Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Power and Contests

You notice some strange things when you have a puny station as It is not easy to be heard with 10 watts and an eaves trough as a poor excuse for an antenna . Even hearing DX is often a challenge on the high bands.

There are two edge cases I've noticed with this station. One is the DX contest stations that are practically beacons on the bands, day in and day out, irrespective of contests. While I don't know any particulars, many seem to rotate operators into this contest mode of operation as a form of training. They sit on a frequency calling CQ and working any and all callers for hours on end. These are undoubtedly superior stations with excellent antenna systems and high power (QRO).

The antenna systems are easy to guess at since these stations are getting through when others in their areas are far weaker on this end of the path. While I can be less sure of the power they are running it is surely a long, long way from QRP. A strong bit of evidence is that even when quite strong here most of these stations do not hear me when I call. Antennas are reciprocal but power is not.

The second case is the weak DX station. My gut reaction is to simply pass them by, reasoning that if I can barely hear them they will surely never hear me. I've proved this many times by tossing in a call and hearing them simply resend their CQ. Not always: sometimes they do hear me and I log a new one. A recent surprise of this sort was working a ZA last week on 20 meters.

It is likely that the ones that do hear me are either running QRP like me, resulting in reciprocity of results, or they have a lower level of noise than I do here. You simply never know. It costs little to make one call and if the weak DX doesn't come back to me or anyone else to just keep spinning the dial. Sometimes I try a few tricks before giving up.

Which brings me back to power and its purpose. Those stations with the big antennas and perhaps even bigger power may seem a bit overindulgent. It is reasonable to ask whether the power is needed when the antennas are so good. Let's also be honest and recognize that not only are a number of these stations running high power, they may be running just a wee bit over the legal limit in their countries.

For the casual operator or even serious DXer with a fantastic antenna farm it is arguably excessive to overdo the power, even if it is kept legal. Breaking through the pile-up for a new one is a proper use of power, but not so much at other times. Every ham makes a judgment call on what suits them. There is no one right answer.

Contests are a different matter. Power has a purpose that has nothing whatsoever to do with pile-up busting. What would seem excessive in other circumstances becomes justifiable in a contest.

Contest stations in the high-power category want to use QRO to maximum advantage. You cannot do this by search-and-pounce (aka hunt-and-peck) as commonly practiced by smaller stations. Sure, you'll work each QSO faster (higher rate) with power but the strategy of search-and-pounce is unproductive other than to add new multipliers

To consistently get big contact totals you must have others call you; that is, create long runs. To run stations you will be the one sitting on a frequency and calling CQ. Others find you and respond. Your success is determined by several factors:
  • The higher your power for a given antenna more stations will hear you.
  • Big signals are more attractive than small ones. If you don't believe it, try it. Tune the band. If you're like most hams you will be attracted to calling the louder stations. It just seems so much easier than digging for the weak ones. Many a rare DX station with a small signal gets few callers.
  • Create elbow room. This one is more controversial. Bands are crowded during a contest and stations are continually jockeying for space. Stations that also want to start a run have to squeeze in where there simply isn't any room. Conflict is inevitable. No one wants to sidle up adjacent to a mega-station since they will not be heard or will be overlooked (see previous point). Power helps the contester hold a frequency, and thus makes it easier to run up the contacts.
As with those DX beacons I opened this post with, the QRO contester is not too concerned with whether they can hear you. That is, they know they will attract many stations they will not be able to copy. They'd surely like to work you, but they are not married to the idea.

This behaviour is similar to the factory trawlers with their giant nets sweeping the ocean currents. They will pick up a lot of unwanted fish (the by-catch). They will readily admit this is unfortunate but will also see it as justifiable since they are getting more of what they want.

I just shrug and move on when they don't hear me. There is no reason to feel offended.

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