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Six-Meters; Questions & Answers:

Clinton Herbert (AB7RG) on October 9, 2000
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Six-Meters, the "Magic Band"!

Some Common Questions and Answers:

What is the six-meter band you ask? The six-meter band is a portion of the radio spectrum around 50 MHz allocated to Amateur Radio. If you like a challenge, this band is it! If you want reliable, easy, worldwide Amateur Radio communication, stick to 20 or 40 meters. However, if you enjoy a challenging band that changes from moment to moment, six-meters is just for you!

Obviously you have an interest if you've bothered to start reading, so read on to the end and see what you think and how you feel, as I've prepared this to help both new and old operators alike get started. This is by no means the definitive article on six-meter operation, but it should give you and idea of what the band has to offer and help you to get started.

What's the big attraction? It is fascinating because just about all types of propagation pop up on six meters at one time or another: Sporadic E (Es), Tropospheric Ducting, Aurora, Meteors, even F2 skip like an HF band! They're all here for you to enjoy! Six-meters is addicting: A few Amateurs work the band regularly, but many never work it at all. Once you get addicted, you tend to be hooked for life. The band has become more popular in recent years thanks to several new six-meter capable radios.

There are two types of six-meter operators: The ones who use FM or packet for local work, and ones who work DX with SSB and CW. (Some operators do both, like yours truly!)

Okay, now that you've peaked my interest, what are the frequencies? Well, in the U.S. and some other countries, the six-meter Amateur Radio band lies between 50 and 54 MHz, just below TV channel 2 in the U.S. In some other countries, six meters is allocated much less bandwidth. New Zealand's band starts at 51.0 MHz. Check your allocations for your particular country. Outside of the U.S., the allocations have changed in recent years, as the band is becoming much more popular.

Where can I run FM? Usually above 52 MHz. The level of activity varies with the area. Its popularity is on the rise thanks to several new all-mode six-meter rigs on the market. The main FM simplex frequency is 52.525 MHz. Your local range is better on six-meters than on two-meters with the same power and a similar antenna. If two-meters is too crowded in your area, the FM portion of six-meters may be just the solution you need!

Most six-meters enthusiasts, however, use only SSB or sometimes CW. Many times you will find, especially during weak openings, that many operators use CW cross-mode to SSB to make the contact. It has helped me to finish a contact on more than one occasion where the banded started to fade out fast. CW has a unique way of punching through when nothing else will. Don't worry however, if you don't know Morse Code, you will still make a ton of contacts, as most of them do seem to be made using SSB. For really rare DX though, don't forget to tune down the band and look for stations using CW exclusively! So knowledge and proficiency in Morse Code does help! There's plenty of time for you to work on mastering that though, and a ton of DX and other contacts to be had just on voice.

What about AM? AM is becoming popular again, with the calling frequency at 50.400 MHz. If there's no local AM work in your area you might check for it during a good band opening.

Is there packet on six-meters? It depends on the area. Local packet work can be found in the higher frequency portions of the band. There has been very little DX packet work.

So what about the other digital modes? There has been an increase in activity, especially with PSK31 on six-meters. If you have that capability or any of the other digital modes, you might start looking around and listen for it. On six-meters anything can happen, at any moment!

How about repeaters? There are a several six-meter repeaters listed in the ARRL Repeater Directory, but some of them are not operational. This will depend on your area. The offset in the U.S. is usually one MHz. (e.g. 53.330 out, 52.330 in) I would listen to the FM portion of six-meters to check for activity in your area. One that I use is on 52.560 out, 52.060 in, so not all of them have an offset of one MHz! (Don't forget PL Tones too, just like on two-meters or any other band when using repeaters it's always handy to know the PL Tone!)

How do I know if there's a DX opening? The best way is to check for an opening is to listen, listen, and listen some more! Many beacons operate around the world between 50.0 and 50.1 MHz; check the ARRL Repeater Directory. Monitor 50.110, 50.125, and 50.200 for SSB openings. You can also monitor 28.885 MHz, the "10 Meter VHF Liaison Frequency", where fellow Amateurs report VHF openings and schedule contacts. Don't worry if you only hold a Technician class license, you don't have to transmit on ten meters, just listen. I try to leave my radio parked on 50.110 or 50.125 at all times. DX Clusters, both on the Internet and on packet are also excellent resources when it comes to finding band openings. However, nothing beats listening!

Okay, so what are the most popular frequencies? Per the FCC, 50.0 to 50.1 is reserved for CW work in the U.S. Most operation is SSB. 50.110 is the most popular SSB DX frequency, and 50.100 to 50.124 should be used only for DX. Some Amateurs tend to discourage U.S. domestic stations from calling CQ in this "DX window". But if no one is calling CQ, how will you ever make a contact! Don't be afraid to call CQ. Just remember that this area is for International QSO's only. 51.000-51.100 is the Pacific DX Window. The other popular frequencies tend to vary from area to area, so the following is only a general guide for beginners: 50.125 is the domestic calling frequency for the United States, although more and more operators are beginning to shift up to 50.200, and most domestic SSB is found between 50.125 and 50.200. Only during hot F2 openings do you find SSB much above 50.200. However once you establish contact, it is polite and good operating practice to move off the calling frequency! I usually announce that I'm going to QSY, and just move up the band 5 to 25 kHz to wherever there is a clear area free of QRM. Don't worry, others will find you, and fast! As the calling frequency quickly becomes a dogfight for position. As for DX'ing, well work it the same way you would any other DX, say on 20 meters. Just be patient and keep trying once the DX station is ready for another call.

Will I need to have a beam antenna? If you want to win contests, bust pileups, and snag a lot of DX, then yes, as you will able to direct your signal and have more gain, thus more dB of "hearing aid", and more ERP that you'll have. You can have a lot of fun with a vertical during openings, and sometimes it's best to listen on, as you will have better 360 degree coverage, and it is great for local work, but the hot shots use beams. Most serious operators are horizontally polarized, but cross-polarization does not matter for Es, F2, or Aurora. (However, I've found some really interesting things when it comes to sporadic E propagation, when (mainly on FM, but also on SSB), the band starts to "fade out", I've switched to my vertical and sure enough, the station was an S-9+ where he was gone or in and out on the beam, then, later, once the stations started fading out on the vertical, sure enough, there they were, very strong on the beam again, so having both types of polarization is a real plus!) A few stations use 3-element beams, but a 4 or 5-element beam is so small that a lot of people use them. Quite a few people have Cushcraft 6-element "Boomers". There are a few other big beams, and some guys even stack them! However, that might be overkill, especially if you're just starting out. A good 3-element beam will do you just great with a power level of about 50 to 100 watts or so. Also, these small beams work great with just a simple TV antenna rotator. Adding a vertical will compliment your setup nicely, and is probably best for local work, especially if you're going to be using repeaters.

How high should my antenna be? For sporadic E (Es) openings, a height of about 30 feet is about perfect according to studies. For tropo and other modes, the higher the tower the better! Some people have multiple antennas at multiple heights to work different kinds of propagation modes. I've never found the need in doing this though. As for coax, RG8 or RG213 is good enough for most people. Antenna-mounted preamps are really not needed, when the band is open, it is really open! A 1/4-wave whip is less than 5 feet high and makes a good mobile antenna. Another good point is that a 3-element beam is small enough to take with you for those mountaintop DXpeditions, another plus for six-meter operators.

What about noise? External noise is fairly high at 50 MHz. It overrides the front-end noise figure on about all the rigs on the market today unless you have a LOT of cable loss or an extremely quiet location. See my notes at the bottom for help on noise. -- (What about TVI problems?)

What's all this about "Grid Squares"? On VHF and up bands, the world has been divided in 1-degree latitude x 2-degree longitude "squares" which start at the South Pole and date line and "read right up". SSB stations will always identify their grid square along with their call sign, i.e. "AB7RG DM44aq". Each square is also divided into sub-squares. European stations like the sub-squares; most US stations don't even know their own. In any case, the "squares" and their VUCC awards have been a wonderful interest builder, and have kept the QSL printers in business! Check the ARRL Operating Manual for a map of the grid squares.

What type of radio do I need? The rig selection has improved significantly in recent years. Today, several manufacturers offer excellent six-meter rigs. Probably 50% of the active stations have 80 to 150 W output, from solid-state (brick) amplifiers following the many types of 10W rigs, such as the Yaesu FT-736R or the Kenwood TS-600. The Icom 575H is very popular, as it has an excellent receiver and 100 watts (the 575A is 10 watts). HF rigs that add six-meters such as the Icom 706 series can be effective but usually lack receiver sensitivity. Perhaps 40% of the stations run just 10 to 20 W, but most serious operators run higher power. Good six-meter radios tend to be expensive, even on the used market. The kilowatt is rare on six-meters; such high power sometimes does not help and can cause terrible TVI. The average for serious stations is 100 to 150 watts, but you can have a lot of fun with a lot less power. Remember; on VHF 10 watts is QRP! Even MFJ has joined the six-meter club with an inexpensive SSB rig. I personally run my Yaesu FT-650 on six-meters pretty much exclusively. This keeps my Icom IC-756 free for the HF bands that I work. My Yaesu FT-650 has the advantage of having 100 watts or a little more output on CW, SSB, and FM, even at 100% duty cycle. And it puts out a healthy 50 watts or more on AM. Anyway, it is best to have a radio dedicated for six-meters if you're going to be a serious operator.

How can I get my feet wet and see if I like six-meters without going broke? A transverter is one way, and if you're wanting an HF mobile radio, you might consider an older Icom 706 series, they are pretty reasonably priced at most hamfests and on the 'net, although they are not that sensitive on six-meters, but at least you'll get your feet wet while having a great mobile radio for the HF bands. MFJ sells a complete SSB six-meter rig for around $250. No luxuries, but it will do the job for you.

How come I never hear anyone? Openings on six-meters are rare, especially during low points in the sunspot cycle. For Amateurs in far northern latitudes (say 50 degrees and above), aurora openings are common. The most common openings in middle and southern latitudes are a result of sporadic E (Es), which occurs most often in June. F2 openings occur only when the solar flux is high. The frequency where you are most likely to hear someone is 50.125 USB. A brief explanation of the many types of propagation on six-meters follows.

What about F2 openings? F2 propagation, the kind that we know and love on 20 meters, occurs very rarely on six-meters. Only at the peak times of the sunspot cycle, a few years out of each eleven, does the band open up for F2. When it does happen, the band becomes a frenzy of activity, and behaves similar to ten-meters. Openings occur most often in December/January during the daytime when the solar flux is at least above 150, preferably 200. A few stations have worked 100 or more countries, but they have been patiently working the fleeting openings for many years. The March, 1993 QST magazine has an excellent article on six meter propagation that shows a correlation between solar flux and openings. The December 1997 issue of QST has a very good article on when to expect F2 openings. Start expecting peak sunspot conditions sometime this year.

What about Sporadic E (Es)? Es is the most common propagation mode on six-meters. The term "sporadic" is accurate: stations can pop in and out and then fade quickly. Studies (see March, 1993 QST Magazine), have shown that Es has nothing to do with the sunspot cycle; it is much more a function of the time of year. Es can occur anytime, but is most common around the solstices (June 21 and December 21). In the southern latitudes, the peak occurs around Christmas with a minor peak in June. The northern latitudes find peak times in June and July with a minor peak at Christmas. February is the low point. In addition to the common single-hop range of 500 - 1500 miles, there are quite a few double and more hop contacts on six meters. Now that a number of Europeans are on six-meters, we find that they can be worked from the US East Coast each summer. Likewise the Caribbean stations work all over the US. The US West Coast can work Hawaii, Alaska, and Mexico. You will also hear some hams on June DXPedition trips to Mexico and the Caribbean; they are easy to work in the late afternoon or early evening, even with 10 watts and a vertical. The VHF contest in the middle of June is also a good time to work Es.

What about Sporadic E (Es)? Within two weeks of the Winter and Summer Solstice (June 21 and December 21), you should be monitoring 50.125 as often as possible; this is the most common time and frequency for Es. I would also check 50.110, 28.885 MHz, and CW beacons between 50.00 and 50.100. Ten-meters and the 27 MHz Citizen's Band are good indicators of six-meter Es: If you hear Es on 10 meters and the stations are less than 1000 miles away, it's time to check for Es on six-meters. If the stations on 10m are 500 miles away, you can be virtually certain that six-meters is open. Likewise, a station on six-meters from 500 miles away means Es on two meters is possible. I have noticed that Sporadic E propagation can happen at anytime, from super brief, weak openings, to monster openings with stations from all over appearing for hours at a time. Sporadic E propagation is probably the most common type of propagation there is on six-meters.

What about Tropo? The ordinary ground-wave Tropospheric ducting range on six-meters isn't quite as great as on two-meters. There are a number of reasons. Since there are so many other propagation modes on six-meters, people don't try very hard on tropo. Antenna gain often is higher on two meters. Noise is lower on two-meters.

What about meteor Propagation? Any area workable by meteors can be worked more easily by Es or aurora. Even though meteor bursts are much stronger and longer on six-meters than on two-meters, little use has been made of them. There has been a very little meteor-burst packet work on six-meters.

How about Aurora? It is much easier than on two-meters. SSB is usually intelligible, but CW is much easier to work. Point north about dusk, most commonly in March an October/November. (In northern Europe, hams report Aurora peaks around dusk and again around midnight.) Lots of people in the far northern latitudes work this mode when it happens. Aurora can occur as far south as the mid-U.S. during bad solar storms.

Is there any Moon-Bounce (EME)? There have been a few EME contacts on six-meters, but the required antenna size and high background noise makes it out of the reach of most people.

Is there any satellite activity? No. With the odd behavior of six-meter propagation, and the relatively small size of high gain antennas on two-meters and above, as well as having more local and other types of noise on six-meters, satellite operation is less feasible than EME!

What about TVI problems? There is no doubt about it, six-meters has its fair share of TVI troubles. You don't find a lot of people on six-meters in channel 2 areas unless cable is widely used. VCRs are very prone to six-meter pickup. Some cordless phones, baby monitors, and walkie-talkies operate on 49 MHz. Most consumer electronic equipment has poor RFI shielding. The common connecting or power cable is a quarter-wave antenna for six-meters. The TV owners have their revenge since the 13th harmonic of the color subcarrier, or something, of TV sets and TV games puts out a birdie at 50.113 MHz to bother the six-meter operators in return. There is also quite a bit of trouble from noisy power distribution lines if they aren't buried (usually bad insulators or poor guy bonding). I would get a book on curing TVI. The ARRL offers a couple of really nice ones that I've found to be quite helpful for all of my Amateur operating needs. Often, using snap-on ferrite filters on any cables (patch cords, power cords) of home electronics equipment can help, these are inexpensive and readily available at your local Radio Shack.

So is six-meters really for me? Well after reading this article you should have a pretty good idea about that, but your best way to find that out is to get on the air and give it a try! See what happens, but be patient! You have to be one who likes a good challenge to fully enjoy six-meters and discover why it's called the "Magic Band". After you've been on it for some time you will see why it truly is. To quote former President John F. Kennedy, "We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard." Sure, he was talking about the space program, but I think that it applies. One thing is for sure, on six-meters anything can happen, at any given moment!

There are many great resources to be found on the Internet about six-meters: There are countless web-sites, and several e-mail reflectors that you probably will want to check into, as I've only touched a little bit on it with this article. Goodness, many great books have been written and are readily available about six-meters. They give all sorts of operating tips and techniques, better explain the different methods of propagation in some detail, offer a lot of suggestions and ideas for antennas and station setups, and much much more. If you like what you've read so far, just wait until you get on the air and actually start making some QSO's, snagging DX stations, and having a great time! Then you'll truly see why the six-meter band is called the "Magic Band".

73 & Hope to hear you on Six-Meters!
Clinton Herbert AB7RG
QRV from DM44aq

Member Comments: Add A Comment
Six-Meters; Questions & Answers: Reply
by N2CG on November 21, 2000 Mail this to a friend!
I just wanted to commend Clinton AB7RG for his very informative and will written article "Six-Meters; Questions & Anseres:".

Back in January 1977 I first got on 6 meters with a transverter on my HF rig and indoor 6m dipole (it was too cold to put an antenna outside). The ARRL had just started a new award called the "6 METER 600 CLUB AWARD" to encourage operation on 6 meters. Within several months I managed to work many stations via various types of propagational modes and I was hooked on 6 meters.

I'm still active on 6 meters today and my most prized award is my 6 meter WAS award which took me almost 13 years to achieve because I had to wait for the next solor cycle to come around for F2 propagation to work Hawaii in December 1989. My rig/ant at that time was a roof mounted KLM 8 element log-yagi at 35 feet above ground and a TS-680S with a Mirage 160 Watt brick amplifer on CW.

So, for those of you who already have a rig with 6m capability; string up a simple dipole or some simple antenna and see what is out there on the "magic band".

73, George N2CG

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