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Monday, April 22, 2019

Still Puzzled About HF Propagation?

Deciphering a Propagation Report

Richard VE2XIP has an informative blog on a variety of Amateur Radio subjects. Among the areas he covers is a very good primer on HF Propagation. I know this subject can be a difficult one to grasp, especially for beginners—even the more experienced have challenges in this area.

Richard writes: 

“The very first thing I noticed when I got interested in propagation was a vast number of websites displaying charts and grids related to HF propagation conditions, but I didn’t really understand them at first. There are more types of measurements about the Sun’s activities than most care to understand, but there are a few ones that are very important to learn if you want to be able to understand a propagation reports.”

Have a look at the document. It’s at URL: https://www.qsl.net/co8tw/Understanding%20HF%20propagation.pdf

Thursday, April 18, 2019

About Dummy Load PCBs and Oil

A Communicator Reprise: October 2014

Make a quick test to see if there is a problem

I picked up on a recent story that had some local input:

A while ago I bought an old Heath dummy load... full of oil. My main concern was whether the oil in it contained PCB's. Being an  older item I couldn't be sure. Since there is no way to tell by colour or odour I decided to research it further. What I found was a couple of simple tests that don't require any special equipment or chemicals and any one can do at home.

The first test is for PCB's in the oil, called a density test. Put a few drops of the oil in question in a glass of water. If the oil floats or spreads out on the top of the water it's free of PCB's. If it sinks then the oil contains PCB's. Since PCB's are heavier than water they will sink. Mineral oil is lighter and will float. However if any are detected this test doesn't tell the concentration amount.

The second test is a chlorine presence test. This test checks for chlorine in the oil to determine PCB presence.

This test is done by taking a piece of copper wire, dipping it into the oil and holding the wire over a flame such as a propane torch. Observe the color change of the flame. If the flame starts to turn green or blue green then PCB's are present. If the flame remains orange none are present.

The oil in my dummy load passed both tests. I changed it anyway because it smelled funny.

I can remember back when car AC systems were leak tested with a propane flame on a special wand. If the flame turned green, you were close to the leak area. I would imagine since refrigerant oils back then contained PCB's the same type of test was used. Later replaced by putting dye in the system and checking with a UV lamp.

So if any one ever wanted to know what might be in that old dummy load you brought back from the ham fest now is you chance to satisfy your curiosity.

The North Shore Amateur Radio Club also ran an article in their newsletter. Our own John Brodie VA7XB responded:

"In my previous job, I dealt with many PCB issues over the years. 
PCB is heavier than water, so a drop of it in water will sink, unlike mineral oil. That makes for a pretty simple test to determine if it is PCB or not.
PCB is only “carcinogenic” in the sense that 50% of all chemicals, man-made or natural, are “carcinogenic” under extreme laboratory conditions which have little or no relevance to real life. 

At BC Railways, we usually took our PCB  containing transformers and oil-filled capacitors to Powertech labs (an offshoot of BC Hydro) they had a process for destroying it."

John White VA7JW adds: 

"You are not supposed to use motor oil as it is not made to have electrical insulating properties, probably has a low flash point, is flammable, and “sticky" which is not wanted either." 

With thanks to WB2NGX, John Brodie VA7XB and John White VA7JW, who wrote an excellent article on the topic: http://www.orcadxcc.org/content/cantenna_va7jw.pdf

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Can Shortwave Radios Detect Earthquakes?

A New Tool To Assist Earthquake Prediction?

The RF Seismograph: Another Exciting Amateur Radio First

Alex Schwarz VE7DXW, presented his findings at the SARC April 2019 monthly general meeting. Alex is exploring the possibility that “RF signatures” detected by the RF Seismograph propagation tool could also be indicating earthquakes, and may even be able to predict them shortly before they occur; one or two hours appear likely. A real-time HF propagation-monitoring tool developed by Schwarz and the MDSR team, the RF Seismograph shows both band noise and activity or band activity alone on six HF bands. It’s a project of the North Shore Amateur Radio Club (NSARC).

It has been documented for some time that major geological movements create magnetic waves. These magnetic waves interact with RF and manifest themselves as disturbances that are received on HF. Alex had been monitoring propagation intending to study the effects of the last solar eclipse. His finding showed a correlation with earthquake activity and the RF Seismograph was born. Basically, this is a broadband HF receiver monitoring a large range of frequencies. 

The RF-Seismograph’s recent discovery that Earthquakes can be detected using a RF-receiver are intriguing and it validates a lot of new research that claims that earthquakes also create a magnetic field that extends into the Ionosphere and causes changes that can be measured with a cluster of GPS receivers.

The RF-Seismograph team has been collaborating with Earthquakes Canada to find a correlation between HF propagation and earthquakes. There was a distinct event that occurred on Nov 1st  (M5.0 off the coast of Vancouver Island) which was detected by the RF-Seismograph an hour before. Of course an hour warning before a major earthquake is significant.  There is process underway to correlate earthquakes that are bigger than M6.0 with the 4 years of data accumulated so far. 

“We had been doing the solar eclipse experiment, and we developed the RF Seismograph software to look for changes in propagation during the eclipse,” Schwarz explained. “After the eclipse, we decided to leave the RF Seismograph running, and we have now collected 4 years of data.”

The system uses an omnidirectional multiband antenna to monitor JT-65 frequencies (±10 kHz) on 80, 40, 30, 20, 15, and 10 meters. Recorders monitor the background noise and display the result in six color-coded, long-duration graphs displaying 6 hours of scans. When signals are present on a band, its graph trace starts to resemble a series of vertical bars.

Most recently, the RF Seismograph recorded the magnitude 7.5 earthquake in Ecuador on February 22. Schwarz recounted that noise on 15 meters began to be visible about 1 hour before the quake; then, 2 hours after the quake released, 15 meters started to recover. The US Geological Survey said the quake was about 82 miles below ground. It did not affect 80 meters. Schwarz speculated that the quake was easy to see on the RF Seismograph because 15 meters typically is not open during hours of darkness — especially when the solar flux is only 70

Following a magnitude 5.0 earthquake off the coast of Vancouver Island, his RF Seismograph picked up changes. Canada’s government-run Earthquakes Canada was able to provide Schwarz with a list of magnitude 6.0 or greater events since the RF Seismograph went into operation, and the two teams have been collaborating to find a correlation between HF propagation anomalies and earthquakes. With the measurements, Schwarz has been attempting find a correlation between the list of past geological events and what his RF Seismograph may have sensed on those occasions.

“The earthquakes show up as RF noise because of the electric field lines, now scientifically confirmed to change the way the ionosphere reflects RF,” Schwarz said. He cited an article in the October 2018 edition of Scientific American, which, he says, “explains it really well.” (See Erik Vance’s “Earthquakes in the sky,” Scientific American, October 2018, p. 44).

The Scientific American article explores measurements in Japan looking into how earthquakes can create electric field lines that extend into the atmosphere. “Could they be used to detect earthquakes before they cause damage on the planet?” Schwarz asks.

Schwarz said 171 earthquakes — all magnitude 6.0 events or greater — were studied, and only 15 of them had no RF noise associated with them. In 26 cases, the time of the disturbance detected by the RF Seismograph failed to match the USGS-reported time of the quake. The latter likely because of the current low solar cycle and poor propagation.

Schwarz said that in 72% of the earthquake studies, the RF Seismograph was able to detect an increase in noise on 80 meters, typically before and after the event.

“More analysis is needed,” Schwarz has concluded. “The study is still continuing and we need your help to set up more monitoring stations.”

RF Seismograph is now a project on Scistarter.com, facilitated through Arizona State University. Schwarz said Scistarter hosts “interesting projects for all ages and backgrounds” and “provides a vehicle for young people that are interested in science to get real live experience in this field.”

Contact Schwarz for additional information.  

A video of Alex's presentation is available at: https://youtu.be/Wz0ZkWXkIow

The presentation slides are at: http://nsarc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/RF-Seismograph-detects-Earthquakes-Markup.pdf

Alex’s site: http://users.skynet.be/myspace/mdsr/index.html

Partial post content courtesy of http://www.arrl.org/news/ve7dxw-s-rf-seismograph-may-be-real-seismograph

Friday, April 12, 2019

So You Want To Learn CW?

A Communicator Reprise: October 2014

Periodically I hear fellow hams say they would like to learn CW. Recently I heard yet another ham say he would like to learn CW since we get twice as many Field Day points for CW contacts than for phone contacts. He suggested the club should help members learn.

At the September club general meeting, a quick survey showed that six members present were capable of operating at 15 words/min (wpm) or better, one was capable of 5 wpm, and six members were interested but had not yet learned CW. Clearly there is some interest in CW, and particularly in learning CW. If all those interested were to reach at least 15 wpm we could double our cadre of CW operators. If those who can operate at 15-20 wpm raised their proficiency to 25 wpm, we could significantly increase our contact rate in CW contests (like Field Day).

Back when I first got my licence (mid-1960s), being able to send and receive CW at 10 words per minute (wpm) was a requirement to earn a ham radio operator certificate. Ham classes at that time had a session where the instructor sent code and the class "copied" it.

Today, however, the inefficient teaching-intensive way I first learned code is unnecessary.  I started learning again, almost from scratch, in late 2011 after being away from ham radio for nearly 35 years. The first thing I discovered is the wide range of excellent resources now available via the internet. I’m convinced that, by making good use of the (largely free) materials available on the internet, anyone who can read and write can learn CW to the 20 wpm level, if they are prepared to work at it. All that might be needed is a little advice on "how to get started”, which I felt I could provide based on my own recent experience.  And so this article was born.

Keep in mind that these are my personal recommendations, based on my own personal experience. Looking on the internet you’ll find all kinds of articles telling you how to learn CW. Some of them may be helpful to you. The tools and techniques I discuss here worked for me.

Why CW?

CW is magic.
Since changing my operation from SSB (and some digital) to almost exclusively CW, I’ve added stations to my log from all over the US, the Pacific, and the occasional contact in Europe.

Now, if I had done this using a tower and beam antenna, running the usual 100 watts, this wouldn’t be even worth mentioning. Even if I pointed out that I was working stations in high demand (like the W1AW portable stations, and TX6G, a DXpedition on the Austral Islands), where I generally had to “bust a pile-up”, there would be nothing worth writing about. If, that is, I had been using a beam and 100 watts.

But I hadn’t. I had been running a simple “end-fed half wave” wire antenna, less than 10m above ground at its highest point, and using my KX3 portable transceiver set for 5 watts output.

The type of setup I use (QRP transceiver with simple wire antenna) could be within reach of many, or even most of you, and the low power avoids almost all problems with interference to your neighbours’ badly constructed (but high-cost) TVs.
But did I really mean I could contact Florida on 5 watts? Yes—confirmed on ARRL’s Logbook of the World, along with Hawaii, Japan, Austral Islands, New Zealand, Aland Island (Finland), Guam—all on 5 watts.  To top it off, my KX3 radio, with antenna, packs into a medium sized lunch bag and runs on an internal battery pack that holds 8 rechargeable AA cells. Perfect for an afternoon’s operation in a park. Although only a mediocre operator, using just 5 watts into a length of wire hung from a tree, I’ve been able to routinely bust pile-ups of more powerful stations who were using more elaborate (and expensive) antennas.

But, of course, I was using CW. Did I mention CW is magic?

It was this magic quality of CW that convinced me to get back into CW after 35 years away from ham radio. The three primary benefits to me are:

  1. More contacts, and at greater distances, at any power level (extremely important in a contest).
  2. DX contacts at low power (very important for QRP enthusiasts, who limit themselves to 5 watts of power output).
  3. Less use of band space, so more room to find a slot in which to operate when the bands are crowded (something we're increasingly likely to see on the lower HF bands as we slide down the backside of the sunspot cycle over the next few years).

CW, because it is just on and off, puts out the radio's full power (100 W for example) when it's on. SSB, on the other hand, puts out an amount of power that increases as the voice loudness increases (to 100 W maximum in our example, and usually much less).
Further, on SSB we need to carry the "frequency range of information" in human speech, which is roughly 2500 Hz (receive filters 2100 to 2800 Hz wide are typical). CW, on the other hand, is "carrier on, carrier off”, and needs only a couple of hundred Hz bandwidth (receive filters 200 to 400 Hz wide are typical).

So, put crudely, with SSB we are sprinkling our “up to 100 W” over about 10 times the frequency range of our “full 100 W” CW.  The tight filtering with CW means the receiver passes through less atmospheric noise (QRN) and man-made interference (QRM). All of this makes for more "punch" in a CW signal at the receiver. And that’s why it’s possible to bust pile-ups using 5 W into a simple wire antenna.

You Can Do It–If You Truly Want To

I've always liked Nike's slogan: "Just Do It". It sums up for me the one problem I've so often seen, in myself and others, that keeps people from doing something they say they want to do: lack of commitment.

CW is often seen as intimidating. Certainly, anyone who wants to do it is going to have to work at it. No one else can learn it for them. Basic capability in CW will require (based on my own recent journey to date) 2-3 years of a minimum of ½ hour of practice each day (best split over two sessions).  How do I define "basic capability"? Being able to participate in most CW contests and being able to hold a reasonably satisfying on-air CW conversation with another ham at speeds of 15-20 wpm.

It's actually not difficult to continue this level of commitment if one is serious at the start and keeps at it. It has been said that habits can be formed quickly with serious initial effort. CW practice will have to become a habit. But the progress becomes very enjoyable once the 10 wpm threshold is reached.

So before reading further, ask yourself if you really want to learn CW. You will not succeed if you are not willing to work at it over an extended period. Better to be honest with yourself and stop saying (or thinking) you want to. You aren't going to dream yourself into becoming a CW operator any more than you dreamed yourself into reading and writing a language. But if you really want to learn CW to the level of basic capability, here are some of the tools and techniques I've found helpful in my own journey back into CW after some 35 years away from the radio.

Learning to Copy CW

Now that you are convinced that CW is worth the effort (you are, aren't you?), and you've examined your schedule to find a spare half hour a day (you have, haven't you?), how can you get started?

Just as with human speech, there are two actions to CW: sending and receiving. And, just as with human speech, listening is more important than sending.  So we start with listening, or "copying" as it's generally called. (I will cover learning to send in a future article.)

The first thing to keep firmly in mind is that CW is received by your brain as sound. Many experts have pointed out that learning the characters as patterns of dots and dashes on paper is inefficient and ineffective. It is far better, from the start, to learn the characters only as sounds if you are ever to become comfortable with CW. Start there until you have learned at least the simple, common characters: “e”, “i”, “s”, “t”, “m”, “o”, “a”, “n”, “r”, and “k”.

The next step is to drill using the “Koch” method, which presents a few characters at a time, adding characters until all letters, numbers, and common punctuation have been learned. Once you start with the Koch method, you can continue to learn new characters as you go.

To learn using the Koch technique I found a very helpful (and free) program called “Morse Machine” at G4ILO’s website: http://www.g4ilo.com/morse-machine.html (Look at the bottom of the page.)

Morse Machine teaches Morse using the Koch Method.  Characters are presented in a prescribed sequence and the user types the appropriate key on the computer keyboard to indicate they recognize the letter. Initially only a few characters are presented, but as you prove you have mastered these, the program adds further characters until you know the full list of letters, numbers, and critical punctuation. A bar chart graphical display shows your progress. The slowest the program will send is 20wpm, so it prepares you well for the future stages in your learning. Keep drilling until you can work through the entire sequence with few errors. Practice at least ½ hour a day, if possible in two sessions a few hours apart. I used this program a great deal in the beginning, and it was grueling. But it worked.

Once all the characters are known, I believe the next step should be to start copying actual language (as opposed to random letter groups). There are many sources of computer-generated code, with perfect timing of the sound of each character, and perfect spacing between the characters. It is essential at this point that you learn the sound of perfect CW. You will be training your brain to recognize perfect code, and building a memory of how good code sounds which will be invaluable when you begin learn sending.

I find the ARRL code practice files very helpful. These can be found here:

Files are available for speeds from 5 wpm to 40 wpm, so can be valuable whatever your experience level. The text is taken from past issues of QST magazine. Each mp3 file containing the transmitted code is accompanied by a text file containing the associated text, which will be your “answer sheet”. Don’t bother with speeds below 10 wpm—you must learn to copy at speeds that are useful in the real world.

Once you have listened to a few of these files, you will begin to recognize the sounds of common sequences of letters as single elements (sort of like “super-characters”). The first of these for me was “the”, which is not only a word in its own right, but the root of many other words such as “then”, “there”, “their”, “these”, etc. This “letter group” recognition is very important to being able to increase your copying speed to 20 wpm and beyond, and is a benefit of starting to copy real text early. Make a point of listening for common letter groups in your practice sessions.

Don’t think you must be able to write the code down when listening to get useful practice. Eventually you’ll need to “copy in your head”, so even just listening for the common letter groups when you are travelling in the car is very helpful (but don’t become distracted!). You can burn the files to a CD, or load them on an iPod or even your cell phone if you have a “handsfree” Bluetooth connection between your phone and your car sound system (this is the method I use). The files just continue to play as you drive, and you can mentally “tune in” and “tune out” as traffic conditions permit, with no loss of benefit. (You can do this on a bus too, but wear a good sound-sealed set of ear buds or your neighbours might be tempted to heave you out a window!)

Another source of plain language code practice is the Quote Of The Day (QOTD) CW podcasts, which can be found with Apple’s iTunes music software. Look under “Store” then “Podcasts” then search for “QOTD”, which is the "Quotes of the Day" converted to CW. The advantage of the QOTD podcasts is that they are short and change daily. Podcasts are available in speeds from 5 wpm (not recommended) to 30 wpm (not recommended for beginners).  A good place to start is the 10 wpm podcasts.

Whether you are copying the ARRL code practice files, or the QOTD podcasts, don't worry if you can't copy each one perfectly. Just get what you can and keep at it; you'll find you do better as time goes on.

After you begin feeling comfortable copying the ARRL code practice files or QOTW podcasts, you will be ready for more serious drill. At this point you will want to start driving your speed up, and the easiest way to do this is to make use of “Farnsworth” spacing. With Farnsworth spacing, the individual characters are sent at a high speed (here I suggest 20 wpm), but the spacing between characters is increased to give a lower average speed. So if you are reasonably comfortable copying 10 wpm code practice files then you could set the average speed to 10 wpm and the Farnsworth speed to 20 wpm. The higher speed characters will train your brain to recognize the characters you already know when sent at a higher speed. The extra time between characters gives your brain some time to “catch up”, and recognize that the burst of sound you just heard was an “s” and not an “h”.

There are several fine programs available that send code with Farnsworth spacing, including G4FON’s free Koch Method CW Trainer, available at http://www.g4fon.net (look to the left and select the “Koch CW Trainer”). (Note I am listing programs which run under Microsoft Windows; there are also fine programs that run on Mac computers. If you, like me, prefer Macs, then send me an email at my call @rac.ca and I’ll send you a list of Mac-based programs that I think will be helpful. Most of these aren’t free, however.)
G4FON’s trainer has various operating modes. The “Text File” capability allows you to load in a short text file and have the program send it to you. By selecting an “Actual Character Speed” of 20 wpm, and an “Effective Code Speed” of 10 wpm, you can use the Farnsworth method to train. The program has a lower window which displays the text after it has been sent, so you can see how well you are doing.

The program also offers two other very useful modes. One is the “Words” mode, where the program sends you lists of common words and word endings, selected from a drop-down list.  The other is the “QSO” mode, where the program sends you simulated QSOs, just as you might hear on the air (except, unlike what you will hear on the air, the code from the program is machine-perfect).

The program has many other features, allowing you to add noise, fading (QSB), simulate weak or strong signals, create irregular (“human-like”) character timing, etc. Once you’ve mastered the basics you can have a lot of fun playing with all the “complicating” factors.
Another similar program is G4ILO’s MorseGen, at http://www.g4ilo.com/morsegen.htm MorseGen can be used to drill with characters using the Koch Method, groups of random letters or numbers, common words, plain text from a file, or pseudo-QSOs. By using the speed and spacing sliders, you can create Farnsworth-like spacing.

As you progress, you will need to learn to copy “in your head”, without pencil and paper. You can, of course, do this with the ARRL code practice files, or QOTD podcasts. The problem with these, however, is that the spacing is “regular”, rather than Farnsworth. A program that allows Farnsworth spacing that I’ve found useful for this sort of practice is ebook2cw, at http://fkurz.net/ham/ebook2cw.html
ebook2cw is a command line program but it has an optional graphical user interface available which simplifies use for many of us.  The program converts a user-selected plain text file to Morse code audio files in MP3 (or OGG, if you prefer) format. It works on several platforms, including Windows, Linux, FreeBSD and Mac OS X. The program isn’t easy to configure on your machine (e.g you’ll have to install several additional files in the same directory as the executable program), but the effort is worthwhile.
If you look to the online (and free) Project Gutenberg library at http://www.gutenberg.org, you can find text versions of out-of-copyright books that may look interesting to you. The generated mp3 files can become huge if you translate an entire book at low speed, so try just a few chapters to start. Be sure you edit out all the unusual punctuation (all the keys on the computer keyboard that I didn’t list earlier), or you’ll be very confused by some legitimate but highly unusual Morse characters. After you do your first few conversions you’ll get the knack and soon have a superb supply of interesting material sent to you in Morse, using machine-generated code with whatever extra spacing (a la Farnsworth) you wish to apply. This is my favourite CW training program!

Many of the programs I’ve mentioned will generate code at your choice of tone frequency. I suggest something in the 600-700 Hz range, but (now you are becoming comfortable with CW) you can adjust the tone to suit your personal preference. Some programs even allow you to change the wave shape from sine (the usual) to sawtooth or square wave. Again, you may find these wave shapes better suit your personal preference.

A couple of other programs which are very effective for CW contest training are the popular Morse Runner (at http://www.dxatlas.com/morserunner)and the (much more demanding, in my view) RUFZXP, available at http://www.rufzxp.net/. These are programs that experts use to drill and get their speeds up before critical contests.  If you are reading this article, it will probably be a while before you are ready for these. When you are ready, you can talk to a member of the club’s contest group to learn more about their use.

Once you become comfortable copying code at 15 wpm, and can get the gist of at least some of it in your head (without pencil and paper), you are ready to try some on-air QSOs at 10 wpm. But before that, you’ll need to learn to send, and that will be the subject of a future article. In the meantime, you have your work cut out for you learning to copy proficiently!

In CW-speak, “gl es 73”.

Monday, April 1, 2019

The April 2019 Communicator

80 Pages Of Projects, News, Views and Reviews... 

We look at all kinds of antennas this month, including many you can make yourself, plus Amateur Radio News from the South West corner of Canada and elsewhere. You will find Amateur Radio related articles, profiles, news, tips and how-to's. You can download it as a .PDF file directly from https://goo.gl/Ggtcz2

As always, thank you to our contributors, and your feedback is always welcome. My deadline for the next edition is April 21st.

If you have news or events from your Vancouver area club or photos, stories, projects or other items of interest from elsewhere, please email them to communicator@ve7sar.net

Keep visiting our site for regular updates and news: https://ve7sar.blogspot.ca    


John VE7TI
'The Communicator' Editor

Monday, March 11, 2019

N8RMA's 2019 State of the Hobby

Your chance for an opinion on our hobby

Dustin Thomas N8RMA, got the idea for a comprehensive ham radio survey while browsing Reddit back in 2017. “I started to notice an influx of surveys being posted, almost all in regards to highly specific topics in amateur radio,” he says. "I made sure to participate yet often wondered what the results were. I then decided to host my own survey, to collect the opinions from the community on a variety of topics for comparison over the years. I wanted to ensure I made the results widely available for anyone to consume for whatever reason."

First licensed in 2014, Dustin upgraded to General in 2015 and looks forward to reaching Extra. His personal ham radio interests include contesting, DX, and Field Day operations. But as he got into the hobby, he wondered where it was headed. They survey is a way for him to make a meaningful contribution toward the hobby’s future.

“I always wanted some baseline questions to compare from year to year, as well as specific issues impacting amateur radio today,” he says. “The State of the Hobby was born.”

Dustin pointed out some highlights — and surprises — from the 2018 State of the Hobby survey:

Concerns over HOA’s came in as the third most reported issue (fourth overall as the biggest single issue) yet 75% of respondents reporting not being effected by an HOA
Respondents ranked HF award nets (such as 3905 Century Club and OMISS) very low – on par with believing there should be a code requirement for licensing.
68% of respondents claimed to have talked with a new ham in the last 12 months
DMR seems to be growing in terms of local repeaters, outranking both YSF and D-Star
Why should you bother to take the survey?

“It’s important for independent bodies (independent from the ARRL or commercial organizations with unknown agendas) to solicit and publish the opinions of ham radio operators,” Dustin says.
“This survey will give us insight into what is working and what is not, new or emerging trends in modes or activities, and successful ways to increase membership and licensing.”

He said interest in the survey has surprised him and that several clubs have reached our to say they’ve used insight from the survey to promote ham radio and establish new activities.

Dustin hopes to get more opinions this year from folks who may be studying for their license, or on the fence about whether to get involved. “This year I’ve also included a second for those not yet licensed, but who are interested,” he says. “This will give us a great insight into how new operators are preparing, what works / what doesn’t, and what recently caused them to be interested.”

More information:

2019 survey link:

If you have not had a chance to see the results from previous years, they are listed here:

Thanks to feedback and inquiry from hundreds of participants, Dustin has made a few minor changes to the survey. He says: "This year I've included some questions specific to 2019, which of course will change year to year. I hope to keep the core portion of the survey mainly intact (for that comparison) and continue to modify the annual section as deemed fit."

Please, help spread this survey to those whom you know in amateur radio. This will help strengthen the survey results and spread awareness of the results. Results and future surveys will be posted to http://www.radiosoth.org/ so make sure to subscribe. 

Thank you for your time and participation.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

My Return To Ham Radio

One Ham's View

Like many hams, I got licensed at a young age and was active through my later school and early adulthood years, but amateur radio then faded into the background as the responsibilities of life, family and career took precedence.  I was licensed as VE7CPT in 1977, at the age of 17, and over the next five to ten years “dove in”: I got my “Advanced” license, designed and built equipment, became a DXer and half-serious contester, explored packet and satellite communications, and even got onto 2m EME – still the “coolest” thing I have done in amateur radio! 

During this period of time, I also graduated university, got my first “real job”, got married, started an interesting career in the Vancouver Police Department, got divorced, eventually re-married, and began assuming significant supervisory and managerial responsibilities at work.  I also went to graduate school, completed three years of research and a thesis, and contributed to an advanced 56 Kbps wireless networking project.

I became VE7ZD in the late 1980s after meeting the ten-year advanced license requirement and spending three years on the “two letter suffix” waiting list.  Such were the regulations in those days!

For me, like many others, amateur radio operation had to “take a back seat” to the responsibilities of life, and twenty years flew by before I realized it.  During this period, while I maintained my station, towers, and qualifications, I operated rarely, maybe once a year.  Probably ten years went by without me making a contact on HF.  My interest in radio and communications technology, and my love of amateur radio never died, though, and I always knew that one day I would return to the fold and become active again. 

Kevin with his Field Day 'lemon battery'
I finished my policing career in 2011, and after about seven years of being involved in other professional pursuits, I made the decision to return to the ham world earlier this year.

This story is about my observations after returning to the hobby after a long absence. 
How has amateur radio changed?  In summary, the “ham radio” I see today is closely aligned with the hobby I left.  The people and enthusiasm are the same, and the debates are similar, but the context has changed significantly due to the immense impact that new technology, both analog and digital, has made upon radio and communication systems.
One difference I have observed is the wide variety of complex gear that is now available to the average ham at an affordable price.  Devices like handheld antenna analyzers can now be bought for a couple of hundred dollars.  The capabilities and performance of these devices far exceeds that of devices that were unheard of in the amateur community, and that cost in excess of $100,000. 

The development of new digital modes such as PSK31 in the 1990s, and most recently FT8 and its related weak-signal modes have greatly improved the effectiveness of ham communication.  While there are detractors, more communication ability is always better than less, and it is notable that FT8 has come along just at the right time: at the bottom of one of the worst solar cycles in recent memory.  Oh, for the summer of 1979 – global communication with 5 watts SSB on 10 metres, almost 24/7!

Incidentally, new modes in amateur radio are always accompanied by negativity from the established amateur community.  This will pass, as did negativity about SSB from the “AM” crowd in the 1950s.  In fact, this skepticism is one of the aspects of amateur radio which has not changed in my absence.

A follow-up career, flying the big jets
The advent of DSP and software-defined radios is also a major development over the past 20 years.  Like most other new technologies, initial skepticism gave way to utility, and the SDR has found its way into just about every ham shack.  The thought that you would be able to buy a receiver for under $10 that runs on 5 volts and covers 10 MHz through 2 or 3 GHz would have been laughable in the 1980s.

Innovation within amateur radio has persisted, and I see many projects that build on (especially) SDR and other new technologies to produce great new modes and communication capabilities. 

One thing I do note, however, is that the percentage of electronic experimenters within ham ranks seems to have dropped.  There are fewer amateurs building their own gear, and more “buyers” who simply acquire products and deploy them.  Innovators are fewer than they were before.

This may be understandable, as these new technologies are quite complex compared to the earlier amateur era, and more technical background is necessary for an individual to innovate, i.e. to invent new modes or techniques. 

I think that one reason for this is that amateur licensing standards have failed to keep pace with the development of new technologies.  This is the case in Canada, the US, and in other nations as well.  The licensing standards have taken modest strides towards inclusion of material covering DSP and SDR, for example, but not in enough depth to provide individual amateurs with enough technical background to invent or innovate, as they were able to in the past.

It is a difficult problem, and I am not advocating an increase in complexity or difficulty of amateur licensing!  Amateur radio plays many roles: emergency communications; public service; a reserve of technical talent; - finding the right balance is what is important. 
Hams are not, nor should they be expected to be, electrical engineers, but licensing standards should always reflect the technologies in use.  Compared to twenty years ago, I think that some aspects of the standards should be revised to better reflect use of current technologies within the hobby.

Providing a workshop on GnuRadio

I think that the average ham today is much more aware of the important role amateur radio can play in public service and 
emergency response than was the case a couple of decades ago.  Public service and emergency communications has been part of amateur radio’s focus going back to the 1930s at least, but I have noted much more emphasis on this role since my return to the fold.  Public service and emergency communications plays a more prominent role in clubs, and even in popular magazines like QST.

Society’s dependence on telecommunications for day to day life is much greater than in previous decades, and hence the impact of a disaster, for example, could be much greater.  Amateur radio’s stronger focus on public service is good, because (as we all know), commercial infrastructure usually fails in a disaster despite the “best laid plans” of the major telecom providers.  Amateur radio will be able to help as it does not depend (as much) on this infrastructure.

Back to more specific observations

Use of repeaters seems, for some reason, to have declined.  I hear a few VHF/UHF nets during the day and in the evening, but the idea of a repeater as a “watering hole” is no more.  One used to be able to find other hams 24/7 on local repeaters.  The repeaters still exist, but it just seems that hardly anyone is using them.  Perhaps the rise of smartphones, or the ban on use of handhelds while driving is responsible, but I think that the sense of “community” that was enabled through heavy usage of local repeaters has been eroded.

Fewer hams are active on HF, it seems, and those who are newly licensed are less inclined to want to upgrade themselves and their stations to utilize HF.  This is a shame, in my opinion, as the challenge and fun of HF communications, and in making contacts (and possibly friends) across the world is something that is personally satisfying. 
I understand the counter-argument – “what’s the point of putting together an expensive HF station for unreliable communications when I can just email or group chat internationally over the Internet at no cost?” – but this argument is weak in the context of amateur radio’s role in emergency communications and disaster response.  I think we need to emphasize amateur radio as “unmediated direct communication without reliance on commercial infrastructure”, and that this aspect might elicit more interest in HF among new (and younger) hams.

Younger hams: this is an important observation.  I believe that amateur radio has largely lost its innovative “spark” to the “maker movement”.  In the 21st century, young “makers” exploit technology to undertake all manner of interesting tinkering and research, and the movement has been the source of many technological innovations. 
When you read QST from the 1920s and 1930s, this innovative spirit was the purview of young hams.  Radio was fairly new and represented the bleeding edge of a lot of industry and government research.  Radios and antennas were (relatively) affordable to build and maintain.  Young people got involved and their tinkering led, in many cases, in the discovery and development of new technologies.

Computing hardware and software has become the area of current industrial innovation, and naturally many young people today have been drawn to this interesting field.  They are experimenting and creating, just as young hams in the 1930s did.  The proliferation of cheap computing devices such as the Arduino and the Raspberry Pi, global networking, and open source software support affordable experimentation, and one can see the appeal of “making” to young people.

What I find ironic is that many in the “maker” community are now interested in wireless devices and applications but have no experience with or understanding of radio science or technology.  There are almost endless discussions on “maker” forums and mailing lists about antennas, radio propagation, and the like, and most of the information being spread is totally incorrect. 

Makers are fumbling about and trying to re-invent the wheel in regard to wireless communications.  Most of these technical questions on “maker” groups were answered about a century ago by experimenters within the amateur radio community. 
I think that our amateur radio organizations, both in Canada and the US, missed (or are missing) a great opportunity to contribute to innovation and to technological literacy in general.  Our partnership (or even leadership) in the “maker” community would support amateur radio and help spread our skills to a younger generation.  In return, we would learn much ourselves.

Why the missed opportunity?  Every organization (and even radio clubs and individuals) tends psychologically, and unconsciously, towards a parochial position and can feel threatened, or at least uncomfortable, when others want to use “technology invented here”.  We have to maintain self-awareness and see the bigger picture.  “Makers” would make great amateur radio operators.

I’ll stop here for now, but summarize my observations by saying that I’m enthused to be back, the amateur community is alive and well, and the hobby still presents great opportunity for fun, learning and public service to all those who get involved.  In that sense, amateur radio is unchanged from twenty years ago.  See you at the club and on the air!

~ Kevin VE7ZD

Kevin now writes his 'Radio Ramblings' column monthly for 'The Communicator'


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