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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Diving into FT-8, the hot new digital mode
Last fall, my digital mode of choice was JT-65, with its sinister ice cream truck-sounding musical notes and long, tedious turnaround time - the ham radio equivalent of watching grass grow. 
A year later, I'm obsessed with its offspring, FT-8, also a low power mode suitable for weak band conditions and limited antennas. Like JT-65, the information exchange is automated and basic – call signs, grid squares and signal reports (in decibels).
What's different? FT-8 uses transmissions that last 15 seconds rather than a full minute, meaning there's less waiting and four times as many contacts can be squeezed into the same amount of time.
Since its introduction this summer, FT-8 has caught on like a California wildfire. No one expected this kind of popularity, not even its co-creator, Joe Taylor, W1JT. You only have to look at the FT-8 software waterfall to see how popular it is, as dozens of signals work their way down the display on any band that's remotely open.
When operating, you can either call CQ or answer other stations by clicking on them as they appear in the left hand column. A word of advice - FT-8 is very time dependent. 

Your computer clock has to be accurate to within a second, in order to sync up with other signals on the waterfall. Since my elderly laptop tends to lose time, I have it synced to the National Institute of Standards (NIST) clock, found here.
Typical  FT-8 screen showing
waterfall and received stations.

FT-8 is included as part of the free WSJT-X download package, version 1.8.0. There are versions for Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems and other useful information on the page.
Admittedly, FT-8 isn’t for everybody. Like JT-65, it’s impersonal and doesn’t allow any real chatting. There are times when I click the CQ button and walk away. When I return, I see that I logged an entire QSO because the software is smart – it establishes contacts and then runs through exchanges and finally sends “73” to the other station.
FT-8 allows short free-texting and lets operators work “split” by separating the transmit and receive frequencies on the display. Most contacts are simplex, but dx contacts usually work split – just like regular analog ham radio. 

Here are the designated frequencies for using this mode: 1840 KHz, 3573 KHz, 7074 KHz, 10136 KHz, 14074 KHz, 18100 KHz, 21074 KHz, 24915 KHz, 28074 KHz and 50.313 MHz. I generally run no more than 10 or 15 watts of output power - more than adequate to make plenty of contacts.

I hope this is an informative article, and that some of you give FT-8 a try. As they say in digi-land, see you on the waterfall!

Happy Holidays!


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