I get a fair amount of email as a result of various things I post here and a lot of it is from young new hams (to me, young is under 30!). They’ve gotten themselves into a great hobby in an age when attention spans are short and instant gratification is the expectation.
Expertise and accomplishments don’t lend themselves to those characteristics, so when the younger generation takes up a hobby that requires a certain amount of dedication to get licensed, it absolutely makes my day to hear about it.
Some of those new ops end up here as a result of an interest in DXing, but interest in CW among these new guys varies. They haven’t yet been in the hobby long enough to know how the two modes compare in DXing. I’d like to perhaps shortcut that process with a few words of my own experiences.
Rather than the same old song & dance about tradition, the original digital mode and all that, I’ll take a shot at what keeps CW relevant in a time of numerous digital modes, phone and other aspects of the hobby.
As a new ham in the 70′s I had two modes available to me: phone and CW. Even back then, ham radio for me was all about DXing – there was magic at being able to converse wirelessly and “internetlessly” with someone in Omsk or Mogadishu.
After upgrading to General, I thought I’d never look back on CW now that I had phone priviledges and a shiny new microphone. But it didn’t take long to find out that phone DXing is tough and inefficient compared to CW. I know the numbers tell it but I was experiencing and validating the theory with each non-reply from much of the DX I called.
The wattmeter and physics verified what I suspected: My 100-watt transmitter had an average output on phone of 25-35 watts. So does yours – it’s a characteristic of the mode and human speach.
But on CW, the letter E – that briefest of characters – goes screaming out with the full effect of each of those 100 watts. Given the same transmitter, a tiny little dit contains significantly more horsepower than the loudest phone op screaming into his mic with gain and speech processing cranked to the max.
My appreciation of good engineering loves the efficiency of that. On CW – and only on CW – my rig gives me its true rated output. I’m getting my money’s worth in full as that dit goes sailing across an ocean, often leaving my SSB counterpart’s signal in the tall grass of the intended receiver’s noise floor.
On CW, average power equals peak power – verified not only by the wattmeter, but the logbook as well.
Phone started to look very disappointing despite my prior enthusiasm for it. So back to CW. It was that or settle for less DX and much more frustration in attempting it.
Later, I learned about power density. A 25 wpm CW signal occupies 100 Hz of bandwidth. An SSB signal, typically 2000 Hz. Therefore, the power density of a 100-watt CW signal is about 1W/Hz while a 100-watt SSB signal is .05W/Hz.
And that’s pretending (for phone’s benefit) that we’re getting the full 100 watts out of the SSB transmitter…which we aren’t.
If CW turns you off because it’s difficult to learn, consider this:
The difficulty of learning CW and then working DX easily is less than the difficulty of not learning CW and being consigned to DXing on SSB with its inherently greater difficulty.
Any CW DXer can tell you about contacts made and new countries worked over difficult paths, super-weak signals and QSB. I’ve got dozens of those stories myself…those contacts would have been impossible on phone. Not unlikely – impossible.
There are other reasons that DXing is so much more effective on CW than on SSB, namely that CW pile-ups can be exploited in ways not possible on other modes. You can read that here if you’re interested.
It’s no accident that QRP DXers and 80/160m DXers almost exclusively use CW. They may very well like the mode in its own right, but for those who are results-oriented, it’s the go-to mode for all the reasons mentioned above.