FT8 – A personal critique 19

20m packed with FT8 signals

20m packed with FT8 signals

FT8 (or Franke-Taylor design, 8-FSK modulation) has taken the amateur bands by storm and for better or for worse, it’s changed the profile of activity since it launched in 2017. It doesn’t garner universal love from the amateur community, in fact it seems to polarise us; you either love it or you hate it. I fall somewhere in between these polarities and thought I’d write a bit about my experiences, what I like and what I don’t. As always these are my personal views and subjective, your views will probably vary.

I’m not new to digital modes, having used PSK31, PSK63 and RTTY quite extensively since getting licensed back in 2013. I even experimented with JT65 and JT9, within the WSJT-X suite, but it left me cold and the long QSO times were frustrating. So when I first started hearing about FT8 I was especially interested in the short 15 second overs.

The Good

1. Work DX at Sunspot Minima

The timing of FT8’s arrival is good, in that suddenly we have a new weak signal mode, that’s able to take advantage of marginal openings and all round bad conditions. FT8 will allow us to have QSOs on bands, which we would previously have thought as being closed.

I was recently able to catch S01WS (Western Sahara) using FT8 on 20m, which was a new one for me:

Working S01WS using FT8

Working S01WS (Western Sahara) using FT8

 

 

 

 

 

2. It’s Fast

The QSO’s can be thick and fast, in fact during my first FT8 QSO I blinked and I’d somehow had a QSO! Gone are the old days of 7 minutes plus to work a station on JT65, now each over is 15 seconds.

3. Have QSOs while doing other things in the shack

The level of automation WSJT-X allows means you don’t have to be fully engaged with exactly what’s happening while operating. This allows me to take my eyes off the rig/screen and do other things; like check my emails, tidy the shack or write this blog post. I can’t do this with SSB!

4. Learn about Propagation

This mode certainly makes you question what you thought about propagation. Paths on a given band, which would have previously been unworkable with SSB and even CW, become possible again.

Many are experimenting with this and dedicating their operating to bands which should (in theory) be closed at this point in the solar cycle. I read about a UK based ham who has been going for DXCC on 10m only, he’s just done it in over a year using FT8, which is quite a feat given where we are in the solar cycle. Isn’t 10m supposed to be dead?

5. Allows modest stations to work DX

You no longer need 400w and a massive HF Yagi to work DX, FT8 has certainly brought DXing to the masses and not just the elite few with KW of power, massive masts and an impressive 5 element 80m Yagi on top!

Let’s face it, trying to work DX using SSB with 100 watts and a wire is tough right now, little stations can’t compete with the serious DXers. Add to that the low point in the solar cycle and you can really understand why so many amateurs are keen on this mode right now.

6. It’s a new mode/tool we can use

Hams love new things, we like to experiment and play around with new toys. FT8 fills that role pretty nicely. WSJT-X has given us another new mode, which has sparked the imaginations of a lot of hams and as a result we’re keen to try it out.

I imagine if you’ve been licensed for years and the hobby had gotten a bit stale then FT8 could really reignite it for you and get you having QSOs again.

Avid DXers are also happy, they can try and work all the DX again on this new mode and the average ham is happy because they can have QSO’s at a time when sun really isn’t up to much.

20m busy with FT8 activity

20m busy with FT8 activity on a Saturday

7. Work DX on 6m

The Sporadic E season has changed a lot since the release of FT8. It’s been very popular on the 6m band, in fact the lack of SSB activity was really noticeable this year, all of which had been replaced by FT8.

But, what it has allowed people to do is work DX from further away than they would normally be able to, suddenly double/triple hop Sporadic E contacts become possible for not just the big guns.

The number of trans-Atlantic contacts seemed much higher this year and I’m sure this is in no small part down to FT8.

 

The Bad

My experience of FT8 hasn’t been all good though…

1. Boring!

I can’t get away from it, I personally find FT8 operating quite boring. I’ve tried to love it, but I still prefer SSB and the traditional data modes like PSK31 and RTTY. The formatted exchanges and automation all take some of the more interesting bits out.

You still need some skill to operate FT8 effectively, but it doesn’t require 100% concentration. This has allowed me to carry on operating while otherwise busy in the shack. WSJT-X just does its thing in the background while I check it occasionally.

2. Impersonal

FT8 lacks even the basics needed to have a human to human keyboard exchange, which even slightly impersonal modes like PSK31 allowed you to have. I think this is what makes it slightly boring for me personally. The strict timing and message structure take out any chance of chatting with this mode. 

An alternative called FT8Call has been released, which allows keyboard to keyboard exchanges, apparently with the robustness of FT8. I’ve not used it, nor am I tempted, as PSK already allows for this.

3. Full Automation

Some stations have taken WSJT-X level of automation a step further. They’ve modified it to run completely without the need for you to be in the shack. Essentially allowing them to work DXCC while they sleep. I’ve seen one station around the HF bands, which I can only guess is doing this, or if not is sat there operating every time I happen to check any HF band. They are very high up on the ClubLog DXCC count this year and I’m not surprised!

I don’t understand this, sure you may earn some awards, but would you get any gratification from this?

4. Makes our bands seem under-utilised

FT8 is efficient, requiring only 47 Hz bandwidth per QSO. So imagine we have band allocations which are under commercial pressure, and people move to FT8 instead of SSB. Quickly it would seem to an outside observer, that our allocations are either under utilised or even worse; unneeded. 

I think pretty much everyone has noticed the massive traffic change FT8 has had on many bands. It’s taken users away from SSB, CW and other data modes. Don’t believe me, check out the stats from ClubLog here. Will this last? Maybe not, it’s a new mode, people will lose interest and move back to traditional modes, especially when the sunspot cycle improves.

5. Bleak future of operating

If everyone only operated FT8 how boring would it be? How far removed from skill would the hobby become?

Most contacts have become rubber stamp, 59 QRZ, type contacts, regardless of mode. FT8 buys into this and takes it a step further by only allowing you to have these basic exchanges.

Sure, you have to construct your station in the first place, but after that the operating skill is reduced.

Conclusion

My opinions on FT8 are mixed, it’s proven to be an interesting mode and made DX possible again, but I’m not excited by it. It just feels a bit like watching paint dry.

Will I continue to operate using FT8? I probably will to be honest, but it will become just another mode for me, like any other data mode. 

What do you think? What have your experiences been?

19 thoughts on “FT8 – A personal critique

  1. Reply Jim Brown K9YC Sep 22,2018 19:51

    I agree with all of the positives, and generally disagree with most of the negatives. It’s important to realize that the noise immunity of FT8 allows a QSO under conditions nearly 20dB worse than would support an SSB QSO. This is important when either station has a high noise level, or when propagation is poor, or both. 20 dB is the difference between 1W and 100W, or between 5W and 500W.

    FT8 has made 6M FAR more interesting by allowing operators who don’t know CW to make rare grid squares workable with modest antennas. This is especially important with multi-hop E-skip. And there’s nothing at all boring about a multi-hop E-skip opening when the band is full of signals, whether new grids or new DX countries.

    I’ve been licensed since 1955, Extra Class since 1959, and always been primarily a CW operator. I’m mostly a contester and DXer, and regularly work at 30 wpm. I contest with CW, RTTY, and SSB. I find rag-chewing on the ham bands BORING, but I find contesting exciting. Except for contests, nearly all of my activity during E-skip season (mid-May to mid-July) is on 6M FT8.

    Another major plus for FT8 is as a propagation reporter. If you can’t decode signals in the FT8 window, the band is dead!

    And it’s simply not true that FT8 is for lids — I regularly decode some of the best OT operators.

    • Reply James Stevens Sep 23,2018 10:33

      Hi Jim,

      Thanks for your input, I always appreciate it. There’s no arguing the noise advantage or the signal improvement over SSB. Also serves well to see if a band is (at all) open at a given point.

      73 James M0JCQ

  2. Reply Bas PE4BAS Sep 22,2018 20:18

    Tnx for this post, I think I will fall in between as well. I like to operate all modes and prefer SSB. But I like FT8 as well just like JT9, JT65 etc. Actually I had a nice SSB contact this evening with only 5W. Not really DX but that doesn’t matter. I just like QRP but operate low power till QRO as well. I’ve been experimenting with FT8Call and like it as well, it is different from PSK since you can send commands to the opposite station to get info. Well you see…..my experiences are just…..experimental. And that’s one of the things this hobby is about…73, Bas

    • Reply James Stevens Sep 23,2018 10:36

      I tend to agree Bas, I don’t think the mode matters much, as long as we’re making contacts on the bands! We all prefer something different in the hobby. I may have to give FT8Call a try 🙂

      73 James M0JCQ

  3. Reply Tim, KQ8M Sep 22,2018 20:26

    In answer to your bads here is my opinion of those. My use of the word ‘you/your’ is a generalization and not directed at one person.

    1. Agree

    2. Agree but some of us don’t care what operation you had last week, what temperature it is where you are at or how many warts you have on your butt. Were you saying this when JT65 came along? How about JT9? Seems like some are either just jumping on the bandwagon because their friends are or are against it because the little guy has the opportunity to work DX that they didn’t have before as the big guns always had to be first. Now those stations don’t like being reduced to commoner status.

    3. Agree BUT who are you or I to tell other’s how they should operate when they are fully within the rules? If that’s the way they get their gratification then so be it. My question is how does this all affect how YOU operate and your satisfaction with what you do? If you let someone else that is operating within the rules bother you then maybe you need your own reflection.

    Full automation is NOT a prerequisite nor was it designed as such by the author of the mode. That is designed by the software author NOT the mode. The mode is doing what it is designed to do. Just because someone decides to bastardize it blame them NOT the mode! ANY mode can be automated.

    4. It may seem like the bands are underutilized but are they? FT8 allows much weaker signals to be copied. Signals that you cannot hear with your ears. I see people say that all other modes are suffering because of FT8. If that were true then FT8 would be occupying much more of the band. I very seldom see 36 signals decoded in a signal time slot. That would equate to 72 during both time slots. So you’re saying that there are only 72 operators on a single band at a time? I don’t think so. You have to remember this is the bottom of the sunspot cycle. Activity usually is low and band openings are much less than just a few years ago.

    5. Do you honestly believe everyone would operate a single mode? Really? If that were true then as every mode came along the previous mode(s) would have been long gone many years ago. Do you operate SSTV? Is this the end of ham radio? Is everyone flocking to this mode? NO, nor any other mode.

    • Reply James Stevens Sep 23,2018 10:47

      Thanks for your input Tim, this post did make me laugh, especially “how many warts you have on your butt”!

      I see your points, and I guess it all comes down to what we choose to do in this gloriously varied and diverse hobby of ours. We’ll always have our niches and preferences!

      73 James M0JCQ

  4. Reply Glyn G4CFS Sep 23,2018 08:45

    I beleive at the moment FT8 serves a purpose whilst we are at the sunspot minima. It allows communication across the globe at a time when Amateur Radio traditionally goes into decline and we lose a lot of amateurs.

    However, I firmly believe that SSB/CW will return to it normal dominance once the band conditions improve.

    It is the Marmite syndrone – love or hate it – but when you are hungry you will eat anything before the glut returns.

    • Reply James Stevens Sep 23,2018 10:50

      This makes a lot of sense Glyn, the timing of FT8s arrival has been paramount to its success. Everyone is struggling to make QSOs and then along comes a wonder mode that allows it again!

      It’ll be interesting to see what happens when conditions pick up again, will FT8 continue to be so popular? That said, you could also make a case for the insane type of contacts you’d be able to have using QRP during sunspot maxima 😉

      73 James M0JCQ

  5. Reply Pablo ea8hz Sep 23,2018 10:13

    Por supuesto que es interesante. Cuánto durará?. Y que mas da????

  6. Reply jim gm4dhj Sep 23,2018 20:15

    Ham radio is the snap crackle and pop of analogue radio If that dies due to modes like FT8 then the hobby dies with it …

  7. Reply Chris Sep 26,2018 02:23

    As a new operator I enjoy ft8. The problem is once you make was and dxcc whats the point? I’m only interested in digital modes but admittedly I don’t think it has the long standing appeal of ssb or cw

    I will come right out and say it. I have minimal interest in chatting with other operators and not sure what there is to do after ft 8

    • Reply James Stevens Sep 26,2018 08:26

      First of all welcome to the hobby Chris and secondly thanks for your input. I started in the hobby by using data modes exclusively, in fact I only picked up a mic once I was an M0! I started with PSK31/64/125 and RTTY mostly. I’d recommend looking at these, in fact the CQWW RTTY DX contest at the end of this month would be a great place to start.. https://cqwwrtty.com/

      I personally use Fldigi for non-JT data modes, and it seems to support almost all of the other data modes I wish to use.

      FT8 is really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what amateur radio has to offer, even if you just narrow it down to data modes. How about meteor scatter on VHF using MSK114 or even FT8? http://www.geekshed.co.uk/getting-started-in-meteor-scatter-ms/

      73 James M0JCQ

  8. Reply Tony Everhardt/N8WAC Sep 29,2018 22:59

    I wish everyone would stop beating this dead horse. If you like it work it. If you don’t like it don’t work it. Simple.

  9. Reply Bruce KB5GXO Sep 30,2018 22:56

    I’m new to FT8. I have really enjoyed it, because my radios would probably be off now due to current conditions. SSB is my favorite and as soon as things pick back up, I’ll be right back on the mike. I was also able to work SO1WS and pick up a new DX. For longevity, no I probably won’t spend as much time on FT8 in the future when conditions improve, but I can certainly imagine keeping it in my tool chest for those less then perfect days. Thanks for the article, I enjoyed reading it and the comments.

    • Reply James Stevens Oct 1,2018 08:02

      Agreed Bruce! It’s certainly given the majority of us the opportunity to work some DX during this low point in the solar cycle, but I suspect like you, a lot will revert back to other modes when conditions improve.

      I’d be curious to see what FT8 can do during the height of the cycle, QRPp experiments will be very interesting!

      73 James M0JCQ

  10. Reply N4SJK Oct 10,2018 20:29

    JS8 solves a lot of these problems with FT8. http://js8call.com/downloads/

    • Reply James Stevens Oct 11,2018 11:17

      Interesting, I can only imagine this is a similar fork of WSJT-X to what’s been done on the FT8Call project. Another thing to try.

      • Reply N4SJK Oct 11,2018 13:37

        It is the FT8Call project. FT8 developers asked him to change the name to decrease confusion. Now it’s the JS8Call project and the mode is JS8.

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