3B9C – The Data Modes Story
The Five Star DXers Association, organisers of the 3B9C DXpedition, came into being after 9M0C (Spratly) in 1998. Its next major expedition was D68C (Comoros) in 2001, setting new world records on many bands, and with 168,768 QSOs in all. 3B9C, Rodrigues was planned along similar lines to D68C, with enough equipment, antennas and operators to be able to take advantage of all band openings, in a true no-compromise fashion.
Project Star Reach, as we named it, has been written-up elsewhere, in several major publications around the world. This article focuses specifically on the data modes aspects. However, a little bit of background might be helpful for any of you who haven’t seen the pre-expedition articles or the Web site.
We conceived 3B9C as more than just “yet another expedition”, hence the reason we called it a project. It started well before 3B9C actually became QRV, with pre-expedition articles, an extensive Website (over 150 pages in all) and a barrage of publicity. The intention was to try and reach those who wouldn’t normally chase a DXpedition and, in particular, to target those who were new to HF operating as a result of changes to the licensing regime following last year’s WARC decision to remove the mandatory Morse requirement for HF access. At the same time, though, we wanted to offer a rich variety of bands and modes, hoping that everyone, both experienced and inexperienced, would find something to chase, whether for a new band or mode slot, or to win one of the awards or certificates (Nevada Rodrigues Trophies) on offer. Our only major disappointment in this respect was the unavailability of AO-40, as we had hoped that we would be able to make several hundred satellite QSOs.
Data Modes Aspirations
We have had considerable success on data modes with our previous DXpeditions. From the Comoros we not only set a new DXpedition record for RTTY QSOs, but were probably the first major DXpedition to make a serious effort on PSK31, with over 1,000 QSOs on that mode. In the three years since then, data modes interest seems to have increased significantly, so we anticipated that we would need to plan for an even bigger effort. RTTY would still be the backbone, plus PSK31, of course, and we also wanted to include some SSTV.
In the past, our impression has been that most data modes enthusiasts were happy with a single QSO, or maybe a second one on another band for “insurance” purposes. And it was adequate to operate data modes on the “traditional” bands, principally 40, 20, 15 and 10m. That was how our thinking started out this time round. However, after consultation with some of the key players in the data modes world, with particular thanks to Phil GU0SUP, we came to the conclusion that the world had moved on and that a significant proportion of data modes enthusiasts are now seeking multiple bands and modes (RTTY and PSK on, potentially, 8 bands, 80 through 10m including WARC). We had no problem in principle with that, as our aim was to meet people’s aspirations as much as possible, and we would be active for long enough, and with enough stations, that this wouldn’t distract us from filling the needs of the deserving on the other modes and bands too.
We did, however, make one important decision, which was to delay data modes operation until at least the second weekend of our expedition, to give ourselves time to take the heat out of the demand on CW and SSB. We felt that, if we had started with data modes early on, this might have drawn criticism from those who still needed 3B9 on any band or mode, full stop. Once we did start on the data modes, though, we planned to make a very big effort.
We were particularly keen to attract new operators to the data modes. We are always very keen that our expeditions are a focus for amateurs to try something new; jaded HF CW or SSB DXers to try 6m or data modes, died-in the wool VHFers to dig out an old HF rig, or whatever. After D68C several amateurs told us that they had made their very first RTTY or PSK QSOs with us, and we hoped that the same would be true again. To this end we included what might be called a data modes “primer” on our Web site.
Equipment and Software
It’s interesting to see how our equipment for the data modes has evolved over the years. In 1998, from Spratly, we used a modified PK-232 and WF1B software. With this hardware-based approach, we were constrained to having one station set up as the RTTY station (no PSK back then), which didn’t sit well with our overall station plan of having specific stations assigned to specific bands. To change bands on the RTTY station meant re-running feeders that were normally assigned to other stations, and generally disrupting the overall running of the DXpedition.
For D68C, we therefore took advantage of the way in which the world had moved on, using a software-based approach for RTTY and PSK31. This meant that, potentially, any of the stations could be used on those modes, as all had the necessary equipment (i.e. a PC with sound card) at each operating position. We used MixW which John G3WGV, our software expert, integrated with the station logging software (a DOS-based logging program, derived from TurboLog but geared specifically to DXpedition logging). When you completed a QSO in MixW, the data was automatically captured by the logging software, for the main DXpedition log.
By the time 3B9C came round, the software had developed somewhat further. John had migrated the whole logging platform to Windows, developing what is now known as StarLog, part of the Star Software suite of DXpedition management programs (including Star Server, StarQSL, etc.). The main data modes (RTTY, PSK) are totally integrated. The system uses the popular MMTTY engine for RTTY, and PSKCore for PSK, but these are invisible to the user. If the operator selects RTTY or PSK, a waterfall display opens up in a logging screen window and you start to operate. An audio switching box automatically routes all the audio. And the function keys take on exactly the same functions as they would in other modes (F1 for CQ, F2 for exchange, etc.). Each operator can set up personal preferences for data modes messages and these preferences follow him to whichever operating position he is logged on at (operator preferences for all aspects of StarLog are held on the Server and downloaded to the relevant operating position when an operator logs on). We did not try to integrate SSTV, as we felt that the likely demand would be insufficient to justify the development effort required. We planned to use the popular MMSSTV software, as required.
All data modes operating, as on the other modes, would be split-frequency. The waterfall display makes this easy (at least, when it isn’t just a mass of white!), as you can see the individual signals spread across 2.5kHz or so of the band, and just click on whichever you want to respond to. All stations consisted of an FT-1000MP MkV and Quadra amplifier, obviously running at reduced power on data modes to take account of the higher duty cycle.
Once the team assembled on Rodrigues, we had three days in which to set up the stations, with the intention of being on the air with full capabilities by the first weekend (We always try to do this – if you start when only some of the stations and antennas are ready, there are two problems. Firstly, everyone wants to operate, and loses motivation for station building! Secondly, with all that RF around, it becomes more difficult to test any new stations brought into service, whether in respect of antenna SWR or station interactions.).
Obviously, as far as the data modes were concerned, no special set-up was required. By definition, they were available at any operating position (and therefore on any band – each station was dedicated to a specific band) as and when we wanted them. We actually had enough stations available that, potentially, we could have two stations running on 10, 15, 20 and 80m. We hoped that this might allow us simultaneously to run CW and SSB or data modes and SSB on any of these bands. In the event this proved more difficult than expected, though we did manage to do that on 10 and 15m, albeit with some interaction between the relevant stations.
On the Air
We were quickly into the swing of the expedition, making several thousand QSOs a day. Although we started to get requests for data modes QSOs, our pre-expedition publicity had generally done the trick and folk were prepared to wait for us to start on those modes, knowing that we were on the island for three full weeks including three weekends.
It was interesting to see what happened in the end. Our morning propagation was mainly to Japan. The day we started on RTTY, the Japanese pile-ups had been getting really thin on the other modes, but immediately reappeared on RTTY, with the waterfall displays just a white mass of signals. As I recall, we started on three bands (10, 15, 20) simultaneously to try to take some of the sting out of the RTTY pile-ups, but it was still extremely hectic. This certainly slowed the QSO rates at first. One problem that any expedition faces in a situation like this is that not all the DXpedition operators are comfortable with data modes operation. With the software we were using, it really was a case of point and click, and we gradually weaned some neophyte operators onto those modes, but a few operators avoided them and, if they took over a shift where the previous operator had been working data modes, would move to SSB or CW instead. But with 30 operators available, and 8 bands to play with, we managed to keep up a high level of data mode activity, once again setting world records on both RTTY and PSK. It was quite clear that the advice we had been given was correct. The data modes pile-ups on 12, 17 and 30m were pretty much as intense as those on 40, 20, 15 and 10m, and many of the stations who worked us on data modes did so on several bands. One observation was that PSK can be very difficult to copy when coming in over an auroral path, with consequent auroral flutter. We also observed that some RTTY/PSK signals were very "distinctive" (perhaps as a result of overdriving the audio) and one of our operators noted working the same station about six times (but with different calls!) over a period of about 15 minutes. This happened several times from certain parts of the world!!!
SSTV activity waited for the arrival of David G0MRF, with the second group of operators to arrive, about half-way through the DXpedition. As expected, SSTV demand was modest, though we believe it was the first time 3B9 had been activated on SSTV, so we were certainly able to hand out an all-time new one to some of the more serious SSTV chasers. But we were frustrated at the time taken for SSTV QSOs – they really are much more time-consuming than QSOs on any of the other modes, and it is hard to justify including the mode. What is needed is a fast frame rate SSTV mode, similar to the old seven second mono format that could be used for DXpeditions, contests, etc. Without this, we would probably think twice about SSTV operation on any future DXpedition.
So what were the numbers?
It is interesting to see, in the light of my earlier comments, how the numbers compare by band and mode between D68C and 3B9C, illustrating just how data modes interest has moved on in the past three years. Of course, from D68C we limited ourselves to the traditional bands for data modes operation, so the comparison isn’t 100% exact. The fall in 10m RTTY QSOs reflects the overall fall in solar activity in the past 3 years.
The members of the 3B9C team extend their thanks to all who supported them and made this expedition possible. This includes our major sponsors, of course, headed up by Yaesu but including many others, especially Nevada and ML&S in the UK. Others are listed in the table. Thanks are also due to all the local clubs and individuals, too numerous to mention here, but listed in full on our Web page and recognised on the 3B9C QSL card. In this publication we do, of course, especially want to recognise the BARTG contribution. Naturally, all the participants paid for their travel and accommodation, as well as making a contribution to shared expenses. Our thanks, of course, to the management and staff of the Cotton Bay hotel, to Robert 3B9FR, to Jacky 3B8CF, to the various officials who were involved in arranging permits, custom carnets, etc. and, of course, to our families who allowed us to take part in this unique experience. The team also wishes to thank Neville G3NUG, Don G3BJ and John G3WGV, our co-leaders, who collectively put in a huge amount of effort to make Project Star Reach a reality.
3B9C Web site: www.fsdxa.com/3b9c
About Rodrigues: www.eng.uct.ac.za/~chnste010/rodrigues.html
“Project Star Reach: How to work the 3B9C Rodrigues DXpedition”, RadCom, March 2004.
“The 3B9C Rodrigues Island DXpedition”, RadCom, July 2004.
“3B9C, Project Star Reach”, QST, August 2004.
Corporate Sponsors (Amateur Radio)
Afreet Software, Inc
ARRL Colvin Award Committee
CQ Ham Radio, Japan
Linear Amp UK
ML&S Martin Lynch & Sons
SCS Spezielle Communications Systeme
Non-Amateur Corporate Sponsors
ALBA Metallwarenfabrik GmbH
Cotton Bay Hotel, Rodrigues
Elektronik Service Dathe
Hertfordshire Display plc
Möbel Grollmus KG
MTPA Mauritian Tourism Promotion Authority
Rohde & Schwarz
Clubs & Foundations
Akita DX Association
Alamo DX Amigos Radio Club
Area 51 Contest Club
Arkansas DX Association
Bracknell Amateur Radio Club
Carolina DX Association
Central Arizona DX Association
Cheltenham Amateur Radio Association
Colchester Radio Amateurs
Crawley Amateur Radio Club
Dalkey Island Contest Group
Echelford Amateur Radio Society
Eden Valley Radio Society
Far East DX Ploiters
Foyle & District ARC
European DX Foundation
German DX Foundation
Irish Radio Transmitters Society
Japan Northern Tochigi DX Club
Kilmarnock & Loudoun ARC
Kitchener-Waterloo Amateur Radio Club
Morioka Contest and DX Association
Nara DX Association
Newbury & District Amateur Radio Society
North California DX Foundation
North Ohio DX Association
Northern Arizona DX Association
OH DX Foundation
Open University ARC
Radio Officers Association
Radio Society of Great Britain
Reading & District Amateur Radio Club
Ripon Amateur Radio Society
Royal Naval ARS
Saxtorp DX Association
Scottish-Russian Amateur Radio Society
Southeastern DX Club
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Shizuoka DX Radio Association
Stockport Radio Society
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Virginia DX Century Club
West New York DX Association
World Wide Young Contesters