When I Came Back… There was FT8

After my move to an antenna restricted community (and lots of other things in life) I was off the air pretty much entirely for five years, from late 2018 to late 2023.

Through 2018, I was sporadically active, mostly on digital modes — Typically either PSK or RTTY. Of course, 2017 was “the year when digital modes changed forever” with the introduction of FT8. When I dismantled my station in 2018, FT8 was still an oddity. There were still lots and lots of PSK contacts to be had. “Fire up the rig on 20m and you’re pretty much guaranteed a PSK QSO.”

When I returned to ham radio in 2023, I immediately wandered over to 14070 to check out the 20m PSK scene. I found… silence. I kid you not. I couldn’t find a single PSK station on the band that night. Where did all the cool digital kids go? Well, they went to 14074, to FT8. Which was rockin’. Just jam packed with stations.

Since that first night on HF, I spent some time trying out FT8 (and FT4). And I see that this mode has already been the subject of a lot of blog posts, discussion, and argument. So there is unlikely to be anything useful that I can add to the topic. And I’m really not entirely sure what I think about these modes.

Making QSOs using FTx seems to require little actual skill. You need some sort of HF radio. You need some sort of antenna. You need some sort of computer and the WSTJ-X program. You need to be able to choose what looks to you like an unused frequency for your transmissions. You need to be able to double-click (or click) a button. You need to know when to be polite and unclick the button when some other station gets into a QSO with the station you were calling. If you reply to a CQ from a station that you really want, and they don’t seem to be able to hear you, you need to figure out how to turn your power up and/or move your transmissions to a different frequency (under the assumption that you were previously either outside their passband or on a frequency that is in use near the DX). Unless I’m missing something, there’s just not more to it than that.

The good news is that you can put a lot of stations into your log in a short period of time. In the first week of my new HF station being on the air, I put over 100 FTx QSOs in my log.

The bad news is that, for me, it’s only marginally fun. I mean, yeah… it’s ham radio. And, yeah… I’m logging contacts. But, somehow, I feel like breaking a pileup for a DX or special event station takes more skill, more finesse… and I find it more challenging and fun. When I can’t get a station that I’ve double-clicked on WTJ-X I just find it… frustrating. But perhaps I’m fooling myself about the skill required to break that pile up on SSB — choosing exactly how to voice my callsign, varying my timing, peaking my audio. Maybe my repeatedly calling “Kilo one papa golf victor” every time the DX says “QRZ” is no different than WSTJ-X constantly pumping out “xxxx K1PGV FN42” until xxxx answers?

I dunno. I’m gonna think on it.

In the meantime, I think I’ll set WSTJ-X up to CQ DX for a bit… and I’ll got get a coffee.