Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Getting Started On The New LF and MF Bands

Finally the long wait is over! The LF 2200m band and the MF 630m band have finally arrived for amateurs in the USA! I'm sure most of you have read the fine print regarding deployment of the two bands, but if not, here is the ARRL's recent announcement.

It has been a very long wait for the FCC to implement these bands after they were approved for amateur use in 2007 and 2012 at the World Radiocommunication Conferences in Geneva. Canadian amateurs have had 630m since 2014 and 2200m since 2009 ... in the meantime, we have been anxiously awaiting the arrival of American amateurs to liven things up and to garner new interest in these bands.

Before operating on these bands, amateurs in the USA are required to register their intent via a simple web form found here on the Utilities Technology Council's website. Then follows a 30 day waiting period during which the UTC will check out your location to be sure that you are not located within 1km of any power lines that might be carrying LF or MF PLC (Power Line Carrier) control signals. If you hear nothing back from UTC within 30 days, you are good to go.

A positive outcome of registering via the UTC form is that there can be no PLC signals implemented on the lines near you at a later date! By registering your intended operating location(s), you are locking-in these spots for no further PLC development. If you have an EOC or Field Day site that you think you may want to operate from at some point, register these as well.

I think it is important that even if you do not intend to operate on either of these bands or perhaps a few years down the road, that you register as soon as possible ... the fewer PLC signals operating close to or within the amateur radio spectrum, the better, and this is one way of furthering that goal.

There has already been a vast amount of published information on both of these bands, describing transmitters, receiving systems and transmitting antennas so I won't go into much detail here regarding these topics ... and besides, it's always very interesting to search these things out yourself, learning as you go. Be assured that either of these bands will present interesting new challenges not encountered in typical HF operation, but all of the basic principles you are used to still apply ... it's just that things are much bigger down below the broadcast band!

Far and away, the best source of information for US amateurs can be found on John Langridge's (KB5NJD) NJDTechnolgies website. John has been operating on MF for several years already with an experimental licence (WG2XIQ) and is more than an expert on this topic.

His daily blog includes a detailed account of worldwide activity on 630m and makes for fascinating reading. His website provides all of the information and valuable links that you might need to plan your own LF or MF station. The information on his site, if printed out, would make a wonderful LF / MF Handbook!

My own blog and website also contain much helpful material, with a particular emphasis on Canadian activity on these bands. All of my blogspots dealing with 630m can be found here and contain enough bedtime reading to keep you busy for many nights.

If you are thinking of getting on either of these new bands, particularly 630m, here is a short Q & A that may help you through the initial planning stage of  how to get started.

What modes are commonly used on these bands?

At present, due to the low level of two-way amateur radio activity, the WSPR mode has been dominant. This is a weak-signal 'beacon-only' mode so most two-way contacts take place either on CW or on the weak signal JT-9 mode. JT-9 has been specifically designed for HF and LF / MF weak signal two-way work and can dig as deep as -27db into the noise to provide a contact that could never be completed on other conventional modes such as CW.

With the influx of new activity on these bands, particularly on 630m, I expect that most two-way work will equal or surpass the amount of WSPR activity and that JT-9 and CW will do most of the heavy-lifting.

How far can I work on these bands?

Although the erp limits appear to be QRP-sized, this is somewhat misleading ... it is astonishing what can be done. Don't think that '5W eirp' means that you can only run a transmitter capable of generating 5W. Because antennas are so inefficient on these bands, it is often necessary to run several hundreds of watts in order to achieve the legal eirp limits. The bigger and more efficient your antenna, the lower the power needed becomes. On many nights, 5W eirp will get you clear across the country on MF.

However, if you build something for 630m that only produces 25W of power, you will still have the capability of working many stations in other states on most winter evenings or mornings, as propagation, the 'great equalizer', can be amazing at times.

Presently, most stations operating on WSPR will often be detected from one coast to the other and those with excellent locations near the coast will soon be working stations down under or in Europe, either on CW or on JT-9. If you can, design and build for the maximum eirp, 1W on 2200m and 5W on 630m.

What type of transmitter do I need?

If your interests are only in CW, then the sky is the limit when it comes to design. There are numerous simple solid state transmitter designs out there, using inexpensive FETs to generate power. I'm hoping, along with many others, that there will be a considerable amount of CW activity on 630m and even a simple 25-watter should provide you with lots of  fun. There may also be some appetite for QRSS CW which can give the weak-signal digital modes a run for their money while still using a simple transmitter.

If you are interested in digital modes, such as WSPR or JT-9, the easiest way is through the use of a transverter to take care of converting your HF transceiver's capabilities to LF or HF. There are presently a few commercial transverter options available and can be found on the NJDTechnologies links page.

A good choice is the inexpensive 630m transverter produced by John Molnar, shown below and available both as a kit or prebuilt. It works well and is very popular.

630m Transverter - John Molnar WA3ETD / WG2XKA
Although not available commercially, another popular 630m homebrew design is one from G3XBM which will also provide a way to get on the digital modes. He also has a 2200m design, should your interests be focused on that band.

G3XBM -630m Transverter
Any of these simple transverters are capable of controlling a higher-powered switching FET amplifier as your station progresses.

If you want something in the 'Collins category', the tranverters (both 2200m and 630m models) produced by VK4YB's Monitor Sensors provide around 70W output and are incredibly well designed and built. I have been very happily employing a 630m model for well over a year now ... my review of the transverter can be found here.

VK4YB - 630m Transverter
I suspect that we may soon see more commercial products become available over the next year but if you are handy with a soldering iron, building your transmitter will all be part of the 630m challenge!

I would like to put on a beacon. What do you suggest?

The best and most informational type of beacon is a WSPR mode beacon. A WSPR beacon operator can always determine where his beacon is being heard, in real time, along with how well it is being heard, by watching the uploaded 'spots' of his beacon on the WSPRnet. You will have much better coverage with this weak-signal mode beacon compared to one on CW ... for every CW report received, you would likely get ten times or more that number on WSPR.

Although WSPR is a great mode for checking out propagation, it's very easy to get into the habit of nightly beaconing and not developing your station any further. If you do run a WSPR beacon, be sure to try some of the other two-way modes such as CW or JT9 and call CQ regularly ... ham radio is all about making two-way contacts!

I don't have enough property for the large antennas required, so I won't be able to use these bands.

Even if you are limited in space, you can still enjoy these bands. There are many examples of stations on small city or suburban-size lots that are consistently heard across North America on 630m. If you have the room for an 80m or 40m dipole or inverted-L, that will be enough space to work these bands. An inverted-L for example, can be base-loaded and tuned to resonance. Along with several ground radials, even a small antenna system like this will allow you to work skywave DX or be heard across the country when propagation is good. I'm constantly amazed at how well these bands propagate with very low amounts of erp. Don't let living on a small lot stop you from exploring these bands!

All I hear is noise on these bands ... how can I use them if I can't hear anything?

Growing noise floors are common to everyone and this is often the biggest challenge for LF and MF operators, especially those in densely populated regions. Armed with a little knowledge and investigation, oftentimes seemingly impossible QRN can be substantially reduced if not eliminated entirely ... even easier when the noise source is found to be in your own home! While some amateurs just give up at this stage, most will see it as an interesting challenge to be overcome and part of the many learning experiences offered by these new bands.

In addition to the informational links provided above, I have just added a new 'Getting Started On 630m' page to my website. This page has a two-part article that I recently wrote for The Canadian Amateur, our national amateur radio journal. The articles describe a simple way of getting on 630m CW as well as providing some basic antenna information and ideas.

This blog also has extensive writings involving 630m over the past few years, describing equipment used and suggestions for new operators, much of it involving homebrewing. There are several links on the right that will take you to specific blogs dealing with 630m.

For present LF and MF operators here in Canada, the arrival of our American friends to these bands is generating much excitement and anticipation. The opening of these bands in the USA will pump new life into this part of the spectrum for all North American participants and the opportunities for homebrewing and experimenting are boundless. It should be a very exciting winter!

If you have not taken the 60 seconds required to register your station on the UTC webpage, please don't neglect to do this via the link provided above. There have, reportedly, been thousands of amateurs doing this already, as it effectively locks-out their locations for any future PLC deployment that might keep them off these bands at a later date.

See you in mid-October on 630!


woyse said...

Steve, you did an outstanding job on this article. It will help a lot of folks to get informed and get rolling on MF/LF.
Neil Klagge

Steve McDonald said...

Thank you Neil! Let's hope it will help a few folks get started. Looking forward to our first 630m QSO soon OB!


John AE5X said...

I am in the process of building a WSPR beacon (U3S, G0MRF amp) but don't know how to determine antenna efficiency and therefore permissible power to achieve 5W EIRP. Is antenna efficiency measured or calculated? I'll be using an 80m dipole driven as a T-top vertical against ground.

Steve McDonald said...

Hi John...in a nutshell, the answer is "both". If you visit PART 2 of my article here:


it addresses this very topic.

imabug said...

A positive outcome of registering via the UTC form is that there can be no PLC signals implemented on the lines near you at a later date! By registering your intended operating location(s), you are locking-in these spots for no further PLC development. If you have an EOC or Field Day site that you think you may want to operate from at some point, register these as well.

I've seen this mentioned in other places, but I don't think that's totally correct.

The FCC Report and Order (https://apps.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-17-33A1.pdf) says (page 9)

"If an electric utility seeks to deploy a new or modified PLC system on a transmission line that is within one kilometer of a previously coordinated amateur station, the electric utility must employ a frequency in the 9-490 kHz range that has not been included in the amateur station’s notification, as ARRL suggests. If the previously coordinated amateur station no longer operates in the band, the electric utility may deploy a PLC system in that band."

So registering your antenna location(s) and band(s) with the UTC doesn't keep utilities from implementing PLC signals near you. They just can't do it on the bands you've indicated you'll be using.

Steve McDonald said...

Yes...I agree with what you have stated. In reality, the PLC signals create no actual problem for amateurs as they are normally too weak to be detected. I have heard some here on 2200m several years ago but it takes listening from a dead-quiet location to detect them. The real problem is that the hydro folks think that amateur signals are going to interfere with the PLC signals which has never happened in the past, and was the basis for their argument of keeping off of these bands. PLC's operating outside of the amateur bands would be of little consequence to either party I would think. Registering your location(s) means that there will be no PLC systems operating in these bands near your location.

Phil said...

It would be an interesting article to describe specifically what they are doing with the PLCs (perhaps controlling water gates?) and I kind of think that the power people have made an argument for their replacement to a more rubust solution. Imagine if something like the Carrington event happened today and managed to fry all their PLCs. Exactly what is it they're controlling with them again? I would think any kind of "grid" upgrade would want to do away with that vulnerability!

Steve McDonald said...

Phil... my limited understanding of these particular signals is that they are only used on the large high tension distribution towers. I gather they are used for such things as load switching, power shedding, bringing other sources online when needed. It is old technology but probably cheap, simple and reliable compared with what else is likely being employed such as fiber optics, microwave, possibly even sat comm links nowadays. Maybe someone who works with this stuff will tell us more.