Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Handiham World for 04 January 2012

Welcome to Handiham World!

2012 would be a good year to revisit our Handiham nets.  Years ago, before the Internet made linking VHF and UHF repeaters so commonplace, there were Handiham nets on 40, 20, 15, and 10 meters... If I'm remembering correctly.  The nets slowly dropped out of favor, and the prolonged sunspot minimum we experienced a few years ago was only part of the problem.  Today we have the slow speed 40 meter CW net on Fridays, but I have had some inquiries about SSB nets, and I have to say that our Handiham phone nets are pretty much dead. 
10 Things That  Kill HF Nets
Smiling cartoon guy wearing headphones
To consider what happened and whether or not it makes sense to go back to HF phone nets, we need to look at other things that are happening within Amateur Radio and society at large. Here is my list of HF net-killers:
  1. Lack of organization.  Any activity that involves a group of participants meeting at specific times for some stated purpose requires some organization.  To understand this concept, let's consider a simple job like mowing your lawn. You would be correct to assume that you can do this job yourself, so no formal organization is required. On the other hand, suppose you must mow a golf course.  Now you need a formal organization, because the job is too large and complicated for one person. The head groundskeeper will be in charge, doling out job assignments to a crew.  A net can also need formal organization, depending on its size and purpose. When you don't have job assignments or other necessary organization, it can make a mess of the net. 
  2. Failure to commit.  This is a problem in every club, and can sure be a problem when it comes to net participation. You need a critical mass of committed participants to make a net happen.  Not enough commitment equals dead net. 
  3. Distractions & competition from other activities.  This is a problem for every club, bowling group, TV network, newspaper, and amateur radio net.  There is competition on every front from something else, no matter what you are trying to organize, and that in turn makes it hard to get participants to commit to the net.  
  4. Crowded bands.  Now that the solar cycle is yielding more favorable HF propagation conditions, the most popular HF bands are more crowded than ever.  It can be difficult to find a clear frequency on which to gather for your net.
  5. Poor HF propagation.  Ha, ha, this is also an excuse for a failing net, because just as good propagation can result in crowded bands, bad propagation can result in empty bands. You have to hear them if you want to work them, goes the old saying. 
  6. QRM.  This annoyance has been around as long as anyone can remember, but it can kill a net if the net participants don't know how to manage it. Who wants to listen to all that noise and interference? 
  7. Poor net control technique.  Oh, man - don't get me started.  A net control station that cannot control the net is a real turn-off for many would be participants. 
  8. Bad marketing.  If no one knows about the net, it is unlikely to grow and prosper. You can't leave it to chance that people will simply run across the net by tuning around the bands, although that sometimes does happen. 
  9. Lack of flexibility.  Everyone knows that people have lots going on in their lives and that they cannot make every net session. HF conditions change all the time. Sometimes there may be another QSO on the net frequency. If the net does not have flexibility built into it, these problems can turn into a failed net.
  10. Not having a plan.  What if the frequency is already in use?  What if the scheduled Net Control Station does not show up? What if the band is dead?  If there is no plan to deal with such things, the net can fold like a tent in the wind!
Fortunately, we have an excellent Echolink net that meets daily. We can take a look at what planning and organization along with good marketing have accomplished to keep that net healthy, and perhaps apply some of those same principles to building an HF net.   We need to develop a plan.  Handiham Radio Club President Ken, KB3LLA, has sent out a query to gauge interest via the Handiham Radio Club email reflector. If there is enough interest, we can decide what kind of a net it will be and what bands and times should be considered. Our Echolink net does not have to deal with the challenges of poor band conditions, solar cycles, and QRM (usually). Those things can make HF unpredictable, so we need to have a plan to deal with the "what if's".  Net Control of an HF net can be similar to running an Echolink net, but each has its own special challenges and requires learning how to handle them.  For example, handling a station checking in without proper identification might be similar no matter what the net.  On the other hand, while an Echolink NCS needs to know about the quirky delays built into VoIP communications, an HF NCS would consider it essential to understand how changing HF conditions shape the band as daylight turns to night.  Since we have all been away from SSB Handiham net operation for years, we probably need to include some basic training for everyone, and that includes participants as well as net controls.  
And what if we end up on 17 meters?  The unspoken word is that there are no formal nets on that band, but we had quite a successful run of "non-net get-togethers" on 17 organized by Alan, K2WS. When the sunspot numbers tanked, the band was dead most of the time and the "get-together" went off the air.  17 is hopping today, so another "non-net get-together" is worth considering. It needs no formal NCS, only committed participants.  Talk about easy!
The choice of bands requires some thought.  HF being what it is, we will not be able to include people around the world as we do now with Echolink and IRLP. And there are trade-offs.  Let's consider a 75 meter net as an example.  There are plenty of open frequencies on 75 meters during the day, but band conditions are such that only a few hundred miles can be covered, and many potential participants have to be at work during the day and cannot check in except on a rare day off.  If the net is moved to the evening hours so that people who work can check in, by then the band has lengthened out and many hundreds of miles can be covered.  That makes the band much more crowded. QRM is more likely to be a problem. Furthermore, because propagation on 75 m is so tied to the amount of daylight, seasonal changes in propagation are profound. In the summer, there is high absorption from so much sunlight and the band can be quite dead for many hours during the long days. 
When you consider the nature of the HF bands, "reliability" is not the first word that comes to mind.  Conditions change all the time, sometimes very quickly. We may need to consider different frequency bands and different times to provide alternatives and to bring the HF net experience to more people.  If you are not on the Handiham Radio Club mailing list and want to weigh in, just send me an email. In the meantime, you can enjoy the Friday CW Net: 7.112 MHz CW, 09:00 - 12:00 ET.  And don't forget the daily Echolink net!  
For Handiham World, I'm...
Patrick Tice
Handiham Manager