Tag Archives: hamradio

Why So DGTL?

The current explosion of HF weak signal mode users, coalescing primarily around FT8/FT4, has caused a bit of a rift in the ham community. I don’t think the rift is that big, but the rifters are pretty vocal in telling other hams how much they don’t belong on the air.

I intended to formulate a Pro/Con list, but I don’t want this to be a contest (or con-test). I also don’t want to explore the negatives. Plenty of people are doing that 24/7 and somehow seem to enjoy (?) it. This is a list of things that make each type of communication interesting and unique (for me). I’d rather look at it that way because that is how I feel about it. I want to enjoy all that ham radio has to offer. That requires being open to what is positive about every opportunity.

So here’s what I find attractive about FT8-style* operation:

  1. The Analog Internet Nexus. In conjunction with PSKReporter, RBN, and tools like GridTracker, it provides a near-real-time propagation indicator. I can set up for a few CQs, check PSKReporter, and see where I am being heard, with my relative S/N. Along with showing me where I might expect a reply, it gives me an idea of the difference between what I am hearing and who might be hearing me.
  2. Instant and visual split operation. WSJT-X makes setting split very easy, but only if you use the waterfall display. (I believe many users don’t, causing that crowding between 1300-1800hz). Shift-Click to position your transmit frequency in a different spot, and get out of the pileup of stations calling on the CQing station’s transmit frequency. Since WSJT-X decodes the entire bandpass, you can test this at will. 10 minutes with the WSJT-X manual will improve the experience 100x.
  3. Constant Global Activity. It’s pretty shocking, actually. Day after day if I just looked at the CW or Phone sections of the HF bands they may look dead, or occupied mostly by big signals. Often there is a big hump on say 20m at 14.074MHz. In my experience it is unprecedented to have this type of activity acting as a global beacon. These digital segments are in use at all hours of the day and when the band opens those ops will be there.
  4. Built for Low Power Ops. Being able to work down to -24dB is a great equalizer for lower power stations on less-than-spectacular antennas. I see all kinds of amazed reactions from mostly newer hams on QRP-focused boards like the Icom IC705 FB group, and I can only imagine how amazed they will be when actual good band conditions start arriving. I’ve worked 10,000km on 10W into a basic vertical antenna on FT8, during conditions like SF=75, SSN=15! No solar tailwind there. For reasons I will get into somewhere else, a non-directional antenna is really only sending a tiny slice of its output toward the other station. Being able to work deep into the noise floor makes the most of that tiny slice.
  5. Perfect for casual operating. Letting WSJT-X decode while I am making dinner, or doing other chores, lets me come back and see what stations are in play at my station, on my gear, at what strength. I can take 15 minutes, scan the waterfall, and either chase a few stations or find a spot to call CQ. Obviously I can also do this for hours, but if I only have small gaps to focus on the radio I can still make contacts this way.
  6. Good operating practices are rewarded. Far from being a “robot mode” FT8 gives the operator a lot of information if they are willing to look for it. It allows you to scan for momentary openings, dig out weaker signals, find opportunities to use split, and otherwise be creative with the information presented by the waterfall and the decode window. I recently made a few contacts to JA from Rhode Island with stations that showed up for less than 5 minutes, and then faded out. Tools like GridTracker and JTAlert let you watch for those stations in real time. I’ve come close to working deep into northern Canada (VE8) in this same manner. I’ve also seen the big Saudi or Kenyan stations about 20 times and never made the contact. Surfing the waves of fading/swelling conditions is a technique I learned on CW over 25 years ago.

*FT8-style means computer-assisted digital modes, like RTTY, even. 2FSK is still FSK, folks. Get over yourselves.

OK, that was a rollercoaster of unbridled optimism. I’ll now make similar points for analog modes:

  1. The experience of listening to radio is one of life’s great joys. The key word is listening. I like quality in a QSO. Rarity and quantity have never been my game. I enjoy finding and working DX, but have never applied for or sought any awards. Listening to a quiet band for a weak but copyable signal (usually CW) just above the noise, replying to a CQ, and having a QSO (no matter how short or perfunctory) is a real pleasure. I’m not too hung up on where that other station is.
  2. The Social Component. I have worked plenty of stations, mostly SSB, where the QSO is call, report, name, QTH, and 73. Nothing wrong with that. It’s not much more of a proof of concept than a FT8 contact, but you are making verbal/code contact. Neat. Occasionally though I end up in a real rag chew, with a personable operator, and it is a great experience. I have to make sure I am in no hurry, because I have had a few that ran for a long time. That is ham radio delivering on what I would call the classic roots: Two or more operators having a chat. Lovely.
  3. A true leisure activity. My process of slowly scanning a section of a band, giving even the weakest signal a chance, tweaking my rig’s controls in an attempt to pull that signal out of the noise… it takes time. I might make one contact in an hour. I might make none. I have done some salmon fishing, and it is similar. My salmon fishing mantra is “it’s fishing, not shopping”. If you don’t enjoy the process of fishing you will be having a lot of bad days. If you have a catch, that’s great, but you are still fishing.
  4. Skill Development. The skills necessary to operate successfully on the ham bands are still best, IMO, cultivated with analog operation. Just the habits of ensuring your frequency is clear, or listening to and identifying neighboring stations, or learning the band plan and using it… they pay off whether you are talking to someone on 2M simplex 500 yards away, or making an APRS contact through the ISS, or bouncing a signal off the moon. It might be analogous to driving stick shift. I think you get a better learning experience when you engage the fundamentals as completely as possible.

So that’s a quick, stream of thought run through of how I see the allure of both “new school” and “old school” ham radio. It’s all out there to be done, and it’s all good. I hope to see or hear you on the bands. Pete N1QDQ

Who’s afraid of FT8?

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.

Always Loud Somewhere

I’ve been a licensed amateur radio operator (ham) for almost 30 year and have had both runs of heavy involvement and runs of “doing other things”. I’ll delve more into these details, but hams in the USA are licensed by the FCC and have access to some very nice chunks of the electromagnetic spectrum. The equipment is readily available and well supported. To me it is the original “tech nerd” hobby. It goes back to the dawn of radio, and the dawn of the vacuum tube. At that time if you wanted to be a ham, you built the gear. Now… there is a lot of great commercial equipment and for most ops homebuilding is secondary.

Every operator has a central thesis, a set of goals, or a set of constraints that inform their pursuits. For some it is “MORE POWER GOOD”, for some it is “mnmlsm”. One of mine is that two-way radio works, but not everywhere all the time. I call it “You Are Always Loud Somewhere”. I can set up a radio and antenna, pick a mode of operation, and call out to the radio wilderness in search of other operators. In ham parlance, I am calling CQ. Seek You. Get it? Hams are a cryptic bunch.

The 2-way element of radio involves a second station listening on the same frequency I am transmitting on, and being able to reply and be understood. It actually works better than one might think. There are 750,000 licensed hams in the USA alone. It isn’t great by TV ratings measures, but it’s respectable. Also, hams might have outsized influence due to their proclivity for… communication. Of all kinds. For better or worse.

Another thing that hams rely on is a phenomenon whereby the effect of solar radiation on the ionosphere effectively turns it into a “radio mirror” reflecting radio energy back toward earth. Some of the energy from my radio signal is directed up toward the ionosphere, gets reflected back down, and I am now audible 800 miles (for example) away. That can happen multiple times, allowing my signal to travel halfway around the world, or more. Once our signal leaves our continent (roughly) we call that DX (distance). While useful, that kind of “enhanced propagation” is a fickle mistress. Some days it is like transmitting into a lead sponge. Other days you are chatting to an operator in South Africa on less wattage than it takes to power a clock radio.

So that is the backdrop for “always loud somewhere”. You might not be loud where you want to be loud, but somewhere your signal is crushing it. There might be another op there. We can only hope.

Hams have some tools to increase the odds. One obvious tool is to create a stronger signal by emitting more power. Think of the difference between your local AM pea shooter and something like WTIC or WFAN (for those of you who still own an AM radio). One of them is always strong over a large coverage area. The other is community scale. It requires less power, but still communicates well. Also, there are many ways to tailor the radiation pattern from an antenna for a specific goal. Do we want to work distant stations, or communicate locally? Do we want to create a very high uptime communications link, or are we looking for a bit of sport?

I’ll wrap this post with an example (we now go full ham lingo mode. strap in):

I have been experimenting with both homebuilt and commercial portable/lightweight antennas for the past two years. I haven’t had a fixed setup at home, so even if I am operating from home, I am still “portable”. One antenna I recently acquired is a Chameleon MPAS Lite. It’s a “military grade” portable antenna system, and is designed to be easy to set up and still perform well. This is not the norm. In the “engineering triangle” the lighter and easier to set up an antenna is, the more compromised it is and the worse it performs. Also, some of my favorite wire vertical antennas, like the PAR Trail Friendly, require an overhead support or a portable mast. That raises the complexity, weight, and logistics hurdle. The MPAS Lite is self-supporting, low visual profile, and can be configured for local coverage or to give you at least a fighting chance at long distance stations. I had heard good things, so I gave it a shot.

Here is a map of contacts I made on March 23, 2021 using an Icom IC-705 transceiver at 10W into the MPAS Lite. This was done during an afternoon here in southern New England, and conditions were very poor. I tuned across the entire 40M band and it was dire. Like “is my radio broken?” dire, and triple checking antenna connections dire. Then I moved up to 20M and it wasn’t great, but I could at least hear a few strong stations. There was a bit of solar storm effect happening, marked by deep and rapid fading (QSB). I was seeing stations drop 7 S-units in under a minute, and then rise back up. On FT8 I expected to be riding the waves. However, as it was my first real wring-out for a new antenna I decided to at least tune it up (MFJ 901-B, the “cockroach” of ham gear*) on a few bands to see how easy that would be (it was easy).

I was working my way higher in frequency and ended up on 10 Meters. This band has been my nemesis for the past 12 months. I always check it, and never hear anything. Even on FT8, the propagation beacon that has become a global phenomenon, I was 0-fer. That’s hard to do, because it seems that at any time of day, somewhere in the world every FT8 calling freq is choked with activity.

This day was different. I ran into a trans-equatorial opening to South America. Who knew if I could make any contacts, but I could at least hear them. Also, it had less rapid fading than the lower bands. It was fading in a 3-5 minute cycle and not fading as deeply as 40 and 20. In meteorological terms it was like a “radio inversion” instead of lower bands being in better shape, and conditions falling off as you go higher, the real action was at 28MHz. Since we are right at the vernal equinox this could have been a seasonal thing or tropospeheric ducting. Regardless of the propagation mode I will deinitely make a 10M check more often.

Here’s what I was able to do on a low power (10W) radio and an antenna that I have no expectations of for DX work:

The green icons are 10M contacts. Orange 20m, Red 17m, Blue 30m. That stray green icon in Europe… That’s a fail on the mapping app. It is actually J79WTA in Domenica, showing up under his Swiss call HB9MFM. This is also an Islands On The Air (IOTA) station, NA-101.

I have some thoughts on the different portable antenna options I have been using and am working up a kind of “shootout” over weight, ease of setup, performance, and durability. I hope to be posting the first of them soon. Until then, go be loud somewhere.

Pete, N1QDQ

*cockroach = will be the last thing still working before the sun swallows the earth