JT65’s success. Who’s next?

Recent articles here on AmateurRadio.com by VE7SL on digital modes made me ponder about why JT65 is so popular nowadays. Like Steve I’ve also noticed rather empty CW and SSB portions of the band. Even psk31 signals hard to find, while the JT65 slice is overflowing with signals, often S9 plus many dBs in strength.

Steve lists the usual reasons often cited for its popularity: the waning sun, increased urban spectrum noise, working DX contacts at very low power levels and with modest antennas, no-code hams etc. But frankly, I think there is more to it.

Because, apart from JT65 there are many other modes that work well under difficult conditions. Take Olivia and all its derivatives. Like the JT-modes all based on MFSK and even deep in the noise you can still use them for meaningful communication over long distance. So why is JT65 king and Olivia not? Here is my list:

1) Lost voices
The smart phone has taken over as our main means of communication. However, 99% of its use is for written communication, not for voice. That written content is often not very extensive or deep: simply short bursts of information and often even in code like geek speak or emojies. I think many people either don’t want to, are too lazy to, or forgot how to talk in a meaningful way. The complaint about PSK31 was that is was mostly used for 599-73 macro QSOs. With JT65 you don’t even have the possibility to go deeper than 599-73, because it’s all that you can do with it. QSOs in Olivia can take an hour or more, because you can write whatever you like and engage in real conversation. The choice of the majority here: JT65.

2) No language barrier
Living in Asia I know that many hams here are intimidated by English. Speaking English is most awkward for many Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Part of it is lack of proper English education and part of it is saving face. Digital modes are far less intimidating. If your language and typing skills are sub-par then you rather not engage in more than a basic exchange. Thus JT65 is your best choice, Olivia clearly not.

3) The app generation
Whatever you use for the JT-modes, it’s basically like a smart phone app. Everything has been hashed out already and is presented on a silver platter. A few clicks of a mouse and you have made a QSO, automatically uploaded to a logbook on the web, probably including some form of QSLing. Compare that to Fldigi (the Swiss army knife of digital modes) where you have to find the right frequency, choose the right mode, zero in on the signal and only then you can start playing. For ease of use JT65 software is the master, Fldigi the not so convenient Jack-of-all-Trades.

3) Fixed frequencies with multi-decodes
Standards are a great thing and hard to come by. You can use JT-modes on any frequency, but there are designated meeting grounds if you are looking for a QSO. Added bonus is that on HF you monitor a 2 kHz wide portion of the spectrum, so you can quickly find the most interesting stations. Olivia has designated frequencies, too, but they are not set in stone, thus you are less likely to meet someone on air. FLdigi doesn’t guide you to a set frequency, that task is up to you. And with signals nowadays that can be received far below the noise floor and many not even visible on a waterfall the challenge of meeting someone on air is immense without fixed frequencies. The advantage here goes to JT65.

4) Standards, standards, standards
Oliva comes in the following varieties: 4/250, 8/250, 4/500, 8/500, 16/500, 4/1000, 8/1000, 16/1000, 32/1000 and 64/2000. Oh yes, the slightly improved version is called Contestia and sounds so similar that you can’t tell the difference by ear or on your waterfall. JT65 comes in one variety, its improved successor JT9 in one as well. Choice is a good thing, too much of it and it becomes hindrance. It should not be a problem to have and use multiple digi-modes on air, because the solution in IDing digi modes is RSID (or Reed-Solomon Identification). Unfortunately, not many programs offer this option and as a user you will have to turn this feature on by yourself. So, JT-modes know how to kiss (keep-it-simple-stupid), Olivia doesn’t (even though she is very sweet).

5) We’re still sheep
Apart from being hams we are also human. And humans display sheep-like behavior, following whatever trend or fad that is the talk of the day. Is JT65 a trend or a fad? I think both. The trend is towards more text based communication based on complex transmission protocols that can be used far below noise levels. JT65 falls in that category. The fad is “an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived and without basis in the object’s qualities,” and JT65 falls in that category as well. Once something better, brighter, flashier comes along the herd of sheep will change course and follow the new kid in town.

Who will this new kid be? The one that plays it the smartest. And here, in my humble opinion, is the smart kid’s checklist:

– easy to use and understand app-like program
– fixed frequencies selectable inside the program
– a program that is build for all platforms including smart phones
– one standard transmission protocol or the auto-detection of it
– monitoring capabilities over a large frequency range
– lots of macros
– automated logging and QSLing
– fast transmission cycles

Now my hope is that the next mode that will reign the bands will allow for some more in-depts communication. From a technical standpoint JT-modes are very interesting and what can be achieved by them is phenomenal. But from a human standpoint I think they degrade the interaction between us hams to something that has very little meaning anymore.

I’ll leave you with this: a new digi mode called FSQ (Fast Simple QSO) has been getting some attention lately. If you take the above into consideration, will it be the next best thing?

Hans "Fong" van den Boogert, BX2ABT, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from Taiwan. Contact him at [email protected].

5 Responses to “JT65’s success. Who’s next?”

  • Steve VE7SL:

    All excellent points Hans. The term ‘dumbing-down’ also comes to mind when thinking of the JT mode experience. It certainly does make for less conversation and exchange of information but something needed to be sacrificed to achieve this weak signal capability. I don’t want to see the CW ragchews and phone conversations vanish but it seems to be slowly happening. Your analyisis is most thought-provoking and very much spot-on.

  • I think you see so much success with JT modes because they appeal to introverts like myself. JT modes provide all the radio related excitement (technical puzzles, propagation, making contact, etc.) without the pressure of social situations that come with voice modes.

    That won’t make any sense to most non-introverts, but that’s great for the next generation of Hams because so many technically inclined people (in my experience) are often introverted. They love to tinker (Ham Radio is great for that) but have less interest in turning it into a social activity.

  • Doc Morgan KK4ZU:

    I read with interest K4HCK’s comment about JT modes. They have the ring of truth. Many evenings have I listened on the HF bands to conversations among HAMs, and hesitated to jump in, although any time I have done so, the other operators have been unfailingly gracious. I have never considered the point of view that Cale describes, but I think he may be onto something.
    Your article, Hans, was quite thought-provoking, and your analysis was carefully considered and crafted.

  • Bob N2SU:

    Another factor in the popularity of JT65 is the fact that it’s a level playing field in terms of ERP. Most of us with standard 100 rigs turn the power down to 25W or less and those with yagis usually lower the power even more. Since I run a barefoot rig and dipole antennas on HF, I would rarely call CQ on CW (my favorite mode) but on JT65 I can call CQ and have no trouble working people. It is ideal for those who are antenna-restricted. I usually chase DX or work contests and have little interest in casual ragchews (been there, done that), but I’ve had a ball with JT65 and have worked all continents with it. Phone modes have no allure for me since I’ve worked as a broadcaster so speaking into a microphone is nothing new here.

  • W7DAO:

    Nice article.

    1. Too many modes, not enough hams, and unless someone uses an identifier I can’t always figure out which mode they are using.
    2. Yes, urban noise and limited antennas make JT65 worthwhile for me. Especially when I hear almost nothing on many frequencies due to solar weather and RF noise.
    3. Do I wish to have a longer conversation, yes, but who else does? I don’t find many people wanting more than a brief contact. PSK would be find, but the behavior is send macros and move on. Our form of “can you hear me now.”
    4. Maybe we need to set up some HF ragchew digital frequencies for those that want to learn more about each other using PSK or the like.
    5. Please use RSID. Unless you don’t want some of us to contact you.
    6. Lastly, I can work DX better, which I can’t do well now on voice.

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