FT8: Saving Ham Radio or Killing It?

It is popular to blame new technology for killing things. The Internet killed newspapers. Video killed the radio star. Is FT8, a new digital technology, poised to kill off ham radio? The community seems evenly divided. In an online poll, 52% of people responding says FT8 is damaging ham radio.  But ham operator [K5SDR] has an excellent blog post about how he thinks FT8 is going to save ham radio instead.

If you already have an opinion, you have probably already raced down to the comments to share your thoughts. I’ll be honest, I think what we are seeing is a transformation of ham radio and like most transformations, it is probably both killing parts of ham radio and saving others. But if you are still here, let’s talk a little bit about what’s going on in ham radio right now and how it relates to the FT8 question. Oddly enough, our story starts with the strange lack of sunspots that we’ve been experiencing lately.

Classic Ham Radio

I’ve been a ham radio operator since 1977. The hobby has changed a lot over the years. I can remember as a teenager making a phone call from my car and everyone was amazed. Ham radio covers a lot of ground, but “traditional” ham radio is operating a station on the HF bands — 3.5 MHz to 30 MHz — and talking to people all over the world. That kind of ham radio is suffering right now for a few reasons. First, HF propagation largely depends on sunspots and sunspots tend to ebb and peak on an 11-year cycle. Right now we are in a deep low part of the cycle and even the last few peaks have not been very good and no one knows why.

I’ve often thought that if Marconi and the others had started experimenting with radio during a sunspot low, they might have decided radio wasn’t very practical. With low sunspot activity, higher frequencies don’t propagate well at all. Lower frequencies might get through, but those require much larger antennas and that causes another problem.

At the height of classic ham radio, every ham wanted a beam antenna or a cubical quad or some other type of rotating directional antenna. Being able to swing an antenna at a particular direction brings more power to bear on the receiver and also helps you receive the other station. The problem is, the antenna elements are typically about a half wavelength in size. So at 20 meters, the elements are about 10 meters in size. You can shorten them a little using some tricks but you pay a price for that in performance. At 10 meters, though, the size is quite manageable. Many hams had directional antennas for the 20, 15, and 10 meter bands (all-in-one antennas called tribanders). A very few would have something for 40 meters — despite Mosley’s description of its 40-20-15 antenna as “vest pocket”, but that was pretty exotic. At 80 meters, mechanically rotating directional antennas are all but unheard of.

So when propagation is bad you should go to lower frequencies, but that means larger antennas. Worse still, the last few decades have seen an increasing hostility to ham radio antennas with city governments, home owner’s associations, and similar. People living in apartments or condos have the same kind of problem. So the number of hams who can even put up a tribander or any sort of visible antenna has dropped significantly.

So here you are with your radio. The bands are bad, and your small hidden antenna is not very good at any band that might work. What do you do?

Voice is Wasteful

One historical answer to this problem was to quit talking and start using Morse code. For a variety of reasons, Morse code will get through when there isn’t enough power, antennas, or propagation to send voice communications. A skilled operator can pull a Morse code signal out of noise that you would swear is just noise. But what if you aren’t a skilled operator? Bring in a skilled computer.

Some hams have always experimented with digital operation, mostly with war-surplus teletype machines. Sending data digitally is almost as good as sending Morse code and it is easy to type and read a printout compared to manually sending and receiving code. Sure, computers can read code, but since a human is sending it, it is likely to not be perfect copy unless the software is very smart and can adjust to slight variations like a human operator can.

Then came a digital mode called PSK31. It was a low-bandwidth slow digital protocol that used a computer’s soundcard to both send and receive. The computer could pull data out of what you would swear was nothing. There was some error correcting and other technical features that made PSK31 possibly better than Morse code for disadvantaged operations even by very skilled operators.

There are other similar digital modes, but most of them have not really caught on in the way that PSK31 has. Until FT8.

So FT8?

FT8 is a digital mode, too. It was specifically created to work well in really bad situations like meteor scatter or moonbounce. To maximize the chances of success, each FT8 packet holds 13 characters and takes 13 seconds to send. The protocol depends on a highly synchronized clock and every minute is divided into 15-second slots. Because of this FT8 contacts are highly structured and short. It’s like Twitter on sleeping pills. You won’t use FT8 to talk about your new motorcycle with your friend in Spain.

However, because the information is digital and of limited format, a typical exchange is that one operation calls CQ. Another operator notices and clicks on the first station in their display. Now their computers exchange basic information like location and signal strength. And then the contact is done.

The Good, The Bad…

If your goal is to “work” a lot of countries, or states, or islands, or any of the other entities hams try to get awards for, then this is great. It favors getting the minimum data through under the worst conditions. If you want to use ham radio to learn about other people and cultures, this doesn’t help because you just can’t say all that much. The truth is, though, that having long casual conversations with people very far away doesn’t happen as much as you’d think anyway.

[K5SDR’s] point, though, is that right now HF ham radio is on the brink of disaster even without FT8. The bands are bad and with antennas restricted, there isn’t much to do for a lot of hams. FT8 lets them get on the air. Purists complain it doesn’t take skill. But honestly, we’ve heard that before. Automated Morse code gear didn’t ruin ham radio. Nor did the availability of store-bought equipment.

Besides, this is all classic ham radio. There’s plenty of other things to do: emergency preparedness, radio control, propagation experimentation, and TV or image transmissions, just to name a few. If those don’t excite you, there’s moonbounce and satellites (even one orbiting the moon), so there’s always something to get involved with. The frontier is moving, and ham radio is moving with it, or at least maybe it should be.

Your Turn

What do you think? Is FT8 going to kill ham radio? Save it? If you aren’t a ham, does that make you think about getting your license? Or is it just another boring thing old guys do with their radios that you don’t care about? Let us know in the comments.

115 thoughts on “FT8: Saving Ham Radio or Killing It?

  1. I’m pretty neutral on FT8 and don’t see the big fuss.
    Most HF guys are contesters who only use the minimum exchange for points so FT8 would be just fine for them.

    If you’re on HF and don’t want to use FT8…. great! It uses so little bandwidth you’ll have no problem finding a place to talk. The point is pretty moot if you ask me. Though, I’d like to try FT8CALL which I guess is similar but allows longer conversations to take place.

    1. I’m “an HF guy” and when I say that I mean I use the HF bands more often than everything else (unless I’m using a HT like it was a walkie talkie at a convention or event) and I enjoy listening to conversations in other countries, although I am limited on the languages that I can speak, I am learning to understand several. I also enjoy experimenting with RF (and MW and MMW for that matter) and building gear that either makes it easier to understand what people are saying, makes it easier for people to understand me (when I am actually speaking on the air) or, and this is my favorite, making it possible for me to do something that would either (a) be impossible or (b) would cost [possibly a lot of] money. My favorite and most used examples of this are the following
      (1) receiving email (or possibly other format) to a rural area of the country that doesn’t have power(I use solar), internet, phone, or conventional cable television.
      (2 and I know this isn’t HF) an array of antennas (dipole and yagi versions) that are tuned for 2.4GHz that can each report the signal strength they receive. And software(I started with some open source software and only wrote very little) that computes that data and overlays a colored indication of signal strength over a live feed from a webcam connected to the antenna array. I can use it to see what areas of the house have good wifi signal strength and either move wifi access points and/or antennas or move devices using wifi in order to achieve the best signal strength possible.

      I apologize for the poor formatting and poor articulation, putting my thoughts into words is one of my weaknesses.

      Regards,
      Trent S.

  2. Just another mode. Some folks like QRP, some folks do RTTY or PSK31 — the great thing about ham radio is that it’s a ticket to play on the airwaves. If we all did the same thing, it would be very boring.

    I’m not worried. I’m actually optimistic that SDR is making the cost of entry lower.

  3. Digital modes are every bit as much ham radio as morse code, long wire antennas and net operations are. It’s not going to kill off ham radio. It may open new avenues for some and some may not embrace it at all. No worries, same thing happened with PSK31 and the no-code license. A ham friend only uses digital and he’s more active than about anyone else I know on the air. If anything, digital mode variety may bring in the younger crowd who have only lived in a digital society and who think computers are far more friendly than people are. Great! Welcome to ham radio at it’s best – VARIETY!

    1. I agree.

      I take care of my grandmother when I get off work mon-fri and she lives in a neighborhood that doesn’t allow antennas. I have two antennas at her house to use while I’m there, a 20m loaded dipole in her attic, and a 40m magnetic loop that is attached to the top of her fence (~10′ tall wooden privacy fence) although it it closer to the ground than I would like, it is completely invisible to anyone who doesn’t know it is there (I’ve even camouflaged the LMR400 transmission line by putting a garden hose over it because I thought it might have given me away)

      Regards,
      Trent S.

    1. Fundamentally no different, but RTTY (using 45.45 baud and 1 stop bit) can send about 6 characters/second, PSK31 about 4, and FT8 about 1. I would say that a 6:1 ratio in data rate makes for different target groups for each.

      1. FT8 was designed for a very specific purpose – sending an extremely constrained dataset (13 char/message?) and, based on extremely accurate/synchronized clocks detect signals that don’t appear present to the casual observer (‘in the noise floor’), RTTY was designed to transmit infinitely long messages over strong, reliable signals.

        FT8 is about confirming a self-identified signal, no more.

        1. I see. I misunderstood, then. I thought it was a 13 characters “at a time” thing. I guess I was confusing FT8 with Ft8call, which is an expansion of FT8 to allow sending a series of FT8 packets. I would barely call a message that’s limited to “AF8WV d K6ABC”, “communications”.

          If what you’re saying is true, FT8 won’t kill ANYTHING – it should barely have any effect at all, since it only needs 50 Hz of bandwidth for 13 seconds.

  4. For someone like me with a modest station and a stealth antenna in the attic, FT8 lets me work stations that would be difficult at best with any other mode. I love to rag chew, and didn’t think that I would enjoy FT8 at all, but I’ve found it to be much more compelling than I thought. Beating the other guy to that new DX that just showed up, or see who answers your CQ is every bit as much fun with FT8 as CW or RTTY. Combine it with PSKReporter and you can learn one heck of a lot about how good your station is and how propagation changes during the day. In short, give it a try, you might be surprised.

      1. Not quite – more like:
        Super-8 -> VHS -> DVD -> mp4
        8-track -> cassette -> CD -> mp3
        Morse -> RTTY -> PSK31 -> FT8
        None of these actually removes its predecessor, but each in turn becomes dominant.

  5. I have a hard time understanding the difference between con testers that exchange call signs and ‘fine-nine’s and nothing more and an FT8 exchange that does the same thing.

    I just put up a small (17’) 20 meter vertical antenna and this weekend I’m going to tryFT8 for the first time.

    1. Heads up here: I was googling to learn the difference between FT8 and ft8call, and stumbled onto a month-old forum comment by one of the ft8call developers, indicating that they have been asked by the FT8 developers to stop using the name “FT8”. So expect a new name for the same thing, soon.

  6. In the sixties and seventies, every so often a ham magazine would run a story about automated stations, fiction. What happens when the operator is redundant?

    I haven’t paid attention, but I gather this isn’t just about weak signal technique, but if software doing it all. There was a news bit sometime back about certain certain contacts being invalidated, the software filling in details or something. With networked computers, when do they take over rather than the actual transmitted information?

    Some of the fear is that people will just let this mode run, collecting contacts, rather than try other modes. So the others die when nobody calls CQ.

    It’s all quite complicated. Amateur radio has shifted in trying to.lure more people in. In 1990, Canada restructured, a much simpler entry level test, but you can’t build your transmitter. The US dropped the Novice license, so entry is local 2M, rather than HF and you’d build a 1 or 2 tube transmitter. It’s been a long time since hams built all their equipment, but entry used to give more of a chance for things to rub off on new hams.

    Do moonbounce or meteor scatter, and ft8 may make sense because of weak signals, but hopefully the rest of the station requires some effort. Weird propagation, like meteor scatter, may still reveal something, and the more contacts the more some pattern might be revealed.

    I’m thinking of buying a new rig, first time in my life, licensed since 1972, something to mark my 60th birthday next year. One of those portable all band rigs, HF but 50, 144, and 432 too. Go mountaintopping, antennas can be small, but it’s VHF DXing on SSB. It’s still pushing the frontiers to some extent.

    Michael

    1. I don’t necessarily build my own gear, but I do tend to put together my setups with obsolete junk, scrap, random mismatched parts, etc. I don’t have the money for new commercial gear, but I do have a library card. Does that count for anything? I think some modes are a lot more fun this way.

      1. Precisely.

        Ham radio used to be all about the CHALLENGE. Today’s black-box buyers that can make contact and discuss the weather with anyone, anywhere as if they were using a telephone is NOT a challenge.

        Make your own equipment – challenge. Construct your own antenna – challenge. Use minimal power (QRP) – challenge etc etc etc.

        If there’s no challenge to face, what’s the point? Pick up the phone or send an email.

        1. The “challenge” was what kept me out of ham for a decade or more. If not for the ease of getting my ticket in the early 2000s and making contact with other hams who helped me out I never would have pursued contacts on the low bands with antennas that I built and I wouldn’t be looking into QRP SDR now. I can txt or email those same hams but the fun is doing it through the air

    2. You mean as in automated contesting or something? Just a bunch of computers exchanging call signs as fast as they can? Wow, it’s amazing that anyone would want to do such a thing. Sure, you could cheat and get a good score, but what’s the point?

      To be honest, I’ve always thought that contesting and trading call signs just for its own sake was a dumb waste of the hobby in any case. If you’re working a difficult-to-contact area or using unorthodox equipment, sure–trading call signs is a way to prove the contact is robust enough for meaningful communication. But every once in a while I’ll tune in and lurk around an amateur band and just listen to endless yokels spitting out their call signs back and forth and nothing more. Just people inside the continental US, and not even far-flung corners of the nation. Like Mississippi to Texas. IMO that’s not interesting at all. At least have a chat or something? What’s the point of radioing somebody two states over, saying your name, then going online and logging it?

      I’m building a GOES receiver with a 3d-printed waveguide I designed and covered with copper tape just to pass the time. Looking forward to seeing if that works. Designing the antennas and radios is super rewarding to me–the contact is really just a test to see if I did that stuff right. I don’t personally get people who buy the expensive, high-end pre-built stuff.

  7. When it comes to open protocols like FT8 I’m pretty firmly in the “Saving Ham Radio” camp.

    What concerns me is the proliferation of digital modes that use proprietary patented voice codecs. Ham Radio has many purposes but one of the big ones is supposed to be learning about radio and electronics and developing one’s engineering and troubleshooting skills. Proprietary codecs make it impossible for a ham to 100% understand what their radio is doing let alone actually design and build it themselves. While many argue that popular codecs like AMBE, the voice codec used in DStar are available as chips a hobbyist might purchase and include in a homebrew radio they are missing the fact that such a chip is a black box that handles a significant part of the radio’s job and the ham may not “look inside” to see what it is doing. In later years this has not been entirely true as there has been an effort made to reverse engineer these codecs and code has been made available online however I do not think that having to violate DMCA or copyright laws is really in the spirit of what amateur radio is supposed to be about.

    Some have argued that this is nothing new because commercially built analog radios don’t come with open source designs either. I am not sure how true that is because both of my Yaseu radios did come with full schematics! That really misses the point though anyway. I don’t think that every ham should have to build all their own equipment, nor do I feel that every radio must come with a schematic. There are plenty of other reasons people get into ham radio including public service and even just chatting with one another. If an appliance operator (someone who buys their radio, antenna, etc… and builds nothing) wants to get on and ragchew (talk to people) all day that is perfectly fine with me! Actually, there are more appliance operators than makers so when one wants to test their radio on the air it is almost always an appliance operator that returns their call. So long as they give an honest signal report (that’s a whole ‘nother rant) they are doing good for homebrewing even without doing so themselves.

    When one switches to a proprietary codec however now when a homebrewer wants to test their radio they have taken themselves out of the pool of potential testers. Further, when a new ham starts tuning around and discovers that all the locals hang out on some proprietary repeater that could never be reached via a fully homemade device… it sends a message that making is dead and there is no reason to learn all that electronics. This is about as far from what ham radio was supposed to be about* as it could be.

    All too often this opinion gets dismissed as being resistant to change, or somehow tied to a fixation on older modes. Nothing could be farther from the truth! I don’t want to see ham radio stagnate, never adopting any newer technologies. I want to see radio amateurs taking a lead developing better technologies not unlike we see in the open source software world! Getting rid of proprietary codecs does not mean eliminating digital. On the contrary, little or nothing is lost by eliminating that crap. We already have Codec2 which is open source and in most cases sounds better plus uses less bandwidth than the proprietary alternatives! There is no reason to use this proprietary garbage except that in some cases (such as DStar) the proprietary codec was chosen before Codec2 was available or in other cases they are chosen by radio manufacturers who have a history of not trying to be compatible with one another (I’m looking at you Yaseu) and think they are somehow going to build themselves a monopoly by nearly giving away repeaters that lock users int their own in-house codecs.

    One proactive response rebuttal before I go… There has been a lot of talk about Yaseu’s Fusion repeaters. They use a proprietary digital codec but if someone who does not have that ability gets on and transmits analog they automatically fall back. I’ve heard many people say this will somehow bridge the gap between homebrewers and digital appliance operators. I call BS on that! People spend big bucks to get their fancy digital appliances to talk to those. Then somebody comes aong with an analog radio And everyone is forced back onto analog? How much do they appreciate that? Clubs I’ve known that have installed those repeaters all eventually end up with two repeaters, one analog and one Fusion but reconfigured to ONLY do digital.

    * – It isn’t just my opinion that ham radio is supposed to be (in part) about making. At least here in the US it’s the law!

    (b) Continuation and extension of the amateur’s proven ability to contribute to the advancement of the radio art.
    (c) Encouragement and improvement of the amateur service through rules which provide for advancing skills in both the communication and technical phases of the art.
    (d) Expansion of the existing res-ervoir within the amateur radio service of trained perators, technicians, and electronics experts.

    1. FYI Yaesu Fusion is not a Codec, nor is D-Star a Codec. they both use AMBE codecs on their own open source protocol. Yes I have a system that can run D-star, DRM, and Fusion on a Yaesu Repeater using open source MMDVM software and open source hardware. I am glad ICOM got rid of the older AMBE chip and is now using AMBE2+ to get rid of the R2D2 they used to have. FYI a Transistor was proprietary once and Sony had to license it from AT&T, yet hams used them.

      1. If you missed the point any further you might have gone around and hit it long-path!

        “FYI Yaesu Fusion is not a Codec, nor is D-Star a Codec. ”

        I think I was pretty clear that it is the codec used by D-star (AMBE) that is the problem, not the rest of D-star. D-star, open or not was designed to rely on the closed AMBE codec therefore making it impossible to fully homebrew legally. I’m less knowledgeable about the exact technical details of how fusion works but you just confirmed it uses AMBE so at least that part is closed off to any legal amateur experimentation. Knowing Yaseu, the rest probably is too.

        The best comparison I could make for D-star is imagine Linux if some important part of the kernel were replaced with a closed source binary blob. Imagine if you couldn’t replace that blob without making Linux completely incompatible with every other computer on the planet. D-star may be mostly open source but if you tried to replace that black box AMBE chip you would be talking only to yourself!

        “FYI a Transistor was proprietary once and Sony had to license it from AT&T, yet hams used them.”

        That is a really bad strawman argument. It’s basically the one I already debunked about transceivers with no schematic available. So what? A radio made with patented transistors still transmitted and received the same signals as a radio made with vacuum tubes, even homemade vacuum tubes! Actually at that time, AM was still common. A signal made using proprietary transistors could have been received by a homebrewer using a chunk of galena!

        Closed, proprietary codecs shut homebrewers out in a way that proprietary components and designs never could. That kind of garbage is not compatible with the purpose of ham radio. It should not be allowed there.

        Finally, I would like to repeat, if proprietary codecs were completely banned from ham radio NOTHING good would be lost! Well.. except for the foolish investments of a bunch of hams that already payed way too much for their AMBE black boxes. You mention how the switch to AMBE2+ made D-star sound better. A switch away from AMBE entirely to CODEC2 would have also made it sound better but would have freed D-star from the black box.

  8. er, in the good old days, we called it “different strokes for different folks” :-). I would like to see some sdr transmitter development. Receivers are everywhere. There are one or two sdr transceivers, but I can’t seem to find good transmit only USB units, Help me be wrong!

  9. I don’t understand the people who think they get to decide what Amateur Radio “IS” (or isn’t). Frankly I welcome all comers who want to explore and learn and use. I couldn’t care less if they use JT8 or ragchew.

    I don’t exist to tell people what Amateur Radio is or isn’t, should or shouldn’t be, and neither should anyone else. As long as someone qualified for the license, and keeps to the rules, they should be free to do what they like.

    There is a lot to love about the science and technology of radio communications, but not everyone is an RF/electrical engineer, and I don’t think that shuold be expected in order to be part of the hobby.

    How many car enthusiats are actually master mechanics? Should they be excluded from a car show because they didn’t build their car completely from scratch themselves? What about race drivers? Should they have to build a car themselves to race it?

    I personally don’t do contests, but I see the techncial achievment of pulling a weak signal out of noise soup and decoding it. I can see that would come in handy at some point.

    Enjoy your 15 seconds of f(r)ame if you so choose = )

    Peace – K6BPS

    1. Well, should there be a need to determine what Ham Radio is, maybe this is a start:
      Ham Radio is a community of people working together to learn by experimenting, and by exchanging knowledge. That means that Ham Radio should be completely open. Like open source, open hardware etc.
      73
      Freddy, ON7VQ

  10. Personally, I can’t stand working phone/voice — I guess I just don’t play well with the folks that specialize in those modes. I do, however, enjoy making contacts with the computer-assisted modes and have made some friends along the way.

  11. WSPR is another mode that does take the operator out of the contact. The trend of remote operations from a smart phone on the beach is also testing the logic of the whole hobby. If you have a phone in your hand, all you need to do is type their telephone number to talk to them, for cryin’ out loud.

    1. WSPR isn’t about calling a friend. It us usually homebrew on some level so it starts as a technical challenge. Once you have it working you either get bored and quit or it becomes an experiment in propagation and seeing just how many miles you can wring out of a minimum amount of power. It’s not really meant to be a practical thing for communicating. I can’t imagine many scenarios where it would be short of announcing the location of a safe zone after some sort of sci-fi apocalypse or something like that.

      I’d like to point out though, about that cellphone comparison. I hear that one a lot about ham radio in general. Yes, you can call your friend any time you want to. So you are bored and looking for someone to do something with. You pick a specific friend and ring their phone, potentially disturbing them if they are currently busy. If you and your friends are all hams (big if, I know) you can put out a call on your local repeater and ask who is available. You could reach only those friends who are not busy and all of them at the same time. I don’t see how that is in any way the same thing or how one can replace the other!

      Off the repeater you may reach more distant people in far away places kind of like a real-time penpal service. You can have nets based on some subject you are interested in and find new people who share similar interests.

      So, no, a cellphone is not like ham radio. The internet might be… but telephone is not. What does ham radio have that the internet doesn’t? Some people get pretty excited about the emergency capabilities. The fact that it doesn’t rely on a grid which might go down. That’s good. My thing is the technical aspect. I can play around with making my own equipment which establishes it’s own long-distance links. There is also the fact that are not-so net neutral telecom carriers are so evil. It’s nice to have the capability of not using their services.

      Now.. if only all my friends were hams and really did tune to the local repeater when they are available…

  12. What the heck is ham radio about these days anyway? My next question would be, what the heck is FT8?

    Is ham radio sort of a social networking for the older generation? If so, why haven’t they migrated to Facebook?
    They kids are all outa there now, so there shouldn’t be a problem in that regard.

    1. Do they look like old farts ?

      [Video of women putting together an antenna that plays heavily on the destructive trope that women are somehow stupider than men, or exist mainly to be seen. De-linked by editors.]

    2. Far as I can tell, it’s talking across town about how much you spent on your Japanese radios. Kids these days don’t want to homebrew anything.

      I’ve spent 45 years in radar research, tracked planes, satellites and the moon, but after spending all day designing and building antennas and high powered transmitters, doing the same all night just to chitchat didn’t appeal to me.

      1. Really?!?!

        How many articles do you read right here on this site about people you would consider to be kids building something?

        I won’t argue about your observation of what conversations are actually happening on the radio. In my experience it isn’t ALL like that but it’s bad enough that it sure can look like it is.

        I think I understand how you feel about doing something as a job and not wanting to do it as a hobby. I struggle with the same thing from a different angle. As a professional computer programmer one of the last things I want to do is go home and write code. I love making things though and with today’s technology the things you can do are just so much better if they are a mix of hardware and software as opposed to “pure” hardware projects. And so, I get really excited about building this or that, put together some hardware and then the project languishes waiting for software.

        That doesn’t really say anything bad about software as a hobby though, only trying to mix career and hobby. Likewise your experience of radio as a job does not mean that someone else who didn’t spend 45 years doing that for a living will not find enjoyment and satisfaction out of amateur radio. That’s more of a reason that it just might not be for you.

    3. Why would you ski down a mountain when you can just drive a car? Why hang glide when you can just drive there? Why jump out of a perfectly good airplane, when you can just stay in it and land at the airport? Why waterski when you can just stay in the boat, or just stay back on the dock? What is the point of climbing a mountain, when you are just going to go back down?

      You must be magic in a relationship.

      1. In my experience the planes normally used for sky diving are only “perfectly good” in a very subjective sense!

        I actually saw one once with the propeller held together by duct tape. I’m pretty sure they only did that as a temporary patch to allow for taxiing but still… DUCT TAPE! I was so glad when they lead me to the plane I would actually be jumping from and it wasn’t that one.

  13. Having been licensed for longer than lot’s of readers are old (1951) I can remember when folks on AM said that SSB Was gonna scew up the ham bands – you know how that turned out. Then, CB was also gonna ruin everything – need more hams bring the CB folks aboard. Reduce/eliminate code requirement – wow is that gonna mess everything up. Now when a Nobel Prize winner introduces FT8 and you can work the world with 25 W, that too is a disaster! Sun spots gone, no problem work on 6M or 10M when you can’t hear a darn thing no problem, FT8 to the rescue. Wanna ragchew, probably oughta stay down on 40 or 75 until ole sol wakes up again or try 2M etc.
    Be positive, enjoy what we have and Mother Nature allows. The only constant is change – go with the flow. Bob

  14. The internet pretty much killed everything, pure evil. You can do most anything on line, see things, talk with people, from all over the world, only have to leave the house, or spend money if you really want or need to. Cheaper and safer for many to stay home. Think most people look at radio, as very old technology, not a lot of curiosity. Encryption really kills a lot of cool stuff you might do with radio waves these days. Our taxes paid for a lot of those satellites up there, the space program, we should be free to receive, use and and enjoy the live transmissions of data and images. Getting in to HAM, is an investment in time and equipment, that doesn’t really seem to open up much, that you can’t get off the internet, which most people have access to, aside from a few communist countries, or money tight places on the planet. It’s a hobby, maybe a lot of folks don’t get it, but there are a lot of hobbies and interest that don’t make much sense either, like Facebook.

    There is only so much time in a day, and some much cash in a paycheck, and a whole lot more options on how to spend them, since radio was a thing. HAM will probably always exist, but getting to be popular again, would require new things it can be used for, and some value to justify the expense (time and money).

    1. The stupid rules about encryption get in the way of a lot of it. The rules are extremely overzealous in my opinion. They’ve basically walled off their old man’s hobby and tried their best to freeze it in some kind of nostalgic stasis, preventing a lot of innovation or invention, and now they moan about any new development “killing the hobby.” Sounds to me like the FCC and ARRL’s codgety politics and authoritarian rulemaking already killed any possibility that it would grow and persist into the future. There’s vast swaths of bandwidth that are effectively dead zones, but they’re reserved anyway–and what you are allowed to broadcast has pretty much all been done a million times. If you aren’t a corporate or national entity, tough luck–have fun revisiting experiments from the 1970s or something.

      Broadband-hamnet is kind of an interesting concept, but you aren’t legally allowed to do much of anything useful with it. It would be cool if it could become a secondary, independent encrypted internet without any hardwired infrastructure. It would use up a lot of bandwidth and be relatively slow, but I think it would have some real interesting possibilities.

      1. There’s no “walling off” going on here. The prohibition of encrypted content has been there from the start. This, along with the prohibition of music, was a way of placating the commercial radio industry, who had to pay high license fees, by making amateur service non-competing. That is still a valid limitation for amateur radio. Do you think the broadband mobile industry wouldn’t pitch a fit if Internet-over-amateur-radio became a thing?

          1. Because the promise made in establishing the amateur radio service was that it wouldn’t compete with commercial licensees. Amateurs should NOT be able to have the same capabilities that commercial radio service does, because this separation is what allows the continuing justification for amateur radio service.

      2. I would like to see a license-free service opened up where encryption is the norm, nobody is protected from interference and don’t transmit outside of the band is the only real rule. This is where your broadband mesh as an open internet would fit in.

        It would also be self-limiting. As it becomes popular there would be greater interference resulting in it’s popularity going back down resulting in less interference leading to a resurgence in popularity and so the cycle continues….

        This is why unencumbered encryption on amateur radio would be a problem. Bandwidth is limited and we all have to share. Imagine paying only for cable modem or similar broadband service at your house. Then you build a little handheld device that talks back to your home via ham radio giving you basically free cellular service. It sounds great! But then imagine that everyone else does it. It wouldn’t take long to use all the bandwidth that we have!

        I would like to point out that at least in the US the actual text of the law only prohibits “messages in codes or ciphers intended to obscure the meaning thereof, except as otherwise provided herein;”. Encryption for the purposes of validating one’s identity wouldn’t necessarily be covered by that. I would think that one could use public/private key encryption for validation purposes so long as one also transmitted their public key in the clear at regular intervals. I would suggest at 10 minute intervals along with one’s callsign since that is already the requirement for callsigns.

        Honestly, if one really wanted to do internet via ham radio I’m not sure anything in the law really prevents it. You wouldn’t want to send private, personal messages nor would you want to send banking information or anything sensitive like that. But, for basic web surfing where you wouldn’t mind a bunch of strangers looking over your shoulder there is no reason you can’t. For example, you could browse HaD so long as you have no financial interest in HaD or it’s ad partners. But.. if that became popular, see above… bandwidth!

        1. “Honestly, if one really wanted to do internet via ham radio I’m not sure anything in the law really prevents it. You wouldn’t want to send private, personal messages nor would you want to send banking information or anything sensitive like that. But, for basic web surfing where you wouldn’t mind a bunch of strangers looking over your shoulder there is no reason you can’t.”

          You can’t conduct business or use amateur radio to further business interests.”

          Without commerce, AKA advertising, huge swaths of the ‘Internet’ are not allowed to travel over amateur bands, same goes for streaming music/video, and other things people do – like buying upgrades in csndy crush.

    2. There *was* a good bit of data on the air in the late 80s and early 90s. At its heyday, “packet radio” on 144, 220, and 430 MHz bands was pretty busy. Links ran at 1200 or 9600 baud. Packet framing protocol was a variant of X.25. The usage started dying down quickly with the advent of cheap internet access, but packet radio changed into the Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS). It was used for sharing vehicle locations and for short text messages – 85 characters if I remember right? There is still some data traffic on the various bands, and now there is a pretty good amount of “voice over digital” traffic.

      1. Just some historical context here: packet radio in the period you mention was a logical extension of the BBS craze, which is why you see data rates that match up with modems of the period. I don’t know what eventually happened to packet radio, but BBSs disappeared the day after ISPs showed up.

        1. Agreed. There was modest success with Skywarn after “Twister” hit the theaters. There was another uptick right after 9/11/2001, but not teenagers. And… that’s about it for now. Solar cycle is so far in the trash right now it’s not going to be easy, and that’s probably OK. Things change. I wouldn’t have thought “the maker movement” had a chance in the world, but I’ve been wrong plenty of times before.

    3. The limiting factors are bandwidth and noise. Noise is a given, but the important thing about it is that noise is spread out over the whole spectrum. This means that the more of the spectrum you can reject, the lower the remaining noise is. The inescapable consequence is that the wider your signal’s bandwidth, the more noise it has to compete with. So the more bandwidth your signal needs, the more powerful it has to be, and therefore the more transmitter power and antenna gain is needed. FT8 addresses this by being extremely narrow in its bandwidth requirement, allowing very long range communications with very low transmitter power and less-than-the-best antennas. But the consequence is low transmission speed. As the article states, it’s about one character per second. So a 320-character text message takes over five minutes to send. Not really competitive with cell service. You can do the math yourself for c64 games, for example a 10 kbyte program would take 10,000 seconds to transmit. Most people wouldn’t like that kind of data rate.

      PSK31 takes a different approach, using typical typing speed as the objective. It still needs less bandwidth than single-sideband modulation of voice, but in most cases a standard voice SSB transceiver is used, with the modulation and demodulation (and along with that, some noise rejection) being done by a computer connected to the transceiver. Apparently, though, the inventor of PSK31 is a pretty slow typist, since this mode is limited to about four characters per second. There are other phase-shift keying modes that are optimized for higher data rates, but they require correspondingly wider bandwidth and therefore higher transmitter power and/or better antennas.

      TL/DR: the reason there isn’t more robust digital data exchange over ham is that higher data rates require proportionally higher transmitter power. Simple as that.

    4. RTTY is ‘texting’, but receivers see text as it’s typed.

      You can send full-frame video over the UHF bands, but but the bandwidth is too wide and power required to send the signal any real distance is excessive.

  15. I started getting my ham license in 1959, I was in the Navy a nd overseas, I could my afford transmitters and receivers then so I built my own, I built a transmitter first because it was eaiser, I built a 5 band double superhetrodine reciever next and used both to talk back to the states. I enjoy rag chewing and talk to several groups every day, and answer every .ca call I hear. Ham radio is just exciting to me today as when I started, I don’t care for digital communication at all, but for all that do, I’m behind them one hundred precent, Ham Radio won’t die as long as me and one other ham is able to talk. WB4BRV

  16. Yeah, ham radio was cool exciting cutting edge technology once. Back when I was a kid. Maybe in the 1960’s Then you felt like one of the Hardy Boys if you could fire up your radio rig and send morse code and get a response. But I think like bell bottom pants, it may have run its course. It doesn’t seem too exciting these days, maybe even has slid beyond retro.

  17. There are more than enough modes to go around, FT8 won’t kill ham radio any more than WSPR, PSK-31, SDR’s, commercially built radios, or being confined to 200 meters and down did. It’s a hobby that changes over time, just as the people using it change over time. Amateur radio is all things to all hams. Each one of use find something different to do in the hobby, each goes their own way, and each of us manage to have fun doing it.

    As long as we’re using the airwaves for communication, it’s real radio. FT8 sure as heck won’t change that.

  18. FT8 is just another step towards integrating computers and radio. Someday there may be a repeater that accepts authenticated transmissions from any ham and uses frequency diversity and other exotic cell phone like -but narrow band – transmissions to send around the world. The ham won’t know which frequency or path the signals take. For instance take Zigbee. Just using lower frequencies and longer distances not relying on skip, but still within ham bands. Ever heard of Aloha Network? https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/ALOHAnet

    1. Yes I have. Forty gears ago, someone with the Department of Communications here in Canada had experienced Aloha Net, and decided amateur radio needed a change. He spoke at the local ham club meeting in May of 1978, announcing rules that allowed for packet radio. And some local hams demonstrated amateur packet radio, maybe the first public demonstration. But I’m not certain, there may have been US work on it already.

      Packet radio took off, but at 2M, so local only. Add a new box, the TNC, that used audio tones with existing radios. So only 1200 baud. It boomed for a while, then faded. Faster required modifying the rigs, or building from scratch. Some used HF, but it never took off. It was too slow, and ham rules limited what could be sent.
      Michael

  19. The vast majority of those who say it’s ruining the hobby are the same ones who decried the elimination of the Morse Code requirement because it would result in “CBers” on the bands and kill the hobby. Funny thing is, the whole mess that’s the sewer on 14.313 MHz has been committed by 20WPM Amateur Extra hams long before Morse was dropped. So I don’t exactly put much faith in the FT8 will kill anything.

    Michael KA3X

  20. If anything is ‘killing radio’ it’s noise. FT8 puts us back where were twenty years ago, i.e., holding conversations just above the ‘was that a signal or my imagination?’ level. I’ve been licenced long enough to remember when noise on 40 was barely moving the S-meter, maybe a 2, now it’s a 9 +10 dB here in Verona.

    It’s not my kettle of fish, I3/G8SHE/P uses up most of the 13 characters, but I can see that it lets people who aren’t made out of money work the dx without an expensive power amp and a thirsty power supply to feed it, and as such opens the hobby to people who blanch at the idea of a rig+amp that costs more than their car. If more people are experimenting with more propagation modes like TEP and EME this has to be a good thing, it justifies us to legislators as being propagation experimenters, not just CBers with a licence – though there’s always a place in the hobby for those who just like to chew the rag. Maybe, for example, talking about construction and sharing ideas.

    I didn’t know about js8call, I think I’ll give it a try. So, this article and comments has been useful to at least one amateur, so thanks people!

  21. I’ve been a ‘ham’ since 2002; the airwaves are if anything busier, but there’s also a lot more ‘qrm’ i.e. man-made noise now, 2018, than ever before .e.g electronic toys and gadgets, computer and general communication signals down ‘phone lines etc etc. I mostly use single-sideband (SSB) for speech, but occasionally FM and AM and very occasionally Morse. The 80metre band at night can be prohibitively crowded with SSB unless you’re on a ‘net’ with other hams; 40m is tho’ the most active day and night. In the UK try . Commercial concerns wish at times to expropriate amateur bands for their own use but we usually come to some agreement. If you can get onto I think 145.800 VHF FM you can listen to satellite comms with schools but DON’T answer unless you’re a licensed ham. If you’re interested, the Radio Society of Great Britain can direct you to the nearest training course. The old UK ‘Ham’ license was about the standard of an ‘O’ level, but now you can get onto the airwaves with a much easier test allowing a low-power transmitter/receiver. You’re allowed to ‘self-train in radio’ and discuss ‘personal matters’. Bad language, advertising and political statements for example are not permitted. There have been some better long-distance chats of late, but certainly the current sunspot cycle is very odd.

  22. Ham radio spirit cannot be killed by a new working mode. The diversity of working modes makes this hobby so unique. A young person can be convinced to become ham radio not because he or she can contact other persons around the world. For this purpose already exist Twitter, Facebook, Whatsup… But, build and experiment things is the true spirit and it is not important what working mode will be chosed.

    Just try to compare FT8, which allows hams to have long distance contacts using only radio waves, with DMR, C4FM, YSF and all additional hot spots interconnected via Internet. Which one is more dangerous ? In my opinion, none, while all these made enthusiasts to build and experiment, even over Internet.

    Truly dangerous for amateur radio is the lack of activity. Lack of activity could means not only powered off equipment, but also impossibility to practice the hobby because of bad propagation, small antennas and so on. Encourage any kind of working mode that brings a person, especially a young one, to the great world of ham radio.

  23. I think FT8 its a new aera in ham radio communication that has nothing to to wid the classic ham radio conversations. It is ideal for that ones, that first of all want to have a call sign in the log and collecting qsl cards. And it is a wonderfull technologie to test what is possible, what are the limits of physics. So my opinion is: let anyone do what them makes happy, as long all other ones can do their things.

  24. Bob Hicks pretty well summed things up as well as others. Myself licensed in 1957 see another side not yet mentioned. Amateur radio has and is going downhill faster here in the US not just from so much technology now but the conversion of ham radio into a sofisticated CBer’s playhouse caused by poor judgement of the ARRL for new members, the FCC, Mgf’s desire to sell equipment knowing the less tech present day ham would be buying, etc. The lowering of requirements for ham radio brought those into the picture that had no desire to be tech minded but only to expand their CB arena and those that then came into ham radio based on that. As a result ham radio as it was created has been destroyed replaced by the old term that was brought out once before,. “Appliance Operators”. The CB lingo has even carried over to the ham bands.
    The critical thing I’m trying to emphasize here is the fact ham radio has not changed due to all of the above but literally been replaced. The creation of amateur radio for it’s intents and purposes of those involved to experiment, improve, etc. no longer exists.

  25. I use FT8 a lot and I also believe that it is killing amateur radio. The use of macros in other digimodes is doing so too (I call CQ for no-macro QSOs). That is why JS8Call (formerly FT8Call) is coming to the rescue – the benefits of FT8 whist being able to chat! FT8 will die once this mode gets out of testing.

  26. You just listed two factors which have far more of a deadly effect on the hobby than FT8.

    “I can remember as a teenager making a phone call from my car and everyone was amazed.”

    Reliable worldwide mobile comm is now provided by cell phones. Ham radio is no longer needed for that except in catastrophes where the cell phone system is down.

    “At the height of classic ham radio, every ham wanted a beam antenna or a cubical quad or some other type of rotating directional antenna.”

    Neighborhood covenants now prevent that in so many places. Also, there is a shift to condo and apartment living. As a result there’s a shift to sub-optimal hidden antennas and lower power.

    To get something unique out of the hobby that is interesting while taking those limitations into account there is a shift to low power operation and digital modulation methods which are far more amenable to small signal operation.

    So, FT8 is not killing the hobby. There are other far more important factors accomplishing that. FT8 is an adaptation of the hobby to its modern limitations.

  27. First of all there was the Coherent CW ….
    2. HF OLIVIA …..
    3. EME JT65, MF JT9, VLF EbNaut
    From SNR -10 dB to -70 dB.
    The FT8 is a populist back-step.
    The CW is forever on any mode -rig -band (TPTG TX 472 Khz too)
    73

  28. Nothing to worry about, old timers! Just another mode. Should be seen as a way to attract younger people to radio art/science. If they start with digital modes… Better chance they will get into the hobby and soon pick up an HT to start calling CQ on analog too. Short of a disaster… Kids have far better and more reliable means of communicating with their friends. These additions can only save amature radio. We need kids to become interested or amature radio will not be here much longer.

  29. Did CB “KILL” ham radio? In the ’70s, there were millions of more CBers than ham operators! So much so, that they overwhelmed the FCC and caused them to drop CB licensing altogether! If you like just seeing where you signal can go, then these new modes are fine. If you really want to have a conversation, then stick to SSB, CW, repeaters, or EchoLink! Some hams have gotten so upset about the poor propagation, that they have actually downloaded the app. “Online Walkie Talkie Pro” to their smartphones, just so they can stay on touch with their ham friends!!

  30. ‘Reliable worldwide mobile comm is now provided by cell phones. Ham radio is no longer needed for that except in catastrophes where the cell phone system is down.’

    That’s a big ‘except’. If you live in an earthquake zone, you can expect the local chief of police to turn up outside your doorstep when his radio goes down. It only takes seconds for people in a building where there’s a power-cut to use 7-year-old twins to communicate. Even if only to say ‘I’m ok.’

    We have actually made our infrastructure more fragile. The internet and cellular radio are inherently robust, but they still rely on a mains plug in the wall. Amateur radio can go a long time on batteries.

    1. Most of the internet is pretty resilient as well seeing as most of it is in data centers with redundant power/generation. its the last couple miles to the house that is not, between tress that can take out communications lines and curb side dslams and nodes that require power. Some of this equipment is battery backed and your equipment at home can be just as easily battery backed as your ham radios. Depending on your region cellular is probably many times more reliable than the copper/fiber coming into your house. Here in Florida all cellular towers are generator backed by law due to hurricanes. When Irma ripped though Florida I lost my cable connectivity for almost a week but cellular worked fine as did tethering my computers to my cellular phone for internet.

    2. I think that is one of the reasons why it is hard to attract new people into Amateur Radio. In its heyday, Amateur Radio was compelling in its ability to communicate around the world without using the ultra expensive international telephone network. Now, communicating anywhere in the world inexpensively is simple. My wife texts free to the Philippines every day and no one had to learn morse code. There are those of us who geek out on the gear but its just not that compelling an endeavor unless you like that kind of stuff. If FT8 is advancing the state of the art for radio comms, good that’s what the hobby exists for. Saying its not difficult enough is ridiculous, the whole idea is to develop leading edge tech that eventually becomes transparent and simple for the end user. I come from the days when it was truly painful to get IP up and running on any system, now people use it without even thinking about it.

      1. The thrill, got many, isn’t communicating per se, but the technical challenge of taking various pieces of equipment, radios, antennas, power supplies, feedline, etc. and be able to communicate.

        There are also groups of men who meet on a set frequency at a particular time everyday – it’s called a net – and share stories, tease each other and help each other keep their spirits up. These men may never have met face-to-face, their interest in radio is their connection. There is no parallel in the social media apps on the internet.

        To boil the hobby down to one thing is to miss the point, ham radio adds to other activities, it isn’t an end on to itself.

  31. Glad there’s something new for other folks to enjoy. But I can’t see myself bothering with FT-8 ever. To me it just doesn’t sound fun. My average QSO duration is 21 minutes. When I fire up the rig (only ever in CW, and mostly nowadays on 30m), I catch the first CQ I hear and try to keep the chat going as long as I can. That’s my thing. The FT-8 fans are welcome to theirs.

  32. Just because we are in and tending towards the solar minimum of Sunspot Cycle 24, with the Maximum Usable Frequency (MUF) decreasing, which is causing many hams to use 40, 80 and 160 meters, that does not mean the end of traditional ham radio on the HF Bands, for large antennas need not be long wire dipoles or verticals,but can in fact be small Magnetic Loop Antennas, Strongly suggest those who don’t have a lot of space for a 1/2 dipole on 40, 80 and 160 meters to read the classic paper of Leigh Turner (VK5KLT) entitled ” An Overview of the Under-estimated HF Magnetic Loop Antenna”, which can be obtained off the web. A very efficient MLA for 80 and 40 meters need only be 6 ft in diameter, and a very efficient MLA for 10-30 MHz need only be 3 ft in diameter. MLAs work great, not requiring any radials or any type of ground plane, and they work very efficiently only a few feet off the ground.

    73, Jim (N6MV)

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