Thursday, 30 April 2015

4 metres: Germany on, Italy off, rigs notably absent.

Since the late 1950s, many UK hams (and some other European ones too) have been fixated on the 4 metre/ 70MHz band. I guess that includes me.

This is not the place to account for the history of this rather odd allocation. Later maybe. But many VHF enthusiasts find that it is the perfect meeting ground for a variety of conditions not shared by surrounding bands.

It gets:-
more tropo than 50MHz;
more Sporadic E than 144MHz,
antennas with an ideal size/gain combination and;
it is (arguably) the best band for meteor scatter.

Also, it is a hidden gem. There are very few commercial rigs. You have to be a "special" amateur enthusiast to work it.

The only real way to get onto 4m is to assemble some bits and plug them together. This "high technical requirement" thins out the numbers with the capability to get on the band. (Now that IS sarcasm). Some real enthusiasts built their own gear. Many have built the "OZ" transverter. Some bought the FT-847, some versions of which theoretically can work on 4m. However, those people soon found that the FT-847 needed as much effort to get going as would have built several OZ transverters.

But more of that later.

Latest news is that Germany has issued another limited time permit for full licencees to operate on 4m. This time it covers 70.150 to 70.180, 25W ERP. There was similar thing last year, but it had a much less friendly allocation of frequencies down in the beacon portion. So this is good news. Also, this one runs from now until the end of August 2015, so it covers most of the 4m Es season.

4m coverage tends to expand in this way. Certain German licencees already have single frequency allocations on 69.950 and 69.990. That was good start. Then we had the bottom slice of band opened up for a fixed period last year. Then an even better slice of band opened up this year. Maybe one day we will have even better terms. It will all work if we behave ourselves and do not cause any interference to other non-amateur operators.

The current Spanish allocation was something similar. First Spanish operators appeared on the band and then left again. Fixed term licences. Then they were back, then they left again. Then they stayed but on a conditional basis. Now, this year, they have a slice of the band on a permanent basis.

These slices of band rarely overlap. We have to resort to split frequency operation (Macedonia has two fixed frequencies 70.075 and 70.275, Lithuania has 70.240 to 70.250 - work that one out). Do we care? No. It just makes for more challenges. Any slice of band is helpful. It is not easy but who said it should be?

The downside of all this is the situation in Italy. As of this minute, Italian amateurs do not have 70MHz. They have had repeated short spells of operation over the past few years. That must be frustrating for the many keen Italian VHF amateurs. It is ironic that many other amateurs use Italian made (Sirio) antennas.

One of my favourite contacts on any band was working IK3FKX on 4m FM. To say that he was amazed would be an understatement, as he was having a cross town natter on a PMR (old taxi radio). We proceeded in a mix of half-English, half my schoolboy Latin, and he sent me a pile of material in the post which I still have on my pin board.

The present situation is a real step forward over the days when I was first licenced. Then, the only countries which had the band were UK, Republic of Ireland and Gibraltar. But we knew that it had potential. I give full credit to the many who worked hard behind the scenes to get the European band we now have.

"The problem", if there is one, behind getting more countries onto the band, is that these frequencies are often used for "state" purposes. So we need to tread carefully. Often, there have to be agreements with defence users, or there are certain frequencies allocated to PMR users. There are border issues between states. Over time, though, these can often be solved. In Russia and a few related states it is used for broadcasting, so that is a harder nut to crack.

As for "the rig problem" - I have heard enough of it. It does not exist.

I was reading a thread on another site about how terrible it is that the Yaesu FT-991 does not have 70MHz. Eh? Of course it doesn't. The FT-991 has an IF in the region of 70MHz. It would be hideously difficult to get it to work on 70MHz. If people cannot work out a simple technical issue like that, they will never get far on 70MHz. We have the IC-7100, a good way on to the band at a reasonable price. We have Spectrum transverters, which are good value for money. We have ME4T transverters for the more committed, and the Kuhne ones for the people who should be committed (seriously good kit, those). Then we have good commercial kit on FM for anyone who wants to get round Europe from time to time. Why do we need more rigs?

My simple guide to a way on to 4m for the non-technical.
1) Buy rig.
2) Buy transverter
3) Buy antenna patch leads
4) Plug together
5) Switch on 
I do not believe that this is a barrier to entry, but I may be wrong of course.

Let me give you an example. 6m is a very good band. When it first appeared in Europe, almost no rigs in the UK covered 6m and the band was fragmented in different states. People said there should be more rigs. Over time, almost every HF rig now comes with 6m. Most European countries now have a common band. Are there many people on the 6m band? No.

This is not about the rigs. 6m is a brilliant band, but I know dozens of amateurs who have 6m rigs who do not ever set foot on 6m. The same goes for 2m. The idea that more easily available 4m rigs would change the band is ludicrous. The band will still be the band it is, no matter how much those lazy non-operators complain.

VHF dx is a dedication rather than an easy way of doing amateur radio. Even on 2m, the bands in Europe have a fraction of the activity they had in the days I was first licenced. VHF (6m, 4m and 2m) is a specialist sport, a place apart. It is a space in which you have to be ready to listen to hours of white noise. To transmit for a hour, and hear no reply (I just did that very thing). It has to be difficult because it is difficult. But when it works, it is glorious.

If 20 metres SSB is the football of radio, or 2m FM on a repeater is the gentle stroll, 2m SSB is a marathon, 6m is the Tour de France and 4m is an Iron Man Triathlon. To suggest that it should be made easier is like suggesting that Vincenzo Nibali would do better on  a motor bike, or that Mo Farah would go faster in a 4x4.

I am away to try to work Germany.

Do you think I am still angry?



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