Why People Hate FT8

Let’s just be real for a moment. A lot of people hate FT8. You all have seen it in social media and on the air. It’s a popular mode, so popular in fact that one report citing Club Log data recently showed that 80% of HF contacts in their tracking nowadays are FT8. This increase has come at the expense of other mode activity, especially CW. What’s worse in the minds of some, is that accomplishments like DXCC which used to take several to many years to reach is being significantly shortened with the use of FT8.

I’ve often thought it’s a fait accompli achieving DXCC, one just needs to sit in a chair long enough.  FT8 has given a means to bypass a lot of that chair-sitting.  I think FT8 just exposed an inconvenient truth that there really wasn’t a whole lot of skill involved in DXCC.  Skill may lessen the amount of time it takes.  FT8 just automated the process and significantly reduced the time needed and totally removed any skill advantage.


FT8 or another similar mode was going to happen sometime.  It’s like the concept of steam engine time.  The idea or theory is that the steam engine would have been invented at probably the same time in history by anyone or several people simultaneously in the world, even if many inventors were isolated and not in contact with each other.  It was just bound to happen at some point given the progression of technology and the availability of materials and know-how to do it.  We all knew (well, those of us with engineering know-how) that a semi-synchronous extremely low baud rate, low signal-to-noise ratio mode would work and be quite robust.  It’s Shannon’s Theorem applied. What is at issue is the way Joe Taylor packaged it.  We could do great things with low baud rate/low S/N modes.  How about a TCP/IP link to a BBS on the moon or an open global resilient messaging network that works on every band in the lowest of the low sunspot cycles? Instead, it was packaged as a low effort point-and-click QSO slot machine, unable to convey anything intelligent.

There are fully automated FT8 stations out there where the operator just clicks a button and the station makes contacts all day. We all know it, we just don’t know the extent of it. This I think is the crux of the problem. FT8 has become something akin to Bitcoin-mining, but it’s QSO-mining, and FT8 with automation which is undoubtedly happening has devolved pursuit of accomplishments into a virtual QSO Battlebots competition.

Personally, I’ve become indifferent to the whole FT8 debate, and frankly anything that involves DXing, DXCC, contesting, or collecting wallpaper. I don’t hate FT8, but I get the discontent about it that is expressed in amateur radio circles. I have always been one to tell others to not be mode bigots, or put down other modes. The FT8 mode itself is not bad technology, or detrimental to amateur radio. The mindless fashion in which it is in use I’m not so sure about.

This article was originally posted on Radio Artisan.

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Amateur Radio License Plates

Since the pandemic started up over a year ago, I haven’t done any air travel and have been driving to all business functions. Luckily all my work has been in The Northeast and within a reasonable driving distance of my home, though I often have six to eight hours of driving in a day. So, needless to say, I’ve had a lot of windshield time on interstates the last 12 months.

In this past year, I think I’ve counted perhaps three or four amateur radio license plates on vehicles, total. I’ve identified maybe three other vehicles that didn’t have amateur radio license plates, but looking at the antennas on the vehicles and deducing from bumper stickers and the driver, it was an amateur radio operator.

A decade or two ago I can remember seeing perhaps four or five amateur radio plates on a single eight hour trip alone. I know some people don’t get amateur radio license plates these days because of the relative ease of identifying the owner using a web search. I think you see this with the younger generation who is very Internet savvy and aware of the dangers of self-doxing by providing to much identifying information to the public. We still have a majority of older radio amateurs and with increasing numbers of licensees one would think we would see more amateur radio license plates on the road today.

Has anyone else noticed a decline in amateur radio plates in their neck of the woods?

This article was originally posted on Radio Artisan.

Creativity Opportunities

In social media circles there has been much discussion about Field Day in light of COVID-19 restrictions.  Many traditional club operations are going to be cancelled this year due to social distancing requirements and the need to protect ourselves and especially vulnerable members of our population, of which there are many in amateur radio.

Folks are going to continue to participate from home this year.  Many people undoubtedly are going to recreate the “traditional” FD experience they are accustomed to, operating in their backyard, perhaps in a tent with temporary antennas, emergency power, a grill, and some cold 807s.

Participants operating at home must operate either as D or E class.  D class stations use commercial power while E class uses emergency power sources.  D class stations cannot contact other D stations for points.  E class stations can contact any other class station.  For those wanting to operate in their backyard with tents, emergency power, and temporary antennas, with the way the rules are currently written, they are required to operate as E class.  This puts them in competition with other E stations that choose to operate in the comfort of their homes using permanent antennas.  This would include antennas like a rotatable beam on an 80′ tower. So participants choosing to operate in their backyard with what would otherwise be a common field station, as 1E are at a disadvantage.  It would be more fair to allow backyard stations to operate as class B.

There have also been calls for ARRL to remove the D class contact limitation.  This would give D stations more opportunities to make contacts than they usually could, but considering the unprecedented situation this year and the likelihood of a large majority of D class stations, it would seem removing the restriction would make sense.

ARRL has noted they will not publish aggregated club scores.  Doing so would be a benefit for clubs that are unable to have their normal FD operations and have members operating from home.  There could be an “Aggregate Club Home Score” reporting category created.  Considering that all FD score data is probably stored in a database, producing such a reporting category would be trivial.

Undoubtedly there are other one time tweaks and adjustments that could be made this year in light of the situation we’re in.  I can’t understand why ARRL hasn’t been more flexible and creative this year and used the circumstances as an opportunity to officially recognize the flexibility and creativity of participants, and instead has ironically asked participants to be creative, but stay within the lines of the current rules.

 

This article was originally posted at Radio Artisan.

Not Getting It

ARRL announced today that they have filed comments with the FCC requesting a dismissal of the Petition for Declaratory Ruling filed by New York University (NYU) regarding digital encoding and encryption.  This petition basically claims that proprietary and closed protocols like PACTOR violate current FCC rules, an opinion I’ve had for several years.  I think the AMBI vocoder used in D-STAR and other digital voice modes falls into the same category as well as it’s not openly documented, like the rules require.  Due to the lack of documentation and openness, such encoding is de facto encryption, which is prohibited.

ARRL’s filing has me smacking my head.  Rather than openly addressing the issue of protocols in amateur radio that are closed and proprietary, they attack the language proposed by the Petition.  Furthermore, they pull CW into this, stating,

The proposed prohibition arguably could include, presumably unintentionally, CW (Morse Code), which is a longstanding means of encoding transmissions. The very fact that messages sent in CW are “encoded” by any definition of the term starkly demonstrates the problem with this proposal.

I’m not sure if ARRL is intentionally being obtuse or just doesn’t understand the crux of the issue with “un-openly” documented digital protocols.  CW, while technically encoding, is 100% openly documented, and has been for a century or more.  It doesn’t require proprietary hardware, software, or algorithms to decode.  PACTOR until most recently could only be decrypted with proprietary hardware.  AMBI and others continue to be closed protocols.  That’s the problem, not semantics over the proposed language in the petition snagging CW as encoding, and encryption.

A few weeks ago I started writing comments to file with the FCC, but I quite honestly lost interest.  I don’t have a horse in this race, other than wanting to see amateur radio continue on well into the future.  I’m just disappointed ARRL doesn’t get what the real problem is, doesn’t make an effort to correct it, and fails to even acknowledge that closed digital protocols are antithetical to the openness and historical foundation of amateur radio.

This article originally appeared on Radio Artisan.

It’s Not About Hara

There’s been a festering, ongoing social media battle over Hamvention, its new venue, the fairground in Xenia, and the old Hara arena.  It seems this has bubbled up to the surface again with the recent tornado disaster in Trotwood which severely damaged homes and the venerable, but severely dilapidated Hara Arena.

I won’t dispute that Hara was a dump.  It was a major dump.  It was abused over the years and its long tenuous financial history is available for anyone who wants to find it on the interwebs.  Despite being a dump, Hara was an ideal venue for the Hamvention.  Hamvention started there, grew with Hara even through its physical decline, and the legendary event arguably was molded and enabled by the capabilities the site offered.  Hara may be rebuilt and Hamvention may or may not return to Hara, but I’m not going to bet on it or even entertain the thought.

What bothers me is that some dismiss any commentary or criticism of the Xenia location as merely Hara Arena fanatics sore over the loss of Hara, or simply as complainers.  That’s not the case.  I’ll acknowledge that Xenia was likely the best choice out of a few choices at the time, but it’s just not well suited long term for the Hamvention.   There’s a lack of major highways and hotels nearby. The mud pit parking has become legendary.  The buildings are more suited to host livestock than technology.  The flea market is in the grassy track center, because, well, there’s no where else to put it.  And last, the venue doesn’t feel like the largest amateur radio gathering in the western hemisphere.  It feels like a county fair with amateur radio.

It’s not realistic to think Hamvention will return to Hara anytime soon.  I think what many of us would like to see is a realization that Xenia isn’t an ideal location, and it has changed the character of the event.  Xenia was a prudent, stopgap measure taken under difficult circumstances.  Now that the immediate threat to the future of the event has passed, the Hamvention powers that be should seek a better venue for Hamvention and not settle for Xenia.

This article originally appeared on Radio Artisan.

My Last Post Ever Regarding ARRL?

In the past I’ve been a strong proponent of ARRL.  I often mentally tied the past and future success or failure of amateur radio to the organization.  I’ve come to the conclusion that this just isn’t the case, and in my evolving opinion the organization is becoming less relevant as time goes on.  The elected leadership hierarchy to me seems archaic.  I tend to doubt the slate of new blood “change” candidates which got elected will change much, as long as the majority of ARRL leadership, and to some extent the general population of amateurs in the US, continues to have the demographic makeup that it does.  My life membership has essentially become a good deal on a perpetual magazine subscription, assuming that I don’t get hit by a bus anytime soon.  I’m convinced it’s non-centralized grass roots efforts from individuals that are going to make or break amateur radio in the coming decades.

So, one of my 2019 “amateur radio resolutions” is to stop worrying and pontificating about ARRL, and be that individual that leads my own grass root effort.

Meh

No doubt you’ve seen the recent ARRL proposal to increase Technician HF privileges and the expected ensuing online debate over it.  In general I’m not opposed to the proposal, however I find myself indifferent. As others have pontificated, it’s not much of a hurdle these days to upgrade to General to acquire more privileges.  I was very supportive of the code test elimination and various changes over the years that have simplified licensing.  However, to some extent I think we’re at a point of diminishing returns with benefits from licensing changes and privilege increases.  There’s perhaps one specific area I see the ARRL-proposed changes increasing on air activity: FT8.  If Techs are given HF digital privileges on lower bands, I suspect we’ll see a lot of Techs end up there, and stay there, like a lot of Techs do today with 2 meter repeaters, unfortunately.  With new radio amateur recruiting, participation, and retention, where should our focus be, what are the real stumbling blocks, and where is the opportunity?  It’s not privileges.  In thinking about the ARRL proposal, I’m kind of left thinking, “Meh.”

We need to look where the bulk of amateur technology hobbyist activity is today.  It’s the Maker movement.  These are intelligent, innovative, and inquisitive people who would be a great asset in amateur radio.  It’s often been said that amateur radio and its perhaps dated technology can’t compete with the Internet, Xboxes, and cell phones.  That may apply to your grandkids, but with Makers it’s not an issue.  Makers enjoy playing with retro technology, like Nixie tubes, for example.  They like building stuff and experimenting.  They also like cutting edge technology, like satellites.  Amateur radio has the perfect blend of retro and modern technology, and it has the opportunity to take Makers beyond the typical Maker fare of microcontrollers, single board computers, 3D printing, and robotics.  Unlike “preppers” coming into the hobby for a specific application for their own purposes, Makers will be active and contributing participants and arguably are more likely to advance the radio art, as amateur radio was intended to do.  But we need to have a culture that welcomes them, on their turf, and their venues, not just ours.

The Maker movement is a potential goldmine for amateur radio, one that needs to tapped, right now.  This goes beyond having an amateur radio display at a Maker Faire stocked with pamphlets.  If we really want to increase participation and new licensee retention, we need to pull out all the stops and target this demographic with technology, exhibitions, publications, and venues that tie amateur radio into their curiosities, interests, and projects.  We need to be seen as innovators, not preservationists or on air retirement communities.  There needs to be cultural change within amateur radio.  While more kilohertz for newcomers is nice, and fairly easy to implement, it’s not going to get sizable returns in participation and retention.  Targeting Makers will.

This article originally appeared on Radio Artisan.

Yet Another ARRL Opinion

For the first time in my amateur radio career, I’m beginning to look upon ARRL unfavorably.  About 15 years ago after I acquired a lifetime subscription, my grandfather chastised me saying I’d eventually grow tired of the League and would regret my subscription.  I’m sad to say I think that day may have come.

Over the years I’ve defended ARRL, in both in person conversations and online.  ARRL attracts a lot of haters, often unfairly, for wrong reasons.  For example, I’ve witnessed many hams hate ARRL, claiming they don’t like CW and worked to eliminate it, despite ARRL supporting code testing for Extra licensing in their FCC comments filings years ago, and offering daily code bulletins and practice over the air.  Despite ARRL’s faults and shortcomings, amateur radio would not be where it is today, and perhaps not even exist, if it wasn’t for ARRL.

With the recent Code of Conduct and censure incident and the proposed voting and membership changes, I’m left with the impression of an organization that is closed, secretive, adverse to dissent, and focused on self-preservation.  The Force of 50 debacle points to an organization eager to project to the public a disaster response “photo-op” image that neither the organization or the amateur radio service supports or deserves.  Over the years I’ve personally seen other examples that support these two impressions but never dwelled on them as ARRL garnered my utmost respect as I felt that the League, despite its flaws, in general was taking amateur radio in the right direction.  I no longer have that confidence in the organization.

While I could end my diatribe with the paragraph above, I really want to explore or ask, what is the solution to “fixing” ARRL?  ARRL does a great job with publications and education, contesting, and lobbying the FCC.  Does the large and seemingly complicated hierarchal governance structure really serve a purpose today?  It appears that structure is geared more towards emergency communications initiatives than an effective membership feedback vehicle or advancing the radio art.  Is this structure the problem and ARRL needs to be transformed into more of a flat, responsive, grass-roots kind of organization?

This article was originally published at Radio Artisan.