Maintenance Outage Week of 11 November 2018

Mouse pad & mouseIt’s time to relocate the WA0TDA station to a warmer location in the basement. That means there will be occasional outages during the week as I rework the wiring and improve the station grounding and RF shielding. Consider using W0EQO or W0ZSW instead if you find WA0TDA unavailable. 73 – Pat

The State of the Art:  Demographics, meet ARRL

Pat Tice, WAØTDA

Pat, WA0TDA, at HF station during special event

Pat, WA0TDA, at HF station during special event

ARRL has asked the FCC to expand HF privileges for Technician licensees to include limited phone privileges on 75, 40, and 15 meters, plus RTTY and digital mode privileges on 80, 40, 15, and 10 meters.  Here’s why it’s an idea whose time has come.

A visit to a hamfest tells the tale:  Ham radio operators like me (an old dude) have plenty of old dude company.  Oh, sure – there are the ladies and the younger folks, but by and large we are the Boomer generation, and many of us have enjoyed Amateur Radio for decades.  Most of us are definitely NOT new Technician Class ops.

The good news about being in this demographic is that many of us have time to spend on the air or build projects because we are retired.  And by the time we have endured all those years of work and made it to retirement, we mostly are well enough off to afford our radio hobby.  So here we are, Boomers with enough spare change and time to spend it, and we like HF radios.  Is there any down side to this?

Maybe.  Or maybe not. ARRL has been working hard to promote Amateur Radio through traditional media, social media, in public service, and in schools.  But in HF-land our Boomer demographic still prevails, and this means that as the next decade unfolds, there will be some trends to watch.

To understand how Amateur Radio will be affected, we can look at some other interest areas shared by our demographic.  Take large “hog” motorcycles, for example.  The demographic is the same; Boomers with money.  As these motorcyclists age, rides become shorter and less frequent.  Finally the realization dawns that the bike is gathering dust, and (after a brief mourning period) it gets sold.  But Millennials don’t want big bikes.  The market shrinks.  Harley-Davidson sales decline.  The headline in USA Today, “Amid sales drop, Harley-Davidson wants to teach more to ride” (December, 2017) reminds us of the League’s efforts to recruit new hams.

Okay, another interest area is firearms.  Same demographic, and headlines like “Falling Sales Concern Gun Industry – (ABC News, May, 2017).  And what is the remedy?  The report goes on to say, “The gun industry says it’s working hard to attract a new generation of buyers.”  Sounds familiar, right?  It is the same strategy in play for everything from traditional service organizations to industry trade groups and state departments of natural resources – and ham radio.

I’ve enjoyed shooting sports and have motorcycled across the nation, but time does catch up, and we all make practical decisions based on our own circumstances.  Ham radio is still in play for you and me, but things are going to change.  Change is coming to everything from bowling leagues to bicycling clubs and service organizations.  Dealing with it means testing new strategies, and that is what ARRL is doing with its latest petition to expand Tech HF privileges.  Without any change at all, our trajectory is already set, and we can look forward to a steady decline in HF participation.

The future scenario unfolds like this: 

I’m happy with my HF station and use it every day.  My antenna system stretches across the back yard and all is good.  Perhaps I even have a tower and beam for the higher frequencies.  Eventually though, things start to wear out.  A leg of the dipole drops in a storm and needs to be pulled back into place.  The rotor stops turning the beam.  I used to be able to fix those things in an afternoon, but now it’s not so easy to climb the tower, but I can rehang the dipole – for now.

Climbing stairs is getting harder for both me and my wife.  One of us broaches the idea of downsizing to a condo.  I’ll miss having my own antenna farm, but I won’t miss stair climbing, lawn mowing, snow shoveling, and tower climbing.

Do you see where this is going?

Now multiply by the number of Boomers reaching the age – perhaps mid-70s – when all of the same decisions are being mulled at the kitchen table.  Here is my prediction:

  • There will be more used HF equipment on the market as we downsize.
  • More of us will operate HF remote stations (Already happening!)
  • More clubs will follow my local radio club’s lead in providing remote resources for members who cannot have traditional HF stations or who travel south for the winter.
  • HF activity will decline, like motorcycling, bowling, and hunting. The bands already seem “dead” on non-contest weekdays!
  • VHF/UHF repeaters will continue to languish as radio “dead zones” unless they are DMR, Echolink, WIRES, or IRLP-enabled.
  • The HF participation rate among Boomers will continue to decline, even as Tech licensees remain mostly inactive, and many will let their licenses lapse.
  • The “Silent Key” page in QST will continue to grow.

Now, don’t shoot the messenger!  These are demographics, and the changes are inevitable – unless!

…Unless we can engage new licensees in HF operation. 

That is obvious.  We need to tap into an existing pool of mostly inactive hams who find dead repeaters boring and their licenses mostly useless.

Yes, there is some hand-wringing and outrage on social media over this, but remember that ARRL did research this, and no one is in a better position to know the pulse of Amateur Radio than the League.  The objections fall into several categories:

  • “Amateur Radio will be like CB”.   Remember that this petition doesn’t ask for removal of testing requirements.  It proposes more (but still limited) HF privileges for Techs who have already been tested with HF operation in mind via the current question pool structure.
  • “We had to test through multiple levels to get HF phone privileges and they should too!” Seriously?  Nothing has changed in 50 years?  This is the weakest of arguments against virtually anything, since it considers nothing but whether candidates go through the same initiation ritual.  Tradition may be comforting, but in a technical activity like ham radio standards should track the reality of the current situation.
  • “I am dropping my ARRL membership – that’ll show ‘em”. Yikes, this is a bit extreme, especially since the League staff have researched this and come to the conclusion that they have in recommending the petition.  As with any membership organization, it is better to be inside if you want to effect change.  Ironically, when ARRL first promoted the idea of “incentive licensing”, some hotheads reacted exactly the same way.  Some things about human behavior never change, I guess.

Let’s welcome the newcomers to HF phone on frequencies that are unused most days, even when those bands are open.  Let’s work with HF newbies to help them learn the quirks of HF propagation and the best practices of HF operation and digital modes.  Remember, new Techs on the HF bands have roughly the same HF background experience as newly-licensed General Class ops – little to none.  They could all use our help and encouragement.

And thank you, ARRL.

73 – Pat

wa0tda@arrl.net

Split Rock Lighthouse Special Event – W0JH

November 2, 3, 4 2018

For the 14th consecutive year, the Stillwater Amateur Radio Assn. (SARA) will be operating the Remembering the Edmund Fitzgerald from Split Rock Lighthouse Special Event, using the club WØJH callsign.

You can easily work W0JH via remote HF stations W0EQO, W0ZSW, and WA0TDA.

November 10th of this year will be the 43rd anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald with the loss of her entire 29 man crew. We will be operating from the state park grounds of Split Rock Lighthouse in Minnesota (ARLHS USA-783; Grid Square EN47). The Fitz passed Split Rock Lighthouse on her final voyage.

We anticipate having 2 stations on the air operating SSB primarily ~3.860MHz, 7.260MHz, 14.260MHz, & 21.360MHz + or – depending upon band conditions. Once established, one of the stations will likely remain on 20m due to the expected activity. The second station will likely primarily spend most of the time on either 40m, or 75m, but may may show up on 15m, 17m, or even 10m, depending upon conditions and activity. We will have a 3rd station dedicated to digital operation, which will likely be working PSK.

Due to staffing and access times to our operating site, we anticipate being on the air from ~19:00-23:55 UTC on Nov. 2nd and ~15:00-23:55 UTC on Nov. 3rd & 4th.

Confirmations for valid contacts will be a certificate only, that will be sent via email as a pdf and will be sent to the email address from which your request was made.

Full QSL details can be found by looking up WØJH at qrz dot com or check our website at radioham.org

Are the bands open?

The remote responds when you log on.  It’s not tuned to a station, so there is a hiss of background noise, perhaps the crackle of distant thunderstorm static.  

What do you do?  Tune around, of course!  You can either check a specific frequency by entering it using the NUMPAD – say, 10.0 MHz – to see if you can copy WWV time signals, or you can “spin” the virtual tuning knob to check out the band you are already tuned to.

But there is another useful resource for checking out various bands and frequencies easily:  The radio’s memories.  Locate the MEMORIES and bring up the list.  Clicking on each memory frequency will automatically allow you to change bands and modes along with the frequencies.  This assures that you will be listening on the correct sideband when you change bands.  

HF 101: Making the most of the HF bands at solar minimum

HF 101:  Making the most of the HF bands at solar minimum

The IC-7200 station

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since we are teaching the General Class course right now at my local radio club, the anticipation is building for new General operators, and that means getting on the HF bands.  Yes, one can make use of quite a few HF bands with the entry-level Technician Class license, but let’s face it – most newbies buy VHF/UHF handheld radios or mobile rigs and pretty much stick to FM phone operation via repeaters.  The General Class license opens up plenty of other real estate in the frequency spectrum and has for a long time been considered the real portal to HF operation.

So here we are, ready to help new HF operators open that door to all kinds of exciting shortwave contacts and the prospect of direct worldwide communication.  The only problem is…

…the solar minimum.  

As I write this in October 2018, we are at the point in the sun’s average 11 year cycle of activity when the solar disc is mostly free of sunspots.  More sunspot activity near solar maximum is associated with good HF band conditions for ham radio contacts across the globe. At maximum the ionosphere becomes more ionized and the maximum usable frequency (MUF) gets higher.  For example, at solar minimum, the MUF may be disappointingly low, with the 14 MHz band (20 m) being barely usable and all the frequencies above that simply being closed to long distance contacts.

We typically talk about the HF bands using their approximate wavelength, so to avoid confusion let’s recall that the longer the wavelength (higher number), the lower the frequency associated with that band.  Here is how it works out:

Wavelength = Frequency

160 meter band = 1.8 to 2.0 MHz

80/75 meter band = 3.5 to 4.0 MHz

60 meter band = 5.X MHz (channelized)

40 meter band = 7.0 to 7.3 MHz

30 meter band = 10.1 to 10.15 MHz

20 meter band = 14.0 to 14.35 MHz

17 meter band = 18.068 to 18.168 MHz

15 meter band = 21.0 to 21.450 MHz

12 meter band = 24.89 to 24.99 MHz

10 meter band = 28.0 to 29.7 MHz

A complete graphic chart is available at ARRL for download and printing.

General Class licensees will have access to at least some portion of all of the above bands.  Some, like 160 meters and 10 meters, allow Generals the same privileges as Extras! Others, like 20 meters, have specific segments devoted to license class.  Let’s take a look at the two bands that bookend our list: 160 and 10 meters.

Tuning across the 10 meter band at solar maximum can be a delight.  The band is often open to worldwide communication, and because it is one of our most expansive bands, there is plenty of room to call CQ.  At solar minimum that same band is pretty much dead from one end to the other, with a few exceptions when there are local communications via ground wave or when there is summer “sporadic-E” propagation, usually within 1,400 miles.  But trust me on this – the 10 meter band isn’t worth much during solar minimum, and even less in the non-summer months of solar minimum.

The 160 meter band is a different story.  It’s not that affected by the solar cycle and it is at its best in the winter, when the long nights tamp down thunderstorm interference and ionospheric (skip) propagation can allow for long distance contacts.  

Sandwiched between the extremes of the 10 and 160 meter bands are the rest of the HF frequency segments on our list.  As a rule of thumb, those closer to 160 meters are going to be more useful during times near solar minimum, while at solar maximum the bands closer to 10 meters will be the go-to places for worldwide communications.  Bands in the middle, such as 20 and 30 meters, can be useful throughout a solar cycle but will definitely be better at solar max. The 40 meter band is generally open to somewhere 24 hours, but it is not a band with a huge spread of frequencies and it has traditionally been plagued with shortwave broadcast stations.

Let’s cut to the chase.  It’s quite likely that a newcomer to HF will be disappointed with the static and noise across the spectrum.  You need a strategy to get through solar minimum. Here’s what I suggest:

  • If you don’t hear anything but noise when tuning across various bands, don’t assume that you are doing something wrong.  Occasionally geomagnetic storms do engulf the Earth, even at solar minimum, and they can close all of the bands. Be patient and conditions will improve, usually in 12-24 hours.  
  • Try the 160, 80/75, and 40 meter bands, especially when the popular 20 meter band seems dead.  
  • Certain bands, especially 160 and 80/75 meters, are best at night.  Daytime (especially in the summer) is especially bad on these bands, but they do open up at night as the sun goes down.  Plan to do more of your operating on them in the evening or early morning.
  • Even if you don’t have an antenna that will tune for transmitting on 160 meters, you can still use whatever antenna you have to receive on that band.  Tune across the band to find out if you can hear other stations. Use the same strategy for 80/75 meters and 40 meters.
  • Wire antennas are your friend at solar minimum.  If you can put up a wire antenna that can be tuned to transmit in the 80/75 and 40 meter bands, you are almost guaranteed to make contacts.  160 meters is a bit tougher, since as the wavelength gets longer, so does the ideal length of the antenna. There are ways around this, like adding a coil of wire to increase the electrical length of a shorter wire antenna.
  • Vertical antennas can be base-loaded with a coil to increase their electrical length, allowing them to tune on 160, 80/75, and 40 meters.  Almost any yard can accommodate a vertical antenna.
  • Consider using an HF remote station, using the free RCForb software from Remotehams.com.  Both stations W0EQO and W0ZSW, maintained by SARA volunteers, have wire antennas that can tune 160 through 6 meters.  SARA members and Handiham members may request transmit access to these stations. I also give remote transmit access to my own station, WA0TDA, to operators who have at least a General license and who request it.  Remote HF can be another useful tool in your ham radio toolbox, useful for bands where your own antenna won’t tune or a way to get on the air when you are traveling.
  • Use the internet for information on space weather and band conditions.  Two sites I recommend are Spaceweather.com and the N0NBH Solar site.  If you have an Amazon Echo, you can enable the propagation report skill via the Alexa app, then you will be able to get the N0NBH report by saying, “Alexa, start propagation report”.   The N0MBH solar report is also available on many ham radio websites, including QRZ.com.
  • Take advantage of club nets, on the air get-togethers, and special events on the air.  There will be more stations on during these times, increasing your chances of making more contacts.

I hope these strategies are useful to you as you begin to explore the HF bands.  This particular solar minimum (2017 through 2021) has so far been pretty hard on band conditions.  Don’t be discouraged, though – openings can happen anytime, and the more familiar you become with the various bands, the more contacts you will make.  

Now, get out there and have fun on the air!

WA0TDA Station Updates: CW function returns with new host PC

As CW users have noticed, the CW feature has been absent at WA0TDA for a while.  It has returned to service with the upgrade to a new host computer, a new mini-PC from Amazon:

“N34 Mini PC Celeron Processor 4GB DDR3 RAM, 64GB eMMC, DIY SSD, Ultra HD 4K Intel Quad Core CPU up to 2.2GHz, 4W SDP, 1000M LAN, Dual Band WiFi, BT 4.0, HDMI&VGA”

This new PC comes with Windows 10 installed, but Linux is also an option.

Mini-PC

Mini PC: Host computer for WA0TDA HF remote