Digital Revolution Or Evolution?

courtesy: KD0WTE

A recent reflector posting tended to confirm a rather intriguing trend that I have also been noticing over the past few years.

The poster lamented the fact that he often found very few or even no CW / SSB signals on the HF bands while at the same time seeing lots of activity throughout the digital portion of the bands.

It does seem like there is far less CW and phone activity on the HF bands now, than there was a few years ago and there is no question that digital activity has soared. Whether it's RTTY, PSK31, JT65, WSPR, JT9 or others, these digital signals are always prominent and, band plan or not, are slowly migrating further in the band as activity increases ... but is this the reason for the decline of traditional modes?

The digital weak-signal modes make these extremely popular for a number of reasons. Nowadays, many amateurs are living in antenna-restricted communities and are forced to develop smaller, lower and less effective stealthy antenna systems if they wish to get on the air and make contacts. Most of these modes perform well with minimal amounts of power and are capable of hearing well into the noise ... and unless you live out in the country, with well-separated neighbours, we all know that noise is increasing at horrific levels almost everywhere. These two factors alone might well explain much of the growth in digital activity.

Licencing requirements have also been slowly evolving and today, getting a ticket is much easier than it was several decades ago ... and in many cases, without the requirements of knowing anything about CW. Every month, North Americans see a large number of new amateurs, many with no code skills and possibly not much interest in acquiring them. From my own local observations, most of these new amateurs usually head straight to FM on the VHF/UHF bands and have little knowledge of or interest in HF radio. These factors must also play into the demise of activity on the traditional HF modes as well.

We also shouldn't overlook the influence that Old Sol is having on our HF bands as well. Solar Cycle 24 (begun in 2008) has been one of the poorest on record and continues to generate month after month of terribly poor HF propagation. As a young SWL who listened in Cycle 19, (the largest on record), I can vouch for the relationship between HF activity and good propagation. Those were amazing days, when 20 and 15m would stay open all night long ... even 10m would often still be open with F2 propagation at midnight towards VK and ZL! Everyday, month after month, the bands were simply bulging with activity, from end to end ... high solar flux numbers bring high activity numbers and we are now experiencing the downside effects of what happens when the sun dreadfully underperforms. The only exception to band-bulging activity today seems to be limited to major contest weekends only. Where these people go the rest of the time is a mystery.

There are surely other reasons as well for the gradual decline of traditional-mode HF activity, including the fact that the general ham population is getting older. Large numbers of stations are simply 'going away' as interest or opportunity declines and as more of the aging traditional-mode ops go 'SK'. I know of several hams that have just given-up because of insurmountable increases in their local noise floors. Our new and usually younger hams, have largely grown up in the 'digital age' and for those that do find themselves exploring the HF bands without CW skills, might logically settle into the digital modes first.

Things are changing quickly, of that there is no doubt. Last summer, on 50mHz, I noticed a large increase in the number of dedicated CW operators moving to JT65 and JT9 during openings and this summer has already seen another huge migration from one mode to the other.

Although this year's Sporadic-E season is just getting started, I have already heard many more countries on JT65 than I have on the traditional modes (Japan, Philippines, China, Formosa, Alaska, Venezuela, Cuba, Brazil). Yesterday I listened to a PY calling CQ on CW for some length, with no takers, while it seemed most of the usual west coast ops were watching the digital band. I fear that many good QSO possibilities will be lost as more stations switch to the much slower digital modes ... on 6m, many of the openings last for a very short time making CW or SSB the quickest way to complete a contact. The other problem I notice this summer is that there are several JT sub-modes and it is often difficult or impossible to figure out which mode is being used let alone having the time to switch to the other mode before signals are gone ... perhaps a case of having too much of a 'good thing'? Hopefully one mode will emerge as the '6m standard' so all are on the same page.

What will be the long-term outcome of these changes remains to be seen but I suspect we'll see more and more of our HF CW and SSB spectrum space gradually shrinking to make room for more digital activity, likely to become the dominant modes eventually.

As a life-time, almost exclusive CW operator since age 15, I find this somewhat disheartening but must admit that over the past few years, I have found my own level of weak-signal digital activity increasing by leaps and bounds. These are powerful, capable modes and offer amateurs new and exciting challenges from VLF to nanowaves. Are they as exciting as my much-loved CW? Ask me in a couple of years!
Steve McDonald, VE7SL, is a regular contributor to and writes from British Columbia, Canada. Contact him at [email protected].

11 Responses to “Digital Revolution Or Evolution?”

  • Harry K7ZOV:

    Nice article. I got my novice in 1963. CW was not a option in those days. 5 WPM for novice and tech, 13 WPM for general, 20 WPM for Extra. It was also a time after the wars and a lot of hams were radio men who only did CW and maybe a bit of AM. Fast forward. CW was dropped world wide and the US finally got the hint and dropped it also. Note a very few countries still have morse code requirement, but that looks like it is going to change also. So the CW portion of the bands have gone down hill the past 50+ years. SSB took over and even AM is all but dead. Times change and key modes change. PSK, JT65/JT9 is all the rage for reasons mentioned above. But consider this… We just had the CQ WPX CW contest. The bands were pack. The panaptor on my K3/P3 setup and my IC-7300 showed me what the bands looked like in the 1960’s. So to say that CW is dead is not really true, nor SSB which is also pretty dead until contest time. Hams just are not getting on and calling CQ as much and macro driven digital is just easier for some..and gets though.

    Back to the contest. I saw the band fold once we were hit with a geomagnetic storm. Panadaptors were flatlined… CW was almost shutdown. SSB was, at this QTH, all but dead…. HOWEVER JT-65 on 20 meters was cooking. Later in the evening JT65 on 40 and 80 meters was still working, whereas CW and SSB was beyond a challenge. Here is why:
    AM – 27db below CW
    SSB -17db below CW
    fm -14db below CW
    RTTY -4db below CW

    Now look at digital
    BSK/PSK 31 +7db better then CW
    JT65 +25db better then CW
    JT9 +40db better then CW

    CW is not dead or dying. The CQ contest proved to me that it is quit well. But the choices are not like 1963 with CW being king, AM queen and SSB being the bad boy that sounded like Donald Duck. We now still have some AM, we have FM, SSB, DV, PSK, Olivia, Thor, JT65, JT9 and the list goes on and on and on. The problem is once you hit digital the game is changed and contacts are much easier and QSO’s can last longer.

    Times have change and choice are much more and growing….

    Just wanted to add my 2 cents to a already good article…

  • Jim KE6OJ:

    A CW contest is not a good measure of CW activity.

  • Harry K7ZOV:

    CW activity is not reflected by contest and that goes for sideband activity. To me it reflects lazy hams who don’t CQ, or hams that have too much going on in life and contests help pull them away and get them on the air. I keep hearing CW is dead.. Ham radio is dying the SSB freq are dead…. I for one do not believe ham radio is even close to dead nor is CW. I believe that hams just don’t have time for rag chewing as much as they like and if they do get on and want to fill a logbook quickly then Digital, esp JT65 is the way to go. You are hard press not to be able to not make a contact any time of the day on any band that is even slightly open with JT65. JT65 is ping-pong radio. You ping by calling CQ or answering a minute later you pong and wait you your ping for another pong and then a 73… Kind of boring, but then again making a contact from AZ to NZ or OZ or Japan then 5 minutes later on the same band Canada and South America with on 5 watts and carp antenna does have it own excitement… Ping-Pong radio will be around a long time. CW and SSB will also, but both will take something like contests or field day to get people to get on….

  • Harry K4BAD:

    Very good analysis of current activity vs. different modes and bands.
    Some chance this will generate more interest in working the satellites. I hope so!Number of satellite operators quite small compared to HF operators
    Thanks for writing.

  • Jerry Forwood KX4JF:

    My problem is that in my later years (75+) I have been forced to move into an apartment nearer to family for their assistance. I still have a very good all band rig, Kenwood TS-2000, But I no longer have a Tower, Beam, or room to put up any sort of decent outdoor antenna. I have made some contacts using a tuner connected to the downspout and gutter outside my window. I wish there was a good and inexpensive compact antenna for use either inside or on my small 5ft X 10ft patio. Until then I will mostly listen!

  • PAT/K8LEN:

    A lot of hams with out excess to outside antennas are now using magnetic LOOP antennas, also a number have shown up on the VoIP systems I noticed also.

  • Harry K7ZOV:

    Jerry your best bet is a loop antenna. Lots to choose from but watch the power limit. I am using a MFJ- 1786 loop on and off for many years. This one is 30-10 meter. You can also get a MFJ-1788 which is 40-15 meters. The problem with many loops is they are QRP power limited. They work great, but you will be limited in power which may or may not be a issue. 15-20 watts CW, 1-15 watts JT65, PSk31/PSK63 and Olivia works a whole lot of contacts and some surprising DX.

    73 Harry K7ZOV

  • Steve VE7SL:

    KX4JF Jerry, you might find the blogs of Mike, VE3WDM, of much interest as he has great fun with his balcony loop as well as one that he operates portable with:

    Steve 73

  • Roger G3XBM:

    I use WSPR and JT65 as my voice is so poor following a stroke in 2013. On 6m JT65 I have spotted some REAL DX this Es season. Digital modes seem to be the future.

  • Dave AC8YU:

    I prefer the digital modes and have since I got back into the hobby four years ago. HF activity is still around, if you want to listen to weather reports, medical problems, nets, conspiracy theorists or those that preach about their deities.

    Two co-workers got their General tickets, but refuse to use HF have no interest in learning CW. They are “preppers” and are more worried about the apocalypse than learning about all other aspects of amateur radio. To them, VHF/UHF is their bread and butter, and I have yet to hear them on the local repeaters.

    To each their own I guess. I will keep plugging away at the digital modes, satellites and other fun things that can be done in the great hobby of ours.

  • Walt N5EQY:

    there was a time when living in many states and nations {retired USAF}I used SSB, SSTV, PK232 and 2mtr FM/SSB. Things change as time ticks along, SSB is not heard so much because of propagation problems, hams living in congested areas with the no antennas restrictions and the advent of electronic gadgets that the young people are totally immersed in. Look around, young people are in a world of their own and oblivious to almost everything except the digital god hey have attached to thier head and eyes. I know so many that are unable to even have a conversation with another person for lack of interpersonal skills. Sad but true, they have evolved into antisocialist minions of digital games and cryptic messaging. I have offered to teach some of them about the amateur radio hobby and they think we are historical throwbacks and CB’ers. Not all of them are that way, thank goodness, but our hobby to them is senior citizens that have no skills and just bother them. We will continue to see he trend increase as the digital neural networks claim the interests of kids that live in front of a 3×5 hand held game toy. Its really hard to have a ‘real qso’ with anyone anymore, usually just a weekend contest of exchanged signal reports or a net op begging for checkins. Seriously, we are evolving into the same digital trap as our kids. For me to get bored with ham radio is upsetting. Since moving into a antenna restricted HOA and digital hash background of s7-s9+ from all the digital gadgets, appliances and other man made noise gives me reason to seek other alternatives, such as internet surfing and modes like Skype and video contacts with others is better than a 1 minute JT-xx exchange of locations.
    Time will tell, but I feel that we are becoming irrelevant to the social side of things. IF and when we suffer a major nation wide catastrophe, the majority of the population will have no use for us at all. Digital introverts will still be playing goldfish and candy sagas on thier cells and sending cryptic notes in whats left of our language. Some of us still like the old comm methods and will be out there somewhere calling CQ for a chat.

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