Skimmer, the Rules and You

Peter Smith, N4ZR – A Special to Radio-Sport.net

When Jeff, N1SNB asked me to write something for the reincarnated radio-sport.net about CW Skimmer and the evolution of contest rules, at first I thought “everyone knows that.”  Then it dawned on me that after 5 years of Skimmer and the RBN, I’m still running into people who ask, “What is this RBN thing?”


It was late 2007 when Alex, VE3NEA released the first CW Skimmer for beta test, and by the spring of 2008, Felipe, PY1NB and I had arrived at the basic idea for the Reverse Beacon Network.  The furor that spring and summer was intense.  Contesters quickly divided into 3 camps – those adamantly opposed to any use of Skimmer, those who saw it as just another technology, like DSP or logging software, and those who  saw the need for  a middle ground.    There was an urgency to the discussion because the Fall contest season was just around the corner.

Happily, the ARRL Contest Advisory Committee and the CQWW Contest Committee more or less independently arrived at a common conclusion – put CW Skimmer and any other wide-band multi-stream CW-decoding software (though no other has emerged) in the class with other forms of assistance that go beyond the mental skills and physical endurance of a single operator – Single Op Assisted.

As it happened, though this was to some extent accidental, the new consensus fit well with the evolution of the Reverse Beacon Network.  Initially it was planned as an entity entirely separate from the traditional DX cluster spotting network, because we were concerned that the flood of RBN spots – roughly 100 for every conventional spot – would alienate hams worldwide.  Fortunately, our fears were baseless.  Authors of DX cluster software quickly made provision for handling CW Skimmer spots, allowing users to decide whether to get them and how to filter them.  Meanwhile, the leading logging software authors also adapted quickly – I had the pleasure of watching Tom, N1MM and the other programmers on the N1MM Logger team quickly evolve the world’s most-used contest logger to handle the anticipated volume from the biggest contests, setting a foundation that has basically remained to this day.  I’m sure the Win-Test and Writelog programmers went through similar processes.

So where are we today?  You can count on the CQ-Contest reflector erupting periodically with fulminations against use of CW Skimmer and the RBN, but basically, both of them have become part of every Assisted operator’s toolbox.   Recently, people have begun hinting that the technology has become so accessible, and hard to detect in use, that contest sponsors should give up maintaining separate categories for assisted and unassisted single ops, modeling on WAE’s decision, taken long before Skimmer came along.  For whatever it’s worth, I think the distinction should remain, and operators who choose not to use any form of spotting assistance should have their own class.

Is it really that much different from sailboat racing?  Skeptics point out that there’s no practical way to police use of spotting assistance or other more egregious forms of cheating, so that, pursuing the metaphor,  outboard motors will become a part of every sailor’s kit.  I feel strongly that it doesn’t have to be this way – the most effective tool against cheating is withdrawing the respect of their peers from those who cheat.  Technology can help catch cheaters too, but that’s a story for another day.

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