Five by five
Five by five is the best of 25 possible subjective responses used to describe the quality of communications, specifically the signal-to-noise ratio. As receiving stations move away from an analog radio transmitting site, the signal strength decreases gradually, causing the relative noise level to increase. The signal becomes increasingly difficult to understand until it can no longer be heard as anything other than static.
The term has its origins in the Q code used for commercial radiotelegraph communication, and later adopted by other radio services, especially amateur radio. The first number is the answer to the question "How do you receive me?" (Q code QRK), typically answered with "I am receiving (1–5)" where 1 is unreadable and 5 is perfect. The second number is the answer to the question "What is the strength of my signals?" (Q code QSA), typically answered with "The strength of your signals is ... (1 to 5).". "5 by 5" was the answer to the QRK/QSA questions to indicate the best quality signal. "5 by 5" being the best quality was applied to other things by analogy.
In voice procedure (the techniques used to facilitate spoken communication over two-way radios) a transmitting station may request a report on the subjective quality of signal they are broadcasting. In the military of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries, and other organizations, the signal quality is reported on two scales: the first is for signal strength, and the second for signal clarity or "readability." Both these scales range from one to five, where one is the worst and five is the best. The listening station reports these numbers separated with the word "by". "Five by five" therefore means a signal that has excellent strength and perfect clarity — the most understandable signal possible.
"Five by five" (occasionally written "'5 by 5", "five-by-five", "5 × 5", "5-by-5" or even just "Fives"), by extension, has come to mean "I understand you perfectly" in situations other than radio communication. Further shortened forms are "five by", "fivers" and "fifers". Post-World War II, the phrase "loud and clear" entered common usage with a similar meaning.
The term is arguably derived from the signal quality rating systems such as shortwave's SINPO code or amateur radio's RST code. Given that this slang spans not only generations but also a spectrum of communications technologies (spark-gap transmitters, shortwave, radio telephone, citizen's band (CB) radio, cellular among others) and organizations (hobbyist, commercial, military), there are many interpretations in popular misuse.
This reporting system is not appropriate for rating digital signal quality. This is because digital signals have fairly consistent quality as the receiver moves away from the transmitter until reaching a threshold distance. At this threshold point, sometimes called the "digital cliff," the signal quality takes a severe drop and is lost. This difference in reception reduces attempts to ascertain subjective signal quality to simply asking, "Can you hear me now?" or similar. (The only possible response is "yes"; otherwise, there is just dead air.) This sudden signal drop was also one of the primary arguments of analog proponents against moving to digital systems. However, the "five bars" displayed on many cell phones does directly correlate to the signal strength rating.
Use in Media
"5 by 5" is used in the 1942 movie "Flying Tigers" during a radio check. One of the pilot responds R5S5 indicating Readability is 5, Strength is 5.
A pilot in the movie Aliens uses the phrase "we are in the pipe; five by five".
The above quote was later used in the StarCraft video game series, by air units confirming orders.
The phrase is also used in the movie Clear and Present Danger during a radio check by John Clark to his special ops team during their covert operations in Columbia.
- Steven Stoker Beyond Aberdeen: A Bluejacket Diary 0595337112 2004 "Five by Five—Loud and clear (based on a system of indicating a radio's signal strength on a one to five scale)."
- Imel & Hart 2003, p.38.
- Andromeda Season 2 Episode 6 "All Too Human"
- Imel. Kathy J. & Hart, James W., P.E. Understanding Wireless Communications in Public Safety: A Guidebook to Technology, Issues, Planning, and Management for the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (Rocky Mountain Region) Plain text
- Ham Radio RST Signal Reporting System for CW Operation, by Charlie Bautsch, W5AM
- FM 24-6 Radio Operators Manual, US Army 1945, p17-18