Wednesday, March 13, 2019

73 - More important than ever!

The purpose, use, and importance of the exchange of a matching set of "73" codes as the final salutation of each party in a conversation (QSO) between Amateur Radio Operators (AROs aka HAMs) has been the varied opinion.  This is especially true of digital modes such as FT8 where great effort has been made to shorten the already diminutive 1.75 minute length of a QSO from its initial call or "CQ" to the final and mutual "73" codes.  This has led to oft-times contentious debates about the need for sending the final "73" by *both* parties.

Monitoring of QSO habits suggests 3 types of AROs - those who:
  • seek a full and proper logging of a QSO to its respectful and full conclusion resulting in a mutually agreed to confirmation of transmission (QSL).  Call them "ProFormas".
  • are interested in contesting or DXing and seek the fastest way to QSL in contests with time limits or heavily sought-after "DXpeditons" to rare locations. Call them "Contesters".
  • treat QSLing as a casual activity and do not care about a full and proper exchange that assures the certitude of both parties of a QSL status. Call them "Casuals".

ProFormas: The 1st group are those who seek complete and diligent QSLs with each party doing their best to assure the other that the QSO was properly confirmed and logged. For them, a log is a careful record of activity and achievement than can entail 1,000s of hours and decades of effort.

Contesters: The 2nd group is more concerned with maximizing the QSLs made in a fixed time period (contesting) or to deal with DX operators being sought ("Fox") by 10's of AROs ("Hounds") every second.  In both cases, participants are willing to forgo certitude for increased QSL rates.

An important aspect of both ProFormas and Contesters/DXers is that they operate within a well-defined set of rules. Even when special events may shorten the message train, it is, nonetheless, a formalized ad hoc protocol that participants need to abide by for an acceptable QSL.

Casuals: The 3rd group doesn't care about certitude, mutual assistance, or protocol. For them, QSLing is a casual pastime wherewith they prefer to do the minimum to enjoy sporadic contacts.   Much like dropping by a pub to share a few rounds with strangers who seem to share some interests but aren't inclined to devote any time to - unless chemistry intervenes. 

QSO Protocol's "Message Train" format.

The following "message train" maps an entire transmission sequence from the train's opening message, through multiple data messages, and on to the final closing "73" message. In modern digital FT8 QSOs, only a single pair of mutual signal strength reports are in the train.

To help understand the value of "73", let's start by looking at the minimum set of QSO message types for a digital QSL - from the initial (directed call) or "CQ" to the final "73".

As with nearly all modern communication transactions, there are multiple levels in a hierarchy with different levels of scope. However, as per the diagram above, the hierarchy is not readily apparent and simply appears as a linear stream of message exchanges. 

To help understand the value of "73", let's start by looking at the minimum set of QSO message types for a digital QSL - from the initial (directed call) or "CQ" to the final "73".

The next diagram below uses some example variations to help clarify the hierarchy and highlight some methods of reducing the number of messages while adhering to the protocol.  In those examples a single data message transfer occurs between the outer start and end messages of the train.

1. Outer communication's message train.  Includes From/To Call Signs, Ends with mutual 73's.
    See BLUE messages in examples below.

2. Individual messages. One or more messages, each ending with RRR or RR73.
    See GREEN messages in examples below.

For this example, let us use the popular FT8 mode which, by design, distills the essence of a complete QSL transmission to the least number of messages - 7 to be exact - each of which is transmitted within synchronized alternating 15 second time intervals, buckets, or packets. That's 7 x 15 which is 105 seconds or 1m 45s.  That assumes the digital software modem (e.g., WSJT.) is set to auto message sequencing, all messages are received without repeats, and all are transacted without errors.

 FT8 QSO examples of the full protocol that is robust, proper, and respectful.

Table 1a: CQ call's 7-steps/formats for a digital FT8 QSO on to final QSL

#Message FormatExampleRemark
1CQ Oper1 GridCQ KT1TK FN42KT1TK/Grid FN42 calling anyone.
2Oper1 Oper2 GridKT1TK WD4HIP EL96Hi KT1TK. I am WH4HIP/Grid EL96.
3Oper2 Oper1 SigDBWD4HIP KT1TK -04Hi. Your signal's -4db, what's mine?
4Oper1 Oper2 SigDBKT1TK WD4HIP R+02Yours is +2db. Good to end message?
5Oper2 Oper1 RRRWD4HIP KT1TK RRRGot Report. Ready. Waiting your 73.
6Oper1 Oper2 73KT1TK WD4HIP 73All good. Best wishes. Waiting your 73.
7Oper2 Oper1 73WD4HIP KT1TK 73Got your 73. QSL. Best wishes. Out!

The essential and respectful aspect of this exchange is that both parties ensure the other has what they need with their matching 73's.  This is not only good telecom practice and social etiquette, it also fulfills the mandate of AROs to help others and spread goodwill - a fundamental tenet of their licensing. Remember your licensing studies and exam questions?

Table 1b: Directed call needs only 6-steps/formats for a digital FT8 QSO.

#Message FormatExampleRemark
1Oper2 Oper1 GridWD4HIP KT1TK FN42KT1TK/Grid FN42 calling WH4HIP.
2Oper1 Oper2 SigDBKT1TK WD4HIP -04Hi. Your signal's -4db, what's mine?
3Oper2 Oper1 SigDBWD4HIP KT1TK R+02Yours is +2db. Good to end message?
4Oper1 Oper2 RRRKT1TK WD4HIP RRRGot Report. Ready. Waiting your 73.
5Oper2 Oper1 73WD4HIP KT1TK 73All good. Best wishes. Waiting 73.
6Oper1 Oper2 73KT1TK WD4HIP 73Got your 73. QSL. Best wishes. Out!

Concatenated message code "RR73" eliminates one step.

Can the number of messaging steps be reduced even further whilst maintaining proper protocol, etiquette and respect?  Yes, but carefully. Later versions of the digital protocols allow the sending of a combined "RRR" and "73" in the form of a "RR73".  See note further down on how to set up WSJT to sent "RR73" rather than "RRR". As shown below, this eliminates one cycle (a) without sacrificing etiquette or integrity of the QSL certification, (b) reduces the cycles to 6 and (c) incidentally changes who sends the final "73".

Table 2a: Shorter 7-step CQ call by using concatenated response, "RR73"

#Message FormatExampleRemark
1CQ Oper1 GridCQ KT1TK FN42KT1TK from Grid FN42 calling anyone.
2Oper1 Oper2 GridKT1TK WD4HIP EL96Hi, this is WH4HIP from Grid EL96.
3Oper2 Oper1 SigDBWD4HIP KT1TK -04Hi. Your signal's -4db, what's mine?
4Oper1 Oper2 SigDBKT1TK WD4HIP R+02Yours is +2db. Good to end message?
5Oper2 Oper1 RR73WD4HIP KT1TK RR73Got Report. Ready to QSL. Waiting 73.
6Oper1 Oper2 73KT1TK WD4HIP 73Got your 73. QSL. Best wishes. Out!

Using "RR73" reduces even further the already shortened cycle of a "directed call" (one initiated to a specific call - not a CQ to "anyone"), dropping the cycles to 5.

Table 2b: Reducing 6-step directed call to 5 by using concatenated response, "RR73"
#Message FormatExampleRemark
1Oper2 Oper1 GridWD4HIP KT1TK FN42KT1TK from Grid FN42 calling WH4HIP.
2Oper1 Oper2 SigDBKT1TK WD4HIP -04Hi. Your signal's -4db, what's mine?
3Oper2 Oper1 SigDBWD4HIP KT1TK R+02Got your signal report, yours is +2db.
Good to end message?
4Oper1 Oper2 RRRKT1TK WD4HIP RR73Yes, Got your signal report!
Ready to QSL? Waiting for your 73.
5Oper2 Oper1 73WD4HIP KT1TK 73Got your 73. QSL "73" (We're done).

A point I hope the reader gleans from the preceding examples is that each QSO message, as in any respectful exchange, is NOT about what it means to you but what it mean to the other party.

Example: If your "73" is first in a QSO, the QSO is not over till you receive acknowledgement of its receipt via your receiving their final "73".  If you don't get one, you don't know if they got yours. So, it is incumbent upon you to repeat your "73" a number of times until you do. If you still don't receive the final "73", then the band died, the other party is inexperienced, they had an emergency or they blew a fuse. In such cases, I often send a "NO 73 NO LOG". In many cases, that seems to strangely and immediately improve band conditions as the final "73" miraculously appears.

Setting up WSJT to send "RR73" instead of "RRR"

The messages sent by WSJT's auto-sequencing relies on the contents of the text boxes whose labels are "Tx1" through "Tx6".  For those who haven't studied the WSJT manual, double-clicking the label "Tx4" will toggle the value of the message to be sent between "RRR" and "RR73".  Unfortunately, when "Tx4" is set to "RRR", WSJT stops the sequencing and doesn't  try to send the much needed final "73".  That leaves it to the ARO to manually one or more "73" to get the ARO who sent the "RRR" to send their final "73".  If they don't, we never know if they got our final "73".

The simple solution that reduces the message count and also makes it clear the other party is concluding, is to send "RR73" instead of "RRR". Problem solved. The protocol is complete!

To log or not to log - what is a log?

Logging is a topic unto itself and deserving of a complete separate treatment.  However, in the case of this article on "73", the topic rears its head.  To wit: Should we log an incomplete digital QSO?  In so much as our mandate (albeit no longer the law) is to record *all* our uses of the airways, then should we not log all incomplete QSOs?  That gets a little hazy with the extreme brevity of digital modes whose sole purpose is to log a QSL - not carry on a prolonged conversation.  Conversely, with the advent of fast and painless logging options like or PC-based logs like ACLog, HRDLog, et al, logging every transmission could not be easier.

I admit, excluding incomplete QSOs enticed me as it makes my logbook tidier, more compact, and just prettier.  However, my desire to achieve the highest level of compliance steers me back to the fold. After all, the percentage of incomplete digital QSOs is much less than 2%.  So there is no contest. An incomplete entry's lack of a confirmed flag as well as my own comment in the log entry such as "Incomplete" makes the entry's status clear while adhering to proper logging practice.

Enjoy ... 73

Sunday, April 15, 2018

My HAM Saga Part 3 - Wire, Wire, I Need Wire!

This is an initial skeleton of this, my 3rd installment of my ongoing saga amateur radio.

Last Update: 2023-01-03 (many edits to go ... stay tuned ... Happy New Year)

This is the unfinished 3rd installment of my AR saga which covers the erection of one or more aerials to get on the air without being totally dependent on rogue winds of good propagation blowing a signal at me sent at 1.5 KW from a quad array of 4 element Yagi-Uda beams on a 150' tower on top of a hill or mountain.  I always wonder if those guys or gals feel unsatisfied after such massive and expensive erections of wire menagerie.  It's like spending $300k on a car that does 0-60 in 3 seconds.  You have nothing to be surprised or appreciative about.  It had better perform!  Of course, my outlook on all this would undoubtedly change if I had $100k+ to blow on a shack and wire farm without a 2nd thought.

Back to reality!  Here's my current "wire" (slightly improved but still good for a chuckle)!
As of this post's update, I've updated my antenna from the lowest level of the antenna hierarchy to a barely decent minimum. I call it antenna version 02a, an Inverted L Sloper of sorts. I increased the vertical and horizontal legs to 12'V and 48'H, rising to about 30-35' into a tree for a roughly 60' total length.  I used standard hardware store #14 AWG stranded and coated copper wire.  It still runs from an AH-4 antenna tuner on the ground just behind the corner of the house to a nearby tree.

The next (and maybe final improvement) might be to extend it to 95' rising up to a tree further away with an end point about 40-50' above ground.

The current design shown has been up for about 3 weeks and has allowed me to work all 6 continents (earning a 6 Continents Award from QRZ), about 35 of the 50 states, and 55 countries.  I just added Kuwait, Turkey, and New Zealand. Despite that progress, I'm still trying to log Vermont and Rhode Island, both of which are only 30 miles away. Very strange.

I've heard from several helpful AROs who often respond with, "Hey, just get a dipole way up 50' or higher or get a proper beam".  Right!  All properties, budgets, and partner arrangements are not equal.  Despite being on a 1.5-acre ex-urban lot, the house, driveway, the property's meandering dog leg lot lines, a myriad of closely overlapping and intertwined trees, and our power lines consume all but 0.25-acres.  And that is further trimmed by various lot constraints to an apron of only 20-30' on 3 sides with a few odd gaps here and there. 

About the trees: I am surrounding by large stands of new, old, dead, and/or decaying conifers and deciduous trees which, together, create a complex array of overlapping branches that are either obstructions to wires or are easily broken off eliminating their use as supports - if not falling and breaking any wires strung below them.  I do have several large 100+' trees with nice limb yokes 40-70' high to sling wires over but they also have as many other branches sprouting out in all directions around and below the yoke points.

Even if I managed to sling a rope and pull up the apex of a dipole, G5RV or Double Bazooka some 35-60 feet up, pulling out the elements is impossible because all lateral element lifting paths are obstructed by branches at opposing angles on the same or adjacent trees - preventing them from being pulled straight.  My limited experience and research say it would be pretty bad to have elements bent and snagged across many branches with severe impact to VSWR, radiation, and the fire risk!

My most immediately implementable options seem to be, in order of difficulty and cost:
  • 59-95' end-fed sloper straight wire from an AH-4 tuner (near our AC power drop)
  • Hustler 6BTV vertical on front lawn 130' from shack window and power line drop
  • Dipole, G5RV, or Double Bazooka in trees behind house, 40' from power lines. These are problematic due to the issue of pulling elements through the trees noted earlier
  • A CobWebb, Hex Beam or Triband Yagi on a 40' Rohn pole from my deck to the roof.
In an escapist effort to avoid thinking of my antenna dilemmas, my mind wanders to the less feasible hex and CobWebbs which are very large for 20m and immense for 40m (that is for my situation).  If properly installed, they'd both need at least a 35' mast to clear our 2.5 story roof.

The only feasible mast location would be our tall straight chimney but that would place the radiating elements 15' from my XYL's head, office and work station - you laughed, didn't you 😏.  The only other locations for a mast would be: Right on front lawn (screaming NO); The roof (no access for a 70+ year old = no maintenance = NO); and mounted on a rear deck with complications.

So, there you have my antenna dilemma in a nutshell.  I think the end-fed long wire and the 6BTV vertical are my 1st best practical and immediate solutions that will surely be plagued by the current S9+10db noise level.  However, as my older bro, WH4HIP, and I rag-chewed, we fathomed that the current poor wire antenna is likely noise prone and a vertical may be no worse for noise while affording a greater signal level increasing the S/N ratio.

A G5RV or a Double Bazooka are the next best possible (albeit most difficult) routes for lower noise and higher gain to some of my favorite bands for DX of 80-20 meters. Ideally, I would like to service all common 11 bands (160-6 meters). 

My latest mental shot in the dark was to push up a hex or cobweb to only 20' and place it a little further than that from my power lines so as to clear them in a failure.  That idea comes with the plus of great designs and cons of terrible low height and XYL misery.  Oy!

Stay tuned for my naive, clumsy, trampling along this path of discovery and frustration.

Thursday, March 22, 2018


In the realm of radio communications, the party at each end usually wants to know the quality of their signal and vice versa so they can use it to adjustment their:

  • Microphone Level
  • Audio Level Controller
  • Speech Compressor
  • Carrier Frequency 
  • Transmit Power
  • External Amplifier
  • Antenna Type (if more than one)
  • Antenna Direction (if adjustable beam)
  • Antenna Tuner
  • And so on
For the longest time there were few, if any standards, other than "I read you loud and clear" or "Your signal wavers a bit but I hear you.",  "Your S9", "Your strength is good but your splattering".  With the advent of early amateur and military communications, various and sector specific reporting systems were conceived but were usually misunderstood, misused or too custom to be generally usable and none were universally accepted.

What does signal strength really mean?
The earliest qualitative metrics involved a simple numerical scale, usually 1-9 scale, for the "strength" of the signal.  Right away, you can see the problem.  What does "strength" really mean?  The receiving party usually doesn't know the output power of the transmitter and, even if they did, their only measurable quality is the strength of what they receive and that's affected by the transmitter's power, antenna type, direction, band conditions, time of day, frequency, noise interference, solar wind, and the receiver's antenna, receiver circuity, and much more.

So, a signal strength figure, on its own, is next to meaningless.  Case in point: At the time of this writing, my Inverted V antenna failed and went out of commission so I literally tossed a 12 foot piece of rusty speaker wire horizontally to a nearby bush just before we got hit with several major snow storms.  That poor excuse for a wire even sagged till its center was on the snow or a few feet above the ground.  Despite that, I was able to QSO with Battle Creek Michigan from the Boston area, Saint-Maarten Islands, Turks and Cacos Islands, Virginia, and Florida.  No doubt most were running directional beams on towers with 1kw linears so they appeared to me as being at maximum strength when in reality, my rusty wire could not tell what their actual strength was here - other than knowing they were pumping a lot of power.

Adding Metrics to the report:
With those transmit power issues in mind, signal reports added additional metrics such as intelligibility.  The most common form of that is the currently popular HAM standard of  Readability (1-5) followed by Signal strength (1-9) making up the so-called RS standard. So, a "59" report is the maximum quality of totally readable with maximum strength. However, strength is still an issue.  A strong signal could be anything from S6 to S9 to S9+10-40db above.  As such, you'll often hear "You're 59 at S9+10db".  Again, that is how the receiver perceives the signal.

The RS standard has an older cousin called the RST that is/was used by CW operators to add the quality or Tone of the CW carrier signal where the worst case "1" is a raspy, AC hum like signal and the best "9" being a a pure and well modulated tone.Again, that is not what it seems since the "tone" is a product of the receiver converting the carrier to a tone.  However, there are rarer and more inefficient CW modes where a true audio tone is transmitted as SSB or AM.

In CW operation, individual digits may be abbreviated by substituting as follows: 1 = A, 2 = U, 3 = V, 4 = 4, 5 = E, 6 = 6, 7 = B, 8 = D, 9 = N, 0 = T (for instance, RST 599 could be sent as 5NN - a shorter message in CW). These are referred to as "cut numbers" and are obtained by replacing all of the dashes in a CW digit with a single dash. Cut numbers are not suitable for transmitting data which already contains mixed alphanumeric code, such as call signs.
However, as is often the case, HAMs are often a little too quick on the draw and want to get to their next QSL in contests and routinely report "59" or "5x9" as shorthand for, yeah, you sound OK which is unfortunate and defeats the whole purpose of the metrics.  Those trying to be more diligent and helpful will often add the S reading + any DB above S9 as in "you're reading 59 & S9+10db".

The RSQ method was then added for other digital modes of transmission such as like PSK31.

An RSV (SSTV) rating system for Slow Scan TV further complicates things:

Then there's the RSV (ATV) rating for Fast Scan TV where video quality is replaced by a 6-level code describing the signal-to-noise ratio of the video with these values:
P0 - all image detail lost
P1 - 3-8dB, barely legible
P2 - 8-20dB, definitely noisy
P3 - 20-35dB, somewhat noisy
P4 - 35-45dB, slightly noisy
P5 - 45dB+, no discernible noise

Pro broadcasters and operators need more info.

International broadcaster needed a more definitive rating system which the ITU formalized as two metric reporting systems of 5 and 8 digits, respectively.  Each digit has a uniform value range of 1-5 where 5 is the best and 1 is the worst or unusable.  A 5-level range was chosen based on the fact that finer detail was of no value due to differences in perception, understanding, consistency, diligence, and the sheer number of other factors that cannot be accounted for in 5 or, even, 8 codes.

SINPO: This 5-digit rating stands for Signal Interference Noise Propagation and Overall.

SINPFEMO: Since broadcasters are especially interested in fading and modulation quality, 3 digits "FEM" were added to made a 8-digit rating whose attributes are codes where FEM codes refer to Frequency of propagation fading plus the Excellence and depth of Modulation.

RS needs some therapy.
In light of the rampant misuse of the RS "59" code system, I'm happy to hear some operators reporting to the more complete and legible SINPO code.  I have no problem with the full SINPFEMO code since it provides so much more meaningful data.  But, it's certainly conversational and can be relegated to logging and comments. 

I've used the SINPO code for decades dealing with professional broadcasters and find it VERY helpful and hard to abuse.  Even the laziest of us should be ashamed to routinely say you're all 5s when, in fact, that would be extremely rare.

Something better? For my part, I've starting logging my QSL's with a comment containing an RS/SINPO code in the hope it will encourage others to do the same in the interest of reporting qualities the other operator can actually use to improve their settings.

Why do I still report RS?  Because QSL confirmations might be rejected if you don't record the RS "59" code you were given during the QSO.

Is it so bad?  I can hear some grumbling, "Yeah? Right! 5 digits?" But, consider this: When you really think it through, SINPO can be almost as fast as produce (if not faster) as a composing a truly valid RS rating.  Why?  Because, to produce a true RS rating, you have to stop and think in terms of 2 different scales. R(1-5) and S(1-9).  I don't know about you, but my brain has to pause to think about using 2 different scales for 2 adjacent digits.

For example, Jack and Jill are in a QSO.  Jack wants to convey, log, or both, Jill's transmission quality.  He thinks her readability was sort of 2/3 of "best" and her signal strength was fairly weak - about 1/3 of best.

OK, so her "R" was (ah, 1-5, so 2/3 is a 3 or a 4?   Her signal was weak so that's, hmm, 1-9, ok, about a 3, no, 4?  OK, I'll go with an RS of "33"?  I suspect that Jill (and most other operators) would do a double take on a "33" RS report because: (a) most operators just always say "59" or "58" and (b) it's as much trouble to decode quickly as it was encode it.  Hmm. "3". That's low, well, actually, out of  5, that's not too bad.  And my signal was 3?  Oh, yeah, that's out of 10, so that's pretty weak.

Because of RS rating quirks, the memorable acronym of SINPO, and the ease of always thinking 1-5 where 1 is worst and 5 is best, I find composing a SINPO just as fast and FAR more meaningful. 

Also consider that when 2 operators chat a bit to really convey their mutual transmission qualities, they'll very often say things to the effect of , "Hey, Jill, ..."
"... your signal was quite strong, +10db" ... that's the "S", so 5.
"... another signal was trampling you" ... that's the "I", so a 2 or 3.
"... the band was really noisy tonight" ... that's the "N", so a 2.
"... boy, your signal was popping in and out"  ... that's the "P", so a 3.
"... But, overall, I could make you out quite well" ... that's the "O", so a 4.
So, the SINPO rating is 5-3-2-3-4.  That's a lot of great info.

I have no allusions.  I've already been hearing "Your all 5's" a bit too often.   That can, indeed, be true if you're in the path of 1,500 watts fired through a 4 elements beam and picked up by any decent antenna.  I thin those that resort to such expediencies should just as well say, I hear you really well and not mangle a rating system with false reductions.

I totally concur that SINPFEMO is not feasible for fast-paced DX contests or even in general QSO conversation.  But it has its place in a proper and detailed logging.  So, SINPO works for most fast pace QSLing and takes all of 5 seconds while it may take 20 minutes make it through a log jam.

At least give it a thought.  If you are joined at the hip to RS, then, at least report it correctly.  It's really a drag to hear 59 for everything which makes it nothing more than "I read you OK!".

Hope this was food for though and helps add accuracy to transmission reporting.

Monday, January 8, 2018

My HAM Saga - Part 2 - Vanity Calls

In my first post about my saga of getting my HAM license, I covered my journey to a Technician, General and then Extra Class Amateur Radio operator's license.

In this post I'll cover my quest for a "Vanity Call" sign which was more memorable than the automatically assigned 2x3 signs I received after passing my General and Extra exams.

Before I launched my quest for my own vanity call sign, I had to bone up on all the vagaries of call sign formats, rules, district nos, exceptions, exclusions, and rights by license class.  In short, Extra Class gets access to all formats, including the shortest while Techs get the longest formats.

Call Sign Basics

Call sign formats are broken into 4 groups which all have the basic syntax of:
   {Prefix} {District No} {Suffix}
  Prefix is 1-2 letters
  District No is a single digit, 0-9
  Suffix is 1-3 letters

Variations of this basic syntax are notated by the number of  prefix and suffix letters.
E.g., valid formats are 1x2, 2x1, 2x2, 1x3 and 2x3.

The district numbers are initially* designated as follows:

0CO, IA, KS, MN, NE, MO, ND and SD 5AR, LA, MS, NM, OK and TX
1CT, ME, MA, NH, RI and VT 6CA
2NJ and NY 7AZ, ID, MT, NV, OR, UT, WA and WY
3DE, DC, MD and PA 8MI, OH and WV
4AL, FL, GA, KY, NC, SC, TN and VA 9IL, IN and WI
* "initially" because the FCC allows vanity call with any district, not just your own.

See the map below for a more visual depiction (from Common.Wikimedia) which also shows some of the territorial exceptions for the Pacific, Alaska, Caribbean.
Related image

Call Sign Groups

These 4 call sign format groups and their eligible classes are defined below.
Nb. All formats have reserved or territorial exceptions.

Group Classes Comments
A Extra 1x2 and 2x1 formats (all taken long ago so rarely available)
B Advanced-Extra 2x2 with exceptions (tricky to get)
All new Extra Class licenses are auto-assigned from this group.
C Tech-Extra 1x3 with exceptions (easier to get)
D All Classes 2x3 with exceptions. Has most combinations so it's easiest to get.
All new Tech-General licenses are auto-assigned from this group.

Nb. You can now request any district number even though they are meant to readily identify your transmitter location.  However, with HAMs often relocating in their lifetime, they frequently end up in districts other than the one where they were when they were assigned their call sign.  Beside offering personal choice, this helps to distribute call sign availability, alleviating shortages when one district may have many calls available and others have few or none. 

There are 1x1 call signs but they are reserved for very special events, emergencies, and relief groups in times of disaster and, even then, usually only for fixed periods of time. They are never available to individuals or private clubs.

Quagmire of Quirks

However, signs within the above available groups are further subject to many special exceptions and exclusions such as reserved starting letters, transmitter location restrictions, reserved ending letters, reserved letter combinations like "SOS", and more.  The HAM web site,, spells out many of the quirks they gathered from many pages of FCC fine print.  But, I have yet to find a site that validates call sign requests against all of the rules.  Many site will look up your desired sign, just as well as you can on the site pages.  You can get a query response from any of these sites saying "no record available" or "call is available" when, in fact, the call is invalid.

Territorial Call Regions

In addition to call sign districts 0-9 noted above, US call signs are further subject to rules based on the following four US territorial regions:
  - Atlantic Islands & Territories
  - Continental US
  - Alaska
  - Pacific Islands and Territories

These regions affect the call prefixes.  E.g. Certain prefixes can only be used for transmitters in  Alaska.  Other regional rules are special cases.  E.g., US military and personnel in Korea can apply for an HL9 prefix.  Strangely, non-US citizens can apply for a special US-Korean call sign there.  Like I said ... many quirks!

Learn The Exceptions

It took me a week or two but I created my own spreadsheet with a custom Regular Expression function to verify the applicability of call signs I wanted against a list of all the rules I could find. 
I then made a list of seemingly available calls I was interested in, entered them into the spreadsheet, entered my regional US location (Alaska, Pacific, CUS, or Atlantic), and it would apply a series of regular expression matches to validate the calls against the exceptions and let me know if the call was "probably" valid.  With so many exception, you can never be 100% certain.

So, simply searching for and finding an unregistered for a call sign within one of the groups above you are eligible for won't guarantee work you can have that call sign, let alone win it in a lottery.  It takes research into the rules, patience, and careful timing of your submission request.


I mentioned timing. This has to do with how vanity calls are issued.  The request process runs 18 days, start to finish.  All those who applied for your desired call sign on the same day as you are placed into a pool for that day. At the end of the process period, the winning application is randomly chosen in a lottery from that day's pool of requests.  However, things are trickier than that.  If you apply for an available call when you found it, all those who applied for that call on any previous days it was available are also grouped into their own 1-day lottery groups ahead of your 1-day pool.

So, if you submitted on the 5th day a call was available, you'd literally have to have the previous applicants of the 1st 4 lottery pools all to fail and then you'd still have to win the 5th day's lottery.  This is nothing like Power Ball where chances of winning are of 1 in 10 trillion.  Your chances in the vanity lotteries are more like 1 in 3, 1 in 15, 1 in 2, etc. Bottom line: If you're after a desirous call and you are not in the 1st day's pool of applicants, your chances of winning near zero!

When to Apply

Knowing the process takes exactly 18 days before the FCC processes your request, a conclusion many might draw would be to submit their request 17-18 days before the call sign is available so that you are hopefully in the 1st pool on that actual processing day.

Well, it turns out that would guarantee failure.  You see, another tidbit that helped make my 2nd attempt a success was some fine print buried deep within the FCC site stating that any submissions for a call that was not yet available on the day of your submission would be invalidated.  E.g., after perusing the various sites that fetch FCC information for you, you will often see the exact date that an expiring call will available for re-assignment.  If it's now the 1st and the call is available on the 18th, you might want to submit on the 1st or 2nd with the hope of landing in 1st day pool seeking that call on the 18th.  Forget it. The FCC mandates that the call had to be available on the day of your submission, not 18 days later when they do the actual pool processing.  

Although the submission/available date rule may seem to makes things yet more complicated, it actually does the opposite.  To wit: You need no longer worry about timing.  In other words, if you see a call is available on the 1st, you apply on the 1st and you will be guaranteed to be in the 1st day's pool.  Even so, for any call that is attractive, easy to remember or simply cool, there will be many applicants in tha same 1st day pool so lottery luck still remains a huge factor.

My Vanity Request(s)

Within a week of passing the Technician and General tests, I received my General license and call sign from the FCC by email.  The 2x3 call sign (2 letter, number, 3 letters) I was assigned was obtuse and hard to remember so, for the Extra exam, I requested the next available call sign for my Extra test.  Within 6 days after the Extra test, I had my new license and 2nd call sign which was a 2x2 and a bit more visually memorable but still not something I could relate to.

The first attempt ...
Having run all the gauntlets to earn my Amateur Extra Class license, I thought I should at least try to request a "vanity" call sign of my own choosing by providing a list of 1x2, 2x1, 2x2, and 1x3 calls that were available to Amateur Extras  and "seemingly" available.  My 1st pick was a 1x2 with only 5 phonetic syllables followed by another 4 of 2x1 and 2x2 formats with 6 phonetic syllables and some 1x3 calls with my initials.  By brother also got the bug and submitted his own request the same day.

You are allowed to request up to 20 call signs which are processed in the order of entry so be sure to put your most desired 1st.  However, you do NOT was to end up with a call you do not really want so don't go crazy and feel obligated to request all 20 calls.  It's better to enter a few calls that you would be *very* happy with.  There no longer is a fee for a vanity request so take your time and reapply as often as you wish. If you don't find that perfect call, you can try again in 18 days.  If you submit a 2nd request before 18 days, you may give up a 1st best choice if your 2nd batch scores a hit.

Well, 18 days passed after my 1st submission.  My brother and I both received the worst-worded rejection only a government agency could compose.  It read something like "your submission was rejected due to malformation of data".  Huh?  I reviewed our applications and all seemed in perfect order.  I can only guess it was because we applied before the date some were available, calls were won by others, or the entire request was invalided by an error with one call. Clear as mud!

If at first you don't succeed ...
So, I returned to the drawing and commenced a deeper dive into the vagaries of vanity calls on various amateur radio internet sites catering to such things. That's when I unearthed the rules noted at the beginning of this post. 

An important thing I discovered was that all applications are public record and listed on the FCC Universal Licensing System.  So, for my 2nd attempt, I downloaded a successful application, waited for the exact day of availability of a particular call sign, included a few more calls that had no previous registrations yet and passed my spreadsheet test, and verified my final application draft against the successful one.  Only then did I hit submit.While waiting I reviewed this second submission against my first and I could not find any differences in its construction.

After another 18 days, I logged into the page.  Eureka!  I was welcomed as having a one of the call signs in my vanity license submission for which there was no previous record and I found little chance of getting.  My 1st choices were 2 variations of my initials, a palindrome of my name and my authoring moniker, and a few other cool calls.  The one I thought least possible was the palindrome of the initials, "TK", of my name, Thomas Kashuba,  "1" for my New England region, and "KT" for my enterprise, "KT Anthony Research". 

So, I am now the proud owner of KT1TK which is a palindrome (a word that is spelled the same forward and backward) and represents a few things of importance to me!

My World for an Antenna!

For my next posting effort, I'll try to cover the challenges and disasters trying to get on the air with my first minimal antenna.  Oh, boy! Let the nightmares begin!

Saturday, November 4, 2017

My HAM Saga - Part 1 - Getting Licensed

 This post is a saga of my personal and very belated trek to Amateur Radio operator licensure.

It all started when I was about 5 years old with a father, uncle, brother, Popular Science, and my favorite Saturday morning TV science show all involved, or dealing, with the fascinating and evolving technologies behind electronics and the transmission of radio, television (TV), then amazing "color" TV and then the further amazement of noise-free, fade-free FM stereo broadcasting.

I remember vividly our first homemade stereo high fidelity ("Hi-Fi") home audio system along with an FM tuner.  To hear "stereo" music from Long Playing (LP) vinyl records well as hearing them over the new medium of FM-Stereo without any noise was awe-inspiring.

TropoScatter System used in Viet Nam
My uncle and dad were early acolytes of radio-TV technology with my uncle experimenting with advanced electronics while both he and my dad operating their own TV radio and TV repair businesses.

My brother readily picked up the craft in the process and continued his electronic evolution in the Army Signal Corps, maintaining AN/TRC-90 microwave tropospheric scatter systems aka "troposcatter" in Viet Nam as part of their "Back Porch" system which made use of tropospheric particle reflections.

Upon returning from Army life, my brother pursued an Amateur Radio license.  He quickly advanced up through the many levels of Amateur Radio licensure which then included Novice, Technician, Technician Plus, General, Advanced, and Amateur Extra.  Today we have only 3, Technician, General, and Amateur Extra classes.  As any older HAM will probably tell you, that was no easy feat before The Internet with easy access to information - let along the requirement to send and copy Morse code at increasing speeds for each license level.  It required pouring over the many pages of the many ARRL (Amateur Radio Relay League) books on the subject.  His pursuit culminated with his certification of the highest operation level, Amateur Extra Class in the 1980's.

For my part, 5 years his junior, I evolved along more theoretical, computer science, and artistic paths, with only the rarest of moments working with wire and components or enjoying the smell of solder resin and Bakelite in my nostrils.  To put it mildly, I was anything but a component wiring guy.  A ham radio license, let alone an advanced once, seemed totally out of my depths and out of my life. That thought was further entrenched by my early and very disappointing experience with the Signal Telegraph key toy that was so ubiquitous in the 1940-1950s. That's when I first experienced what I now refer to as a transpositional dyslexia wherein the mental transpositions required for reading music, learning a new language and, similarly, Morse code become extremely difficult to master.  Many people suffer from this common human feature and don't know it.

On the other hand, advanced theories, systems/computer design, and scientific postulations were my cup of tea!  My radio experience did evolve, however, but was (in computer speak) only in Read-Only mode. That is, I had become an avid Shortwave Listener (SWL) with about 100 countries logged and a wall of 50+ exotic SQL cards to show for it.  My listening "rig" was a JRC NRD-525 then, later, a NRD-535.
That period of my radio exposure was also blessed by the last two sunspot cycle peaks.  My coding work led to some work with the JRC Corporation to help refine their RS-232 control BIOS code while I was creating a DOS software program called BandView which won some awards. 

BV used what would later be called a "spreadsheet" to both manually or automatically log the frequency, time, filter, and antenna settings for each broadcasts at the click of a key.  It could later use the log to automatically tune the receiver.  BV could interface to communication receivers such as the JRC NRD-525, NRD-535, NRD-545, and Kenwood's R-5000.
BandView Receiver Control Program for JRC & Kenwood
Using your previous loggings, BV could tune to one frequency at one time, then to the next frequency at the next stored time slot.  This allowed you to sit back and continuously listen to a range of international broadcasts as it automatically controlled the receiver to follow the successive entries of time and frequency.  That was all before 1990.

Despite, and partially due, to all that involvement with the electronics and computer coding of receiving equipment, I never got around to get my HAM ticket.  A few decades later, the itch to get certified quietly grew, unbeknownst to me, until one day recently it flared up like a late stage disease that only got diagnosed when it was raging.

With the cessation of the Morse code requirement for HAM licensure, one more impediment was removed. The next thing I knew, I was visiting online ham test sites that allowed you to take trial tests. What heck, I figured. Let's see how I might do.

This new direction for me was greatly inspired and greatly advanced with the help of a hand-me-down from my brother and veteran HAM.   In exchange for some work, he availed me a VERY nice piece of excess gear -  a beautifully maintained ICOM IC-756 Pro III.
What other sentiment could I have had than ... "More speed, Scotty, I need more speed!"

After a few weeks of brute force trial and error without study, failing questions, learning about them, then trying again, I was reached trial scores in the 80-90% range on the lowest Technician and a bit less on the General Class tests.  Before I realized it, I was searching for the next ARRL test location and date.  Within days, I was at the local Chelmsford MA HAM club's facility sitting with 9+ other fledgling license seekers. I was quite surprised by the number of test takers there.

So, I took the Technician's test with its 35 questions.  Shortly after I turned it on, I heard, "Hey, you want to take the General test?". "Ok", I said with mild outward trepidation while, internally, I was panic stricken since the General level was significantly more complex.

Soon after handing in my General test with its 35 questions, I heard, "Hey, wanna take the Extra test?"  I was a bit shocked that I had passed the General, too!  I was so tensed up having studied the trial tests for a solid week with little sleep, I expected to get all the questions I hadn't yet covered and blow it all.  But I made it through and there I was.

I knew I'd go down in flames on the Extra level test with its 50 questions that are far more advanced than the Technician and General exams with a lot of antenna, electronics, RF, cabling, FCC, computer, and digital communications theory but I said, "Sure, if you don't mind wasting your time waiting for me and checking my results, I'll give it a shot".

Suffice it to say, I failed but to a lesser degree than I had expected. Without any study of the Extra materials, the few trial Extra tests I had taken were netting me only 30-40% grades. Yet, in that test exam session, I got 50+%.  I think it was at that point that the previously impossible thought of pursuing the Extra Class had then started to gestate in my brain.

After a few days of sleeping and savoring the acquisition of my General Class license, I was off to the races, again. This time, I worked smarter and subscribed to the Extra Class course on which I'll call "HTO" here.  This is a tutoring site that I HIGHLY recommend without any reservations to anyone wishing to take and pass *any* level of the HAM radio license exams. The Extra test enrollment cost $35 for 2-year's of access and was worth every penny.

HTO is a straightforward site without fancy graphics that uses the time-tested methodology of tutoring only the information needed to answer the questions that you might be asked.  After giving you some theory, it tests you on it.  If you fail some questions, it reviews the materials again and tests you on those again.  Each time it backs up, it also move forward at the same time so you get a very powerful mix of repeated weak areas while introducing and testing the next ones.  So, you seldom get bored or feel you're going in circles.

For good measure, HTO also throws in some study tips like, "If you're weak on math or have trouble remembering formulas you'll be tested on, take heart, because computational questions only account for 12% or less of the final questions".  Please note, I was only paraphrasing their tip but that was the gist of it.  So, skipping 12% of questions drops the highest possible score to 88%.  Since passing is 74%, you could miss another 14% (i.e., 4-5) of the questions and STILL pass. Great advice!

However, if you have the time, I strongly encourage applicants to take their time and repeat the course enough times to get consistently 90% or better.  Studying is easy, online, and without any pressure. Signing up for a test, driving to location, then having to retake it is just a hassle.

Also note that NEITHER your test scores NOR your number of attempts are recorded, revealed, or publicized.  So, a licensee who barely passed at 74% after several previous failures appears to the world just the same as one who got a perfect 100% on their 1st try.  The number of tests and your grades are just a matter of personal pride that no one else will ever see.

Day of Reckoning

After another 6 days of near-continuous study and trial testing on the Extra exam, I was getting varying test scores of 80-96% after having covered only 90% of the material.  Perhaps feeling rushed to impress my older brother, I took a deep breath and registered for the next testing session which was at another local Lunenberg MA HAM club a few days later. By the time I got there, I was a basket case as I thought about how I was going from Zero to Extra in less than 3 weeks.

It turned out it was raining, the other registrants decline to come, so I ended up being the only test takers there.  So it was just me and the 3 required Volunteer Examiners (VEs). It was kind of eery with the 3 VEs sitting silently watching me with no one else in the room.  Since VEs who talk are highly distracting, they were being very respectful.

When I handed in my test sheet, they took a seemingly long time to check and re-check the 50 questions of the Extra Class test.  After the 3rd VE checked it, he said, "Well, I have some bad news.  You got 3 wrong!"  I scored 94% and became an Amateur Extra Class!  They all shook my hand and I was on my way!  As I drove home in the rain, I savored my internal joy ... Wow! I was an Extra!

Don't Fight the Waves

Having an engineering kind of mind, I often found myself arguing with the wording of test questions.  As with most prose written by those deeply entrenched in a field, the verbiage often involves jargon and grammatically incorrect sentence structures.

In fact, the accepted answer to one of the multiple choice questions was actually wrong while the scientifically correct answer would be marked as wrong.  I mention this because HamTestOnline actually pointed this out and trains you to ignore your gut and choose the wrong answer that is considered correct!  That's good tutoring!

In case you were wondering, the bad question note above asked how much gain would doubling a UHF antenna's dish diameter result in.  Since a round dish's surface area is Pi * Radius Squared, doubling the size would be double-squared or 4 times more surface area for at least 4 times more signal.  Since 3db gain is a 2-times gain and 6 db is 4-times, the true answer is 6 db.  However, the accepted answer is 3 db.  Sure enough, I got that question and correctly answered incorrectly!

Call Sign and Vanity Antennas, and More

See my next, hopefully shorter, posts on the world of vanity calls, antennas. and more.

As they say, and I can now, 73s.