Using Speaking Alphabet to Enter the Net

DECEMBER 13, 2020

Using FM, especially when aided by high-visibility repeater systems, it's easy to succumb to temptation to speak letters as if we're face-to-face with the listener. Some argue that we should be operating with "efficiency," and since we're a local net where "everyone knows each other," the use of the ITU speaking alphabet (also known as "phonetics") needlessly slows down the net.

There are times when "abbreviated procedure," as it's known in the world of government two-way radio services (e.g., ACP 125) is appropriate, and that's much more usual on FM. Before starting such shortcuts, however, the communication circuit needs to be established correctly, and that means when entering the net, stations need to be clear and unambiguous.

Establishing an unambiguous circuit also means that net control needs to "read back" the callsign of the station entering the net clearly and unambiguously. We had three examples of why this was important on last night's session of COTN.

  1. Ralph KB8BKA entered the net exactly correctly. When I (as net control) transposed two of his characters, I turned it into a suffix for another known station, and then I read it back as I had it, which is to say, wrong.

  2. Kevin KJ8AM likewise entered the net correctly. In that case, I dropped the A from his callsign.

  3. Another station entered the net with a poor signal where audio struggled to get through the repeater. In that case I asked the station to enter the net using the speaking alphabet, and even then I wasn't sure I had it right. I asked for confirmation with the read-back (which I had wrong), then on the third try, got it right.

I'm an experienced operator but I was not working in ideal condition and that's a big place where mistakes happen. Sorry for the mix-ups, but good procedure helps us to get them corrected and to get on with the business.

Making Corrections

Sometimes people are hesitant to correct someone else, as it might feel needlessly assertive or even rude. It's not rude to correct an error. There are ways to make anything rude, but he act of the correction is not itself rude. What's the best way?

First of all, net control needs to use proper procedure, using read back with the speaking alphabet to ensure correctness, even if the station entering the net did not. This will afford the opportunity for correction if needed. This also helps those who are new to the net, or those who are listening to learn the procedure (and maybe those who aren't yet licensed) to be sure to get it right. I still have my logs from 2012 when I was listening to COTN before I was licensed and have a lot of callsigns with "...A8..." written as "8" because they weren't read clearly. Logs later have have "...A8...(?)" in them, as I thought I might have heard the A, before finally getting it right. This is a training net and it's not good for us to make things difficult for new operators!

Normal procedure to break the net is at an appropriate moment, such as when net control calls for stations to enter the net, for traffic listings, etc. To break the net, the operator should speak the station's callsign. Sometimes people will say "correction." Either way, it's a very short transmission, which is important because other stations might be also transmitting at the same time, and the longer each transmission, the greater the chance of a "double," where one or both stations transmitting fails to get through. After all stations have finished giving callsigns, net control will come back to each to get details.

Let's use the example from last night's net. If Ralph hears me mix up his callsign on my read-back, he just waits for me to call for stations again. He might speak his callsign and add "correction," e.g., "kilo bravo eight bravo kilo alfa correction." I'd hear the callsign, with "correction," I'd know that something isn't right, and I wouldn't just log a new station into the net. When I call back, the report is easy, "This is kilo bravo eight bravo kilo alfa. I heard kilo bravo eight kilo bravo alfa." The clear and unambiguous transmission allows me to see what I've logged while I'm hearing him speak what I should have. I quickly see the error, make the correction, and we keep going.

Efficiency and Accuracy

An accurate exchange of information that's inefficient can be exhausting. An efficient exchange that damages the message is useless. We strive for both goals in message handling, which is why we use the procedures we do.

Once stations have joined the net and we start working we can use abbreviated procedure under good conditions. We need to establish the net first, though, and be sure that the conditions are good enough to allow that to work without sacrificing accuracy, and to be sure we don't have conditions that will make things confusing, like stations KD8TTE and KB8TTE or a KD8TTE and KD8TTD, where if spoken through the repeater, they could be confused.

Even after the net is established and abbreviated procedure is in use, there are still times for using the full procedure or full speaking alphabet. For example, if I tell W6RRI to take another station to a side channel for movement of a message, I shouldn't assume that W6RRI heard every other station and got the callsign clear. In that case, my instruction would be "W6RRI - this is KD8TTE - take kilo juliet eight alfa mike to seven-six, take thru, 1." Since W6RRI is in the net and listening, use of the callsign is enough to get the operator's attention, and the operator had to talk to my station, so we know that we've got a good connection there. My instruction is giving new information, though, so I use the speaking alphabet to give the full callsign of the other station, and give the channel (it's unambiguous, as our secondary 2m frequency is documented in our SOP), and the traffic.

Another time that I use the speaking alphabet is in the voice transmission of traffic. Even if I'm sending the traffic to the station in the addressee, I voice it phonetically, e.g., "whiskey six romeo romeo india." Some say that it's completely unnecessary to do that and it gets in the way of efficiency. I argue that necessary or not, its benefits are minimal. In the case of W6RRI, we turn seven syllables into 12, not much of an expansion. Saving ourselves five syllables so that we can speak that much faster than the receiving station can copy is a poor optimization, especially considering that we give up (a) practice in the use of the speaking alphabet, which we need to be comfortable and proficient in using, especially if we graduate to HF operation, and (b) clarity for new operators who may be following along for training.

As we've written about elsewhere, these procedures exist to avoid errors in message routing or worse.

Procedures Make the Team Work Well

Overall, great job last night. We had 11 stations in the net from six counties. We had traffic coming in from other nets, traffic going out to other nets, and traffic moved from one station to another in the net. Using two channels and voice procedure, we moved 15 messages in 34 minutes. Thanks to everyone who joined last night's or other sessions of COTN to make it an effective net, ready for service and to train new operators.