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.

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