Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The ARRL Triple Play Award

Not long ago, the ARRL announced new award called the "Triple Play Award". The info at the link gives all the details, but the concept is simple: Work all 50 US states on CW, Phone, and Digital (RTTY, PSK, etc.) starting on January 1. All contacts must be confirmed via the ARRL Logbook of The World. To be honest, when I first heard this, my reaction was "well, that's nice, but I'm not that interested in working non-DX stations, and it'll take me forever to work that many stations on all those modes".

But that was before I wound up with over 400 contacts during the ARRL RTTY Roundup and more than 250 contacts in the CW North American QSO Party (NAQP) . I realized at that point that I'd had about 45 or so states confirmed on RTTY, and close to that many confirmed on CW. I picked up a few states on sideband during the SSB version of the NAQP, and realized that I actually had a pretty good number of the 150 required contacts already confirmed.

Andy, K3UK, set up a "sked" (schedule) page on his website (click "LoTW" at the top of the page) where hams trying to find different states could meet to arrange contacts easily, and there has been a decent group of folks there each day for the last couple of weeks. During the evening hours, 3.618Mhz (LSB) has been a kind of on-air meeting place. I started out by "lurking"; just reading the messages posted or listening to the chatter on-air and occasionally making a contact. The real fun started when, after I'd work some station that I needed I'd have another station call because they actually need a contact from New Jersey!

Ok, in case it's not obvious, New Jersey isn't exactly considered even remotely rare, or usually even very interesting, for the purposes of most ham radio awards. However, because the Triple Play Award (or TPA, as the guys on the sked page have been calling it) is so new, lots of folks still need a contact with New Jersey. While I haven't exactly been trying to work giant pileups, I have been "giving out" New Jersey to more and more folks. It's just plain fun to be able to help someone else earn their awards, and, while "hanging out", I've managed to pick up a few of the tougher states myself.

As I was writing this entry, I managed to work WY7FD on both RTTY and CW modes on 80m. As of now, that means that the only states with which I haven't made any contacts for TPA are Hawaii and Utah. I've worked both of those states in the past, so the trick now is to find a time and place to work a station who'll be uploading his log to Logbook of the World.

Speaking of Logbook of the World, because all contacts for this award have to be confirmed through LoTW, you get nearly instant (in relative terms) gratification when you work someone. Most of the folks trying to get the award upload their logs at least once per day (and some appear to do it even more often), so you usually know for certain that you're "in the log" very quickly. Don't get me wrong: I still like getting paper QSL cards, but for an award like this it's really fun just seeing how fast the contacts are confirmed.

One more quick thing: I have to say that it's been wonderful how friendly and accomodating folks have been in helping each other make contacts. Most folks will gladly change modes or bands to help out someone looking for a particular state. It's not that hams aren't friendly in general, but it just seems like my fellow TPA award seekers are really going out of their way to help out.

If you haven't done so yet, why not stop by the K3UK chat room and join a bunch of us on 3.618 each evening?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The bands are better than you think

Ok, we all know that the bands have been in pretty poor shape for the last few years. Everyone is complaining about how there's nothing to work. At least some people who wanted to get into the hobby, or back into it, aren't bothering, as shown by this quote from the solarcycle.com forum 

Two of my neighbors had talked of getting back in to Ham radio as they had done as kids, but their wives made them check out conditions first before they buy...and it looks like they are looking for a new hobby.

But are things really that bad? They are certainly worse than they were at the peak of the solar cycle, but I submit that there is still a lot to do on the radio. Better than just using my gut feeling, I took a look at my log starting about 18 months ago, in July 2007. I wanted to pick a starting point that was clearly close to the bottom of the the trough of Solar Cycle 23.

What I did was to configure my log as if I'd just gotten on the radio on the first of July, 2007, and pulled some reports for things like DXCC, WAZ, and WAS to see what I'd have if I'd only had these last 18 months on the air. I think that what I found may surprise you.

First, keep in mind that all my contacts have been made from my home station: An Icom 756 Pro II running 100 watts into a G5RV antenna up at about 35 feet (10.7 meters). No amps, no beams. Most of my operating is casually "chasing DX" or operating contests for fun. Because when I was working these stations, I wasn't explicitly trying to earn an award only from that point forward, so there are probably some "easy" countries that I haven't bothered to work during that period, since I'd already worked them prior to that time. Given all that, let's see what I've got.

First, we'll look at DXCC: Over the last 18 months, I've worked 168 DXCC entities as "mixed" (combined phone, CW, and digital), with 118 on phone, 131 CW, and 83 on digital (primarily RTTY, with a little PSK thrown in there and there.) Although the numbers on the higher bands (10m through 17m) aren't great, I worked 134 on 20m, 122 on 40m, and 59 on 75/80m. Here's something to think about: At this point in the solar cycle, working the lower bands, like 80m (and even 160m, though I don't work 160m much myself) is better than when the solar activity is better. Overall, I worked close to 500 "band/countries". (Each time you work a county on a different band, it counts as a "band/country", so, for instance, I've worked Laos on 3 different bands during this period, so that counts as 3 band/countries).

Perhaps what's even more interesting than just working the 168 entities is that there's a good number of what could be considered rare or semi-rare entities in there. I went through the list and wanted to mention some that I thought were interesting from my location on the east coast of the US.
1A0  Sov. Military Order of Malta
3B7  Agalega & St. Brandon
3V  Tunisia
3X  Guinea
5H  Tanzinia
5N  Nigeria
5T  Mauritania
6W  Senegal
7Q  Malawi
7X  Algeria
9L  Sierra Leone
9Q  Dem. Rep. of the Congo
9X  Rwanda
C3  Andorra
C5  Gambia
CE0Y  Easter Island
CY0  Sable Island
D2  Angola
E4  Palestine
EL  Liberia
FO/M  Marquesas Islands
FO0  Clipperton Island
FR  Reunion
FW  Wallis & Futuna Island
HK0  San Andres & Providencia
JX  Jan Mayen
OY  Faroe Islands
S7  Seychelles
TI9  Cocos Island
VK9W  Willis Island
VP6  Pitcairn Island
VP6/D  Ducie Island
XF4  Revilla Gigedo
XW  Laos
ZC4  UK Sovereign Bases on Cyrprus

The point here is that there has been plenty of not-just-routine DX to work over the last 18 months, despite the conditions.

Let's look at another award, the Worked All Zone (WAZ) award that depends on good conditions for DX. Over the same period of time, I worked 35 out of the available 40 zones, which are located all over the world.

Closer to home, over that same 18 month period, I worked all 50 US states, with 50 on phone, 49 on CW, and 50 on digital (again, mostly RTTY). Again, the lower bands have been best, with 42 states on 20m, 48 on 40m, and 43 on 75/80m. (I even worked 11 states on 160m!)  Again, the point is that there is plenty plenty to do.

My conclusion is that those two guys who didn't think that it was worth getting back into radio were wrong. There are still plenty of stations to work, and plenty to do on the radio. I've only touched the tip of the iceberg here. There are folks who try to work US counties, Islands, Lighthouses, museum ships, and much more. They are all on the air, making contacts every day. There's plenty to do on the air, but it does require that you turn on the radio. Stop complaining on the Internet. Use your radio. Trust me, you'll be a lot happier.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Antenna Modeling

Terry, WX7S, is posting a series of article on his blog about antenna modeling. There are already numerous resources that cover this topic, but I like Terry's approach of breaking things down into pretty short topics. The information is great, but there isn't so much of it all at once that your eyes glaze over. The series is available on his blog, here's a link to the first post. You can find the entire series (and more) by clicking on the Antenna Modeling Category heading on his blog.