Column #87 by John, K3WWP - (Note: This column has been sitting around for some time and has never been published in the Keynote because of the interruption in the Keynote schedule in 2009. Much of it is somewhat dated, but I am going to present it just as it was originally written well over a year ago.)
Hopefully by the time you read this, what I say will no longer be true. I'll explain that later in the column.
We are seemingly in one of the worst periods of propagation I've experienced in my almost 47 years of being a ham. Now I haven't been active all that time. I was off the air a couple of periods during that time while working at WPIT in Pittsburgh. My active periods include 1963-1972, 1982-1983, and 1992-present. During those times I can't recall propagation seeming as bad as the past year or two. If you look at those time frames, you'll see I missed most of the sunspot maximum years except for the one around 1969 when I wasn't too active and the last one when I was very active, so most of my operating over the years has been done when the sunspots were down and conditions poorer than at the maximums.
Some research conducted about a year ago via satellite on the ionosphere suggests that the ionosphere isn't where it should be. The lower boundary of the ionosphere is much lower than it should be, according to the research which says it is about 140 miles lower during the night, and 100 miles lower during the day. However there isn't a lot of historical data to back up just how unusual this low ionosphere is. If it is an unusual event, it could be one of the reasons for the current poor propagation. It also may be of concern for other reasons as well, but I just mention that in passing. If you'd like to read a bit more about this, do a Bing search (http://www.bing.com/) for "ionosphere lower boundary" which gives many hits on the subject. I have only had time to read a couple of them and didn't find any info on how this might relate to radio propagation. Should you find one that does, let me know.
There are some other reasons why propagation may be so poor. One is that it may not really be so unusually poor at that. It just may seem so, because there is a general decrease in CW activity on the ham bands as the CW population grows older and dies off gradually. We need more new blood on the CW bands, but that is not happening as the kids communicate with their cell phones, chat rooms, text messaging, emails, etc. Those who do get into ham radio gravitate to phone or the new digital modes.
Another reason for the decrease in CW activity (and maybe other modes as well - I neither use nor even listen to any of them) is that folks believe all that is being said about the poor propagation and don't even bother firing up their rigs or just take a quick tune across the bands, don't hear anything, then shut down to go watch something stupid on Newton Minow's "Vast Wasteland" also known as TV. I could go into that deeper, but I want to stay on track.
Now that I've gotten your attention about "poor propagation", I'd like to suggest some ideas that will convince you that things may not be as bad as they seem. Propagation is definitely poor, BUT it is not impossible to make contacts on the ham bands if you use CW, even at QRP levels, as I always do. CW is such a super efficient mode that it will get through just about anything except a major geomagnetic storm that shuts down the bands completely, and that very seldom, if ever, happens near a sunspot minimum which is where we are at now.
My streak of days making QRP/CW QSO's has not even come close to ending during this time. Admittedly it is sometimes a bit harder to get a QSO, but by no means impossible.
One thing that must be done, and this is VERY IMPORTANT. You must not only listen to the bands, but you must call CQ if you hear nothing. If everyone just listens and no one calls CQ, I can guarantee the bands will be as dead as the proverbial doornail. I have often called CQ (at QRP levels, of course) on such a 'dead' band, and gotten an immediate answer or at least an answer after a few minutes. The ensuing QSO's have often turned into solid 2X QRP rag chews. Our NAQCC December challenge was to make as many 20 minute plus QRP QSO's as possible during the month. Although all weren't 2X QRP, I made 19 of them, mostly in just the last half of the month. Although all results aren't in yet, two hams made more than I did - KA2KGP had a whopping 44, and WY3H had 24.
Summing up - yes, propagation is bad currently. There is no doubt about that. However hams themselves are making things worse than they seem by not getting on the bands or by not calling CQ, just listening. Anyone should be able to get on and still make many enjoyable QSO's with their QRP rigs with just a little patience. And for those of you who use QRO, it should be even easier.
Finally just listen to the bands during a major contest. Those contesters can make the bands magically "come alive" simply because they are on and active. Folks the bands are not as dead as they seem at times, so get on the air and prove me right. Visit my web site http://home.windstream.net/johnshan/ and the NAQCC web site http://naqcc.info/ for much more information about QRP CW. -30-