FT8 Digital Mode Club
FT8 – the first 6 months or: Is this still Amateur Radio?
Some personal thoughts of OE1SGU/OE3SGU – FT8DMC
This is not an introduction to FT8, just my very personal opinions and experiences with FT8 and some thoughts about Amateur Radio in general.
When FT8 was introduced and presented by K1JT in summer 2017 I waited for the first complete version of WSJT-X. I did not bother – and yes, I admit that I was too lazy - to compile the previous versions. Well perhaps I should have.
At the very first look it seemed like just another Digi mode, in addition to the dozens we already have. Kind of a faster JT65, that’s it. Having done some JT65 and JT9 in addition to CW, SSB and some Digi modes I thought ok, let us give it a try. The speed was amazing, not much longer than a rapid 599 in RTTY or PSK, very cool! When the auto sequence box was clicked, well, I was hooked! You simple call CQ and watch the screen. Just click ‘log QSO’ in the end, call CQ again and the fun continues. And call another CQ. Great! Semiautomatic QSO’s, all fixed to one frequency, no need to twiddle knobs, set filters, bother with 2 VFO’s. Just make sure your signal is clean and not overdriven, and your transmitting spot is free - that’s it. FT8 seemed to be a good mode for remote-operation too. Just remote-control the PC it is installed on and access that PC with TeamViewer or any other similar software and here we go. Audio is not necessarily needed. Remote means either to operate from a different location or to control your PC and radio in the shack from another spot inside your house or flat, let’s say the couch in the living room.
I am sure that even Dr. Taylor, K1JT, did not foresee the huge success of FT8. Within an extremely short time this mode conquered the Ham Radio world. Of course the Digi mode-freaks were to first to try and use it, but soon another group followed: The serious DXers. When watching 50313 on 6 meters in summer more and more familiar callsigns appeared, mostly DXers and ‘big guns’. Girls and boys who are on top of the ARRL’S DXCC listings and who have worked them all. On all bands in all modes (well, quite so at least). These fellows mainly used FT8 to work new DX on 6m. And what rare DX they worked! Callsigns appeared that rarely can be heard in CW or even SSB! It seemed that FT8 brought many non DXers or casual operators back to radio.
In autumn when conditions on the low bands became better 160m was the band to be. The same as on 6m could be watched: A lot of rare DX on that band. And many DXpeditions used FT8 for the very first time on all bands. FT8 became a standard-mode for expeditions. And all this happened in only a few months! I think it is fair to say that no other mode was as successful and changed the Amateur Radio world like FT8 did. There are folks out there who worked 200 and more DXCC in FT8 since its introduction, simply amazing! Unfortunately there are still people who talk bad about FT8 and JT65 without ever having tried the modes. You don’t like this form of radio? Then simply don’t do it, it will not keep others from enjoying it.
FT8-activity grew immense and more and more stations made it sometimes difficult to find a free spot, especially and 20 and 40 meters. The chosen QRG’s are a bit problematic on some bands as FT8 easily interferes with other modes (PSK, Olivia etc.) that are traditionally operated a bit lower than those frequencies. Perhaps we can establish some different frequencies on some bands? Most important in my opinion would be to change the 20 and 17m slots.
Operating practice is another subject. Where there is good there is bad. Bad habits and rude behavior (like calling CQ on ones frequency after a QSO, transmitting on top of a DX signal without using split, dirty signals, missing time-synchronization etc.) can be seen too often. In most cases simply reading the excellent WSJT-X manual and K1JT’s document on working DX (all available on the WSJT-X website and the website of our club) would avoid those problems. There are a number of very good websites and YouTube-videos; Google is your best friend. Trial and error is sometimes good, but please RTFM (read the FINE manual first).
Every time I see a call of a familiar fellow whom I have worked a dozen times on CW and/or SSB the fast growth of FT8 is proven. Even very old OM’s are trying FT8. There is one famous DXpeditioner whom I never heard on phone but worked CW only (I am sure he does not even have is microphone connected) who is a regular guest on the FT8 frequencies. I always smile if I watch the screen and see yet another familiar call of an Old Timer.
Some fellows may ask: Is this legal, automatic, semiautomatic, remote? The answer is: It depends on your national law. The FCC is not (as many US hams think) the world police for Amateur Radio, so what may be illegal in the US might be perfectly legal in some (or many) other countries - and the other way around. Check your national laws and rules before operating remote, automatic or on a certain band. For example: operation on 60m in Austria is still forbidden while many other European countries allow the 60m band already.
Yes, our hobby is well alive! But, you may ask: Is this still Amateur Radio? Semiautomatic (and probably automatic in the future) QSO’s, without having to be at the station. Automatic exchange of some bits of information and reports?
Well, here is something to think about:
I have been licensed in 1990 and passed the (then required) CW-test in May 1991 (I was 20 years old) to get my full ticket. Shortwave is my main interest so learning CW was not only a challenge (that I did not like much in the beginning) but simply a necessity. During that time only few people had a PC, the internet was not yet invented (or at least was not accessible to the public). The only form of communication without having to use the phone, fax or letters was radio. QSL-cards meant paper cards, handwritten, or later on printed. You sent your card via bureau or direct, addresses had to be found in the (printed and very expensive) callbook or in radio magazines (plenty of them existed that time, I remember at least 4 German magazines –only one is left now!). And so on, simply said: Amateur Radio was different. And it is different now. And it will be different in the near (or not so near) future. I remember Old Timers talking about AM, the introduction of SSB, valve radios and other quite strange and weird (so I felt that time) topics on our club meetings. For some of them SSB was the evil and AM the traditional way to go. For some of them CW was the only real mode, the rest was useless. I was what we call today ‘a millennial’ to them. And ‘the millennials’ in Amateur Radio today may think that our hobby 25 years ago was weird.
Let’s face it: Compared to let’s say 25 years ago Amateur Radio has less value in this world if you only see it as wireless communication, that’s a fact. How often do we really ‘communicate’ on the bands? Most QSO’s are a simple exchange of reports and some other standard information, that’s it. Not just in the digital world, also in CW and phone. Sure, there are still ‘nice and long’ QSO’s (rag chews) but basically the exchanged information is more or less always the same.
Communication nowadays is mainly done via the internet. That is why even us HAM’s have groups and websites, be it Facebook, Clublog, Yahoo, club websites etc. Also online-logs seem to be a necessity nowadays since to listen carefully is an extinguishing ability. How would we survive a DXpedition without online-logs (simply by trusting ourselves that we ARE in the log)? And most important of course are the leaderboards to compare our ranks. Who can wait months (or even years) for a QSL-card? LoTW must be confirmed immediately and OQRS is the standard we all became used to.
So, in short: Is this still Amateur Radio or not? You decide for yourself, for me it still is. It is just one of the many aspects and opportunities that this best of all hobbies has to offer. The world, and so our beloved hobby, changes. We may accept this fact and make the best out of it or simply give up and resign. And look for another hobby.
I for my part am curious what wonderful and surprising other modes there are still to come.
Have fun and don’t forget: It is supposed to be a hobby. Your feedback is more than welcome.
© OE3SGU 2018
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