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.