Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Handiham World for 23 June 2010

Welcome to Handiham World!

A Field Day from the 1970's - Pat & Newt set up a generator

Photo: Pat, WA0TDA, left, and friend Newt, a farmer who let us use his barn for a Field Day ham shack, set up a generator. This was a Field Day with a real field - the end-fed Marconi antenna was hundreds of feet long, extending from a high point on the barn out to a solitary tree in a soybean field. Look at that head of curly hair I had back then, which I think was sometime in the early 1970's! The old gas generator made considerable racket, so it was located as far as we could manage from the operating position. This rustic setting for the generator was in the farmyard next to Newt's machine shed. Field Day has changed quite a bit for some of us...

Field Day is this coming weekend, June 26 and 27, 2010. We are looking forward to joining the SARA group, a Handiham-affiliate as well as an ARRL Special Service Club, for this annual operating event. Look for W0JH, our club callsign, and give us a shout. We will be operating on the HF bands as well as on 2 m, and you may even find us on Echolink.

Yes, I know that Echolink contacts do not count for Field Day points, but we will be in this contest for fun, fellowship, the promotion of amateur radio to the general public, and to use and have fun with new technologies. Earning Field Day points is far down on our list of priorities, and that brings me to what I have mentioned before in my columns and podcasts: Different clubs and individual amateur radio operators have different priorities for operation on ARRL Field Day. Some will be in aggressive contesting mode and will work hard to earn as many points as possible, often with multiple CW stations earning double points for Morse code contacts. Considerable effort will be put into impressive antenna systems and station staffing will include the best and most experienced operators. The logging system will be state-of-the-art and the entire operation will be carried off with military precision. Other clubs, like ours, will not consider high point scores as our first goal. The success of our operation will be whether or not we had fun getting on the air. I've had decades of ham radio experience, and that has given me a chance to approach Field Day from different angles. This leads to the observation that Field Day rules, while designed to be broad enough to include a variety of interests and goals, also set up a certain tension between contesting and the other goals, such as showcasing amateur radio to the general public, training new operators by getting them on the air, exposing seasoned operators to new technology, preparing for and operating in a simulated emergency situation, and drawing in family members to observe and participate.

Tension? What do you mean by that?

Well, here's the deal. If a club is really in it for the points, the top priority will be finding a location for the event that enhances operating, setting up stations with elaborate antenna systems, spending a significant amount of time operating CW for the double point score, designing and deploying bulletproof supporting systems that include multiple power sources independent of the grid and a shared logging system. Serious clubs will prepare all year long for this event and operator training will be a significant part of the preparation. All of this is well and good, and all of it is rewarded handsomely in the point scoring system. And who can argue with extensive preparation and training? Both are important aspects of emergency preparedness.

The problem is that the very nature of this kind of operation is that it can suffer enormously if it is compromised by allowing inexperienced operators to run the stations. True, those inexperienced operators may hold General or Extra licenses, but they may have little or no Morse code experience. If they do operate CW, they may do so at a much slower speed than the experienced operators in the club. Relegated to the phone stations, these relative newcomers to HF operation may still work stations at a far slower rate than experienced phone operators. The best Field Day location for antenna systems that are really competitive may not be the easiest site to get to. Club members who have family, work, or school obligations will find it difficult to participate in multiple planning and training sessions in the months prior to the contest. Do you see what I'm getting at? It might be said that "winning" in contest mode requires quite a different mindset and singular dedication toward scoring points than the other goals typically associated with a more inclusive Field Day experience. Let's take a look at the object of Field Day, as stated in the official rules: 

"To work as many stations as possible on any and all amateur bands (excluding the 60, 30, 17, and 12-meter bands) and in doing so to learn to operate in abnormal situations in less than optimal conditions. A premium is placed on developing skills to meet the challenges of emergency preparedness as well as to acquaint the general public with the capabilities of Amateur Radio."

Okay, working as many stations as possible probably means a no holds barred contest station. However, developing skills to meet the challenges of emergency preparedness is quite a different matter unless you are willing to compromise your point score to spend a significant amount of time during the event training relative newcomers to HF. Furthermore, if your site is optimally placed for contesting but inaccessible to people who can't hike up a rocky slope, I would have to argue that you would not only be shutting out club members with disabilities but also discouraging observation by the general public.

Some considerable effort over the years has been made to meld these otherwise incompatible goals. The "GOTA", or "Get on the Air" station concept was designed to fulfill the goal of getting newbies on the air while still allowing the more experienced operators to run up the point score on the other stations. The GOTA station could then also served as a point of demonstration to members of the press or general public who happened to show up. Still, there remains a sort of stigma about the GOTA operation in some clubs, where it is looked upon as a necessary but inconvenient compromise to the primary goal, which is to earn lots of points. Still, the rules do allow bonus points for locating in a publicly accessible place and having an information table. The question for any serious contest group will be how to compromise between optimal contest operation and putting on a show for the general public and training new operators. Some points are awarded for copying or passing messages. Again, this remains somewhat of a sideline activity to simply working as many stations as possible, preferably in a mode that allows for a higher point score.

Can you imagine a real-life emergency situation in which amateur radio repeaters, if they were available, would not be used? When the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed here in the Twin Cities several years ago, you can bet that the repeaters were buzzing with activity. Nonetheless, making Field Day contacts on repeater systems for points is prohibited by the rules. Some clubs will use their repeater systems for so-called "talk-in" information to guide participants to the Field Day site or to give out information of interest to the greater amateur radio community. Of course Echolink and IRLP contacts are not valid for points, either. If your club wishes to use these new technologies, you may not list the contacts for point scoring purposes, though they may be of great interest to the general public.

Extra consideration is given for CW operation, which earns two points for every contact as opposed to a phone contact, which earns only one point. Similarly, digital mode operation counts for two points per contact. From what I have observed over the years, CW is a highly efficient mode of operation that lends itself to really racking up the points, at least at the hands of experienced operators. I'm not sure exactly why it needs the extra boost of a point subsidy, but I suppose this could encourage the old timers to let a couple of newer, less experienced CW operators take over for a shift or two. The two point subsidy for digital contacts might be somewhat more justified as a means to promote more digital operation. Still, if special point considerations are given for digital operation and satellite contacts (bonus points), I do have to confess that I am somewhat at a loss as to why Echolink, IRLP, or WIRES capability isn't at least recognized in some kind of bonus point scheme if not outright point scores per contact. After all, these technologies will define amateur radio operation for a significant part of the ham radio population in the years to come -- as they do right now in this rather disappointing lingering sunspot minimum when HF operation has been lackluster at best.

Yes, I have heard all the arguments before about how repeaters cannot be tied up with any sort of contesting activity and how Echolink isn't real ham radio. I understand the reluctance of clubs to step too far outside the bounds of tradition. There are good and compelling reasons why unleashing contest activity onto repeater systems might be a really bad idea. Visions of repeaters tied up for hours on end come to mind. A repeater tied up with contest activity would be unavailable in an emergency. Contacts through an Echolink repeater would be said to make use of non-ham radio technology, doing an end run around the purpose and scope of amateur radio. These are all valid concerns, but I would counter that one can drive across the country these days scanning for repeater activity and finding city after city where the repeaters sit virtually dormant if not outright comatose. What would be wrong with actually using these resources? I'm going to stick my neck out and say that the horror stories of repeaters being tied up and in constant use will not come to pass. If using a repeater as a talk-in station or just to make random contacts to demonstrate the repeater and ham radio to the general public suits you, go for it. Believe me, with most repeaters going hours and sometimes days on end with no activity, you probably won't stand much chance of causing a problem.

And what if you make an Echolink contact or two? Don't count it in the Field Day log, but at least use the opportunity to enjoy the latest communications technology.

For Handiham World, I'm...

Patrick Tice

Oh, and if you want to join the Field Day fun with us, check out the Oakdale Discovery Center, starting at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, June 26, when we will be starting the station setup. The SARA Field Day will include a cooperative project with University of Minnesota students to launch a helium balloon, which will be tethered to fly above the Field Day site and transmit ATV - Amateur Television - pictures to the ground from aloft. Points? No. Fun? Yes.

Oakdale Discovery Center
4444 Hadley Ave N
St Paul, MN 55128-2651

W0JH Repeater Talk-In

The SARA 2m repeater is on 147.060 MHz, with a positive offset (transmit on 147.660 MHz). It is an open repeater. You need a tone of 114.8 Hz on your transmit signal.