160m is cool.

“Top band,” “the Gentleman’s Band,” “MF” or whatever you call it, 160 meters is a blast. And it’s surging in popularity, much thanks to Joe Taylor and his weak signal modes. You may have opinions on those modes counting as real radio or not, but your opinion doesn’t really matter. The fact is that more operators than ever are finding 160 and most of them are doing it from city lots!

The true beauty of 160 is that the playing field is pretty level; even the most extensive arrays are still very much compromise systems. Consider for a moment that a true 1/4-wave vertical made out of tower sections is only as effective as it’s radial network. Consider for an additional moment that your wire inverted-L over a more extensive radial field might just smoke that first example.

Nick, K1NZ runs an inverted-L with a single radial, no RX antenna nor amplifier, and works EU on demand with the new FT8 mode. At my current QTH, I’ve worked at least 100 countries with a simple half sloper and a 250′ beverage-on-ground (BOG), primarily on CW. Neither of us are particularly skilled with antenna modeling and both of us face space restrictions.

There’s a lot of information online for anyone looking to get on topband, and plenty of misinformation. Here’s what I’ve learned as it applies to this QTH only (your mileage may vary):

  • Verticals crush dipoles on 160. Crush is the strongest responsible word I can find to use.
  • Elevated radials are better. I found 6-8 played nice with inverted-L type antennas here over the years.
  • Buried radials are less efficient, so you’ll have to use more. The point of diminishing returns at my QTH was 30 evenly-spaced radials slightly buried or on the ground. This agrees with the consensus among various mailing list geniuses.
  • Use an amp. Absorption is very high on 160; the extra dB’s help.
  • Nobody really understands propagation this low, and the best openings may only last a few minutes — VOAcap and similar programs are critical for the serious operator.
  • Immediately at grayline (and ONLY then), my low dipoles outperform my beverages for RX and my verticals for TX. There is no good explanation for it, but ON4UN notes a similar phenomenon.
  • Beverages are cheap; build one if you have the real estate. If you don’t, you should try a BOG. If you don’t have space for that, try a Shared Apex Loop or a K9AY loop. There’s no excuse for being an alligator!
  • Learn CW. Try the JT weak signal modes. Do something new.

See you on topband!



YCCC Contest Tips

Recently, the YCCC email reflector has been rife with useful contest tips, mostly spurred by W1UE’s “tip of the day” -posts. Luckily, Fred K1VR has compiled a collection and they are now available on the YCCC homepage for your use (even if you aren’t yet a member).

Click here to see the collection (.pdf).


“Ham radio is dead”

This is in response to a Facebook post I saw. I responded there, but I’m going to break it out a bit deeper here. Sorry to those experiencing deja vu.

I was first licensed at 11 years old. I liked contesting, DX’ing, being on HF, operating CW/SSB, etc.. I did not like VHF. I did not like the tech stuff. I had very little technical interest, but I sure did like working multipliers. Being young made me the minority. Being of any age but interested in old-fashioned operating made me part of an even slimmer minority.

There was no BitX or Arduino or $50 QRP kits then. Had there been, I would have migrated into those. I didn’t have much money in middle school, so I was interested in doing whatever I could afford. Luckily, my parents bought me a TS-440 and a G5RV one Christmas and I was off to the races.

Then came high school, college, a career, etc. (in this case “etc.” means “girls”). I took down a lot of gear and was dormant for a while. I didn’t seriously return to the hobby until I was hired to work at ARRL HQ. Then I put up a tower, beams, bought an FT-1000, amps, and started chasing DX again. If I hadn’t been hired there, it would have taken me longer to return. This is because…

Ham radio is for middle-aged individuals with disposable income, a home, and an understanding spouse.

We spend so much energy trying to recruit young people, but that clearly isn’t a great return-on-investment when it comes to our numbers. Sure, kids are the future — but they have about two decades before they can carve out a realistic place for ham radio in their lives. There are certainly exceptions in our ranks, but we’re talking marketing “dollar per gallon” here.

If we did a survey, I suspect most of here have taken a hiatus from the hobby. I further suspect that hiatus came while we were getting jobs, starting families, and buying homes. So where would you sink the advertising money: on your 10 year-old self or on your 40 year-old self? My money is on the latter.

I’m thankful to have been in this hobby from a young age. At 28, I’ve been licensed the majority of my life. Heck, I can join QCWA before I’m even 40. So don’t read this as “ham radio is not for kids.” I’m just suggesting we avoid exclusively marketing to that crowd, and focus our efforts where the mileage is better.


DX cluster etiquette

For better or for worse, the DX cluster has been and will continue to be a part of this hobby. You can love it, you can hate it, you can write tirades about its merits or its evils — but it will still be there, quietly churning out spots to thousands.

Let the chaos begin

In this blog post, I won’t tell you if I love or hate the cluster. Frankly, I think my feelings are immaterial because they won’t change anything; the cluster isn’t going anywhere. I treat it as a tool, just like the processor on my radios or the grayline map on the wall.

Alternatively, I’ll propose a list of etiquette tips. Some of you may be running afoul of a few of these, but I’ve found it’s often because we forget there are operating techniques out there different from our own.

  1. Stop with the “can’t hear him” -spots. You may log into the cluster by telnet (or RF) and read each spot. In your case, you might receive a benefit from such a spot. However, you represent less than 5% of the cluster users. The rest of us see spots in a bandmap for our logging program or other application that strips away the “can’t hear him” -comment. In our case (which is the clear majority) your spot is a false spot. The easy solution for this is: ONLY SPOT WHAT YOU CAN HEAR. That’s the whole point of the system, no exceptions.

    How most of us see spots and why “can’t hear him” -spots are useless
  2. No brag spots. Spot what you hear, not what you just worked. Don’t bother spotting with a “TNX 4 QSO” -comment. The DX isn’t watching the cluster. You know he isn’t. We know he isn’t. We know that you know he isn’t. So you’re just blatantly sending a brag and wasting all of our bandwidth in the process. The truth is that nobody — and I mean literally nobody — cares who you just worked.
  3. Please DO spot (especially on phone). The proliferation of CW skimmer has caused a decline in “human-originated” spots, even on other modes. Be sure to post spots if the DX is useful. Don’t post spots if they violate #1 or #2 above.
  4. Maybe self spot. This one might surprise a few of you. With the birth of skimmer, self spotting has become a non-issue. A few guys might get their feathers ruffled if you do it, but they’ll be unable to articulate a reason beyond involving their own emotions. Remember that most contests forbid this behavior, so certainly avoid that, but if you’re running on 10m phone at dusk on a Tuesday night when the band is empty, I’d appreciate the spot so I can work you. Don’t do it all the time, don’t do it during contests, and only do it when it’s helpful; ask yourself “is this a weird opening everyone is missing?”
  5. Avoid mobbing one node. Certain large, reliable nodes seem to absorb most of the telnet traffic for planet earth. K1TTT is certainly one of them, AB5K might be another. But there are thousands of DX cluster nodes available. Try another one! Spread out the traffic and decrease stress on the system. The sysops will thank you.
  6. Don’t bother with an announcement. To think that you have anything interesting enough to post to 100,000+ people is pure arrogance. In two decades, I have never once found a reason to use the announcement feature. When I was running a node, I actually blocked all announcements from coming in. They’re silly, rarely helpful, and sometimes just offensive. Also, please don’t make false spots to serve as announcements (see “T0ALL” in the image above). You’re messing with our bandmaps and you look like a fool. Nothing (and nobody) is important enough for that.


If you have any tips or tricks to add, be sure to fire away in the comments below!



Remote Operation: an editorial

There’s a debate raging on the CQ-Contest list at the moment centered on remote operation. Both as a contest administrator and a participant, I’ve been familiar with the practice and even tried it once or twice. My station is, at the moment, capable of it (albeit with some amplifier limitations).

There are two sides to the argument:

  • “It’s internet.” The control of the station relies on the internet; that is to say, without internet, the QSO wouldn’t occur (even though it is strictly RF between the physical radios).
  • “It’s the same as a long mic cord.” The internet is not replacing any of the RF; it simply replaces the mic (or key) cord and other control devices.

I was pretty neutral about the whole thing until I read EI5DI’s piece, which is probably the ugliest, most petty opinion piece on the subject today. Now I’m convinced there is an entire class of operators who have chosen their decade and refuse to leave it. Let me save you the agony of reading that and paraphrase: remote operation is bad because it involves the internet in some way.

FACT: the internet replaces the control, NOT the RF. So EI5DI (and his ilk, whoever and wherever they may be) are really asking for a rule that says I must be mechanically connected to the controls of my station at all times. So for those of you who use wireless switchboxes or filter networks (like me): you’re out. Sorry.

Personally, I don’t care how long your mic cord (or any other control interface) is. I don’t care if you’re in the next room or the next continent. Like EI5DI says: facts are facts, so here’s a fact: remote operators are sending an exchange based on the physical location of the transmitter — the location of the operator is therefore immaterial. I’m not even sure how EI5DI can reach the conclusion that the location of the operator’s butt has anything to do with a radio contest.

Is it because we’ve made it too easy to win? Is it because this allows some of us to build far remote stations with great capabilities in advantageous locations? Sure. But that doesn’t stop EI5DI from doing that too. There’s realtors around the globe happy to help you find that dream location deep in a jungle and there’s airlines willing to fly you back and forth to operate it. To say that the difficulties of doing it for each major contest somehow discredits those operating remote stations is just blatant jealousy, especially when you consider the prevalence of rare zones in recent contests brought to us by remote stations.

This just becomes more embarrassing the longer I think about it. If anything, remote stations that rely on an internet or other data link for control actually have a disadvantage, as that link could go down at any time.

The hobby is always changing. If you want to sit in a room full of radios and use low dipoles in CQWW, that’s great — it’s about having fun. If you want to use cutting-edge technology and hand out a rare zone, that’s great too. But either way, for the love of Hiram, can we just let others do what they want and stop pretending they are lesser operators because they’re doing something we can’t?