If you’ve read my field reports or watched any of my activation videos, you’ve no doubt noticed that I rely very heavily on automatic spotting via the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) for both POTA (Parks On The Air) and SOTA (Summits On The Air).
I’ve gotten a lot of questions about how to use the RBN functionality for both SOTA and POTA, so thought I might clarify (in very basic terms) how the system works and how you can take advantage of it.
Note: CW and Digital Modes Only
Keep in mind that Reverse Beacon Network spotting only works with CW and some digital modes.
I, personally, have only used it for CW activations.
The system does not currently recognize voice transmissions (although as voice recognition becomes more accessible and effective, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if something like this is offered in the near future!).
Here’s how the RBN works
The RBN is essentially fueled by a global network of volunteer receiving and decoding stations that feed information into the RBN spotting system. This system is running 24/7 and recording spots constantly.
If I hopped on the air right now and made at least two generic CQ calls with my callsign–barring any abnormal propagation–the RBN would no doubt collect my information and spot me automatically to their network.
Click here, for example, to see all of the times the RBN has spotted me recently. Click here to search for your own callsign on the RBN.
To my knowledge, the RBN is a completely independent resource and not directly affiliated with POTA, SOTA, WWFF, or any other contest or activity.
That said, the RBN allows those external spotting systems a means of “scraping” RBN data in real time to create their own active spots. Genius!
Important: Scheduling your activation is required
In order for the POTA or SOTA spotting systems to know when to look for your information on the RBN and where you will be operating, you must schedule or “add” your activation with POTA or create an alert with SOTA.
I will describe how to schedule both your POTA and SOTA activations below.
To be clear: if you do not schedule your activation with the POTA or SOTA systems, and you can’t otherwise self-spot, the system will not auto-spot you via the RBN. Period.
I’ve had a number of activators write to me because they thought the RBN wasn’t logging their spots, but in each case it turned out that the activator never scheduled the activation. They simply assumed that having an account on the POTA or SOTA website would be enough to get auto-spotted.
If you don’t schedule your POTA/SOTA activation, the RBN will still find you and spot you, but the POTA/SOTA spotting networks will not know that you’re doing an activation and, thus, won’t look for your callsign and scrape your spot information from the RBN.
Think of it a different way: if the POTA and SOTA networks spotted you without requiring a scheduled activation, you would get a spot each and every time you hop on the air and call CQ. That, and the system wouldn’t know what park or summit you were activating.
Funny POTA auto-spot story…
A couple years ago, I was browsing one of the POTA discussion groups and I remember a very upset activator who was complaining because every time he called CQ for causal non-POTA ragchews, POTA hunters started replying to him instantly with standard POTA exchanges.
He complained that he didn’t want to play POTA constantly, he wanted to ragchew a bit while on vacation and camping at a national park. He asked for people to stop assuming he was calling CQ for POTA.
Turns out, he had scheduled his entire week of camping at the park as one scheduled POTA activation!
The POTA system was simply doing its thing and constantly checking the RBN for his callsign any time he called CQ assuming that he was activating the park for the entire week continuously.
Had this operator scheduled multiple specific activation times during his camping trip (say, weekday evenings from 19:00 – 22:00), the system wouldn’t have constantly auto-spotted him on the POTA page.
I’ve actually used multi-day POTA scheduling to my advantage. Last year, while on a camping and hiking trip in Nantahala National Forest (see photo above), I scheduled an activation to cover the entire weekend. This was fantastic because I had no other means of spotting myself as there was no mobile phone coverage or internet there. No matter what time of day, I could simply hook up the radio, call CQ POTA a couple of times and the system spotted me.
What a luxury!
I should note here that the POTA spots page allows for multi-day “blanket” scheduled park activations, SOTA does not. You create an alert on the SOTA network and it starts looking for you approximately
45 minutes before the scheduled time and up to a couple hours after. (Don’t quote me on the exact times, and feel free to correct me) 1 hour before and 3 hours after the announced activation time [thanks, W7MDN!]. With SOTA, you don’t create your own activation time window as you do in POTA. The SOTA system assumes (rightfully so) that you’re not going to spend multiple days in a summit’s activation zone.
Update: You can, indeed, have some control over the window of time the SOTA system will look to the RBN to spot you. You’ll find details in the SOTA section below.
How to schedule a POTA activation for RBN auto-spotting
1.) Simply go to the POTA.app website, click on the menu in the upper left corner of the window, and choose the “Add Activation” menu item:
2.) Next, fill in the required information: park reference, start date, start time, end date, and end time. It isn’t required, but you can also note frequencies and any comments. Save the activation and that’s it!
3.) When you’re at the park and ready to start the activation, simply send a standard CQ POTA message like “CQ POTA de K4SWL K4SWL”. I find that the RBN typically spots me within two or three CQ calls and the POTA spots page auto-spots me within a minute of calling CQ.
The format of your CQ isn’t important–in fact, the RBN isn’t looking for anything other than “CQ” and your callsign. The POTA page scrapes the callsign, frequency, and signal report then creates a spot for you.
Here’s the cool thing: once you’ve been spotted (even if not scheduled–say, a friend spots you) the POTA spots page will then track you via the RBN. This means if you change frequencies (or QSY), it’ll automatically spot the new frequency for you. It always has your back!
Now let’s take a look at SOTA which is very similar…
How to schedule a SOTA activation for RBN auto-spotting
1.) Go to the SOTA Watch page and click on the Alerts Tab:
2.) Next, find the “Add Alert” button and click that:
3.) Simply fill in the details of your activation and save the alert. Again, since SOTA doesn’t allow for a “blanket” activation time range, you’ll want to be as accurate as possible.
4.) When you’re on the summit and ready to start the activation, simply send your CQ a few times and you’ll get spotted! It works the same way as the POTA system and typically spots me within a minute of calling CQ.
UPDATE: Many thanks to Richard and Todd (KH2TJ) who note that there is a way to control the SOTA RBN window. Richard notes that one can modify the RBN window by using S-h and S+h in the SOTA Alert comments where h is the number of hours you wish to offset.
For example: Adding 1500 S-2 S+2 in the Alert comments will spot based on the RBN from 1300 to 1700 UTC.
More details can be found in this FAQ.
I have not used RBN spotting for digital modes during POTA or SOTA, but the process is exactly the same. Simply schedule the activation and you’re good to go.
So often, I’m at parks and summits without mobile phone or internet access for self-spotting.
Speaking from experience, if you’re not spotted in POTA and SOTA, it’s as if you don’t exist. You’ll be relying someone happening upon you on the bands, working you, then spotting you to the appropriate system.
Keep in mind that the RBN spotting system isn’t perfect. Though very rare these days, the link between the various spots pages and the RBN has been known to temporarily fail. It’s for this reason I always share my scheduled activations with a group of POTA/SOTA friends–we all watch out for each other in case things don’t go according to plan.
I hope you found this short tutorial helpful. Feel free to comment with any points I overlooked or any corrections!
As always, I’d like to send a special thanks to those of you who have been supporting the site and channel through Patreon and the Coffee Fund. While certainly not a requirement as my content will always be free, I really appreciate the support.
I hope you get a chance to test RBN auto-spotting soon at a park or summit near you!