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.


Amateur Radio Stuff: It’s Alive!

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That spike you see there is the 990 sending a PSK31 signal on 10 meters. It’s working! OMG it’s actually working! Finally! 

The saga of me trying to get operating in digital modes on HF following tearing down my station so I could move in new furniture continues and hopefully it has reached a satisfactory conclusion. But only after a very frustration couple of hours.

I few days ago I commented about the frustrating time I was having trying to get back on the air after putting my radio equipment back together. I primarily use digital modes on HF, usually PSK. And even though everything was set up exactly the same, it wasn’t working. I finally got it working, but only by triggering the transmitter using VOX. This was not ideal, but it did work.

Well, this morning I was going to fire up the equipment and play amateur radio for a while and, well, VOX didn’t work either all of a sudden. And for no apparent reason.


I checked all of the cables. I opened up the RigBlaster and checked for loose wires or bad solder joints and found nothing wrong there. I reloaded drivers, reset all of the settings, tried both Fldigi and Ham Radio Deluxe. Receive worked just fine. The software could control the transceiver just fine. It would even kick the transceiver into transmit mode. But no actual signal was being transmitted. I checked sound levels on the inputs and outputs, checked COM ports and PTT settings… Nothing was working.

After over an hour of this, I was ready to give up. I went through all of the settings one last time, double checked everything, switched the RigBlaster to COM for PTT, clicked the button to do a CQ and…

It worked? It worked??? WTF?

What did I do? How did I fix it? I have absolutely no idea!

Seriously. As far as I can tell all of the settings are exactly the same now as when they were when it wasn’t working. Same drivers, same sound levels, same everything. Only now it works… I must have changed something, but I have no idea what. The infuriating thing is that I must have spent at least four hours over several days trying to figure this out and I still don’t know what was wrong.

Screen Shot 2017-12-24 at 8.56.44 AMOkay, now let’s talk about Ham Radio Deluxe.

Now if you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know I’ve used HRD in the past and did not have a very good opinion of it. It is an extremely ambitious piece of software that tries to do just about everything and anything an amateur radio operator could want in a program. And I had some “issues” as they say. Some of them were pretty serious.

I’m pleased to report that issues I had in the past seem to have been fixed. Customer support seems to be very good. I had a minor issue not long after I bought it, put in a trouble ticket, and got a response back that fixed the problem in just a few hours.

I’m going to keep using it and we’ll see what happens.

Radio Frustrations…

Grrr…. It’s been a very frustrating morning. I recently tore down my entire amateur radio setup in order to bring in a new desk. I have all of the equipment hooked back up and all the radio gear is working, but the software… Arrgghhh…

When I get on the air I generally use one of the digital modes like PSK31. Doing this requires a computer and software to code/decode the digital signals. It’s not that hard to do. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

I have the computer, Rigblaster, transceiver and everything else connected properly. I’m using the exact same computer and software I had running before. All the settings in the software and transceiver are exactly the same. Nothing at all was changed. And before I did the tear down, everything worked just fine and dandy.

Now, though? Of course not. Even though I changed nothing, I can’t transmit for some reason, and it’s driving me nuts. The software settings are the same. The cable connections are the same. The radio equipment is the same. Everything is exactly the same as it was before the tear down.

Only it won’t transmit now for some reason. Spent almost two hours this morning trying to trouble shoot the problem, and have come up with a blank. I’ve checked the software settings, the equipment, everything. Nothing seems to work.

Receive is just fine. I have complete control of the transceiver from the computer. It receives, decodes digital signals, everything. But transmit? Nope.

The transceiver goes into transmit mode. The software seems to be working properly. But there’s no signal actually going to the transceiver.

I remember that I had the exact same problem when I first set this all up some three years ago or so, and it drove me crazy then. And, of course, I can’t remember how I fixed it.


It’s Alive! Sort of

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Spent the better part of the afternoon getting everything set up, all the cables connected and all that, and it’s finally done! Well, mostly. And everything seems to be working.

Mostly because I still don’t have the digital stuff up and running yet. But the TS-990 is up and running, as is the Palstar tuner, the FM-400DR, and even the MFJ amp. So I’m rather pleased with the progress.

Need to permanently mount the grounding buss, that’s the thing way on the left, a big copper bar sitting on top of 2 red insulators. That’s the grounding system for all of the electronics and that needs to have a permanent home rather than perched on top of the amp. Even got the Vibroplex paddle wired up and figured out how to program the TS-990 to deal with it.

Now I just have to get the Rigblaster put in place and connected. That interfaces between the 990 and the computer to assist with computer control of the transceiver and digital communications again.

I didn’t set up the Kenwood 2000, and I’m not sure if I will yet or not. I was using that mostly to monitor signal quality when doing digital work and I don’t really need it.

And I still need to decide what to do with my big boat anchor vacuum tube amp. I got the solid state amp right after I got the AL-82, and never even used the AL-82. I installed the transformer, installed the tubes, hooked it up, turned it on, made sure everything worked, and then got the ALS-1300 amp and used that instead. Probably should just see if I can sell the thing.


Amateur Radio Stuff: What’s Going On

It’s been quite a while since I mentioned mentioned amateur radio, but that’s been because of a lack of time, not a lack of interest. Things back in the radio room are about to get — interesting, as they say. I’m facing a situation that every amateur radio operator does sooner or later, having to tear down everything.

It’s even worse than this looks here. There are two more desks crammed into that room, an old drafting table, three book cases, a work table… It’s bad.

The radio room is, to put it bluntly, a mess. There is equipment piled everywhere, test gear shoved onto book cases or in drawers, amplifiers and radios laying on the floor, piles of printouts of manuals, booklets, stacks of mystery electronics in those anti-static bags, drawers full of connectors and parts, coax jumpers, meters, microphones, tools three full sized computers, three printers, all my Raspberry Pi stuff. There are cables and wires snaking along behind the desks, running into holes in the floor. The operating position is too cramped and awkward. The old drafting table my solid state amp is parked on it is too tall and too small, the desk the radios are on is in poor condition. The list goes on and on.

So everything is going to get torn down, moved out of the room. The room is going to get a good cleaning, etc. Then I start trying to put everything back together.

What sparked this is that MrsGF found a huge old teacher’s desk, made out of solid oak, for $50 at St. Vinnie’s. MrsGF already has one of these and I’d been looking for one for a while. The finish isn’t very good and it has it’s share of scratches and scars, but it is rock solid, lots of big drawers, and is long, wide and deep. That is going to get moved in, some of the old, particle board crap I’ve been using is going to go away before it collapses under the weight of the equipment, and then I can start trying to put everything back together again.

If I can remember how to do it… Meters, jumpers, wires, coax. You’d think I’d know enough to label all that stuff, right? I mean I have a label maker laying right there. But no, of course I didn’t. Sigh…

Anyway, Monday is the day when I start all of this. It’s taken me three years to accumulate this mess and put together that rat’s nest of wiring behind the desks, so this could take a while…


Getting Caught Up With Stuff

Water Tower Stuff


They’re working on the water tower here in town. As someone who gets nervous standing on a step ladder, I can’t imagine how those guys up there do this job. I know they have safety equipment and all that, but still, hanging from a rope a hundred feet up like that? No way I could ever do something like that.

New Computer Stuff

IMG_0566The new computer is up and running beautifully. Very fast, slick computer, but the Nvidia 1050 TI card was damaged in shipment so I’ve been using the motherboard’s onboard Intel graphics. That works, until I do anything that demands any kind of high resolution, high frame rate video, and then everything falls apart real fast. I’ve tried playing Skyrim on it and while it works, the graphics are terrible and the only way to get the frame rate up to acceptable level is to turn the draw distance down so far I can’t even see enemies attacking me from just a couple of hundred feet away. Sigh. Second Life is even worse. Complex scenes with a large variety of different textures don’t render at all, probably because the graphics card doesn’t have enough memory to deal with all of it. The replacement video card is in, but it’s at my eldest son’s house, and he’s gone up north for the weekend, so it’s going to be Monday evening before I can really see what this thing can do.

ES was telling me he had trouble getting the 1050 card, and a quick scrounge around Amazon reinforced that. Every vendor I found on Amazon had disclaimers that the item was out of stock and wouldn’t be in stock for 3, 4 or more days. And that date kept shifting even farther into the future during the past week.

Gardening Stuff

The gardens have been doing pretty good this year, with the occasional glitch. I mentioned we have a fungus attacking the tomatoes because of the very damp summer we’ve had. We aren’t the only one. Almost everyone I’ve talked to has the same problem with their tomatoes this year. One group of pepper plants got pushed over when we had high winds roll through a few weeks ago, and they never recovered very well, alas. Some are doing okay, but others just barely survived. Not a bad thing because we planted way too many pepper plants this year, but still disappointing. Heard the other day that this summer is one of the wettest on record, which doesn’t surprise me at all.

Zenn and the art of electric cars

No, I didn’t misspell “zenn” up there. This has nothing to do with buddhism, but instead the Zenn is actually an electric car. This thing, to be specific…

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“Zenn” stands for “zero emissions no noise” and it was an attempt by a French company to produce an all electric car. And Eldest Son (ES) has one of these — these things.

It’s not really a car, it seems. Technically it’s an LSV, “Low Speed Vehicle”, a classification of vehicle that was created by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration because they were bored or had too much to drink at lunch or something, because while LSV’s are allowed on the street, they are exempt from most of the safety standards real automobiles and trucks have to follow and these things are about as safe on the street as, oh, a tin foil and tar paper shack is in a tornado.

LSVs are restricted to a top speed of 25 mph, and can only legally travel on streets where the speed limit is 30 mph or slower. (I’m told there is a way to hack the computer on this thing to boost it’s speed up to a mind numbing 32 mph! Ooo!)

Now electric cars are getting a lot of press these days, things like the hybrids, all electrics like the sporty, high tech Tesla, the Leaf, etc. And they are fine vehicles, some of them are even outstanding vehicles.

The Zenn is not an outstanding vehicle. The body and chassis was made in France, shipped to Canada where, with the help of trained beavers, they shoveled a 30 hp electric motor into the thing. Well, okay, so they probably didn’t use trained beavers. But I do suspect moose were involved because Canadians enjoy messing with us down here.

The Zenn had a whopping 30 hp engine, it’s top speed was limited to 25 mph. You could squeeze 2 adults into it with some groceries. It ran on sealed lead acid batteries that gave a range of about 30 miles or so, less if you had a passenger or did something silly like, oh, turning on the lights or radio. Much much less if you did something even more silly like turn on the heater or air conditioning. (Note: the owner’s manual states that the car’s heater is not intended to actually, well, heat anything. It’s there only to defrost the windows.)

Still, for it’s intended purpose, which was basically driving five or eight miles to your job or running to the local grocery store to get your organic free range humanely harvested almond milk for your morning bowl of kelp flakes, it would work.

But there were a lot of problems with the Zenn. The biggest of which is that it was, well, pretty much crap.

I drove this thing yesterday, and after I stopped laughing because I couldn’t believe they actually allowed this thing on the road, I realized that it is a bloody horrible car, and the only thing that surprised me about it was that it took nine years for the company to go out of business.

The ride is — well, awful. Every expansion joint, every dip, every stone, every defect in the pavement, every pile of squirrel poo, is transmitted directly from the rock hard tires and even harder suspension directly to the base of your spine. It handles just like a golf cart, with uncertain steering, odd twitches and peculiar vibrations adding to the excitement of the experience.

And that whole “no noise” thing they talk about? Uh, well, no. Okay, standing on the sidewalk watching it go by you don’t hear anything. That’s because they’ve funneled all of the noise into the interior of the car. My Corvette with the racing exhaust and headers and the stereo cranked up is quieter inside than this thing.

Then there’s the brakes. As in what brakes… It has a regenerative braking system, they claim. When you step on the brake, it goes into regenerative mode, supposedly taking the energy of your forward momentum and magically turning it back into electricity that gets dumped into the battery and slowing you down. So you put your foot on the brake and — nothing happens. At all. Rapidly going into panic mode, you push harder, and harder and harder, and still nothing happens. Until finally you put your foot all the way to the floor and the real brakes kick in and the car comes to an abrupt halt and you find out why they put seat belts in it, to keep you from going through the windshield when you stop.

You laugh a lot when you drive this thing. You have to because it keeps you from screaming in terror.

Let’s look at some of the other high points of this car.

It’s plastic. All of it. Plastic body, plastic, well, everything. Even the glass isn’t really glass, it’s plastic. The windshield is glass, but the side windows and rear windows are plastic, and not very good plastic, either.

As noted above, the heater doesn’t actually heat. It’s just there to defrost the windows. And the air conditioner, well, it sort of works? Kinda? Maybe? If you’re willing to put up with your range dropping by at least half.

Charge time isn’t utterly horrible. They claim it will recharge the batteries to 80% in about 4 hours, with a full charge taking 8 hours.

Oh, they would have sold you a fast charger that would give you a full charge in an hour.

For $9,000.

Yeah, $9,000 for a battery charger…

So, you ask, what did they sell this thing for? Five, six grand, maybe?

Uh, no. Try (cough cough) $18,000.

With the optional quick charger, this sucker would set you back $27,000. For a car with a top speed of 25 mph and a range of 30 miles, which is ridiculously uncomfortable to ride in, terrifying to drive, and which would crumple like a piece of paper if it were even bumped by a real road vehicle because it meets virtually zero highway safety standards.

Gee, I wonder why the company shut down…

ES picked this thing up for next to nothing. It needed new batteries, work on the electronics and other things. I figure he’s got about $2,000 invested in this vehicle so it isn’t like he’s stuck a fortune into it, and he’s using it every day. He commutes to work with it every day. And I have to admit that it’s cheap. He’s crunched some numbers and figures that as far as energy usage is concerned, he’d have to have a car that got at least 140 mpg to match the cost of the energy he uses with the Zenn.

And there’s another benefit as well. The sheer terror of driving this thing in traffic is better for waking you up than an espresso I.V.