– A nineteenth century technique that’s still hard to beat –
Morse code – Continuous Wave (CW) in radio parlance – ceased to be a mandatory requirement for a UK Full amateur radio licence in 2003. Since then, most other countries have also deleted CW from their licence requirements. But that doesn’t mean this mode is no longer used.
If you listen at the bottom end of most of the amateur radio HF bands, you’ll hear lots of CW transmissions. Why is this Victorian technique still so popular with radio hams? Well, there are two principal reasons: Firstly, once you have learned how to operate effectively with CW, it becomes a fun thing to do; a far more satisfying experience that simply speaking into a microphone or typing on a keyboard. Secondly, because only a narrow bandwidth is needed to send and receive CW, this mode enjoys significantly better signal-to-noise ratios (SNR) than other real-time modes; something like 15dB better than a single-sideband (SSB) speech signal.
The net result is that simple CW stations, which may be using only low power and modest aerials, can successfully make contacts in conditions that would be inoperable (even for bigger stations) using SSB. The SNR advantage is equivalent to having an antenna with 15dB of gain (because it works on transmit and receive) looking in all directions. A physical antenna with such performance would be inconceivable, especially on the lower HF bands, even for a very-well-equipped home or club station.
So, the small minority of radio hams who are competent CW operators continue to make contacts all over the world every day. Here are just a few examples of how CW is used:
- Contest stations and DXpeditions often use CW to extend their reach. A few of each are CW-only affairs.
- Many award standards (eg DXCC) can be achieved more quickly and easily if CW is at least in the mix of operating modes. On most weekends, you could probably work 25 to 30 countries around Europe, even if you only used the 80m and 40m bands.
- Beacons are inherently CW devices, with identification signals in Morse (although some also ident in other modes too). By listening for propagation beacons, it is possible to work out which of the HF bands are open, and which parts of the world might be workable at any particular time.
- The Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) provides a similar free-to-use service for CW operators.
- Most repeaters also identify themselves with a CW signal. If you can read the Morse ident, you will always know which repeater you are tuned to, and won’t ever have to ask. Better still, you can avoid the embarrassment of transmitting on the wrong repeater!
- Exotic modes of propagation at VHF, UHF, and microwaves (eg EME, MS, auroral) are often exploited using CW.
Sending and receiving CW signals
Small CW transmitters are easy enough to build, and are a great way to start exploring the mode. Later, when competent with the code, the CW capabilities of a typical modern transceiver will be understood in context, and can be used to best effect.
There are software packages that can be used to send and receive CW, even by someone who does not know Morse code. Most work tolerably well when conditions are good and signals are clear, but few can begin to cope with the kind of marginal conditions in which true CW enthusiasts thrive. All automatic decoders have their limitations.
To the experienced CW operator, computer-generated Morse has a robotic automaton sound – which is hardly surprising, because it contains no elements of non-verbal communication. In contrast, hand-sent Morse is nuanced with subtle variations of cadence, rhythm, and spacing. These are not things which are taught, or even consciously learned. You won’t find them in any text book or reference manual, and certainly not in any software, but they come quite naturally to the human operator.
Learning Morse code
Almost 200 years after the first precursor forms of modern Morse code were devised, no-one has yet found a quick and easy way to learn such codes. For the newcomer, it is a slog. It is boring, repetitive, and sometimes frustrating. Software training aids are a great help, and do make the learning process a lot better than it was, but it is still a long flog. A complete beginner should probably think in terms of about a year, with practice more or less every day, to become proficient.
This is a significant barrier to entry, and probably explains why only a small minority of hams even attempt to learn Morse code. Fewer still stick with it long enough to become competent – but for those who do, the rewards are certainly worth the effort.
At IOWRS we strongly encourage anyone who has even a slight interest in CW to at least give it a go. We can always arrange demonstrations and practice sessions, but we don’t actually teach Morse at the club. There are others who do that much better than we ever could.
Foremost amongst them is probably the CWOps CW Academy (CWA). This provides a range of training packages at different levels, from absolute beginner right through to expert. There is a comprehensive library of on-line exercises and training aids, including some very realistic simulators which can be set to match the learner’s ability level. CWOps make this veritable treasure chest freely available to all. There is no need to sign in, or register, and there are no passwords.
For anyone who does wish to sign up for a more-structured form of training, there are 8-week courses at each level, supported by expert advisors who lead twice-weekly on-line classes. In these video sessions small groups of peer-learners get together to chat, exchange experiences, and pick up learning tips from their advisor. The courses are also provided free of charge.
There is certainly no shortage of training support for anyone who really wants to learn Morse code. The aspiring CW operator just needs to supply the effort, and tenacity, to succeed. For those who do that, a whole new world of amateur radio opens up; a world with an endless supply of new experiences which is really quite fun to work in.