Sunday, March 3, 2013

DX and Modern Technology

How things change.

During the 20 years I was QRT the technology in the hands of every DXer has been greatly enhanced. It's a bit of a marvel to tie my KX3 to a  computer, load a logging program and then connect to a DX cluster. Click on a call in the cluster panel and there I am, right on top of the DX station. Then all I need to do is work them.

The change all happened gradually but in my case it came in one fell swoop. Before you roll your eyes, no, this is not going to be a rant about technology versus the old days -- I am after all deep into technology in the hobby and in my academic training and career. I like it.

That is not to say there is no problem. However it is not one of technology but its ubiquity: everyone, and I mean everyone, has access to the identical tools of the trade. In the so-called olden days the way a DXer strove to stand above the crowd was by station design and construction, and then (most importantly) operator skill and networking. I mean networking in the human sense, where one has contacts to share information about DX activity, thus getting an advantage over the majority.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had little hope of working the XT2TT DXpedition with my 10 watts and eaves trough antenna. One time I came across them as they were just starting up on a frequency and so had just a few callers who, like me, had stumbled onto them. Even so I had no chance. Within 30 seconds they were spotted and the DX hordes descended.

While this is a disadvantage to me it is also a disadvantage to everyone else since all are on the same plane due to their use of the same tools. They have to contend with the very same hordes as I must. Years ago it might take 10 minutes for the pile-up to grow big, whereas today it often takes less than a minute. There is now less advantage to having skill (listening and timing) than to the brute force of cracking the pile-up with power and big antennas.

Having said all that I ought to mention that I did work XT2TT yesterday. What with everyone else having already worked them or distracted by the ARRL DX contest I had surprisingly little trouble working them on 30 meters. This was more a curiosity than an achievement since I have worked XT many times in the past, and in fact I have well over 300 countries in the log. I just like to count from my recent fresh start: now at 82 countries and climbing.

This makes me wonder what it truly takes for a DXer in 2013 to win an advantage over the crowds. Technology was not always so available or universally used. At one time that could be used to advantage. I was thinking about this as I listened to the pile-ups on TX5K (Clipperton I.) and the first time I worked that entity back in the late 1970s when I had a small station consisting of a TA-33jr @15 meters and a barefoot FT-101.

My station was small but I had a temporary and (as it turned out) a strong advantage over others. I was in the process of upgrading from an FT-101B to an FT-101E. For a time I had them both in the shack. We need to go back in time to understand what this means. The best stations at the time were not transceivers, or at least not solely transceivers; the best equipment was separate receivers and transceivers, each optimized to that one task. When from the same manufacturer (Collins, Drake, and even Heathkit) they could be easy locked to a single VFO for transceive operation or with two independent VFOs for split operation.

With two transceivers I could do better, something that only a minority of stations could then achieve. I used one rig to monitor the DXpedition transmit frequency and the other to monitor the split frequency where they were listening. As was typical then as now for the very biggest and rarest DXpeditions they listened over a range of frequencies. Those with transceivers were in difficulty since the rigs of those days rarely had two VFOs. While those with separate receivers and transmitter could split but could not easily determine where the DX was listening. Almost everyone called blind within the announced listening range of frequencies.

Two transceivers made for an elegant solution. With my "transmitting" transceiver I could listen for the current contact and instantly transmit there when the contact was done.

With two quick calls I had Clipperton in the log on 10 meters. Within a few days I had them logged on all bands for which I had antennas. All I could do was sympathize with my friends who were not so fortunate.

Soon that FT-101B was sold (to finance my post-grad education) and my temporary advantage was lost. Now no one has that advantage. Which leaves me at that original question: what can I do, today, to gain an advantage? I will ponder that while I continue to design and build antennas for my new station.

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