Why FT8?

If you’ve heard of FT8 and wonder why this digital mode has become one of the most popular digital modes, but you question “why?” or you don’t have interest in it, read this post. It might provide some insight into what it is and why it’s so popular.

I hear many QSOs quite often from older amateurs who were around before these digital modes became so popular who don’t have any interest in FT8. I often wonder if it’s because they don’t see the purpose of it and how it fits into the hobby, or if they find it too much of a technical challenge to start using it.

FT8 is a digital mode, actually a “sound card” mode which was created by Joe Taylor K1JT and team, and is a weak signal mode. It can be “heard” with as little as -24dB of signal. It is my opinion that it is a low power mode, meaning it is not intended to be transmitted at 100 or 1,000 watts. I use no more than 25 watts when transmitting FT8.

I don’t want to go into too much detail on how FT8 works, nor the details of how to get started, but that might be material for a future post. Joe Taylor, K1JT presented FT8 and other weak signal modes in a presentation to the Delaware Valley Radio Association, which you can view here.

Below are a few reasons why FT8 might be a useful mode for you to try:

  • You’re a technician without HF privileges (except on the digital portion of the 10 meter band).
  • You’re aspiring toward obtaining the ARRL DXCC award, Worked All States, or any other award or contest that recognizes a digital contact.
  • You’re testing an antenna, want to compare configurations, or confirm radiation pattern, to check the results on PSK Reporter.
  • You’re looking for quick contacts that are not “conversational” like other digital modes are such as RTTY, PSK31

FT8 contacts are widely recognized because they include call sign exchange, grid square, and reception report. An FT8 contact can be made in as little as 90 seconds and even shorter in “contest” mode.

FT8 on 20 meters daytime from New Jersey

Similar to other digital modes, many apps have been developed which both assist the operator and enhance the experience. For example, you can see in real-time all of the FT8 stations you can hear with your radio and antenna on a world map, visually seeing where they are. Since FT8 exchanges are limited to location and signal reports, initiation of a QSO is often sought out based on location of the other station(s). If it were CW or phone, you would likely need to either pick up their location from a QSO you’re hearing, or, initiate contact and then find out their location. With FT8, the grid square is part of the CQ message.

If I’ve managed to change your mind on FT8, you can get started with a modest setup. Unlike other modes which might require more power, a top end HF rig, or calling CQ for minutes or hours, you can start making contacts much easier with FT8. Although there are many older HF radios which will work quite well, I’m referring to today’s entry level HF rigs, as they are readily available and require less hardware to get started.

You can start with Icom’s 7300 or Yaesu’s FT-991A entry level HF rigs with built in “sound cards”. A sound card interface provides an audio connection between a computer and the radio, usually over USB. Further, both rigs support CAT over USB which allows the computer to control the VFO and PTT among other things. Either radio can be connected to a computer and both are compatible with WSJT-X.

WSJT-X is the most popular app for FT8, and it directly interfaces many rigs including both rigs mentioned above. This app controls almost all aspects of a typical QSO, and will create a log of all contacts. You can also interface an app called GridTracker to WSJT-X for visualizations of QSOs and stations on a world map in real time. Further, GridTracker can even log automatically to LOTW, QRZ and many others.

WSJT-X can visually alert you to new station DXCC entities calling CQ and or new stations you haven’t yet made a contact with, as well as stations you’ve already made contact with.

GridTracker RX “Spots” from PSK Reporter

Even if you don’t make a contact, those receiving your transmissions can “spot” or report your station to PSK Reporter. This will allow you to see where you were heard in near real-time in GridTracker on the world map. This is great feedback for antenna testing, propagation results, and current band conditions. This is also useful to see if you’ve found a good FT8 “slot” to transmit on.

To summarize, FT8 automates nearly all aspects of logging a valid and recognized QSO for awards and contests. It can also be used to see where you’re heard (similar to WSPR, but with shorter transmission duty cycles). It may seem like FT8 takes all of the traditional challenge out of DX hunting. I suspect most of those who are using FT8 do so for more than just the contact. They may be using it to see what band(s) are open, to where, and when. Perhaps they’re using it to complete one of the various awards they’re striving toward achieving. Yes, FT8 takes almost all of the challenge out of making a contact, but so does buying a radio “off the shelf” versus building one yourself. There are many aspects to the hobby, and we each pick our challenges.

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