Saturday, January 15, 2022

A Ham Radio Series 30 – The Perennial Question of New Hams

You've probably been there.  I have - many times.  You're a totally new ham or you're getting your first antennas up, or you're getting on a new band or mode for the first time.  Maybe you've dropped your transmitter power down to QRP - low power - levels.  The question down through the ages is, "am I getting out?  Is anyone hearing me?" 

The way that used to be answered was that you had a friend nearby, probably the ham who helped you get your license and get started, or on the new band or mode.  You called them and they listened for your signals.  That was in the Before Internet days.  I was first licensed in 1976, and that was just how it was done.  

Today there are ways that you can find out if you're being heard on any band at any time in pretty much anyplace on Earth.  I thought I'd mention a couple of these here, but let me preface this that these systems are geared to digital signal modes (I'll get into what the means as we go along).  

The first one, and easiest to get to and use is PSKReporter.  It's easiest because it's just a website so any browser gets you there.  Today is an annual VHF contest and I've been playing in it since not long after it started at 2PM EST.  I asked the website to find any reception reports of my call in the last six hours.  It gave me this:

Each one of those red bubbles is the reported location of a station that heard me.  I was using the digital mode FT8, part of package of advanced digital modes from Princeton University physicist Joe Taylor and several co-authors.  The software package that runs the contacts, called WSJT-X, has an option that if you enable it, it will report every callsign it copies to PSKReporter.  

That means the majority (not necessarily all) of those people were running the software and it copied my call.  I can assure you that not only did I not have a contact with anywhere near that number of stations but I didn't hear that number, either.

PSKReporter got started to help people operating "the new hotness mode" from the early 2000s, PSK31; PSK for phase shift keying and 31 for the baud rate.  Over the years, PSKReporter has expanded the modes it can search for reports on, or it can search for all modes (any modes) that were being used.  More information is at a slightly different URL than the previous one

One thing I've noticed (and confirmed with others) is that PSKReporter doesn't get rid of old spots quite as aggressively as it should.  For example I looked at a plot not as dense as this one but that had plenty of spots of my call over the past two hours even though I hadn't had the radio on for a week.  In the top bar, there was a note that said the newest spots were a week old, but looking at the map, you'd swear they were valid.  Zooming out on that map from above, I see that I was spotted in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Portugal, Denmark and many other countries.  Nope.  I don't believe it.  I don't know how those reports were generated because before I put up the new antenna my old one was useless so I hadn't been on that band/mode for quite a while.  I don't buy that's real for a femtosecond.

A possible replacement for PSKReporter, is a dedicated program - still freeware, donations accepted - called GridTracker.  I asked GridTracker to plot the spots of my station for the past 24 hours and got this:

This agrees with my perception of the activity.  Over and over again, I was hearing mostly Texas, Kansas, Missouri, and the densest areas of that display in the center of the country. 

I expect people in Florida to hear my station, so that doesn't raise suspicions, and while I didn't contact anyone in the upper right of the map (Virginia, PA, NY, MA, NH, etc.) I heard a station in that area a few times, I just had the antenna pointing NW for most of the day. 

GridTracker has to be installed like any other Windows app., and will interface with WSJT-X for things to improve its usefulness.  It's a bit more complex than PSKReporter but this map is more believable.  I haven't used it with any other software besides WSJT-X.

Perhaps the most extreme point is that there's a group of hams who have set up a network of low power transmitters along with receivers to study propagation.  They use a specially designed mode called WSPR (pronounced whisper) and their project is called WSPRnet.  while it's not intended to tell you if your signal is or was audible someplace, it's good at determining if the band is open. 

The amateur community has put up a ton of resources where you can see if a given band is open.  I frequent the one I think of as the grandfather, DXSummit.  The drawback to these spots, though, is that you can't just look at a list and decide you'll be able to hear someone or some area.  I just grabbed this screen capture now, 9:45 PM EST.

Maybe I see that Thailand has been heard and I think, "oh, goody, let me tune to 21.014 MHz - notice the first column, the station reporting hearing Thailand was BG4FQD, and that prefix is on mainland China.  21 MHz is virtually always a daytime band and it's daylight on his end.  The chances I'd hear the same things are pretty much zero.  While you can filter the results DXSummit gives you by band or search for specific calls, you can't say you only want to see spots submitted from your state or call area.  You'll have to do that manually. 

Hope this useful to some who haven't kept up with these advances.  

1 comment:

  1. I think we're running about the same speed, SiG.

    Joe hit the ball outta the park with his software and new modes!