Category Archives: update

Why So DGTL?

The current explosion of HF weak signal mode users, coalescing primarily around FT8/FT4, has caused a bit of a rift in the ham community. I don’t think the rift is that big, but the rifters are pretty vocal in telling other hams how much they don’t belong on the air.

I intended to formulate a Pro/Con list, but I don’t want this to be a contest (or con-test). I also don’t want to explore the negatives. Plenty of people are doing that 24/7 and somehow seem to enjoy (?) it. This is a list of things that make each type of communication interesting and unique (for me). I’d rather look at it that way because that is how I feel about it. I want to enjoy all that ham radio has to offer. That requires being open to what is positive about every opportunity.

So here’s what I find attractive about FT8-style* operation:

  1. The Analog Internet Nexus. In conjunction with PSKReporter, RBN, and tools like GridTracker, it provides a near-real-time propagation indicator. I can set up for a few CQs, check PSKReporter, and see where I am being heard, with my relative S/N. Along with showing me where I might expect a reply, it gives me an idea of the difference between what I am hearing and who might be hearing me.
  2. Instant and visual split operation. WSJT-X makes setting split very easy, but only if you use the waterfall display. (I believe many users don’t, causing that crowding between 1300-1800hz). Shift-Click to position your transmit frequency in a different spot, and get out of the pileup of stations calling on the CQing station’s transmit frequency. Since WSJT-X decodes the entire bandpass, you can test this at will. 10 minutes with the WSJT-X manual will improve the experience 100x.
  3. Constant Global Activity. It’s pretty shocking, actually. Day after day if I just looked at the CW or Phone sections of the HF bands they may look dead, or occupied mostly by big signals. Often there is a big hump on say 20m at 14.074MHz. In my experience it is unprecedented to have this type of activity acting as a global beacon. These digital segments are in use at all hours of the day and when the band opens those ops will be there.
  4. Built for Low Power Ops. Being able to work down to -24dB is a great equalizer for lower power stations on less-than-spectacular antennas. I see all kinds of amazed reactions from mostly newer hams on QRP-focused boards like the Icom IC705 FB group, and I can only imagine how amazed they will be when actual good band conditions start arriving. I’ve worked 10,000km on 10W into a basic vertical antenna on FT8, during conditions like SF=75, SSN=15! No solar tailwind there. For reasons I will get into somewhere else, a non-directional antenna is really only sending a tiny slice of its output toward the other station. Being able to work deep into the noise floor makes the most of that tiny slice.
  5. Perfect for casual operating. Letting WSJT-X decode while I am making dinner, or doing other chores, lets me come back and see what stations are in play at my station, on my gear, at what strength. I can take 15 minutes, scan the waterfall, and either chase a few stations or find a spot to call CQ. Obviously I can also do this for hours, but if I only have small gaps to focus on the radio I can still make contacts this way.
  6. Good operating practices are rewarded. Far from being a “robot mode” FT8 gives the operator a lot of information if they are willing to look for it. It allows you to scan for momentary openings, dig out weaker signals, find opportunities to use split, and otherwise be creative with the information presented by the waterfall and the decode window. I recently made a few contacts to JA from Rhode Island with stations that showed up for less than 5 minutes, and then faded out. Tools like GridTracker and JTAlert let you watch for those stations in real time. I’ve come close to working deep into northern Canada (VE8) in this same manner. I’ve also seen the big Saudi or Kenyan stations about 20 times and never made the contact. Surfing the waves of fading/swelling conditions is a technique I learned on CW over 25 years ago.

*FT8-style means computer-assisted digital modes, like RTTY, even. 2FSK is still FSK, folks. Get over yourselves.

OK, that was a rollercoaster of unbridled optimism. I’ll now make similar points for analog modes:

  1. The experience of listening to radio is one of life’s great joys. The key word is listening. I like quality in a QSO. Rarity and quantity have never been my game. I enjoy finding and working DX, but have never applied for or sought any awards. Listening to a quiet band for a weak but copyable signal (usually CW) just above the noise, replying to a CQ, and having a QSO (no matter how short or perfunctory) is a real pleasure. I’m not too hung up on where that other station is.
  2. The Social Component. I have worked plenty of stations, mostly SSB, where the QSO is call, report, name, QTH, and 73. Nothing wrong with that. It’s not much more of a proof of concept than a FT8 contact, but you are making verbal/code contact. Neat. Occasionally though I end up in a real rag chew, with a personable operator, and it is a great experience. I have to make sure I am in no hurry, because I have had a few that ran for a long time. That is ham radio delivering on what I would call the classic roots: Two or more operators having a chat. Lovely.
  3. A true leisure activity. My process of slowly scanning a section of a band, giving even the weakest signal a chance, tweaking my rig’s controls in an attempt to pull that signal out of the noise… it takes time. I might make one contact in an hour. I might make none. I have done some salmon fishing, and it is similar. My salmon fishing mantra is “it’s fishing, not shopping”. If you don’t enjoy the process of fishing you will be having a lot of bad days. If you have a catch, that’s great, but you are still fishing.
  4. Skill Development. The skills necessary to operate successfully on the ham bands are still best, IMO, cultivated with analog operation. Just the habits of ensuring your frequency is clear, or listening to and identifying neighboring stations, or learning the band plan and using it… they pay off whether you are talking to someone on 2M simplex 500 yards away, or making an APRS contact through the ISS, or bouncing a signal off the moon. It might be analogous to driving stick shift. I think you get a better learning experience when you engage the fundamentals as completely as possible.

So that’s a quick, stream of thought run through of how I see the allure of both “new school” and “old school” ham radio. It’s all out there to be done, and it’s all good. I hope to see or hear you on the bands. Pete N1QDQ

21st Century Schizoid Ham

This post is an attempt to bring my thoughts on the future of ham radio into focus through the lens of computerized digital modes. Last week I poured out a lengthy brain dump regarding digital modes, specifically FT8 and it’s associates. Three posts ago I went on about the evolution of communication modes. What I am focused on today is how radio hobbyists have embraced (or fought) the march of technology.

When radio was born the primary technologies being leveraged for more reliable communications were output power, antenna design, and modulation modes. That this is a fair description of the challenges faced by radio operators today is a testament to how strong the foundations of radio communications are. Just over 120 years ago Marconi was giddy at sending a coarse unmodulated signal across the English Channel. About 2 years later he sent a Morse Code “S” over the North Atlantic and it was received. From that primordial ooze advances in radio technology have been a succession of technological refinement and hybridization. Better tubes led to early solid state devices, led to (begat!) better solid state devices, led to the microprocessor and so on.

And that is how it should be. Most hams today use high tech in at least some part of their signal chain. The lack of enthusiasm for drifty VFOs and heavy transformers bears this out. Some of what I see in the commentary from today’s “old guard” is essentially a semantics debate, without the debate. Some want the technology used only inside their transceiver, but not “over the air”. Some are fine with one digital mode such as RTTY, but not another like FT8. Both employ a form of Frequency Shift Keying (FSK) and both rely on a machine to encode and decode text messages. This concept of using machines to do what the human body can’t is as old as the Stock Ticker. In the case of Radio Teletype (RTTY), could you learn to decode a two-tone encoding scheme by ear? Yep. Could you do it at RTTY speeds? Nope. We utilize a machine. That machine is now primarily a computer.

RTTY was first an analog process which gradually became computerized. Over the years the mechanical devices became museum pieces. One reason is electromechanical devices are entropy attractors. The wear out and break down and require mechanical repairs. Maintaining them means ready access to parts and service documentation. Certainly there are operators of mechanical RTTY terminals on the air, but they are in the minority (and I’m being generous). The era of “no serviceable parts inside” has mostly won the day here in the 21st Century. That’s a fact. I saw the transition from analog to digital firsthand as my father and grandfather both made their livings in electronics.

From the 1950s through the 1970s my grandfather owned and operated a TV and Appliance shop. He sold and repaired TV sets and radio consoles. His world was one of SAMS Photofact and a tube caddy and kept those TVs humming with his experience and some simple test equipment. The day the new TVs came with no service manuals he started to close his shop. That was almost 50 years ago. He saw the writing on the wall, and his mentality was fixed on keeping those sets in service. He was a product of the immigrant experience during a global depression and great scarcity. You did not throw things away. You repaired them until they were more valuable as parts, which you used to repair another set. The era of disposable consumer technology was his exit ramp from the business. He never changed. The world did. Far from being a luddite, he was an early adopter during the birth of technologies we take mostly for granted today. From the 1930’s onward he was right there jumping in on the birth of electrification, radio, television, and photography. He was my ur-geek.

As a child of a very different time I have been free to live in a world of unbridled futurism. I came of age during a great social awakening with social and technological changes happening at a blinding pace. I wasn’t so much dreaming of the future as I was living it. The space race fascinated me the way kids today get into dinosaurs or pokemon or whatever. I’ve been using actual computers since 1978. Before that I learned to do four function math on a Heath-Kit Hex Programming Trainer with NIXIE tube display. All I have seen is a steady drumbeat of miniaturization, automation, and leaps in electrical efficiency. I type this on an ultrabook weighing about two pounds and it the performance is fantastic. It draws about 1/50th of the power of my first PC-XT. The USB chip has more processing power than that 8088 had.

See, I’m digressing. I think you get the point. I will now focus!

My concern about the future of the technical evolution of ham radio has to do with the resistance to technical advances by some of the loudest voices in ham radio. And I do mean loudest. I like big antennas and I can not lie. You other ops can’t deny... But there are other ways to get the job done. In the case of FT8 we implement commodity computer hardware to expand the usable dynamic range down below what can be done with the human ear. This is not even all that high-tech. It is actually an extension of rather old tech, adapted to low cost CPU hardware.

Today’s hams largely operate in an early 20th Century manner, using 21st Century devices. We are often using a computer to emulate discrete component technology or even pure analog technology. That computer is often a “black box” running code we don’t understand on devices we can’t physically interact with. Most of this computerization isn’t a breakthrough, it is “re-platforming” of existing tech. While a boon to the operator it doesn’t seem to be equating into higher tech knowledge among the ham community. A survey of our publications, chat forums, and social media platforms show a continued focus on what should be Radio 101 topics: basic antennas, basic tuned circuits, basic inductors, the trans-match, the audio signal path… Yet I continue to see new hams struggling with the difference between rig control and audio, AC and DC, the concept of an IF, simple voltage/current concepts, and so on. One reason may be our teaching tools haven’t caught up with the pace of technology. Three-inch thick manuals in an age where bookstores are extinct might not be the way to get it done. #jussayin

At some point the practices and frameworks need to advance. We are doing ok, but we need to do better.

The Finale: I understand this is bordering on TABOO, but I’ll close this post with questions that I hope sum up my outlook on Amateur Radio as it waddles into the 21st Century:

Do our current band plans look like what we would draw up based on the technology we have at our disposal today?

As well, do our current band plans create a chilling effect on the adoption and implementation of new technologies?

Are we so anchored to the past that we have limited our ability to reach forward?

Can we create better technical standards, better education materials, and move toward better informed hams who can help move the pursuit forward and step beyond appliance operation?

I’m not pointing fingers (maybe a little). Those are questions I often ask about myself. I am largely an appliance operator. I build a few kits when I have time, make my own cables, build basic antenna systems, and am dedicated to self-education. I lean on a foundation of electronics basics and I want to learn more. But I also want to learn better.

I am using the FT8 discussion as a backdrop because we should be able to conceptualize how important decreasing the power and antenna requirements for ham radio is to the survival of the hobby. It is democratizing, and allows the ham radio experience to be enjoyed by the many. It also leans on tech that a 21st century ham takes completely for granted. If anything the challenge for today’s hams is adapting to the use of older tech that is used virtually nowhere else. The RS232 Serial Port is a great device, but try finding one on a modern computer. The urge to learn the technology is as strong as ever in the next generation of hams, we just need to lay a functional understanding of radio tech over that urge. That is difficult if the tech we are teaching and using is not current.

PostScript: I don’t see modes like FT8/JS8 as an end. I hope they are the foundation for more versatile and robust modes to come. We will always have SSB and CW and modes like RTTY. But unless we can get behind what the future holds we run the risk of being a bunch of radio-wielding Civil War reenactors. And one day we might show up to the battlefield and see a big CLOSED sign. Nobody wants that.

Lightweight Antenna Roundup – Episode 1 -The PAR TF 402010

My first HF transceiver was a Ten Tec Triton IV with analog dial, followed by a TT Argo, A Yaesu FT101, and then one of the original, “shack in a box” radios, the ICOM IC706 (and later a MKIIG). For reasons mentioned in the previous post on this blog I moved on to running a Yaesu FT-857D, a FT-817ND, and an original FT-817. That gear, along with an assortment of V/U/SHF equipment for VHF contesting, and various FM HTs, was the basis of my experience with transceivers. I got to know what I liked and what I didn’t. The Triton IV was the most fun CW rig I have ever used. The receiver was easy on the ears, the QSK was fantastic (like listening to yourself on receive), and it was fairly portable. The IC706 rigs were more versatile, covered more bands, had more power, and included at 20/70cm all mode. And it wasn’t a bad all-mode. After seeing my gear pile dwindle to almost nothing I started putting together a new station. I was looking for something fun and portable and found myself looking at the uBitx. I worked up one kit but just felt like it was not going to handle what I wanted to do. Then Xiegu released their G90 and that radio got me back on the air for over a year. It’s a great rig, but it came with the question of what antenna to pair it with?

Having used wire dipoles and a few commercial multiband verticals for fixed operation, and hamsticks, base loaded whips and other compact designs for mobile use, I had something to refer back to. My experiences with those mobile antennas was not great. Yes they work. But no, they are no comparison to a full size antenna. I used those in both fixed and mobile setups and I was happy for any contact I could make. To be honest hey were not good performers on either transmit or receive. Once band conditions improve you will be able to regularly work some sweet DX at 20W into a 20M hamstick on a mag mount. Now is not that time. If you can’t put up a perfect antenna, at least try for the least-bad antenna you can manage.

It turns out that while I was off not paying attention to ham radio equipment there has been an explosion in “compromise” designs like end fed wire antennas and they can be built/purchased to suit anything from an altoids-tin rig to a legal limit linear. The development of these antennas revolves around two fundamental designs: A half-wave radiator with a 49:1 un-un at the feedpoint; or a 9:1 balun feeding a non-resonant wire. In practice the use of a counterpoise is either unnecessary or misunderstood. From an optimal antenna standpoint these designs leave much to be desired. The matching unit is being asked to make a large impedance transformation into a rather blunt radiator, without the typical array of ground radials or even a counterpoise of any kind. However, from a real-world standpoint these designs are proving to be both effective and easily erected while also being cheap to build. That is rare.

After perusing many different designs I purchased the PAR 402010 Trail Friendly. It is advertised as covering three popular bands with no ATU, and it is light enough to be supported by just about any support. This is a design antenna with a history of being made by several builders and Vibroplex now markets them with the PAR branding. It features a 41′ lightweight insulated/stranded wire radiator with a 40M trap to make it resonate on both 40m and 20m, and it will also load on parts of the 10m band. The lightweight build still feels sturdy, and has proven durable over a year of regular use. The tip of the radiator can get mashed up a bit, especially if you have a mast collapse. Note my use of a heavy wrap of electrical tape at the tip of the mast. It helps with setup and fits in the collapsed tube.

About that mast… (12M Spiderpole Mini-Review Alert) At the same time I was searching for antennas I found another member of the Vibroplex line, Spiderbeam, and their 12-Meter Spiderpole. Often nicknamed “the beast” It’s built like a tank and can hold up much more than this little low-power wire vertical. Interestingly they do fit like they were made for each other. “The Beast” isn’t a backpacker pole unless you are a glutton for punishment or take your Cross-Fit habits onto the trails. It isn’t terribly compact, and it isn’t light. What it is is a borderline overbuilt 41 foot weatherproof antenna support.

The Spiderpole is overkill, a luxury, though a versatile luxury at that. It is a big, heavy telescoping mast and needs to be well secured at the base. It has more wind load than I guessed and exerts a lot of leverage on that base section, so you want it to be well secured while avoiding hard points where the fiberglass tube wall could fail under a sudden or heavy wind load. The upside is you get a 41′ vertical skyhook. Nice. It also shrinks the footprint compared to what you need for a sloper or inverted vee and allows you to work where there is no overhead support. I am surrounded by beaches, so something like this lets me operate from more locations and not be limited by the presence/absence of a large tree(s) and I create less of an attractive hazard for lookie-loos. It appears to be a law of physics that as soon as you put up an antenna some random mammal will walk directly into it within 5 minutes. All you can do is pad the odds in your favor.

Very Vertical

I was curious how this antenna would perform, especially compared to a 9:1 unit I had built and used on this same Spiderpole support. Mine is the basic trifilar design over a T200 core. The 9:1 works, but I always feel like I am working “up-hill” with it. That perception is based on ability to work stations I hear, and the signal reports I receive. There are worse options than a 9:1 into a chunk of wire sized to a convenient non-resonant length, but it feels very lossy in operation. When I first rigged the PAR I had my doubts. Rated at 25W SSB it isn’t much to look at. The matching unit is smaller than a fun-sized candy bar, the wire looks like overbuilt dental floss. Once I attached it to the Spiderpole and got it fully extended the ultralight wire It seemed out of balance being supported by “the beast”. Happily I was more than surprised at how well it performed. I observed much more parity with the stations I was hearing and working and logged several nice stretches of contacts on both FT8 and SSB. I was using it with both a Xiegu G90 and a Yaesu FT-991A, and aside from needing to watch the power output it did what it says on the tin. Three bands, no waiting. I don’t hesitate to set this up for a quick evening of casual operation since setup and take down require about 10 minutes each.

Here it is lashed to a deck railing in my back yard (or “garden”. You know who you are). If I was expecting gusty conditions I would have a 4-way support at the top rail and the base. In calm conditions the bongo ties hold up just fine. Just use as many as you dare. This thing puts a lot of stress on the support system.

When erected the matching unit sits about 3″ off the deck.

Technical Aside: These end-fed matching devices are indeed lossy. You don’t need to break out a calculator to know this. All you have to do is look at the designs for different power ratings. The size and number of the ferrite toroids (typically 43-Mix) need to be increased to withstand the increased field density of each higher power rating, and the heat that comes with it. A good portion, perhaps as much as 30%, of the power making it to the matching device gets siphoned off as resistive/heat losses. [tl/dr YOU ARE MAKING HEAT NOT ERP] But hey, you know the setup is a compromise going in. That compromise is lower overall efficiency in exchange for ease of setup and portability. I found that going from 5W to 10W output caused a sizeable step change in the contacts I was able to make, but that is to be expected, since my ERP was probably going from 3W to 7W. Certainly you can make a lot of contacts with this antenna, but you will probably be be several dB down from where you *might* be on a more efficient antenna system. The upside is that you can get on the air quickly with not much fuss, which translates to more time operating and less time reading long winded blog posts. But I digress.

A Phalanx of Bongo Ties and Clamps

One big question with “the beast” is how to support it, and one of those lightweight drive-on flagpole mounts is not likely to get it done. I currently use a phalanx of bongo ties, woodworker clamps, ratchet straps, and U-Bolts. None of them are perfect but I can lash it to a variety of improvised bases. I’m thinking a 36″ tubular support welded to a 2″ trailer hitch is about what it would take to have real peace of mind with this thing while operating car-portable.

Wrap Up: My feeling about this antenna has done nothing but improved each time I deploy it. I feel like this particular design gets overlooked. That’s a shame because it is a solid performer. It hears very well, is easy to tune, and I am always surprised at how well it works. We can hope all we want to have a low loss resonant radiator over a dense field of copper radials, or a big dipole/doublet/windom/curtain a half wave up on solid supports, but it seems that what many/most hams typically need is a way to get on the air under sub-optimal conditions. We also want to be able to actually operate once we get set up. What I would love to see is a 200W CW Rated version with the same 41′ design. Right now I guess I have to build one. Vibroplex has a potential two-fer on their hands if they can match a 41′ triband wire vertical to their affordable heavy-duty 12m Spiderpole. That opens it up to running CW or digital/RTTY at a full 100W and having a solid safety margin at the feedpoint.

I hope this was informative, or at least I hope you had a good nap. 73, N1QDQ

A quick note about my shack, and why..

I’ve been licensed since about 1992 and never had a “real” ham shack. My home shack was usually an extension of my desk area, and never a classic, photogenic, radio room with awards on the walls. As well, I have never owned a tower and have used either wire antennas or trap verticals. I had a good sized lot but I was losing trees to various blights and my spouse is…. antenna adverse? She has not problem with radio activity, but having a nest of wires on display is not her idea of a good time. We lived in a valley surrounded on three sides by basalt bedrock and till. If you want a RF absorbent QTH, move to the bottom of a valley surrounded by iron ore. Good times. That lays the basis for my choices, and as a result I did a lot of mobile and portable operating.

As I am closing in on 30 years as a ham I have had burst of activity and have been active sporadically for the past 15 years. I was living between two QTHs for the past 10 years and didn’t have a good spot for a permanent antenna at either. Plus, I was planning on selling a house and didn’t want to put something up and then have to break it all down again in short order. That property had too many scars from previous antennas already!

Even though I didn’t always find time to operate I always had at least one transceiver and an assortment of shortwave receivers. At the new QTH on the Rhode Island coast I have a smaller lot, and am planning some landscaping and construction. That is a bad time to start putting up permanent antennas. Thanks to a host of portable antenna options that didn’t stop me from finding a way to get on the air. Previously I had been operating on an Alpha-Delta DX-EE multiband dipole mounted in an attic space. Aside from being a bear to tune to resonance, It came with a host of RFI issues, and attic spaces make for poor antenna locations. I ran a Bencher Low Pass Filter which knocked down the worst of the RFI I was generating. It worked, and I made some good contacts on it, but overall I consider it a last-option solution. Again, an antenna surrounded by a RF absorber.

As I rebooted my shack setup and started researching gear I saw that a forest of QRP/Portable/Packable antennas and antenna supports had sprung up over the past decade. That piqued my interest in a major way. The idea that I could operate portable and not have to make huge compromises in antenna performance, or be limited by the ability to string dipoles in a forest canopy, was and is very attractive. I jumped in and built or purchased several pieces that allowed me to get on the air with a better signal, even if I was still operating out of Pelican cases at home. My plan is to cover a few of these choices with an eye on how I planned to deploy them, What I learned from deploying them, and my impressions of their performance. To say I am not being paid is an understatement. If I was ever to be endorsed or get a product to review it would be in boldface at the top of the post/video.

A Car-Portable POTA Activation Setup – FT-991A and no weight restrictions

Here’s a partial list of the gear I am hoping to cover, in no particular order, except that I am reviewing the PAR 402010 TF first…

PAR Trail Friendly 402010 (Vibroplex)

PackTenna Mini EFHW

Homebrew 9:1 End Fed Wire System

Homebrew 49:1-ish EFHW System

Spiderbeams 12M Spiderpole HD

DX Commander Expedition

Wolf River TIA Max

Chameleon MPAS Lite

Thanks for looking, and I hope I’m able to add something useful to the conversation around these popular antenna systems. My goal is to try and knock one out each week, and we will see how that goes.

Best 73, Pete Brunelli N1QDQ

Who’s afraid of FT8?

Preface: I am planning on creating some posts addressing this in a more technical fashion. This is not a comprehensive tech essay full of footnotes. You either know what this is about or you don’t. For now I am sharing this brain dump addressed to all amateur radio operators. We find ourselves in a unique circumstance where great changes have occurred over a long period of low solar activity, and we are now emerging with some very real social turbulence in the ham radio ranks. I think it is useful to take a broad view of this pursuit, this service, and reflect on how we have moved forward, and how we can continue to move forward. 73, Pete N1QDQ

Let’s travel back to the heady days of 2010, when a new ham radio sensation called PSK31 was “taking over the ham bands”. It allowed users with less than massive transmitters and antennas to make reliable keyboard to keyboard contacts on HF. It wasn’t perfect. Many ops ran too much power, or had overdriven signals, or both, and the small stations had a bit of work to do to get through a QSO. The spectrum slices being used were narrow/cramped, and it didn’t take much to interfere with another op. You pretty much had to be on the same frequency/offset as the other station (not reliable in split mode) or it didn’t work, and a big wooly signal would wipe out a quarter of the subband. The advantage was that it took up about a tenth of the spectrum of a RTTY signal, and was more power-efficient. It also allowed many more operators to share the same slice of spectrum. As is the case today it was also a reason for the “big gun” stations to sneer down their noses and tell “lesser’ operators how they were killing ham radio.

FFW to today, and we are in much of the same predicament with a newer mode called FT8. It is even more flexible than PSK31, works at even lower signal to noise ratios, and is implemented primarily through one application called WSJT-X. It does not support anything much beyond the bare bones exchange of callsign, location and signal report. That makes sense since the suite of modes associated with Joe Taylor K1JT, Steve Franke, K9AN, and a cadre of experimenters was developed for very weak signal operations like Earth-Moon-Earth (EME) and Meteor Scatter. It turns out some of these modes, specifically FT8 and FT4, are very robust over traditional HF frequencies and propagation modes. And yet, despite allowing a large number of contacts over a small slice of spectrum, with lower power, and lower s/n ratios, FT8 users are again subject to ridicule by keepers of the mid-20th century technology flame. This extends to purposeful QRM, sneering memes about how FT8 ops are not real hams, how their QSOs don’t count, how it is “cheating”, and so on. Even as predictable as it is, it puts the ugly side of the “friendliest hobby” at the forefront of the much needed conversations around how our spectrum allocations are utilized, and how they will be used going forward.

Which is a shame, because these computer-controlled weak signal modes on the HF bands are nothing if not entirely consistent with the traditions of ham radio, and the central thesis of evolving to incorporate new technology as it emerges. The integration of existing and new technologies into radio communication is the hallmark of ham radio. What began as the transmission of Morse Code (tech adapted from the wired telegraph industry) using a spark gap transmitter, quickly evolved to a continuous-wave (CW) transmission based on the implementation of the vacuum triode as a tunable oscillator and amplifier. The spark-gap blasted RF across a big slice of RF spectrum. CW turned that on its head and allowed for more efficient narrow-band communications. Suddenly there was more room for more operators to communicate with less power over longer distances.

When modulated carrier audio came into being, it was double-sideband full carrier amplitude modulation, or AM. This is what we hear when we listen to the AM broadcast band. It takes a lot of power to generate that signal, and it also takes up a lot of spectrum. As the need arose for more efficient communications modes (portable equipment, lower power requirements, covering greater distances) it was found you could do away with the carrier (which was the reference frequency for the audio sidebands) and then one of the two sidebands. Thus Single Side-Band (SSB) was created. By giving the receiver the necessary oscillators to rebuild the audio information, the transmission could be made using much less power. This mode relied on the many improvements to vacuum tube technology, including miniaturization, lower power circuitry, and the use of multiple oscillators in new configurations. These fundamental modes of radio communication, data and audio, integrated new technology as it appeared, and hams were pivotal in their widespread adoption. As well, hams were pivotal in the development of new modes of radio communication based on these principles. They were, as now, radio experimenters. They were doing for free what governments were doing under much less liberated circumstances.

Radio technology eagerly adopted every advance in electronics tech, from vacuum tube minaturization, to the semiconductor, the integrated circuit, the standardization of component packaging, and then the microprocessor. Microprocessors were a natural fit for radio communications because they can manipulate control voltages and logic states at a blinding pace. The earliest and slowest microprocessors were adding communications capabilities beyond the analog realm. It also turned out you could emulate an oscillator with a microprocessor. Even at audio frequencies this was a giant leap for oscillator miniaturization and stability. Once these microprocessors were integrated into computing platforms, handling user input, program code execution, data storage, and data output, the modern era of computer/radio hybridization was in play.

It is simple enough to state that a radio station operating without some form of semiconductor and microprocessor technology is indeed a rarity. I know of no hams who are aching to go back to drifty oscillators and inefficient transmitters. Yes, that gear is still in use by a few stations, but I’ll bet each one has a modern rig right next to it. While modern technology has come to dominate the scene, all of the historical phases of electronics technology still have a place in the pursuit of radio communications (ok, maybe not spark gap). The fundamentals of radio still apply regardless of the technology.

So I ask, earnestly: How did this illustrious, enjoyable, and diverse pursuit of technology applied to radio communication become beholden to gatekeepers who selectively decide which modern technology is appropriate, and which they believe makes one a “fake ham”? It is almost universally the cry of hams who are “fortunate” enough to have a tower(s) supporting a big directional antenna(s) fed by a kilowatt(s) of RF, using modes established in the WWII era, who demand that they be crowned the gatekeepers of What Is Correct.

The facts are decidedly at odds with their position. If they were in any way in the majority it would be reflected in radio equipment sales and development. I believe the “average” ham has a somewhat modern 100W transceiver with a simple antenna, and a few helpful accessories. Additionally, they own a computer, which has become not only extremely cheap, but extremely effective. Somehow, in the middle of a deep and prolonged solar minimum, the airwaves are increasingly being used by many low power stations using compromised antennas, often with portability in mind. One reason this has been possible has been the development of modes like FT8. When you can run a 1-30W transceiver into a $20 homebrew end-fed wire, controlled by a $50 Raspberry Pi “toy” computer, and make a contact 10,000 miles away, it opens up the accessibility of radio communication in a myriad of ways. I made my first JA contact from my new QTH using 35W into a wire vertical, and FT8. It’s just as valid as any other contact.

I agree that the FT8 QSO is not very satisfying from a “chat about the weather and your radio” perspective. But let’s be honest, a typical CW conversation is name, location, rig, antenna, and brief weather observation. It’s fun. I love it. But it isn’t exactly deep bonding going on there. FT8 is giving the user more of a “contest mode” QSO. Being that it is good enough for the biggest stations in the world, as long as an actual contest is afoot (every weekend, #jussayin), why is it less appropriate in weak signal work? Maybe it’s has to do with the fear of losing status? Maybe it’s the need to ensure that kilowatt stations using 80 year old tech continue to dominate the way hams use their HF spectrum allocations in the 21st century? I can understand it, objectively, though I have not been able to assemble that kind of station. I also understand bullies. All too well. Ham radio needs to face up to the fact that it has a bully problem.

Unless you have been under a rock you know that every slice of the radio frequency spectrum is being eyed by some monied interest somewhere across the globe. Each time you see a nation kick their amateurs off an allocation it should raise an alarm. One would think the response of established spectrum users would be to promote increased usage and improved spectrum efficiency. It is counterintuitive to act as if relying more heavily on old tech is some kind of hedge against spectrum loss. I also fear that hams hold themselves to a standard that is not recognized outside of ham culture. An objective survey of the HF allocations would hear a small segment of intense activity in the bottom 100KHz, and then a lot of SSB voice spread out across the rest of the allocation.

My purpose here is to begin a conversation not end one. This is the scenery as I see it, from my perspective as a ham who has held an Extra Class license for almost all of my 27+ years of ham-life. I am often operating portable equipment, often at QRP or slightly higher power levels. I try to enjoy all that ham radio has to offer. I like HF QRP CW, as well as digital modes, as well as VHF/UHF contesting, as well as SSB, and SWL, and applied electronics concepts, and so on. I feel that there is a disturbing social pushback on the current practices and adaptations many hams have made in the era of condo rules, suburban/urban constraints, restricted public space access, and accommodating family and work life, by a small population of operators who don’t share those constraints. All of the tools available to hams have a place. And it is a great credit to hams everywhere that there is a general respect for gentleman’s agreements and international spectrum guidance. What I hope we see as this next solar cycle heats up is not just continued cooperation, but greatly enhanced cooperation. There is room for everyone, and every facet of the hobby. There has to be. The alternative is unimaginable, avoidable, loss.

Endnote: One piece of Amateur Radio News that spurred me to write this piece is this: FT8 Ruling The Airwaves from DXWorld.net. I believe it shows how a more efficient mode of communication increases the effectiveness of the power output on hand, and how attractive that is to many hams. I don’t think it is more complicated than that.

Always Loud Somewhere

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.

Pete, N1QDQ

*cockroach = will be the last thing still working before the sun swallows the earth

Radio. Radio.

This WordPress site has been dormant for a while, but I want to use it to store up a few Amateur Radio posts, and maybe share some content. Watch This Space. Pete

Why are we scapegoating “China Sword”?

The following is a largely stream-of-thought article on the recycling side of waste management systems in North America. I could have used “United States” instead, but this issue is broader in scope than that. Many people are using the term “crisis” regarding a change in Chinese policy. I think we can learn more if we approach the issue as “from crisis, opportunity“. This is my own work and does not reflect the policies or opinions of my employer, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

When it comes to the recycling side of the solid waste industry in 2019 there is one King Kong-sized boogeyman. High Prices? Bad Markets? Excessive Transport Costs? All those problems and more are thrown at the feet of “China Sword“, one of the names given to a Chinese pivot away from importing post-consumer recyclables from North America. This policy is tied to surging costs and shrinking profits in the waste management industry.

The Chinese Recycling Market Genesis Story goes like this: For over 20 years China’s expanding manufacturing industries were sending container ships full of consumer goods to the North America. These ships would unload at a major port such as Long Beach, CA, but there were insufficient corresponding North American exports to fill the containers for the return trip. The economics of transporting a load of empty containers back to China were terrible, so bringing back *anything* was preferable. Thus a “black hole” for post-consumer materials was born. Those containers were filled with post-consumer recyclable material from North American households and businesses. From the North American perspective it was a miracle. No domestic processing requiring labor and machinery and electricity was required, only cheap rail shipments to the west coast, and the material was GONE. On the Chinese side the main end product for these materials was packaging for Chinese electronics and other consumer products, which would be exported to North America, and then theoretically returned to China to be born again as new packaging.

If that sounds too good to be true, it was. The quality of the material being delivered to North American docks was terrible. Much of it had high rates of contamination, or worse, involved good looking material on the outside and garbage on the inside. It is likely that none of this material would have been accepted for processing at a North American facility. As we will see, the costs involved in removing that contamination strip the materials of their intrinsic value. It was not long before the Chinese decided they would not be a dumping ground for this poor quality material. None of this was (or should have been) a surprise to North American brokers. Any serious student of recycling processes, markets, materials, and policies is not buying onto a “magical end market”. The charade continued until the proverbial well ran dry. At that point a crisis was born. China hit the brakes. Where importing poor-quality recycled materials may have been economically sound at one time, that time came to an end. China’s economic path from a producer of trinkets to a producer of iPhones led to a mature modern economy, with global economic ties and massive earnings.

It appeared to be a sudden reversal from the perspective of the US. But how could it have been. Waste management is a multi-billion dollar industry, employing economists, international business analysts, experts in everything from curbside collection to trade policy, and it revolves around the banking industry. That banking industry is doing their own due diligence. How could the entire industry, the transportation industry, and their financiers have overlooked this iceberg? My cynicism tells me they didn’t.

Much like the Chinese consumer goods of the 2000’s, North American recyclables were overwhelmingly destined for export markets. There had been very little investment in processing infrastructure on this side of the Pacific. Likewise, there had been no reason for collection programs to stress high quality over sheer volume. The export markets had not demanded it, and domestic markets were glad to limit themselves to materials such as white office paper and high-quality plastics, both known for low contamination rates and high value. Pre-Sword, if a municipal collection program was getting paid $20/ton for mixed recyclables, why would there be a reason to worry? As seen from the generation/collection side of the process it seemed like a status quo had been established, and there was very little indication it would change. Processors were offering 5- and 10-year contracts with guaranteed rebates. Generators and trash haulers were writing those rebates into their cash-flow calculations. Ah… Good Times! Not many were aware that this model relied on a distant market with a rapidly growing consumer sector and a government with the ability to alter course on a dime. The ones who were aware seem to have been satisfied to ride the wave until it crashed.

And crash it did. The closure of the Chinese market caused a virtual evaporation of system capacity. Post-consumer material had nowhere to go. The end markets (purchasers of separated recyclables) who would take the material demanded very low contamination rates (Between 1 and 5%, and lower). China had set their acceptable rate at 1.5% and then lowered it to 0.5%. As far as North American MRFs (Material Recovery Facilities or MRFs, pronounced “murfs”) were concerned this rate was impossible to achieve. Without a huge low-cost destination for post-consumer materials, the focus began to shift from quantity to quality.  Many MRFs were running their material through their processing line a second time to reduce contamination. This effectively halves their capacity and doubles their labor and energy costs per ton. The result is spiking costs.

As 2019 progresses, the old contracts fade away, and the shock over post-Sword economics sinks in. Processing a ton of recycling might cost as much as disposing of a ton of trash (or more), a previously unthinkable scenario. Where there were once $20/ton rebates, the cost to deliver recyclables to a MRF (called a tip-fee) was suddenly $25-$75/ton. States, municipalities, corporations, MRFs and brokers are all wondering who will pay for these new costs. In cases where long-term contracts with rebate pricing were in force, they were either torn up or the contractee was hit with higher “claw-back” costs in their next contract (making up for losses under the old rebate contract. Some scenarios involved both tearing up a contract as well as claw-back pricing. Could it be that the closure of the Chinese “Magic Market” exposed North American markets to the actual costs of their waste management policies? Can I make that any more of a leading question?

To turn specifically to the United States, our current solid waste management practices matured under those pre-Sword conditions. The expectations of cheap markets for poorly-sorted recyclables have been baked in to our system over the course of decades. That system relies heavily on export markets. It has failed to develop domestic processing and remanufacturing capacity in the shadow of those export markets. It also relies heavily on long-haul transportation instead of local and integrated, collection, processing and remanufacture. The challenge we now face is one of self-examination, education, commitment, and investment. Can we face up to the facts regarding our laissez-faire approach to waste? The idea that we can mass-produce products and packaging, with no regard to the implications, continues to be discredited every day. Whether it is a global adjustment like China Sword, or a local town-hall budget meeting erupting into a shouting match because the money is simply not there, the current system benefits very few and places a massive economic and environmental burden on the public at large.

To return to the opening question, why would we blame China for this scenario? Do they have some kind of mandate to take poor-quality material from halfway around the world, only to spend money to separate it into useful parts, dispose of the contaminants, and hope to end up in the black? None that I know of. More to the point, considering the importance of the Chinese market to the North American waste management industry, why was there no trade agreement in force regarding recycled materials. It was basically one giant handshake deal. This is the quicksand upon which was built the economic basis of the materials management economy for over 20 years.

There is a feeling that the market will settle, costs will relax, and a “new normal” will take shape. For most people in the waste management industry from the consumer/generator to the recycled content manufacturer it can’t happen soon enough.

I intend to come back and dig deeper into these issue in future posts, but I would like to close with a few observations about where the opportunities and solutions might lie:

Strong National and State Policies: To date the waste management industry has largely been left to run itself. It is important to give credit where credit is due. The industry has developed the technology and the economic strength to process much of our nation’s waste material. However, in the end it still operates on a volume basis. The incentive to reduce waste is simply anathema to the waste management industry. This is similar to the relationship between the electric generation industry and energy efficiency. EE measures take dollars out of the system. In the waste management industry, waste reduction plays the role of energy efficiency. The industry has been able to manage waste materials through a network of landfills, waste-to-energy facilities, and recycling facilities. No industry would voluntarily takes profits off the table, and as a bloc the waste management industry lacks the scope to put a value on efficiency and develop the policies and partners to make it work. What is needed now is a strong framework to guide the conversion of that industry to one that works for the next 100 years. It simply must evolve to yoke a reduction in waste generation to improvements in separation, processing and disposal.

The Supply/Demand Void: With the market value of post-consumer recyclables at a deep low there should be a buyer to embrace this buyer’s market. Right now that seems to be limited by processing capacity and the ability to reduce contamination to the new, lower, standards. As well, separated, high quality, low contamination materials are still holding their value in the marketplace. The real boat anchor is mixed recyclables (many of us know this as Single Stream, or Blue Bin). As I was once taught, the technology required to fix a problem is exponentially greater than the technology required to create it. Creating mixed recyclables is easy. Separating them into the component parts and maintaining the integrity of those parts is exponentially more difficult and more costly. The mixed recycling days should by all rights be coming to an end. Hence…

Source-Separation. This term can be used to describe separating recyclable materials from trash, but it also means separating recyclable materials by type before they are commingled. Separating materials such a cardboard, certain plastics, textiles, food waste, electronics, metal, and packaging at the source (the consumer in most cases) yields cleaner and more valuable material without the need for expensive post-processing. This approach also reduces the total quantity of mixed recyclables, lessening the strain on MRFs trying to meet the low contamination rates the market demands.

Cooperative and Expanded MRF Infrastructure: A MRF is a fairly innocuous industrial process. Most of these facilities can be sited in a light industrial zone with access to highway and rail/ship/manufacturing infrastructure. Cities, regions, or states might find the best solution to cost is to contract with a facility to process their recyclables. By keeping the size of each facility down the transportation costs are kept down, and the amount of post-process materials (baled separated recyclables) is likewise kept to an acceptable level as considered by the host community. It is important to note that even clean separated materials sill require baling, storage and marketing. A move away from mixed recycling is not a threat to the MRF industry, but a lifeline.

Integrated Processing and Manufacturing: The conversion of post-consumer recyclables into consumer products the final link in the chain. The transportation costs involved in this process can be mitigated by locating manufacturing facilities within a short-haul of one or more MRFs. Similarly the opportunity for long-term supply contracts sets the stage for enhanced source-separation, decreased contamination, and decreased processing costs. Any MBA will tell you that this is a recipe for long-term control of both costs and materials supplies.

These approaches can all be part of the answer to “what’s next” in the aftermath of China Sword. This crisis presents and opportunity to build the next house on firmer ground, with known costs, and reliable cash flows. This is what drives investment, and ultimately creates a sustainable model with room to grow and change as future opportunities present themselves.

 

 

The Disclaimer

I’m not a music journalist. Thank me later. I detest the trend of comparing every band to some other band. It’s lazy. It is shorthand. It lets the writer off the hook, bypassing the need for deep thought ot deep listening.

What I write is largely reviews of music I have purchased directly from the artist. I know some of these folks personally, but I pay for the music whether it is downloads, CDs, concert tickets, whatever. If I think a recording is off, I’ll say so, but if I don’t like it I probably won’t waste my time writing about it.

Same for photography, food, travel, and anything else. Life is too short.

Let the Music Play

This blog has been dormant for quite a while, but my plan is to start putting up music reviews, and some longer-form pieces on learning, performing, and experiencing music.

Coming up very soon: A Tale of Two Mothers