Monday, August 14, 2017

Monitoring 6 Meters

Monitoring 6 meters for openings was very time consuming when I was very active during the 1980s. Aside from spinning dial there were the following options:
  • Monitor 28.885 MHz where 6 meter aficionados gathered. This was a good choice during sporadic E season since 10 meters would open before 6 meters. That is, when 10 meters had sporadic E propagation there was a reasonable chance that it would rise to 6 meters.
  • Monitor commercial VHF broadcasters and other services at known frequencies and locations either just below or above 6 meters. Of course your directional yagi would have to be rotated to each in turn. Some had non-directional vertical and horizontal antennas dedicated to monitoring.
  • Monitor 10 and 6 meter beacon frequencies. See previous point.
  • Use the scan feature on the rig to continuously cycle through the beacon and high-activity band segments, typically from 50.000 to 50.150 MHz. 
For VHF DXers there was the other problem of activity since back then most countries in the world did not have a 6 meter band. Among those that did there were many whose band did not overlap that in North America. This required monitoring other frequency ranges, mostly up above 52 MHz. Cross-band QSOs were often attempted with 10 or 4 meters, or at least a shout out on 28.885 MHz of "yes, I can copy you!"

Now that the 2017 summer sporadic E season is rapidly winding down, and being my first time being serious about 6 meters in many many years, I though it would prove interesting to review how I went about monitoring for activity. It is very different! In believe the change is for the better.

Still irritating after all these years

This lowest of VHF bands remains both intensely intriguing and challenging. Having a 6-element yagi up 24 meters doesn't change that. In a way it makes it worse since there are more marginal openings than with a less capable antenna.

Despite the numerous new techniques to monitor for activity it is still terribly irritating in many ways. Some of the old irritations are gone but have been replaced by new ones.


There are more beacons on the band than ever before. This is good although it often contributes little to the logbook. Many of the best beacons are in great locations that may not indicate that anyone in the beacon's vicinity are workable. That's okay since it is still useful as an early warning of possible QSOs.

Worse are the beacons in rare or out of the way locations where there is no one active. How frustrating to hear beacons and have the opening go to waste since there's no one to work.

More beacons means more beacons nearby. I quickly learned to recognize that many of the beacons I can hear weakly while scanning the band are coming in by tropospheric propagation from within a 500 km radius. My antenna is big enough and high enough to make them audible. Interesting but not useful to me since I am primarily interested in ionospheric paths, especially DX.


How nice to be able to sit back, pick up the smart phone and connect to a cluster to see what's happening on the VHF bands. From a perusal of the spots I can decide whether it's worth my time to head over to the shack.

While in the shack the stream of incoming spots keep me aware of what's going on at other stations in this part of North America and elsewhere. This is particularly true when the spots are from better equipped stations which again serve as an early warning of an opening that is workable. I can now better decide whether to leave the shack or stick around.

I also like to see spots for paths far away from me, especially among European stations. Intense sporadic E propagation over there can be an indicator that conditions for clouds to form here as the clock rolls around to the same local time. Similarly it tells me to watch for clouds over the Atlantic that can support propagation to Europe. The same is true for activity far to the south since all it takes is a E-layer cloud to form and link VE3 into paths to South and Central America.

FM broadcast band

Back in May I got annoyed one morning when a radio station I sometimes listen to developed distortion and would abruptly be interrupted by completed different program material. At first I assumed they were having technical difficulties. Then it dawned on me that is was sporadic E propagation from a US station that was interfering. The MUF had risen above 90 MHz.

This style of monitoring is nothing new. However it is new to me since I now live in what is a fringe reception area for FM broadcast. Back in Ottawa this would never happen no matter how good the propagation since the local transmitters always win the battle of FM capture effect. Living in a fringe reception area gives me a new monitoring tool.

Band monitor scope

It is no longer strictly necessary to have the receiver scan the band for openings. A pan adapter or simple wide band scope provides a snapshot of a large portion of the band at a single glance.

Although the monitor will miss the very weakest signals it is still a very useful tool when an opening appears imminent from other indicators or to keep an eye on the band when the opening is patchy, coming in at random intervals.


This was an interesting year for digital modes. When I got on the air in June most activity was SSB and CW along with a steady but not extreme amount of JT65 activity near 50.276 MHz. Then the FT8 beta arrived and within a couple of weeks not only did it supplant a large proportion of the JT65 activity it also displaced quite a lot of SSB and CW activity. The relative rapidity of QSOs compare to JT65 and the ability to exploit marginal opening that do not support traditional modes have made it wildly popular.

I did not operate digital modes this season. This was due to a combination of not great interest on my part and difficulty interfacing my FTdx5000 to my ancient Vista laptop. The laptop has become quite unreliable when interconnecting via the USB ports for reasons only a Microsoft engineer could understand. The laptop will be replaced but it is what I use for now.

What I did with digital this year is use it as a beacon. I would watch spots for 50.313 MHz to check for possible openings for CW and SSB, and keep the rig's second VFO tuned to that frequency to check for signals. I had only limited success with this monitoring technique. The problems were twofold. First, marginal openings often stayed marginal and therefore only usable with digital modes that can operate at negative SNR (signal to noise ratio). Second, FT8 became so popular that even with good propagation many hams stuck by 50.313 MHz rather than move to CW or SSB.

There were numerous times when beacons were loud and there was heavy FT8 activity that I would repeatedly call CQ on CW or SSB and get no response. Next year I'll have to decide whether to make the switch to digital. The technology fascinates me -- I have experience writing signal processing software -- but it leaves me a bit cold when it comes to operating. Having my computer talk to your computer doesn't excite me.

How I did this year

So with all that monitoring my results this sporadic E season ought to show it. Yes and no. Knowing the band is open or close to opening is no guarantee that the log will rapidly fill up. I missed some excellent openings in May and early June before the antenna went up. The day after the antenna went up I worked 10 new countries in the Caribbean and South America. So far so good.

Then my progress slowed drastically. This was not a great sporadic E season from around here where DX is concerned. Those operating JT65 and FT8 did far better. Good monitoring options help little when the openings are few in number or not bringing in signals strong enough for CW and SSB. As I write this I have 33 countries on 6 meters, up from 19. As with all my counts this does not include my activity earlier than 2013 when I chose to reset all counters after returning to the air after 20 years away. Counting those I would now have DXCC on 6.

I paid little attention to most single hop openings except during the CQ WW VHF contest in July. Those are common and no longer of great interest to me outside of contests. It also means less time spent running to the shack to work the same old stuff. I am not obliged to work every opening just because I'm a 6 meter aficionado. Whenever there was a hint of DX or cross-continent propagation I was there. That's what interests me.

Particularly disappointing was only working one mainland Europe station this year. I heard the CS5BALG beacon quite often but few stations. Perhaps the biggest surprise DX was TF3ML/P calling CQ on 50.110 MHz. I was looking east on CW when I saw a signal up band on the rig's monitor scope. He sounded as surprised to hear me as I was to hear him. At the time of our QSO there no spot for him; I changed that.

I discovered that to many stations my grid square -- FN24 -- is wanted for VUCC. There are other stations in this grid, both in VE3 and W2 so this surprised me. In the contest a few stations asked me to go to 2 meters, which I had to unfortunately decline. I may have 2 meters capability next year.

All in all a mediocre summer on 6 meters for me. I enjoyed it nonetheless. Modern monitoring options make operating more relaxing since I no longer have to sit in the shack or have a rig on in the background scanning the band. I am looking forward to next year, and even the winter sporadic E season.

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