Are You Contesting, or Calling a Net?

Written by: Gregg, W5GGW

Are you Contesting, or Calling a net?

An Amateur Radio Operator calling CQ during a contest on a frequency that was available for their use operates very much like a net control operator. They select the stations that they will work next, and control the traffic on that frequency. Learning to be a net control-operator is one way to learn more about contesting and to familiarize yourself with the concentration levels that are necessary when a ‘pileup’ occurs and you have lots of calls thrown at you.

Emission Modes and Carriers

The FM radios that we use on local repeaters have a carrier that is transmitted with the signal, and the discriminator in the signal decoding logic of the receiver allows the strongest signal to be captured. When two people transmit on FM at the same time, and they have a reasonably large difference in signal strength (12-15db), only one will be heard by a receiver that experiences the large difference in strength.

On HF bands, where the Single Side Band (SSB) emission is predominant, things are different. SSB does not transmit a carrier, and the decoding process makes all signals equally decoded. The loudest voice, or strongest signal will be ever present in your ear, but the other voices will be audible too, and it will sound more like a room full of people jabbering when you experience a pileup.

When you are working a net on any particular band with any particular emission type, you need to be aware of how that environment will affect your abilities to communicate. Only by practicing and training your ear will you find a higher level of comfort.

Contesting Basics

If you are contesting, there are two basic ways to operate. Either you can go around, trying to find someone calling CQ and throw out your call (hunt and pounce), hoping to be heard, or, you can call CQ yourself. Nobody “owns” a frequency. However, while contesting, if someone is calling CQ, it is understood that the frequency is occupied. You should make your contact and move on. “The Considerate Operators Guide” in the ARRL handbook’s contesting section can be very informative about this issue. If you want to call CQ, find a clear frequency and ask a couple times “Is this frequency in use?” or send a “?” character if using CW. If no one responds, then you may use the frequency.

Frequency Bandwidth and Emission Characteristics

Be aware that if you have your MIC gain turned way up, or if you are over modulating/over deviating, your signal may be interfering with another station on a close by frequency, and you may be asked to stop, or adjust your equipment to remove the interference. This is common courtesy of Amateur Radio operations.

Choice of Operating Techniques in Contesting

If you have limited power, you probably should be calling CQ, because people with higher power will always be louder, and your going to have to spend a lot of time on one frequency trying to work another station that is calling CQ. If you don’t have a lot of power and you are calling CQ, you may experience interference from a more powerful station that can’t hear you. So, you may either have to stick with it and try and work others between that stations transmissions, or you may have to use a filter (including your ear) to hear the stations that you are working, or, just give up and move to another frequency.

Calling Your Fellow Amateurs on the Carpet about Interference

If you go to talk with another station about them interfering with you, be aware that you need to have the technical details to tell them about why you think they are in the wrong. If you think their signal is too wide, you probably ought to have proved that to yourself with a scope that shows the bandwidth of the signal you are receiving. The ARRL handbook talks about acceptable bandwidths for each of the emission types, so you can look there (or another appropriate source) if you need that information.

If you don’t want them to win, don’t work them

Another technique for low power stations to even the playing field is to not go and work the high power stations. Make them resort to hunt and pounce. If everyone goes and works the few loud stations, and then goes off to find a place to call CQ, then those loud stations will always end up with all the QSO points. But if the high power stations have to find the stations to work, then they’ll get fewer points over the same period of time.

More Power!

If you have lots of power to spare, you may be able to find a place to call CQ, and more people will be able to hear you. More power can also be advantageous to the hunt and pounce. A bigger signal will allow you to be heard quicker in a pileup and thus provide you the ability to quickly tune around and work stations calling CQ. But, you still have to spend the time tuning around.

Hunt and pounce vs CQ point totals will be based on your abilities more than anything else in general. If you call CQ and exchange the minimal of information to achieve short QSOs, then you’ll get more points. If you are having problems hearing a weak station, it is your call on whether you persist to make the contact, or move on. When you are doing hunt and pounce, the important thing is to make a single transmission if at all possible for the exchange. This will greatly increase the time you have for more contacts.

Is that a Frog in your Shack

When working a very well attended contest, for several hours, you may find that your voice starts to fade or your wrist tires after a few hours of operating a particular mode. An electronic voice or CW keyer can provide a solution to this issue. Team operation can allow multiple people to take turns and provide the appropriate time to rest the voice or wrist. Serious digital mode (CW, PSK31 etc) contestants can typically operate the entire contest just using their computer or electronic keyer for transmitting. They might, occasionally, manually transmit a response to a question or comment from another contestant. Serious contestants are in it for the fun, thrill and points. One of the thrills is being concise and direct. A keyer makes sure they don’t make a mistake on your transmission. Some people are handicapped in ways that are not always recognized as such. Those with slow or broken speech are at a distinct disadvantage. Those with arthritis have problems with manual CW key operation. Thus, the electronic keyer is a particularly important enabler for the disabled and/or handicapped operator.

Can You Write as Fast as They’re Talking?

There are electronic logging programs used by digital mode operators as well. These programs listen to and decode the specific structure of the transmission. Some programs have explicit knowledge of the structure of the exchange for a particular contest. They can extract call signs out of the transmission. These programs can extract signal reports and serial numbers in contests where you have to count your contacts and give out that information, which changes, on each contact.

This automation of the contesting effort doesn’t provide training for times when you’ll need to run a net and respond to random questions and requests. But, it does let you optimize the use of your station and take advantage of its capabilities without being burdened by your own mistakes or capabilities. Some people will have a more exciting time with contesting using automation, while others will enthuse about how many manual contacts they made. Each person is different, and may find a particular piece of equipment to be more useful than another person might. In the end, you are working to improve your own capabilities, so keeping a log for each contest and working up your performance numbers (contacts per hour or per minute) can help you see your own improvements, and be satisfied with the progress that you are making.

Interference or Enthused Operator?

In net control operations, there are times when a particular station may be interfering with the operations of the net either intentionally, or unintentionally. As a net control operator, you need to be able to take the appropriate action. The prescribed first action for intentional interference is to ignore it, providing that the operator is not identifying himself or herself in an attempt to be anonymous. Contest operators will generally take the same actions.

If the interfering operators are identifying themselves, then you need to take the appropriate action. If the traffic is just a chatty person, then you might help them to cease and desist by arranging to handle their traffic at a later moment when it would be more appropriate for the net. You may have to just let them have their say and move on to keep from inflaming the situation.

In a contest, you may experience similar situations. A person may have just finally gotten their last county in their attempt to get their “Worked all counties” award, and might just want to tell you all about that. Regardless of the issues, courtesy should be extended at all times.

Are They Ignoring You, or Just Not Hearing You?

During a contest, if a more powerful station comes on asking if the frequency is in use, and then seems to ignore your responses of yes, you may just have to give up the frequency. You could write down their call sign, look them up on the web site, and send them an email. As an example, you might write, “I was working 14.189.20mhz just now and heard you asking if the frequency was in use. I tried to respond and apparently you did not hear me. I am operating an FT-100 at 100watts with a 500watt amp into a 5-element beam pointed right at you. I must be having some problems. Please tell me about your station so that I can figure out if there is something wrong with my station.” This lets them know that they probably should have heard you if they were in the US, but they may not have depending on their station. It lets them be held responsible for their actions if they are not being a courteous operator.

Courtesy and Common Sense Go a Long Way

The ability to operate a net, or compete successfully in a contest requires many of the same abilities and courtesies. If you are interested in contesting, and don’t have access to a HF radio that you can listen to, you might look around for an old shortwave radio that someone is discarding at Goodwill or a local pawnshop. The HF bands also carry a lot of regular traffic handling nets related to travel support groups, worked all states (WAS) and worked all counties (WAC) awards and lots of other radio amateurs meeting at the same time weekly, daily etc. to have a chat with friends.

Listening to all of these types of traffic provide great opportunities to learn how other radio amateurs operate under different circumstances. The traffic handling nets typically have more than one person who is helping run the net by relaying distant traffic between several stations. It can be very entertaining to listen to some of the longtime Hams discuss the good old days, the boat anchor radio that they are restoring, or the color of the trees in their front yard.

Take some time to observe how others are operating, read the ARRL Handbook information about proper operation, and enjoy the hobby. Net control operations and contesting are very similar in demands on your operating practices. Practice makes perfect, and in times of emergencies, we really will all need to be able to pass traffic quickly and accurately. Becoming comfortable with the contest style of operations with quick, short, exchanges or the traffic net style of communications with specific structure can help you to learn more about your own abilities and to improve in areas of skill that these types of communications exercise.

73 – Gregg W5GGW

Posted in Ham News, Member Corner.

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