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?