630m … The New ‘Magic Band’?

The 'magic band' has always been associated with 50 MHz and its amazing propagation ... usually unpredictable and often without logical explanation. This past summer saw an explosion of digital FT8 activity on 6m which has, for me (and for others I suspect), eliminated almost all of the enjoyment I have found every year on this band.

With so much of the previous CW and phone activity now gone to FT8, the 'feel' of the band is just not what it once was. What I find puzzling is that so many have embraced this weak signal mode yet most of the two-way QSOs seem to be made between stations that can easily hear each other ... often at the very strong levels produced by 6m sporadic-E!

With FT8's inability to chat about antennas, rigs, propagation, locations or simply to exchange names, for me the magic has gone. Being able to hear signals build, fade up and down, or to experience the sudden arrival of bone-crushing signals from the east coast where none had existed moments earlier, is all part of what attracted me to 6m decades ago. I spent only a few hours on the band last summer, working a number of JA stations on FT8. No particular sense of satisfaction was garnered ... working a JA opening on CW is just way more exciting!

For many, the arrival of FT8 to the magic band has opened a whole new world and from seeing so many unfamiliar call signs on 6m this summer, it seems that FT8 has brought a lot of newcomers to the band. Unlike the JAs' worked every summer on CW, almost all of the FT8 JAs' sent their QSL immediately, with almost all excitingly indicating "1st VE" ... so this has to be a good thing! I suspect, that unless the level of conventional-mode activity returns to previous levels on 6m (highly unlikely), my interest in 50MHz will slowly wane or vanish altogether ... but thankfully, there's still magic to be found elsewhere on the ham bands!

As solar Cycle 24 draws down into its final months, the deep lows that were experienced at the end of Cycle 23 are starting to develop once again. For the past few weeks, propagation below the broadcast band has been the best it has been since the previous solar quieting.

Being just below the bottom edge of the broadcast band, 630m (472-479 kHz) has seen some of the benefits of the recent round of stagnant geomagnetic activity.

While some transcontinental QSOs are regularly being made on CW, most contacts are being completed using the weak signal JT9 QSO mode. Contacts can often be completed just as the sun begins to set and staying up into the wee hours to catch east coast DX is not a requirement. Over the past few weeks my 'states worked' total has climbed to 30 and with a couple of holdouts, the QSLs have been steadily arriving.

My 630m states worked, shown in red. Map courtesy: https://mapchart.net/

Last month's arrivals, in spite of the Canada Post delivery disruptions, are shown below.

The recent great propagation on 630m is well-demonstrated by last Saturday night's activity. For the previous two evenings, my JT9 CQ's (as well as QSOs) were being decoded for hours at a time by Rolf, LA2XPA in Norway. He was also hearing Larry, W7IUV, located a few hundred miles to my southwest, on the other side of the Cascade mountains in Washington state. Both of our signals would fade and trade places in Norway but often reaching audible CW levels! The problem was that neither myself or Larry could see any of Rolf's replies to us ... disappointing to us and frustrating for Rolf.

After an hour of trying, I asked Rolf (via the ON4KST LF chat page) what he was using for a receive antenna. It turned out that his secret weapon was a 1000' beverage pointed this way ... no wonder he was hearing so well. Larry, who was using a shorter, easterly pointing BOG (Beverage On Ground) for 630m receive, commented that he also had a 1000' beverage pointed toward Europe but it was optimized for 160m and doubted that it would work on 630. Just to make sure, he plugged it into a second receiver and soon indicated that he 'might' have seen a weak JT9 trace on the waterfall, close to Rolf's frequency.

One minute later Larry's comment was just "wow!" and the following minute he explained what had occurred. It seems that the 'possible weak trace' had suddenly skyrocketed to a -16db signal ... right at the edge of audibility! Larry and Rolf quickly exchanged signal reports and "RRs" as the first Europe-West Coast 630m QSO went into the history books ... 'wow' indeed!

Rolf reported that at his end, Larry's already good signal suddenly shot up to -5db, an easily copied CW level, before fading away for the night. Larry was pretty shocked at how quickly this strong short enhancement had occurred and we all hoped that the oft observed 'spotlight' propagation seen on 630 would move further west to VE7 ... but for now, it was not to be.

Earlier in the evening I had commented to Larry about some previous quirky 630m propagation and had suggested to him that it was probably just due to "the magic of radio" ... to which he politely dismissed with "sorry no magic, just hard work and dumb luck". Looks like he was right on both accounts, but after Saturday's excitement I think he may now believe in a little magic as well!
Steve McDonald, VE7SL, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from British Columbia, Canada. Contact him at [email protected].

5 Responses to “630m … The New ‘Magic Band’?”

  • Jim - KH2SR:

    If FT8 isn’t your style you should check out “JS8CALL”.

  • Steve VE7SL:

    Thanks Jim. I did a quick search and found some info about it. Unless it really takes-hold, it looks like it will further split up the present digital activity. It seems unlikely that there will ever be any true weak-signal chat modes without paying the price of time integration and we end up with another version of PSK31 … just my initial impressions. Of course all of this really begs the question, what’s wrong with chatting in real-time with CW or phone 😉? … one will soon need an entire array of different software packages just to be able to communicate it seems … and all of these seem to require constant upgrading. I can readily see how this will appeal to many amateurs, especially the younger ones that feel comfortable dealing with computer quirks and software but unfortunately that’s not my favourite way to enjoy radio. To each his own it seems which still makes it a wonderful hobby!

  • Bryan M0IHY:

    I think the art of conversation has died over the years, this seems to have been replaced by a different type of QSO (I call it speed QSOing).

    With conditions not being the best I suppose it’s human nature to find modes that allow a continuation of whatever QSO method you use, although I have to agree that the thrill of getting that elusive QSO is best when it’s not handed on a plate to you, having said that, maybe it’s the only way that QSO can be obtained.

    Olivia and JS8Call certainly go some way to making conversational QSO’s, I would certainly embrace them providing the ‘difficult’ contacts don’t come too easily, where’s the fun in that, a bit like collecting car registration numbers when you were a kid, the most collected in a specified time makes you the winner.

    Power is another factor, I admire those QSO’s made with low power, patience and a keen ear rule the day, why use kilowatts to talk to someone just down the road?

    Whatever we do we must do what makes us ‘tick’, that way we can enjoy the hobby for what makes us happy while others do the same, there’s room for us all.

  • Neil w0yse:

    Hi Steve, I enjoyed your article. Good job. 73

  • Walt N5EQY:

    Judging what I have been hearing for the last few years, its pretty evident that we (the ham community) has lost our ability to converse with others. Instead with the monumental political hatred we now endure, its a wonder we even converse at all. Person to person relations seems to have evaporated. It might be possible that in future years as (hopefully) the ether is kind to us, we might actually begin to use voice communications again instead of the digi-yap signal reports that replaced our ability to talk to each other. Lets hope so. I truly would rather have a voice QSO than a S9/-10db report from FT*.It is still however somewhat enjoyable to have a QSO on Olivia or similar mode. Time will tell. In the meantime send a cq or two, you might be suprised. 73

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