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.

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

  1. Usually, you get reward for hard work, knowledge, accomplishment, …. What is the thrill or satisfaction in getting some diploma without any effort. It’s like literally buying that diploma. DXCC diploma is just one credit card swipe away. All you have to do is to learn how to click on OK button to log the contact (or buy a beer to a friend who will install a robot software extension for you).

    Thumb down for FT8

  2. FT8 might attract young people to the hobby as did buying black boxes and not building equipment. Its a futher development of our hobby. It will remain in use but will reduce over time as other ideas come forward. Remember we are experimental stations and its our duty to try new things. After all most of what came Hams is in use by the non hams.

  3. Well, you can have a casual conversation with a guy pretty far away by PSK31. It’s robust in many conditions as far as I’ve seen. Packet radio, CW, PSK, RTTY, Olivia, you name it – they didn’t cause any damage to HAM radio, they made it great just like FT8 did it again.

    Btw, HAMDRM is quite great for digital picture exchange. Too bad guys are not familiar with it (yet).

  4. BightBlueJim,

    Thank you for also referencing another excellent paper on MLA’s, i.e. the web article of Frank, N4SPP. Totally agree, most hams don’t have a clue as to excellent performance that can be achieved via a Magnetic Loop Antenna, viz. a properly designed,constructed and sited MLA will equal and oftentimes outperform any antenna type except a tri-band beam and will at worst be within an S-point (6dB) or so of an optimized mono-band 3 element beam. The proof of the pudding came when I was able to communicate with two ZS [South Africa] stations -who were 10,000 miles away – on 20 meter SSB, using a 3 ft diameter MLA that was only 3 ft off the ground, running 150 watts. The only disadvantage of a MLA is that it has a very high Q, i.e. narrow bandwidth, and must be retuned whenever one shifts frequency. This is no big deal, for automatic controllers exist that can retune the MLA as one QSYs to a new frequency, and using a dual SWR/Watt meter, manual retuning can be done within seconds.

    Another excellent paper for those who are interested in constructing a MLA for 160/80 meters, or a scaled down version for 40 meters, is that of Steve,VK5SFA : http://members.iinet.net.au/~sadler@netspace.net.au/tmla.html

    In sum, digital modes are great and have added another dimension to all the things that one can do in ham radio, but have been a ham for 63 years, and I have to admit that I enjoy speaking with and hearing the voice of another ham vs. typing a message to them. Bottomline: FT8 or whatever other new digital mode comes along is not going to kill ham radio- but in fact, these digital modes simply add another means to communicate, and that’s what ham radio is all about.

    73, Jim (N6MV)

    1. What I especially like about Leigh Turner’s article, is that he goes pretty deep into the theory of MLAs. I had thought that MLAs’ “efficiency problem” was because they generated only magnetic fields, not both electric and magnetic. But the same goes for what we call dipoles: they only generate an electric field. In both cases, the “other” field is taken care of by physics I don’t fully understand, but which has something to do with the characteristic impedance of free space, which in turn has something to do with the speed of light. Whatever.

      But the point is, an MLA can be considered just the magnetic equivalent to an (electrostatic) dipole, with the main down-side being that because of the high currents required to match an MLA to free space, conductivity of the loop is critical, requiring careful construction to get resistive losses down to an absolute minimum.

      I’m kind of excited about this; I’ve considered HF to be impractical for me, since I have no place to put a decent size antenna. This gives me more options.

  5. If one [hidden] antenna element isn’t big enough, what about multiple elements?
    Phased arrays can have a fixed length joining the elements, OR each element drives the ADC of an SDR (and you sum the signals with a digital delay). Cheap RTL-SDR’s for the win.

    1. What the hell are you talking about? You can’t combine 4 one-sixteenth length antennas to make an electrical 1/4 wave antenna by using ‘delays’. You use delay lines to ‘phase’ antennas to either increase gain or to reduce unwanted signals.

    2. This only works if both digital radios are operating from the same clock, and have the same overall delay from antenna to ADC. Otherwise your signals aren’t coherent, and you won’t get anything like a phased array. Plugging two RTL-SDR sticks into your computer just isn’t going to cut it.

  6. I don’t understand why HAM stuff gets so much attention on HaD. I understand the large HaD hipster audience, but even they appear to have moved on.

    Does HaD’s audience base consist of THAT many ACTIVE HAM operators who care about protocol changes?

    Seriously, something like the electrician code relates to more of these projects yet gets zero coverage because, like HAM shi…stuff, it’s dry as hell and doesn’t affect hacking any more than a “Warranty void if removed” sticker.

  7. cj crazy joe:\\to really enjoy the keyboard modes, you would need to be a good typist to get much satisfaction
    out of ft8 Ft8 has no attraction at this point in my hobby time….mabbe later. 73

    1. I can make FT8 contacts all day long and never touch the keyboard, mouse clicks all around.

      FT8 is very scripted, with WSJT software generating every response, you need only enable transmit, double-click on a callsign, and the software does the rest. At the end, click ‘Log QSO’ and you’re all done.

      >

  8. i love ft8 it is a mode i can use and get all over the world also with the digital modes you don’t get tvi i can work on 80 ft8 all day have one qso on lsb and interfere with the tv in the house ?????

  9. “There’s plenty of other things to do: emergency preparedness, radio control, propagation experimentation, and TV or image transmissions, just to name a few.”

    I read something similar when a Canadian user questioned on QST why the ARRL seems to have a contest every weekend. The person responsible for contests told him if he thought there were too many contests, go build a kit. To me that’s just dismissive and condescending. Some of us have been around for quite some time and have long been into emergency services as well as other aspects of amateur radio other than HF. But we like to rag chew as well.

    Some of us own and operate analog repeaters at a time when digital repeaters you taking over that require the internet for maximum functionality. What happens when the disaster strikes in the internet goes down? How good is your digital network then?

    I’ve also read here that FT8 may well bring in the young users. The same young users that want to change the way amateur radio works to begin with. I know because I read them on the Facebook groups all the time complaining about this and complaining about that and having no clue about how amateur radio works. When you try to help them out like a good Elmer they mouth off to you and block you. Many of them are taking advantage of the fact that getting an extra class license no longer requires code. They brag about taking all three tests in one day. Great job memorizing answers. Talk about a dumbing-down of amateur radio just to get more users in to keep the ARRL board well-paid.

    Why is it that when there is a contest the bands that people complain or dead suddenly come alive with users? Those are the same users that don’t get on the air because they’re not interested in FT8. That also means the bands aren’t dead. Or at least not as dead as people claim them to be in order to support digital modes. How easy it is to see someone pop up on your computer and double click your mouse and an automatic QSO takes place.

    The only one l agree with that has truth to it is with HOAs and city governments ignoring PRB-1 even though 33 States the last time I checked put laws on their books duplicating PRB-1. Putting up a tower is not as easy as it used to be. You end up spending $30,000 on an attorney just to get the rights guaranteed you by the law.

    That’s why I’m looking at moving to less populated parts of the country and giving up creature comforts like a market around the corner. I mean Amazon is only a click away. But if I want a bowl of cereal and I’m out of milk I want milk now, not a week from now.

    Our society coming to when people will order their groceries online and have them delivered? And they’re too lazy to cook dinner so they order that online too? Is this what we’re coming to? You call this progress? If you want to text message somebody use your cell phone and text the guy on the other side of the world.

    Stop dumbing down amateur radio! Stop giving excuses like using a computer will bring in the younger user. Have you ever seen the look of fascination on the face of a young teen that hears a station on the other side of the earth answering back on SSB? They’re hooked instantly. It seems like the younger ham just wants instant gratification. Put up an antenna with an inexpensive radio dialed up to 30 watts, hook it up to your computer and start FT8 and work the world!!!!

    How challenging. Don’t think that I’m just some old fuddy-duddy. I own a web hosting company and I’m all about computers. But I believe in keeping amateur radio real.

    1. “when a Canadian user questioned on QST why the ARRL seems to have a contest every weekend. The person responsible for contests told him if he thought there were too many contests, go build a kit. To me that’s just dismissive and condescending.”

      The obvious answer is “because many people enjoy them” – could the Canadian user not figure that out?

      SSB contests leave the CW portions of the band undisturbed, and vice-versa for CW contests and the SSB portions of the band.

      >

  10. If there is any truth that solar cycles will continue to get weaker it would seem that is more damaging to the hobby than anything. FT8 can give you a reason to tx for someone that doesnt care about chatting on hf. Maybe ft8 isn’t hurting ham radio but I don’t think it can save it either. I feel like its a mode you can “complete” and not have anything else to do.

    Even with ft8 the bands seem to be in fairly poor condition for dx. It seems like it would be common sense that dx chasers should move over to jt9.

    There doesn’t seem to be as much to do with radio as a hobby anymore and I’m fairly new on the ham bands. Most the good swl stuff is gone, encryption of law enforcement, etc. I plan to take down my hf station and focus on other projects like tinkering with arduinos and such. I would still like to keep around an ht for emergencies and monitor 146.52.

    The lack of simplex activity on vhf from stubborn hams that will only use hf is another big pet peeve of mine that I won’t even get started on.

    1. The solar situation is expected to get worse before it gets better (for propagation purposes), but during contests and State QSO parties the bands ‘magically’ come alive and DX contacts are made. I contend that half the problem with the bands is that a large percentage of hams don’t even fire up their HF rigs and call CQ.

      Nearly everything you could do with amateur radio 20+ years ago you can still do today, and in addition there are exciting new digital modes to try, new antennas to use, and the radios have never been better.

      I can consistently work ‘DX’ from my Texas QTH on 20 meters (Mexico, Canada, South America, the Caribbean, and the Continental US states, with Europe a frequent occurrence.

      That DX used to be easier isn’t a reason to shutter your station IMHO.,

      >

      1. I was talking more about the possibility of a maunder minimum type event. If that happens it could be difficult keeping people interested in hf even if you can make good contacts on occasion.

        With psk reporter and wspr I can tell when my signal isn’t leaving the lower 48 which is quite often. Those that have beams on a tower or even a dipole at full height I’m sure will do much better.

        I’m over loaded with hobbies and always looking for ways to simplify things. Doing vhf only would be simpler and still keep me in. Radio is fascinating. However I find myself agreeing with some of the earlier posts on this site that amateur radio is not exciting. FT8 gets boring but so does inaccurate signal, wx, or bowel movement reports that are the common exchanges on other modes. That is probably the main reason I want to pack up my hf station.

        1. Amateur radio is populated with s lot of older gentlemen, and as such they discuss the things most old men talk about when they get together.

          A decent radio and a resonant antenna can still make contacts most of the time in today’s conditions, I can’t predict the future. Most hams I see that get frustrated are that way because their miracle ‘no ground radio, 160-6 meter’ antenna isn’t getting them the contacts they want.

          True, back in the day you could literally ‘load up a bed spring and talk around the world, but today a simple, resonant antenna is a very effective antenna, but many/most opt for compromise antennas, set up in bad locations with inadequate counterpoises and they blame the solar conditions for their lack of success.

          I put up a simple cobweb antenna, and the difference is night-and-day from my previous trap vertical.

          A 20 meter dipole is 33′ end-to-end, the band is active during daylight hours, will provide a new Ham with a great experience.

          A 40 meter dipole is 66′ end-to-end and the band is active at night, and is home to a lot of local net activity during daylight hours.

          A 30’ pole, with a 20 meter dipole and a 40 meter dipole installed as an ‘inverted V’ will give you a simple antenna that will provide round-the-clock activity for minimal investment.

          See: http://www.hamuniverse.com/ae5jufielddayantenna.html

          >

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.