What is FT8?

FT8 is a digital mode forming part of the WSJT-X Suite, and was first released in mid-2017.

It enables QSO’s when the received signal level is as low as -24dB and each over takes 15 seconds or about 90 seconds for a full QSO.

There are many guides to its use on the web, the one I used being at https://www.physics.princeton.edu/pulsar/K1JT/FT8_Operating_Tips.pdf

160m experiments winter 2017-18

During Winter at near sunspot minimum in late November and early December 2017, and again in January and February 2018, I tried FT8 out on top band (160 m) using my horizontal delta loop as a single fat long wire, fed against my ground system through an auto ATU.  Antenna modelling software shows me that the antenna is not particularly efficient at this frequency so I used 60W PEP, for some 7 sessions for short periods around 9 PM on weekdays.

A simple results table ordered by distance:

Locator Country km
JO21 Belgium 415
JO21 Netherlands 415
JO20 Belgium 434
IO63 Eire 462
IO85 Scotland 463
JN49 Germany 740
JN36 France 805
JN47 Switzerland 847
JO57 Denmark 1019
J065 Sweden 1024
JO72 Poland 1098
JO59 Norway 1163
JN77 Austria 1234
JM19 Baleric Isles 1369
JN87 Austria 1369
JP53 Norway 1509
JN70 Italy 1731
KN17 Hungary 1780
KO40 Ukraine 2087
KN89 Ukraine 2666

Winter night-time propagation on 160m is by skywave so some simple geometry on these results shows that the take-off angle from my antenna is roughly 15 to 20 degrees for the longest distances and 50 to 60 degrees for the shorter distances based on a reflective layer height of 300 to 400km.

FT8 QSO’s don’t (as at Spring 2018) provide antenna or power data so meaningful comparison of signal strengths isn’t practical. However my reports ranged between -20dB and +7dB and those I gave were between -24dB and +12dB

All great fun and using PSK Reporter one can see where your signal is being received, in my case as far away as JA (Japan) but unfortunately I wasn’t able to work them.

Other bands 2017-18

Brief trials on other bands have shown that with relatively low power (for HF!) and a simple antenna worldwide DX is fairly easy to do, even during this sunspot minimum period, e.g. I’ve worked China on 20m and Indonesia on 40m.  I have been considering adding a linear amplifier to my system as I hope to have more operating time shortly, but with results like these that expense is on hold!

Further HF experiments in 2019

Slight increase in power to 80W but no other changes apart from fitting an isolating 1:1 transformer on the coax input to the remote ATU in late autumn.  That seems to have cut local received noise somewhat and results on transmit seem to be improved, although it’s not yet been there long enough to be sure.

On 160m best completed DX has been Kazakhstan in December 2019 (4200km) although a partial QSO with a JA during the same very short opening was an unfortunate getaway!

On 80m best DX has been Asiatic Russia at 3500km and Crete at 2725km

On 40m I was pleased to work Republic of Korea at 9200km and Venezuela at 7400km in December 2019

Best DX on all bands (all October 2019) has been the Falkland Islands on 20m at 12,600km , closely followed by South Africa at 9050km plus Brazil at 8900km also on 20m

FT4

This is a newer mode with shorter QSO times, designed mainly for contests although there seems to be regular activity.  The signals are somewhat wider than FT8, although still narrow compared to other modes.  See https://physics.princeton.edu/pulsar/k1jt/FT4_Protocol.pdf

The longer range DX seems to be a bit easier to work using FT4, for reasons I have not yet worked out.

Your computer clock

An exact computer clock is essential, within +/- 1 second, needing changes to how the clock is managed.

Using Windows 10 I first tightened its Internet time checking interval to daily instead of weekly, and to a nearer time-server, by some registry changes I found on the web.  Using a time checking website such as http://www.time.is these changes give me around +/-0.3 to 0.7 seconds accuracy, which seems OK but maybe not quite good enough.

For tighter timing I’ve recently been trying out Meinberg NTP, which gives the exact time.

Portable FT8

I tried FT8 from a portable location in early April 2018, for a short period, using my FT817.  Band conditions weren’t great (on SSB voice) and I found some technical issues:

  • Despite setting up the software at home it at first didn’t work for CAT control when out portable.  Found that the USB/RS232 dongle that I need to use didn’t retain its com port number from home but was allocated a different one!
  • The weather included a cold fitful breeze, although it felt warm with the bright sun.  I initially had few FT8 decodes and immediately suspected the laptop clock was being affected by the temperature changes.
  • I plugged in a GPS module purchased on the web, running from USB, using NMEATime to discipline the laptop clock.  Problem solved, but further experiments with software needed, not least about another com port number reallocation…

Reading the laptop screen is also less than easy in full sun, and my polarised sunglasses make it appear completely black.

In summer 2018 and 2019 I tried again /P from a local hill, which was more successful being in my parked car, mainly sporadic E stations on 50MHz and 24/28MHz.  The GPS derived timing I found to be essential.