This is a view from NASA of the sun today, October 9, 2018, and I am making 10m DX contacts one after another. Zero sunspots but working DX on FT8! Is FT8 creating a “tipping point” for amateur radio at the very bottom of the solar cycle?
Several years ago I was captivated by a book written by Malcolm Gladwell called, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Merriam-Webster defines tipping point as, “the critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place.” In his book, Gladwell describes how, “The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.” He shows us how the phenomenon applies to everything from flu epidemics to the explosion of new technologies.
Does the FT8 mode included in WSJT-X software constitute a tipping point in ham radio for good or for harm? There are many ham radio opinion blogs on the Internet that strongly or sometimes sarcastically take one or the other stance. There is even an Internet poll asking, “Is FT8 damaging amateur radio?” At this moment it is 52% yes, 45% no and 3% undecided. All of the articles and videos I have seen agree on one undeniable fact – FT8 has since its introduction in June of 2017 achieved “killer app” or tipping point status. Some think it will kill amateur radio and others believe that such innovations give the hobby new life.
The FT8 digital mode is the latest in a series of weak signal applications for amateur radio. Conceived originally for enhancing esoteric propagaint modes such as high speed meteor scatter and moonbounce, Joe Taylor (K1JT) developed a series of applications including FSK144, JT6M, JT65, and JT9. When FT8, jointly developed by Joe Taylor and Steve Franke (K9AN), was announced it was described as being designed for, “multi-hop Es where signals may be weak and fading, openings may be short, and you want fast completion of reliable, confirmable QSO’s.” Being a 6 meter fan, that resonates with me.
What happened to take an esoteric mode designed for multi-hop E skip on VHF and overnight turn it into a worldwide phenomenon across all bands from 2200m through 70cm? In other words, what makes FT8 a killer app? Here are a few of my observations:
- FT8 counters the current dearth of sunspots
- FT8 opens “dead bands”
- FT8 is addictive – see em, click em, work em… Boom!
- FT8 lets little pistols work DXCC like a big gun
- FT8 lets you work the world from small or deed restricted lots
- FT8 is a weak signal – not a low power mode (power works the really weak ones)
- FT8 lets you work DX on 6m when there would be none
- FT8 is suddenly dominating VHF/UHF contesting
- FT8 lets you work weak signal DX without proficient CW skills
- FT8 decoding to -20 dB SNR is like turning 100W into 10kW
- FT8 is like having constant DX beacons on every band
- FT8 puts the DX, WAS, WAZ, etc. on the air when they might not be
- FT8 let’s you work DXCC on 160m without a big station
- FT8 let’s you call CQ and become the DX
- FT8 is amazing literally space age technology
- FT8 is probably other things I haven’t realized yet but some of you have
So, will FT8 kill ham radio as some have posed? True, it is mostly automated. True, it reduces the skill required to make DX contacts. True, it removes conversation from the QSO the same as is true of most DX chasing contacts on any mode. True, it removes some of the human factor. But does that make it bad for amateur radio’s future?
In my humble opinion, FT8 is at the very heart of what amateur radio has been about from its inception – amateurs who love the art of radio enhancing the art of radio. The FCC in Part 97 of the rules lists the following as second in the list of five tenets that define amateur radio:
“Continuation and extension of the amateur’s proven ability to contribute to the advancement of the radio art.”
In my humble opinion, what will ultimately kill amateur radio is not FT8. To the contrary FT8 is an example of what will keep it alive and relevant. What will kill amateur radio is if we we cease to innovate, become old and grumpy, and no longer bring new blood into the hobby. I received my novice license over 50 years ago (rock bound CW on a 6L6) and still find new and exciting things to peak my interest. Frankly, technical innovation in amateur radio directly led to my career in technology just as for many of you. I hope that continues long after I am gone.
Amateur radio is alive and well. FT8 is one just one element of keeping it that way. Hope to work you soon on FT8, some other new mode, or maybe a ragchew on SSB when the sunspots come back.