Thursday, October 25, 2018

FT8 - Destroyer or Savior

Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you've heard of FT8. This mode has been taking Amateur Radio by storm, cropping up on every band. It's being heavily used in the VHF+ contests and has even found it's way into the ARRL RTTY Roundup. Stations are using it to work DXCC entities, and some DXpeditions have been using the fox and hound mode heavily. It's everywhere!

Depending on who you ask, this is either the death of the hobby or the renewal.

The mode has some real issues. On bands like 6m, activity is clustered around a single frequency. When the band opens, there can be so many signals that they QRM each other and fail to actually make the QSOs. It's also slower than other modes, it seems that even large super stations have trouble working more than 30-40 QSOs per hour with it, though theoretically it could be faster. These are the same stations that can work well over 100/hr in SSB or CW. It's also limited in the data you can send, even with the free form messages. Some of these can be fixed by training. Some have to be fixed by the software itself.

On the other hand, it lets a very small station effectively work during a time when the bands are pretty awful. Compromised antennas, low power, poor solar conditions, these are the facts of life many hams live with. More hams are living in condos or apartments. Young hams may be at home with parents who don't want large antennas up. HOAs abound. HF gear is expensive, and there are a number of less-expensive QRP options. More and more people are operating portable with a quick antenna from a field. None of these are conducive to making contacts on SSB. With FT8, it becomes very reasonable.

It's my opinion that modes like FT8, and it's derivatives and the modes that will follow the path it is blazing, will save the hobby. It's getting more people on the air that couldn't before, and younger ones. Many young hams don't want to talk, and are very comfortable on the computer. More hams, and a younger crowd, and advancing technology, all of this leads to a healthy hobby. If they are excited about getting on the air, this is a positive!

It is, however, causing a lot of turmoil. We are definitely losing older hams because of modes like FT8. This is a pretty big problem, older hams have a ton of experience and knowledge. The divide between older and younger hams makes it difficult to communicate between them, but there's a lot that any ham can learn from some of these veterans. I know of several hams that are struggling to stay on the air as the CW contacts dry up and it seems more likely that they'll be forced into using FT8 or similar modes.

One common comment by younger hams, and even some older ones, is that these CW guys should just get with the times and move on. It's an easy sentiment to have. I don't necessarily agree with it though. I've long held the opinion that Amateur Radio is a collection of hobbies, rather than a single hobby. There are a million different things you can do with it, many not overlapping much at all. If someone's hobby is working CW DX on the HF bands, by telling them to give up and move to FT8 they are effectively being told that their hobby is no longer valid, and they should give up on their hobby and find a new one. If that's been their hobby for decades, you can see how that would make them feel.

There is a lot of vitriol from both sides of the fence here. There is a revolution going on, and big changes are coming. The next generation of hams will look nothing like the hams that are in their later years. My hope is that the old guard holds on long enough for the new guard to be established, otherwise the hobby won't survive. We need to coexist - FT8 using apartment dwellers and legal-limit and a beam AMers. The anger is serving no purpose but to drive both sides away, killing our numbers. In a time where many of our bands are being threatened by industry, we need to stick together so that we have the power to defend "our" turf.

That's my 2 cents, for whatever that's worth.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Which HT Should I Buy?

This is a commonly asked question. I also here "which mobile should I buy" or "which base should I buy" and so on. These thoughts apply to those as well.

The trouble is...we can't answer that for you. Well, not with just that information.

If you're hunting a new radio, you have to ask yourself 2 questions - what is my budget, and what is my mission?

Budget is an easy one to figure out. You can't spend more than you have available to spend.

The mission may be a bit harder, and maybe not the proper term. What do you need the radio for? What features are must have? There are new hams that want to come in and buy the fanciest radio available. They want all of the bells and whistles. Money is no object. Then they get the radio and, well, it ends up that they just spent $800 on a radio that doesn't do what they need it to do. Similarly, there are hams that are thinking of buying a basic radio, but see some just out of their budget that have some gee-whiz fancy features. Should they save a bit more so that they can afford it?

The answer is not simple, especially for a new ham who doesn't actually know what they need.

There is not one single HT that can do it all. Need digital modes? Which one? D-STAR? DMR? P25? Fusion? NXDN? Do you need it to be waterproof? What about HF or airband reception? Do you need 1.25m, or 23cm? Monoband or dual band? A built in GPS? All of those sound neat? Well you can't have it. It doesn't exist.

Don't pick the radio and features, and then figure out what to do with it. Pick what you want to do with the radio, and then figure out what features are the ones that fulfill that mission.

For instance, you want an HT that is good for talking on analog repeaters. Great! A dual band, analog HT like the FT-60R will be great here. But, what if you want to work the FM satellites? Well - now you're looking at a full duplex HT, and the TH-D72A is your main choice. Your ARES group uses D-STAR, so perhaps look at the TH-D74A or ID-51Plus2. You've got a DMR hot spot and want to use that? Well the MD-380 may be the option for you.

A lot of times, the features you need won't be apparent until you've been using the radios for a bit. For example, for the past 2 years I've worked communications at the Boston Marathon. For both of these events, I used an FT-60R. I love that Yaesu. It's a solid radio, inexpensive, easy to use. It's still my number one recommendation for a basic analog dual band HT. This year's Marathon made me wish I had something else, though. We got soaked, it dumped several inches of rain on us during the event. As much as I love that radio, it has drawbacks. The accessory connector isn't terribly positive, and the hand mic kept popping out. The fact that it stuck out of the side added a complication when the radio was shoved under coats and rain gear, as I kept putting pressure on it. The radio itself is not waterproof, though it is slightly water resistant. These started adding up to a list of features I'd want in a radio that replaced it for events such as this. A more positive connector - preferably one that pointed up and not to the side. Waterproof, or at least rain proof. Tough. Only 2m was required. High quality accessories. This landed me on the Motorola XPR7550. These are not cheap radios, nor are the accessories. For all of the money I spent on that radio, it still doesn't do everything. It's monoband, and requires software to program it (unless you spend more money). It'll do DMR and FM, but no other digital modes. It's obviously not full duplex. It was the radio for my mission though, met my requirements.

If you're working with groups, or have friends, or are in other situations where there's a group of people using the same radio, it may be worth investigating that radio to have some people to help you figure out all of the features, and for interoperability.

I have several HTs. More than I need probably. They each have a place, or at least the ones I'm not debating selling. The thing is, buy a radio. Something simple. Use it. Find where it's strong and where it falls short. Figure out what you need, then buy the more expensive radio.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Quest Begins

Some years ago I came across the "Worked All Bands" Award, presented by the North East Weak Signal Group. The goal for the award is to make a QSO of at least 1km on every band available to US Amateurs. The description currently lists 26 bands, but I expect that it'll shortly be updated to include 2200m and 630m to give a total of 28 bands. For the curious - that is 2200m, 630m, 160m, 80m, 60m, 40m, 30m, 20m, 17m, 15m, 12m, 10m, 6m, 2m, 1.25m, 70cm, 33cm, 23cm, 13cm, 9cm, 6cm, 3cm (I forget the wavelengths after this point and we usually call them by frequency so...), 24GHz, 47GHz, 78GHz, 122GHz, 134GHz, 241GHz and Light. As of this writing, only Brian WA1ZMS has completed the award.

When I initially came across the award, it seemed pretty unobtainable. Intimidating. In the intervening years, I became involved in VHF+ contesting. As part of the gear collected for the roving, I've accumulated bands up to 10GHz. Recent fortuitous purchases on eBay and discussions with other mmwave operators have given me bits and pieces to start building out a 78GHz transverter. I've also started building out light gear.

What does this mean? I'm actually only a couple bands away from having gear to get WAB. Granted, they are the most difficult of any of the amateur bands to work. But I think that means that I'm officially starting to hunt that award. It'll take years to get the rest of the gear required, maybe 10 or more, but I'm on my way. This'll act as my official declaration to myself that I'm now workin towards WAB.

I'm also going to try and work VUCC on the microwave bands while I'm at it.

Let's do it.