It is popular to blame the new technology for killing things. The Internet killed newspapers. The video killed the radio star. Is FT8, a new digital technology, ready to kill radio with ham? The community seems evenly divided. In an online survey, 52% of people said that FT8 harms radio with ham. But ham operator [K5SDR] there is excellent blog post about how he thinks the FT8 will save the ham radio instead.
If you already have an opinion, you’ve probably already reached the comments to share your thoughts. To be honest, I think what we’re seeing is a transformation of ham radio and, like most transformations, it’s probably killing parts of ham radio and saving others. But if you’re 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 issue. Oddly enough, our story begins with the strange lack of sunspots we’ve been experiencing lately.
Classic Ham radio
I have been a ham radio operator since 1977. My hobby has changed a lot over the years. I remember as a teenager calling from my car and everyone was amazed. Radio Ham covers a lot of land, but the “traditional” radio HAM operates a station in the high frequency bands – 3.5 MHz to 30 MHz – and talks to people around the world. This type of ham radio is currently suffering from several reasons. First, the prevalence of HF is largely dependent on sunspots and sunspots tend to decrease and peak 11-year cycle. We are currently in the deep low part of the cycle and even the last few peaks are it was not very good and no one knows why.
I often thought that if Marconi and the others had started experimenting with radio in the sun, they might have decided that radio was not very practical. With low sunspot activity, higher frequencies do not propagate well at all. Lower frequencies can penetrate, but these require much larger antennas and this causes another problem.
On top of the classic ham radio, each ham wanted a beam antenna or a cubic quadrangle or some other type of rotating directional antenna. The ability to swing an antenna in a certain direction brings more power to the receiver and also helps you receive the other station. The problem is that the antenna elements are usually about half the wavelength. Thus, at 20 meters, the elements are about 10 meters in size. You can shorten them a bit by using some tricks, but you pay a price for it in performance. At 10 meters, however, the size is quite manageable. Many noises had directional antennas for the 20, 15, and 10-meter bands (all-in-one antennas called tri-band bands). Very few would have anything for 40 meters – despite Mosley’s description of his 40-20-15 antenna as a “vest pocket”, but it was quite exotic. At 80 meters, mechanically rotating directional antennas are almost unheard of.
So when the propagation is bad, you have to go to lower frequencies, but that means bigger antennas. What’s worse is that the last few decades have seen growing hostility to radio stations with city governments, homeowners’ associations and the like. People living in apartments or flats have the same problem. So the number of buttons that can even place a triband or any kind of visible antenna has dropped significantly.
So, here you are with your radio. The tapes are bad and your little hidden antenna is not very good in any tape that can work. What are you doing?
The voice is extravagant
One historical answer to this problem was to stop talking and start using the Morse code. For various reasons, the Morse code will pass when there is not enough power, antennas or propagation to send voice communication. A qualified operator can extract a Morse code signal from noise that you would swear is just noise. But what if you are not an experienced operator? Bring in a qualified computer.
Some hams have always experimented with digital operations, especially teletype machines with a surplus of war. Sending data digitally is almost as good as sending Morse code and is easier to enter and read a printout compared to sending and receiving code manually. Of course, computers can read code, but since a person sends it, it probably won’t be a perfect copy unless the software is very smart and can adapt to slight variations, as an operator can.
Then came a digital mode called PSK31. It was a slow, low-bandwidth digital protocol that used a computer’s sound card for both sending and receiving. The computer can extract data from what you would swear is nothing. There have been some bug fixes and other technical features that have made the PSK31 probably better than Morse code for disadvantaged operations even by many experienced operators.
There are other similar digital modes, but most of them haven’t actually taken advantage of the way the PSK31 has. Up to FT8.
FT8 is also a digital mode. It is specifically designed to work well in really bad situations such as meteor scattering or moon bounce. To maximize your chances of success, each FT8 package contains 13 characters and takes 13 seconds to send. The protocol depends on a highly synchronized clock and each minute is divided into 15-second slots. Therefore, the FT8 contacts are highly structured and short. It’s like Twitter on sleeping pills. You will not use the FT8 to talk about your new motorcycle with your friend in Spain.
However, since the information is digital and limited in format, a typical exchange is that an operation calls CQ. Another operator notices and clicks on the first station on its display. Now their computers exchange basic information such as location and signal strength. And then the contact is over.
The good, the bad …
If your goal is to “work” for many countries, or states, or islands, or any of the other entities, the hams are trying to get rewards, then that’s great. It favors obtaining minimal data in the worst conditions. If you want to use a ham radio to learn more about other people and cultures, it doesn’t help because you just can’t say it all. However, the truth is that long casual conversations with people do not happen as far as you would think anyway.
[K5SDR’s] The point, however, is that radio ham radio is currently on the brink of disaster even without FT8. The tapes are bad and with limited antennas there is nothing to do for a lot of noise. FT8 allows them to go on the air. Purists complain that skills are not needed. But honestly, we’ve heard it before. The automated Morse code did not destroy the ham radio. Nor the availability of equipment purchased from the store.
Besides, all this is a classic ham radio. There are many other things you need to do: emergency preparedness, radio control, experiments with the distribution and transmission of television or images, to name just a few. If these don’t excite you, there are moon jumps and satellites (even one orbiting the moon), so there is always something to get involved with. The border is moving and the ham radio is moving with it, or at least maybe it should be.
What do you think? Will FT8 kill the radio with ham? Save it? If you’re not a ham, does that make you think about getting your license? Or is it just another boring thing that old people do with their radios that you don’t care about? Let us know in the comments.