Back To Basics

A Slow Speed CW Net Tutorial

by Anne Fanelli WI2G

Net Manager of the Empire Slow Speed Net (ESS)

Meets 6PM Local Eastern Time on 3576 kHz

With all the recent hang-wringing about the current state of CW traffic-handling, it’s easy to lose sight of ESS’ noble calling as a training net. We’re fortunate at the moment to have a fair amount of “new blood” on the net roster; whether that new blood integrates itself into the system sufficiently to serve as a reliable outlet for traffic (not to mention generating its own) is, to some extent, up to us. The following is largely inspired by a number of excellent e-mailed questions from Mark, W1AAF, who QNIs a number of nets from Maine and stumbled upon ESS purely by accident while looking for another net!

A CW traffic net—even a slow-speed one—can seem intimidating to the neophyte, with its mind-boggling assortment of QN-signals (unique to CW traffic nets) and procedural arcana. All these people not only know each other, but know what to do. How will I ever swim without sinking? Take heart—we’ve all been where you are, and if CW nets were as demanding as they may seem on first listen we wouldn’t keep coming back for more. Most of us (especially since the dessication of instructional material from the ARRL) have learned the ropes simply by playing follow-the-leader. As you listen to a typical net, you’ll find that checking in is a piece of cake. The net control station will usually open the net with a preamble of some sort and then throw the proceedings open to checkins by sending QNI K. “K,” of course, means “any station transmit” but in the interest of efficiency, it’s customary to let stations with traffic QNI first (this way, the NCS can send a traffic pair off as soon as an outlet arrives). If you’re QRU—no traffic—wait a second or two to see if anyone with traffic wants to QNI and then send a single letter. Usually “your letter” is the first letter of your suffix but let common sense guide you—KB2ETO, for example, sends “O” rather than “E” because Bill knows from his long experience running ESS on Fridays that “O” is much easier to pull out of QRN and QSB than a single dit. After you’ve been checking in for a bit and are familiar with the usual suspects, try to use a checkin letter different from those used by the other net regulars; WE2G considerately uses “D” as his letter so Tom can distinguish his call to the NCS from that of a similar op who only checks in half as often. When it’s your turn to QNI the NCS will repeat your letter; that’s your cue (sometimes several stations will try to QNI simultaneously—only the station whose letter is “mirrored” by the NCS should actually respond the second time). Send (for example) DE WI2G GE NICK (or whoever) QRU K. The NCS will repeat your call, greet you (if s/he’s unfamiliar, you’ll probably be asked for your name and QTH) and ask you to AS (stand by). It’s important to list your traffic when first checking in—either QRU, or QTC (name of town if in NY or state abbreviation if outside, plus number of messages). If traffic is listed that you’re able to take, wait for a break in the action (QNI K or AS) and send—this time—your full suffix (this cues the NCS that you’re not a new checkin). The NCS again “mirrors” your suffix and you send QSP TARRYTOWN K. Then the NCS (breathing a sigh of relief) will send something like KC2OVN KA8WNO DWN 3 TARRYTOWN 1 D 3 K. Each station sends GG to indicate s/he is GoinG and moves down 3 kHz, where the receiving station calls the sender (since the recipient needs a clear spot). After the traffic is passed both stations return to the net frequency, wait for a pause and send their suffixes, which will be acknowledged by the NCS.

As the net winds down you’ll either be excused by the NCS (your call followed by QNX 73 GE; your final communication will be 73 DE K2MMW GE) or s/he will send QNF, indicating the net is Finished. See, it’s easy!

Now we’ll look at the nuts and bolts of an individual message. We’ll examine how to send and receive traffic—plus asking for (and sending) fills, which seems mystifying at first but is really simple. Sound familiar?.

If you can acquire the justly-famous “pink card” (FSD-218) issued by the ARRL (downloadable in HTML, .PDF or Word at, and I still have a few in that easy-to-find Pepto-Bismol pink), it’s an invaluable reference and cheat-sheet. All ARRL-radiogram-format message traffic consists of four parts—preamble, addressee, text and signature. So, say you’ve been sent D 3 with K2TV to take a message for Poughkeepsie (abbreviated POKE by us who tend to get lost in the middle of long names!). You go down 3, check to see if the frequency’s clear and call Bob. There are two schools about what to do if the designated frequency is QRL. Conventional wisdom says to keep going in the direction you were sent (down, in this case) till you find a clear spot. Better, I think (since the object of the game is, after all, to find each other), to “float” as close to the designated frequency as possible. If there’s a QSO down 3.5 kHz, if you call Bob D 2 instead of 3 you’ll still be well clear of the net and not much of a hindrance to the QSO. You and Bob make contact and, all aquiver, you send “QRV.” Bob begins sending HR NR…, which is your cue to start copying. There is nothing sent between the message date and the addressee; lines in the addressee block are separated by AA (important!). BT separates the addressee from the text, and the text from the signature. After the signature, send AR followed by B (if you have another message for Bob) or N (no more). Bob will either roger your message (QSL) or ask for fills—WA (word after) SCHOOL, WB (word before) REUNION, or BN (between) JUNE ES 30 for example. When sending fills, include the “cue” word(s)—JUNE 29 AND 30, CLASS REUNION—to keep the recipient oriented. The sending station can use the number of fills requested to assess whether s/he needs to send slower in order to improve throughput (especially useful during static season).

A few words about QSK (full breakin)—some stations love it, while others can live quite happily without it. In the past, a station sent QSK at the start of a message to indicate s/he could be “broken” (with a string of dits) for a fill request, rather than waiting for a BT or AR. Today, though, when it can be safely assumed that just about everyone has semi-breakin at least (the rig switches back to receive between characters; full QSK switches between elements--dit or dah--of a character), sending QSK indicates a willingness to be broken as soon as anything is missed. At the risk of sounding heretical, I believe QSK can be overused. If you allow your brain to copy words, rather than individual characters, you may find yourself having to ask for fewer fills. QSK used judiciously can be invaluable, since it prevents the sender from having to sift through the entire message in response to a fill request, and the give-and-take between two stations who are “in sync” is one of the great joys of CW traffic-handling. Less salubrious, though, is a jangly, nervewracking one-step-forward-two-steps-back encounter with a station whose over enthusiasm for QSK makes you wonder if they’re putting the same effort into copying you as they clearly are into breaking you!

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m no advocate of fudging copy, and you fool no one by being too bashful/proud/stubborn to ask for fills. When WB2OWO was active, Dawn paid me the compliment that I was good at asking for fills. Since it was obvious anyway, I admitted that it was because I’d had plenty of practice….While QSK can be a valuable tool for experienced traffic-handlers, when copying from an unfamiliar station it may be better to hold your fill requests for the traditional spots (between addressee and text, or text and signature, or at the end if you must). And, senders, don’t forget to pause and listen for a possible break! :)

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