Catching Up with Ham Radio Stuff : The Move and A New (sort of) digital mode

The Move, shifting all of my radio and computer gear to the basement, is now officially underway. Well, sort of. Nothing has actually gotten moved yet. I’m still in the process of cleaning out the area I want to use and getting it ready. But the handwriting is on the wall. MrsGF is retiring at the end of Feb and if I don’t move out of our shared office we’re going to drive each other nuts.

For years now my “radio shack” has been shoved into a corner of the office MrsGF and I share, with all my equipment perched on a single desk and a small filing cabinet. It’s worked, but it has been awkward and cramped. There just isn’t enough room. I have a work table in that room as well where, theoretically, at least, I was going to be able to tinker with electronics and repair equipment. But because the room is also our office, what actually happened was the table ended up with about ten inches of papers, books, files and I don’t know what all else on top of my tools and test gear. To make things even more cramped, I also have a big iMac, various graphics tablets, several RAID arrays, three printers, including a massive professional photo printer, well, you get the idea. Then add in MrsGF’s desk, computer and all her stuff, and something has to go, and that’s me.

Even that wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for my own psychological quirks. I simply cannot concentrate if there is someone behind me. I’ve always been that way. Her desk and computers are directly behind me and when she’s back there I can’t concentrate on anything. I can’t read, can’t write, can’t work on photos or drawings. I also need a fairly quiet environment to get anything done. Soft music is okay, but the sound of someone behind me moving, coughing, talking on the phone… well, I just can’t deal with it.

So between the crowded environment up here and my own personal issues, well, I need to move this whole operation if MrsGF and I are going to stick together for another 40 years or so…

Unfortunately, the area I want to move into looks like this.

This is what your basement will end up looking like if both you and your son are A) packrats, and B) computer/electronics geeks.

This used to be Eldest Son’s workshop in the basement when he lived with us years ago, and represents years worth of accumulated computers, parts, hard drives, terminals, networking gear and I don’t know what all else that he neglected to take with him when he moved out years ago. We never bothered with it before because I didn’t have any use for this space. And now that I do, the first order of business is getting all this stuff out of there, and that’s what I’ve been working on.

Some progress has been made, though! Really.

That bench there used to be covered three feet deep in stuff, so just getting that cleared out is a major victory. I’m hoping that by the end of the week I’ll have enough stuff shifted so I can start painting the walls. I’ll keep that work bench but put a nice sheet of plywood or something similar over the top of it to make a smooth work surface. The radios and computers will go here eventually. We’ll also have to rewire the whole area, adding a half dozen or so 120V outlets and at least one 220V outlet (maybe two) for the amplifiers.

There is another work bench behind me and to the left, about the same size, that is going to be where I’ll have my actual workbench with my meters and test gear, soldering equipment, tools, etc.

Anyway, that’s what’s been going on here of late. I’m sure MrsGF is eagerly looking forward to getting me out of the office so she can move all her stuff in.

JS8Call

I’ve been playing with a fairly new digital mode in amateur radio called JS8Call. It is based on the wildly popular FT8 mode that was first implemented with the WSJT-X software developed by K1JT and others. (WSJT-X is open source and it is available for Linux, Windows, OSX and Unix like operating systems. You can learn more about FT8 at https://physics.princeton.edu/pulsar/k1jt/index.html)

This is what the WSJT-X software looks like when running FT8.

FT8 works well as a weak signal mode, allowing contacts to be made under poor conditions and with modest or even poor antennas and low power levels. But FT8 isn’t designed to actually communicate with other people. It is intended to make “contacts” only. And in the amateur radio world, “contact” means exchanging only enough information to fulfill the requirements of some contest or award program, and not actually talking to another person. In fact, it would be almost impossible to use FT8 to exchange any kind of useful information with another radio operator. FT8 exchanges call signs, a grid reference (location) and a signal report, and that’s it. And all of that is pre-programmed into the system. Once the contact is started, the WSJT software conducts the entire exchange by itself. There are provisions for a so-called “free message”, but it is extremely awkward to use and very limited.

And, frankly, boring. At least to me. Don’t get me wrong, I use FT8 myself. But after about half an hour of it I’m bored. I can’t actually talk to anyone, can’t ask questions, just sit there and watch WSJT go through it’s automated contact sequence. It gets dull fast.

Screen capture of JS8Call running on my system.

That’s where JS8Call comes in. It uses the same digital encoding techniques used by FT8. It still uses the same 15 second transmission bursts. But it permits actual conversations to be held between two operators. Not very quickly, true. It looks like it’s limited to about 15 words per minute or less, but that’s still a heck of a lot faster than a lot of us can bang along in CW.

And since it uses the exact same encoding protocols used by FT8, it shares that mode’s robust nature and permits people with less than ideal equipment and antennas to make contacts they otherwise would not be able to make.

JS8Call has a lot of fun and potentially useful features as well as the ability to send actual text messages back and forth rather than FT8’s limited contact system. Messages can be directed to a specific call sign or a group of call signs. There are directed commands that you can send which will generated automated replies from anyone who hears them, it can relay messages to others if you have it set up right. There is a lot of neat stuff JS8Call is capable of doing. Read the documentation at their website to find out more.

So if you’ve use FT8 but have found it’s pre-programmed, automated contact system frustrating, give JS8Call a try. You can find out more about it at their website. Click here to take a peek.

A few things, though.

First, JS8Call is still very much in beta testing. New versions with added/changed features and bug fixes are being released every few weeks. While the program seems stable, it can have odd little quirks and problems from time to time. How it works and its various functions can change with each new edition of the software.

Second, because it is still in beta testing, it is not available for general release. You can indeed get it, but you need to join a discussion group to get access to the download. It isn’t a big deal. They aren’t going to spam you or anything like that. The reason for restricting access is, as I said, because it is still in testing and is being changed frequently. Once the feature set is frozen and they’ve worked all of the bugs out, a version will be made available for general release.

Third, because it is based on FT8, it has a lot of the same quirks and drawbacks FT8 has. It only transmits in 12.6 second bursts, based on a 15 second time frame. Your computer clock must be accurately synchronized. You are going to need to run a utility program that will keep your computer’s internal clock accurate. Most computer clocks are not accurate enough by themselves.

Fourth, as noted earlier, it isn’t exactly fast. You’re going to average about 10 – 15 wpm when using it. But as I also said, most CW operators don’t work much faster than that.

If you’re interested in the digital modes, are getting bored of FT8, give JS8Call a try.

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

Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 8.43.39 AM
Gads, what a mess

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

Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 8.44.04 AM
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.

Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 12.21.21 PM
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.

 

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.

Sigh…