Friday, 3 June 2022

FT8 and the Magic Band

Now that 6m is in full swing once again, many of you will be operating FT8 on 6m for the first time! Things are a little different on 6m compared to operating FT8 on HF and here are a few things for newcomers that might help to keep you out of the naughty corner! (originally published in 2020 but still important today)



Today’s blog is directed to those that may be new to 6m or new to using FT8 on 6m. Some of the things discussed will make your experience on the magic band better for you and better for your neighbors.

Unlike using FT8 on the HF bands, 6m presents some different challenges, especially if you operate in a region where there may be a lot of other locals also using the band at the same time.

Although the weak-signal capability of FT8 has made it possible for many smaller stations or those with makeshift antennas to take advantage of the unique propagation 6m has to offer, it also can create problems for other users of the band when used inappropriately. In regions of dense population, even small stations can create very high local signal levels, often making it impossible for their neighbors to hear weak signals. This is not deliberately-caused QRM but arises when some operators operate 'against the flow’ and transmit on the opposite ‘sequence’ to everyone else in their local area.

On HF, one can transmit or listen on whatever time sequence they wish. Choosing ‘TX 1st’ or ‘TX 2nd’ is usually determined by who you hear calling CQ or who you wish to work. On 6m however, in a densely-populated region of local operators, chosing to transmit whenever you want to is a luxury that can create big problems for your neighbor who may be trying to hear that weak DX signal while you are transmitting!

These problem will not occur if everybody in the region uses and follows the same transmit-receive periods, so that everyone is listening or everyone is transmitting at the same time ... one or the other. Unfortunately, this ‘ideal’ system falls apart easily when one or more of your neighbors is not using the same sequence as everyone else.

For the past few years, a protocol that seeks to alleviate this problem has become popular and well accepted by those familiar with it. Those new to 6m may not know about it or understand the reasoning behind it.

Above all, I would urge new users of the band, or to the FT8 mode, to first listen carefully for a few minutes, before beginning operation, to determine what the majority of stations in their local region are using for sequencing. If they are using ‘TX 1st’, then your choice of ‘TX 2nd’ will likely cause hearing difficulty for many others, as well as for yourself.

Although there are no strict rules, there is a very successful and well-practiced protocol, and that is that the ‘easternmost’ station transmits on ‘1st’ while the ‘western end’ goes 2nd’. This is why you will hear most eastern stations in the morning hours transmitting ‘2nd’, as they are usually calling or looking for Europeans to their east, who are transmitting ‘1st’. By the same token, you will also hear western stations transmitting on '2nd', who are also looking for Europe to their east, transmitting on ‘1st’.

This sequencing protocol usually reverses later in the day when signals from Asia become a possibility, and all North Americans then become the ‘easternmost’ stations and will transmit on the ‘1st’ sequence ... unlike in the morning. I can easily see how newcomers to the band could become confused, when they hear both sequences being used! The best thing, once again, is to listen carefully first and then ‘go with the flow’.

You can read about the UK's Six Metre Group's initiatives regarding these protocols HERE.

OK... so you’re not interested in EU or Asia? Then it shouldn’t matter to you which sequence that you use and best operating practice would again be to ‘go with the flow’ in consideration of other users.

A few days ago I saw a prime example of exactly what not to do, in too many respects. I made a posting on the ON4KST 6m chat page that VE1SKY in NS (Nova Scotia) was being decoded here, mainly to alert others in my region that European signals might be coming next, as hearing the VE1s in BC is often an indicator that the European path is building.

In less than a minute, an S9+ local began calling ‘CQ NS’ on the exact opposite sequence of all others ... effectively blocking the waterfall and any possible hope of hearing weak EU signals. I’m sorry, but this is just terrible operating procedure, with almost zero chance of success, while showing no consideration for nearby users.

Just like working DX on CW or on phone, the best way, as it always has been, is to ‘listen, listen and then listen some more’. You will work FAR more DX by listening and calling at the right time, than you will by calling CQ.

I also see some local stations everyday, calling endless CQs, often for over 60 minutes straight and often with many replies that go unnoticed. With FT8, one can check ‘work 1st’, go away, and return later to see who they might have ‘worked’. Perhaps this is what these operators are doing, but they should understand that they are also creating non-stop QRM for other users ... those that choose to listen carefully to the band rather than to endlessly CQ. Once again, this is just poor practice.

You may argue that if nobody called CQ, then there would be no contacts made. There is nothing wrong with a few CQs but CQing for an hour? And don’t worry, there will always be other stations CQing endlessly for you to hear, even if it’s not a great way to operate.

With a little pre-planning for sequencing and consideration for your neighbors, everyone can and should be able to enjoy 6m FT8 with very few problems ... and that is my hope for all of us.

After forty-eight summers of CW and phone on 6m and two summers on FT8, these are some of my initial thoughts on how to best operate for maximum success and consideration for other band-users.

The latter is part of the basic framework upon which amateur radio was originally established, when back in 1914, the ARRL described in their 'Code of Conduct' for amateurs ... "The Amateur is Gentlemanly. He never knowingly uses the air for his own amusement in such a way as to lessen the pleasure of others." 

Now, let the magic, and the pleasure, continue!


Photon said...

You're right to highlight this issue. It's usually easier to go with the flow and transmit in sequence with closer stations than assiduously adhere to a rigid regime, because that can be a bit pointless and frustrating!

But the vagaries of propagation can also mean out-of-sequence transmissions can work just fine; it just depends on how close, and how strong other stations are at any given propagation condition.

In the end, it's the proverbial wild west out there, and few care about their licence terms or good protocol, not least as there is no enforcement by anybody. The worst that can happen is someone criticises you online somwehere - which is two-a-penny anyway!

The best solution in the medium to long term is focusing the trianing courses and exams on good operating. This is more important that ever with the burgeoning digital modes. Having committee urchins in our societies pretending digital is not 'real radio' and ignorinf developments isn't - and won't - help anyone.

Anonymous said...

When I first started on 6 meters in 2011 I didn't know much about the band I read your blog with excitement about all the different types of propagation and the stations you worked .. I looked up to you and looked for your guidance .. I became very passionate about 6 meters and now it is one of my favorite bands .. yes I make a few mistakes about protocol and I am still learning to this day ... But you my friend be-little people for there errors and ignore them instead of helping them and teaching them ... you have become a grouchy old man with little time to teach and more about your displeasement of others ignorance ... isn't teaching what ham radio is all about instead of chastising people for there ignorance ? I see your comments on On4kst and I am saddened that you have time to make fun of people but don't reach out to help them... you have changed ,,, and it is sad

Steve McDonald said...

I’m sorry that you feel this way. Can you be more specific about comments that have upset you so that I might be more aware? Something recent? My ON4KST comments are pretty mild compared to much of what is posted. Sadly it seems, the cold-hearted nature of FT8 removed much of the human-element to two way contacts now and often brings out the worst in amateurs and unfortunately probably myself. I do actually spend many hours every year answering e-mail inquiries about 6m to help those new to the band as well as helping new (local) CW ops that I meet on 40m so I’m not totally evil and grouchy. Thank you for giving me your thoughts on this. I’ll try and do better. 73