I’ve been a licensed amateur radio operator (ham) for almost 30 year and have had both runs of heavy involvement and runs of “doing other things”. I’ll delve more into these details, but hams in the USA are licensed by the FCC and have access to some very nice chunks of the electromagnetic spectrum. The equipment is readily available and well supported. To me it is the original “tech nerd” hobby. It goes back to the dawn of radio, and the dawn of the vacuum tube. At that time if you wanted to be a ham, you built the gear. Now… there is a lot of great commercial equipment and for most ops homebuilding is secondary.
Every operator has a central thesis, a set of goals, or a set of constraints that inform their pursuits. For some it is “MORE POWER GOOD”, for some it is “mnmlsm”. One of mine is that two-way radio works, but not everywhere all the time. I call it “You Are Always Loud Somewhere”. I can set up a radio and antenna, pick a mode of operation, and call out to the radio wilderness in search of other operators. In ham parlance, I am calling CQ. Seek You. Get it? Hams are a cryptic bunch.
The 2-way element of radio involves a second station listening on the same frequency I am transmitting on, and being able to reply and be understood. It actually works better than one might think. There are 750,000 licensed hams in the USA alone. It isn’t great by TV ratings measures, but it’s respectable. Also, hams might have outsized influence due to their proclivity for… communication. Of all kinds. For better or worse.
Another thing that hams rely on is a phenomenon whereby the effect of solar radiation on the ionosphere effectively turns it into a “radio mirror” reflecting radio energy back toward earth. Some of the energy from my radio signal is directed up toward the ionosphere, gets reflected back down, and I am now audible 800 miles (for example) away. That can happen multiple times, allowing my signal to travel halfway around the world, or more. Once our signal leaves our continent (roughly) we call that DX (distance). While useful, that kind of “enhanced propagation” is a fickle mistress. Some days it is like transmitting into a lead sponge. Other days you are chatting to an operator in South Africa on less wattage than it takes to power a clock radio.
So that is the backdrop for “always loud somewhere”. You might not be loud where you want to be loud, but somewhere your signal is crushing it. There might be another op there. We can only hope.
Hams have some tools to increase the odds. One obvious tool is to create a stronger signal by emitting more power. Think of the difference between your local AM pea shooter and something like WTIC or WFAN (for those of you who still own an AM radio). One of them is always strong over a large coverage area. The other is community scale. It requires less power, but still communicates well. Also, there are many ways to tailor the radiation pattern from an antenna for a specific goal. Do we want to work distant stations, or communicate locally? Do we want to create a very high uptime communications link, or are we looking for a bit of sport?
I’ll wrap this post with an example (we now go full ham lingo mode. strap in):
I have been experimenting with both homebuilt and commercial portable/lightweight antennas for the past two years. I haven’t had a fixed setup at home, so even if I am operating from home, I am still “portable”. One antenna I recently acquired is a Chameleon MPAS Lite. It’s a “military grade” portable antenna system, and is designed to be easy to set up and still perform well. This is not the norm. In the “engineering triangle” the lighter and easier to set up an antenna is, the more compromised it is and the worse it performs. Also, some of my favorite wire vertical antennas, like the PAR Trail Friendly, require an overhead support or a portable mast. That raises the complexity, weight, and logistics hurdle. The MPAS Lite is self-supporting, low visual profile, and can be configured for local coverage or to give you at least a fighting chance at long distance stations. I had heard good things, so I gave it a shot.
Here is a map of contacts I made on March 23, 2021 using an Icom IC-705 transceiver at 10W into the MPAS Lite. This was done during an afternoon here in southern New England, and conditions were very poor. I tuned across the entire 40M band and it was dire. Like “is my radio broken?” dire, and triple checking antenna connections dire. Then I moved up to 20M and it wasn’t great, but I could at least hear a few strong stations. There was a bit of solar storm effect happening, marked by deep and rapid fading (QSB). I was seeing stations drop 7 S-units in under a minute, and then rise back up. On FT8 I expected to be riding the waves. However, as it was my first real wring-out for a new antenna I decided to at least tune it up (MFJ 901-B, the “cockroach” of ham gear*) on a few bands to see how easy that would be (it was easy).
I was working my way higher in frequency and ended up on 10 Meters. This band has been my nemesis for the past 12 months. I always check it, and never hear anything. Even on FT8, the propagation beacon that has become a global phenomenon, I was 0-fer. That’s hard to do, because it seems that at any time of day, somewhere in the world every FT8 calling freq is choked with activity.
This day was different. I ran into a trans-equatorial opening to South America. Who knew if I could make any contacts, but I could at least hear them. Also, it had less rapid fading than the lower bands. It was fading in a 3-5 minute cycle and not fading as deeply as 40 and 20. In meteorological terms it was like a “radio inversion” instead of lower bands being in better shape, and conditions falling off as you go higher, the real action was at 28MHz. Since we are right at the vernal equinox this could have been a seasonal thing or tropospeheric ducting. Regardless of the propagation mode I will deinitely make a 10M check more often.
Here’s what I was able to do on a low power (10W) radio and an antenna that I have no expectations of for DX work:
The green icons are 10M contacts. Orange 20m, Red 17m, Blue 30m. That stray green icon in Europe… That’s a fail on the mapping app. It is actually J79WTA in Domenica, showing up under his Swiss call HB9MFM. This is also an Islands On The Air (IOTA) station, NA-101.
I have some thoughts on the different portable antenna options I have been using and am working up a kind of “shootout” over weight, ease of setup, performance, and durability. I hope to be posting the first of them soon. Until then, go be loud somewhere.
*cockroach = will be the last thing still working before the sun swallows the earth