|courtesy: KC8RP FT8 Info
We are now half-way through this summer’s Sporadic-E season, normally the magic band’s best time of the year. The only exception to this being the winter months of those solar cycles that are robust enough to raise the F2 MUF up as far as 50MHz ... something that occurred for only two or three days during the peak of Solar Cycle 24.
Unfortunately, it really looks as if the old reliable bread and butter modes on 6m, CW and SSB, are fast going the way of the dodo bird, as very few signals on either of these modes have been heard here this summer. As speculated last year at this time, it seems as though the weak signal (WSJT) FT8 mode now reigns supreme on the band, which has come as a great disappointment to myself and many other diehard CW ops.
At the start of this year’s season I reluctantly decided to pay more attention to this mode and see if it could put any new DXCC entities into my 6m log ... if so, it would be time well-spent.
For the past several years, my main 6m interest has focused on European or South / Central American openings, which are usually unpredictable and short-lived. As usual, most of the season’s openings have been domestic, with signals from the central and south-eastern states being the ones most often heard. Usually, signals during these openings are strong and fairly reliable and lend themselves to easy two-way work on either CW or SSB. For the vast majority of summer time openings, FT8 is not needed, as signals are not weak.
For some reason, the popularity of this weak-signal mode on 6m continues to grow in popularity even though signals are so strong! Where this mode really shines is on the short-lived long haul openings to EU or on similar long paths from the PNW, of which there have been very few this season.
With everyone crowded into a narrow passband of ~ 2kHz, it doesn’t take much to mess things up for your neighbours if you don’t think carefully about how your operating can affect other users of that small sliver of space.
One of the most common examples of poor operating skills that I see is the seemingly endless CQ. This is much easier to do on FT8 than with conventional modes, as the software used can do this automatically for you, every 15 seconds ... while you fiddle with something else in the shack. I’ve seen some nearby stations call CQ continuously for over 60 minutes at a time, with no replies. What this does is make it difficult for other nearby users to actually hear / decode any weak signals on the band that are being covered by the loud CQing station(s) during this entire span of time. Strong local signals can wreak considerable havoc with weak-signal mode software as it's just not designed to happily handle strong signals and do a good job of decoding weak ones at the same time! Please think about this if you are one of those long CQers ... you are not the only one trying to use the band.
Another observation has to do with 'sequencing'. FT8 users must decide if they will transmit on the ‘even’ or on the ‘odd’ 15-second sequence. If you, and all of your neighbours are loud with each other, then it makes sense that everyone is better off operating on the same sequence. This way, all locals are transmitting at the same time which means they are all listening at the same time as well ... nobody causes QRM for one another if everyone uses the same sequence.
This comes off the rails very easily when just one or two strong neighbours choose to transmit during the receive sequence being used by everyone else.
There has been a long-standing precedent for sequencing, established and utilized by meteor-scatter operators for several decades. It calls for stations on the eastern-most end of a path (Europeans for example) to transmit on ‘evens’ ... the ‘0-15’ and ‘30-45’ second segment of each minute. Stations on the western-end of the path (NA) transmit on the ‘odds’ ... ‘15-30’ and ‘45-60’ second portion of each minute. When looking towards JA later in the day, everything reverses for NA stations, as they now become the eastern-end of the path.
Some operators seem to get totally confused by this or don’t check to see what sequence is being used locally before starting to operate ... while some don’t really seem to care.
I’m not complaining about what a given amateur chooses to do but simply describing some of the roadblocks to better use of FT8 and why it is not necessarily very well-suited for 90% of the typical propagation seen on 6m Es.
Many of the newer stations often seem to be using poor or makeshift antenna systems on 6m and are often not able to hear stations responding to their CQs, which may be strong enough locally to disrupt reception for those that are able to hear weaker signals.
I have deliberately made a point of never calling CQ on FT8. From decades of CW DXing I have come to understand that it’s much easier to work DX, on any band, by spending your time listening ... and then calling when the time is right. It’s no different with FT8, yet I see CQs that go on forever. Some will argue that if nobody called CQ, then there would be nobody to hear, which is of course valid ... the reality is, most amateurs cannot resist calling CQ, especially DX stations who enjoy working a pileup. There seems to be no shortage of CQers and those seeking DX should take advantage of that fact.
One loud station was seen yesterday calling another for over 90 minutes-straight. Perhaps he had wandered away from his shack and had forgotten to ‘Halt Tx’ before leaving! FT8 users need to understand how to use their software efficiently.
As for PNW to EU propagation this summer, it has been almost non-existent although I have worked CT1HZE in Portugal and JW7QIA in Svalbard ... by listening ... listening ... and calling briefly, both on FT8. In both cases, signals were brief but strong enough for CW! During the short-lived appearance of the JW7, two NA stations were noted calling ‘CQ JW’ the entire time. Perhaps if they had spent this wasted time more wisely by listening, they would have worked JW.
I’m happy to report that Svalbard was a new DXCC entity for me on 6m, #88, and the first 'new one' in a few years.
It seems that when used sensibly, FT8 is a useful application to have in your DX toolbox ... but for most daily summer Es operation, it’s just not needed. CW or SSB is well up to the task most of the time, even for small stations. Where FT8 shines is on the very brief, often unstable, long haul (EU-NA or JA-NA) paths and then, only if your neighbours don’t do things that will get them into the naughty-corner!
Now, let’s see what the second half of the season has in store for the magic band .... maybe the best is yet to come.