Amateur radio contesting is a very popular pursuit with the hobby. This past weekend, a couple of friends came to my station in Massachusetts for the annual CQ Worldwide SSB DX Competition. This is an amateur radio competition in which stations all over the world try to contact each other as fast as possible, on six different frequency bands. It went 48 hours from October 26 2019 0000 UTC to October 27 2019 2359 UTC. The final score is calculated based on the number of contacts made, and the number of countries and zones contacted. For the purposes of this competition, the world is divided into 40 different zones.
The operating itself is very challenging. In this voice version of the competition, the goal during each contact is to capture the call sign, signal report and zone from the remote station. And, he or she must capture ours. Getting these right is often not a simple matter. The competition is actually built around this fact. If you submit a contact in your log that is incorrect, it will be removed, plus a penalty! So, you have to get it right; it does not pay to guess!
Here’s a few minutes of what was happening at K1IR on 40m in late afternoon on Saturday. Read on below to understand what is being communicated in these quick exchanges.
Understanding the Contest Exchange
Amateur radio operators and stations are identified by call signs issued by their national government. Call signs are constructed in two parts – a prefix that indicates the station country and a suffix that identifies the individual station within the country. My call sign K1IR starts with the letter K. The K indicates I’m in the United States. The rest of the call sign identifies me, specifically.
Communicating the call sign is hard to do when there is a lot of interference and when signals are weak. The stations with weak signals are often the most important to contact because they are far away, and they add a new country or zone to the score. So, it’s important to make those contacts and get all the information right.
Saying the individual letters of the call sign over and over again often isn’t enough to cut through to the other side. Years ago, some very observant and innovative person realized that instead of saying the letter I, for example, over and over again, a recognizable word that begins with I – like Italy or Indiana or India – would be easier to understand at the other side of the communication. Enter the phonetic alphabet. An official list of internationally standardized English words representing every letter of the alphabet was published. These phonetics have been used in commercial, military and amateur communications for years. In a competition, phonetics are indispensable. But, it turns out that the official phonetic word for a particular letter isn’t always easy to understand. During the course of a contact , an amateur operator will use alternative words when the official one doesn’t work well.
Many years ago, a signal reporting system was invented to allow amateur radio operators to deliver signal quality information to each other in a standard way. For voice signals, the signal report contains two components – Readability, with a scale of 1 to 5, and Strength, with a scale of 1 to 9. If I can understand your signal most of the time, I might give you a readability score of 4, and if the signal varies in strength on my radio’s strength indicator between 4 and 6, I will give you a 5. So, the report becomes 45. The best signal report is 59. The sponsors of the competition added the signal report to the exchange of information as another element that needed to be understood correctly.
Guess what? Many years ago, another observant and innovative contest operator understood that signal reports are relatively arbitrary and that there was an alternative – within the rules – to the complexity of creating and communicating a different signal report for each contact. He decided to always send a 59 signal report to every station, no matter what the actual signal report should be. That strategy worked. Every station he contacted came to expect the 59 report and it did not need to be repeated. The result was a faster pace and a strategic advantage. Since that time every contest operator has adopted the same tactic. All signal reports are 59. The strategic advantage is gone. Only the contest sponsor has been left behind. The signal report remains part of the required exchange only as a matter of tradition.
The third part of the required exchange in this competition is the CQ zone. As mentioned earlier, there are 40 CQ zones. The N1MM computer logging software we use knows which countries are in each zone. And, the software can determine the country by parsing the call sign for each station contacted. So, the zone is automatically identified when the call sign is entered into the software for each contact. There are occasional inconsistencies, so we always confirm that the proper zone was captured.
Through the course of a weekend, these competitions allow us to demonstrate proficiency in many areas of amateur radio. We spend countless hours building a station and improving our skills.
Of critical importance are the antennas. Different antennas are needed for each frequency band. Some kinds of antennas work best for shorter distances, others are more suited for long distance. And, there is a need to focus signals toward all different parts of the world. Antenna design, installation and maintenance is probably the most important part of the success of the station, so that’s where much time and resource is applied.
The radio equipment is also a very important part of the formula. The right equipment allows individual signals to be more easily decoded in the sea of signals being received. And, automation of as many functions as possible makes the operator more efficient. In our multi-two category, we need to have the equipment that allows two operators to make contacts on different frequency bands simultaneously. Setting up a station that’s easy to use and effective is not simple. Many challenges arise, from interstation interference to ergonomics, every small improvement helps operators achieve higher contact rates.
Operator Skills and Experience
A well-designed, efficient station does not operate itself. The operator who sits down in front of the station needs to be trained and experienced in its use. The essence of contest operating is knowing what kind of operating activity will drive score up most at any particular point during the contest period, and having the expertise to do it well.
There are two primary modes of operation – searching for new contacts by tuning across the frequency band and listening for call signs that have not been contacted yet. Any station in a country that has not been contacted yet is of particular interest. It’s tempting to keep trying to contact those, but there is usually a lot of competition to make that same contact. So, investing time in getting through to that new country needs to be balanced with the possibility of making several other easier contacts.
The other mode of operation is called running. When a station runs, he makes a general call inviting any station to reply. This is called a CQ call. Any number of stations may reply to a CQ. Sometimes its zero, sometimes it’s just one. When there are a lot of stations to contact and signals are strong, there can be multiple stations responding at the same time. A great operator will always be able to correctly capture the call sign of one of the callers after every CQ, and keep the exchange with each caller extremely short. This results in the highest rate. But, difficulty understanding some letters and requests for repeats can really slow things down. A great operator gets a rhythm going, which attracts the attention of other stations tuning through.
The Propagation Factor
All this equipment, experience and skills contribute to a better score. But, there is also an element of the unknown. Propagation of radio signals around the world is influenced by what is know as space weather. The ionosphere – the layer of our atmosphere that reflects radio signals and allows worldwide communication – is sensitive to emissions from the sun. When the right circumstances exist, communication can be outstanding on many frequencies. But, when the sun is inactive or generating undesired emissions, the result is poorer reflections and weaker signals here on Earth. These effects are dominant. The work we do on our stations and antennas cannot overcome the presence of extremely high absorption or other behavior of the ionosphere.
So, operators of stations must be aware of the type of conditions that exist moment by moment during the course of the competition and adapt. Effects of space weather combine with normal changes that occur through the 24-hour cycle of dark and light. Effective operators know when to be changing to a new frequency to take advantage of a path that will open to some important part of the world.
How Did We Do?
Pretty well. We made just under 2,000 contacts and our total score was almost 3 million points. We did quite well in the countries and zones department, but we should have racked up 500 more contacts. We were a bit short on operating time and some important antennas did not work correctly. So, we’ll fix those problems and shoot for a better score next year!