Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The FT8 conundrum

As I sit here I am working FT8 on 160 meters. It's a great mode to kill time and get some DX, states or new friends in the log. But this mode is not without controversy. Let's explore some of the controversies and see what can, and should be done. Or not.

What's the big deal about FT8 anyway?

If you haven't heard of the mode, I am thinking that maybe your radio isn't working or you haven't tuned up into the digital portion of the HF bands lately. So, briefly - FT8 is a digital "sound card" mode jointly developed by two really smart people - Joe Taylor, K1JT and Steve Franke, K9AN. It's not a rag chew mode. Instead, it provides basic QSOs exchanging grid squares and signal reports. One can optionally send a short message (13 characters) but the mode really isn't for this. FT8 was born out of other similar modes such as JT65 and JT9, which were also short QSO modes, developed for weak signal work. In fact, Joe initially developed the JT65 mode for meteor scatter and moonbounce (EME).

However, the problem with JT65 was that it took a full 6 minutes to finish a QSO exchange, because each transmission was 47 seconds plus 13 seconds buffer to allow an operator to queue a response. FT8 fixed this by reducing the sensitivity a bit but speeding up QSOs by a factor of 4. Each transmission was now 15 seconds, rather than almost a full minute.

Because of this, the mode took off like a rocket. JT65 was already popular, but FT8 basically said, "hold my beer!" and swiftly took its position as king of digital modes. I recall statistics from ClubLog or somewhere else saying that the number of FT8 QSOs had surpassed those of all other modes, and this was before the software came out of the beta RC phase!

Who can blame them anyway? There are many hams who run compromise antennas and low power, and can't have stacks and kilowatts of power. My friend Eric, N2KOJ operates out of his apartment a lot using FT8, and he has little more than a hamstick mounted on his car! Even with this modest setup, he has worked Japan and many other far away places that are normally out of reach. Additionally, due to the short transmission time, FT8 brought auto sequence, which queues up signal reports and procedural exchanges and sends them in order. This means that one can simply have one click QSOs, and when it's done, click another button to log.

So it's understandable why many hams are for the mode. But there are a few who are against it. There are also some who are against using it in a particular way. Let's see what the fuss is all about.

Claim: FT8 is not "real ham radio" because it is just robotic QSOs

I would say that 80% to 90% of CW DX chasing and some phone DX chasing would fall under this category too. How many of us use memory keyers? New radios are coming with memory keyers built in. So a lot of us do push button QSOs anyway. There is no shame in this. It's what we do. I should also point out that in the heyday of PSK31, a lot of hams would make contact and then dump a whole brag file on top of you, then say 73 and move on to the next. So isn't FT8 the same thing? It's similar in that respect, I would say.

However, I can see the argument for the art of conversation being lost. It is unfortunate that FT8 will be many hams' primary exposure to amateur radio and they are not encouraged to try other digital modes or CW. So what's the solution? If you interact with hams in other venues, such as social media, why not encourage them to get on other modes? Today I see a resurgence of hams interested in learning CW, and CW can be a great mode to have a conversation. But there are other digital modes such as PSK31 (and PSK63), Olivia, Hellschreiber and even RTTY. These can give you the opportunity to make friends on air and exchange more than a signal report and grid square. 

Bottom line: ham radio is a big tent, as I had explained in another article. Don't stick to one corner! If you want to learn CW, I highly recommend CW Academy from CWOps. If you want something self-paced and online, I would also recommend LCWO by DJ1YFK.


Claim: FT8 is a low power mode! You can't use more than X watts!

I strongly disagree with this. WSJT modes are weak signal modes. There are many times I struggled to work stations even at 1500 watts. Of course, your own good judgment should always apply. Don't forget that Part 97 states that we should use the minimum power required to carry out the desired communications. Sometimes that is 5 watts. Sometimes it's 50. Sometimes it's 500. Sometimes it is 1500. It depends on the band and all sorts of other variables, such as propagation. So use as much as you need, but no more!

As always, ensure that you are generating a clean signal, especially if you run power. Overdriven audio and improperly designed transmitters and amplifiers can cause splatter and all sorts of other problems. As the licensee, you are responsible for compliance of your station's emissions. 


Claim: You need a computer to run FT8!

That is true (did you think I would say it isn't?) I could easily say that this is 2017 and that in a technical hobby, one should know how to use a computer, but I won't. Instead I will say that other modes still exist, and you can use them. I enjoy QSOs on all modes, with hams with or without computers.

However, logging on a computer has one huge advantage - you can upload your QSOs to Logbook of The World (LoTW), eQSL or QRZ logbook and easily collect confirmation for awards. 


In conclusion - get on the air!

I've said it before - FT8 helps hams get on the air, with their own equipment, even. It keeps people active and enjoying the radio magic. It's a great way to make friends as well, since many who know me online or from other places contact me on FT8. I have made many friends and I will continue to do so. Incidentally one can also use JTAlert to send text messages to other users on FT8. Yes, it goes via the Internet, but it's a way to communicate with those you make contact with. 

88
Ria, N2RJ

7 comments:

  1. Thanks for your ft8 pointers. How does one find out if their signal is clean?

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  2. Just got started with ft8 last night. Was pretty fun! Had to see what all the fuss was about. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I couldn't agree more with you on every point. Best wishes Ms.Jairam!

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  3. Start with your audio. Ensure your speech processor is off and equalizer is set to “flat.” The easy way to do this in most modern rigs is to select the “digital mode” function. On flex signature radios it’s called DIGU or DIGL. On Yaesu it’s called USB-D I believe. Not sure about the rest but it’s similar.

    Don’t overdrive. ALC is not an accurate indication but can give you a ballpark idea. If your ALC is constantly high then chances are that you’re overdriving.

    Finally, do a couple of test transmissions with friends. QSY outside of the window and have them observe. A friend with a panadapter in a Radio such as a Flex, Anan or icom 7300/7610 can show obvious problems. If you have multiple copies of your signal you may have AC hum. This is the most common issue.

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  4. Just yesterday, got psk31 setup connected to the radio. KF4FVE

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  5. Excellent article Ria! Very informative and very well written as well. Keep'em coming! Oh, I almost forgot! "Merry Christmas and 73 & 88!"

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