Monday, 25 June 2018

The solstice, 6m propagation and Clublog

Ah, the Summer Solstice.

The longest day in the Northern Hemisphere has passed and as I write it is still officially daylight here between 03:24 and 20:58, and given daylight saving time and a clear night, you can still work outside without lights at midnight. (Why would you want to do that, Jim?)

Sporadic E propagation is largely (but not entirely) a Summer phenomenon, so you would expect it to peak at the Solstice. The Earth is tilted as it rotates, and the axis of rotation turns relative to the Sun in about 365 days. Well, it seems like that to us, but the reality is that the angle of the poles is more or less fixed and the Earth rotates round the Sun in 365 days or so. This creates the effect we see as the four seasons.

The Sun sends much the same levels of energy towards Earth all year, but because of the tilt in the Earth's axis of rotation, the angle of the Sun's radiation changes. This makes little difference at the Equator, but up here is lofty 56 degrees North we find that the angle of the Sun varies a lot during the year. Katy, the Shack Cat, knows that the Sun only warms up a sheltered part of her garden for two months on either side the Solstice.
Katy enjoying her first sunny day of the year in the "Bermuda Triangle", 20 April 2018
The triangular flower bed in the garden gets no direct Sun for the other eight months of the year. It gets the full blast for the longest period at the Solstice, but by then Katy has abandoned it as too hot. Then she is to be found under a bush. She will be back there towards the end of August for her final sun bathe of the 2018 season.

Sporadic E is a bit like our triangular flower bed. As the angle of the Sun rises during the period on either side of the Solstice, so "clouds" of Sporadic E form further and further away from the Equator until they cause the VHF bands to open to operators as far north as GM4FVM. Like the angle of the Sun at the flower bed, the angle rises to a point where ionisation occurs in the northerly E-layer. This is good for GM4FVM and also for Scottish cats who can stay warm in their gardens.

You might think then that at the Solstice itself there would be an awful lot of Sporadic E. Not so, at least not in my experience. If you want to enjoy the Es bonanza of working round Europe with ease (or single skip Es wherever you live), then 21 June is not the day to do it. For some reason which I do not understand, the Solstice week has never been good for single hop Es for me. Mid June and the first two weeks in July seem better. At that time the Sun is high in the sky but not at its maximum.

What I do find is that the time around Solstice is really good for multi-hop Es. This is the time of year when stations in Europe become transfixed by the rare opportunity to work Japanese stations on 50MHz. This is multi-hop Es at its best for us. It isn't just Japan either, with stations in China, India and the Philippines joining in..,

EDIT I used the wrong photo here before !!!

I heard DU7/PA0HIP who, at 11138km, is the most distant VHF station ever heard at GM4FVM. This sort of thing might have been possible at the peak of the solar cycle a few cycles ago, but for it to occur at sun-spot minimum due to Sporadic E is amazing.

When this window of multi-hop Es was first described, the Japan - Europe path was thought to be some unique phenomenon. That idea has been largely discounted as similar paths have emerged elsewhere.

Japan to here is about 9000km, and I am hearing Japanese stations on 6m almost every day.
Path of 6m signal from DU7/PA0HIP, with JA6BZI for comparison.
The paths shown from GM4FVM are partly over the Barents Sea or the Gulf of Bothnia but principally over land. Most European stations have paths to South East Asia which are entirely over land. Most days around the Solstice I start hearing JA stations at about 07:30 and they can continue until about 10:00. Sometimes I can hear six or seven in a day. The openings are short: perhaps I receive two or three overs from any specific station. On the other hand, some stations like JA7QVI, appear repeatedly on successive days.

The path to the Philippines is a good 1000km further than the path to Japan. Could there be other options which have not been tried?

So what has changed to allow me to see this path? I first heard JAs in June about three years ago on JT65. Since then I have improved my antenna and coax. For such short openings JT65 was not ideal with its 1 minute tx period, whereas FT8 with its 15 second periods may be better. Having said that, FT8 is about 4dB less sensitive than JT65, so it is swings and roundabouts. More likely we are all just looking for all this more carefully. Previously it was used mostly by CW operators, but the arrival of lots of FT8 operators, all on the same frequency, raises the chances of detection.

Can I work these Asian stations? Probably not. I only use 200W, and most of them are using 1kW. Perhaps if I had a bigger antenna it would be easier too, but then I am not interested in either of those options. The openings are so fleeting that it hardly seems worth doing it anyway. Other stations located further south in Europe are better placed and good luck to them. I am happy just watching it.

Mind you, with one or two of them at signal strengths up to -2dB I might be able to work one someday .. and I do try sometimes.
PSK Reporter map showing GM4FVM receiving DU7/PA0HIP on 20 June, and the "Russian Gap"

Obviously with Es being influenced by energy from the Sun, the path is entirely in daylight. Only a small part of the bottom right hand corner is in darkness as night spreads across the Pacific Ocean and towards Japan.

In an Easterly direction from me there is a huge gap in 6m stations between Europe and South East Asia. The large hole in 6m coverage to the East is largely accounted for by Russia, and in Russia the 50MHz band is used for television. This "Russian Gap" limits what we know about Es propagation and it would be very helpful if Russian amateurs had access to the 50MHz band (or the 70MHz band for that matter, which is occupied by sound broadcasting).

To the West as far as the South East we have amateur stations!
6m contacts at GM4FVM in the month up to 25 June 2018
It is apparent from this that I have finally worked another continent on 6m, South America. It took ages but finally I worked PV8DX on 12 June. This particular contact proved rather difficult as the competition from big stations in Europe was preventing me from getting through. Being this far north has one advantage - it gets dark later in Summer. Thus when most of Europe was in darkness (and had lost the path) it was still bright at FVM Towers and still light all the way to Brazil. At 21:15 I worked into South America on 6m for the first time. You can see from the map this this path was actually shorter than the one I recently used to work Mexico, so my best DX on 6m has not changed.

The key factor in this latest map has been Clublog. For ages I have been thinking that I am getting lazy, especially on 50MHz. Up to now, once I have worked a station or a square and added it to my all-time list, I don't work the same place very often. In fact, I was in the habit of just sitting and watching for new ones. I know that many twitchers (bird watchers) have annual lists and all-time lists, which keeps them busy in the January to March period. If I had an annual list I would start the year working places like France, which, to be honest, isn't a great stretch DX-wise from here. However, even French people deserve to work IO85.

But how to do it? Could I analyse my log to break down contacts into years? And how can I compare 2017, when I was not chasing annual targets, with 2018, when I was?

The solution came with Clublog. Clublog looks to me like a tool written for HF types. But it has an annual DXCC table which extends as far into the dark territory of VHF as the 6 metre band. No good for 4m or 2m, but how was I doing at 6m?

Terribly badly.

In 2017 I had worked 50 DXCC, and in 2018 only 42. It quickly became clear to me that I have not worked many European DXCCs in 2018. Laziness indeed.

With renewed vigour I pursued the missed targets, like Ireland (!), Luxembourg, Czechia, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Iceland, and many other obvious targets within easy reach. Within a week I had got my total up to 52, and there are still a number to be reached, like, surprisingly, the Netherlands. Yes, this annual list has definitely got me moving at last.

The point here is that my laziness had gone without notice. Once I got Ireland into the all-time list I had not even noticed that it was missing this year. Does that matter? Well it does if you are in Ireland and you want to work IO85, or even just work plain old Scotland as a DXCC. Amateur radio is not there for me to exploit in isolation. I have to offer my DXCC and square for others to work. I need to be there working other stations, for if everybody was lazy nobody would ever get anywhere.

Tch, tch, Jim

Getting onto Clublog is easy once you have joined. If you have an electronic log like mine (EA6VQ's VQLog) there is a box marked "Upload Log" followed by "To Clublog". Once you have uploaded the log once, VQLog simply adds any new QSOs every time you click the box. You can keep your "confirmed" total right by occasionally updating the entire log with a file of your log which you have already updated with your QSL receipts.

Clublog offers lots of lists and comparisons. Not being very competitive, I compare myself with myself, but it is possible to compare with others too. We could start a "FVM Blog club" and compare ourselves if we wished. Maybe that is not a good idea.

Another useful service Clublog offers is to report faults in the uploaded log. It turns out that VQLog had been mis-placing SWL QSLs I have listed in my log under the wrong country (hardly surprising as SWL prefixes are often different). Also I had two countries worked which are not DXCCs, which we could quibble about, but anyway. VQLog seems to have put "2E0" calls from England into Scotland, and the fault reports alerted me to that. So now I have fixed lots of faults in my log (including a few entries dated 1899).

Finally, once I joined Clublog I discovered that I had been inconsistent with my treatment of cross-band QSOs. I have had cross band QSOs between 70MHz and 50MHz with countries which do not have 70MHz as an amateur allocation. For Switzerland and Austria I had got this right, for France and Sweden they were showing up as 4m QSOs. I doubt if I can count as a 4m QSO a contact with a DXCC which does not have that as an amateur frequency. So, rather reluctantly I corrected that error and guess what - my all-time 4m DCXX list has fallen from 40 to 38. Bah!

So Clublog has spurred me into working wonders for my 2018 DXCC list, and reduced my 4m All-time DXCC list. But hey, correcting an error is always the right thing to do.





Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Power Line Adapter noise interference solution?

I have been writing these posts as multi-subject essays but I hope from now on to do just one thing at a time and just make more posts (!).

About 3 weeks ago our neighbour installed power line adapters. The PLAs in question were branded TP-Link but there are lots of makes. Some make less noise than others.

How did I know that my neighbour had installed these? Well, the 50MHz band was immediately submerged under a wall of radio noise. Much tinkering with the Noise Blanker settings on the Icom IC-7300 allowed me to separate out two distinct types of noise - 1st a sound like a chicken clucking which was there 24 hours per day and - 2nd a wideband swoosh of white noise of varying strength which happened at certain times. Presumably a constant status signal with wideband saw-tooth type signal when data was being exchanged.
Sudden peaks in the wideband noise and regular "clucking" all the time.

At this point I am going to try to upload a video clip to this blog. If it works it shows an unsteady image of the IC-7300 receiving the noise, and at one point me turning the noise blanker on to reveal the two separate components. As I have never managed to upload video successfully to this blog platform we shall see if I can get it to work.

Although the noise blanker could be made fairly effective against both noises this required me to adjust it to maximum settings. When I did that reception of FT8 was affected. So with NB on I could combat the noise to a large extent, but then I could not use the radio. Turning the noise blanker off pushed the AGC into overdrive and signals vanished.

This is always a difficult situation as my neighbour was simply following the advice of our local television antenna/satellite dish installer. This particular installer loves installing Power Line Adapters (PLAs). The idea of the PLA is that it works by injecting an RF signal down the house mains supply wires and then receives the signal somewhere else. The units are fitted with Ethernet sockets, and in this case were connected to an internet router at one end and a television at the other end. They are cheap, and easier than cabling the house. So he uses them a lot.

I needed to be pretty certain that the noise was coming from this source. It is not easy to approach a neighbour and suggest that something they have just bought is causing me problems when it is clearly not causing them problems. Especially if you have picked the wrong house to blame. So, amongst other things, I swung my beam round to see if the noise was directional (if it isn't it is probably coming from this house). The neighbour's house is located South West of me so I took compass bearings as I turned the beam.

This is not the first time this has happened to me. Last year my neighbour on the other (East) side had a similar experience. She had installed a proprietary internet TV system supplied by BT, and the same installer fed it using a pair of BT branded PLA adapters. The resulting noise then was FAR worse than this time, as it was clearly getting into the mains supply of this house. That problem was resolved by the neighbour accepting my offer of a wi-fi alternative to the PLAs.

So I offered the same solution to the second neighbour with the latest PLA installation. He told me that the installer had tested the wifi signal and that no reliable wifi could be found at the television end so the installer had sold him the PLAs. I offered to try out a wifi solution at no cost to him. He agreed to this and I followed the same process as before. The device I tried was the same as before and still listed on Amazon as:-

DC XINGDONGCHI Wireless-N 300Mbps WiFi Range Extender Router/Repeater/AP/Wps Mini Dual External Antennas Wifi Booster Wireless Access Point with RJ45 Port (Wi-Fi Booster)

Hyped up to sound like a pretty amazing product, eh? You can find it here for £14.99:-

Whatever else it can claim to do (it is basically a wi-fi repeater), it has two key features for me. First it has two Ethernet sockets and can provide an Ethernet output for wi-fi links. And secondly, it has a very sensitive wifi receiver. It doesn't photograph very well:-
The wifi to Ethernet hub as bought from Amazon (inverted photo)
Anyway, over the past year I have bought 4 of them to solve various similar problems. The neighbours on both sides now have them to replace noisy PLA systems, and in both cases the noise level has fallen back to negligible. I also have one myself which gives a perfect picture on our television, whereas the on-board wifi cannot find a satisfactory signal. I fit them with CAT6 cables to reduce RF interference (both in and out!) and set them up for repeater mode on the domestic wifi. Then I just connect the Ethernet cable to the television.

There are two Ethernet sockets, so a fourth one has been used by me to provide a wifi fed local area wired network for two computers. This is not completely noise free but pretty good - certainly miles better than PLAs could produce.

I had expected to have to fit a repeater to reach the television in the case of the second neighbour. After all, the TV installer had said that the weak wifi signal required him to sell them a set of PLAs. As it turned out the XINGDONGCHI device got a perfectly good signal from the domestic router located at the other end of the (large) house.

No doubt other products are available which do the same job, but these ones suit me. They are cheap and effective. Some reviews say they are unreliable in the long term, but the first system has now been operational for a year.
Hub turned on and sending data to GM4FVM's LG television via the cable
Perhaps the main drawback is the bright blinking LED light display. Homer Simpson from the popular television cartoon series "The Simpsons" has a solution for this type of thing. He sticks some black tape over his annoying car "low oil level" warning light  Perhaps for this in a domestic setting we might use neat white insulating tape. Note that with UK plugs the device appears upside down. The upper photo has been reversed by me, the lower one shows the device as it actually appears - upside down.

Anyway, in my view PLAs are terrible. They are supposed to be "notched" so as not to produce signals on amateur bands, but the TP Link ones produced nasty noises on the 50MHz bands - but not on 28, 70 or 144MHz. Anyway, the best solution seemed to me to remove them entirely.

We will need to see in the long term how effective these are. Mind you, for a year now the first one is providing a reliable signal to a BT box. That device happily streams high definition video (so does mine for our TV). Bandwidth does not seem to be a problem. The resulting data speed has so far proved just fine for my neighbours and me.

All this makes me think of a different issue. BT supply their steaming box (which is a hybrid "Freeview" digital TV recorder and internet decoder) with only an Ethernet socket for connectivity. At the same time they advertise their Broadband internet service as having the best router and wifi signal available. Do they not trust their wifi signal to supply their television box? So far I find that my neighbours are perfectly happy to have wifi connections instead.

And I am perfectly happy to stop all that noise.

This is bad business for BT. I decided not to buy their box as unless it was right beside a router it could only be supplied with PLAs. Now I discover that was never true. In these three installations PLAs are not necessary for domestic television viewing.

Final thought - you might have PLAs in your own house. It might be worth doing away with them and I am sure you can come up with a solution - maybe hard wiring using at least CAT6 cable?

Power Line Adapters? I say "Down with this type of thing".



Wednesday, 6 June 2018

A busy time on VHF plus ClubLog and Western Sahara on 4m

The period 3 to 6 June 2018 will go down as one of my busiest. Not quite THE busiest (the same period in 2016 must have been that) but one of the most, and very productive too.

Here is a snapshot of 10m WSPR, showing the areas reached in a 24 hour period. It all looks much as you might expect one of my HF charts to look like. In fact, I looked in the log and for the entire 24 hour period (except between 04:40 and 04:50) there was some exchange going on for GM4FVM on 10m WSPR - and it went on like that for 3 days (3,4 and 5 June 2018) with the rig on constant duty (as usual click to enlarge the images if necessary) ...
WSPRnet map for 10m WSPR at GM4FVM 24 hours to 10:30 on 5 June 2018.
Rather more unusual is this image for the same 3 day period ...
VHF contacts logged at GM4FVM 3 to 5 June 2018
You see, the unusual thing is that second chart is VHF.

I do not have the biggest tower, the longest antenna or the beefiest linear. I never really expected results like that on VHF. Sure, it looks like HF, but it is 2m, 4m and 6m combined over three days (two and half days really).

To show how things normally are I am including details of the previous day too in this table of contacts

2 June   Total 2   2 x 6m
3 June   Total 14   13 x 4m, 1 x 6m
4 June   Total 64   9 x 2m, 27 x 4m, 28 x 6m
5 June   Total 61   25 x 2m, 30 x 4m, 6 x 6m

There are a lot more contacts than usual but then again not SO many. Hidden in the detail is a list of surprising QSOs.

Taking 2m to start with
144MHz stations worked at GM4FVM 3 to 5 June 2018
There had been some Sporadic E on 2m here on 3 June and I saw that GM4ZJI had worked into Spain. It did occur to me to become active then but we wanted to watch a drama on the television about the shooting of Norman Scott's dog. If you live outside the UK this is a political sex scandal dating from the 1970s. Whilst it may seem strange to still be raking over a 40 year old event which is fairly irrelevant today, the British love a political sex scandal. Superb performances by Hugh Grant, Ben Wishaw and Adrian Scarborough. They should make a follow up, which would be difficult as it was a real life story.

Anyway, I should know that 2m Es is so fleeting that you cannot turn the radio on for it. By then you have missed it. So I watched 2m activity the following day while working on FT8. I saw the signs  and I managed to switch to SSB for an opening which lasted between 18:24 and 18:30. I managed two new 2m countries, Bosnia - Herzegovina and Croatia. Most of the rest was FT8 on tropo. One station in Poland, HF9D, I worked in the mistaken belief that he was in Hungary. Ignorance is bliss.

The 2m contact with E72U in Bosnia, at 1914km, fails to beat EU7AA at 2077km, a record that has stood here since 10 June 2011.

Moving on to 4m, again there was a mix of tropo and Es.
70MHz stations worked at GM4FVM 3 to 5 June 2018
There were some nice new squares to work here, especially in Spain. Another new square was provided by a kind Swedish operator on holiday in Greece. Nice to work Canary Islands again on 4m after a gap of 5 years!

On 6m I tried to work some of the smaller European states, reckoning that I was unlikely to cross the Atlantic. I was wrong ...
50MHz stations worked at GM4FVM 3 to 5 June 2018
There were lots of Europeans of course, with new 6m European mini-DXCCs for me such as the Vatican City (HV0), Azores (CU), Aland Islands (OG0) and Ceuta and Melilla (EA9). New squares too (E72U who had given me a new DXCC on 2m, also gave me a new square on 6m six hours later).

Nevertheless it was the four trans-Atlantic contacts which surprised me. The two Florida stations, NC2V and K3XT, plus the one in Dominican Republic HI3T were netted the normal way on 50.313 FT8. Those are great contacts and I would have been happy with that, but ...

There has been a move to separate out inter-continental FT8 traffic and move it to 50.323. There, for example, European stations could all work on the same period (1st) which could leave the reception period uncluttered. You can read more about this idea here. Anyway, after spending a long time watching on 50.323 I could see how rarely I could copy any inter-continental DX. Then suddenly up popped XE2JS and a couple of calls netted me Mexico on 6m. At 8229km that pretty well shatters my previous 6m DX record.
A quick snap of my 6m yagi on 4 June - at 23:00 local time! 4m vertical in foreground

Moving inter-continental FT8 to a specific frequency is fraught with problems. Many amateurs do not seem to look for any guidance (after all, they do not read the WSJT-X notes either). Others don't care. Some who do know tried to act as policemen, but then the rules are not enforceable. It was like a bear pit, but I worked Mexico.

As Father Fintan Stack said in an edition of Father Ted "I've had my fun and that's all that matters".

No, seriously, I could never have worked Mexico on the normal FT8 frequency. Whether users know that places East of Istanbul are not in Europe, or that Greenland counts as North America or all the other ripples in our delightful DXCC landscape is doubtful. It was a pity to see people just ignoring the idea that 50.323 is meant for traffic between continents. Will it work long term? Having already benefited, I would like to think so.

So that was a busy three days. What did I do that was special? Not much. As always it is the conditions which make the fun, not mere radios or the works of man. In every way it was astounding to watch, and we are still a couple of weeks short of peak Es at the Solstice.
I was very pleased to work S01WS in Western Sahara on 6m FT8 on 4 May. This has been a troubled area and it is great to see amateur radio taking a hold in this inhospitable environment.
You don't see many of these beasts in Berwickshire
I was totally bowled over to work S01WS again, this time on 4m SSB, on 28 May. I had no warning that they were on 4m and there was a scrum of similarly animated G stations. Anyway I was fairly confident that I had got through the pileup but not completely certain. I mentioned this to GM4JJJ who pointed out that I could check on ClubLog. I confess to more ignorance here as I have never used ClubLog. You can find it here. As well as various services for members, it offers a free log check for non-members. This means that you can check if you are in a member's log.

I did the search immediately to find that I was not in S01WS's log for 4m, though I was for the earlier 6m contact. However, the following day there I was for both. You can use ClubLog to order a direct QSL card (for a small fee) and make a donation. I was so pleased with S01WS's efforts that I decided to do both. The QSL arrived through the post within a week.
QSL for contact with S01WS on 28 May
I may well be deluding myself to read into this a rosy future for African VHF amateur radio. But at least it is positive. Having recently worked Algeria on 6m too, I think things are much better than what we have been accustomed to for several years.

Oh yes, at 3369km, S01WS exceeds my previous 4m DX record (3261km to EA8CAW).
Progress since 31 March 2018 (31 March figures in brackets)

Squares 116 (107)   DXCC 26 (24)   Continents 1 (1)   DX excl EME 2077km (2077)

Squares 214 (204)   DXCC 40 (39)   Continents 2 (2)   DX 3369km (3261)

Squares 319 (294)   DXCC 63 (55)   Continents 4 (4)   DX 8229km (6733)

That happened in just over 2 months. If it goes on like this there will be very few left to find.

I must go and lie down.