A DX-er’s Lament: There has to be a better way

Spark radio transmitter

Working DX can be really frustrating these days.  Ham radio is supposed to be fun, talking to stations in far off parts of the world, using equipment you have built yourself, and so on!  But sometimes contacting DX these days has evolved into a real mess.  Let me describe how this has come about and maybe you can come up with a better system.

In the early days of ham radio we used spark transmitters which had no unique frequency to tune to. Just a BLAAAhhh of radio energy into the antenna whenever the key was pressed. The frequency of most of the spark’s energy was determined by the antenna size.  Big antennas, 200 foot high and a half mile long, put out most of their energy on the lowest frequencies.  These signals traveled many hundreds of miles.  Hams were relegated to the higher frequencies which appeared to have much shorter range.  This helped a little, but still there was a lot of interference between government stations and private stations and hams.  If you were a ham living close to a government station, your weak signal could still knock his earphones off every time you pressed the key.  Needless to say, tempers were short, fights were frequent. Things could get real ugly very quickly.

With the advent of the vacuum tube and the crystal oscillator, transmissions were confined to single, unique frequencies.  Nice, clean dots and dashes.  Your receiver could select the frequency you wanted to listen to and reject all the others. In those early days you would tune your receiver to his frequency and then call him on your (different) transmitter frequency.  He would have to tune around looking for any station calling him. If many stations were calling him he might work two or three others before he got around to you. This is the way I worked ham radio from Alaska in 1948.

Then came the VFO (variable frequency oscillator) which allowed you to tune your transmitter to the DX station’s frequency.  Now, with a VFO, you and the station you call can communicate on the same frequency.  This soon became the standard both for CW (Morse code) and for phone (AM, FM, and single sideband.).  If a DX station called CQ (general call) and two or three answered then he would choose the loudest one or two and the others would wait their turn.  This was a relatively polite procedure. This type of operation is called Simplex. It works rather well for a small number of calling hams, but not with large numbers of calling hams.

As more and more hams get on the air, this easy-going, polite system begins to break down. When a ham from some rare pacific island country comes on the air, the response to his CQ might be thirty or forty stations from all over the world calling him on his frequency. He cannot select out a loudest ham from the pile.  But, even worse, when the DX station does return to a successful caller, that caller cannot hear his response because of all the stations still calling on the DX frequency.

 

Finally heard through the chatter: “Kilo Three Echo Echo you are 5 and 9 here on Pitcairn, QSL?”

The solution to this is to separate the calling frequency from the DX frequency. This is known as Split operation.  The DX station gives out an offset of frequency, or a small range of frequencies that he will tune through and listen to. For example “This is VP6T up 5 to 15.” This means that whatever frequency he is on, he is listening in the band 5 to 15 kilohertz higher.  He may also restrict his listening to “Europe only” or “North America only”. Thus only those callers meeting his requirements will be answered.

Well, in a perfect world Split operation would be the solution for DX stations to use.  It is what we mostly use today.  But, now the human factor comes into play:

  1. One ham will think the DX is working simplex and call him on his own frequency, thus jamming the DX reply to his selected caller.  Or, he will fail to set the SPLIT function on, with the same result.
  2. Other hams, hearing the call on the DX frequency, will break in with “UP! UP!  UP!  UP” meaning transmit up in frequency. While others call out “SPLIT!  SPLIT!” These hams are called the Policemen. They very effectively jam the DX so no one hears him.
  3.  Then come the Shutups.  Now that the DX frequency is filled with Policemen they feel free to shout “Shut Up” along with assorted comments about the Policemen and their alleged infirmities and the social caste of their mothers.
  4. Remember, the DX hears none of this because he is listening on the split frequency.  He keeps on calling stations that are loud and clear and begins to wonder why none of them answers his calls.
  5. Now, the worst thing happens — the DX station tunes to his own frequency and hears the pileup of Policemen, and Shutups, and Simplexers.  Now, all he has to do is just call one, any one of these stations on his own frequency and the whole game explodes.  The Policemen and the Shutups become Simplexers.  The stations working split find themselves cut out and also go to Simplex operation.  The pile up is immense.  The rate of contacts drops from 10 per minute to 1 every 2 minutes.
  6. Add to the above horror the Tuner-upper.  This operator sees the spots posted on the internet which give the DX’s call and frequency.  He immediately tunes his transmitter to the DX frequency and holds the key down while he tunes up his power amplifier and antenna tuner. This puts a blast of a signal right on the DX frequency.  The Policemen all start to call the Tuner-upper but, of course, he doesn’t hear them because he is busy tuning up his transmitter.
  7. Last, but not at all least, there are the individuals who take pleasure in purposely jamming the DX frequency.  They appear as Simplexers or Shut-ups or Policemen or anything else.  Usually you can recognize a Jammer, because their objective is to drive the DX off the air.  The Jammer will stop jamming and listen periodically to determine if he has succeeded in killing the whole DX operation.
  8. So, we have finally completed the circle from the broadband spark signal of 1900 to the jammed Split operation of the 2000’s.

Joy! “Roger your 5 and 9, you also are 5 and 9 here in Maryland.”

But the good news is that through all of the above, over the last two weeks, I finally contacted the DXpedition on Pitcairn Island!  The QSO was only a few seconds long, but I clearly heard VP6T say “Kilo Three Echo Echo you are 5 and 9 here on Pitcairn, QSL?” I promptly sent him “Roger your 5 and 9, you also are 5 and 9 here in Maryland.”  His reply was “Thank you — this is VP6T  listening up 5 to 15!”  And he was off to the next contact.

But we do need a better way to make a contact with a rare DX station.

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