Look No Further Than the Waterfall

I’ve spent most of the last five decades pounding brass. Starting as a Novice with CW-only HF privileges and equipment. My station has always been modest and I learned long ago the benefits of CW for the unassuming. 100 watts and a wire. That’s me. But I’ve enjoyed enough success with that combination that I’ve yet to meet a pile-up I didn’t think I could bust.

Then a few months ago ham radio was gifted with another new digital mode and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. My digital HF resume is downright embarrassing. I’ve made a handful of RTTY contacts in 40 years. Then when PSK31 became a “thing” I jumped on that bandwagon for about 30 minutes and four contacts before deciding it wasn’t for me.

But this FT8 thing has captivated me and I’ve logged nearly a thousand contacts with it in just a few months and it’s been an eye-opener. I simply didn’t know, and had no reason to assume that the digital HF segment of the hobby had grown so large.

I’m flat-out stunned by the number of hams engaged in this facet of our hobby.

While I have no data to back this up, it’s not much of a stretch to proclaim that there’s considerably more activity on the HF digital modes than can be found on CW. It wouldn’t even be a fair comparison if it weren’t for contesting.

And I’ve discovered a couple other things…

While working FT8, I keep a Web browser open so I can visit the QRZ pages of stations I work. A high percentage of these are younger than average operators and many of them also happen to be relative newcomers to hobby radio. While a lot of them cite antenna restrictions as an obstacle - this has been mitigated by the use of weak signal digital modes.

In fact, one evening I worked three stations who were using the HF mobile antenna on their automobile while it was parked in their driveway. Their bios detailed how they come home from work, park outside the garage door, and run a cable from the antenna on their car to inside their house so they can enjoy amateur radio too.

If you’re looking for a place where the younger, newer, smarter, more motivated, and more active ham radio enthusiasts are hanging out these days, look no further than the waterfall.

September 16, 2017

I have been curious about FlexRadio offerings since they entered the market. Early reviews of their hardware were very good and you could just tell that they were on to something. My own reticence about jumping onboard in those early days was based on my preference for a different operating system. Having to fight with Windows and its multitude of software updates and out of date drivers simply wasn’t my idea of hobby fun.

But when the evolution of the Flex hardware reached the point where the computing part of the radio was removed from the end-user, I went from curiosity to real interest. Still, it was a significant platform change and I wasn’t willing to abandon one ship to leap onto another.

And then came the latest 6000 Signature Series providing an option to make the transceiver a server while opening up the user interface to other devices like a Maestro, PC, Mac, or iOS device. Realizing that this sort of operability is available in a format that permits users to put the hardware in a closet (so to speak) while accessing that hardware via Ethernet was a real inflection point in my thinking about FlexRadio.

I reserved a Flex-6400 this week. Though it won’t be available until early 2018, I’m excited about this new future and am making plans for integrating this platform into my ongoing amateur radio adventure. Some will take place on an iPad from the road while others will be enjoyed with a Maestro sitting in my own backyard…

September 15, 2017

My wife and I plan to attend the Bloomington (Indiana) Hamfest next Saturday.

It’s a 2.5-hour drive from my house so normally we could just drive down and back in one day. But there’s no fun in that. And we noticed that on Friday night, in the same venue, the local club is sponsoring a fox hunt followed by a spaghetti dinner with live country music with the proceeds going to their “Helping Ham Fund”.

So, what the heck, we’re going down on Friday to partake in these festivities before the fest on Saturday morning. Trying to find lodging was tougher than I imagined. Almost every room in Bloomington is sold-out and what wasn’t was going for $300+ a night.

The room scarcity isn’t related to the hamfest – Bloomington is home to Indiana University which is hosting a football game on Saturday afternoon. I found a room 20 miles south for $200, more than I wanted to spend but I booked it.

Life’s too short to be a party pooper. See you there?

September 14, 2017

Do you plan to stay up late or wake up early to order the new iPhone?

I’ll be up at 3am EDT but I’m not ordering a phone, I want the Apple Watch 3 with GPS and cellular. I’ve owned a first generation Apple Watch since it became available and while I’m happy enough with it, the addition of cellular makes this something I can’t pass on.

Wish me luck. I’ll be bleary-eyed and fighting the queue just for the hope of placing an order in the middle of the night. If I succeed, the new Watch should arrive next Friday and then the fun begins, Dick Tracy style.

September 13, 2017

I noticed QRP-ARCI unfollowed everyone on their Twitter account recently. I’m not sure it matters. They never made good use of Twitter and the club seems locked in a death spiral.

Low-power activities are no less popular today than they were a decade ago, but the organization has failed to attract new blood and now is failing to thrive.

My subscription to the always excellent QRP QUARTERLY magazine is set to expire in January 2019 but I’ll be surprised if it’s still being published then.

September 12, 2017

CALLING CQ - Issue 105 is now available for viewing online. I make it available in this format because Yahoo Mail users are unable to receive these letters via email - it’s marked as spam by Yahoo. If you don’t use Yahoo Mail, sign up for a free subscription and I’ll drop the latest issue into your inbox each week.

September 11, 2017

Today is the anniversary observance of the most deadly terror attack on U.S. soil, when two hijacked planes were flown into the Twin Towers and caused their collapse. Two other planes were hijacked — one flown into the Pentagon near Washington D.C. and another crashed into a Pennsylvania field. Family members will again recite the names of 2,983 people, including those who died at the three sites, and in the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.

September 10, 2017

With Hurricane Irma approaching Florida, the Hurricane Watch Net is activated. In addition, SATERN has OUTBOUND Health and Welfare Nets activated.

Emergency Frequencies

  • Hurricane Watch Net 14.325.00 MHz, 7.268.00 MHz
  • SATERN 14.265 MHz, 7.262 MHz
  • 60 Meters may be in use for FEMA communications

September 9, 2017

A fellow can only watch just so many hours of hurricane news coverage in one week so after dinner last evening I retired to the shack. Having been away from home a few days, I fired up the laptop and went looking for something new. There were plenty of signals in the waterfall on 40 meters, but very little DX.

Calling a few stations in North America, I got nothing in return. This seemed unusual and continued long enough that I decided something must be wrong and I started checking settings. I couldn’t find anything obvious. The audio and USB connections all looked proper and the transmitter was certainly working. Then I noticed something odd, many of the stations who I had called appeared to have a time problem.

Surely it wasn’t everyone, maybe it was me?

A Wrinkle in Time

FT8 is particularly sensitive to the time. Your computer clock has to be within about one second of the actual time or it just won’t work. That’s why the WSJT-X docs recommend using a program or some other resource for regularly updating and maintaining your PC time.

I use a Windows 10 laptop for FT8. When I’m not using it, I turn it off and sometimes that can be for several days at a stretch. I expect it’s clock to be off a little every time I turn it on and so as a matter of practice, the first thing I do when I boot it up is to go into settings and request a time update.

I did that first thing last night but after seeing so many time discrepancies I did it again. And then a few times more for good measure. I started and stopped the program a few times too, just to be certain it was registering the updated time setting. But all of the stations I tried to call seemed to be out of sync with me and eventually, I gave up and went to bed.

That was the first time I’ve ever been skunked trying to make an FT8 contact.

What a Difference a Day Makes

This morning I was up long before dawn and back in the shack and once again, I set the clock on the laptop and listened to 40 meters. The band was dead. Same for 30 and 20 meters but 80 meters seemed to be buzzing and almost all of the stations copied appeared to have their time set correctly. First CQ I replied to I worked. Then another and another.

Now this is the way it’s supposed to work!

I logged twenty contacts before stopping for another cup of coffee and to jot down this entry before the sun comes up. Though I’ve devoted most of my on-air time to FT8 these last few months, I’m certainly no HF digital expert and have no explanation for this.

Is it possible that a dozen or more stations were out of time-sync last night or was it me?

September 8, 2017

U.S. Highway 66 was established in 1926, and was the first major improvement to link the west coast with the heartland. Through stories, songs and TV shows, the highway came to symbolize the spirit of the freedom of the open road, inspiring many to see America. The demise of Route 66 began in the 1950’s as the U.S. began the interstate highway system, and the highway was officially decommissioned in 1986. Today, small portions of the U.S. Highway 66 still exist in towns and rural areas in several states.

The Citrus Belt Amateur Radio Club of San Bernardino, California will host the 18th annual Route 66 On The Air special event, September 9-17. The event offers radio amateurs a chance to perhaps relive their own Route 66 memories and to celebrate the famed highway’s 91st anniversary. There will be 21 stations – two of them “rovers” – operating in or around the major cities along Route 66 from Santa Monica, California, to Chicago, Illinois.

Radio amateurs who operate while driving on Route 66 may take part in the event by using the designations “mobile 66” or “/66” after their call signs.

Each participating club will issue its own commemorative QSL card to celebrate this event. Certificates are also available. Visit the event Web site for complete details including frequencies and modes to look for. 

Be sure to get your kicks, on Route 66.