Amateur radio traffic nets, particularly ones conducted in a phone mode, attract a number of passersby that have not been trained in various net procedures. While I’ve never been a member of MARS (Military Auxiliary Radio System), there is a certain discipline that should be maintained for orderly net operations. The ARRL Operating Manual, particularly the chapter on traffic handling. should be required reading for all new amateur radio operators who wish to get the most out of their new found hobby. While waiting for the copy of the Operating Manual to arrive, this post offers a few tips to help you not sound like a LID (an amateur radio colloquial term for a poor operator).
With nearly three decades of NTS section net operation under my belt mostly as a participant and sometimes as a Net Control Station (NCS), I’ve observed a lot of behavior on the nets I’ve participated in. In some cases I am guilty as charged and I’ll also reflect on these poor operating practices and seek to improve my net discipline as well. Hopefully, these observations can help you avoid the same pitfalls. There are a few rules regarding the operation of an amateur radio traffic net (there are plenty of other types of nets where other rules may well apply, I’m not discussing those).
Note that the CW nets I’ve listened to generally don’t suffer from the practices that ail a phone net. CW nets are a model of brevity and efficiency and are not the focus of this post.
The first rule of net operation is that the Net Control Station (NCS) is the final authority for that session of the net. Period. End of discussion.
- The NCS sets the net frequency and all stations should zero beat (match as closely as possible) the NCS’ transmitting frequency. Complaints about the NCS being off the published net frequency are best done with the microphone unkeyed.
- All transmissions must be done at the direction of the NCS. Breaking (interrupting) the NCS for trivial information is an unneeded distraction and definitely poor operation.
- The NCS has the responsibility of conducting the net in a manner that is the most efficient. The rest of us might disagree, particularly if we have been an NCS before, but our disagreement is best taken up with the NCS one on one over a beverage off the air.
- It is up to the NCS to determine whether traffic should be passed on or off the net frequency. Follow the NCS’ instructions to the letter.
The second rule is that for the net participants all transmissions are at the direction of the NCS.
- If on a roll-call net answer when the NCS calls your station. State your traffic, if any, and end your transmission with your callsign as required by Part 97 for USA licensed stations. If you miss your turn, wait until the NCS asks for late, missed, or new stations wishing to check-in.
- If on a random check-in net, only transmit your callsign. This is important as you may well double (transmit simultaneously with another station) and a longer transmission will likely prevent the NCS from copying at least part of the other station’s callsign.
- If you hear a weak station the NCS cannot hear, it may be acceptable to break the NCS and offer a relay. Each net is different, so be certain this is acceptable behavior before doing so. On some nets the NCS will pause every so often and ask for possible relays. This will be your invitation to transmit and offer your assistance.
Not really rules, but good operating practices, these tips are helpful for a smooth operating net.
- Listen, listen, and listen some more! Listen to several sessions of the net before checking in to get a feel for the net’s culture. Each net has its own culture. Match your operation to the culture of the net. Don’t demand the net change to match your operating practice. Don’t be oblivious to the culture of the net.
- On any net when checking in, adding your name, QTH (location), or anything else not asked for by the NCS just slows things down and makes the NCS’ job just a bit more difficult (remember the NCS is a volunteer and is performing the NCS duties out of enjoyment). Regular participants don’t need to add these things and an NCS will likely ask for addition information if wanted from stations new to the NCS. Otherwise, it’s just extra time wasted that in times other than routine net operations is completely unwarranted.
- Check in when it is appropriate. If the NCS asks for stations with the suffix of their callsign beginning with the letters “A through M” and your call’s suffix begins with U, wait. The NCS will eventually ask for your segment of the alphabet. An NCS will do this to limit the number of doubles that must be worked through. Be disciplined and refrain from transmitting out of turn.
- Use phonetics only when appropriate. If the NCS is unclear on your callsign, phonetics will assist in the NCS copying it correctly. On the other hand, using phonetics needlessly just slows things down and increases your chances of doubling with another station trying to check in.
- Don’t ask the NCS such trivia as callsign, name, or QTH. The NCS will identify soon enough and you can either listen for a while longer to learn that vital information or simply look it up after the NCS identifies. Few things are more frustrating to an NCS than answering twenty questions which belie the fact that the asking station was not listening at the beginning of the net when all of this information was given in the net preamble and it reverses the roles of the NCS and the net participant.
- Avoid adding things like “QRP”, “mobile”, or “portable” especially during a random check-in period. An NCS will often ask for station operating under such conditions specifically. Check in at that time. If the NCS cannot hear your signal, another station may act as a relay for you. Adding extra information like this will not make your signal stronger nor improve band conditions so the NCS can hear you better.
- The net operates on a schedule. If you can be there, fine, if not, don’t fret it.
- The NCS may be off frequency due to QRM (interference), equipment limitations, or NCS operator error. Don’t argue about it. Accept it and zero beat the NCS’ transmitting frequency as closely as possible.
- The NCS may instruct you to find a clear frequency to pass your traffic or to pass it on the net’s frequency. Don’t argue about it just do it.
- Transmit the best possible signal. If conditions allow for QRP (5 Watts or less transmitter power), or low power (less than 150 Watts), fine. Otherwise, using the amplifier should be considered for overcoming band conditions and making the NCS’s job of hearing you as easy as possible. Likewise, choose an appropriate antenna for the band and your proximity to the net/NCS. In other words, using a vertical from the middle of the section for the section traffic net on 75m will often be a less than rewarding experience for all involved. Use an NVIS antenna if possible to maximize your signal strength to close-in stations.
- An NCS should not waste the time of participants. If the station is not needed, allow them to leave the net. Likewise, net participants should not leave until relieved by the NCS.
- Avoid net hopping, the practice of checking into multiple nets. There is no prize for the operator who can check into the most nets in a day/month/year/lifetime. Support your local nets. Participate in a neighboring section net only when its schedule does not conflict with your local net.
- Participating in an NTS (ARRL National Traffic system) traffic net implies not only a willingness but also a familiarity with handling (receiving and transmitting) formal written message traffic. If any of these terms are unfamiliar to you, visit the ARRL NTS page now!
A bit of preparation and study will give you an edge as well as give you a base from which you can become a valuable net participant and not just simply one checking in for the count.