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My First Date with Olivia

Last night (8/10/09) began with a very long 75/80M band. There was none of the usual local rag chew chatter because the lack of NVIS propagation mode, so, I thought I'd see what was happening on the rest of the RF Spectrum. I'd heard some NAVTEX on the 600M band and seeing as how I had the laptop on hand I'd interface it to the rig and see what was what. It was some bulletins about missile tests and other things out near the Hawaiian Islands. After a few minutes they signed clear. Ok, that was kind of interesting, though not the 600M experimental amateur stations I was hoping for. Time to cruise up-band and check out the digi-modes on the lower HF bands. There wasn't much going on there, either. Some faint PSK31, RTTY and what's this? A lonely, faint, 16/500 Olivia mode signal at 3582.85Khz operating in beacon mode. I've only started experimenting with the Olivia mode using a home brew interface made from scrapped out CB radios, usually partial contacts and other incomplete QSOs. Was my equipment giving me problems? So, I once again made sure the antenna was tuned, levels were set and my wits appropriately gathered and sent a reply…

Olivia is a digital mode that uses multiple phase shift tones to convey information. You have a rich choice of formats, or sub-modes to choose from to match the speed you wish to send the information and quality of the propagation. Under the worst conditions, for example, 16/500 or even slower will be needed. On the formats with the lowest throughput you will print (copy) even when you don't hear a signal or even see it on the waterfall display. It can actually rival CW in the extreme. But, and there usually is a “but”, with CW even the most crude bits and pieces of electronics components, or even just electrical parts for a spark transmitter, can be cobbled together to get a signal on the air. So in the most extreme combinations of technological environment and propagation, CW still reigns supreme.

What got my attention about Olivia was an article in QST. What intrigued me was that the author described a new digital mode that he was using. On one day, if I recall correctly, he was monitoring an Olivia call frequency and just by chance glanced at the display and saw print just seeming to come out of nowhere. No signal could be heard or even be seen on the waterfall, but there it was. He coined the term “Ghosting”, for this situation. At this point I decided I'd have to investigate this.
So, what happened after I sent the reply? Well, I was rewarded with a long and pleasant QSO with VE7NBQ at a -13db signal to noise ratio. This was to be my first completed Olivia QSO. The two or three previous ones were barely an exchange of call signs. Hardly a “Date” with Olivia, more like “passing glances”. The conditions for most modes were marginal at best, phone impossible and CW difficult at the high noise levels we were experiencing. In fact, we were QRO for Olivia mode, 'NBQ was at 75 watts and I was 90. With only an occasional fade deep enough to garble only a character or two, it was 100% copy. We QSOed for about an hour and then a very strong station from Idaho -5db, W6MM signed on and we had a nice little round table for another half hour before we all signed clear.

To put it bluntly, Olivia's “one tough broad” that works in extreme conditions. It is slow however, in fact, even with my marginal typing skills I can outrun the throughput on the lower speeds. It also supports lower case and even backspaces so I can correct my mistakes even after the characters have been sent. The slow throughput of Olivia should not be an issue in times of disasters, because messages are usually very short, anyway. And if propagation improves you can always run it up to full speed. Finally, because of the low throughput, it kind of forces you to be laid back. You can just let the characters print and you can actually go refill your coffee cup and grab a snack by the time a short paragraph prints. Now that's my kind of multitasking. Sometimes you may have to wait on the other station to reply, especially if you sent a short reply, they may be off refilling the coffee. Just do the same.

All in all I'd say I had a wonderful date with Olivia, and my wife doesn't mind either. This is a robust digital mode that will best other modes in the worst conditions. I'm actually surprised more people aren't utilizing it, but that's what this article attempts to correct. There are plenty of resources on the Internet to get started. As far as interfaces, if you're already active on PSK31 the only difference is switching the mode of the software you're using, or, download software that does support it. I'm still quite new at it, that's why this is not a How-To article, just my first impressions.
Until next time, good signals and good print.
de NO6L
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