Tag Archives: morse code

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

21st Century Schizoid Ham

This post is an attempt to bring my thoughts on the future of ham radio into focus through the lens of computerized digital modes. Last week I poured out a lengthy brain dump regarding digital modes, specifically FT8 and it’s associates. Three posts ago I went on about the evolution of communication modes. What I am focused on today is how radio hobbyists have embraced (or fought) the march of technology.

When radio was born the primary technologies being leveraged for more reliable communications were output power, antenna design, and modulation modes. That this is a fair description of the challenges faced by radio operators today is a testament to how strong the foundations of radio communications are. Just over 120 years ago Marconi was giddy at sending a coarse unmodulated signal across the English Channel. About 2 years later he sent a Morse Code “S” over the North Atlantic and it was received. From that primordial ooze advances in radio technology have been a succession of technological refinement and hybridization. Better tubes led to early solid state devices, led to (begat!) better solid state devices, led to the microprocessor and so on.

And that is how it should be. Most hams today use high tech in at least some part of their signal chain. The lack of enthusiasm for drifty VFOs and heavy transformers bears this out. Some of what I see in the commentary from today’s “old guard” is essentially a semantics debate, without the debate. Some want the technology used only inside their transceiver, but not “over the air”. Some are fine with one digital mode such as RTTY, but not another like FT8. Both employ a form of Frequency Shift Keying (FSK) and both rely on a machine to encode and decode text messages. This concept of using machines to do what the human body can’t is as old as the Stock Ticker. In the case of Radio Teletype (RTTY), could you learn to decode a two-tone encoding scheme by ear? Yep. Could you do it at RTTY speeds? Nope. We utilize a machine. That machine is now primarily a computer.

RTTY was first an analog process which gradually became computerized. Over the years the mechanical devices became museum pieces. One reason is electromechanical devices are entropy attractors. The wear out and break down and require mechanical repairs. Maintaining them means ready access to parts and service documentation. Certainly there are operators of mechanical RTTY terminals on the air, but they are in the minority (and I’m being generous). The era of “no serviceable parts inside” has mostly won the day here in the 21st Century. That’s a fact. I saw the transition from analog to digital firsthand as my father and grandfather both made their livings in electronics.

From the 1950s through the 1970s my grandfather owned and operated a TV and Appliance shop. He sold and repaired TV sets and radio consoles. His world was one of SAMS Photofact and a tube caddy and kept those TVs humming with his experience and some simple test equipment. The day the new TVs came with no service manuals he started to close his shop. That was almost 50 years ago. He saw the writing on the wall, and his mentality was fixed on keeping those sets in service. He was a product of the immigrant experience during a global depression and great scarcity. You did not throw things away. You repaired them until they were more valuable as parts, which you used to repair another set. The era of disposable consumer technology was his exit ramp from the business. He never changed. The world did. Far from being a luddite, he was an early adopter during the birth of technologies we take mostly for granted today. From the 1930’s onward he was right there jumping in on the birth of electrification, radio, television, and photography. He was my ur-geek.

As a child of a very different time I have been free to live in a world of unbridled futurism. I came of age during a great social awakening with social and technological changes happening at a blinding pace. I wasn’t so much dreaming of the future as I was living it. The space race fascinated me the way kids today get into dinosaurs or pokemon or whatever. I’ve been using actual computers since 1978. Before that I learned to do four function math on a Heath-Kit Hex Programming Trainer with NIXIE tube display. All I have seen is a steady drumbeat of miniaturization, automation, and leaps in electrical efficiency. I type this on an ultrabook weighing about two pounds and it the performance is fantastic. It draws about 1/50th of the power of my first PC-XT. The USB chip has more processing power than that 8088 had.

See, I’m digressing. I think you get the point. I will now focus!

My concern about the future of the technical evolution of ham radio has to do with the resistance to technical advances by some of the loudest voices in ham radio. And I do mean loudest. I like big antennas and I can not lie. You other ops can’t deny... But there are other ways to get the job done. In the case of FT8 we implement commodity computer hardware to expand the usable dynamic range down below what can be done with the human ear. This is not even all that high-tech. It is actually an extension of rather old tech, adapted to low cost CPU hardware.

Today’s hams largely operate in an early 20th Century manner, using 21st Century devices. We are often using a computer to emulate discrete component technology or even pure analog technology. That computer is often a “black box” running code we don’t understand on devices we can’t physically interact with. Most of this computerization isn’t a breakthrough, it is “re-platforming” of existing tech. While a boon to the operator it doesn’t seem to be equating into higher tech knowledge among the ham community. A survey of our publications, chat forums, and social media platforms show a continued focus on what should be Radio 101 topics: basic antennas, basic tuned circuits, basic inductors, the trans-match, the audio signal path… Yet I continue to see new hams struggling with the difference between rig control and audio, AC and DC, the concept of an IF, simple voltage/current concepts, and so on. One reason may be our teaching tools haven’t caught up with the pace of technology. Three-inch thick manuals in an age where bookstores are extinct might not be the way to get it done. #jussayin

At some point the practices and frameworks need to advance. We are doing ok, but we need to do better.

The Finale: I understand this is bordering on TABOO, but I’ll close this post with questions that I hope sum up my outlook on Amateur Radio as it waddles into the 21st Century:

Do our current band plans look like what we would draw up based on the technology we have at our disposal today?

As well, do our current band plans create a chilling effect on the adoption and implementation of new technologies?

Are we so anchored to the past that we have limited our ability to reach forward?

Can we create better technical standards, better education materials, and move toward better informed hams who can help move the pursuit forward and step beyond appliance operation?

I’m not pointing fingers (maybe a little). Those are questions I often ask about myself. I am largely an appliance operator. I build a few kits when I have time, make my own cables, build basic antenna systems, and am dedicated to self-education. I lean on a foundation of electronics basics and I want to learn more. But I also want to learn better.

I am using the FT8 discussion as a backdrop because we should be able to conceptualize how important decreasing the power and antenna requirements for ham radio is to the survival of the hobby. It is democratizing, and allows the ham radio experience to be enjoyed by the many. It also leans on tech that a 21st century ham takes completely for granted. If anything the challenge for today’s hams is adapting to the use of older tech that is used virtually nowhere else. The RS232 Serial Port is a great device, but try finding one on a modern computer. The urge to learn the technology is as strong as ever in the next generation of hams, we just need to lay a functional understanding of radio tech over that urge. That is difficult if the tech we are teaching and using is not current.

PostScript: I don’t see modes like FT8/JS8 as an end. I hope they are the foundation for more versatile and robust modes to come. We will always have SSB and CW and modes like RTTY. But unless we can get behind what the future holds we run the risk of being a bunch of radio-wielding Civil War reenactors. And one day we might show up to the battlefield and see a big CLOSED sign. Nobody wants that.