Phone Contesting Tips For DX Contests (AE6Y)
Proper use of a phonetic alphabet can be very helpful when working phone under marginal conditions. I’ve written a basic article on phonetics over at HamRadioSchool.com, so you might want to review that. I recently came across an article by Andy/AE6Y on some tips and tricks to use during contests. He does a super job of explaining why the ITU phonetic alphabet isn’t always the best choice. I don’t usually reprint other author’s work on this blog but somehow this article really got my attention. Reprinted here with permission. – Bob K0NR
Phone Contesting Tips For DX Contests
Andy Faber, AE6Y
This article is prompted by the recent WPX SSB contest, in which I worked thousands of guys from Aruba as P49Y, which engendered much reflection (and teeth-gnashing, to be sure) about how U.S. hams can be best understood from the DX end. I’m not addressing this to relatively clear-channel domestic contests but to the situation where you are trying to get through to a DX station that may be hearing a pileup, plus noise, ear-splitting splatter from adjacent stations and all of the other sonic annoyances that make many contesters prefer CW. If there is no pileup and you know the DX station can hear you completely clearly, then you’ll get through regardless, but if not, here are some suggestions:
First, be sure you are calling on his exact frequency. In CW contests, it can be helpful to separate yourself from the pack by calling off frequency, but that’s not true in SSB. Off-frequency stations sound distorted and are hard to understand. The DX station may well come back to a weaker, but more intelligible station that is on frequency, even if you are louder. In order to work you, he has to figure out which way to adjust the RIT, and then go ahead and do it. A tired operator on the other end may just not bother, until he has worked everyone else.
Second, make sure your audio is clean. It is so much easier to understand clear audio, even if it is weaker than a louder, distorted signal. KH7XS mentioned in his 3830 posting that this year there particularly seemed to be over-processed signals coming from South America, and I noticed the same thing. It used to be that the Italians who were the worst offenders, but they seem to be better now. This weekend, the Cubans were particularly hard to understand. The prize for the easiest audio to understand goes each contest to the hams from the British Isles. The G’s, M’s and their derivatives invariably have very clean (and usually nicely treble) audio that can be understood even when the signal doesn’t budge the S-meter. On several occasions I chose a weak but clear Brit over a loud, but distorted, competitor.
Ok, so you have a clean signal and are calling on frequency, now how do you get the information through, both your callsign and your contact number (for WPX)?
Here are some tips:
If you are loud enough and have an easily recognizable call, you can skip phonetics. So this weekend, when K1AR called, he was easy to pick out, same for K3UA, K3ZO, N6AA, and a few others. But for most guys, and when in doubt, use phonetics. Endless bandwidth has been expended on the subject of phonetics, and people have differing opinions on the topic, but here are my thoughts from being on the DX end:
The first thing to understand is that the standard, “recommended” international alphabet works dismally in marginal conditions. The words are too short, and some don’t have unique sounds. Generally speaking, the one-syllable words just get lost, while the two syllable words are better, and the longer ones are even better.
Thus, one-syllable words like “Fox”, “Golf” and “Mike” are horrible. Some of the two-syllable ones are OK (e.g., “Hotel” and “Quebec”), but others, such as “Alpha” and “Delta”, or “X-ray” and “Echo”, “Kilo” and “Tango” sound very similar, so are easily confused. I worked a guy with the suffix XXE, and had to get a number of repeats until he finally said “X-Ray X-ray Ecuador,” which did the trick.
There are two basic cures for these problems. The first is only to use these crummy phonetics the first time as a trial. If the DX station asks for a repeat, say your call twice, once with the standard phonetics and once with different ones. Don’t just keep repeating your call the same way. Something in either the way you say it or the way the DX hears it is creating ambiguity. If you keep repeating the call the same way it may well be that part of it is just hard to decipher, and it may not get any easier.
If the DX station is a good English speaker then custom phonetics may work, such as “King George Six…” In fact when I thought a KK4 station was a K4, he used a very effective phonetic, “King Kong Four…” WA2JQK uses “Jack Queen King” in domestic contests, but that won’t work well for non-native speakers. The Wyoming station N7MZW uses “Many Zebras Walking” sometimes domestically, but I noticed he was using normal phonetics in WPX.
The second approach is to switch to the geographical phonetic alphabet. This features longer and more distinctive-sounding words, which are much easier to understand. For example if your suffix is, say, HLF, then you can say “Hotel Lima Fox,” then try “Honolulu London Florida.” When I give my call with last letter “Yankee” and get asked for a repeat it works much better to say “Last letter Yankee, last letter Yokohama.” Many of the geographic phonetics work particularly well for speakers of Romance languages like Spanish and Italian (e.g., terms like “Guatemala”, “Nicaragua”, and “Santiago”). There are a few letters for which there are not good geographic equivalents. Obviously, “X-ray” is one of them. For “Echo”, “England” is sometimes used, but “Ecuador” is better. Although “London” and “Lima” are both geographic terms, “London” is much better. And “Denmark Mexico” is many times superior to “Delta Mike.”
Numbers in the callsign can also cause trouble. What if the station comes back to “K3” instead of “K6”? In general, just try to repeat the number, but if he still doesn’t get it, you can try counting, e.g. “Kilo Six, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.” Or for us West Coasters, “Kilo Six in California, West Coast” can be useful.
Which brings me to the subject of numbers in exchanges like WPX. I commented in a 3830 post a few years ago that the English numbers that everyone uses are just too ambiguous, most of them being plain too short. I recommended using some Spanish numbers, like “cuatro” and “ocho”, but that suggestion went nowhere, so I hereby drop it, unless you are trying to get through to a native Spanish or Italian speaker. In fact, In WPX, I just couldn’t understand a number from a CO8 station with terrible audio. I kept asking, “your number 424?”, “your number 242?”, “your number 224”, etc. Normally, one doesn’t confuse “two” and “four,” but this guy’s audio was driving me crazy and I wasn’t sure how well he was understanding me either. Finally I had the presence of mind to ask in Spanish, and when he said “dos cuatro cuatro,” he was in the log. If he had said that in the beginning I would have understood him in spite of his maladjusted audio.
One source of confusion for the DX station is not knowing how many digits there are, particularly later in the contest when a number can have 1, 2, 3, or 4 digits. There are a couple of ways to help. For example: suppose the DX station thinks he hears “[garble] six six” and he asks: ”your number six six?” If your number is just 6, you can say to be helpful “Negative. My number zero zero six, number six.” Adding the word “number” in front of the digit indicates there are no missing digits. If your number is 66, just say “Roger, roger.” If it’s 56, say “Negative, number five six, fifty–six.” If it’s 256, say, “Negative. Number two five six, two fifty-six (or even “two hundred and fifty-six”). I know we were taught that it is incorrect to say “two hundred and fifty-six,” and we should just say “two hundred fifty-six,” but using the “and” makes it more intelligible.
In general, it’s usually best to say your number twice, in two different ways. For example it’s often hard to discern, “two three” from “three three”. So you can say: “five nine, two three, twenty-three,” since “twenty” and “thirty” sound very different. Similarly if your number is 15 and you say “one five”, that might be confused with “one nine”, so say “one five, fifteen.” If it’s late in the contest and you might be expected to have a three-digit number you can say “zero two three, only twenty-three”. And if you have a one digit number late in the contest, it’s best to add zeros, saying, e.g., “zero zero nine, number nine”, not just “nine.”
I hope these tips from the DX end are helpful. They should be even more useful in the next few years, as declining sunspots forcing us increasingly into the QRM alleys of 20 and 40 meters.
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Of course “Fox” doesn’t work, because the ICAO alphabet uses “Foxtrot”.
The ICAO phonetic does work for pilots around the world in many languages, and was designed specifically to have clear differences between the words. Before rejecting the official alphabet as “crummy”, consider cleaning up your pronunciation (radio announcers learn to do this) and (as you say) making sure that your speech processing is not distorting hard K sounds and sibilants. If lots of operators have trouble understanding you, it probably is not their fault.
Good advice, to which I’ll add using “niner” for “nine.” It’s common in aviation, and in poor conditions is a good way of distinguishing this number from “five”.
The rationale behind the NATO phonetic alphabet is to use words which are understood across cultures and languages, and by and large it does this. However, in marginal conditions on the bands there is no amount of careful enunciation that will help if the other station has heard Zulu instead of Juliet. (Believe me, my callsign has to be repeated frequently – not because I am a sloppy speaker.) The point is, the vowel sound U is prominent here and there is a well-known psychological phenomenon involved that can be summed up as: “Once heard wrongly, it’s difficult to change”. I will often change the phonetic to Zanzibar or Zeppelin if it’s a German station I am struggling with.
The point about pilots is a red herring: it is rare indeed for there to be any QRM on the AM VHF/UHF comms channels or the SSB HF frequencies, so there are nowhere near the difficulties we have to contend with on amateur frequencies.
Listen listen listen before you key your mic