Tuesday, March 6, 2018

SSB Low Power: The Muddy Middle

I operated part time in this past weekend's ARRL DX SSB contest. This was a decision made before the contest since I knew that 150 watts, even with good antennas, would be a struggle in a SSB DX contest of this magnitude at this point in the solar cycle. However I left enough latitude in my schedule so that I could operate more if I changed my mind.

Of the several technical problems that appeared soon after the contest started most aggravating was a (still unexplained) distortion of the computer-based digital voice memories, making them unusable and CQing unpleasant. I ended up operating a little over 11 hours until I pulled the plug late Saturday evening. Although my alarm was set to allow me to catch the pre-sunrise low band openings I had no desire to continue and went back to sleep.

To explain my attitude let me start with an anecdote. Soon after Saturday sunrise 20 meters opened strongly to Europe. I positioned myself a little below 14.150 MHz, the edge of the US phone band, to call CQ to see what would happen. After a few CQs a German station replied. When we were done he said "I will spot you". I continued to CQ for another minute with no replies. Then bedlam descended. For the next 15 minutes I had a deep pile up of European callers at a rate of 4 to 5 QSOs per minute. It didn't last.

The rate abruptly dropped to no better than 1 QSO per minute and then died completely. It seemed I was done despite the good conditions. Never again was I able to effectively run to Europe, or to anywhere else for that matter. Further running attempts on any band rarely netted more than one QSO.

This is not necessarily a terrible thing and few would sympathize with my inability to run DX stations. Indeed from what I heard on the bands even the big guns in the US and Canada were not achieving high rates. For me and the majority of participants, even those with QRO, this was a primarily S & P (search and pounce) contest. Often a frustrating one at that.

It is an indication of the challenges anyone will encounter in SSB contests at this stage of the solar cycle. With 10 meters almost dead and 15 meters little better the main stage is 20 meters. The band is intensely crowded and the QRM overwhelming. The lower bands fare worse. On 40 meters the available SSB band segment is narrow, the noise higher and the MUF drops low a few hours past sunset. The lower bands are challenging for SSB DX at any time due to the higher noise level and the relatively poor antennas that are typical.

We must get used to this for the next few years in SSB contests. More stations are crammed into smaller spaces resulting in massive QRM as stations squeeze far closer together than 2.5 kHz. As I tuned across the bands it was difficult to hear any but the biggest guns. There are smaller stations to be found, if you can hear them underneath the tightly packed big guns. Highly directive antennas can sometimes help but on the low bands at least they are not practical for most.

As a result you can't run with low power and S & P turns only turns up the stations you've already worked. Smaller stations can't easily find each other. That is, unless you're the only one on from a country and can attract a constant stream of multiplier hunters. Entering an 'assisted' category alleviate much of the drudgery, which I may do.

Therefore QSO totals are low and hunting for multipliers becomes the primary pursuit. Those running QRO fare relatively better. Even for those with modest antennas the addition of an amplifier can deliver a large dividend. Low power combined with big antennas cannot do the same since it is quite difficult (and expensive) to deliver an additional 10+ db that an amplifier offers with the flip of a switch. Unfortunately when everyone is tempted to run QRO we get a tragedy of the commons where the sum of sensible individual decisions can ruin the bands for everyone.

Well, that's contesting. You play the hand you're dealt or exit the game. I choose a middle position, playing where I can excel or altering my objectives. This contest ultimately bored me since with a better antenna farm I want to do better than scrimp for QSOs the way I did when I ran QRP. Back then the high bands were great and I could run with 5 watts on SSB. Now I can't run with 150 watts and better antennas. SSB low power stations are in the "muddy middle" where they cannot effectively run yet must not stick with S & P since that will not bring success.

Propagation is determined by the sun and ionosphere, not our antennas and transmitters. We build what we can and adjust our objectives to the prevailing conditions. When it stops being fun it is better to step away from the radio, or at least change perspective and objectives.  One cure that works for many is to join a multi-op. That way you share the burden of poor rates and you get to take frequent breaks without affecting the final score.

Long term burn out is a symptom of forcing yourself to stay when it isn't enjoyable. This weekend I chose to step away from the radio. Had I stayed for the duration perhaps I would have placed well, but I simply didn't care to do so.

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