Amateur Radio’s New Digital Mode, FT8. Let the controversy begin…

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Gads, what a mess

Amateur radio has a new toy to play with, a new digital mode called FT8. The name

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WSJT software in action

comes from the first two letters of the last names of its developers, Franke (K9AN) and Taylor (K1JT), plus the number 8 because it uses 8 frequency shift keying. The new mode has only been generally available since late June or July 2017 when it released as a beta. And it almost immediately took over amateur radio down on the HF bands. I’ve seen estimates that claim that more than half of all contacts on HF are now taking place using FT8.

FT8 is a “weak signal” mode, meaning that you can often successfully decode signals that are down around -20 dB. This is not as good as some of the other digital modes out there such as JT65 which can go as low as -28 dB. But it is much, much faster to make a contact with FT8 than with JT65. Like any communications mode, it has advantages and drawbacks. And like most digital communications modes, it requires a computer interfaced to your transceiver.

I’m always up for something new, and with temperatures hovering down around 0(F) fiddling around with FT8 has seemed like a good way to spend my free time over the last few days. I already had the WSJT software installed on my Win10 computer but hadn’t really had much incentive to do much with it until now.

I won’t go into the details of getting the software installed, configured, hooking things up to your transceiver, etc. There are dozens of tutorials out there. How you set it all up is going to depend on your computer, what transceiver you’re using, sound card, etc. In my case I’m using a Kenwood TS-990 with a RigBlaster Advantage, the same equipment I use for my other digital modes.

Initial setup wasn’t too difficult. The FT8 Operating Guide by Gary Hinson was a big help in getting everything working properly and is highly recommended.

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First FT8 contact

Much to my surprise, I actually got everything working without a great deal of difficulty and after getting set up and calibrated I took a stab at calling CQ on 15 meters and actually made a contact. WA7MPG in Canada BC.

So, what’s the controversy I mentioned in the title of this? Nothing less than (drum roll please) the end of amateur radio! (Imagine spooky voice saying that)

Yes, according to some out there, FT8 heralds the end of amateur radio. Well, true, they said the same thing about SSB, packet radio, repeaters, PSK, digital voice, SSTV, dropping the morse code requirement and, well, pretty much every innovation to come along in the last 100 years or so. But this time it’s really the end! Really!

Oh, brother…

The complaints are due to the fact that FT8 is almost entirely automated. Contacts via FT8 consist of brief, 15 second long exchanges of call sign, grid location, signal strength, and then a 73 to end, all done by the software. A click or two of the mouse is all it takes to start the whole process, and then you sit back and watch the computer do the work.

And this is what they’re complaining about. It takes the “human element” out of the whole thing, they claim. It is just making contacts for the sake of racking up another contact in the log. It isn’t “real” amateur radio. It isn’t real communications. It’s just two computers talking to one another.

The arguments are just silly, of course. Yes, it’s real communications. Information is being exchanged. And as for the other arguments, well, the same things could be said about any digital mode of communications; RTTY, PSK, etc. If you monitor the people who use those modes you’ll quickly find that most “conversations” take the form of pre-written and stored messages or macros that are sent automatically. Heck, if you monitor the CW portions of the bands you’ll find a lot of people are doing the same thing even with CW using decoding software and keyers.

Look, amateur radio includes a huge variety of methods of communications, both analog and digital. Everyone has their own favorite thing to do. But there are a lot of amateur radio operators out there who can’t afford to operate a contest quality station with acres of antennas and ten thousand dollar transceivers and amplifiers, but who would still love to log contacts with other amateur radio operators in far off places. FT8 allows people with modest equipment and antennas to use a weak signal mode to make contacts that they normally would probably never be able to make. It doesn’t encroach on the territory of the SSB or CW portions of the bands.

So why all the complaints? I’m not really sure. FT8 has become wildly popular for a lot of very good reasons, and it isn’t going to go away any time soon. Even better, it’s getting a lot of amateur radio operators who weren’t all that active before to start exploring the hobby once more.

Am I going to use FT8 a lot? Heck, I don’t know. I’m one of those very odd amateur radio operators who doesn’t actually like to talk to people. I’m more into it because of the technology. But I still like to get on the air once in a while, if for no other reason than to test equipment and antennas. FT8 could at least make my contact log look a lot less sparse, so maybe. We’ll see.

 

Author: grouchyfarmer

Yes, I'm a former farmer. Sort of. I'm also an amateur radio operator, amateur astronomer, gardener, maker of furniture, photographer, wanna-be artist, owner of cats, motorcyclist, cook, and I'm trying to learn Japanese for the heck of it.

8 thoughts on “Amateur Radio’s New Digital Mode, FT8. Let the controversy begin…”

    1. Emcomm wouldn’t be able to use it. FT8 is really only good for very brief, pre-programmed messages, i.e. contact information for logging QSOs and not much else. Basically it’s a system designed to exchange just enough information to be able to claim a contact was made, and that’s it. It’s going to mostly be used by people who want to add lots of entries to their logs, get their DXCC, etc. It isn’t, I suppose, what most of us would call “communication”, but everyone has different goals in the hobby, and if their goal is to try to work as many countries or grids or states or whatever as they can with a minimum of fuss, well, FT8 is one way of doing it.

      As for the automated nature of it, yeah, that really begins to become an issue. The WSJT software is specifically set up so some user interaction is necessary. But because the call signs are automatically decoded, and all of the information exchanged is done in a rigid, pre-programmed format, it could theoretically operate entirely without human intervention. Once the initial contact is begun, it goes through the whole exchange automatically.

      Is it legal? In it’s present form as implemented in WSJT, yes. It can’t operate in an unattended mode. However, there’s no reason someone couldn’t come along and write a program or modify the WSJT software to eliminate the need for a person to even be there. As I understand it, completely automatic operation would be legal as long as the station operator is actually in control of the rig. If they were to set up such an automatic system, switch it on, and then just leave to let it go by itself, that wouldn’t be legal.

      There is a lot of debate about it. Some people feel it’s “cheating” somehow for one reason or another. Others don’t like the automated way it handles contacts. Others feel it’s the best thing to ever happen to amateur radio. Certainly there are a heck of a lot of people using it.

      Today was the first time I’ve been able to sit down and actually use it. I was making contacts all over the south west and down into South America and up into Canada. I could hardly put out a CQ without having someone respond, and was doing it on less than 80 watts. So there’s no doubt it works.

      To be honest, once the initial fun of playing with it started to fade, it started to get, well, boring. Find someone sending a CQ on the screen. Double click their call sign. The software starts up, sends a reply. If the person responds, it does the automatic sequence to confirm the contact, then stops. Then start all over again with a new contact. It got dull after a while. All I was doing was scanning the lists of people CQing or sending out a CQ of my own and waiting for a response.

      I think interest in FT8 will begin to fade in a fairly short time except among those who are going after certificates or rare DX contacts.

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      1. Yes I understand. And I need to as a club president. I generally justify the need for digital communications as Emcomm tools during poor band conditions. But if you cannot “ragchew” with it then it is against the ham “spirit.” Although it would help during contesting, we don’t need help we are already Field Day national champs. 🙂

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        1. I’m not sure how good it would be for contesting. Considering how fast some of the contesters work, FT8 would probably be way too slow for them. It would be difficult to make more than 30 or 40 contacts an hour I would think. Maybe 50. Takes at least a minute or more to make a contact.

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      2. Most of EmCom is on VHF/UHF anyway and it has it’s own problems with DMR, D-Star, Yaesu’s Wires, C4FM etc. Me I went DMR – the why – it’s got the least expensive gear out there. Of course not a lot of it in RI but MA and CT have a lot.

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          1. It would be useful. But most of those modes seem to be designed for mainly chasing DX and can’t handle message traffic. PSK is sort of weak signal mode and can do message handling fairly well. I think there’s a better mode that does actual error correction which would be essential but my brain can’t remember what it is now.

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