Convergence and Change – An Editorial

This originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of CQ Magazine along side the 2015 CQ WW CW results. It represents my opinion and not that of CQ Magazine or the CQ WW DX Contest Committee.

Many years ago the best DX and contest operators were hunters. They studied the bands, knew when the rare DX was most likely to be on, and could even recognize the sound of that rare station needed for a multiplier. As technology improved, stations got better and more capable. Personal computers entered our shack to help with logging and sending CW. With better equipment and more stations on the air, the game started to change from hunting to running.

In the mid 1980’s, Dick Newell AK1A invented PacketCluster® software that allowed operators to enter the call and frequency of a DX station – a “DX spot” – and have it announced to everyone connected to the VHF packet network. Suddenly we could have hundreds of others telling us where the DX was hiding. After some controversy, the CQ WW added the Assisted category in 1989 to place those using this new tool into a separate category.

In early 2008 a new innovation appeared. Alex Shovkoplyas VE3NEA introduced his CW Skimmer software. CW Skimmer is a multi-channel CW decoder that copies all of the callsigns in the receiver passband and displays them on the screen. It had amazing CW copying ability – especially when Software Defined Radios provided the ability to capture a full 96 KHz of each amateur radio band. It suddenly became possible to simultaneously copy and announce every station calling CQ on CW across all 6 amateur radio bands along with their signal strength!

Soon after, PY1NB and N4ZR began building out the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN). The RBN collected data from CW Skimmers around the world, made it available to DX Cluster nodes, and stored it in an archive. This concept was quickly adopted by contesters because it provided immediate knowledge of activity around the world. You could call one CQ and see your signal reported from every Skimmer where there was propagation. The archive was a rich resource for propagation and antenna evaluation.

This convergence of personal computers, Internet access, DX clusters, and CW Skimmer have changed the nature of CW contesting. Even the smallest station can now call CQ and be noticed. The top multi-operator stations have developed the ability to interlock multiple stations on a band so they can chase these Skimmer spotted stations in between CQs on their run frequency. Many single ops talk about the fun of doing all of their operating just by working stations found when clicking on DX spots.

Like it or not, the CQ WW CW (and contesting in general) has certainly been impacted by this convergence. Having so much information has helped more people have more fun – generating even more activity and QSOs for everyone. It has also made it more difficult to police the line between the single operator working alone and those who are using the assistance of DX spotting. Anyone who has received a ham radio license in the last 25 years doesn’t know amateur radio DXing without the DX Cluster.

We have to remember that contesting is ultimately a game played using the ionosphere and our ability to hear far away signals with our own ears. Enjoy the tools, but never forget that our real purpose is to build and test our skills as radio operators. Given our history of technology innovation, when does it make sense to accept convergence and recombine the single operator categories – giving everyone access to spotting information?