Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Courtesy isn't a one-way street

This past weekend was the ARRL SSB Sweepstakes contest. This is another one of the major contests that are part of the fall contest season. There's something that's far more of a constant during the contest season than anything else. More constant than forgetting to configure some piece of your station properly until the last minute, more constant than some emergency cropping up just when the bands are getting hot, and far more constant than propagation: Complaints.

Starting before each contest, with a major peak after each one (though it's worse after the phone contests) the complaint emails will start hitting the reflectors (email lists) about how inconsiderate the contesters are. This usually has to do with a contester jumping on top of an ongoing (non-contest) QSO without even a passing attempt to ensure that the frequency is available. Unfortunately, a large number of these complaints are merited, but there are a number of regular complaints that are not valid. For instance, just because you've met your buddy on the same frequency for the last 42 years at some specific time doesn't mean you "own" the frequency, and someone holding that frequency prior to your arrival has to give it up because you say so. While it may be courteous to do so, in this case, "possession" (use) of the frequency is not 9/10ths of the law.

In fact, the FCC rules governing our hobby in Parts 97.101(b), (c), and (d) specifically say:
(b) Each station licensee and each control operator must cooperate in selecting transmitting channels and in making the most effective use of the amateur service frequencies. No frequency will be assigned for the exclusive use of any station.
(c) At all times and on all frequencies, each control operator must give priority to stations providing emergency communications, except to stations transmitting communications for training drills and tests in RACES.
(d) No amateur operator shall willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to any radio communication or signal.
My interpretation of this is that the only time that someone can "take" a frequency that is in used by someone else is in order to provide emergency communications, and to do otherwise is to violate the rules as specified in subsection (c).

Here's what happened to me, which annoyed me enough to write this. I was busy for much of the day on Saturday, but I had some free time to participate in the previously mentioned SS contest on Sunday. Although I normally "Search & Pounce" (listen for stations calling for other stations, work them, and move on), I decided that it would be fun to try "run" stations, which means that I'd do the calling and let others come to me. This is a lot more fun than having to tune around, can result in a higher rate (the number of stations you work during a given period of time), which in turn generally results in a higher score, though it does mean that you have to be able to find a clear frequency to use. This is particularly difficult for low-power stations like myself, since, due to propagation, often a stronger station will be on the same frequency but in a different part of the country and will eventually overpower me. That's OK when it happens, and I usually just move off the frequency and try elsewhere.

What happened Sunday was that I'd managed to find a clear frequency on 40m to use to "run", specifically 7.244Mhz. I started CQing (calling) at around 20:00Z (see my previous post for more information about why I'm using UTC, not local time!) and had been working stations pretty steadily until around 20:36Z. (I worked 28 stations during that time, which may have been my best rate ever in an HF contest.) Right around then, between CQs, I heard a couple of guys come up on the frequency and start chatting. I said, at least three times between transmissions "gentlemen, this frequency is occupied, please QSY, thanks, K2DBK" (informing them that I was there, and asking them to move), then returned to CQing. They didn't move, and didn't even acknowledge me. I know that sometimes propagation can be stronger in one direction than another, or that they could have been using very high power and couldn't hear me, but I really doubt that was the case. One of the operators was located in North Carolina and I'd been working even QRP (low power) stations there easily.

It's time for some background: The National Traffic System is one of the many public services performed by volunteers all over the country. (Please click on the link for more information, there's far to much to go into here.) I was a very active participant in the NTS until a couple of years ago (I stopped primarily because of conflicts with other responsibilities with work and my family), but I still consider myself a supporter of the NTS system. In order to move traffic (message) around the country, there are regional area nets that meet on the HF frequencies (including 40m) since HF is best for medium and long-distance communications.

At about 20:45Z, one of the stations started calling the 4th Region National Traffic System Net (aka 4RN). (Remember, I'd already asked them, when they were just chatting, to move somewhere else.) Instead of asking me if I'd stand by, or moving up or down a few kilohertz (which is commonly done on HF nets), the net control simply proceeded to call the net, which interfered with my ability to use the frequency.

Although I would have legally been in the right to simply remain on the frequency, I did what I considered to be the right thing to do, which was to move to another available frequency. The net control had done exactly what other non-contesters complain about: They "took" a frequency without asking. While I acknowlege the possibility that neither the net control station nor any other station heard me informing them that the frequency was in use, I remain fairly certain that they did in fact hear me and simply decided to keep operating on "their" frequency. Had the net control station asked that I move because there was a regularly scheduled net there, I almost certainly would have done so. Had he asked that I stand by until the net completed, I would have been even happier to do so. (I would have gotten a short break and would have gotten my frequency back when they were done, probably ten or fifteen minutes later.) Instead, they chose to take the low road and intentionally interferred with my operation.

If I really wanted to, I could have easily recorded everything that happened, and possibly file a complaint with the FCC. (In fact, I may have done so, and honestly haven't checked; my contest logger can be configured to record audio while operating, and while I don't think I left that feature turned on for this contest, I may have. Guess I'll have to check my computer.) But I am not going to do that, since A) There is the chance that this was an honest mistake, B) I would prefer not to have someone performing a valuable service, running an NTS net, get in trouble, and C) I still believe that it's in the best interest of hams to work out these kinds of issues themselves.

So keep in mind that courtesy isn't a one-way street. There will always be situations where one person is using a frequency that for some reason another person wants to use. Don't try to "take" the frequency, at least ask if the person who was there would be willing to move or to stand by if the use is expected to be short. There is enough animosity in the world, let's try to make make our hobby more pleasant than that.


  1. Anonymous11:05 AM

    When I started to read this, I figured it was going to be another contester just stepping on you, but this story took a different turn.

    Throughout this contest I experienced multiple stations that seemed to be on the same frequency where I'm sure one might have heard the other, but I could hear both. Well I hope that is why. I also experienced operators being impacted by other nearby operators, asking them to QSY and in every case I heard, the operator indeed changed frequencies.

    Good post though and thanks for the QSO in the contest.


  2. Hi David. I too have had the situation where two people couldn't hear each other but a third who was "in the middle" could. However, this was a situation where the two (or more, I guess) stations were all fairly local to each other.As I noted in my blog, one of the reasons why I didn't report them was because the chance that it was all completely innocent, though I really do feel that they must have heard me.

    And thanks to you as well for the QSO, hope you did well.

  3. Anonymous8:29 PM

    Bravo on the article and the concern! It is amazing to this ham how many people know the rules of the road but choose to ignore them. Like even pausing a few seconds in a conversation to see if anyone wants in, etc.. And it seems sometimes that the more experienced hams are some of the worst. I think we should all be bold enough to comment on such operating practices when we hear them!

  4. Anonymous10:16 AM

    I just experienced the exact same thing just now. On 14.247.50 was 9A3OS from Croatia making contacts with stations across the US. On comes some folks talking right over him and the ops trying to contact him complaining this is a net station for years so he needs to QSY. About 10 ops jumped all over the net folks telling them they don't own the station and to QSY. Eventually the Croatia op QSYed and those 10 folks just rode into these guys for their "important net" that has been there for years. What seemed so important about this net? Nothing - Rag chewing about their medication, wives, weather, etc.

    Just poor operations by those stations which intruded on the frequency in use by the Croatian station. And they could hear him fine as they had a small QSO before he QSYed.