Thursday, February 11, 2016

SOTA Activations with FM Equipment

For the SOTA Activator, working on FM presents its own challenges, equipment options, and techniques.

Challenges affecting the FM operator are many.  You are generally limited to radio line-of-sight communications.  You are often limited to low power levels (5 watts or less, usually).  There are some good antennas out there for portable FM operations, but most are not supplied with the handheld radio.  There can also be battery limitations (affecting range, power, and life).

There are basically two ways to deal with these challenges:
  • Equipment
  • Operator skill
First we'll handle the equipment.

For many, the entry into the ham radio hobby is the purchase of a 2 Meter FM radio.  Given how the market is segmented between 160-6 Meter all-band all-mode radios, and the 2-Meter FM & Dual-Band FM radios, this is understandable.  I'm not speaking to the wisdom of this, but it's a fact of life.

This basically means that there's a lot of 2-Meter FM gear out there, and lots of hams with Technician tickets.

Many newer hams will start out buying one of the very inexpensive Chinese radios (Baofeng, Wouxun, etc.), often for less than $40.00.  All I can argue is that you get what you pay for.  Some hams like these radios because they're so inexpensive.  They're practically disposable--if you break one, lose it, or it fails, it's not a big financial hit to your pocketbook.

However, these inexpensive radios also have documented spectral purity problems in the transmitter (meaning that they don't transmit clean signals), and often the receivers in them are prone to poor selectivity, which means they have an increased tendency to receive signals you don't want to hear.  (This can be particularly annoying on SOTA peaks which have other radio transmission facilities on them.)
Antennas can be common on many peaks and can make an unwelcome contribution of radio frequency interference.  These antennas are atop Mount Wilson in the range north of Los Angeles.
My recommendation?  You are looking for a good "starter" 2-meter handheld radio, I recommend buying one of the radios from one of the "big 3" Japanese radio manufacturers:  Icom, Kenwood, or Yaesu.  Alinco is also a reasonable brand.  Why?  Because these manufacturers have been building handheld radios expressly for the amateur market for literally decades, and you can't replicate that experience.  These radios are well supported with excellent documentation.  They have solid transmitter and receiver characteristics, and, additionally, they are reasonably inexpensive.  The Kenwood TH-K20A is a full-featured 2 Meter handheld radio available for about $140.  The Yaesu FT-277R is a radio in the same class as the TH-K20A, and it's available for about $130.  These are incredibly reasonable prices given the quality of these radios, and the fact that they will likely give you years of reliable service.  There are equivalent radios from Icom (for a little more money) and Alinco (for a little less).

There are other handheld radios which offer APRS capabilities (which can be useful for SOTA spotting as well as allowing chasers to watch your ascent), as well as various digital voice modes.  These radios can be a bit more expensive and are probably better for more experienced hams.

Next, you'll likely find that the supplied "rubber duck" antenna is inadequate for lots of situations.  The reason is the fundamental reality that all antennas are a compromise between performance, size, and cost--and you can really only maximize one or two of those variables at a time.  Do you desire a small, high performance antenna?   You'll probably have to pay a bit for it (either with time or money).  But in any case, if you're activating a SOTA peak with only FM gear, I strongly consider purchasing or building a better antenna than the "free" antenna that's supplied with the radio.

You have a few options that basically break down to homebrewed and purchased antennas, and omnidirectional and directional antennas.
  • Homebrewed omnidirectional antenna:  Build a 2-meter "slim jim" antenna.  You can hang this in a tree or from another non-conductive surface and get omnidirectional performance roughly equivalent to that of a vertical dipole or a j-pole, which is several orders of magnitude superior to the supplied antenna.
  • Purchased omnidirectional antenna:  Buy a "slim jim" antenna.  There are numerous manufacturers of these antennas.  Alternatively, you can buy a telescoping 2 Meter 1/2 wave whip antenna.  (I use one, from Smiley Antenna Company.)  You can purchase a 1/4 wave or a 5/8 wave antenna, but 1/2 wave antennas usually outperform these.
  • Homebrewed directional antenna:  Build a tape-measure antenna
  • Purchased directional antenna:  There are really two portable options in this area:  An Arrow Antenna or an Elk Antenna.
Get an appropriate length of cable, and possibly an SMA-to-BNC adapter (if needed), and you're in good shape.  Consider purchasing an additional battery pack and you're well-equipped for 2-Meter FM work from a summit.

Now, we'll tackle operating skill.

You can have a successful summit activation using only FM.  You chances will be greatly improved if you do the following:
  • Let other hams know that you're going to activate a particular peak.  Tell them when, and where.  You can let other hams in your local area know you're going to do an activation, and hopefully they will monitor the frequencies you'll be working on.  Additionally, you can post an Alert to SOTAWatch so that other hams in the area of the activation will be able to listen for you.
  • Self-spot.  Hopefully the activation location will allow you to self-spot to SOTAWatch so that other hams will be able to know of your activation in real time.  There are several techniques for this.  You can use the APRS2SOTA or the SMS2SOTA gateways, use an app on your smart phone, or alternatively, you can ask a local ham that's SOTA-savvy to spot on your behalf.
  • If you're going to activate using only FM, it's best to activate a peak in an area with lots of FM activity.  Peaks near major metropolitan areas (like Los Angeles, for example) lend themselves to this.  Additionally, activating during a VHF contest can be helpful.  (Just make sure you note your maidenhead locator that the peak is in!)  Operating during an ARRL Field Day can also a be a great opportunity for this.
  • Pick a good band.  If I'm doing an FM-only activation, odds are that I will be most successful making QSOs on 2 Meters.  That band is just used more often than 6 meters, 1.25 meters, 70 centimeters, 33 centimeters, or 23 centimeters.  I have made FM QSOs on 6, 1.25 meters, and 70 centimeters, but 2 meter FM QSOs outnumber these by many orders of magnitude. 
  • Pick a good frequency.  I almost always use national calling frequencies.  For 2 meters, it's 146.52.  (Other FM calling frequencies are:  52.525, 223.5, 446.0, and 1294.5 MHz.  The 33 centimeter band doesn't have a national calling frequency, but there are local frequencies that are sometimes used on this rarely-used band).  If 146.52 is busy, I sometimes use 146.55 or 146.58, but they have fewer stations monitoring them.  Remember, if communicating for a SOTA activation, you can only count QSOs that are simplex.  (Ok, technically you can also use satellites, but these are almost never used.)  I also frequently monitor 146.52 at home while I'm having fun on HF, in case somebody would like to have a VHF FM QSO.
  • Pick a good time to activate.  Generally, activating on a weekend or some federal holidays is better than activating during the work week.  If you must activate during a work week, activating during commuting times often is good because numerous mobile stations are equipped with FM gear.  Lunch time is also good.  Activating at night usually doesn't work well.
  • If you're having trouble with getting the required 4 QSOs to earn points for a SOTA activation, you can attempt to make contact with a station on a local well-used repeater, and then QSY to a simplex frequency to make the required contacts.  This, of course, requires that you know how to use your radio (including frequency entry, and possibly use of CTCSS or "PL" tones, or rarely, Digital Coded Squelch (DCS).  You should also know the repeaters in the locale of your activation so you have some options.  The ARRL repeater director is a great resource for this.  There are also numerous smartphone apps that can assist with finding repeaters.
  • Your specific location on a peak can make a huge difference in how well your signal is communicated.  If you're having trouble getting the necessary QSOs on one side of a summit activation zone, try moving to a different location.  A small shift of a few dozen feet can sometimes greatly affect the radio line-of-sight and therefore enhance (or degrade) communications.
  • Most FM operators have their squelch adjusted so that you only hear stations that manage to break through the static.  This is fine, but sometimes you can hear weaker stations if you decide to cope with the static by reducing the squelch.  Some radios have a button which cancels the effect of the squelch temporarily.  Consider these options.
  • Keep your contacts short, and be persistent.  Normal FM operating procedures apply, but don't hesitate to let people know that you're activating a SOTA peak.  When announcing your presence on a frequency, you could say something like this:  "This is N0PCL, November Zero Papa Charlie Lima for a Summits On the Air Activation atop Mount Wilson.  Is there anybody listening?"  Calling "CQ" is generally frowned upon using FM.  Bob, K0NR, has written an excellent FM operating guide for the new ham.
  • Don't forget to write down the date, time callsign, frequency, and signal report for each contact, and then log those contacts on SOTAData.
That's basically it.  If you have a portable FM rig, you can have a successful SOTA activation, but you need to make sure that you are properly equipped and make use of appropriate techniques.