W3BC Wins 2012 PA QSO Party Digital Mode Top Honors

W3BC Took Top Place honors in the PSK category in the 2012 PAQP.
W3BC Took Top Place honors in the PSK category in the 2012 PAQP.
[S]ometimes even an embarrassingly low score turns out to be a winner. That’s what happened to me in last October’s running of the PA QSO Party (“The Friendly Contest”).

I made the insane decision to run only digital modes (RTTY and PSK-31) for the entire contest, and only completed a pathetically small number of QSOs and multipliers. I only QSOed 8–count ’em–EIGHT (!) other PA stations — the rest were all DX and out of state. I remember muttering to myself something along the lines of “Pennsylvania hams need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th Century!” And yes, I know we are 1/8 of the way into the 21st Century.

The out-of-state ops frequently commented that I was the only PA station they heard on digital modes. So, where were all those hot-shot Pennsylvania digital operators who endlessly brag about their extraordinary levels of digital prowess? Apparently they were too busy patting themselves on their backs for being able to spell “FLDIGI” to waste any of their precious time by actually using it on the air, and making real-world digital contacts with random hams whose callsigns weren’t pre-programmed into their FLDIGI macro keys.

To sum up, I sent in a disgustingly empty log containing a paltry 66 QSOs: 46 PSK and 20 RTTY. I worked a whopping 8 (!) PA Counties (12% of the 67), 30 ARRL sections (36% of the 83) and several DX stations (but you only get credit for 1, so I worked 100% of that number) resulting in the lowest score I’ve ever submitted, 5148 points. I did not deserve to win anything with that shamefully inadequate score. I might have done better on phone or CW with the radio turned off. I usually make that many points in the first few minutes of operating on phone or CW.

There is one additional statstic, and this one is truly heartbreaking. Of the 247 submitted logs from Pennsylvania stations, only 7 included digital contacts. That is a discouragingly low 3%. That means that during the PA QSO party, 97% of the hams participating did not even try to make one, single, digital QSO. When you spend the full 22 hours tuning and calling at contest pace as I did, with only a 3% chance of working anybody, it’s very tempting to call the whole idea of purely digital operation a complete waste of time. The numbers certainly reflect that.

[O]r maybe I’m looking at it all wrong (big surprise!) It’s been said that only 3 of every 100 soldiers who apply will go on to earn a Green Beret. So I guess you could say that the 3% of us hams who somehow managed to get on the air using digital modes and actually exchange QSOs with the few other brave digital operators are the truly elite among hams!!!

Putting aside my sarcasm, the sad results of my 100% effort working purely digital for the entire 22-hour duration of the contest speaks volumes about the state of technology skills among today’s radio amateurs. We are shamefully behind the times, folks. It does not take a rocket scientist to hook up a computer to a radio and talk with his fingers. It doesn’t take a Donald Trump-sized bankroll, either. All it takes is a willingness to learn, to experiment and to hone our communications skills against that time when we will be called upon to actually serve the public.

[W]ithout regular, effective, meaningful practice, the outcome of our digital communications endeavors is likely to be a big disappointment to the served agencies and a huge embarrassment to ourselves… Or worse, if we fail to get the message through in a real life-and-death situation. Contests like the PA QSO Party are an excellent way for us to sharpen our operating skills and become skillful operators who can deliver what we promise, and actually succeed at getting the message through “when all else fails.”

One thing you can count on in the real world is that there’s always room for improvement. None of us are perfect. Those self-congratulating “digital experts” who like to sit around and pat themselves on their backs because they found somebody to help them download an NBEMS package onto their computer on the third or fourth try are on the wrong side of one of my favorite questons: “Are they really doing it, or do they just think they are?”

Looking at the PA QSO Party results, it is easy to see that when it comes to digital mode communications, there is little interest. Look at the results for yourself in the published results — page after page of white space in the PSK and RTTY columns. There were 7 PA counties represented for PSK and 3 counties for RTTY. Of the 79 total PSK QSOs reported, I made 46 of them, leaving my friends at Steel City ARC W3KWH to make 17 and everybody else to make the other 16. There were 22 RTTY QSOs reported, with 20 made by yours truly, and two other guys made one RTTY Q each (probably with each other, as I didn’t work a single PA RTTY station!)

Digging deeper into the published scores, and crunching all the numbers yields some intersting results. Surprisingly, the percentage points are not all that different for in state and out of state logs. Here’s the overall breakdown:

CW: 26217 QSOs logged by 247 operators. 33.5% of all QSOs.
SSB: 51982 QSOs logged by 351 operators. 66.4% of all QSOs.
PSK: 92 QSOs logged by 11 operators. 0.12% (1/8 of a percent).
RTTY: 24 QSOs logged by 5 operators. 0.03% (1/30 of a percent).

These numbers prove the wisdom of awarding double points for CW QSOs. That “normalizes” the scores for phone and CW. A simple multiplier for digital modes would not be fair, however — following the formula for CW, the multiplier for PSK would have to be 565 and for RTTY… well let’s just say a multiplier greater than 2000 points for each RTTY QSO might meet some resistance! Since such bonus schemes encourage more participation, thus increasing the number of available QSOs exponentially, a regression analysis is in order. Using my own scores as an example of a dedicated effort by a serious, experienced contester, a multiplier of 25 would put my net score in the ballpark of my usual results when I worked a mixure of CW and phone. Common sense tells us then that the square root of that number would be a good target, once activity picks up, but at only 5 points per digital QSO, I don’t think enough incentive would be there to get people to forsake their comfort zone of phone and CW. So I propose either:

  • 10 points per digital QSO for “pure digital” entrants, and 5 points per digital QSO for “mixed mode” operators, OR…
  • 5 points for each PSK QSO, and 5 points for each RTTY QSO, AND 10 points for each if QRP (<5 watts).

But all this presupposes that the PA QSO Party “needs” to become a digital contest or a contest with a significant digital component. Far be it from me to suggest such a radical change into a “triathlon” format of phone, CW and digital. There are already several major contests that use that format, even on different weekends. The PA QSO Party is what it is, and what it is is a friendly and very popular operating event, that pretty much everybody likes, just as it is. I am one of them.

[N]ow please understand: I am not complaining because I didn’t win… I’m complaining because I did… but only because so few Pennsylania hams even tried to use digital modes. The numbers speak for themselves… 12% of all 67 Pennsylvania counties were represented in my log. Compare that to the 36% of all 83 ARRL+RAC sections I worked, and it becomes painfully obvious that Pennsylvania hams were only 1/3 as active in their own QSO Party on digital modes as the rest of the US and Canada.

There is good news — you can improve this sorry state of affairs by getting active and making regular on-the-air digital-mode contacts with other hams, whether you know them or not. That’s the only way to get really comfortable with digi-modes. Have fun talking to other hams with your fingers, and do it often so you can stay sharp. Indeed, practice makes perfect. So fire up the rig and the computer, and start typing CQ. You will probably start to really enjoy digital communications, and when and if the time comes to put your digital skills to work serving the public, you will be much better prepared and much more capable.

And that is something we all can agree is a good thing!

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