FT8 is not the prefix of such a distant and sought-after place, like Kerguelen or Crozet. It is the “latest bright shiny object in amateur radio digital world”, standing at the ARRL’s definition of it. With such an understatement, it is clear why this mode generated a never seen before hype amongst the ham community, confirmed through the figures mentioned by Michael Wells G7VJR, founder and keeper of Clublog (see this article):
8,000 Club Log users uploaded FT8 contacts last year, logging 46,000 discrete call signs in that mode. “For reference, in 2017 the total number of QSOs uploaded to Club Log (all modes) was 32 million,” Wells said. “Of that total, the number of QSOs made with FT8 was 4.8 million.” That works out to 15% of all contacts posted to Club Log, which may or may not be representative of Amateur Radio activity at large.
But what makes this digimode so special?
FT8 (which stands for Franke-Taylor FSK-8) is a mode coming after the well known philosophy which stands behind the revolutionary WSJT-X modes. Joe Taylor K1JT, father of the algorithm and Nobel Laureate for Physics, aimed to build-up a protocol able to turn around the constraints of S/N ratio and readability, fostering through the use of very low power in bad or (apparently) absent propagation. FT8 is no exception, being – in other words – faster and more sensitive than its siblings (like JT9 or JT65). Each transmitted string has no more information than the strings usually sent out via the mentioned WSJT modes, but it comes out at least four times faster: a “complete” QSO can be made in around one minute, leveraging on faster decoding times and shorter times necessary to send the tones which build-up the information. In the point of view of the communications pushed to the technical limits this is a true advantage, which should be a game changer in the challenge to perform a two-way QSO in harsh or impossible conditions.
But FT8 has gone far beyond this purposes, becoming a popular mode which replaced almost all other digimodes (the good old RTTY included) and shifting a huge part of the “traditional” players to this game. Needless to say that all this enthusiastic devotion is made greater as FT8 counts (as ANY other digital mode) for all the main awards, DXCC at first. Almost every DXpedition has started to grant an FT8 slot, making necessary for the developers to optimize a “fox-hunting” mode specifically aimed to this scope. The result can be easily imagined: wherever a ham smells a competition, everything is allowed… even pushing out FT8 signals at full QRO or totally discarding etiquettes and good operating techniques. Here again Joe Taylor’s words:
FT8 and the other modes in WSJT-X are special-purpose modes. They are designed for making reliable, error-free contacts using very weak signals — in particular, signals that may be too weak for the more traditional modes to be usable, or even too weak to hear.
Sticking to this philosophy, I find really hard to understand why so many ham operators are in the ball for FT8, especially if they aim to perform their contacts with high power or with large antenna systems just for the sake of a slot in their awards reel. In my direct experience, most of these guys are seasoned DXers who can count on well-built and performing setups: they are not confined to QRP or poor antenna systems, they are not forced to work FT8 because they cannot exchange a contact with SSB, RTTY or – simply – CW. They simply “do” FT8 because it is a “toy” which can provide some fun while they wait for P5 or something else to enter their Honor Roll. As a consequence, the few ones who are really striving to make ham radio possible (from a basement in a big city, with stealth antennas or with a home-made QRP kit running out fractions of a Watt) must compete with these “big-guns” filling the waterfall with large red-yellowish stripes. They simply have no chance, even is the software is designed to cut out signals above a certain dB threshold (which is something insane, in my opinion). This is the reason why at the early days some operators could benefit from FT8 with a bunch of great DX contacts in limited conditions and today nobody is replying back them, especially if their prefix stands pretty far from the “most wanted” list… You can have an idea of this if you roam through the threads of some highly-attended ham forums.
Is FT8 a true harm for amateur-radio?
On a certain point of view, I would say “no”: on the merely technical side it is a ground-breaking mode, coming out from a brilliant idea and approach, which could change definitely the world of point-to-point communications (and I think even about the still alive utilities in the HF spectrum). On the strictly operational point of view (which is the reason why I AM an amateur radio Operator) it does not add anything to hams to grow and refine their skill: thus YES, FT8 is a harm to Amateur Radio. It is a “does-it-all” interface, where the human intervention is almost unnecessary: once you set-up a few parameters, your PC will do it all, from calling to replying to storing the contacts. You can just set a loop TX/RX cycle and you can even go away for all the day. Call me a romantic, define me a “taliban”: I did not spend years of my life studying for a ticket, learning Morse Code, listening to the ham bands to understand how to operate for something like this. I am sorry, but Ham Radio is a great hobby because you learn something new everyday and its mission is the self-education and experimentation (as the ITU definition of Amateur Radio Service states): these are things you do “in person”, where the only interface between you and the airwaves is your transceiver, your Morse key or your microphone (or a computer, if you are he commander in chief of what it does). Demanding everything to a “machine” is the mistake which wiped out radiotelegraphy once from ships and commercial coastal stations: I am sure that CW could be a reliable way to communicate, even cheaper, offering a lot of working opportunities, nowadays. That is the reason why today we regret it (despite some progressives could point out that satellites are better, inexpensive and destined to a longer life-cycle than Radio Officers). Are we Hams so silly to run forward to have regrets about our own playground, too?
The question has been raised by the worldwide known blog DX-World in the past weeks, showing that the community is 50/50 divided into the topic. Conservatives and progressives offer interesting points of view to the discussion; amongst conservatives (I can consider myself into this family), the worries are almost the same, supported by direct experience which does not leave any room for enthusiasm. You can see the comments following the poll to have an idea, even though a good number of those is in favor of FT8 (or at least in favor of the whole digimodes category).
The risks related to the “abuse” of FT8 (but NOT FT8 itself!) are, in my opinion, a real threat to Amateur Radio. It is not a matter of technology or the mere acceptation of innovation and progress: nobody could tell that sparks are the true spirit of Ham Radio, neither that SSB is pissing-off those AM guys or that a keyer is not the essence of Morse Code manipulation… but if we go back to that human “interface”, the “control” made by the operator to his station, the feeling that a 2-Way QSO is established between two licensed operators who share a common interest into communication, we cannot say that FT8 is helping too much our movement to grow-up. And I am not talking about numbers (Ham Radio licensing is well alive most of the Countries), I am talking about the skills, the human beings and the shades of humanity which are behind a call-sign.
Amongst those abuses, come high power and bad operating habits: someone proposed to strip away FT8 from the main awarding programs (i.e. the DXCC), aiming to reduce the need for competition. But competition is inseparable from human nature and – in case -someone else would provide a piece of paper to chase… so this is not a solution at all.
Another threat is the usage of the bandwidth: if we consider the 30 meters band, a secondary WARC band spanning a mere 50 kcs compressed between other services, at least 20 kcs are covered by digital modes leaving those 30 kcs almost deserted. Empty bands are another consequence to the massive “shift” to the FT8 (meaning FT8 for the whole digimodes, as reporters say that RTTY, PSKs and other modes are barely used!). A typical example is a typical upper HF band, where there are apparently no signals: but with a careful monitoring, sometimes the NCDXF beacons are clearly readable; and if we cast out a CW call, there are even good possibilities to be caught by the Reverse Beacon Network, on the DX side, with a good dB report, but no replies from anybody. These bands seem to be magically open only during the main contests or when there is a top-notch DXpedition (high or low SSN does not matter at all!). In the meanwhile, the reference QRGs for FT8 in 20, 30 or 40 meters are crashing the S-meter (since I hardly understand the need to work FT8 with full throttle open at daytime in EU…)
Just to close these notes, I would go back again to the article mentioned above:
As he [Joe Taylor, Editor’s Note] sees it, SSB and CW are “general-purpose modes,” suitable for ragchewing, DXing, contesting, emergency communications, or whatever. [He] pointed out that the level of information exchanged in most FT8 — and other similar digital modes — isn’t much more than the bare minimum for a valid contact. In addition to call signs and signal reports, stations may exchange grid squares and acknowledgments.
I totally agree with him, adding that one of the greatest risk in Amateur Radio is going to be what I call the “quickie QSO”. This is – sadly – related to all modes and several other aspects of our hobby, where it seems that the main interest is lighting-up green balls on a slots’ table. This is true in particular in the CW-side of the bands, where most of the QSOs are limited to the 5NN-TU exchange; FT8 is not the cause nor the consequence of this habit, it is just a perfect son of these times, as it grants minimal effort and complete satisfaction for what I call the “wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am” hamming. Make it fast, loud, immediate, pin the medal to your chest.
Could it be so bad?
No, if we want to reduce Ham Radio to a mere quantitative experience. But if we want to move forward (or simply step back to what makes this hobby a keeper for a lifetime), this is not the way to raise the quality of the contents that Amateur Radio can bring to Society. Sometimes I am asked why I do this (referred to my dedication to Ham Radio) in the era of smartphones, light-speed Internet and zero-time information: as you may have experienced, it is hard to explain to others what the radio-bug’s bite means. But for sure I don’t do this for those “fancy”, impersonal, cold things like FT8.