160m FT8 – The End Of An Era?

If you follow any of the numerous ham radio-related discussion groups then you know that every once in awhile a thread pops up that triggers some extended and often heated chat.

One such thread on the Topband reflector, is now finally starting to gasp its final breath but not before running through several dozens of well-thought replies and opinions. I can easily imagine a similar thread, had the Internet been around, when SSB quickly began taking over the phone bands!

The thread began when veteran 160m DXer Steve, (VK6VZ) posted an observation that also hit home with me … the seemingly overnight disappearance of a huge percentage of CW / SSB activity on the HF bands.

Steve’s comments are directed towards 160m, where weak signal work has always been an enjoyable but challenging activity but I have noticed the same effect on my other favorite band, 50MHz. With the sudden popularity of the new FT8 weak-signal fast-mode, the bands have changed.

As I and others have often stated about Topband DXing, 6m weak-signal DX as well as EME, “if it were easy, it wouldn’t be fun” … perhaps that is what has now happened. Both Steve and myself see many of the things we have cherished and enjoyed about ham radio for so many years now harder to find and wonder … is it the end of an era or not?

G’day

As a committed (yeah, that’s probably the right word – complete with white
jacket that laces up at the back) topbander since 1970, I’ve never been so
intrigued and disturbed by anything on the band as the emergence of the
Franke-Taylor FT-8 digital mode.

For me, radio has always been all about what I audibly hear. I love all the
sounds that radio signals make – and even miss the comforting sound of Loran that I grew up with around 1930kHz as a teenager in south-east England. Yeah, I am one sick puppy.

With the emergence of high resolution bandscopes through SDR technology over the last decade, I embraced that as it meant that I could find what DX stations I wanted to hear and contact quicker and more easily (and, in particular, before those stations who didn’t have the same technology).

It was really exciting and enhanced the sensual experience of radio by being
able to see what I could hear (and no dinosaur me, I was an SDR fan boy!).

During this period, there has also been an extraordinary development in digital
radio modes, in particular by Joe Taylor K1JT.

As a topbander I could see that these modes in which you ‘saw’ signals through the medium of computer screen or window as being a remarkable technical achievement, but had relatively little to do what I and the vast majority of active radio amateurs practiced as radio on 160m, as it had nothing to do with the audible.

The good thing was that I could see that good old CW and Silly Slop Bucket (you can see where my prejudices lie) that I like to use were still the modes of choice for weak signal DX topband radio contact as these fancy digital modes were either very slow or, if they weren’t, were not good at dealing with signals that faded up and down or were covered in varying amounts of noise.

While some amateurs seemed to have lost the pleasure of actually hearing
signals in favour of viewing them on their computer screens, I felt secure that
these digital modes were just a minor annoyance and any serious DXer or
DXpedition was never going to seriously going to use them, particularly on my
first and all-time love topband, for other than experimentation.

Then, out of the blue, along comes FT-8. Joe and Steve Franke K9AN have quietly created the holy grail of digital operation with a mode that can have QSOs almost as fast as CW and SSB and over the last eight weeks 160m DXing has changed, perhaps for ever.

Where once there were a few weak CW and SSB signals (I am in VK6, which is a looong way from anywhere with a population so we only ever hear a few), I can see that the busiest part of the band is 1840 kHz – FT-8 central.  On some nights I can see FT-8 signals on the band but no CW or SSB.

There are countries I’ve dreamed for 20 years of hearing on 160m SSB/CW (for example, KG4) regularly appearing on DX clusters and I can see the heap of FT-8 activity on my band scope.

Frustration sets in and I even downloaded the FT-8 software but, when it comes down to it,  I just can’t use it. My heart isn’t in it.

My computer will be talking to someone else’s computer and there will be no
sense of either a particular person’s way of sending CW or the tone of their
voice (even the way some my SSB mates overdrive their transceivers is actually creating nostalgia in me). The human in radio has somehow been lost.

I think back to my best-ever 160m SSB contact with Pedro NP4A and I can still
hear the sound of his voice, his accent, when he came up out of the noise and
to my amazement answered me on my second call, with real excitement in his
voice. Pure radio magic!

So I am sitting here, feeling depressed and wondering if overnight I have
become a dinosaur and this is the beginning of the end of topband radio as I’ve
always enjoyed it.

Now, over to you other topbanders, especially those who have dabbled with FT-8 and live in more populous areas. Has the world really turned upside down and what do you think the future holds?

Vy 73

Steve, VK6VZ/G3ZZD


Here are just a few of some of the comments elicited by Steve’s post:

… we are not forced to use the new modes. On the other hand, these new modes enable a whole new layer of operators. A new target rich environment for more opportunities to work new DX. The RF still has to go from A to B to be decoded 

I think the game changing aspect of FT8 is that many folks who would normally be available to work on CW or SSB  will now be on FT8.   The amount of activity on the FT8 frequency of any band is phenomenal.

… he was sending (me) a text message that he was sending me RRR and I needed to be sending him 73! Who needs a radio?

I turned off the radio and uninstalled WSJT-X.

Pure and simple —- No skill, no thrill.

I hear a lot of moaning that there is not any cw ……. well quit moaning and call CQ for a while … do it often, not just listen .

Stu W1BB had the attitude of do whatever you have to to make the DX contacts. There is no doubt in my mind that he would be using JT9, FT8, spark or whatever it took to make new country contacts.

FT8 is already falling victim of its own success. In my case, the number of incomplete QSOs is increasing, due to QRM caused by ‘over population’ in the FT8 segment.

There was a time when SSB was considered evil.

If using a digital mode keeps someone involved in ham radio or generates new interest, then I’m all for it.

On the other hand, these new modes enable a whole new layer of operators. A new target rich environment for more opportunities to work new DX. The RF still has to go from A to B to be decoded.

A similar situation regarding digital modes took place on 50 MHz this summer. In the case of 6 meters, JT65 and FT8 are now the predominant modes for DX work on 6 meters. During terrestrial sporadic-E openings, there are very few DX stations now operating CW or SSB on 6.  Meteor scatter is the realm of MSK144.  If you want to work DX on 6 meters now – digital is where it is at.

Like FT8 or dislike it, it’s really not the end of Ham Radio.

Technology is constantly changing. Get on the air.  Do your thing. Have fun.  When it ceases to be fun for me, then I know I’ll move onto something else.

I’ve been licensed for over 60 years, and have been a thankful participant in ham radio’s golden years, but if continuing on means having to make qso’s that I don’t hear and that I can’t understand without a computer, then it’s of no further interest.

I almost bought the new transceiver I’ve been wanting this year …. until I saw the reflector post about the gentleman who “worked 20 new ones this season, and I couldn’t hear any of them!” The new purchase is now on hold, until I see how this plays out. If there is a rapid change to digital only DXing on 160, I’m going to be happy I saved my money for one of my more interesting hobbies.

The problem is not the type of mode but the Internet. We’re spending too much time ragchewing on these groups instead of tickling the ether.

However, the trouble with the computer-based Digital modes is that there is no SKILL involved in having a contact – it’s your Computer having a contact!

You still need to set up a radio, antenna, and, of course, the computer and software to do the digital modes. Making QSOs after all of that is not a given. Different skills than CW or SSB I’ll grant you but skills none the less.

Put me in the group who of those who arrived kicking, screaming and being drug from Tubes to Solid state. From AM to SSB. From Analog to Digital. It is called advancements in technology. I still dislike cellphones. But I use them. And also all other forms of Ham Radio.

You guys should have been around for the AM versus SSB discussions/wars without the use of the instant communication internet.

VERY SORRY, BUT if 50 mc and also 1.8 mc is going to be the same this and coming 2018 season,  I stop my ham-radio and will do something else. I give it to end of 2018 to see if any changes will come.

Well said. . .I totally agree.

I’m sure there will be people who say FT8 is just “progress.”  But some psychologists divide people according to whether their preferred mode of experience is auditory, visual or kinesthetic (touch).  I think most of us who are addicted to radio are primarily auditory – on one level, that’s why we’re in this hobby.  So, no surprise that we find radio without the auditory component to be unfulfilling.

… let’s all maintain our ham licenses and continue using our favorites modes.

… don’t give up. There is still plenty of magic in ham radio.

I’m not knocking the guys using the digital modes. It’s obviously a new and interesting technology and they are having fun, which is the reason we do this, right? I just have ZERO interest in it all and still get my fun actually hearing and working another station.

When it comes to actually making a QSOs, I really don’t know what you get out of the process where two computers communicate with each other using signals that are not audible.

The new digital mode is an evolution of doing nothing. Skype would be more fun … digital mode is boring and soon the FT8 user will feel that way too.

Call CQ 5 times and then turn your computer on, every day, if all of us do it once a day, the band will be fun again.

JT modes were originally designed for VHF. No reason to use them on HF and especially on Top Band.

I guess I don’t understand what makes the new Digital modes any different from old RTTY. There will always be a place for CW and voice modes in ham radio for those that want to practice those … and remember one of the major facets of ham radio is to “advance the state of the radio art” which surely describes the new digital modes.

People should be excited that there are now so many signals on 160!

It is allowing people who have smaller stations the opportunity to get on and use their radios and a computer to make contacts they never would have been able to make. This is great for ham radio!

Steve’s final comments summed-up his thoughts:

G’day

Thanks very much to all those who contributed to the thread following my ‘FT8 – the end of 160m old school DXing?’ post. Here is a summary of what appeared in my ‘In Box’.

First, special thanks to CJ Johnson WT2P for bravely giving the ‘new school’ perspective and actually taking radio, in FT-8 form, into his workplace . As CJ says, FT-8 is just another natural progression of the hobby, which actually appeals to the ‘20-somethings’ we need to join us (and who just happened to be brought up with lots of screens rather than cardboard loudspeakers and bakelite headphones). Vive la difference!

In regard to the emails received via the reflector  or privately, there were three things that came through very loud and clear (actually deafening).

1. There are lots of long-time, old-school topbanders (and 6m users) like me who enjoy chasing weak signal DX on CW and SSB and are now worried about the future of this activity because of the current high usage rates of FT-8 on those bands. Always better when you aren’t alone!
—————————————
2. We can band together and do something about this – the solution for us old school ops who want to keep CW and SSB vital on the two magic bands is to go back to first principles – lots of CQing, tuning the band regularly and answering CQs – rather than just watching our bandscopes and DX clusters.  We all know that only activity breeds more activity. Duuh! (I feel really stupid now).

As JC N4IS said:

”With the computer our habits are different. Nowadays we turn [to] the PC first and if we see a spot or a RBN entry we try to call…. We should [go] back to call[ing] CQ for the fun to work someone. Call CQ five times and then turn your computer on, every day. If all of us do it once a day, the band will be fun again.”

We’ve all got CW memory and/or voice keyers – if we don’t want to actually CQ manually, we can use them for lots of daily CQing and make sure we answer anyone who calls us.

We also need to answer those who we hear calling CQ to keep the band alive, even if we worked them the day before – as we did in the older, less hurried, more polite days of yore.
——————————————–
3. The ARRL could be encouraged to change the DXCC program and add a new mode-specific category for the evolving ‘new wave’ (i.e. WSJT) family of digital modes, where contacts can be made with stations that are basically inaudible (i.e. as Hans SM6CVX suggested, where the signal levels are –1dB or more below the noise).

To keep the peace with existing DXCC holders, one potential solution is those traditional modes which generally need audibility – typically CW, SSB, RTTY  and PSK-31 – would count for the long-standing Mixed mode, but the inaudible ‘new wave’ digi modes would not.

However, the growing and evolving family of inaudible ‘new wave’ digital modes could have a whole, bright, shiny new DXCC category to themselves, for which all the current WSJT modes and their evolving, successor modes would count.

This ‘new wave’ digital award could have a new cool, 21st century-looking certificate (are holograms 21st century?) , would give new wave digital operators the chance to be among the first to get this award and would also give the ARRL DXCC program the chance to potentially get some extra revenue in issuing these awards.  Of course, all the contacts would be submitted electronically. 😉

Another different but related idea came from Mark K3MSB  – why not ask the ARRL to consider awarding band-specific DXCC awards with mode endorsements (i.e. 160M DXCC-CW,  160M DXCC-FT8,  40M-Digital, 17M-SSB etc).

If we want to get this kind of change to the ARRL’s DXCC program, then as Mark suggests we need to make our voices heard. This could be simply done by creating an electronic petition to the ARRL signed by as many current members of the DXCC program as possible, clearly spelling out what sort of change the petitioners think is needed. There is a great website which can be used for this purpose –   see https://www.change.org/start-a-petition – and it should be easy to publicise a petition of this kind, using reflectors.

For many years I was involved in administrating amateur soccer and have experience of using electronic petitions as a means of showing an administrative body the level of support for specific changes to the way the game is run.  In my experience, electronic petitions are a viable way to get rules changed these days. Some people hate them, but BIG petitions actually do get results.

Hope the above summary of ideas was of interest. Please excuse me now and I’ll get along to the low end of 160m, start doing something practical like CQing and stop worrying about the demise of old school radio (which I’ve probably greatly exaggerated).

Vy 73

Steve, VK6VZ/G3ZZD

All-in-all, some food for thought! Personally I exploit the weak-signal properties of the WSJT JT9 mode on 630m, but only when conditions are too poor for CW. I dearly miss the drop-off of CW DX activity on Topband and on the magicband. For now anyway, I will continue to avoid the use of FT8 on the HF and 6m bands, keep flogging CW, and hope that things are not as dire as some have suggested. Times are indeed interesting and changing … and as always, eventually time will tell.

Steve McDonald, VE7SL, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from British Columbia, Canada. Contact him at [email protected].

8 Responses to “160m FT8 – The End Of An Era?”

  • Hans (BX2ABT):

    To me this whole FT-8 discussion is slowly becoming a whining fest. Things change and many an old timer can’t handle change. Instead of opening up, embracing and accepting there is only negativity towards “the new kid in town.” Understandable, but the majority accepts change and goes along with it. Democracy works like that and the majority decides that things are good with the new kid. Democracy also says that you can still do your thing, so what did you lose? Yes, maybe some friends that moved on to other interests, but in normal life that also happens, so learn to live with it.

    Accepting change is difficult. Seeing something you care about fade away even more. That goes for me as much as anyone else. Accept and life goes on. Don’t accept and you’ll end up as depressed as VK6VZ.

  • Dave KJ8U:

    To each their own.

  • Harry K7ZOV:

    I have been a ham since 1963. I missed the spark-gap to CW as oscillator debate, but read some interesting writing in QST that were all gloom and doom about the hobby. In my lifetime the AM boys were against the “Donald Duck” sidebanders and SSB was going to kill ham radio… Then there was the 2 meter AM people all upset by the WIDE signals of the old retired RCA mobile radios bringing FM to 2 meters. Let’s not forget the no code tech and making the mam bands all sound like 75 meters at night (Oh I meant to say the CB bands… Not much different, other then 11 meters uses less profane language). No code was the end of ham radio, so said many old timers… Well in the US we have topped or close to topping 800,000 hams and still growing. PSK was the CW killer world wide. CW was for decades THE way to reliably get a message through so many countries dumped it as a requirement and eventually the US did also. What I have found interesting is now many NO code hams are learning the code and how many old timers who never really got it (me included) are getting into CW. Not dying by growing. It will never be like 1963 when it was forced upon everyone, but it will be more and more each yeas..

    Now it is gloom and doom with WSJT-X and FT8 being the downfall of ham radio and no one will be “listening” anymore. Guess some people missed last week-end. There was a whole lot of talking. SSB was a alive a well and 30 and 17 meters, where their was no contests was cooking.. Shortly the CQ CW contest will hit and I am will to bet it will be wall to wall hams pounding brass once again..

    The problem is not the old and new modes, it is people not getting out and calling CQ. The bandscope and panadaptors are wonderful tools to see who’s on and where they are hiding, but they are useless unless someone presses a button and makes some noise…like calling CQ. I have gotten on 20, 17 and 15 meters many times in the early evening when my Elecraft P3 pan said the band was dead and made some nice DX contacts, as well as other States just by calling CQ. I have done the same with PSK and with my really, really bad CW. Dead bands? Hell no.. Lazy hams…

    Ham radio is no a static hobby. If it were we would still have Marconi antennas outside and spark gap TX’s. JT65 and now the awesome FT8 will open up bands that really are not in good shape as we enter this extended solar minimum. It has allowed me to take my (are our ready for this) Buckmaster 7 band 3 KW OCF antenna and allow my K3 internal ATU load it up to 1.7:1 (magic or miracle) and make my first dozen contacts. It never happened with SSB or CW or even PSK31… But it did with FT8. Would I like to have heard a voice or should I say have had a voice contact..Hell yes.. But the reality is my signal is below the noise floor (way below) and it took the magic of FT8 to allow me the excitement of making contacts on 160 meters…

    Pick a band, pick a mode and call CQ. Watch the bandscope also, but calling is more important then looking…

    Well that was my nickles worth.

    73 Harry K7ZOV

  • Boots VK3DZ:

    It’s likely some OT ops who cut their teeth on coherers & quenched spark gaps looked with a jaundiced eye upon Model 15s & RTTY.

    Nothing’s changed in 120 years . . . you have a conduit (electromagnetic radiation) and you have a mode of modulation to impose intelligence on to a carrier.

    Pick the combination that tickles your fancy and have fun.

    Personally I like DominoEX8 on you-can’t-bend-it-double-sideband-full-carrier A3E under 10 MHz. Also good for scaring the neighbours – I tell them I’m communicating to our Martian overloads. (they already think amateur radio is weird)(the neighbours, not the Martian overlords)

  • Bob-WB3DYE:

    The digital platform may be another message which will help to keep amateur radio alive. I don’t have digital here but one of reasons our service is in existace is for furtheing the radio art and experimenting. The new format willl send a clear message to those who would LOVE to gobble up our spectrum and the FCC.

  • Walt n5eqy:

    After listening to the ‘millenniums’ falling all over themselves praising FT8, I wondered why was it such a wonderful thing. After listening to the VHF crowd doing the same thing, it occurred to me that: the “instant gratification” generation just wants the bragging rights of instant contacts that they never talk to or learn thier names or their locations or their lifestyles. A pity really. Ham radio is a communications medium and has been a great way to make a new friend and spread a little good cheer amongst most of the fraternity. A 15 second “contact” using digital exchanges just doesn’t seem very fulfilling and certainly is not by any means a person to person contact. Its more like picking grains of sand from a beach front. A very sterile method of ‘contacts’.

  • Walt n5eqy:

    Dang it! i hit the enter before i finished my comments. I was going to say that in the interim of “dead band conditions” there are lots of people out there who ARE listening or monitoring and if ya call a few times there is a fairly good chance you can get a comeback. NOT all the time, but it happens. So my conclusion is have fun, enjoy what ever mode ya like to do and by the time we get some decent propagation we can have a chat along with using the FT-X modes to see where band conditions lead us. So far i have used it to call cq to a few areas that showed up on the waterfall and got contacts using 20 watts and a EFHW wire. It happens…not often but its a hoot when it does. 73

  • Harry K7ZOV:

    Doing a little experiment tonight. First I check 15, 17 and 20 meters for any FT8 activity. 17 was dead, 17 A ham in Hawaii was picking up Tx, CA, MN and New Zeland. I could only see him on the waterfall. Next I went to 14 meters. Hawaii again, however this time 4, also 5 South American stations, 3 Japan stations and a dozen US station. Signals ranged from -7 to -21 with most in the -15 range… Down in the mud so to speak

    Next I went to PSK31 using FlDigi and the same antenna. 14, 17 and 15 meters were dead. But to make sure I called CQ on each for 5 minutes. Far longer then usual for me… No contacts

    Then I went to SSB. Power now went form 30 watts to 100 watts. Called CQ on all 3 bands in different locations for 5 minutes per band… Nothing… I watch each band on my K3/P3 set up to make sure I was not missing someone was jumping in and out. I also checked the CW part of bands and again the bands were technically dead.

    About 35 minutes later I checked 15. 17 and 20. The Hawaii station on 17 meters was stil strong (-2) and picking up station. 20 meters looked like not change. Japan, South America, now a Canada station, some US… Basically a live and kicking. 30 was busy, 40 meters was packed 80 meters was cooking..

    The bottom line s when the bands are dead for SSB, CW and PSk then with FT8 the chance of having some ham radio play is very likely. Likely not only in domestic station logging but also DX. That is why FT8 will always be around. It is also why it, like voice, cw and other digital modes, are now part of the mix. Last week-end SSB was king and the bands were packed..As well as FT8. Soon the CQ CW contest will be here and CW will be king and FT8 will be busy also… But in both week-end examples SSB and CW will be the dominate mode.

    That’s it for tonight… Hope people will find this test of interest..

    73 Harry K7ZOV

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