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:

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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…

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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.

Sigh…

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.

Sigh…

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: Tear Down Day

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This is just part of it. There are about 4 more big boxes of stuff sitting on the floor full of jumpers, parts, connectors, cables… Oh brother… You will note the big ALS tube amp isn’t sitting there. I wasn’t about to lug that beast all the way down to the basement with the other stuff. Just the transformer in that bugger weighs in at around 40+ lbs. It got shoved into a corner where it will hopefully be out of the way.

Well, I finally stopped procrastinating and started tearing down my station. The battered old particle board desk I had most of my gear perched on should have been tossed out ages ago, but I wasn’t sure what to replace it with. MrsGF found an old oak teacher’s desk from about the 1940s era. Huge, very sturdy, lots of drawers and in pretty good condition, so we snagged that and it’s been sitting in the garage for weeks while I kept putting off actually doing anything because I knew it was going to be a huge pain in the neck.

I finally couldn’t put it off any longer. I have to get new desk out of the garage so I have room to park the motorcycle before we get hit with snow. And the old desk, well, I didn’t trust it any more. Frankly, I didn’t trust it much to begin with. Especially with about 200 lbs. of very expensive equipment sitting on it.

So I started disconnecting everything this afternoon. What a mess back there! Cables, coax, grounding wires, USB cables, video cables… Sheesh. And why did I make my jumper coax cables out of LMR-400? It’s so stiff you literally cannot risk moving anything without disconnecting the cables first or you risk breaking the connectors off the equipment. Sigh…

Of course I didn’t label anything. That would be cheating, right? I’m an amateur radio operator. I should know where all that stuff goes by sheer instinct. Or something…

One interesting revelation was the number of wires and cables back there that weren’t actually attached to anything, including coax disappearing into the wall, going to heaven only knows where, wires running down into the basement for some reason, USB cables. I think those things breed like rabbits. I have a whole drawer full of them. And wall warts… Lord, where did they all come from? What equipment do they power?

The interesting thing is going to be trying to put it all back together again into a working station. I can just see myself in a few days holding the RigBlaster and trying to figure out where that USB cable goes – into the computer? Into the transceiver? And what the hell does that little box with the red LEDs on it with the unmarked connectors actually do?

Great fun!

No Amateur Radio Isn’t Dying And It Doesn’t Need To Be “Fixed”

Screen Shot 2017-11-18 at 6.47.59 AMIf you’re looking for me babbling about farming, gardening, photography or one of the usual topics I go wandering off on, you might want to skip this one. I’m going to jump off the deep end into the “miracle of radio” for a moment here, specifically amateur radio.

One of the most curious things I’ve been seeing is the claim that amateur radio is dying. I hear this claim all the time; on the air from people chatting, at swap meets, and on the AR related blogs and forums on the internet. It is really very curious and at first I wasn’t sure why I kept hearing this when it seemed to be completely untrue.

But then I realized what was going on. Amateur radio isn’t dying, of course. What’s happening is that their idea of what amateur radio should be is dying. Amateur radio is changing, evolving, and they don’t like it. No sir, not at all. And they don’t want to accept that fact. So they take advantage of any little quirk, any little upsetting of the apple cart, any disruption, and through a convoluted thought process that makes the mind boggle, turn it into support for their idea that the entire hobby and everyone involved in it (except for them, of course) is going to hell in a hand basket.

Screen Shot 2017-11-16 at 6.39.55 AMPerhaps the biggest change was when the FCC dropped the need to know morse code in order to get a license. While most accepted this, and even were in favor of it, a significant number of AROs rose up in righteous anger over it.

Other things happened. The tests were changed, study guides began appearing on-line that were easy to use, even free. There were changes to the licensing structure. There were claims that the tests were “dumbed down”. I’ve heard people claim that modern licensees don’t actually “know” anything, all they did was memorize the answers to the questions in the question pool.

Uh, excuse me? Really? You didn’t memorize anything when you took your test, eh? You did, what, exactly? Spent years experimenting and doing the math to develop Ohm’s Law all by yourself? Besides, if someone has the ability to memorize all 700 or so of the questions in the pool for the Extra exam, they probably deserve to get the license.

Some of this nonsense has calmed down as none of the dire predictions that the Good Ole Boys made have come true, but they’re still out there, are still claiming that anyone who was licensed after the no-code license came into effects is an idiot, etc. etc. etc. There are some forums out there where if one of us no-coders dares to stick our head up, we will quickly be insulted, trolled and harassed.

The licensing system had to change, though. Morse code, or CW as we call it, is a lot of fun. Tens of thousands of AROs gleefully still use it, and it shows no sign of dying. But the fact of the matter is that being required to know CW to get your amateur radio license is about as useful as being required to know how to ride a horse in order to get a driver’s license for a car.  Yes, there are those who argue that when “all else fails” CW is the only way you’ll be able to communicate. But if you look at the forms of communications that are actually used during real emergencies, what is being used is SSB voice, FM voice, and, increasingly, digital voice and data. Not CW.

Then there are other “signs” that amateur radio is dying. Supposedly amateur radio isn’t growing, according to a lot of people I’ve talked to. I find that rather odd because we have more licensed amateur radio operators than ever before, and that number is increasing almost every year. Granted, it isn’t increasing by much, but amateur radio is a very technical hobby and it definitely is not for everyone. It requires a fairly extensive knowledge of electronics, mathematics, propagation, antenna design, FCC regulations, operating practices, etc. It requires a fairly hefty investment in equipment as well. So it appeals to a very limited number of people in the first place. If you are technically inclined, if you enjoy playing with electronics and gadgets and occasionally cranking up the old soldering iron and setting off the smoke detectors in your home with flaming resistors, exploding capacitors, etc. there are a hell of a lot easier and less expensive ways to do it than amateur radio, and which don’t require you to have to pass a test and pay a fee to do what you want to do.

Frankly, it’s amazing that we have the number of licensed operators that we have, not that the number is so small.

Here is an observation: I have amateur radio magazines going back to the early 1900s, and if you read the editorials and letters columns, you’ll quickly find that amateur radio has been “dying” since about, oh, 1920. And for pretty much the same reasons being given today: rogue operators, idiots, dumbing down the tests, changes in technology “destroying” the hobby (you should read some of the arguments about how SSB was going to destroy amateur radio when it first became popular)

There are a lot of people out there who simply do not like change. Oh, they won’t admit it, but it’s true. And this isn’t just in the amateur radio community of course. There are people who will not accept change even if those changes badly need to take place, even if those changes offer significant improvements. They will grasp at anything to try to rationalize their feelings.

Are there things about amateur radio I don’t like, things that I believe should be changed, or things that look like they will be changed but which I feel should remain the same? Of course there are. But I don’t have any influence over what will happen, and in the long run none of those things will have any real effect on my enjoyment of the hobby.

So no, amateur radio isn’t dying. All things considered, it is reasonably healthy and it seems it will remain so. It doesn’t need to be “fixed”. Yes, there are some things that could be tweaked, perhaps should be changed. But overall, amateur seems to be doing rather well.