Saturday, 3 June 2017

Digital Revolution Or Evolution?

courtesy: KD0WTE

A recent reflector posting tended to confirm a rather intriguing trend that I have also been noticing over the past few years.

The poster lamented the fact that he often found very few or even no CW / SSB signals on the HF bands while at the same time seeing lots of activity throughout the digital portion of the bands.

It does seem like there is far less CW and phone activity on the HF bands now, than there was a few years ago and there is no question that digital activity has soared. Whether it's RTTY, PSK31, JT65, WSPR, JT9 or others, these digital signals are always prominent and, band plan or not, are slowly migrating further in the band as activity increases ... but is this the reason for the decline of traditional modes?

The digital weak-signal modes make these extremely popular for a number of reasons. Nowadays, many amateurs are living in antenna-restricted communities and are forced to develop smaller, lower and less effective stealthy antenna systems if they wish to get on the air and make contacts. Most of these modes perform well with minimal amounts of power and are capable of hearing well into the noise ... and unless you live out in the country, with well-separated neighbours, we all know that noise is increasing at horrific levels almost everywhere. These two factors alone might well explain much of the growth in digital activity.

Licencing requirements have also been slowly evolving and today, getting a ticket is much easier than it was several decades ago ... and in many cases, without the requirements of knowing anything about CW. Every month, North Americans see a large number of new amateurs, many with no code skills and possibly not much interest in acquiring them. From my own local observations, most of these new amateurs usually head straight to FM on the VHF/UHF bands and have little knowledge of or interest in HF radio. These factors must also play into the demise of activity on the traditional HF modes as well.

We also shouldn't overlook the influence that Old Sol is having on our HF bands as well. Solar Cycle 24 (begun in 2008) has been one of the poorest on record and continues to generate month after month of terribly poor HF propagation. As a young SWL who listened in Cycle 19, (the largest on record), I can vouch for the relationship between HF activity and good propagation. Those were amazing days, when 20 and 15m would stay open all night long ... even 10m would often still be open with F2 propagation at midnight towards VK and ZL! Everyday, month after month, the bands were simply bulging with activity, from end to end ... high solar flux numbers bring high activity numbers and we are now experiencing the downside effects of what happens when the sun dreadfully underperforms. The only exception to band-bulging activity today seems to be limited to major contest weekends only. Where these people go the rest of the time is a mystery.

There are surely other reasons as well for the gradual decline of traditional-mode HF activity, including the fact that the general ham population is getting older. Large numbers of stations are simply 'going away' as interest or opportunity declines and as more of the aging traditional-mode ops go 'SK'. I know of several hams that have just given-up because of insurmountable increases in their local noise floors. Our new and usually younger hams, have largely grown up in the 'digital age' and for those that do find themselves exploring the HF bands without CW skills, might logically settle into the digital modes first.

Things are changing quickly, of that there is no doubt. Last summer, on 50MHz, I noticed a large increase in the number of dedicated CW operators moving to JT65 and JT9 during openings and this summer has already seen another huge migration from one mode to the other.

Although this year's Sporadic-E season is just getting started, I have already heard many more countries on JT65 than I have on the traditional modes (Japan, Philippines, China, Formosa, Alaska, Venezuela, Cuba, Brazil). Yesterday I listened to a PY calling CQ on CW for some length, with no takers, while it seemed most of the usual west coast ops were watching the digital band. I fear that many good QSO possibilities will be lost as more stations switch to the much slower digital modes ... on 6m, many of the openings last for a very short time making CW or SSB the quickest way to complete a contact. The other problem I notice this summer is that there are several JT sub-modes and it is often difficult or impossible to figure out which mode is being used let alone having the time to switch to the other mode before signals are gone ... perhaps a case of having too much of a 'good thing'? Hopefully one mode will emerge as the '6m standard' so all are on the same page.

What will be the long-term outcome of these changes remains to be seen but I suspect we'll see more and more of our HF CW and SSB spectrum space gradually shrinking to make room for more digital activity, likely to become the dominant modes eventually.

As a life-time, almost exclusive CW operator since age 15, I find this somewhat disheartening but must admit that over the past few years, I have found my own level of weak-signal digital activity increasing by leaps and bounds. These are powerful, capable modes and offer amateurs new and exciting challenges from VLF to nanowaves. Are they as exciting as my much-loved CW? Ask me in a couple of years!


Anonymous said...

Digital modes allow people to operate while they are at Starbucks or on Facebook etc. i.e. can be lazy/busy/passive persons modes.

SSB and CW are first person active -- actually takes some engaged effort. That is a big reason they are down in my opinion. Wow my weak signal beacon was picked up by a scraper in Belgium while I was sleeping. Amateur Radio is so fun!!!!!!

Costas SV1XV said...

I had given up ever achieving 5 Band DXCC due to extreme local noise levels on HF, which makes 80m unusable for SSB & CW. My location is a flat in a downtown condominium. However, within a month I managed to work and confirm some 12 new entities and end up with 104 DXCC entities on 80m due to a combination of the performance of JT65, the regular presence of some unsual entities in this band and mode and the use by many operators of LoTW for confirmations.

73 Costas SV1XV

Mark AB0CW said...

Although I completely understand the limited antenna, high noise argument for using modes like JT-65 / JT-9, WSPR, etc, these barely seem like QSOs to me. I have had about 100 JT-65 QSOs, so I have tried it, but finally got fed up with this so-called "weak-signal" mode. Seems like a whole bunch of S-9 signals to me in the bandpass. Great for paper-chasers or people who just don't like to actually talk on the radio.

I'm not putting down digi-modes fact I have been having some great QSOs using OLIVIA and CONTESTIA recently with under 30 watts....and JT-65 et al do have their uses too.

It's just the automated computer-to-computer QSOs ( like JT-65, or PSK-31 "Macro" QSOs ) that I find rather pointless, especially when the ops are running high power ( which many seem to be doing these days )!

But, to each his own. Still plenty of room on the bands for every interest. I will continue to pound brass and look for good, live QSOs until the QRN drowns everything out !

Oh, I don't find activity is down all that much either. Plenty of CW , SSB, and AM activity heard here in CO.

Cheers and 73 !

jeff said...

I am always amazed at the amount of activity during contests. Even during the low part of the cycle. Where does everyone go when the contest is over? Why aren't people more into making contacts at other times? I feel like people just except that it's not worth getting on the air. Ops were making contacts during the cqww contest; why not spend a little time on the air at other times? I feel like there is just too much out there competing for our time. By the way, I got relicensed in 2011 without the cw requirement, am now 45 but taught myself cw. It's my favorite mode although I've recently been playing with psk31. I enjoy sending and appreciate the mental challenge of decoding cw. We would all be better off if more people stopped watching the ionosphere forecasts and just turned on their radios and called cq.

Nice post - you have good points!


Steve McDonald said...

I guess it all comes down to what an individual prefers. I have found the digital modes dreadfully boring and slow but they have offered great opportunities for weak signal work on LF and MF and have provided the only possible way of making legitimate two-way QSOs, even though I would have preferred to do it on CW. When signals are strong I don't really see the purpose unless for the reasons mentioned above.

Steve VE7SL 73

Unknown said...

I will agree with Jeff's words, and I will reproduce them.

<< I am always amazed at the amount of activity during contests. Even during the low part of the cycle. Where does everyone go when the contest is over? Why aren't people more into making contacts at other times? I feel like people just except that it's not worth getting on the air. Ops were making contacts during the cqww contest; why not spend a little time on the air at other times?>>

I will just add that this also applies to SSB, even for RTTY, the oldest digital system.

TNX Steve


PE4BAS, Bas said...

Hello Steve, been reading this post for 2 times now. Very interesting/intriguing and for a while ago have been thinking about writing about this myself. My last weekend activity showed that even when bands are empty there is propagation as the digital frequencies are always occupied. I already predicted in the years coming, with minimum propagation, the JT modes will be the mode to use when you want to DX. I know not everyone likes this trend as most digi modes are only a exchange of report. However, if you use JT-Alert together with JT mode software it is possible to have a chat through a simple texting box. 73, Bas

Steve McDonald said...

Hello Bas and thanks for your comments.As far as I know, JT65 comments are limited to about 14 characters only so no real chat is possible, unless the 'chat' feature is some sort of built-in 'online chat' which will only further contribute to the demise of real on-the-air radio activity!

Steve 73

Unknown said...

If we have to keep the HF traditional mode alive, we must operate despite of poor propogation. HF is still a mystery even in dead band some time you can catch DX stations. Everyday I try to come on band and do some QSO and when propagation do not let me teach nearby VU I get replies from JA and VKs. Some new but highly educated technical profesional ham radio opetators are against HF because they do not have good operating skill. I remember a small group of ARRL members requested Nepal Government to prohibit HF and only to allow VHF and above bands. Their plea was that HF is inefficient and unreliable so should be discouraged.

For me real ham is one who has HF operating experience.

Photon said...

A very worthwhile and thought-provoking post.

Why is my own logbook full of JT QSOs? Not because I can't be bothered with CW or SSB, but because for the past several years, I had kids who went to bed and were still in bed when I wanted to operate.

In short, I could operate very effectively without shouting radio-speak all over the house! I also think that, whilst I don't chase DX simply for the sake of 'the log', digital modes are quite efficient means of getting that DX count up.

The question of using more of the bands for digital is an interesting one, but not necessarily one that inevitably leads to a digital takeover.

The derivative JTDX software, for example, is readily capable of pulling several stations calling at the same time, on the same frequency. Whilst it's not ideal, what is? I'm sure that future developments will increase the efficiency of these modes much further.

There is a tendency for some to view and operate digimodes as though somehow, they are not real. Calling over others, not giving others enough room to avoid QRM, and using too much power are increasingly common digimode diseases.

In the end, we can't claim to be a progressive, experimental and curious sort of hobby whilst decrying those things in digital modes. It's all part of the radio journey.

And, yes, for the 50% of the population that live in cities, operating other modes is increasingly an unrewarding experience, thanks to cheap electronics and almost absent regulation.