Amateur Radio: More on FT8

On Feb 12 I decided to take a serious look at what operating with the FT8 mode was all about. I had the software configured, the equipment all ready to go, fired everything up, tuned up on 18.100, and started trying to make contacts and, well…

In a short time I’d logged contacts with Southern California, Oregon, Brazil, England, Finland, Spain, France… Wow.

The next day I got curious about just how well I was getting out and went to the PSK Reporter website to check. If you’ve never heard of PSK Reporter, it is a great service that links monitoring stations all over the world to a mapping system that will show you what monitors received your signals (or anyone else’s for that matter) and when. You can see what overall band conditions are like, or you can plug in your call sign and a date and time, along with a specific band if you like, and see if anyone heard your transmissions.

I pulled up the map and, well, look:

Screen Shot 2018-02-13 at 5.40.25 PM

Every one of those blobs with an “hrs” label is a report of my transmissions being heard that day. I was hitting large parts of the US, almost all of Europe, the west coast of North Africa, South Africa for pete’s sake, and, amazingly, New Zealand.

I played around for a while yesterday and had similar results. I made contacts in England and the west coast of the US, and the map showed results similar to the one above.

Oh, and I had one contact on 17 meters with Elkhart Lake, WI, about 20 miles from here. I’m still trying to figure out what kind of weird system of propagation allowed that to happen.

I already knew FT8 was wildly popular, and now I had first hand experience of why. Once you get the hardware and software set up, operating is a snap. Pick a clear spot on the water fall for transmission, click a mouse button to start a CQ and sit back and wait. The CQ is automatically transmitted every 15 seconds until you either stop it or someone responds. When someone does respond, the software picks up their call sign, plugs it in the right spot in the pre-programmed responses, and begins the automatic exchange of grid square, reception data, and then ends the contact and pops up a box to log the contact.

If you see someone calling CQ that you want to try contacting, just double click on the call sign and the system begins trying to make contact with them, and if it does, goes through the automated exchange.

Because of the digital coding system used by the software, this is a very efficient way of making a contact. It is a very narrow bandwidth, can handle signals down to -20 dB or so, and lets people make contacts they normally would never have been able to log.

So what’s the controversy all about? Why do some people seem so upset about FT8? I’m not really sure. Yes, there is very little actual “communication” going on, but the same is true for a lot of other contacts going on as well. Most PSK communications, even RTTY, is little more than an exchange of pre-recorded macros. Same with a lot of other digital modes. And may of those modes are just as automated as FT8 is.

Everyone in amateur radio is excited by different aspects of the hobby. Some like to talk, some like to experiment with electronics, some like to try to design better antennas, some are fascinated with how radio signals are propagated through the atmosphere. Some like EME (Earth-Moon-Earth) or moon-bounce. Some are into satellite communications. Some like contesting. Some enjoy DX chasing, trying to make contact with far away places that are hard to reach. And for DXers, FT8 is just another tool they can use to try to reach a goal of contacting a hard to reach country or region.

Are there problems with FT8? No doubt about it. The main one seems to be overcrowding. Last night down on 20 meters, and even on 80 and 160 meters the FT8 portions of the band were almost solid red all the way across the waterfall display. It looked and sounded like no one was even bothering to try to find a clear frequency. They were just hitting “transmit” anywhere on the band, whether they were sending over the top of someone else or not, and hoping the software could sort out the mess.

I have to admit that when I started looking at FT8 I was prepared to dislike it. But the thing is very addictive as you start to watch contacts from far away places go into the log, and I’ll probably keep playing with it as time permits.

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.