Amateur RTTY and frequencies used

- An overview, summary or tutorial about the basics of RTTY or Radio Teletype, one of the first "digimodes" to be used and the RTTY frequencies used by radio amateurs.

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The first form of data transmission or digimode to gain widespread acceptance was known as radio teletype or RTTY. RTTY was widely used for commercial applications where it enabled printed messages to be sent quickly and without the need for a trained Morse operator. Once surplus equipment started to become available, radio amateurs started to use RTTY, and it soon became popular. In the early days of the use of RTTY, large mechanical teleprinters were used to print the data, but now with the ease of use of computers, these are used to decode and decipher the RTTY transmissions because they are quieter, smaller, more convenient and more efficient. However with the arrival of computers and their greater level of flexibility and sophistication, other more efficient types of digimode are available but despite this, the amateur RTTY is still widely used.

RTTY basics

RTTY uses a form of transmission known as frequency shift keying. The code representing the letters consists of a series of bits represented by high and low voltages. In turn these are represented on the radio signal by a shift between two frequencies, one frequency signifying a mark or high voltage and another frequency representing a space of a low voltage.

On the HF bands the carrier for the RTTY signal is shifted between two frequencies, and this gives rise to differing audio tones when a beat frequency oscillator or BFO is used. At VHF and above a frequency modulated signal is generally used for RTTY and this is modulated by an audio tone that changes.

The code for the data to be sent consists of five bits of either a mark or a space for each character. The actual code that is used is called the Murray code or Baudot code. This code is internationally recognised and to accommodate the various international requirements a number of national variations exist, although they are relatively minor.

Letter shift and figure shift codes are sent to change from upper case to lower case and vice versa. Once the code has been sent then the system will remain in that case until the next case-change code is sent. One of the drawbacks of RTTY is the limited set of characters that can be sent - only text and numbers, and very few other characters.

When using RTTY, the data is sent relatively slowly because the mechanical teleprinters could not cope with data any faster and the standard has remained in place to retain compatibility with existing equipment despite improvements in current technology. 45.5 baud is the standard speed for amateur radio HF operation, although other standards at 50, 56.88, 74.2, and 75 baud exist. The RTTY frequency shift between the two tones used to be standardised on 170Hz but this is often increased to 200Hz as a result of the many of the new digital modes. As the difference between the two standards is relatively small there is no incompatibility between them. Typically the 170 Hz difference is generated using audio frequencies of 1445 Hz to represent a mark condition and 1275 Hz to give a space.

One of the advantages of RTTY having a low data rate is that it means the bandwidth required for the transmission is relatively low. It is easy to gain a rough estimate of the bandwidth required by doubling the baud rate and adding the frequency shift. For example, a 50 baud transmission using a 200Hz frequency shift would require a bandwidth of 300Hz, so a 500Hz filter would be quite acceptable. By using a narrow filter, the effects of interference can be minimised.

RTTY operation

In view of the relatively narrow bandwidths and the need to be able to tune in the tones to approximately the required frequency, a receiver (or transceiver) with a reasonably slow tuning rate is needed. Typically it should be possible to tune to within about 50Hz.

One of the major problems with RTTY is that any interference causes the received data to be corrupted. Even under relatively good conditions it is very difficult to have a totally correct copy. When interference levels rise, as they normally do at HF, then copy can be very difficult. To overcome these problems, new data modes are now widely used that utilise the power of computers to detect and correct errors.

Bands, bandplans, and RTTY frequencies

In view of the fact that the amateur radio bands are planned so that different modes are restricted to particular areas to reduce interference and ensure the optimum use of each band, so RTTY can be found in particular areas of the HF amateur radio bands. Typically the RTTY frequencies, i.e. the frequencies where amateur RTTY transmissions can be found are between 80 and 100 kHz above the bottom end of each band. However this is not true in all cases because the different amateur radio bands have different bandwidths and also the requirements may be slightly different. A rough summary of RTTY frequencies is given in the table below:

Amateur radio band Section of band where RTTY transmissions can be found.
160 metres There is little RTTY activity on this band, but what little there is can usually be found between 1.800 and 1.820 MHz, although in many countries the bottom end of the band is 1810 kHz. It is also necessary to avoid the CW DX window between 1.830 and 1.840 MHz.
80 metres RTTY operation is typically found between about 3.58 and 3.65 MHz although there are variations for some countries including Japan.
40 metres RTTY allocations for 40 metres vary greatly around the world in view of the different amateur radio band allocations. In the USA, RTTY is permitted between 7000 and 7150, although most US activity is between 7080 and 7100. DX activity is often found between 7020 and 7040.
30 metres In view of the restrictions of the band, what activity there is can be found between 10.110 and 10.150 MHz.
20 metres On the 20 metre ham radio band, RTTY activity can be found at the top end of the Morse or CW section of the band between 14.080 and 14.099 MHz. However great care must be exercised when operating at the top end of this section to ensure that no interference is caused to the beacons on 14.100 MHz. It is wise to leave a good margin to ensure that sidebands, etc do not spread onto this frequency.
15 metres On the fifteen metre amateur radio band the RTTY activity can be found between 21.080 and 21.100 MHz.
10 metres Although the ten metre amateur radio band is much wider than any of the other HF bands, the amount of the band in which RTTY transmissions can be found is limited to 28.080 to 28.100 MHz. However this is quite adequate in view of the level of traffic that is found.

RTTY Frequencies

It is found that there is comparatively little RTTY activity on what are termed the "WARC" amateur radio bands at 18 and 24 MHz. However other digimodes or data modes can be found on these bands.

Another element of RTTY operation is that of DX chasing. The 20 metre band is the most popular band for this as it is also the general DX mainstay band for most modes. Most rare stations or DXpeditions operate on or near 14.080 MHz. When activity is high they will often listen between 2 and 10 kHz higher up the band to enable them to receive the stations transmitting to them. When they are operating split frequencies like this they will announce this at the end of their transmissions typically saying "up 2 - 10" or similar.

For more run of the mill contacts, RTTY is an ideal mode for conversational style contacts. With a data rate of around six characters a second this makes it ideal for 'live' chats as most people's typing is not too far off this speed.

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