I've heard lots of contest exchanges, and the signal report almost always seems to be 59 for phone or 599 for Morse, even when the operator giving the report has to request information to be repeated several times. Why is the signal report almost always 59 or 599? If the report never changes, why do contest rules still require signal reports, when cutting out phony reports would speed things up?
"If the report never changes, why do contest rules still require signal reports, when cutting out phony reports would speed things up?"
This question comes up frequently, among contesters (e.g. on CQ-Contest, an email reflector for contesters) as well as among those who criticise contests. Reasons for the signal report often include (in no particular order):
- meeting the somewhat arbitrary definition of what constitutes a "complete" QSO
- the signal report acts as a signalling, attention-grabbing phrase for the important part of the exchange that follows (e.g. a serial number, location designator etc)
- it's in the rules :-)
- without some agreement on receiver settings (rx bandwidth, rf-gain, attentuator, S-meter accuracy...) a signal report is pretty meaningless anyway
- no contest rules demand an unchanging 59 or 599 signal report, feel free to send a signal report you consider accurate
Finally, some contest rules do not prescribe a signal report, for example the ARRL Sweepstakes, the Stew Perry Topband Distance Challenge, North American QSO Parties, North American Sprints.
Signal reports are sent because the contest may require them. Every contest I can think of requires some exchange of information, and a signal report may or may not be among the required information. For example, the ARRL 10 meter contest specifies signal reports must be exchanged:
4. Contest Exchange:
4.1. W/VE stations (including Hawaii and Alaska) send RS(T) and state or province (District of Columbia stations send signal report and DC).
4.2. DX stations (including KH2, KP4, etc) send RS(T) & sequential serial number starting with 001.
4.3. Mexican stations transmit RS(T) and their state.
4.4. Maritime mobile stations send RS(T) and ITU Region (R1, R2 or R3).
However, the ARRL September VHF contest has optional signal reports:
- Exchange: Maidenhead grid-square locator (see www.arrl.org/grid-squares)
4.1. Exchange of grid square is required. Exchange of signal report is optional.
Though optional, operators may exchange signal reports anyway out of habit.
Why always 59 or 599? Well, it's easier. Contest operators may use a keyer, and reprogramming the keyer for each contact wouldn't be feasible. It's also one less thing to think about. Furthermore, if everyone understands the signal report is always 59(9), that's one less detail that must be carefully confirmed between parties. Many contests include penalties, or at least the contact may not count, if both stations don't submit the same information.
If you hear stations repeating the signal report, I'd guess it's simply inexperienced operators that haven't caught on to the "always 59(9)" convention yet.
Of course if the signal report is always 59(9), there's no real information being exchanged. Consequently some contests require an exchange of grid squares, serial numbers, or other information which varies between contacts to make things a little more challenging.
The RS(T) reporting system has always been arbitrary. The original intent was for the receiving operator to estimate readability, signal strength, and tone by ear; there never have been universally-recognized standards regarding what should be R5 or S9. Manufacturers muddied the waters somewhat by putting S-meters in receivers, with S9 set as -73 dBm, which was reinforced by an IARU Region 1 technical recommendation.
Because contests are competitions, parts of the QSO not necessary for efficient communication resulting in points are streamlined as much as possible. Estimating a more realistic signal report, and more importantly copying varying signal reports, would require mental effort that would not result in more points, so it's not surprising that the contesting community has largely eliminated meaningful signal reports. The fact that the RS(T) system is subjective and arbitrary provides sufficient cover for arguments about ethics, in the eyes of most contesters, and anyone who disagrees is free to transmit realistic signal reports. All major contests that require signal reports compare transmitted and received signal reports like the rest of the exchange during the scoring process, and penalize contestants for incorrect copy.
If most contesters clearly think meaningful signal reports serve no purpose in contests, why are signal reports still required in most contests? I can think of several reasons:
- Not every contest participant believes signal reports are useless.
- The vast majority of contest participants are casual, participating just to hand out a few contacts or to get a few more DX entities, states, provinces, grid squares, etc. in the log. Casual contest participants expect contacts to include an exchange of signal reports, and many would be confused if the signal report were completely eliminated. Confusion greatly slows the QSO rate, and is therefore avoided.
- When copying a contest QSO, especially a high-speed Morse QSO, the dummy 59 or 599 serves as a valuable delimiter: it alerts the receiving operator that the exchange, which must be quickly and accurately copied, comes next.