A Communicator Reprise: November 2014
For beginners… A look at the basics
While we have an active Contest Group at SARC, there are some within our membership who may not have been exposed to this activity. It is probably one of the most realistic scenarios for emergency operations training and a skill that any operator who has an interest in emergency preparedness should experience.
Contesting (also known as radiosport) is a competitive activity pursued by amateur radio operators. In a contest, an amateur radio station, which may be operated by an individual or a team, seeks to contact as many other amateur radio stations as possible in a given period of time and exchange information. Rules for each competition define the amateur radio bands, the mode of communication that may be used, and the kind of information that must be exchanged. The contacts made during the contest contribute to a score by which stations are ranked. Contest sponsors publish the results in magazines and on web sites.
Contesting grew out of other amateur radio activities in the 1920s and 1930s. As trans-oceanic communications with amateur radio became more common, competitions were formed to challenge stations to make as many contacts as possible with amateur radio stations in other countries. Contests were also formed to provide opportunities for amateur radio operators to practice their message handling skills, used for routine or emergency communications across long distances. Over time, the number and variety of radio contests has increased, and many amateur radio operators today pursue the sport as their primary amateur radio activity.
There is no international authority or governance organization for this sport. Each competition is sponsored separately and has its own set of rules.
Radio contests are principally sponsored by amateur radio societies, radio clubs, or radio enthusiast magazines. These organizations publish the rules for the event, collect the operational logs from all stations that operate in the event, cross-check the logs to generate a score for each station, and then publish the results in a magazine, in a society journal, or on a web site. Because the competitions are between stations licensed in the Amateur Radio Service (with the exception of certain contests which sponsor awards for shortwave listeners), which prohibits the use of radio frequencies for pecuniary interests, there are no professional radio contests or professional contesters, and any awards granted by the contest sponsors are typically limited to paper certificates, plaques, or trophies.
During a radio contest, each station attempts to establish two-way contact with other licensed amateur radio stations and exchange information specific to that contest. The information exchanged could include a signal report, a name, the U.S. state or Canadian province in which the station is located, the geographic zone in which the station is located, the Maidenhead grid locator in which the station is located, the age of the operator, or an incremental serial number. For each contact, the radio operator must correctly receive the call sign of the other station, as well as the information in the "exchange", and record this data, along with the time of the contact and the band or frequency that was used to make the contact, in a log.
A contest score is computed based on a formula defined for that contest. A typical formula assigns some number of points for each contact, and a "multiplier" based on some aspect of the exchanged information. The rules for most contests held on the VHF amateur radio bands in North America assign a new multiplier for each new Maidenhead grid locator in the log, rewarding the competitors that make contacts with other stations in the most locations. Many HF contests reward stations with a new multiplier for contacts with stations in each country - often based on the "entities" listed on the DXCC country list maintained by the American Radio Relay League ("ARRL"). Depending on the rules for a particular contest, each multiplier may count once on each radio band or only once during the contest, regardless of the radio band on which the multiplier was first earned. The points earned for each contact can be a fixed amount per contact, or can vary based on a geographical relationship such as whether or not the communications crossed a continental or political boundary. Some contests, such as the Stew Perry Top Band Distance Challenge, award points that are scaled to the distance separating the two stations. Most contests held in Europe on the VHF and microwave bands award 1 point per kilometer of distance between the stations making each contact.
After they are received by the contest sponsor, logs are checked for accuracy. Points can be deducted or credit or multipliers lost if there are errors in the log data for a given contact. Depending on the scoring formula used, the resulting scores of any particular contest can be either a small number of points or in the millions of points. Most contests offer multiple entry categories, and declare winners in each category. Some contests also declare regional winners for specific geographic subdivisions, such as continents, countries, U.S. states, or Canadian provinces.
The most common entry category is the single operator category and variations thereof, in which only one individual operates a radio station for the entire duration of the contest. Subdivisions of the single operator category are often made based on the highest power output levels used during the contest, such as a QRP category for single operator stations using no more than five watts output power, or a High Power category that allows stations to transmit with as much output power as their license permits. Multi-operator categories allow for teams of individuals to operate from a single station, and may either allow for a single radio transmitter or several to be in use simultaneously on different amateur radio bands. Many contests also offer team or club competitions in which the scores of multiple radio stations are combined and ranked.
If the foregoing has raised your interest in contesting and you would like to experience a contest first-hand, several members are willing to open their stations for you to give it a try. Contact a member of the Club Executive or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
~ John VE7TI