Internet and HAM Radio

Internet seems to become more and more indispensable in the world of HAM Radio. Why, what and how?

Internet is a huge source of information right at your fingertips for anyone who knows where to go and how to use a search engine. Personally I’m a classical Internet user and I use Internet to collect information about topic I am interested in.
If I want to know about a certain type of radio I scan the users group for that radio or I check out YouTube for reviews for that radio. I am an active member of the Kenwood TS-480 mailing list on Yahoo. If I want to buy something, I check out eBay for prices, eHAM reviews to check out if im buying the right thing, vendor websites for manuals and webshops to find the right price for the article I want to buy. If i want to know where to send my QSL after i made contact, i can look that up in a callsign database. Do i need to go on?
But there is more you can do with Internet to make your HAM Radio hobby even more interesting as it already is.

DX Cluster

One of the most used functions HAM operators use not he Internet are the DX Clusters. A DX Cluster is a group of servers all over the world running a piece of software that allow operators to send Spots. These spots are replicated to all servers in the cluster, so if one operator sends a spot to one server, another operator can see that spot on the server he is connected to and then knows where, on what frequency, a station is active.

Now, clusters are a good and a bad thing. They are a good thing because operators are informed where the action is, so they don’t have to scan the band to find the next DX.
But for exactly the same reason clusters are a bad thing. Thousands of operators are following the cluster and if an interesting DX is published on the cluster, many of those thousands of operators immediately start calling to that DX. The result is a huge pile-up for any interesting station that is  published on the cluster.

If I look at myself, I am running with less than optimal station conditions. When an interesting DX is published on the cluster, many times for me the fun is over. It is almost impossible for me to work that station if thousands of stronger stations are calling. Therefor I have and am still developing strategies to hear and possibly work the DX before he is published on the cluster.

HAM Radio online

There are many radio operators who are willing to connect their radios to the Internet and make those radios available for other operators to listen what is happening on the air and sometimes even let them be used to make contacts.
What these operators have done is to publish their CAT control on the Internet (most of the times using the web) and stream the audio from the radio to the Internet. Like this they enable other operators to use a radio that might me geographically located thousands of miles away.

A good example of online transceivers is the website GlobalTuners.com

HAMSphere
HAMSphere is merely a HAM Radio simulation where you are connecting to a server that simulates real conditions. You are not really on the air like when operators hook up physical receivers to the Internet.
The reality of the simulation is fabulous and because you are not operating a real radio you don’t need an HAM Radio amateur license tu use it. Everything is there, people make contacts, conditions are varying day by day simulating propagation, people exchange QSL’s, etc. All just like in real HAM Radio.
I am a member of HAMSphere (although I don’t use it that much anymore lately) and I think it’s a great way of getting to know HAM Radio without having the need to build a station, get a license, etc.



EchoLink

EchoLink is a service where radio operators, mostly 2m operators, broadcast the audio of their radios on the Internet thus enhancing the reach of their radios. EchoLink can be used without owning a radio at all. You just install the software, connect to an existing radio and start talking.

I don’t like EchoLink. I see it as a bad quality MSN Messenger. But that’s probably because I don’t understand the purpose of EchoLink (yet).

Propagation Prediction
To be able to make contacts all depends on if there is propagation or not. Therefor there are plenty of websites that talk about propagation and show those typical propagation numbers. I don’t really know what those numbers mean, but if you want to know more about this (i don’t, really), you can read about it on Wikipedia or do a search on Google.

If you are like me and you don’t understand the numbers on the right here, you can go to a wonderful website called RigReference.
Not only does this website present you the technical specs and user reviews of all the rig you can think of, but also they publish nice propagation gadgets which translate these cryptic Solar-Terrestrial Data into something understandable you can even use on your own website or blog.

Now, for me, the ultimate in Propagation Prediction is the VOACAP (Voice of America Coverage Analysis Program).
Not only does this software create nice graphs of what the usable frequencies are in which part of the world and on what time of the day, but they also run an HP Prediction tool where you enter your station details, the receiver station details and the year and month you want to make the contact and VOACAP will calculate which are the best hours to try and which are the best frequencies to use.
For 11 meters it will calculate which areas of the world are best to work at what time of the day depending on the transmitter and receiver station configurations.

Example VOACAP output for 11 meter

As you can see, there are a lot of areas of HAM Radio where the Internet can help you finding what you need. However, all these tools don’t help you if you don’t know how to use your radio.
About how to tune your antennas, how to tune your audio, how to make a QSO efficiently and with respect for your fellow station calling, all those topics will be covered in future articles.

Again, if you have any comments, if you feel i missed something, if i got something wrong, please leave a message. I love feedback, good or (constructive) bad.

Operating the DX Cluster

What is a DX Cluster?

A DX Cluster is a packet node where DX chasers on any band or mode can post rare or interesting stations that they have worked or heard. Of course other people are doing the same thing too, so you can find new DX as well as telling others about the stations you have worked. Clusters tend to be linked to each other so that the amount of people using them is increased, thereby increasing the amount of posted DX. Other information can be found on clusters such as on-line call books, mail etc. You can talk to other stations connected to the cluster network too, in real time, whether at the node you are logged into or on another node connected to the network. You can also use converse mode, where several stations can talk to each other in the same way. Of course, the DX is still posted to you all the while!
(free from the DXSpider Wiki Page)

Although this is a radio cluster, it is not a HAM Radio DX Cluster


What can i do with a DX Cluster?

If you read the introduction from DX Spider, you have seen that by using the DX Cluster just for checking and posting spots, we are only using a small set of features a DX Cluster can bring us. 
Let me highlight a few features that are nice to know. 

Personal details: If you log on as a regular user of the cluster (and not follow the cluster via some website), you can make yourself known to the cluster by using the following Set commands:
show/dx on 20m
show/dx 10 on 20m
show/dx 20 on 20m

Filters: Using filters you see only the spots you want to see. You can filter the amount of spots,
show/dx
show/dx 5
show/dx 20

spots of a particular band,
show/dx on 20m
show/dx 10 on 20m
show/dx 20 on 20m
spots for a particular callsign,

show/dx g0vgs
show/dx 10 g0vgs


etc, etc. More examples you can find in the users manual of the cluster software. The DXSpider Filtering Primer by W3BG Jim Samuels is a ducument you must read if you want to know how to tailor the cluster to your needs.
Beam Heading: Want to know where to point your antenna to hear a specific station or region? 

sh/heading zl
ZL New-Zealand-ZL1-ZL: 7 degs - dist: 11238 mi, 18087 km Reciprocal heading: 355 degs
ZL New-Zealand-ZL2-ZL: 9 degs - dist: 11540 mi, 18574 km Reciprocal heading: 353 degs

Announcements: If you really want to tell everyone that the band is open or that today is your sister’s birthday (no, you shouldn’t post that), you can announce that using:
announce full Anyone seen EA7WA today?
and you can see those announcements using:

show/announcements
show/announcements 10

Chat: You want to send a personal message to another operator connected to the cluster? Don’t use the spots for that. Don’t use announce for that. Use Talk!
talk g0rdi Having a good day Iain?
Mail: Yes, if you are logged on the a cluster, you even have a full functioning e-mail system at your disposal. To send an e-mail you would use the following sequence:

send m0azm
Enter Subject (30 characters):
See you Thursday
Enter Message /EX to send or /ABORT to exit
Hi Ian,
Just a quick note to say that I can make Thursday after all. The
appointment I had has cancelled so we are go!
Cheers
Ian

To list your mail you would first use the directory command:
dir
20735 2 ALL GW7SMV 21-Feb 1204Z REC 9E1S QSL TDY 50Mhz....
20823 308 UK G0HDB 22-Feb 2334Z Help - which district code?
20824 105 ALL W9AE 23-Feb 0349Z S0NY QSL address?
20825 2 UK G0LRJ 23-Feb 0806Z QSL REC LZ2CJ/1.CARD NO-750.
20858 2 ALL GW7SMV 24-Feb 0905Z REC S92DX QSL CARD TDY 50Mhz
20921 200 ALL GM4FDM 27-Feb 2203Z Trip to VP8
20949 375 ALL K0MN 27-Feb 0428Z ST0P cards are gd @ ARRL
20950 2 UK G0LRJ 28-Feb 0835Z QSL REC SV9/IZ0CKJ/P EU-187.
20987 569 ALL GD0TEP 1-Mar 1733Z Portable contests
21076 2 ALL G4AFJ 3-Mar 1743Z kh6nd/kh5 qsl received
21184-p 599 GW4HAT G0VGS 4-Mar 1518Z Re: Time
and then the read command to read a message:

read 25

Mail has a lot more functions. To know all of them, again, read the cluster software users manual.
These examples are all based on DXSpider and a telnet connection to the cluster. I know most of you are using client software or websites to follow the cluster and depending on the software or the website you will have more or less features. What i wanted to show you is that there is much more usefull stuff available when you use a native (read: telnet) connection.

DX Clusters, most love them; i hate them. 


Why do i hate the DX Clusters? Because i think they take the fun out of the hobby. I’ll explain to you why:

A typical pile-up of boats

When i work the radio and i follow the clusters, i hardly make any contacts. Why? Because every station on the air is a pile-up. Usually i scan the bands manually. Yes, turning the dial. And scanning the bands you hear much more than looking at a DX Cluster. And you hear them sooner. 
Normally, when i find the next station i want to work, i listen for a while. Yes, i’m a listener. I want to know which station i am listening to and what his operating behavior is so when i want to work him, i know HOW i CAN work him.
This is what happens now that we have the DX Cluster: I found this station i want to work. I am listening how he behaves, what his operating practice is, and BAM!, hundreds of stations start calling him. I look at my computer screen and yes, there he is, spotted on the DX Cluster. Now working that station becomes a whole lot more difficult. Not just because of the pile-up, i know pretty well how to work a pile-up, but because of the <put any swearword here> that keep shouting and don’t listen, that tune their antennas on the calling frequency, that are using 10 element quads with 1kW, that keep asking “What’s the callsign, please?” If you don’t know the callsign, why are you calling?


Ok, if you still want to use the DX Clusters, here are some do’s and dont’s:



1) Make sure that what you post on the cluster is correct. If not, you will have to post the correct spot details again with an apology for the mistake before. Good for your cluster stats, but it does make you look silly.
2) Don’t send spots to the cluster of stations that you don’t hear. You will not believe how many spots you see with comments like “Still not on the air?”, “We are calling you” or “Which frequency?”
3) Don’t share your frustrations or happyness on the cluster. The cluster is for spotting DX. Comments like “New one!”, “Worked with only 1Watt” or “Please go to 10m now” don’t add any value.
4) Never announce yourself on the cluster. The cluster is not built for that, you look pathetic and if you are not a rare DX station, nobody cares.


Are you looking for a DX Cluster to use? Check here.
Are you looking for DX Cluster client software? Click here.

As always, thanks for reading this article. If i say something stupid, if there is something wrong, if i forgot something essential, please let me know by using the comments.