Preface: I am planning on creating some posts addressing this in a more technical fashion. This is not a comprehensive tech essay full of footnotes. You either know what this is about or you don’t. For now I am sharing this brain dump addressed to all amateur radio operators. We find ourselves in a unique circumstance where great changes have occurred over a long period of low solar activity, and we are now emerging with some very real social turbulence in the ham radio ranks. I think it is useful to take a broad view of this pursuit, this service, and reflect on how we have moved forward, and how we can continue to move forward. 73, Pete N1QDQ
Let’s travel back to the heady days of 2010, when a new ham radio sensation called PSK31 was “taking over the ham bands”. It allowed users with less than massive transmitters and antennas to make reliable keyboard to keyboard contacts on HF. It wasn’t perfect. Many ops ran too much power, or had overdriven signals, or both, and the small stations had a bit of work to do to get through a QSO. The spectrum slices being used were narrow/cramped, and it didn’t take much to interfere with another op. You pretty much had to be on the same frequency/offset as the other station (not reliable in split mode) or it didn’t work, and a big wooly signal would wipe out a quarter of the subband. The advantage was that it took up about a tenth of the spectrum of a RTTY signal, and was more power-efficient. It also allowed many more operators to share the same slice of spectrum. As is the case today it was also a reason for the “big gun” stations to sneer down their noses and tell “lesser’ operators how they were killing ham radio.
FFW to today, and we are in much of the same predicament with a newer mode called FT8. It is even more flexible than PSK31, works at even lower signal to noise ratios, and is implemented primarily through one application called WSJT-X. It does not support anything much beyond the bare bones exchange of callsign, location and signal report. That makes sense since the suite of modes associated with Joe Taylor K1JT, Steve Franke, K9AN, and a cadre of experimenters was developed for very weak signal operations like Earth-Moon-Earth (EME) and Meteor Scatter. It turns out some of these modes, specifically FT8 and FT4, are very robust over traditional HF frequencies and propagation modes. And yet, despite allowing a large number of contacts over a small slice of spectrum, with lower power, and lower s/n ratios, FT8 users are again subject to ridicule by keepers of the mid-20th century technology flame. This extends to purposeful QRM, sneering memes about how FT8 ops are not real hams, how their QSOs don’t count, how it is “cheating”, and so on. Even as predictable as it is, it puts the ugly side of the “friendliest hobby” at the forefront of the much needed conversations around how our spectrum allocations are utilized, and how they will be used going forward.
Which is a shame, because these computer-controlled weak signal modes on the HF bands are nothing if not entirely consistent with the traditions of ham radio, and the central thesis of evolving to incorporate new technology as it emerges. The integration of existing and new technologies into radio communication is the hallmark of ham radio. What began as the transmission of Morse Code (tech adapted from the wired telegraph industry) using a spark gap transmitter, quickly evolved to a continuous-wave (CW) transmission based on the implementation of the vacuum triode as a tunable oscillator and amplifier. The spark-gap blasted RF across a big slice of RF spectrum. CW turned that on its head and allowed for more efficient narrow-band communications. Suddenly there was more room for more operators to communicate with less power over longer distances.
When modulated carrier audio came into being, it was double-sideband full carrier amplitude modulation, or AM. This is what we hear when we listen to the AM broadcast band. It takes a lot of power to generate that signal, and it also takes up a lot of spectrum. As the need arose for more efficient communications modes (portable equipment, lower power requirements, covering greater distances) it was found you could do away with the carrier (which was the reference frequency for the audio sidebands) and then one of the two sidebands. Thus Single Side-Band (SSB) was created. By giving the receiver the necessary oscillators to rebuild the audio information, the transmission could be made using much less power. This mode relied on the many improvements to vacuum tube technology, including miniaturization, lower power circuitry, and the use of multiple oscillators in new configurations. These fundamental modes of radio communication, data and audio, integrated new technology as it appeared, and hams were pivotal in their widespread adoption. As well, hams were pivotal in the development of new modes of radio communication based on these principles. They were, as now, radio experimenters. They were doing for free what governments were doing under much less liberated circumstances.
Radio technology eagerly adopted every advance in electronics tech, from vacuum tube minaturization, to the semiconductor, the integrated circuit, the standardization of component packaging, and then the microprocessor. Microprocessors were a natural fit for radio communications because they can manipulate control voltages and logic states at a blinding pace. The earliest and slowest microprocessors were adding communications capabilities beyond the analog realm. It also turned out you could emulate an oscillator with a microprocessor. Even at audio frequencies this was a giant leap for oscillator miniaturization and stability. Once these microprocessors were integrated into computing platforms, handling user input, program code execution, data storage, and data output, the modern era of computer/radio hybridization was in play.
It is simple enough to state that a radio station operating without some form of semiconductor and microprocessor technology is indeed a rarity. I know of no hams who are aching to go back to drifty oscillators and inefficient transmitters. Yes, that gear is still in use by a few stations, but I’ll bet each one has a modern rig right next to it. While modern technology has come to dominate the scene, all of the historical phases of electronics technology still have a place in the pursuit of radio communications (ok, maybe not spark gap). The fundamentals of radio still apply regardless of the technology.
So I ask, earnestly: How did this illustrious, enjoyable, and diverse pursuit of technology applied to radio communication become beholden to gatekeepers who selectively decide which modern technology is appropriate, and which they believe makes one a “fake ham”? It is almost universally the cry of hams who are “fortunate” enough to have a tower(s) supporting a big directional antenna(s) fed by a kilowatt(s) of RF, using modes established in the WWII era, who demand that they be crowned the gatekeepers of What Is Correct.
The facts are decidedly at odds with their position. If they were in any way in the majority it would be reflected in radio equipment sales and development. I believe the “average” ham has a somewhat modern 100W transceiver with a simple antenna, and a few helpful accessories. Additionally, they own a computer, which has become not only extremely cheap, but extremely effective. Somehow, in the middle of a deep and prolonged solar minimum, the airwaves are increasingly being used by many low power stations using compromised antennas, often with portability in mind. One reason this has been possible has been the development of modes like FT8. When you can run a 1-30W transceiver into a $20 homebrew end-fed wire, controlled by a $50 Raspberry Pi “toy” computer, and make a contact 10,000 miles away, it opens up the accessibility of radio communication in a myriad of ways. I made my first JA contact from my new QTH using 35W into a wire vertical, and FT8. It’s just as valid as any other contact.
I agree that the FT8 QSO is not very satisfying from a “chat about the weather and your radio” perspective. But let’s be honest, a typical CW conversation is name, location, rig, antenna, and brief weather observation. It’s fun. I love it. But it isn’t exactly deep bonding going on there. FT8 is giving the user more of a “contest mode” QSO. Being that it is good enough for the biggest stations in the world, as long as an actual contest is afoot (every weekend, #jussayin), why is it less appropriate in weak signal work? Maybe it’s has to do with the fear of losing status? Maybe it’s the need to ensure that kilowatt stations using 80 year old tech continue to dominate the way hams use their HF spectrum allocations in the 21st century? I can understand it, objectively, though I have not been able to assemble that kind of station. I also understand bullies. All too well. Ham radio needs to face up to the fact that it has a bully problem.
Unless you have been under a rock you know that every slice of the radio frequency spectrum is being eyed by some monied interest somewhere across the globe. Each time you see a nation kick their amateurs off an allocation it should raise an alarm. One would think the response of established spectrum users would be to promote increased usage and improved spectrum efficiency. It is counterintuitive to act as if relying more heavily on old tech is some kind of hedge against spectrum loss. I also fear that hams hold themselves to a standard that is not recognized outside of ham culture. An objective survey of the HF allocations would hear a small segment of intense activity in the bottom 100KHz, and then a lot of SSB voice spread out across the rest of the allocation.
My purpose here is to begin a conversation not end one. This is the scenery as I see it, from my perspective as a ham who has held an Extra Class license for almost all of my 27+ years of ham-life. I am often operating portable equipment, often at QRP or slightly higher power levels. I try to enjoy all that ham radio has to offer. I like HF QRP CW, as well as digital modes, as well as VHF/UHF contesting, as well as SSB, and SWL, and applied electronics concepts, and so on. I feel that there is a disturbing social pushback on the current practices and adaptations many hams have made in the era of condo rules, suburban/urban constraints, restricted public space access, and accommodating family and work life, by a small population of operators who don’t share those constraints. All of the tools available to hams have a place. And it is a great credit to hams everywhere that there is a general respect for gentleman’s agreements and international spectrum guidance. What I hope we see as this next solar cycle heats up is not just continued cooperation, but greatly enhanced cooperation. There is room for everyone, and every facet of the hobby. There has to be. The alternative is unimaginable, avoidable, loss.
Endnote: One piece of Amateur Radio News that spurred me to write this piece is this: FT8 Ruling The Airwaves from DXWorld.net. I believe it shows how a more efficient mode of communication increases the effectiveness of the power output on hand, and how attractive that is to many hams. I don’t think it is more complicated than that.
One response to “Who’s afraid of FT8?”
What an enjoyable article.