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Is CW Dying?

Is Morse Code Dead?

Especially with the recent ITU Conference decision to not require CW testing on an international treaty basis, there is lots of talk about CW having died. It seems quite often that those proclaiming its death have a personal hatred of Morse code and the effort required to learn it. Unfortunately CW is a subject that cuts deep into the hearts of many hams, either pro or con and evokes strong emotions. In an effort to cut through the emotions, I have assembled some actual data to try and convince myself if CW is really dying or not. This page is the result of my investigation.

Let me first state that I like CW and use it quite a bit, but I also use voice and the digital modes. I don't believe that dropping CW testing will kill ham radio as we know it. I also believe that before jumping to conclusions, one should investigate the facts and the data available. That is what I am documenting here.



Based on the data presented here, it appears premature to announce the death of Morse code on the amateur HF bands. Instead, there may be an increase in activity in recent years. Based on various data sources, it appears that the overall activity on the ham bands is close to evenly split between SSB and CW, with digital modes accounting for less than 10% of the total activity. Overall SSB does enjoy about 5% more activity than CW, but that is not an overwhelming percentage.


Based on the analyses presented below, it appears that the CW issue in ham radio is often based on emotion rather than fact. The data do not indicate an overall decrease in CW activity. The argument being used by CW opponents that CW is dying seems to have no merit. On the other hand, the argument that relaxing the CW test requirement to 5 WPM would lead to the destruction of the Amateur Radio Service does not seem to have merit, either. The data show that when the code testing was relaxed in 2000, CW activity remained stable in the following years. Therefore, if more newer hams started using SSB, the same percentage also started using CW. I interpret that to mean that most hams will use the mode that meets their objectives, whether it is CW or not. Of course, there will always be vocal minorities in both the pro and con CW camps.

Therefore I would recommend that the CW testing requirement be relaxed for access to the HF bands. However, CW testing should not be totally dropped, since there is still a lot of CW activity. I recommend that CW testing be treated as an operating mode for the General Class license to ensure that all amateurs are familiar with CW, but it should not be used as a barrier. Taking the data interpretation one step further, I would conclude that those with access to the HF bands will discover what the DXers already know: CW works and if you want to seriously work DX, then the use of CW is useful.



It's not easy to find actual data on the operating habits of hams, since we are such a diverse group with a wide variety of personal interests, family situations, work requirements, etc. We also span a wide age and experience range and, as in all facets of human social behavior, tend to stick around with friends who we like and share ideas with. Thus, looking at my operating habits or talking to my friends would not be objective ways to evaluate the issue of whether CW is dying or not.


It suddenly dawned on me that there is a large database of objective information on operating habits freely available. It's called the DX Cluster Database, which is maintained by several goups. The largest appears to be sponsored by the DX Summit. The database consists of archived DX spots posted by operators all over the world to notify others that particular DX stations are active. Avid DXers routinely monitor and post to the DX cluster system and these posts are archived. This information has the added advantage of being unbiased, in that the data was not collected to support a pro or anti CW viewpoint, but reflectes the actual operating habits of hams who want to work DX.

In order to use this data source, I made a series of queries to the data archive for each band and years from 1997 to 2002. The database limits query results to 10,000 records, so the data used represents the last 10,000 spots of each year. Once the data was gathered, by using the frequency sub-bands, it was possible to sort the information into CW, SSB and digital (DIG) modes. With data for all of the bands, then we can look at the trends and see if there is evidence that CW is dying as an active mode on the ham bands. Of course the 30m band does not permit SSB operation and the 60m band does not permit CW operation, so these bands were excluded from the evaluation. In addition, since the 40m band is a mess with differing frequency allocations in various parts of the world, 40m was also excluded.

A second source of information is available on the ARRL web site in the form of two surveys conducted in March 2003 and June 2002. Both of these surveys asked questions on CW usage on the ham bands. Of course, it can be pointed out that the surveys only reflect the habits of the people who access the ARRL web page and may not be applicable to all hams. That's why we need to do some comparisons and validate the survey results against other data using unbiased statistics.



As a cross check on the validity of the data, the ARRL posted on it's web site 2 different surveys relating directly to CW operation. In one survey, the question was asked What percentage of your operating time is spent using CW?. Of 3073 respondents, 44.0% said that CW was their primary operating mode, while 32.6% said they did not use CW at all. Based on the data in the survey a weighted average of 40.7% CW operating time would be expected. Of major interest is the extremely skewed distribution of results. It seems that lots of hams use mainly CW and lots of hams hardly use CW and the percentage of hams who use CW a little bit is pretty small. It seems that people either love or hate CW and not much in between.


The second survey asked the question What’s your average CW speed during casual conversation?. Of 2894 respondents, 31.2% said they didn't use CW, which compares fairly well with the results of the previous survey's non-CW users. Based on the number of respondents, a 90% confidence interval of the estimated percentages would be about 1.7%, so there is no statistically significant difference between the 2 responses of 32.6% and 31.2% for non-CW users. Interestingly, the majority of people responding who use CW indicated that their preferred CW speed is in the 10 - 20 WPM range, not too fast or too slow and in the range required under the old General class CW exam of 13 WPM.

Asuming that the respondents in the first survey based their answers on operating during 2002 (the survey was conducted in March 2003), then we would expect that the DX spots should reflect the operating practices, if the results are valid. In fact the DX spot data base for all of the surveyed bands shows that of 45,328 DX spots during the end of 2002, 19,564 or 43.2% were in the CW sub-bands. Based on the number of spots, a 90% confidence interval of about 1% is expected. Comparing the 43.2% of the spots with the 40.7% CW operating time from the first survey shows a difference of 2.5%. Indeed, using the overall statistics for 1997 to July 2003, the percentage of CW spots is 42.9%, representing a difference of only 2.1%. Due to the subjective nature of the survey question, it appears that the statistics are fairly consistent. Overall, a little over 40% of the total amateur operating time in 2002 appears to have been on CW.



Year% CW% SSB% DIG
1997 38.7 56.7 4.6
1998 42.1 52.2 5.8
1999 45.0 49.7 5.3
2000 43.1 51.1 5.8
2001 45.0 48.7 6.3
2002 43.2 48.5 8.4
2003 43.7 48.8 7.5


The data abstracted from the DX Cluster database is shown in the table and figure above. Note that the overall SSB activity declined during the period 1997 to 1999, while CW activity increased. Since that time both SSB and CW activity has remained essentially flat showing no major trends. Meanwhile, the relative digital activity has shown a slow but steady increase. Overall, SSB does seem to be more popular than CW, but only by about 5%. During the last 3 years, SSB has accounted for less than half of the DX spots.

Thus, the overall statistics do not seem to support the conjecture that CW is dying and that the CW sub-bands are dead. In fact, there is almost as much DX activity on CW as on SSB. Since the digital modes are taken out of part of the CW sub-bands, it can be seen that for at least the last 3 years, more than half of the DX activity has been in the CW/digital sub-bands, not on SSB.

The following sections will show the activity by band, starting with the traditional 10, 15, 20 and 80 meter bands, then the 12 and 17 meter WARC bands. I think we'll find a couple of surprises that go against "common knowledge" on both sides of the code vs. no-code fence.


10 Meters

The DX spot activity for the 10 meter band is shown in the graph. Note that there are several fluctuations in the data points, however, the long term trends clearly show a decline in the SSB activity with a corresponding increase in both CW and digital activity. This result is surprising, since 10 meters is where the Novice and Technician Plus Code licensees have HF voice privileges. I would have thought that the voice activity of these operators would indicate an increase in SSB activity, but the statistical trends do not bear that out. Instead, one could hypothesize that these licensees are abandoning SSB for both CW and the digital modes. Note that the overall CW activity was only about 30%, but in 2003 has come fairly close to the overall 40% activity level estimated from other considerations.



15 Meters

The DX spot activity for the 15 meter band is shown in the graph. Note that the long term trends clearly show a decline in the SSB activity with a corresponding increase in both CW and digital activity. The incomplete data for 2003 shows an upswing in SSB activity and a slight decline in CW activity. However, the majority of the difference in activity appears to be at the expense of the digital modes. It will be interesting to see whether this trend continues. Once again, overall CW activity appears to be close to the previously estimated 40%.



20 Meters

The DX spot activity for the 20 meter band is shown in the graph. Note that the long term trends clearly do not show a decline in the SSB activity. Over the last 3 years, however, there has been somewhat of a decline in SSB activity. The incomplete data for 2003 may indicate that SSB activity is on the rise, but the decline in CW activity is minimal, with the biggest decrease being the digital modes. Once again, it appears that CW activity recently has been fairly stable at around 30% within the confidence intervals of the data.


Since 20 meters is considered the work-horse band for both DX and the digital modes, it will be interesting to see how the trends continue. This band seems to have the highest overall DX activity and the most digital activity. The level of CW activity does seem to be less than the 40% estimated from other sources.



80 Meters

The DX spot activity for the 80 meter band is shown in the graph. Note that the long term trends clearly show a decline in the SSB activity. In additon, except for 1997 and 1998, there has been more CW activity than SSB activity. The increase in CW activity from 1998 to 2001 is clearly offest by diminished SSB activity, with the small amount of digital activity also declining. The incomplete data for 2003 indicate that SSB activity is flat, and the decline in CW activity is replaced by digital activity. For this band the CW actvity is significantly higher than the 40% estimate from other sources.




12 Meters

The DX spot activity for the 12 meter band is shown in the graph. Note that the long term trends are hard to define and do not appear to be statistically significant. However, except for 1997, there has been more CW activity than SSB activity. The data from 1999 to 2002 may indicate a slight drop in CW activity, but the incomplete 2003 data may indicate a rebound. With over 50% of the activity being on CW, the CW activity is significantly above the estimated 40% level. Unfortunately, the data also shows that digital activity is almost non-existant.




17 Meters

The DX spot activity for the 17 meter band is shown in the graph. Note that there does not appear to be any long term trend and that activity on all modes has stayed fairly flat. However, for all years there has been more CW activity than SSB activity. The incomplete 2003 data may indicate an increase in the relative amount of CW activity, however, we will have to wait to see how the trend develops. With over 50% of the activity being on CW, the CW activity is significantly above the estimated 40% level. Unfortunately, the data also shows that digital activity is essentially non-existant.



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