Sunday, 28 July 2019

What a VHF (and 70cm) week.

I have a friend who has a simple approach to amateur radio. He turns on his radio and talks to some people. He isn't really bothered about propagation, he prefers old radios with valves inside and big geared VFO knobs on the outside. Everything is analogue, and he does not have a computer. Obviously, he doesn't have an internet connection either. He knows his stuff, having been involved in the electrical installation industry for many years, but he doesn't do more these days than screw some PL-259s together - infrequently. He never fixed on a compression N-type socket because he uses PL-259s and adapters. Progress is not really what he is about. But he is happy.

I am not really like that. Show me a band full of HF stations ready for a blether and I head for the hills (frequency hills that is, VHF). I do love a bit of white noise to listen to. Now there, for me, is a challenge. I like my weeks of near silence, punctuated by giving away a few points in a contest which I do not enter. It is a thrilling pursuit, or at least for most of the time. Then, to my amazement the bands open and I have to work other stations by the bucket load.

Sure, I love the openings, but there is only so much a man can take. The sound of silence has an allure for me. This week the silence has been shattered.

By the way, this guy (the traditional amateur - I mention) and I have lots to talk about even though we never share the same bands. Let's call him "Gouda" - the cheese making city in The Netherlands. Gouda and I meet often and talk over hot chocolate and filled rolls about the Tour de France, the pathetic collapse of our local amateur radio club, and antenna theory. Antennas are much the same, be they HF or VHF. There is more in common between any two amateurs than what separates them. Sure, we occupy opposite ends of the hobby, but it is the same hobby.

No, Gouda's approach, which gives him great pleasure, is too staid for me. Never mind the ready supply of contacts he has, I love the possibility of what the week ahead might bring. Sure it might be nothing, but sometimes it is lots.

Sometimes I have a week like this past week.
All stations worked on VHF and 70cms during 7 days ended 27 July 2019
Given that we are near the end of the Summer Es season and tropo was not likely to be good due to low barometric pressure, a result like this could not have been predicted.

I prefer my radio unpredicable.

Despite my hopes for Es, this time of the year usually marks a decline, especially on 70MHz. This week, however, there were several good events. In fact each day was good, but I will only list some events and bands.

22 July - 4m
70MHz on 22 July 2019 as seen on dxMaps

There were two classic 70MHz openings that day:-
OIRT broadcast stations on 22 July at 07:34

Lots of broadcast stations, probably from Ukraine and Belarus alerted me to a probable opening to "The East", and my first contact was with SP2MKO (JO93, 1345km) at 07:21. After working OE9KFV on 6m (it is hard to know what to do with strong broadcast competition, and changing to 6m is a good idea unless you then attract Russian TV interference there) I returned to 4m to reach 6xSP, 2xS5, and 9xDL stations plus OK1IN and YL2HA. YL2HA, in KO26 (1671km) being a new square.

That was the end of that opening at 09:22, though the OIRT continued for most of the morning, jumping between stations as ionisation changed.

There was then another opening further to the South starting at 12:38, with S57TW (JN75), and E76C (JN84) worked. Then without much warning, double hop propagation appeared. Single hop is limited to about 2000km, whereas up popped SV2JAO (KN10, 2459km) for a new square on 4m. This is classic Summer Es, and the chances of double hop lasting long are low. SV2JAO was the only double hop of the day, and he faded after the contact and was not heard again. I was still hoping to reach 4X4 on 70MHz, but so far it has eluded me. I suspect it might happen, rather like SV2JAO, briefly and without warning. After HA3GR at 13:23, that was it for 4m on 22 June.

23 QSO (on 4m and 6m), 21 squares, 8 DXCC. Not bad for the end of the season. 

25 July 2m and 70cms
With low barometric pressure predicted, about 1010mb, whereas a good tropo opening takes 1026+, I might have thought that not much would happen. However, the Hepburn map (link on sidebar) had been predicting good propagation for several days around then. This was due to an unusual period of slack air and high relative humidity. Sure enough on 25July it happened.
2m stations worked at GM4FVM on 25 July 2019
38 stations worked in 5 DXCC. Whilst none of it was really remarkable DX, it was a sign of how good 2m can be even on days without very high pressure. Best DX was OZ1CCM (JO55, 823km).

As usual nowadays I turned to 70cms...
70cms contacts at GM4FVM on 25 July 2019.
7 QSOs in 5 squares and 3 DXCC hardly sums it up. It was great to work Dirk, PA3FMP, who has been a target for a contact for some time. This was a new square, JO22, and PA3EAP gave me my first contact into JO32. DL1KAD was best DX at 809km, and JO30 for a new square too.

That is now 37 squares on 70cms, in 12 DXCC entities. Interestingly the 70cms ODX was only 14km shorter than the 2m one. And, I was asked again could I try 23cms.

I won't go on ... (much)

This was a very good week but there is no need to go over every contact. What I am trying to show, once again, is what there is plenty to work without the free standing tower and kilowatt linear which some people feel they need. Sure, other weeks are not so good. Enjoy it while it lasts, I say.

On 24 July Cyprus granted access to local amateurs to use 70MHz on an unlimited basis with a 400W output limit. That same day I heard 5B4AIE operating his club station 5B4AIF. I heard him, and PSK reporter confirms that he heard me, but no QSO resulted. Working Asia still is just  beyond my grasp on 70MHz. Someday it will happen of course, be it 5B4, 4X4 or some Central Asian state, and once I crack that there will be other challenges.

I work on all the VHF bands available to me, plus 70cms and 28MHz. Not only does this give me an insight into propagation, it means that there is rarely a real lull. Those days I describe with just white noise are not so common when I have five bands to choose from. And I can switch between Es, tropo, meteor scatter, aurora and sometimes even "moonbounce". So there is lots to be done, and weeks like last week are not so uncommon as I might try to pretend.

Maybe I am more like "Gouda" after all. I am getting near the point where I can, like him, just turn on and work somebody somewhere. Not quite though. Almost.

Why, when there are only two or three locals left on VHF, do I insist on giving them names which seem to be straight out of a spy novel? Roland and Gouda. What next? Mata Hari (Margreet MacLeod), ZigZag (Eddie Chapman), or Garbo (Juan Pujol) possibly.

And just to prove you don't need a beam on a tower ...

Not in the same week, but here are a couple contacts using the Sandpiper half wave vertical
Transatlantic contacts on 6m at GM4FVM on 16 July 2019
 I have not been giving 6m a lot of attention this year, but I have got across the Atlantic three times so far. Best DX is 5666km (triple hop?), but I prefer to use the highest frequency open so I have not been trying very hard. Still, no beam or mast, just a half wave on top of a length of pipe at about 5 metres above ground.

Don't give up. There is always something to be done even with just a vertical, especially on 4m and 6m.
Actually, there is more than I would have you believe, or even admit to myself.


Sunday, 14 July 2019

IC-9700 first look

EDIT - the fuller review of the IC-9700 is now here.

My recent comments about the IC-9700 were a bit enigmatic - you can find them here ..

I had noticed that it had an issue with the PTT output which would be a problem for me. Anyway, it put me off buying one, but now I have one so I need to check it out.
Icom IC-9700 at GM4FVM
As with any new rig which had never been out of the box, it needed to be set up. In this case the key element is to update the firmware. So, once it had been connected to a computer by a USB cable it was easy to do the update. In this case it is update Version 11.

Firmware update Version 10 had already added the possibility of using a GPS-locked frequency standard. It surprised me that the 9700 was initially launched with a 10MHz input on the back for use with a GPS or similar frequency standard, it then left the settings so that you had to reset the frequency manually. Version 10 update revealed that Icom could change the firmware to make this correction automatic. With a rig which can operate on 1296MHz I would have expected the automatic correction to be available from the start. This was a surprising marketing mistake by Icom, and when put together with the fact that the radio only has one PTT output for all bands, it suggests that Icom got the launch wrong.

Never mind, the frequency standard problem has been resolved in a firmware. Modern SDRs can be reconfigured in this way. No need for a physical alteration if you can do it over the internet. However, there is no simple resolution for the PTT issue. This limitation will not present a problem for anyone not using linear amplifiers. However, the output devices in the 9700 are working fairly near 100% of their rated output, so linear amplifiers are not a bad idea, even for a limited gain in power. I remember early buyers of the IC-9100 experiencing blown output stages - but then many rigs have that problem.

To make the frequency stability solution work, of course, you need to add an outboard frequency standard. I have one already - my ancient Trimble Thunderbolt. This still works but has several downsides. Being old it is not configured for the latest satellites and it needs a USB connection to a PC. The OCXO on mine is old spec too, though it is possible to fit a better one.

The Trimble Thunderbolt issue is a common problem for me, and no doubt other amateurs. It is a nice piece of equipment, high spec when new and well ahead of its time. Mine was ex-equipment, via eBay and the Far East when few amateurs could afford them new. They cost £1000s new and 6 or 7 years ago I was glad to get an old one for a fraction of that. These days you can get better ones new for less than I paid for mine which was very second hand. So do you sideline your prized chunk of old tech, cut your losses, and buy a vastly better, smaller, more efficient modern off-the-shelf marvel? Or do you stay in the dinosaur world where people lie in wait to entice you back into valves, AR88s and the joys of mechanical teleprinters?

I could use the Thunderbolt for the 9700, or just keep it for another thing it is good for - regulating the PC clock. I guess it would be better to buy a more modern frequency standard, such as a Leo Bodnar one, for the Icom. Not only is it likely to be more accurate with less phase noise, it only needs the PC to set it up - after set up it runs independently.

Apparently the drift problem stems, not from poor ventilation inside the 9700, but too much ventilation. It is supposed to be fine until the fan cuts on, whereupon the airflow cools everything so much it induces drift. So far, with me only drawing a couple of watts from it, the fan has not turned on.

So enough about all this. I recall all the issues with the IC-7100 at the start, and eventually I took some simple action with the main one, ignored the rest, and I am still using it six years later.
It is far too early for me to comment too much on this rig. I hope to do a review later. For now, I do not even have an antenna for 1296 MHz. To put one up I would need some expensive coax, and right now I am holding back on that.

When it comes to reception on 2m it is superb. As you might expect from an SDR the receiver is surprisingly quiet. Sensitivity is good. The comparison I will try to make is between the 9700 and my IC-7300/ME4T transverter combination. Essentially the transverter arrangement is capable of moonbounce though I do not have proper EME antennas to make that much use. Can the 9700 also manage on moonbounce? Perhaps we shall see. In any case, first acquaintance looks promising.

I have also tried it on 70cms, though only on receive. Once again it sounds quiet. I think I can say it is better than the IC-7100, but you might expect that. I missed the chance to try it on the recent 70cms contest, so the jury is still out on that. As I have only used receive the fan never came on and the frequency stability never varied from excellent.

When it came to trying this rig on data modes I had the familiar problem with any new Icom transceiver - the Hamlib library used by WSJT-X has not been updated to include it. I had to trick WSJT-X into thinking it was some other model of Icom rig. This is not a problem with other makes of gear as they use the straight CAT protocol, whereas Icom use a specific CI-V coding for each model. Of course, being a radical new thing, it was rather difficult to find a similar rig to give as a temporary identity to the IC-9700.

Thinking that the IC-9100 might be a good place to start I quickly found that the Icom SDR rigs have a different TX instruction. That meant that pretending to WSJT-X that the 9700 was in fact a 9100 would produce full functionality in my mind. Back in the real world, it didn't work. Strangely the IC-7610 set-up did not work either. So after an awful lot of fiddling, I changed the settings so that WSJT-X thinks that the 9700 is an IC-7300. That way I do not have full functionality but at least it works partially. The software can tell the rig to use 144 or 432 MHz, but it gets confused with 1296 (which is hardly surprising). Never mind, I can now use WSJT-X. Once WSIT-X is updated with the coding for the IC-9700 I can change it back to default.

Another solution to the Hamlib problem would have been to use MSJT software instead of WSJT-X. While I was struggling to get WSJT-X to work I did indeed use MSJT and it works. I find it hard to adjust to MSJT. I cannot fault the functioning, but the user interface just doesn't suit me. There are lots of little things like the fact that WSJT-X continues to finish a TX segment unless you press "Halt TX", whereas MSJT just cuts you off in the middle of a TX period when you ask it to stop a sequence. That sort of thing makes a difference when I am busy. Anyway, MSJT works folks, and it is another work-around.

Very early verdict - I like the IC-9700. I will add some sort of frequency standard at some stage. It has a great receiver. It has lots of TX power but I am not sure it is a good idea to run it flat out, either for the PA devices or for the internal temperatures. Have I understood both manuals yet ?? - NO. Have I tested it fully yet - No, probably about 15% of its capability. But already I like it.

To return to the PTT thing finally, I wrote about this before and suggested that somebody (me?) could make something to resolve that problem ....
The CIV box I have in mind has a simple CIV decoder (maybe an Arduino) and 3 relays (or solid state switching). It just reads the CIV and switches between the relays to select the PTT. No need to sense the PTT from the CIV as it comes out on a different pin on the same socket as the CIV does. Three LEDS on the box to show which one is selected and as a fail safe all three work if the box loses the CIV signal.
Timing and sequencing are not an issue as the PTT is still controlled by the DC line coming straight out of the rig. All the relays do is to switch it about.

I wrote that when this was just a thought. Now I have an IC-9700 maybe I have to get into gear and do something. So I dug out the CI-V protocol and there is plenty to read there. Eventually I have left it for some future date, but such a thing would certainly be useful in other settings.

Hopefully I will form a view on the IC-9700 soon. Right now I seem to have an IC-7300 and a transverter which I don't need.

It is only 5 weeks since I wrote about matching the IC-7300 to the transverter. I did not expect to have an IC-9700 today but I have. I had better get on with it but at first glance the 9700 appears to be excellent.




Thursday, 4 July 2019

Taynuilt, GM4JJJ's legacy plus 2m and 4m Es openings compared.

We have been off on our travels again
Antenna pole on the GM4FVM car at Taynuilt, with Mrs FVM showing an interest(?).
A week's holiday in Taynuilt near Oban provided an opportunity for some GM4FVM/P operation from IO76.

I think IO76 is a rare square because I have never worked it on 6m, only once on 4m and never on 70cms. A dipole, which was all I had for 4m, works quite well during an Es opening - but we didn't get a 4m Es opening. The same dipole, shortened, did good work on 2m tropo, and I did quite well on 6m using a ground plane antenna too. However, even with tropo looking to get better, I decided about half way through that it was supposed to be a holiday and I had better knock off the radio.

The day before setting off for Taynuilt, Sue and I visited David, GM4JJJs, shack and met Pat again. Long before David became Silent Key he had asked me to accept various - specific - items of equipment. He had carefully worked out what I would be likely to need. In fact, he divided up lots of equipment and passed it on to several amateurs.

Peter, GM8GAX, was undertaking the task of sorting everything out, packing it up and clearing David's shack. That is a difficult job, and Peter had plenty of work to do. Eventually we headed back with boxes of gear, all of which will be much appreciated. I have plans for all of it.

It was immensely kind of David to pass on all his equipment to fellow amateurs like that. It is also very kind of Pat to make sure David's wishes were carried out. Peter has done a lot of work to make it happen. I hope to be writing about various bits and pieces as I use them. I was using the excellent YouKits antenna analyser to set up the dipole in Taynuilt.

This exercise has been a shock for me, even though David had told me a long time ago that it would happen. Indeed, he wanted to be sure that everything found a good home. I agreed to be part of it all, but that doesn't mean that I am without doubts. I just wish it hadn't been necessary. I wish David had more chance to put it all to use. It is hugely generous of him, but it is also a sad day for me to accept all of his generosity.

I know that David would want me put this gear to use and that is what I intend to do. I do feel sorrow about the way I have come by it, but I will certainly follow David's wishes. I considered David a friend and he obviously felt the same.

How different all this has been than the other SK's distress sale ("Roland") I have been posting about.

I was never short of gear, and I certainly have plenty now.

The circumstances could have been better though.

My feelings about all this are troubling me, but maybe we will stop dwelling on them here on this blog.

Peter also passed on to me this QSL card which he found when clearing the shack. It is for a contact with David (who was then GM8HEY) in 1977 ...

There was a nice 2m Sporadic E opening on 2m on 2 July. This being the first Tuesday in the month, it was RSGB Contest evening. Never having entered a contest, I still feel that it is helpful if I turn up occasionally and give away some points. There have been times recently when IO85 was a rare square ...

I decided to spend 55 minutes on the "144 MHz MGMAC", a short contest mostly involving FT8. During the second half of the event I heard several stations in mainland Italy and Sicily but no contact resulted. Then, between 18:51 and 19:13 I worked five Italian stations, best DX being IT9PQO in Sicily (JM78, 2328km). As well as JM78, I also worked two stations in JN61 and one in JN52, bagging two new squares. It surprised me a bit that working IZ5IOR in JN53 did not bring a new square. The key to this is that JN53 is only 1618km away, and close enough to have worked on 2m meteor scatter.

Looking at this more carefully, I was surprised to find that I have worked Italy 16 times from here on 2m, but only 10 are on Es (and only 5 before this week). The other 5 are on meteor scatter with just one on Earth- Moon- Earth.

Italy is an elongated land mass along a series of fault lines in the Earth's crust. The operative word here is "line", as the geology has created a long line of mountains down the "spine" of Italy and by some fluke this is aligned almost perfectly in line with the path from the UK. Thus with Italian stations being organised along this line, from 1400 to 2400km, there is often a chance to work them. Put simply, Italian stations are where Italy is, and Italy spans a huge number of possible paths due to the alignment of its landmass.

The famous "Italian wall", which some amateur complain about, is not due to some strange propensity of Italian stations to operate all the time, but rather due to the peculiar geography. There is often propagation to some part of Italy because of the large range of distances from the UK. To pick a fairly random comparison, Austria is also elongated, but more at right angles to the UK. Thus Austrian stations don't all seem to line up along the same beam heading, and so you don't hear so many of them at once. Denmark is almost perfectly on a right angle from here and I do not often get several stations at once from there, and much the same goes for Finland. Luckily I do not often need a beam heading for New Zealand as they are in just about every direction you could imagine (maybe that is why I have never worked ZL, unlike Italy. Could the distance be a factor too?)

The UK must seem similar from the Italian perspective, but not quite so long or so nearly in a single direct line. In addition, the distant parts of the UK are different DXCCs. Being able to hear G, GD, GM, GI, and GW in one opening would be quite good fun. In Italy's case, only Sardinia is a separate radio entity.

Viewing the day's 2m activity on a map it looks quite clear ...
2m contacts at GM4FVM on 2 July 2019, including both the MGMAC contest and the Es opening
We can see clearly in this image the basic characteristics of a 2m Es opening. The distinction between the "flat band" tropo activity - best DX G3YDY, JO01, 493km (nice contact for tropo) - and the Es into Italy is easy to see. The Italian stations are arranged in a line from my perspective. The Es opening only lasted for 22 minutes so there was no time for the Es to shift. 2m Es openings are rare and short. The distances were, in order of contact ...,
at 18:51 2328 km,
at 18:54 1886 km,
at 19:02 1736 km,
at 19:03 1877 km, and finally
at 19:13 1618 km
The tendency this time was for the DX to shorten over time, which suggests that the ionisation was increasing. This of course relates to a tiny part of the ionosphere over those 22 minutes - other parts might be behaving differently.

There might, of course, have been other areas of ionisation nearby. When you look at the map, just a tiny bit West and the opening would be into open sea. If the path opens into areas such as the Alps, the Atlas mountains or the Adriatic Sea then there isn't much to work.

You have to rely on an amateur being active in a small area of land (hopefully not sea) - an area which is rapidly moving North in this case - on your frequency and mode, and at the time the opening occurs. Each station was only heard here for a couple of minutes. It is surprising 2m Es openings happen at all. You do rarely get long-lasting ones, but they are unusual.

Just for comparison, the 4m and 6m Es opening of the following day was a more leisurely event. Or perhaps I should say "events" as they took 8 hours and 3 minutes to complete. During this time various paths opened up and closed again. For this purpose I will look only at the 4m ones, though the 6m ones lasted even longer and featured multi-hop openings which I did not try to join.
4m contacts at GM4FVM on 3 July 2019
The contrast in directions worked is considerable. I first worked 9A2ZM at 13:29 during an opening to the Adriatic which lasted 9 minutes and was a bit like the previous day's 2m opening. The difference is that at 4m I could reasonably expect more openings later that day. On 2m the next Es opening could well be next year.

There wasn't long to wait, as I then worked EA2XR at 14:22. That sort of thing is fairly common on 4m, whereas having a second opening in a different direction would be unusual on 2m. It was not until 19:29 that 4m opened again - or maybe I was just not the shack. Life comes before radio and I cannot sit about listening all day. That opening lasted about an hour and I worked three stations - there are not may folk about on 4m. I hung around on a hunch and ten minutes later EA8DBM in IL18 (3278 km) appeared to round off the day. Almost as far was EA6SX in the Balearic Islands, but that proved to be a rather scrappy contact. I was finished at 21:32.

So how do we compare a few minutes on 2m to work one country and 4 squares, with half a day on 4m to work 5 countries and 8 squares? Well, 2m Es openings are vanishingly rare here. Those stations further South than me generally do better. But I like the steady progress on 4m, with each phase of the opening having its own character - EA1VM was a new square (IN72) and 4O6AH was both a new country (Montenegro) and a new square (JN92).

You could build up your totals more quickly on 6m where the openings are even longer and more common, but let us not go too far down that road. Down there lies 10m, where the openings are even more common, and eventually you reach 20m and the oblivion of HF operation on almost-always open bands.

Nope, it is not really the "goodness" of an opening I like. I do not care much for the comparison between them. It is all good. I love the uncertainty. The periods of listening to white noise before the band opens. You have to work quickly as you might only have minutes. Which way to beam? Can I go up a band - if it affects 6m, is it present on 4m, or even 2m? Is my antenna as good as it could be? And, of course, the glory of watching the ionosphere doing its thing.

And then the opening gets "better". Further. More stations. And then ... it is over. Gone for another year/ week/ day. They always get better just before they stop. No point calling CQ now Jim, you've missed the best bit. The fish that got away. Like hearing San Marino (actually "The Most Serene Republic of San Marino"), not calling them, and then never hearing them again. Not very serene after that one. Add Egypt and Lebanon on 6m to the list of giant fish that got away.

Ah, the joy and the pain (Frankie Beverly and Maze again). It's Rainin' Through My Sunshine (wasn't that the Real Thing? I went to see them at Ballymena County Hall in 1981 but I cannot remember them singing that).

Nobody said radio should be easy. It is the random nature of it that makes it interesting. It's great and then it is over. I love it, both when it happens and when it does not.

Treasure the good radio days, and treasure your radio friends too. We are all sporadic, over before we are ready to stop.

To finish, here is the view at Oban, where we went in the train from Taynuilt. I bet that Sun is doing some ionising.
As usual, you can click to enlarge any of the images if you want to.