With a long weekend there was the promise of some SOTA activity on Sunday morning. I took a strong coffee to the shack and flicked on the radios to catch some activators. Things started quietly and there were a few to pick off that were above the normally high noise floor of my home QTH. It wasn't long before the activity picked up on 40 metres with the start of the VK Shires contest and my regular noise floor was noticably increased by the long distance splatter of a portable operator in VK2 working 4 Khz up from some SOTA activity on 7.090 Mhz.
Now firstly, let me say that this operator's personable and cheery manner in operating his contest station was not in question here but his equipment and the way it was being driven was. Typical of many contest stations, this operator seemed to have his mic gain and compression settings wound up to the point of severe distortion. His signal here in Melbourne was off the scale. There was a distinct AC hum behind all his transmissions and the microphone sounded like it was being swallowed. A big signal for any portable station and most certainly impressive, considering I could hear spurious artifacts of his transmissions across most of the 40 metre band.
I monitored this guy for quite a while as well as others across the band. SOTA stations were working through the interference but comments both ways during contacts confirmed that I wasn't the only one who could hear this guy well beyond the normal 3 Khz bandwidth. At least one contact this guy had commented on his distorted signal and he then apparently made some adjustments to little effect. He then went quiet for a minute and I was secretly hoping that something had exploded violently or let the smoke out. Could he make adjustments to his linear amplifier, short himself out on the 700 volt rail and go quiet permanently? I was hoping, but he returned to the frequency a few minutes later after at least one other station came up saying “where did the noise go?”
I took the trouble to look up my shire code, checked that my FT-897D was wound right down to 5 watts and gave the guy a call. He diligently responded and I gave him my report and increased his contest score. I also asked him to confirm my report and it was 59 in return. I then mentioned that his signal seemed to be severely distorted and over driven and that I could hear him over a wide portion of the 40 metre band and it was an impressive feat. I also suggested he could wind it back and he would probably still be heard easily by any chasers. He came back and politely thanked me for my report, sounding a little miffed. I then wished him 73 and then told him that I was only running 5 watts. I sat back and listened to his next couple of contacts. The splatter and distortion continued.
Now let's put a few things into perspective here without getting hung up on geeky techno-babble. I live a couple of kilometres away from some very large AM commercial broadcast installations. Several broadcasters transmit signals from this site continuously on an array of huge antennas. Most of these stations have an output of 5 kilowatts each and one of them can produce 50 kilowatts. They don't interfere with each other and receivers from many hundreds of kilometres away don't have splatter and interference problems. I have worked QRP portable within 200 metres of this site and had no issues of interference and an impressively low noise floor.
Radio Australia has a fancy array of shortwave antennas near Shepparton in central Victoria and 100 kilowatts that they can beam cleanly into the Pacific, Asia and Europe without blanketing the HF bands with splatter. Many thousands of people live and work within close proximity to these installations, yet wouldn't be affected by spurious interference across their listening frequency or band, even if they are listening on a shitty little pocket radio of the most pathetic specifications.
So how can it be that an amateur radio operator with an advanced licence running a station supposedly within the maximum 400 watt power output limit produce such a over-driven, filthy signal? Contests seem to bring out the best (and worst) of the ham radio hobby and this sort of noise caused by badly adjusted transmitters is often most apparent when a contest is in progress. It is an international problem and in some respects we don't realise how lucky we are here in Australia with our relatively quiet amateur bands. We don't need to crank up the watts to be heard above others.
When holidaying in in Europe recently, I realised how many Hams there feel the need to out-gun everyone else to be heard above it all. This is simply not necessary here, particularly on the 40 metre band in a VK contest where a good beam antenna and as little as 5 watts could easily get your signal across the continent. We can almost always find a quiet frequency. And if you're lucky enough to live in an area with a low RF noise floor, or play portable without carrying your noise floor with you in the form of inverters, unsuppressed generators and other unnecessary crap, you could run your station on battery power and an efficient antenna, probably hear heaps more and get a couple of good DX contacts to your surprise.
It seems a paradox but my portable QRP equipment gets me as many DX contacts as my fancier gear running 100 watts at home. This is primarily because of my enhanced listening capabilities when portable. Its not the power I can send up the antenna or the twisting of all knobs to the right in the mistaken belief that this will help me win the contest.
It is no wonder to me that the ACMA decided not to grant advanced amateur licensees the right to run up to 1 kilowatt of power. The recent high power trials seemed to highlight a general lack of knowledge needed to safely and effectively harness such power, even though it pales to what many commercial broadcasters can use without disturbing anyone else. The endless pursuit of and obsession with trying to get the maximum performance out of a piece of radio gear seems to elude some operators in the most spectacular way and its almost a sport in itself picking out the signal you want to hear. The word 'amateur' seems so appropriate for some ham operators.