Saturday, June 15, 2024

A Little Ham Radio Backstory

Since the only space-related stories I can come across today aren't really "news" in the "man bites dog" or unexpected sense, but more routine and even expected stories like Starliner's stay on the ISS is being extended again from Tuesday, June 18 to Saturday June 22, I thought I'd relay a little story of my ham radio related stuff.  

If you're not interested in ham radio geekdom, have a nice day and check back tomorrow. 

Those of you who are also hams have probably figured out by now (possibly by my saying it) that I'm kind of a "wallpaper chaser" - going after honestly nearly-meaningless accomplishments like working all the US states, or the DX Century Club (DXCC), which is confirmed contacts with 100 countries. Any one of those certificates, with $5 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. With the exception that it's not the paper itself I'm pursuing, it's the accomplishment itself. I don't have a lot of that wallpaper in the radio room, but one of the first few posts (post #6) on the blog was about what I called my Lifetime Achievement Award in Ham Radio, 5BDXCC, short for Five Band DXCC. 

This November, nearly 14 years later, I've another three bands up to 8BDXCC and I'm more than halfway to my ninth band.  Why 14 years? A combination of things including not having made up my mind to chase it.

The ninth band where I'm currently around 60% of the way to DXCC is the VHF band at 50 MHz, called 6 meters, which used to be just below VHF TV channel 2 in the PD days (Pre-Digital TV). In terms of the other most common paper that people chase on 6, WAS (or Worked All States), I have all states confirmed except for Alaska, and they're the hardest state to get from Florida. With every Florida station I've spoken with, Hawaii or Alaska are the last ones they ever get to complete WAS. (I posted the story of how I got Hawaii last November)

There's another piece of paper that is unique to 6m named for the guy who was the first person to define and achieve it, Fred Fish. It's the Fred Fish Memorial Award, or FFMA, and depends on something non-hams won't know. The world is divided into what are called Maidenhead Grids, that are 1 degree in latitude by 2 degrees in longitude. That means the US is divided into a lot of these grid squares, and to achieve the FFMA requires confirmed contacts with all of the grid squares in the lower 48 contiguous states. There are 488 of these grid squares. Some of them are in big states but have very little population, some of them have very, very little dry land.

When I started playing on 6m, I was dimly aware of the FFMA, and got a paper map like this from Icom at a hamfest. I put 1 and 1 together and started checking off the grid squares that I worked. I never gave a thought to chasing the FFMA, but within a fairly short time, patterns started to emerge in what I worked. 

If you look at the protruding land on Florida's east coast, Cape Canaveral, you'll see the number 98. To the left of that, in the Gulf south of Louisiana, you'll see the much larger font EL. Those are put together, with letters first, and called grid EL98. That's where I live, but fairly close to the dividing line with EL97. I started making marks on this paper map to keep track of activity: a single mark meant Worked, and a second mark was added when it was Confirmed. Within a short time of doing this, I started to see a large arc. At the north, it was around where the large red squares marked EM and FM touched EN and FN respectively. To the west, it tended to arc south from around Indiana into Texas. Slowly and gradually more of the grid squares filled in, affected by (1) radio propagation distances and (2) population density. No matter how good the propagation, if nobody lives or travels there, you're not going to get a contact.

This past fall, I watched a video by a ham in Arizona on how he decided to pursue the FFMA and went from having around 100 grid squares to the full 488 in "under 1500 days" - just over four years. His way of approaching the task was very much like the way I think of doing things, and before I knew it, I was gathering information and starting down the road. I had an advantage starting over him - he had 100 grids confirmed. I had a little over 200 confirmed, like maybe 225, but his station was better than mine to start with and he did some additional improvements I'm not likely to be able to do.

Well, it seems that I've used up a lot of space without once getting to the story I wanted to tell tonight, about the reality of the propagation we're getting as we go into the peak years of this solar cycle. I've noted several people saying they think it's the worst spring through June they can recall. It seems that way to me as well.

Stay tuned for a part 2.


  1. I wouldn't call those awards meaningless. They represent a lot of time and effort, particularly in the previous solar cycle, and also without JT65 and FT8.

    I have mixed feelings about those modes. I'm duly impressed with the technology, and I recently heard about a ham who was unable to enjoy the hobby due to various old-age problems, who got on the air again with FT8, and was thrilled. But when the challenges of propagation, signal quality, and station quality mostly go away, it seems to diminish the sense of achievement. At least to me.

    1. The ability to complete contacts at low signal to noise ratios that those modes have is absolutely essential, but they're not something that people used to hearing voices, tone changes, or inflections like. I read a pretty big number of people dead set against the digital modes saying they'd quit if it was all there was.

      An alternative for people who want longer contacts and conversations is JS8, which uses the same signal decoding approaches, but is more open-ended and conversational. The thing is that there's a bunch of other digital modes that are completely conversational, even with error correction. I did a story on some of those here.

    2. Jed,

      Many hams live in a high noise environments or don't have the acreage/income to put up full wave length resonant antennas for all bands.

      But the ability to have an exchange at lower power with digital modes with a small or portable station is a blessing.

      The many of that same people that fight against digital modes were the same people that insisted CW should be a requirement in the 21st century. (Not counting the 80m and 160m AM operators running a full studio/semi-broadcast setup...)

  2. I don't chase paper or do contesting, but I admire many that do, because they are some of the best hams I've met as far as knowledge and station building.

  3. One of the more common myths that I read online is that WSJT-X, the program most people use for FT8, MSK144 and all, is for "weak signals" so nobody should run anything other than QRP powers with it. Nobody should run a 100 W transmitter, let alone an amplifier.

    Any transmitter power, ANY transmitter power, presents weak enough signals at far enough distances, depending on several factors. The biggest, most obvious one is path loss, which goes hand in hand with the other one: propagation. Most people think of propagation as an on/off switch; it's either there or it isn't. Think of meteor scatter and that MSK144 mode. You get more reflected to the other stations if you start out with more power. Low power might require a really big meteor particle, high power might get your signal there with a smaller, more typical size meteor particle.

    The FCC complicated things (it's their job, like all agencies) by saying we're supposed to use the lowest power necessary to complete the contact. The only way to know that is to invent some mode that monitors Signal to Noise Ratios, decides your signal is some number stronger than it needed to be that time, transmits to your station saying to drop the signal that number of dB and that repeats on every transmission both ways. Propagation and path loss vary with time, and if it tells your transmitter to drop, say 6 dB (1 S-unit on most meters) and your transmitter does that, path loss could have gone up and they no longer hear you. Does your transmitter increase power until you complete the contact - or run out of range it can increase?

    It's pretty much a meaningless regulation.

    In my view of the world you and I have no right to tell someone to reduce or increase their power. An upper power limit is fine.

  4. Congrats on 5BDXCC, SiG! That takes a lot of patience and skill. I enjoy working DX, but prefer rag chewing to actively pursuing it. One of my friends in SoCal made DXCC on 6M, and it took him 20-some years. I don't paper chase, but I do enjoy working special event stations like Museum Ships Weekend, Thirteen Colonies, and others.
    I'm with Jed on FT8 and digital modes. I appreciate the technology, and marvel at being able to decode signals that I can't hear. They definitely have a place in Amateur Radio, but it just lacks something. I was hugely into Packet Radio back in the 90's , and remember being thrilled that I could send a question, and get a reply, from the East Coast within minutes. Then the Internet came along, and pretty much nuked a solid, reliable, world-wide, all-radio network. I was big on PSK31 before most people had heard of it, and liked the feel of a keyboard-to-keyboard QSO.
    Oh well, technology marches on and I still enjoy the Olde Skool approach.
    Happy Father's Day!

  5. I've just gotten back into DXing. it's fun and it can be a challenge. While I've enjoyed DXing casually over the years, I'll do a mixture of chasing and just ambling across the bands. I do enjoy the challenge of figuring out the propagation, designing, and building an antenna to make the contact. Sometimes they can chat and sometimes they cannot. Bob Locher's book is a good read on DXing. While I won't spend large amounts of money to do so, I will chase DX a bit more than previously. It's just plain fun.

    I didn't realize you're a ham, one more reason to read you.