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Does the CQ World Wide (Really) Make Its Own Propagation?

BY RICH MOSESON,* W2VU

*Email: w2vu@cq-amateur-radio.com

One of the things I love about operating in a contest is the opportunity to watch the progression of propagation on a given band, even a band that’s been written off by some for the duration of a sunspot minimum. In October’s CQ World Wide DX Contest SSB weekend, I wasn’t able to get on the air until mid-morning Saturday. The 20-meter band was already packed and it didn’t take me long to realize (remember, actually) that my 100 watts and multi-band vertical can’t compete with big signals on 20 without a solar assist.

After tuning up the band once without making any contacts, I switched to 15 meters. Now, the conventional wisdom is that looking for DX on 15 during a sunspot minimum is essentially a waste of time. And indeed, as I quickly tuned the band, I could hear only one signal … but it was loud … and it was D4C in Cape Verde, some 3,500 miles away from my QTH in New Jersey! Dead band, my foot! Not only did I hear him, but he heard me. After logging our contact, I started tuning the band again and signals were starting to pop up everywhere. I realized, to my delight, that I’d just had the privilege of watching 15 meters “wake up” for the day. It ended up as my “go-to” band for the contest, accounting for nearly half of my QSOs.

As the day went on, I periodically checked in on 10 meters. The same “experts” who tell you not to waste your time on 15 will assure you that 10 will be good only for local contacts for the next four years or so. For most of the day, that was true. But as late afternoon crept in, so did some signals. And they weren’t local. While the propagation was indeed northsouth only, I managed to work every zone in Central and South America (except 10) on this supposedly dead band. Ten and 15 together accounted for more than two-thirds of my total number of QSOs.

This belief that the upper HF bands are DX wastelands during low sunspot years is widely held, even among some folks who should know better. I belong to a propagation and space science email reflector, on which one member kept posting “band alerts” Sunday about DX stations on 15 meters. He was reminded that DX spots were not appropriate for this particular reflector, but continued, offering this explanation:

“The main purpose of these band alerts is to record the exceptional conditions that we experienced! We are in the sol minimum and the solar flux is down to 69 and yet we can have an opening on 15m just like you would expect when the solar flux is much higher! I basically was able to hear the South Atlantic and South America all the way to the tip.” Ward Silver, NØAX, replied at roughly 2300Z that “this is not extraordinary at all during a big contest. The stations you are hearing are simply not on the air otherwise and are using big antennas with full power. The conditions are pretty much what is expected at this point in the cycle,” adding, “In about an hour, suddenly the bands will close :-).”

In another post in the same thread, Ward noted that “contests really open up a band — maybe we need to study the effects of them on the F layer :-).”

That would indeed be an interesting project. It’s been said for years that the CQWW makes its own propagation, and it really would be fascinating to scientifically study whether having all that RF launched into the ionosphere at one time from so many places produces sufficient energy to increase ionization in the F-layer and actually improve band conditions. Perhaps a future project for HamSci?

My guess, though, is that despite the “common wisdom” and tales of the “contest effect,” there continue to be regular DX openings on 10 and 15 meters, even during sunspot minima. They may be shorter, in terms of time and distance, than those during “better” portions of the cycle, but they’re still there. They often aren’t noticed, though, either because the DXers have moved to other bands (or the internet) or are just listening and no one is calling CQ. WSPR and the Remote Beacon Network could provide some very interesting data here, but again, somebody needs to be transmitting, and keeping track of what’s happening in between contest weekends.

During a major DX contest, stations are transmitting, even on bands that others have given up for dead. And when those openings occur, their signals suddenly start popping up on receivers thousands of miles away. Spots follow, and hundreds of hams descend to work the opening for its duration. As we’ve said here many times before in discussing clubs, activity breeds activity. It works the same on the air as off.

When a band “wakes up” in the morning to a 3,500-mile opening, it isn’t a dead band, with or without sunspots. So don’t listen to what self-appointed experts may be telling you. Listen to the radio instead. And transmit! Call CQ. You might be very pleasantly surprised.

In This Issue…

This is our annual Technology Special, and two subjects seem to keep popping up everywhere … the FT8 digital mode, which is keeping the bands busy in between contests during this solar minimum; and microcontroller-based projects, built around such platforms as Arduino (think μBITX) and Raspberry Pi. The integration of these low-cost, highly flexible, computing platforms into our radios and accessories is a major part of where amateur radio technology is heading. Even if digital modes and tiny computers aren’t your “thing,” you owe it to yourself to at least learn about them and become familiar with what they do and how they do it. Same goes for software-defined radio (SDR), on which this issue includes a great primer. It’s part of our responsibility as amateurs to keep up on advances in radio technology. CQ, of course, is there to help with topical articles and practical projects, not to mention authoritative information on propagation and space weather.

Happy Holidays

As we wrap up CQ’s 74th year of continuous publication, we wish you all a very happy holiday season, as well as a great new year in 2019.

– 73, Rich, W2VU
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