Making radio contact over great distance is one of the more interesting aspects of ham radio. For many radio amateurs, it’s their main pursuit.
Working DX (ham-speak for distance) commonly means contacting a station outside your own country but Alaska and Hawaii are certainly DX stations by distance, and in reality good DX is cross-country in a large entity such as the USA.
Unfortunately for US hams, the entry-level Technician class license permits rather limited opportunities for making radio contact beyond line of sight. Don’t despair if you have only a Tech license and want to do more than chat with locals on a repeater. There are six ways for a Technician licensee to communicate outside of town, outside your state, or even outside the country. We will briefly mention these here and perhaps cover them in greater detail in future posts.
DX is commonly accomplished on the high frequency (HF) bands due to ionospheric refraction or bending of radio waves. HF signals routinely reach the other side of the planet and places in between. So for most hams chasing DX or just working beyond the local area means having a HF transceiver and antenna for the band(s) of interest.
The first two opportunities for Technician licensees to communicate over distance involve traditional HF equipment:
1) USA Technician class operators have privileges to operate CW mode (Morse code) on 80m, 40, 15m and 10m HF bands with a 200W power limit. This is how hams used to get started in amateur radio and while CW is still quite popular, it is intimidating to many new folks. So opportunity #1 may not be appealing to many Techs unless they want to learn Morse code (a fun skill, by the way).
2) USA Technicians also have SSB voice and digital (data) privileges on 10m, again with a 200W limit. This is the only HF voice privilege for this class and the frequency range is very narrow. The data mode privilege is really helpful here because it allows Techs to work popular digital modes such as JT, FT, PSK, Olivia and MSK. However, 10m propagation is highly dependent on solar activity. The band can be inactive or slow for weeks or months at a time. So Technicians may be frustrated over a lack of activity for opportunity #2.
Tech license DX opportunities #1 and #2 above on HF bands are admittedly limited by mode and/or active band. This alone is excellent motivation to upgrade to a General class license. Consider this possibility. It’s not a huge leap in learning and study to move up, very achievable for most people.
We know that the VHF and UHF bands for which Technician licensees have full privileges are generally limited to local communication because of line of sight propagation. Repeaters and/or tall antennas can extend this range but DX is not readily achieved using normal methods. However, there are four clever technologies that enable DX on VHF/UHF bands:
3) Amateur satellite work uses standard 2m radios and a directional antenna. Any class of ham can make brief voice (and other modes) contacts via repeaters on any of several satellites orbiting the earth on well-established schedules. Range varies but you can work stations hundreds of miles away or more. Opportunity #3 is somewhat specialized but challenging and fun.
4) Using the internet radio linking project (IRLP), certain local repeaters can be connected to distant repeaters. The hams at both ends use their VHF/UHF radio as normal but the two repeaters are linked over the internet instead of HF radio. Supporting repeaters can be commanded to connect to a desired distant repeater using a simple radio keypad command. Unless they live in a remote location with few accessible repeaters, a ham of any class is likely to find a local IRLP repeater. Opportunity #4 is easy and achievable for most hams of any class. Although it’s sort of cheating in the sense that it’s not radio all the way, it does involve radios and is easy to do. IRLP is also an excellent way for two hams (friends or relatives) to communicate regularly without HF equipment.
5) Echolink is another internet-based method for hams to use their PC or smartphone to connect with any repeater worldwide that supports it. Echolink is similar to IRLP but there is no radio involved at your end. Your Echolink ID matches your call sign for which you must provide evidence (copy of your license) to get an account. Software or apps on your device then allow you to connect to an active Echolink node which may be peer-to-peer or to a repeater. Echolink is commonly used to join a net or talk to someone on a repeater when you are not in range or aren’t near your radio. It also enables you to connect to distant Echolink nodes outside your normal VHF/UHF radio range. Opportunity #5 is more like audio Skype as no radio is involved so if you want a visual chat, you might as well use a web app.
6) Earth-moon-earth (EME) or moonbounce is an exotic but practical VHF/UHF technique for hams of all classes. Two stations anywhere on the planet can communicate as long as their antennas are aimed at the moon. Signals directed towards the moon are reflected off the surface and some energy returns to earth. This opportunity #6 works best when limited to weak-signal modes such as digital or CW. Specialized equipment is not mandatory but a directional antenna with moon tracking capability is preferred, along with transmit and receive power amplifiers.
Hopefully this gives the Technician ticket holder some ideas and encouragement to try something new. Maybe all you want to do is talk on the local repeater but that gets boring after a while. There is so much more to ham radio; dive in. Plenty of info on the web about each of these topics, and your Elmer can steer you in the right direction.