCW60 speed. It was now late March. Clearly there would not be enough common darkness between Maine and any part of Europe to allow a QSO to be completed in a single night at this speed.

It may be useful to consider what is a QSO. These days the term means different things to different people. I came up through the DXing ranks with what is now a somewhat old school definition for a minimum acceptable information exchange to claim a QSO under very weak signal conditions. I still firmly believe in the old way, as we are after all supposed to be communicators. That definition is that each station must receive from the other both call signs, signal report or other piece of information, and acknowledgment. This requires that two transmissions be copied in each direction. Anything less than that does not seem like communication to me, and leaves me with no sense of accomplishment.

It seemed the best way to go about it would be to borrow operating and reporting techniques from EME, modifying procedure slightly to account for the much longer period of time required to send a message on the long waves. In this procedure, the letter O would be used as a signal report to indicate full call signs had been copied; R and O would be used to indicate full call signs plus signal report had been copied; R by itself to indicate call signs, report, and R (as part of R and O) had been copied. As for timing, it seemed sensible to use night by night sequencing. That meant the two stations would take turns transmitting, one going the first night the other the second, alternating back and forth throughout the QSO. It would take a minimum of four nights to complete a QSO, assuming the full message could be copied each night. If it wasn’t, additional nights would be required for repeats. That’s really slow! But it did offer some advantages with the equipment available. In order to achieve the required frequency stability I would have to use my QRP Labs Ultimate 3S beacon transmitter. The U3S is a great piece of gear, but editing messages is tedious. Night by night sequencing would give me all day to change the message for the next night’s transmission! A complete QSO would look like this, where bold indicates my transmissions, italics indicate transmissions from the other station:

2E0ILY N1BUG
N1BUG 2E0ILY O
RO
R

Meaning of the first line is obvious. I am transmitting both call signs. In the second line my QSO partner adds the signal report, O, to let me know he had copied both call signs fully. In the third line I send RO which means I have copied call signs and my report, your report is O. In the last line my QSO partner sends R, meaning I have copied all on my end. When I copy the R the QSO is complete. If a message is not copied, or not enough information is copied, then one continues to transmit the previous message until getting something back which advances the QSO.

I had worked out a viable technique. Now I just needed a QSO partner. Just in time I worked up the courage to ask Chris, 2E0ILY if he would be willing to give it a try. I was very happy when he said he’d have a go at it.

We had decided I would transmit the first night, so I set the U3S to send ‘2E0ILY N1BUG’ over and over during the hours of common darkness between our respective locations. It turned out to be an ugly night in terms of weather. I was getting heavy wet snow squalls. Nothing causes a 2200 meter Marconi antenna (vertical) to go out of resonance any quicker than wet snow! These antennas are electrically short and require huge loading coils to resonate them. They are high impedance antennas and the bandwidth is very narrow. These antennas are prone to changing characteristics on a whim. Every time the snow started, stopped, changed intensity or the amount of snow clinging to the antenna changed, the thing went wandering up or down the band and required retuning for resonance on the operating frequency. Fortunately the variometer at the antenna base was motorized and I could adjust it from the comfort of my transmitter room. But I had to keep a constant vigil, watching antenna resonance and adjusting as needed. I had my finger on the switch for variometer adjustment far more than not. After a while my fingers were getting sore from constantly manipulating the tuning switch. Perhaps I shouldn’t have used a miniature toggle switch there. If you think this was an automated QSO without operator involvement, think again! My presence and diligence at the controls was absolutely vital that night!

Message copied from 2E0ILY on the second night of the QSO (annotated). Note dots on the lower frequency, dashes shifted 0.187 Hz higher. When the signal is this strong, elements tend to bleed together a little but since they are of fixed length it is still very readable.

The next night it was my turn to listen. Due to the extremely slow speed DFCW is copied visually  using software designed for this purpose. Anxiously I stared at the screen. When I wasn’t nervously pacing, that is! I began to see traces of signal, then an odd letter here and there. There was a B, a 2, a Y and I even thought I saw an O but couldn’t be sure. Eventually conditions stabilized and I began to get steady print on the screen. Waiting 60 seconds for a dot or dash to fully paint on the screen can be agonizing. Slowly the elements accumulate and become characters. If you are lucky, propagation holds up long enough to copy the full message. Fortunately, after somewhat of a slow start copy remained solid and I eventually had N1BUG, 2E0ILY and a very nice O painted on my screen! I had copied full call signs and a signal report indicating Chris had got full call signs from me the previous night! We were half way there!

The third night I was transmitting again. Since I knew Chris had already copied full call signs from me, it was not necessary to transmit them at this stage of the QSO. Technically I could have just sent RO repeating throughout the night, but being of the cautious type I decided to include call sign suffixes to provide positive evidence the correct station was being copied. Thus the message I transmitted was ‘ILY BUG RO’. This was a risk as it takes far longer to send than simply ‘RO’ and signal fading can be a huge factor. At least the weather was better and I didn’t have to ride the variometer all night.

Soon it was night four, back to pacing and staring hopefully at the screen. I was especially nervous that night, as I had some strong, drifting interference right on top of Chris! Finally it moved just enough that I could make out ‘BUG ILY R’. There was rapid fading and the dash in the R was much fainter than the rest. Fainter but unmistakably there. I was positive about the R but being the cautious type and realizing this QSO would be an amateur radio first I really wanted to see it more clearly before declaring the QSO complete. The signal faded and nothing was seen for hours. Sunrise at 2E0ILY was fast approaching and I had to make a decision. Was I going to log the QSO or retransmit my RO message the following night in hope of getting better copy of the R on night six? Just before dawn the signal reappeared, very weak. I could barely make out ‘BUG IL’, then the ‘Y’ was quite strong. Given the proximity to sunrise every minute felt like an eternity. Ticking of the clock became offensively loud. It was going to take another four minutes to get an R! Would it hold up that long? Slowly, as the clock ticked and my heart raced, a crystal clear ‘R’ painted on the screen. There were traces of signal for some time after that but nothing  I would call readable, save a stray ‘Y’ that somehow came through well past dawn. So it came to be that shortly after 0600 UTC (1:00 AM local time) on this, the 28th day of March, 2018 I entered this QSO into my station log. We had done it!

QSL card received for this very memorable QSO!

This was an amateur radio first from the U.S. but nothing new in terms of distance on the 2200 meter band. Canadian stations, operating under amateur call signs but otherwise a program similar to our Part 5 licenses, had worked Europe years earlier. Much longer distances had been covered. But for me this was one of the most exciting QSOs of my nearly 40 years as a DXer. It ranks right up there with my first EME QSO, the QSO that put me on the DXCC Honor Roll and several other notable events such as being credited with the first North American two meter auroral E QSO back in 1989. My thanks to Chris, 2E0ILY for his time and patience to make this happen – not to mention the kilowatt hours of electricity expended.

DFCW may be old school but it gets the job done under extremely difficult conditions. DFCW ‘decoding’ is done by the human operator. Deciding what has been copied is not left to computer software which may use assumption or non amateur radio means to fill in things it couldn’t positively make out over the air. DFCW is painfully slow but here we had a very positive over the air exchange of full call signs, reports and acknowledgement without any shortcuts or fudging. I was very pleased with that!

Although this single QSO cost more than any other, this was a low budget operation. Most of the LF station consists of low cost kits and home built gear. Equipment used at my station for this QSO was the QRP Labs Ultimate 3S driving a home built amplifier to 175 watts output. The transmitting antenna was a 90 foot Marconi (vertical) with a top hat consisting of three wires each 100 feet long, spaced five feet apart. Three one inch diameter aluminum spreaders plus triangular wire sections at each end are electrically part of the top loading. This is resonated at the base with an inductance of approximately 2.3 millihenries. Loss resistance at the time was near 100 ohms, resulting in EIRP of 0.5 watt. For receive I used a 30 foot low noise vertical, band pass filter, W1VD preamp, and a modified Softrock Lite II SDR receiver. The amplifier and most of the receive system has been described on my blog and/or web site. There are photos of the antenna and variometer on my web site.

The Diminishing Amateur Radio QSO

I have always gravitated toward DXing and “weak signal” work. I am a very competitive DXer, sometimes contester, and like to push the limits of technology and skill to make difficult QSOs on challenging bands or using challenging propagation modes. I have 297 DXCC entities worked on 160 meters, 125 on 6 meters, 84 on 2 meters. I worked over 600 unique stations on 2 meter EME between the late 1980s and the early 2000s, all on CW.

What is a QSO? It is (or should I say was?) a two-way communication between two amateur radio stations. If we look back at the original definition of the Q signal, QSO means “I can communicate with ______”, where the blank would be the call sign or other identification of a particular station. It made sense to use this Q signal to mean “I have communicated with ______”. They key word is communicate. We are, after all, supposed to be communicators.

So how do we define communication? We had the concept of a “minimum” QSO for many decades. I am speaking here mainly about VHF and up “weak signal” QSOs. Our forefathers, in their wisdom, no doubt in recognition of the fact that we are communicators, realized some standard had to be set on what, at minimum over-the-air information exchange would be acceptable for a QSO to be considered countable for awards, etc. The standard they came up with was that both stations had to copy full call signs, signal report or other piece of information (such as a grid square), and acknowledgment that those things had been received. We had a clear standard definition of the minimum acceptable amount of communication which needed to take place over the air to claim a QSO had taken place. In all the years that I worked meteor scatter and EME on 2 meters and above, I never logged a QSO where I did not copy this information entirely, including both my call sign and that of the other station. Although in any competitive activity we can assume there are a few who bend the rules, I never had the sense that most operators were anything but above board in adhering to the minimum QSO standards. One could find the definition and standards for a minimum QSO widely published.

All of that changed when a new crop of digital modes came on the scene in the early 2000s. First we were introduced to the concept of “deep search”, wherein only about half of the calling station’s call sign need by received over the air for the software to claim a decode. The remaining portion could be obtained by finding the best match in a database of known active call signs stored on the computer of the receiving station. There was no community discussion or voting on this beforehand. One man made a decision that changed everything. The software with this capability was developed and released. It was immediately popular with a multitude of newcomers to EME who found they could now partake of the activity with much smaller stations, and by many of the old guard who were hungry for more QSOs. There were some, myself included, who felt deep search violated the minimum QSO standard and that such QSOs were incomplete, not valid.

Aside from ethical questions, we may ask how reliable is deep search? What if there are several similar call signs in the database, for example? What if the call sign we want is not in the database but a similar one is? I have conducted tests on a number of occasions. To use one as an example, I listened during the 6 meter EME DXpedition VK9CGJ. For some time I listened without deep search enabled. There were no decodes. I then enabled deep search but did not have VK9CGJ or any similar call sign in my database. There were no decodes. Then I added W7GJ to the database and immediately started seeing decodes of W7GJ calling CQ. Then I saw a decode of W7GJ sending me a signal report. This wasn’t possible, as W7GJ was the operator at VK9CGJ. Clearly deep search had misidentified the station because a partial copy matched part of this call sign what was in its database. I Where it got my call sign from I don’t know! I then entered VK9CGJ into the database and started seeing decodes claiming VK9CGJ was answering me and sending a signal report. But wait, it gets better. The signal report wasn’t even in the EME format. In other words, all of these were false decodes. Not just false decodes of a station calling CQ, but false decodes containing QSO information! I had not transmitted at all, so no one should have been calling me. If in fact he was calling me, it could only mean that a false decode had occurred on his end. I have seen similar results in other tests. Similar tests have been carried out by others, with similar results. To me it is very clear deep search makes mistakes. How is it that so many people accept QSOs made with this feature as valid, when the full call sign of the calling station has not been copied over the air? Perhaps almost as disturbing, I have received a number of QSL cards for 2 meter EME QSOs during a period of time when I didn’t even have a 2 meter station. Were these QSOs manufactured by the software?

Later we were introduced to modes which used a single tone (steady carrier) to “communicate” part of the QSO such as signal reports and acknowledgment. Since only a very brief instant of tone recognition was required for the software to claim a decode, this was obviously prone to false positives.

Lately we have another newcomer in the QSO shortcut features. AP (a priori) decoding uses already known information as a QSO progresses to augment decoding. Unfortunately it starts out knowing the receiving station’s own call sign, so this doesn’t need to be copied over the air. The decoder assumes the receiving station’s call sign is in the message unless it gets enough over-the-air evidence to prove otherwise or introduce significant doubt. At this time there would seem to be insufficient evidence on the reliability of this, but I have seen a number of people asking about stations calling them “in the blind” when they haven’t yet transmitted. One has to wonder if these are cases of the decoder assuming their call sign was in the message and then failing to find sufficient evidence to the contrary in a partially received message. Furthermore, on one very popular mode which uses AP decoding, everyone is strongly encouraged never to call someone on the frequency they are transmitting on, but instead to use split frequency. This further muddies the waters. If the usual operating convention were to call on the frequency of the station you want to work, that in itself would offer some clue (though not by any means conclusive) that you are in fact calling that station. But if you stations are calling on random frequencies, this clue is lost. It’s enough to make one wonder if this insistence on using split is just for further obfuscation to hide the truth about AP decoding.

AP decoding with split frequency is ludicrous! Suppose I were to call CQ on CW or SSB. I hear no callers on my frequency but I tune further up the band and hear someone give their call sign along with the some letters that might fit mine, such as “N1” and “U”. It would be ridiculous for me to assume they were calling me. Yet this is exactly what AP decoding does.

I find it very sad that all of this has been accepted with relatively few dissenters. I fail to understand how users of these modes, let alone organizations which issue operating achievement awards can consider such QSOs to be valid. But we are in a new world. For the most part, the definition of a minimum QSO has disappeared, especially the part which talked about full call signs having to be received over the air. Many operators clearly know what these features do and use them anyway. Given the obvious lack of understanding of basic concepts by many, however, it is likely a good number do not understand the shortcuts that are being taken by the decoder. Add to that the fact that we now have a new generation of operators who came into the game in the digital age and know nothing of minimum QSO standards as they existed before. We can clearly see this situation is long since irreversible. The bottom line is that today’s standard for a minimum QSO is closer to mutual detection of signal than a set quantity of over-the-air information exchange. Where will it stop? Are we headed for “QSOs” where only a hint of signal from the other station has been detected but no actual communication has taken place?

Digital modes using these features have largely taken over many aspects of DXing. EME went almost entirely to digital modes many years ago. More recently 6 meter DXing went almost completely digital. HF DXing is taking a strong turn in the same direction, as is VHF contesting. Proponents of digital modes say those who don’t like them should simply continue to use CW or SSB. That sounds reasonable on the face of it, but experience proves there is not enough activity on these modes to sustain a DXer, while at the same time many of the people busily working digital modes say they would rather be doing traditional modes or that they view the digital modes as a necessary evil.

There is perhaps truth to be found in the latter. Long ago EME reached a point where it was not worthwhile to build or maintain a station for the small amount of remaining CW activity. Now the same is becoming true for many other aspects of DXing. The sad fact of the matter is one either accepts the digital modes and the new definition of a minimum QSO or one leaves the DXing pursuit. One cannot be competitive without using the digital modes and most likely cannot find enough activity to justify having a capable station. That is the bottom line. I have been wrestling with this for some time. I have great difficulty taking any satisfaction from QSOs made on digital modes that shortcut the information exchange. Yet there seems to be no other choice if I want to use my VHF/UHF equipment for more than an elaborate home dust collection system.

It isn’t just digital modes that are changing the nature of the QSO. Nearly every day I see people talking about checking the online log of some DXpedition to see if they had a QSO because they didn’t hear enough over the air to know if they made it into the log. How sad. If I don’t hear enough over the air to know the QSO was good, then obviously it was not complete on my end! It doesn’t matter if I am in the DX station’s log or not — the QSO was not valid. But I am clearly in a minority with this opinion.

It seems we have moved away from being communicators, taking pride in building and operating stations capable of real communication. Instead we now look to any kind of mutual signal detection as a basis for claiming a “QSO” and/or award credits. It’s all about the glory with none of the substance. I am not the only one who thinks this is wrong. Many avid DXers having given up and left the hobby altogether. Others barely hang on, wondering if it is really worth it any more.

Some Thoughts on 2200 and 630 Meter DX

I came to these bands with a long history of being a 160 meter DX hound. Some of my perceptions and expectations were influenced by that history. Clearly propagation is more challenging at the lower frequencies and being limited to very low EIRP doesn’t help. Nevertheless I was expecting to find a hard core group of low frequency DXers clawing away every night in search of those elusive long distance QSOs. Reality has proven to be very different.

On 160 meters we have a good amount of nightly activity. No matter how late the hour one can find avid DXers CQing away, putting in chair time because with propagation being so variable that is what it takes for success. You have to be there consistently. On 630 Meters that isn’t the case. There is a good amount of nightly WSPR beacon activity which clearly demonstrates the potential for DX QSOs, but very rarely are there human operators behind radios running QSO modes at the times when propagation is there. It seems possible to motivate small numbers to get on and make an effort once in a while, particularly after a very good run of nights on WSPR. This is prone to failure since propagation is so unpredictable. On 2200 meters there is very little activity of any kind, including beacons!

It is, of course, very difficult for most people to be on the air late at night, which is when most of the DX potential exists at lower frequencies. If it isn’t late night at one end of a DX path, chances are it is at the other. The question I keep asking is why do we have a core group of ever present DXers on 160 but not on 630 or 2200 meters? Part of the answer undoubtedly lies in numbers alone. Let’s face it, there are many more stations with 160 meter capability than there are stations with 630 and/or 2200 meter capability. There are a number of immediately evident reasons for the lower number of capable stations. It becomes increasingly challenging to build a capable transmitting antenna system on the lower frequencies. Man made noise tends to be more of a problem and some people live in locations which are hopelessly  noisy. There is a lack of commercial equipment available, so these bands are, for the most part, occupied only by those who build their own. All of these factors contribute to keeping the number of active stations down. Fewer active stations means fewer who have the drive and ability to be on late at night. Numbers clearly play a role in DXing activity. It is actually a rather small percentage of 160 meter operators who are there night after night seeking DX QSOs. Similarly it will be a small percentage on the lower bands but with far lower numbers overall this tends to keep the number of avid DXers below critical mass.

But it probably goes deeper than that. To explain the lack of DXing activity we probably need to consider other factors. What are the motivations and rewards for working DX? For some it is simply the thrill of making that rare contact. For others it is the pursuit of long term achievements, collecting operating awards. There are many awards available to the 160 meter operator: DXCC, WAS, WAC, and many more. This isn’t true for the lower bands. For one thing, most awards are not even offered for these bands. If they were, most of the traditional major awards would not be attainable down here. DXCC is probably not possible for the vast majority of stations on 630 meters and probably not for anyone on 2200 meters. Propagation and the EIRP limits simply put it out of reach. WAS may be possible someday for those in North America (when we have active stations in all 50 states, which hasn’t happened yet) but is probably not possible for those in other parts of the world for the same reasons DXCC is impractical. WAC? Good luck, same problems. Are there in fact any available and reachable operating achievement awards for these bands? Not that I am aware of. So there is one motivation missing. If a well established and recognized organization offered attainable operating achievement awards for these bands, it might help to spur activity, perhaps even attracting more people to these bands in the first place.

Do these bands tend to attract a different group of people? Probably to some extent, yes. With lack of off affordable off the shelf equipment and no awards program, these bands may tend to attract mainly experimenters and those with special interests in low frequency radio. It may be that a large percentage are more interested in experimenting than in making QSOs. The results of the latest antenna change or transmitter upgrade can be easily and effectively assessed through beaconing, primarily using WSPR mode. One doesn’t need to be up late  sitting behind a radio for this. Clearly some of the operators who are on these bands are recognizable as DXers on higher bands — 160 meters, HF, even VHF and UHF. But they are a small minority.

I have given this a good deal of thought and continue to do so. What I have arrived at so far is a sense that we simply haven’t reached critical mass for DXing activity on either of these bands. It takes a certain amount of activity in in place to motivate most people to stay up late and get on the air. Even the most motivated operator may struggle to convince himself to be there night after night knowing there very likely is no one there to work. When activity is so low that there is very little chance of working anyone, the motivation is missing or insufficient. I am struggling with this myself. I am a very avid DXer  and I am very interested in trying to work as many stations and states as possible on 630 meters. But, looking at my unattended JT9 decodes each morning clearly shows the chances of working anyone out west on any given night are extremely low. So low, in fact, that I am usually unable to convince myself to stay up and try. Of course this works both ways as having few here in the east to look for probably keeps some in the west from being on every night. With the overall low number of capable stations, DX minded operators and fewer incentives driving the desire for QSOs, it is my opinion that we haven’t reached critical mass. There is not enough consistent activity to get the ball rolling and keep it rolling.

So how do we change this? Can it be changed? Would it help if there were a small group of extremely hard core DXers committed to CQing during key times every night? Perhaps this starts with those at the end of a DX path presenting more convenient hours. If those who would need to be up very late at night to make these QSOs had assurance that there were stations making noise, would this increase the likelihood that they would try? I am currently trying a limited run experiment along these lines, as I have committed to calling CQ every night this week for at least two hours during a time that is convenient for me and frequently offers propagation to Europe. The hours are not so convenient on the European end of the path! Unfortunately this experiment comes to an end when I finish repairs to the 2200 meter loading coil and return to that band. My one other thought on the subject is that those who do succeed in making DX QSOs on these bands should do everything possible to publicize this far and wide – both within and outside the LF/MF community. We need to show the world that long distance QSOs can be made on these bands! We need to promote them as QSO bands, as I believe the outside world still largely sees them as experimenter and beacon territory.

Update 10 January: Over the past several days an experiment was carried out. I announced that over a several night period I would be calling CQ on JT9 mode for at least two hours during the early part of the Europe to North America window (which tends to be the least inconvenient time for the Europeans). This attracted the attention of a few who indicated they would be looking for me. I promoted this as an activity period on both the European and North American email lists. I was joined on the North American side by NO3M and more casually by others. After a slow first night or two, I became the second in the U.S. to complete a trans-Atlantic QSO on 630 meters when I worked G3KEV (the first was AA1A working G0MRF several weeks earlier). Shortly thereafter, NO3M worked G3KEV. I had a partial QSO with PA0A. News of this success brought increasing interest. The following night both myself and NO3M worked G3KEV again. There were partial QSOs between N1BUG and OR7T, N1BUG and DK7FC, NO3M and DK7FC and possibly others but none of these were completed due to QSB or other factors. During this several night activity, hours of operation increased from two to four or more. That is a lot of chair time and CQing for very few QSOs. Clearly we have proven that many QSOs are possible but it will take dedication and effort. Frankly I do not have the stamina to sit there CQing four hours every night. If there were a large enough pool or interested operators to provide reasonable assurance that someone would be there every night, this might become self sustaining. As it is, we simply don’t have that level of activity.

Having more DX-minded operators on the bands would help. But getting on these bands can seem intimidating. There are some web sites that make it all sound so technical and complicated as to scare people away. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Probably the most challenging aspect is knowing what your EIRP is. If you can make basic measurements such as antenna system resistance and antenna current there are online calculators that take the work out of this. Chances are most hams have access to someone with the equipment to make such measurements if they don’t have it themselves.

Home built equipment can be very cost effective but one can buy a transmit converter for $80, a power meter for $40 and throw some wire in the air. If you don’t already have a receiver that works on these bands, there are inexpensive converters and simple SDRs that don’t cost an arm and a leg. There are some pricey equipment options out there. I don’t claim the cost is entirely unwarranted for those who can afford it. But it is not necessary to spend a fortune to get started or even to build a very capable close-to-high-end station. If you’re looking for intercontinental DX you will want to take the time to get up near the legal limit on EIRP but it can still be done on a budget.

For the time being, I suggest the most likely means of working DX is to organize and promote occasional “activity periods” where several stations at both ends of a DX path commit to calling CQ during a certain window for one or more nights. In the long term we need more DX-minded, motivated operators on the bands. Active promotion of the fun and challenge of DX QSOs on these bands is needed. A sensible awards program might be helpful.

630m Crossband Night 2016

I had never thought much about 630 meters or 2200 meters until I was asked at the last club meeting to say something about those bands. My response, slightly paraphrased: “Uh…”. I really didn’t think much about it following that either, until I saw a post by Steve, VE7SL, about 630 Meter Crossband Night which would be November 12 local time. During this event, a number of Canadian amateurs (they already have this band in Canada) would be looking for crossband QSOs, transmitting on 630m and listening on 160, 80, and/or 40 meters. I guess that’s why they call it Crossband Night! Many of the US experimental stations (FCC Part 5 licenses) would be on beaconing and working each other. I decided to give it a shot and see if I could hear anything using my Beverages which range in length from 550 to about 700 feet.

The first station I heard was VO1NA on 477.7 kHz looking for crossband contacts. I gave him a call on his 80m QSX frequency and had a very nice QSO with Joe at 2222 UTC. I have posted a recording of it to AudioBoom: VO1NA. His signal got considerably stronger later in the evening.

Following that QSO I hard WG2XKA in Vermont beaconing on 472.0 kHz with a booming 599+ signal, WH2XHA in Pennsylvania beaconing with a 559 signal.

At 0006 UTC I had another crossband QSO, this time with VE3OT. Mitch had a nice 579 signal on 477.0 kHz. AudioBoom: VE3OT.

Other stations heard during the evening were WD2XSH/46, amazing 599+ signal from Pennsylvania, WD2XSH/31 in Virginia, and my best DX of the night WG2XIQ in Texas, a distance of 1725 miles. AudioBoom: WG2XIQ.

It was a fun evening and something different to do. I wish I had been able to hear or work a more distant station. PE5T, Kees in the Netherlands worked VO1NA and called CW several times but I never was able to copy him. I listened for the several VE7 stations that were active for as long as I could keep my eyes open. From comments I saw posted the following morning, I gather conditions in VE7 improved after I shut down. I hope I didn’t miss an opportunity! Unless I can figure some way to press one of my existing antennas into service for transmitting, I doubt I will be getting on 630 meters when it opens to US hams. I am already having problems trying to fit effective DX antennas for some bands into the space I have available.

2011 6 Meter Es Season

I was, as usual, somewhat late getting started this Es season. However I was there for most of it despite a heavy slate of personal challenges this summer. Overall I feel it was the poorest Es season in my nine years on the band, but there were some exceptional moments!

There were two good openings to Japan in late June. During one of them I had high local noise and could not participate. In the other I worked JE1BMJ and JA1BK, both of whom peaked 599. I heard many others but was not successful in working them. Nevertheless, any opening to Japan via Es is good from north central Maine. As far as I can determine, I remain the northeasternmost station in North America to work Japan on 6 meters via this propagation mode. This makes three seasons in a row with at least one JA in my 6 meter log!

There was a surprise opening to the middle east during which I worked 4X4DK (after several years trying) and A92IO. Wow!

One evening a nice opening produced a QSO with JW7QIA. Talk about high latitude Es! What made it all the more interesting is that there were more southerly paths to Europe at the same time. Other QSOs that evening included  SM5EDX, ON7GB, and CT1FFU.

Sound clips and more info are on the 6 Meter Sounds page of my web site.

A nice, if all too short aurora in early August was a welcome change of pace. I hope solar cycle 24 can manage a few more of those, and perhaps even one or two “real” auroras. 🙂