The FT8 mode was first released as part of the WSJT-X software in 2017. This new digital mode was adopted relatively quickly and is now a major force in amateur radio. You’ve probably heard the praises and complaints about it. On the plus side, it enables radio contacts under very poor conditions while detractors say that it is not real ham radio because the computer is making the contact. FT8 is an excellent example of a disruptive technology, impacting daily ham radio operations. This summer, I had two operating experiences (VHF contests) that really drove this point home.
My temporary station setup on the porch for the VHF contest.
ARRL June Contest
In the ARRL June Contest, we had very good sporadic-e propagation on 6 meters (and even 2 meters). I used my IC-7610 for 6 meters and usually had one receiver listening on the SSB calling frequency and the other sitting on the FT8 frequency. My strategy was to operate FT8 while keeping an ear on the SSB portion of the band. If signals were present on SSB, I switched over to that mode. The idea is that the run rate on SSB is inherently faster (and more fun), so it is my preferred way to make contacts.
There was definitely activity on the SSB portion of the band, but it came and went throughout the contest. There were times that I was able to run on a frequency, calling CQ and having a steady stream of stations to work. Other times, I had to search and pounce, tuning around the band to find a new station to work. The FT8 story was different: most of the time there was consistent activity and new stations to work, but at a slower rate.
The FT8 operators tended to stay on FT8, even when the signals were strong. If they wanted to maximize their score, they probably should have switched over to SSB to make contacts at a faster rate. But they didn’t and that is their choice. (One thing I’ve come to accept is that I don’t control the choices that other radio hams make in terms of operating mode and band.) On 6 meters, I made 428 contacts with 80% of them on FT8. Radio operator decisions affect the types of QSOs made and if I focused only on SSB, I would surely have had more SSB contacts (but how many?)
CQ WW VHF Contest
In July, the CQ Worldwide VHF Contest was even more striking. While I was hoping for a repeat of the band conditions from June, the CQ WW conditions were not very good. However, I did manage to make QSOs using FT8 on 6 meters. The run rate was low and I often struggled to complete the exchange before the band shifted. Again, I listened on 6m SSB and picked up contacts there whenever possible. My QSO total for 6m was 164, with 90% of them via FT8.
After the contest, I heard from contesters that used only analog modes (SSB and CW) who reported that the contest was a complete bust. Even with hours of operating time, some folks only made 10 or 20 QSOs. This clearly tees up the choice: if you don’t want to work digital, you can severely limit your number of contacts. On the other hand, if you use FT8, you can make contacts under weak conditions, but at a slower rate with a computer in the loop.
Like many contesters, I would much rather have a nice run of QSOs on SSB filling up my log. It is just way more fun than sitting there watching the computer screen report the slow progress of FT8. But in the end, we all have the same choice when conditions are poor: actually making contacts using FT8 or sitting there hoping that band conditions improve enough to support SSB.
2 Meter Band
I did make some FT8 contacts on 2 meters, but found only a small number of operators using that mode. I expect that FT8 activity will increase on that band as people figure out they can squeeze out a few more contacts & grids using that mode.
73 Bob K0NR