Category Archives: DX

First USA to Europe Amateur Radio 2200 Meter QSO

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.

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.

DX: Breaking the Pile

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.

There is tremendous competition for contacts with rare DX and especially DXpeditions to places that are only on the air once in ten or twenty years. With tens of thousands of eager DXers trying to get through and limited time, the pileups can be enormous. Not everyone who wants the contact is going to make it. Is there any hope for the DXer with 100 watts and a wire or vertical? Yes! The rarest places on Earth can be worked with 100 watts and a wire, but when one has a small station and the competition is intense, lack of signal strength must be compensated by skill and knowledge. Either that or a lot of luck. Success with a small station takes time, skill, and patience but it can be done! Even QRP stations (five watts or less) routinely get into the logs of the rarest DX. Let’s talk about how this works and what you can do to improve your chances.

Virtually all DXpeditions (and sometimes other DX) operate split frequency, meaning they are transmitting on one frequency, but not listening there. They are listening for callers on another frequency or range of frequencies. This is absolutely vital, as otherwise the frenzied callers would obliterate the DX signal and no one would be able to hear it. The DX operator will periodically indicate where he is listening. “Up” on SSB typically means five kHz (or more) above his transmit frequency. On CW, “up” usually means one kHz unless specified otherwise. The rules of thumb are similar if the operator says “down” (or “dn” on CW) but, of course, you should transmit below his frequency rather than above it. Sometimes the operator will specify a range of frequencies on which he is listening, such as “up five to ten”. Other times he may specify an actual range. For example, “two hundred two ten” if the DX is transmitting on 14.190 would mean he is listening from 14.200 to 14.210. The equivalent on CW is QSX, though it is not often used. A DX station transmitting on 1.812 MHz in the 160 meter band might send “QSX 30” meaning he is listening on 1.830. This is not the same as “up 30” which would mean 1.842. It is vital to figure out where the DX operator is listening for calls and transmit in the right place.

If the DX is listening on one specific frequency, such as up one on CW or up five on SSB, the choice of where to call is fairly simple. You might try slipping off to the side just a bit, such as up 0.8 or up 1.2 on CW; up 4.5 or up 5.5 on SSB. This can make your signal stand out from the crowd a little. If at all possible, it helps to listen to not only the DX but also the stations he is responding to. Are all the ones he is working on exactly the same frequency, or is he looking around a little? This is where having a second receiver really shines! Many “DX class” transceivers have a second receiver, or subreceiver, for this purpose. Lacking that, you can toggle back and forth between VFO A (on the DX frequency) and VFO B (on his listening frequency) to establish what exactly he is doing. Be very careful, however. Doing it this way makes it easy to accidentally transmit on the DX station’s frequency, causing QRM to others struggling to hear him. If you are using two receivers, or a radio with a subreceiver, headphones should be set up so you hear the DX in one ear and the pile up in the other. This will make it much easier to keep track of what is going on.

If the DX is tuning a range of frequencies for calls, your chances of success in a large pileup are much better – especially if you have the proper techniques and equipment for the task. First let’s look at what to do if you are able to monitor both the DX and the pile up at the same time. Try to locate the stations he responds to in the range of frequencies he is tuning. This is a skill that takes some time to learn, but it is well worth the effort. Is there a pattern to his tuning? Does he work several stations on the same frequency before moving, or does he move after every QSO? Is he tuning randomly, or only in one direction? How far does he usually move between QSOs? If he is tuning in only one direction, what does he do when he reaches the edge of the pile or the end of his specified range? Does he reverse direction and start working his way through the opposite way, or does he jump to the opposite end and always tune in the same direction? Does he occasionally seem to jump to the outermost edge of the pile, or just beyond it, and pick up a weaker station? Yes, some operators do just that, and knowing this can really improve the odds of you making the contact! Establishing the pattern of the DX operator can be a tremendous help. Often you can anticipate where he will listen next and position yourself accordingly. Of course you won’t be the only one doing this, and if you are a small station you may get covered up by the big stations who have this technique perfected. In that case you want to try to find a “hole” in the pile that is near, but not exactly on the mass of callers who have properly anticipated. This is not an exact science! It is something you get a feel for with practice!

If you lack the ability to simultaneously monitor two frequencies, then knowing where to call in a widely spread pileup becomes an order of magnitude more challenging. You may be able to establish a pattern by jumping back and forth between VFOs, but this will definitely take a lot of practice to learn. In some cases a panadaptor may provide clues as to where he is taking callers, but don’t count too much on it. Many less courteous operators, and those who are not hearing the DX well will call out of turn and confuse the issue. It is always a good idea to monitor DX spots using one of the many software applications out there for this purpose. Some of those who work the DX will immediately send out a spot, and some of those will indicate where they were transmitting at the time of their QSO. This information is often very disjointed and incomplete, but nevertheless it can provide useful clues. You may find that you have been calling up five, but the DX just worked someone up twenty. In that case, you’re probably better off to move, at least for a while. Don’t depend on a web site for DX spots. The web based services are just too slow. You want a dedicated application which is constantly downloading new DX spots in real time. If none of this is possible, the best you can do is pick a frequency within the proper range and keep calling there, hoping the DX operator eventually catches you. This works, but it often takes considerably more time than the more advanced techniques.

Timing is important! If the DX operator is very skilled and is picking a call out of the pile in just a couple of seconds, there is very little point in sending your call sign multiple times every time he asks for calls. This will only slow things down and may lead to him doubling with you. Call once, then listen! If he is taking more time to pick out a call sign, there may be some advantage to giving yours two or three times (rarely more). Again, this is something you get a feel for with time and experience. If he sometimes gets a call immediately and sometimes it takes a while, the best bet is probably to send your call once, pause to see if he is answering anyone, and if not, give your call again. This is very useful but sometimes tricky, as you can get out of sync and miss the DX responding to people, or even end up repeatedly calling while he is transmitting. Sometimes you just have to stop calling and listen for a bit to get back on track. On CW, if you can operate full break-in (QSK) this is less of a problem since you can hear the DX transmit even when you are still calling!

Try to adjust your sending speed for conditions and the apparent preference of the DX operator. On CW, try to match the speed of the DX operator or just a bit slower if possible, unless conditions are such that fluttery signals are causing dits to go missing. Then it may be best to slow it down a little. On SSB, try to determine whether the DX operator can get a call sign correctly when it is spoken very quickly. If so, try that. It saves time and maximizes the DX QSO rate. If not, slow down and give it at a speed that seems to be working for him. Again, this is where being able to monitor both sides helps.

It is important to understand the nature of the game. The DX is trying to work as many stations as possible in a given amount of time. Brevity is important. One aspect of this is that contacts are only going to consist of call sign and a signal report, usually 59 on SSB, 599 on CW or digital modes. Another is in the way the operator responds when he gets a partial calls sign. Some may say “Who was the station with uniform golf in the call?” but this is inefficient. Many of the most experienced operators will just say “uniform golf” on SSB or send “UG” on CW. This is an invitation for you to send your complete call sign again so he can get the rest of it. Of course, you should only send your call sign again if it actually contains those letters (or something very similar). As an example of the latter, if a DX station on CW responds “BAG” I will usually go ahead and send my call “N1BUG” again since the difference between A and U on CW is just one dit – often mistaken in a pileup. On some particularly challenging bands, most notably 160 meters, it is often customary to modify these rules and send your call sign more than once at a time. Experience and observation will be your best guide. If the DX has asked for a fill on your callsign several times and is obviously struggling to get it, giving your call a few times can be an advantage. This is a judgement call.

Often a QSO ends with the DX operator simply saying “Thank you” or, on CW, sending “TU”. This means he is ready for the next caller, so send your call sign immediately. Other operators will identify with their call and/or specify where they are listening after every contact. For example “Thank you, Delta X-ray One Romeo Alpha Romeo, up five to ten” or “TU DX1RAR up”. It is important to listen and establish the operator’s style. If you were to start transmitting very quickly after you you hear “TU”, but he is actually sending “TU DX1RAR up” you will be doubling with him. I routinely hear stations doing just that. Listen. Figure out the pattern and how the QSO flow is working. It will pay off!

Knowing propagation characteristics can be a big advantage. It is much easier to work the rare DX when propagation favors your part of the world than when it favors some other densely populated area. Once again, experience is the most valuable thing you can have. There are situations where certain parts of the world are difficult for the DX to work due to propagation and large centers of ham activity being closer. This is why DXpedition operators often concentrate on specific areas at certain times. Be patient and wait until he is ready for you, then call. This may be frustrating when you are hearing the DX very well, but you will learn to appreciate it when you are the one in the disadvantaged spot and the rare DX listens specifically for your area! You will quickly learn what the DX wants. On phone, “Europe” or “North America” is obvious. “JA” is obvious if you recognize that as the primary call sign prefix for Japan. On CW these will be abbreviated of course: “EU”, “NA”, “JA”, etc.

Knowing the plan can help, too. Most DXpeditions publish preferred frequencies in advance of their trip. Even if they don’t, careful observation (and use of spotting software) will reveal what frequencies they favor on each band and mode. Let’s say you know propagation is good right now on 17 meters and they like 18.130 for SSB on that band, usually listening up five. The only trouble is, they aren’t on 17 meter SSB right now. That doesn’t stop you from listening there! I have worked more than one new one because I was “parked” on a frequency waiting – and became the first caller when the DXpedition appeared there. Obviously there is both luck and technique involved here, but it can work!

How well do you know your favorite band? Sometimes there are special circumstances, and knowledge of them can serve you well. On 160 meters, North America can transmit anywhere between 1.800 and 2.000. In many parts of the world the allocation starts at 1.810. In Japan they only have 1.810 to 1.825. Why is this important? Many DXpeditions will publish different listening frequencies on 160 meters for each region of the world. If a DXpedition in the Pacific is transmitting on 1.826 and listening both down and up (a common practice on this band), as a North American station you will likely do better calling up (eg. 1.827.5) than down (eg. 1.824.5) since you will not be competing with the Japanese callers who probably have the propagation and signal strength advantage.

Once again let me emphasize the importance of listening and patience. I once worked a new and very rare one because I had been listening for a while. The DXpedition was operating on 20 meter SSB, transmitting around 14.190 and listening 200 to 215 or so. As I was listening (and calling), I heard the DXpedition operator say “From time to time I will listen for small stations on two fifty five”. At the time I had a very poor antenna on 20 meters, and thought I had little chance of working this one, located on the far side of the world and, of necessity, using very small antennas themselves. A long time went by as he went on working stations in the 200 to 215 range. Those stations who had been calling on 255 eventually gave up, including me. I didn’t go away, however. I returned to calling in the big pile down below. Suddenly the operator said “Small stations, special frequency”. I frantically dialed my transmit VFO back to 255 and gave my call sign one time. He answered me! Bingo! I worked a new one because I had been listening and knew what this rather cryptic “Small stations, special frequency” announcement was all about. I only heard one other station call on 255, and he worked the DX also. Chances are most of the others who had been around long enough to hear his earlier explanation about the special freqeuncy had given up and gone away. Others didn’t know the special frequency. This probably explains why the operator did it this way — to reward those whose skill and patience gave them the edge. The point is, you just never know. It pays to listen carefully and above all, be patient and persistent.

Sure, having a big station helps. I work DX much more quickly now that I have 1500 watts and something of an antenna farm. But I did it quite successfully for many years with lower power and simple wire antennas. If I had to pick one single station improvement which made the biggest difference, it would neither be the amplifier nor the antennas. I would say it was getting a transceiver that has a subreceiver. That changed the nature of the game for me. Regardless of the station configuration, operator knowledge and skill are critical factors. Improving one’s skills often pays bigger dividends than buying an amplifier or putting up a huge antenna. None of us are born with DXing skills! The best way to learn is to jump in and start practice the techniques. See you in the pileups!

DX 2016: Personal Thoughts on an Exceptional Year

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.

This is not a how-to ‘note’. These are my thoughts on the significance of major DXpedtions happening this year and what DXing means to me.

In the world of amateur radio DXing, 2016 is shaping up to be a year that will long be remembered by many of us. On any given year there might typically be one to three major DXpeditions, mostly to places that are uninhabited, remote, costly to reach, and thus activated only on rare occasions. This year there are four expeditions activating five of the rarest DXCC entities on Earth! Palmyra Atoll (K5P, January) ranked 16th most wanted out of 340 current DXCC entities; South Sandwich Islands (VP8STI, January), third; South Georgia Island (VP8SGI, January/February), eighth. These are all very rare places to be sure, having last been activated in 2005, 2002, and 2002 respectively. These three operations alone would have made for a banner year but there is more to come! Soon VK0EK will be activating Heard Island, the fifth most wanted entity. In April, FT4JA will activate Juan de Nova Island, sixth most wanted. These are all major events in the world of DX. All of these expeditions are large multi-operator, multi-station efforts, putting tens of thousands of QSOs in the log and giving a new one to many thousands of DXers around the world.

It may be argued, however, that of the lot Vk0EK could be the biggest event. In terms of statistics on number of people needing it, Heard Island ranks second of the major DXpeditions this year. But, last activated in 1997, it has been off the air longer than any other DXCC entity on Earth. To put this into perspective, consider this: A DXer who started in the year 2000 and managed to work all the major DXpeditions since could have 339 worked, with the upcoming VK0EK giving them the last entity on the current list of 340. That is huge! Every other DXCC entity has been activated at some point since the year 2000, with the sole exception of Heard Island for which we have to go back another three years to find the last time. VK0EK has stated an aim to make 150,000 QSOs, more than any of this year’s other mega-DXpeditions. It will be the most costly of the 2016 DXpeditions and could be the most costly DXpedition of all time. I cannot confirm the latter since I have been unable to find a final cost figure for the 2006 3Y0X operation from Peter I Island, at the time said to set a new record. Arguably, of all places on Earth Heard Island may be the most remote, the most difficult in terms of climate and getting there. Located in the “furious fifties” (referring to latitude) of the great Southern Ocean some ten days sail from South Africa and Western Australia, it is certainly not a place easily or quickly reached.

I was immediately attracted to DXing after getting my amateur radio license in 1981. I was 17, still full of youthful wonder and optimism. Growing up I had always dreamed of visiting far off places. Remote, seldom seen locations inspired my imagination more than any other. So I suppose it was only natural that making radio contact with distant and often exotic places would appeal to me. I was green in those days, though. I didn’t yet know about “mega DXpeditions” or DXCC entities that were on the air once every ten or twenty years. I was thinking of working 100 countries to get my DXCC award and even getting 100 on the most challenging MF/HF band, 160 meters. The idea of DXCC Honor Roll or Number One Honor Roll never entered my young head. [To qualify for Honor Roll, one must have confirmed contacts with enough entities to be within 10 of having all current entities on the list; with 340 current entities on the list, that means 331 or more. Number One Honor Roll means having worked them all – every single DXCC entity on the current list.]

A few years into my ham radio adventure I was distracted by moonbounce, or Earth-Moon-Earth (EME) operation on the VHF and UHF bands. A devout CW (Morse code) operator, I was especially keen on doing anything that was considered difficult or was well outside mainstream ham radio. EME was that and more, offering any operator who wanted it the ultimate weak signal challenge. It was man and his machine against the odds, overcoming challenges, fraught with difficulty, unpredictable and for some, irresistible. EME also challenged me in another way. I had to put my mechanical aptitude to use figuring out how to build large antenna arrays steerable in two planes, and do this on a budget so limited most people would probably have given up. I dreamed of attaining DXCC on the two meter band, but reached only 82 countries before digital modes displaced CW in EME.

Returning to HF a seasoned and more knowledgeable ham in 2004, I set my sights on working 300 countries on 160 meters. That would be as challenging as getting 100 on two meter EME! Not long thereafter I was struck by the desire to achieve DXCC Honor Roll and thus started to operate more on the HF bands, 80 through 10 meters. It isn’t easy. Once you get upward of 300 you’re going to have to wait for DXpeditions for the rest. Many of these will be very rare places and you may be waiting decades. Forget about “push button QSOs”. You’re going to have to work at getting some of them. Competition for those rare contacts is intense! For DXers, these factors add to the fun and sense of accomplishment.

DXpeditions provide recreation for tens of thousands who make much wanted contacts with them and thoroughly enjoy the chase. Moreover, they help to fill one of amateur radio’s long held primary roles: that of enhancing international good will. Often a multi-national team effort must come together in cooperation and fellowship to make these trips happen. Even where that may not be the case, amateur radio DXers are a worldwide fraternity spanning the globe, reaching across all political and ethnic boundaries. All share the common goal of making contact with these DXpeditions. In some cases, scientific expeditions and amateur radio DXpeditons are combined, as is the case with the upcoming Heard Island trip. DXpeditions to populated places with little or no indigenous ham radio licensees can help draw attention to the plight of third world nations and even provide humanitarian aid.

So here I am in 2016. K5P was my #327 overall, #285 on 160 meters; VP8STI #328 and #286 respectively; VP8SGI #329 and #287. I have since worked Ethiopia and Lesotho for new ones on 160 meters, bringing my total on that most challenging band to 289. If I work the upcoming VK0EK and FT4JA that will bring me to the magic number for Honor Roll: 331. Wow! It’s like seeing light at the end of a long tunnel. Yet there is a certain duality about it. Reaching a long sought goal is exciting and gratifying, but it also in some ways represents the end of a journey that in and of itself brought immeasurable joy. I am hoping to get Heard and Juan de Nova on 160 meters as well, though that is by no means a given. What a year! It had been quite some time since my last new one, overall or on 160. I certainly couldn’t have envisioned getting so many in such a short period of time at this level. Excited doesn’t begin to describe the feeling!

When one reaches this level, it is almost inevitable that thoughts of Number One Honor Roll creep in. It seems so close – only nine more – and yet so far. Is it possible? Seven of the remaining nine will probably come up for DXpedition within the next ten or fifteen years. They are not easy to reach or obtain permission to operate from but some enterprising team will no doubt find a way. I hope to be around to work them. North Korea (DPRK) and Turkmenistan are the most worrisome. Rarely someone manages to get permission to operate from DPRK, but it isn’t easy and there is never any guarantee of a “next time”. That is ranked #1 most wanted on the list. Turkmenistan currently doesn’t allow amateur radio licensing, so we can only hope for a change there. It ranks 24th most wanted and is quickly climbing toward the top. It’s safe to say I will be keeping my nose and an ear to the ground for information or rumors on these two.

For me, major DXpeditions aren’t just about the challenge of getting through the pileup or climbing another rung on the DXCC ladder. They are an opportunity to follow a team on a great adventure, to somehow connect with it. If life had turned out differently, that might be me out there going to those rarest places on Earth. I have the passion, the drive, the desire. At risk of seeming immodest, I believe I have the operating skill. I laugh in the face of any danger involved. I had an opportunity once. In 2005 I was invited to be part of a DXpedition to St. Paul Island. Admittedly this isn’t a wild Southern Ocean location or one of the world’s most difficult. But is is an uninhabited island, rare and sought after. Not being able to go ranks as one of the biggest disappointments of my life and still haunts me.

I don’t just get on the air and work major DXpeditions. I enthusiastically follow them. I make it a point to know who is going where, when, how they are getting there, what equipment they are taking. I want to know something about the place, its history, its wildlife, its amateur radio activation history. When the precise location of a DXpedition camp setup is known, you can bet I will have a good virtual look at the place with Google Earth. I haunt DXpedition web sites and DX information sites for any breaking news just prior to or during a trip. To the extent reasonably feasible, I collect DXpedition videos. It isn’t just about the contact. It’s the experience, the intrigue, the wonder. It’s the consolation prize for not being able to be there.

2016 is undeniably a banner year for those who, for whatever reason, desire to work major DXpeditions in rare places. It is the sort of year that comes around very rarely. On the air and in DX forums the excitement is palpable. For many it is the year a dream comes true; the year a threshold is reached, be it Honor Roll, Number One Honor Roll or some personal benchmark. For others it is the year for that one contact that speaks to something within, something which no other can quite touch. For me it is both. As VK0EK draws nearer, the excitement is so intense I feel as though I need a tether to keep me anchored to the Earth. That is not a feeling I am accustomed to. It stands in stark contrast to the more typical reality of life. This one is a “must do” on my list. Will it be another 19 years before the next opportunity to work Heard Island? Will there even be a next opportunity? With places this rare and difficult to put on the air, one never knows for sure.

Confirming Ham Radio Contacts: The Art of QSLing

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.

QSLing, or exchanging of QSL cards goes back to the earliest days of ham radio. It is often said “a QSL is the final courtesy of a QSO”, which hints at the importance that has always been placed on this aspect of ham radio as a hobby. Traditionally a QSL is a postcard which confirms that radio communication was carried out between two stations. QSL cards have the callsign of the station issuing the card, information about the station location and owner, and possibly other information printed on the card. The callsign of the station contacted, along with date, time, band, mode and signal report is handwritten or otherwise filled into areas of the card reserved for this before being sent out. The front and back of my N1BUG QSL card can be seen in the cover photo. Why do hams exchange QSL cards? Some do it because they like to get and collect QSLs to commemorate memorable QSOs (contacts, conversations). Some QSL cards are truly works of art. Others feature breathtaking photos of exotic places. Others collect QSL cards for contact verification when applying for operating achievement awards such as Worked All States (WAS), Worked All Zones (WAZ), or DX Century Club (DXCC). These awards are not issued on the honor system. One must show some evidence that they did in fact establish radio contact with the locations they are claiming. QSL cards are the traditional means of verification.

How does this work? Suppose I make radio contact with a station in Iceland, and that for whatever reason I want a QSL card from that station to confirm or commemorate the contact. I will fill in his callsign and the contact details – date, time, band, mode, signal report and perhaps a personal comment on one of my station QSL cards. I will check a box on my card which says “Please QSL” to indicate I want a card in return. I will then mail my card to the other operator along with some means of paying for the cost of return postage. Why do we send return postage? Suppose the ham in Iceland makes several hundred or even several thousand contacts in a year and many of the stations contacted want his QSL card. If the Icelandic ham had to pay for postage to send each of those cards it could easily cost the equivalent of hundreds or even thousands of dollars. This could easily put the cost of ham radio out of the reach of many or force them to not respond to QSL requests! Chances are he doesn’t need my card for anything (he probably has a huge collection already), but I do need his. So, as a courtesy I will cover the cost of postage for the return card. When the other operator gets my card he will fill in the QSO details on one of his QSL cards (probably checking the “Thanks for QSL” box), then mail it to me. I may display it in my shack or file it away for later use in applying for awards, depending on my goals and interests.

When sending cards within the U.S. it is customary to send a self addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) to cover return postage costs and to save the other operator the time of writing my address on an envelope. Remember, most active stations get many such requests and most people don’t have unlimited time for this hobby. When sending QSLs to other countries there are a few options on how to pay for return postage. In the past the International Reply Coupon (IRC) was a popular choice. An IRC could be sent with the QSL and in most countries that IRC could be exchanged for the correct amount of postage to return one piece of first class mail to the country of origin. The IRC has diminished greatly in popularity (some would say it has become all but unusable), because the USPS no longer sells them and because many countries no longer accept them. The most popular method today is to send US one dollar bills to pay for return postage. In ham radio QSL parlance we call them green stamps. They can be exchanged for local currency in most countries, but do your homework before sending them! In a few countries, one can get into a lot of trouble for the mere possession of US currency! I do not know where to find a comprehensive list of such places, but keep reading for tips how to know what to send or not send. Be aware that $1 is not enough to cover the cost of returning a card from most countries, just as it now costs over $1 to buy a stamp to mail something out of the US. $2 may still be enough in some countries but many require $3 and I believe some are now $4. Obviously this gets expensive – at current rates, $1.20 for the stamp to mail something out, $3 to cover the cost of getting a reply. Another method that is gaining in popularity is to send stamps from the DX operator’s own country along with your QSL. There is at least one service (William Plum DX Supplies) making such stamps available to hams.

Recognizing the high cost of exchanging QSLs, many countries participate in a network of QSL bureaus. Here is how this works. If I contact many DX stations whose QSLs I want, I can fill out all of the QSLs, sort them by country of destination, and along with a modest fee send them to the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) Outgoing QSL Bureau. The bureau will then combine my outgoing cards with those of many other US hams and send them in batches to QSL bureaus in other countries for distribution to hams in each country. Incoming QSLs through the system are handled by a number of regional bureaus across the country. In order to receive incoming QSLs through the bureau system, I periodically send money to the W1 QSL Bureau. They receive thousands of QSLs destined for US hams in the first call area (W1), which comprises the six New England states. They get these cards from bureaus around the world. The incoming QSLs are sorted by destination station, and when they have accumulated a reasonable number that are going to my station or a certain amount of time has passed since their last mailing to me, they mail them to me (using some of the postage credit on my account). Exchanging QSLs through the bureau system is much cheaper than going direct, but it takes more time. The amount of time required to get a QSL card this way can be months or even years. Bear in mind not all countries have a QSL bureau, and not all hams in any given country use the bureau if it has one. Many hams use the bureau to obtain QSLs they would like to have, but are in no hurry for. Note that the ARRL bureau is for sending cards to other countries and cannot be used for sending cards to other US stations.

Some hams, particularly those in rare or semi-rare countries, have a QSL manager. This is a person who handles the chore of responding to QSL requests f0r the ham, who may not have enough time to do it. In some cases, hams have QSL managers because delivery of mail in their country is not entirely reliable. The QSL manager may or may not live in the same country as the ham using his services. Sometimes you get lucky and the ham you just worked in that rare country has a QSL manager in the US! This is great, as it costs you less and you usually get your wanted QSL card in less time.

So how you do you know where to send your QSL for that DX station you just worked? You need to look it up. I usually start with QRZ.com. If the DX station has a listing there, it will likely tell you how to QSL that station, be it direct, via bureau or via a manager. Often it will tell you what methods are accepted for return postage and what not to send. Not all stations are listed on QRZ.com. For those you need to look further. There are DX newsletters to which you can subscribe which often give QSL information for rare stations and DXpeditions. Some of them have back issues available online. Sites such as DXNews.com and DXcoffee.com can be valuable resources for finding QSL information. A good source for DXpedition QSL info is ng3k.com, particulary his ADXO (Announced DX Operations) pages. In short, the avid DXer with an interest in QSL cards needs to have a variety of resources from which to gather information.

When sending cards to other countries, there are a few things to keep in mind. Mail isn’t as safe in many places as it is in the US. Putting callsigns on the envelope suggests that it may contain a QSL and some US $1 bills – which may then get stolen! The best advice is don’t put callsigns on the envelope, just names and addresses (that of the station you are sending it to and your return address, of course). Try to hide what is inside so it can’t be clearly seen if the envelope is held up to a bright light. You may want to use security envelopes or wrap a couple sheets of paper around your QSL and funds for return postage before placing it in the envelope. Whatever you do, write clearly and legibly when filling out your QSL card and addressing the envelope. Remember this may be going to, or through, places where English is not the primary language and even to places that use a totally different alphabet! Don’t expect them to decipher a scribbled address. Sending a self addressed envelope for the return QSL may save the other operator some time in replying, but US sized envelopes are not acceptable in all countries. William Plum DX Supplies sells envelopes specifically for this purpose.

With postage costs escalating and in view of the fact many only want QSL cards for contact verification in applying for awards (as opposed to collecting the cards themselves), modern technology has provided an alternative: electronic QSLing. There are two major services in operation today: eQSL and ARRL’s Logbook of The World (LoTW). Each has its advantages and disadvantages, which should be considered in selecting which service(s) to use.

LoTW confirmations are currently good for ARRL awards (WAS, DXCC, VUCC) and the CQ WPX award – but not for others. There is no cost to sign up and participate in LoTW but there is a nominal fee of 12 cents per QSL for any you decide to use for awards applications. The LoTW sign up process has drawn heavy criticism on grounds that it is too difficult. Paperwork is often challenging for me but I didn’t find anything difficult about the LoTW sign up process, and the documentation leads you through it step by step. The registration process is designed to avoid fraud so that some integrity may remain in the awards system. It is not an “instant gratification” process. It takes about a week since it does involve a postcard through the US mail for one part of it. You only have to go through this process once. Once you are signed up, using LoTW is usually very easy. Most hams today log all of the contacts they make using one of several different logging programs that are available. Major logging programs automate the process of uploading contacts to LoTW. With the one I use (DXKeeper) it is as easy as a click or two. There is no printable “QSL card” with a LoTW contact verification. It is strictly an electronic acknowledgement that the contact is confirmed.

The other major online QSL system, eQSL, has a somewhat easier registration process. Confirmations through eQSL count for CQ awards and perhaps others, but cannot be used to apply for ARRL awards. eQSL allows each station to design their own electronic QSL “card”, and receiving stations can print out and keep a copy for each contact confirmed through the system. Most major logging programs automate the process of uploading contacts to eQSL.

It is important to choose which service(s) best meet your objectives. My main awards focus is DXCC and I like contesting. I use LoTW because confirmations there can be used for the DXCC awards and because uploading all of my QSOs there greatly reduces the number of QSL card requests I get through the mail. Otherwise I would be overwhelmed due to the number of contacts I make while contesting. By the way, award application fees are often less for electronic applications than for paper ones which require more processing on the part of the organization issuing the award. I send for paper QSL cards when I work stations needed for DXCC who do not use LoTW. I also like to get paper QSLs for major DXpeditions even if they use LoTW (most do), because often those QSLs are something extra special with pictures of the rare and exotic places and once in a lifetime adventures. Some are multi-sided fold-out cards or even small booklets with pictures and story of a great DX adventure.

QSL cards from rare locations and DXpeditions. Top left: a bi-fold QSL card from a base in Antarctica. Top right: front of a QSL from 3Y0X Peter I Island DXpedition. Second row: middle of fold-out 3Y0X QSL. Third row: Bi-fold card from BS7H Scarborough Reef DXpedition. Bottom: middle of a 32 page QSL card “booklet” telling the story of the VP6DX Ducie Island Dxpedition.

One other method deserves mention. A system called Online QSL Request System (OQRS) is becoming quite popular, especially for DXpeditions. A DXpedition is by definition a temporary ham radio operation from some rare and often remote place. The person or people who went on a DXpedition does not need your QSL card, but very likely you need theirs. Many of them now post their logs online and offer OQRS through various systems. The way this works is you go to their onling log site, enter your callsign and it will show you all contacts you made with that DXpedition. It will then offer you a chance to “order” QSLs for some or all of those contacts. You may have to fill in the details such as date and time for each QSO. Usually there is a nominal fee involved. It may seem high but bear in mind this is one way of helping to pay for a trip that was done for your benefit and likely cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars! The advantage for you is that you usually get your card(s) much quicker than any other method. Many DXpeditions now use Club Log for their online log and OQRS. Any station can upload logs to Clug Log. If you participate, this makes OQRS even easier. Since Club Log has both the DXpedition log and your log, it already knows all details of the matching QSOs! All you have to do is select the ones you want QSLs for and complete the transaction by making payment. For those like me who hate paperwork, this is the ultimate in simplicity and convenience on getting those rare DXpdition QSLs. I used Club Log OQRS for my recent contacts with K5P (Palmyra), VP8STI (South Sandwich), and VP8SGI (South Georgia).

You have a number of choices when having QSL cards printed for your station. Many printing services offer generic card designs customized with your callsign, name, and location. Others will design a card from your photo or artwork, or you can do all the design work yourself and just have them print a batch of cards. I designed my QSL card myself and submitted it to UX5UO Print. For less than $100 I got 1,000 full color double sided cards featuring photos from a hiking trip to Mount Katahdin. Cards can be ordered from many printers in smaller quantity, and generic designs are cheaper than color photo cards. Of course you can design and print your own if you want. QSL cards don’t have to be fancy. In fact, some are very basic but still do the job of confirming QSOs. Because the people you contact will be wanting your card for a variety of purposes, I suggest you put the following on your card as a minimum: your callsign, name, and mailing address; state and country (if not obvious from the address), county, CQ zone, ITU zone, and grid square. Additional information may apply in some cases. If you live on an island which counts for Islands on the Air (IOTA), for example, you might want to put its IOTA number on your card.

Examples of basic QSL cards. Top: Single color, two sided card (reverse not shown). Bottom left: Single color single sided card. Bottom right: two color single sided card.

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 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. 🙂