That’s Not Real Ham Radio

Things had been pretty quiet on the ham front lately but then I ran into a string of “That’s Not Real Ham Radio” discussions. This happens from time to time…I usually ignore it…but this time I got sucked into the topic.

It started with some HF enthusiasts I know talking about how “digital modes” are just not very satisfying. Their point is that with CW and SSB, there is an audio connection to your ear that makes you an integral part of the radio communication. The extreme-DSP modes such as JT65 insert serious signal processing that essentially removes the human connection.  This can quickly lead to the generalization that these digital modes “aren’t real ham radio.”

I think its fair to say that most hams think of the HF bands as the center of the hobby…getting on the air, bouncing signals off the ionosphere to talk to someone over the horizon. Some hams will go even further and say that CW is the only way to go. Anything less is just phone. FM and repeaters? Forget that stuff…not enough skill required. And certainly, don’t get stuck on 2 meters.

In a previous post, I argued we should not confuse religion with modulation. I do occasionally make snarky comments about the continued use of AM (AKA Ancient Modulation), but I’ve tried to tone that down in recent years.

What About DMR?

Just last week, I was playing around with a DMR hotspot on the Brandmeister network. It really struck me that people on the system were having a blast talking to each other across North America and around the world. But then that nagging little voice in the back of my head said “hey, wait a minute…this is not real DX…the RF signal might only be traveling 20 feet or so from an HT to a hotspot.”

This caused me to put out a plea for insight on twitter:

I received a lot of good replies with the answers tending to clump into these three categories:

  • I don’t know (“That’s Not Real Ham Radio”)
  • It’s fun, new technology
  • It’s a digital network that brings ham radio operators together

My interest seems to fall into the second category: this is fun, new technology. Which does make me wonder how long this new technology will remain interesting to me. Well, that is difficult to predict but I’ll invoke the principle of try not to overthink it. The idea that DMR is a digital network that brings ham radio operators together makes some sense. In the past, I have argued that amateur radio is not for talking. In other words, if you just want to talk someone, there are much more convenient ways of doing that. Still, there is something attractive about this ham-radio-only digital network.

It really is important to not overthink this kind of stuff. Ham radio is supposed to be fun, so if you are having fun, you are probably doing it right. If you are not having fun, then you might want to examine what you are doing. See my post on the Universal Purpose of Amateur Radio.

Sometimes hams can get a little spun up about those other guys that don’t appreciate our way of doing ham radio. What the heck is wrong with them anyway? I’ve always been inspired by the Noise Blankers Mission Statement:

Do radio stuff.
Have fun doing it.
Show people just how fun it is.

If your preferred form of ham radio is so superior, it ought to be easy to show other hams how cool it is. If not, then maybe you aren’t doing it right. Conversely, as long as other hams are having fun and operating legally, don’t knock what they are doing. In fact, encourage them. We need more people having fun with ham radio, even if it’s not your favorite kind of fun.

That’s my opinion. What do you think?

73, Bob K0NR

DX, Artificial Scarcity and The List

dxEconomists see scarcity, supply and demand as fundamental forces in a market. Items that are scarce demand a higher price while items that are easy to obtain tend to have a lower price.  A diamond is an example of something that is relatively scarce (and in demand) so it commands a high price. In contrast, wood is generally available and is much less expensive than diamonds.

Then there’s the concept of artificial scarcity. If some items can be made scarce (or even just appear scarce), the price will tend to increase. For example, if I own all of the banana trees on an isolated island, I could reduce the available supply of bananas and command a higher price from all of the banana eaters there. Or maybe I start screening bananas for quality and I put a special sticker on them to brand them as special.

bananaWe have a case of artificial scarcity in ham radio, called the DXCC list. This list defines what is considered a separate country when chasing DX. (Actually, the correct term is entity, not country.) For example, Hawaii (KH6) and Alaska (KL7) are considered separate entities even though they are part of the United States. (See Is Alaska a Country?) For someone chasing DXCC entities, because Alaska is on The List, a radio contact with Alaska becomes more desirable. It’s kind of like putting a “premium sticker” on a banana to indicate that it is special.

In my imagination, the DXCC list resulted from a bunch of hams sitting around drinking beer and bragging about how many countries they had worked. One guy, Larry says he just worked Hawaii, bringing his total to 125 countries. His buddy Leroy says, “You can’t count Hawaii because it’s part of the US of A.”  To which Larry says, “You bet I can count Hawaii…and Texas too. It’s a whole ‘nuther country.” Clearly, we are going to need an official list to keep track of what counts as a country.  A more credible version of how the list got established is captured in this article from the October 1935 QST.

Of course, the two main factors that drive scarcity of DXCC entities is the ham radio population and ease of access. Radio contacts are easy to make with entities that have an active ham population. If an entity doesn’t have many active hams but is easy to get to, someone will probably put that location on the air once in a while.  On the other hand, some locations are unpopulated and really difficult to get to. These are not only on The List, they are on The Most Wanted List.

Kingman Reef (KH5) was just deleted from The List, instantly changing it from one of the most desired contacts in amateur radio to a big giant Why Bother. You see, there used to be 340 countries on the list but now there’s only 339. Kingman Reef will now be considered part of Palmyra/Jarvis, so it still has value for DXCC, just a lot less.

As I write this article, there is a major DXpedition (VKØEK) operating from Heard Island, an unpopulated island near Antartica. The only reason those guys are there is that Heard Island is on The List. Take a look at their web site and you’ll see how much time and energy has gone into activating this lonely island. Drop it from the list and suddenly a radio contact with this location is a lot less in demand.

So try to keep this all in perspective. There are lots of radio contacts out there to be made, some more interesting and desirable than others. It is appropriate and necessary that we have the DXCC list, to provide consistency in how we count countries, I mean entities. But really, it all traces back to Larry and Leroy arguing about who worked the most countries.

Thanks to the dedicated DXpeditioners that put these rare locations on the air.

73, Bob K0NR

V29RW: Slacker DXpedition to Antigua

Recently, I had another opportunity to take ham radio along on vacation to a Caribbean island, this time to Antigua. This was not a super-gonzo turbo-charged DXpedition. I just worked in some radio action in between snorkeling and beach walking. This is referred to as a “holiday style” DXpedition, or maybe it’s just the slacker approach.

qsl card beach
V29RW QSL Card

Radio Equipment

The radio gear needed to fit easily into my luggage. After all, we’ve got snorkel gear to take along. I wanted to put out a healthy signal from the island, so I rejected the idea of running QRP, opting instead for a 100W transmitter. Ultimately, I chose to take a Yaesu FT-991 which is full-power and full-featured but still relatively compact. It easily fit into my carry-on bag along with some other items. Having a built-in antenna tuner was a real plus and it was also good to have the 2m and 70 cm bands.

operating position
Patio operating position with FT-991 and logging computer

Choosing an antenna was a critical item. My first thought was to take my Buddistick antenna which covers the HF bands I was interested in working: 20m, 17m, 15m and 10m. I used that antenna from the Virgin Islands and it was really handy for taking to the beach. This time I wanted something bigger under the theory that size does matter. On the other hand, I wasn’t going to take full size yagis for each of the bands. I finally settled in on using End-Fed Half Wave (EFHW) antennas for the 4 bands (from LNR Precision). This gave me a simple half-wave antenna on each band with no coils, no traps, nothing funny going on. These antennas radiate well and have decent bandwidth…any SWR degradation can be tweaked up quickly using the FT-991 antenna tuner.

antenna pole
End-fed half-wave antenna supported by SOTABeams pole

Steve WGØAT suggested I use the SOTABEAMS 30-foot mast to support the EFHW antennas. It is an incredible mast that collapses to 26.5 inches, small enough to fit into my bag. This antenna set up is common with the SOTA activators: EFHW supported by some kind of lightweight pole. I also tossed in a 19-inch magmount antenna for 2m and 70cm. (I did find a good repeater on on 147.0 MHz but did not spend much time on it.)

end fed half wave
Close up of the EFHW antenna matching network

Rounding out the kit was an Astron switching power supply, a 25-foot length of RG-8X coaxial cable, a Heil Traveler headset and a few patch cords. I found it tempting to keep throwing more stuff in the bag so I adopted the backpacker mentality of taking just what I needed and not much more. For computer logging, I chose N1MM Plus software, with the log type set to “DX”.

I have to confess that I did manage to break the 30-foot mast early in the trip. The house was on a hill and we always had a strong breeze coming through. One day it flexed the mast enough to break it. This was quickly repaired with duct tape. After that, I did not use the 3 top sections of the mast which reduced the amount of sway in the wind (and stress on the mast).

On The Air

Bob K0NR
Bob KØNR operating as V29RW in Antigua

My operating time was a bit sporadic and my operating strategy was simple: work the highest band (of 20m, 17m, 15m and 10m) that had some decent propagation to somewhere. Antigua is not extremely rare but it seemed to attract attention. Typically, I called CQ, worked a few stations and then a big pileup would develop. I made lots of QSOs with stations in North America, South America and Europe. I also made a few contacts into Africa but none with Asia. Signal reports were generally good (S9 +), so the antennas were doing the job.

All in all, I was pleased with the contacts I made, given the slacker effort. I especially enjoyed working 17m, a band I have not spent that much time on. The propagation is similar to 20m but noticeably less jammed with signals.

  Band  QSOs DXCC
    14   309   36
    18   162   13
    21    21   10
    28    91    6
 Total   583   65

QSLs for V29RW should be sent to my home callsign: KØNR (direct or via the bureau). Logbook of the World contacts have already been confirmed. Instant gratification, baby!

73, Bob KØNR, V29RW

Licensing info: It was relatively easy to get a ham radio license in Antigua, based on my US license (fees were $30 US). See this web page.

16 Mar 2016: V29RW QSLs have been sent out via US mail based on cards received