Ham Radio News: Using Morse Code, CW Networks

In this installment of his ham radio news column, the author considers the viability of helping novices ease into the community by using Morse code and CW networks.

| March/April 1976

  • 038 ham radio news - copthorne macdonald 1974
    Copthorne Macdonald at his mic, interacting with other ham radio users.

  • 038 ham radio news - copthorne macdonald 1974

Many of us currently active in New Directions Radio got our ham radio licenses years before we became involved in alternative lifestyles, the back-to-the-land movement, or concern over the future of the planet. By the time we did "turn on" to these things, we already had our FCC tickets and our shacks full of radio gear. And, as we started to track down and communicate with other hams about our new concerns, we simply used the equipment we already had on hand, which often tended to be sophisticated, complex, and downright expensive.

We used all this fancy gear because we had it, and because it fit well into our daydreams of coast-to-coast roundtables, international rap sessions, seeing each other via slow-scan TV, etc. Fine. This method of sharing ham radio news and other info is great for those of us who already have licenses and fancy equipment, but what about newcomers who want to join the fun? Shouldn't we focus more of our attention and energy on activities in which everyone can participate—including those just getting into ham radio—using simple, truly low-cost equipment? If the letters I've been getting lately are any indication, I'd say the answer is definitely yes.

Is Code the Mode?

If we were to ask which modes of transmission are both available to beginners and provide a useful level of communication with simple gear, we'd see two possibilities. First, Novice Class licensees can transmit in the 40- and 80-meter bands using Morse code. The ionosphere reflects signals back to earth on these bands, and communication up to several hundred miles can routinely be accomplished with low transmitter power. Alternatively, Technician Class operators can transmit voice in the VHF (very high frequency) ham bands. Here, the much shorter wavelengths penetrate the ionosphere and are not reflected back to earth, meaning that communication is limited to 10 or 20 miles with simple equipment and antennas. In many parts of North America, however, clubs have built "repeaters" on hills or tall towers to extend the range of simple voice equipment to 50 miles or so.

I should mention at this point that a code test is required of applicants for both Novice and Technician Class permits. The test, however, is not difficult—5 words per minute in the U.S., 10 wpm in Canada—and in any case, the FCC may soon introduce a Communicator Class license (for VHF phone) which would require no code ability at all.

Since the primary goal of New Directions Radio amateurs is to communicate with others who share our special interests (as opposed to the usual ham practice of gabbing with anyone who can be heard), geography becomes important. Are there groups or individuals who live only a few miles away that you'd like to contact? If so, VHF phone operation might be just the thing. Folks who live in rural areas, though, could find the population density of kindred souls pretty low. In this case, CW (code) on 40 and 80 looks like the best bet.

At first, you might think Morse code is a pretty crude way to communicate, but it actually has many advantages over other modes. Usable equipment, for instance, can be extremely simple to operate and inexpensive to put and keep in service. Also, since code signals use up very little "bandwidth," many more code than voice stations can operate in the same bandwidth segment without interfering with each other. And communication reliability—for any given distance, transmitter power, or antenna—is always better with code than voice.

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