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“The Sky is FT8alling!”


*Email: w2vu@cq-amateur-radio.com

Chicken Little had nothing on us hams when it comes to predicting that the end is coming. Chicken Little thought the sky was falling; for us hams, it seems there’s always something that’s about to spell doom for amateur radio, starting with the transition from spark to CW. Each decade seems to bring a new threat, whether it’s CB, computers, cell phones, the internet, or the lack of a code test. Our current threat du jour appears, is FT8, the variation on the WSJT digital mode suite introduced last summer. As noted in these pages, FT8 had an immediate impact on various aspects of ham radio, starting with the 2017 CQ World Wide VHF Contest, run only days after it was released. Its popularity has only continued to grow in the intervening months. Now, though, certain people are seeing it as a threat.

The cover story on the April 2018 issue of Spain’s Radioaficionados magazine (the publication of the Spanish national ham association) asked, roughly translated, “Is FT8 Going to Kill CW?” The February issue of Spectrum Monitor magazine included a column by Kirk Kleinschmidt, NTØZ, asking, “Did Joe Taylor, K1JT, Destroy Amateur Radio?” K1JT, of course, is the primary developer of the WSJT software suite, which has revolutionized such weak-signal modes as meteor scatter and moonbounce. Kirk’s main complaint about FT8 and the other “JT” modes is that they use preset exchanges that are embedded in the software. All the operator needs to do, basically, is enter the callsign of the station to be worked and the computers on each end take care of the rest. His other complaint is that anyone operating FT8 is not operating CW, SSB, or PSK-31, his preferred modes. Kirk fears that the end result will be machine-to-machine ham radio, with little or no human involvement.

We’ve heard this tune before, about 30 years ago, when it first became possible to program home computers to send Morse code and to transmit pre-programmed messages, such as “59 05” and “TU 73”, during contests. There were those among us who were certain that the computer-connected ham station would spell the end of ham radio as we knew it, that we’d soon have computers talking to computers and all the ham would need to do is check his log each morning to see what new DX his station (by itself) had worked while he was sleeping. Of course, it didn’t happen then, and it isn’t going to happen now.

One of the reasons “everyone” has moved from SSB, CW, and PSK 31 to FT8 is that — in case you hadn’t noticed — HF propagation is terrible right now, as we slog toward the solar minimum, and FT8 has the ability to decode signals that the average amateur can’t even hear, let alone understand. So it makes sense that many operators will migrate, at least temporarily, to a mode that promises successful contacts even with very poor propagation.

But FT8 certainly isn’t a ragchew mode — it takes a full minute to complete a basic information exchange, and that’s when everything is copied correctly on the first try and no repeats are needed. That’s why the FT8 development team is in the final stages of testing a DXpedition mode for FT8, which will allow high-demand stations to complete a QSO in 15 seconds rather than 60. FT8 and similar modes will never replace SSB, CW or “live” keyboard modes for ragchewing, roundtables, nets, and message handling. If people aren’t ragchewing on HF, it isn’t because of FT8, it’s because conditions frequently won’t support extended QSOs.

The whole thing makes me wonder, though … Why are we so cranky? Why do we constantly feel threatened, even when history shows us that developments that are perceived as threats when they’re new frequently end up as beneficial to amateur radio. For example…

  • CB was supposed to kill off ham radio (multiple times). It turned out to be our greatest-ever recruitment tool.
  • Computers were supposed to kill off ham radio. Today, very few shacks are without a computer for various tasks, and many of our rigs today are computers with RF sections.
  • The Internet was supposed to kill off ham radio. Instead, it has created forums and resources that have strengthened the hobby, enabling new hams to get help online, along with people interested in trying a new mode or activity. It has also allowed hams in severely antenna-restricted locations to remain active by using the internet to operate remotely-located stations.
  • Eliminating the code test was supposed to kill off ham radio (you’ve probably seen the “Without CW, it’s just CB” t-shirts), or at minimum, make CW a mode of the past. Instead, it has sparked a new level of interest in learning and using Morse code, now that it’s perceived as a challenge rather than an obstacle.

I’m sure there are others that I’ve missed, but hopefully, you get the idea. This is a technology-based hobby. Advances in technology should be embraced, not feared, and then woven into the fabric of amateur radio, as has certainly been the case with computers and the internet. In early May, Dan Romanchik, KB6NU, had a post on this general subject in his blog titled, “Is the Internet, Millennials, or FT8 Killing Ham Radio?” https://bit.ly/2J4jHWX. I can’t improve on Dan’s conclusion, so I’ll quote it: “I think that millennials … need to grab the bull by the horns and take ham radio in the direction they want it to go. Feel free to kill ham radio as we know it. Make it better!”

Housekeeping Notes

As you’ll (hopefully) read in this month’s Contesting column, we’ve had a couple of recent changes in connection with the CQ World Wide DX Contest. First and foremost, Doug Zwiebel, KR2Q, who has been CQWW Director for the past two years, stepped down because of an increased workload at his day job (which, in his case, often begins before the day does!). He has agreed to remain on the CQWW Contest Committee, on which he has served for nearly 40 years, in a not-so-time-consuming capacity. We thank Doug for his ongoing dedication to making and keeping the CQWW the best ham radio contest there is. We also welcome back former Contest Editor John Dorr, K1AR, as the new CQWW Director. John has been involved with the contest about as long as Doug has, and he recently retired from full-time (paid) employment, so he now has the freedom to take on a nearly full-time (unpaid) job as CQWW Contest Director. Thanks and welcome back, John!

At around the same time that all this was happening, we realized that a change in how the CQWW scoring robot treats certain duplicate contacts (dupes) had been applied to the contest’s 2017 CW weekend but not the SSB weekend. This created an inconsistency in scoring for the two halves of the same contest. After much discussion, it was decided to restore the previous scoring method and to rescore all of the CW logs. As expected, there was very little impact on the order of finish but the change kept everything consistent. A link to the updated scores is in this month’s Contesting column. The contest committee will discuss this matter further, and if any change is implemented for future contests, it will be announced well in advance. – 73, Rich, W2VU

Please submit hamfest and special event announcements at least three months in advance by e-mail to <hamfest@cq-amateur-radio.com> or <specialevent@cq-amateur-radio.com>, or by postal mail to: CQ Magazine, Attn: Hamfests (or Special Events), 17 West John St.., Hicksville, NY 11801.

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