FT8 – Getting successfully into the log of the ‘DX’

Frustrated about not getting in the log of that ‘DX’ station? Well, the following is no guarantee – but may help you avoid the most common errors.

FT8 [and FT4] may not be everyone’s idea of ham radio, but love it or loath it, it can provide contacts and that illusive new DXCC for operators with only modest setups and antennas.

The great thing about FT8 is that you can still get valid contacts at around -26db – that’s minus 26db BELOW the noise floor. Count the noise floor as around ‘S Zero’ – pretty cool don’t you think?

Now – I’ll be in the wrath of all the ops who say that FT8 is just PC to PC – well believe me guys, this isn’t the case and those that try to convince others that this is the case, have very obviously little understanding of the mode or how to operate it.

There’s a few tricks that FT8 operators need to know before they’ll get endless [and effortless QSO’s in the log]. It’s not just a push button mode like some think it is – that’s just a rubbishy assumption.

You’ll see various cluster comments and trash about being ‘Brain Dead’ and the like. In essence, FT8 is another digital mode [not unlike PSK31] and you could even compare it to ‘Amtor’ and ‘Pactor’ back in the 1980’. I never saw these modes treated in the same way.

I don’t need any more DXCC confirmations – I’m happy to have worked 340 with 340 confirmed [including P5 North Korea] on SSB and CW way before FT8 even fell out of pram. But it’s a mode that I really enjoy, and I’m hoping the following tips may help you grab a few new ones along the way..

Pick your ‘TX’ frequency above 1000hz [preferable above 1500hz]:
Most ‘DXpeditions’ use either WSJT-X in Fox/Hound mode or MSHV Multistream. I’m using WSJT-X which is the defacto software and I’ve found more often than not, txing above 1500hz is the sweet spot. Check your ‘waterfall’ for others calling and then select your ‘TX’ frequency in a clear or clearest spot. Trying to tx in an area of the spectrum that’s showing bright-red in the waterfall will be a wasted opportunity.

Five times [sometime more] stations per minute can be worked using FT8 than CW/SSB!
Today I listened to an IOTA Activation on 15m CW. The throughput and QSO per minute rate was slow – around 1-2 with general QSB. Signals were 5/5 – so reasonable [if not outstanding]. The same throughput on FT8 [using Fox/Hound mode] would have been 5 times that using even 2-3 streams. It’s a no-brainer really and why some can’t see that just doesn’t add up. This means rather than 2 stations working the ‘DX’ – you get 10 stations in the log.

Unlike CW and SSB – FT8 can be decoded up -26db below the noise floor:
Even with a modest setup, ops can successfully decode FT8 signals at well below ‘S Zero’. It sounds all wrong, but that’s the way the mode works. Just because ‘you’ can hear a signal – doesn’t mean [digitally] that it’s not present and it won’t be decoded. This IMO gives those with even very modest antennas and just 100w from their rigs an opportunity to get logged without having to hammer out 1kw for that new one.

FT8 is exceptionally resilient to deliberate QRM:
Today I was QRV listing to FT4GL on 20m SSB – he was trying quite unsuccessfully to work stations and the normal DQRM ‘Numpty’ with an IQ Zero appeared on the frequency and created havoc. Whilst we’d all prefer to work the DX on SSB and have a quick ‘Tnx for the QSO – 73’ exchange, more often than not on today’s crowded bands that’s not always possible – especially when a really ‘wanted’ DXCC appears.

On FT8, the DQRM’er is a thing of the past. He can whistle, yell and do all he wants until the sun goes down. FT8 and the protocol won’t even know he’s there – even if he’s +40db. What a great mode for getting rid of the band idiots once and for all!

Bad Cluster Comments:
Cluster comments are normally thrown into the mix by frustrated ops that don’t have the knowledge [or aptitude] on how to successfully work the DX station. Many expect the contact to be handed to them on a plate, work the ‘DX’ within a couple of minutes and be then done. If this doesn’t happen – then they get frustrated. Cluster comments are best ignored.

The ‘DX’ Station doesn’t always help:
From time to time, some DX-peditions may well be their own worst enemy when they set an FT8 station running on ‘Auto’ and the software locks up for whatever reason. I understand why they do it [Time/Work/Sleep] but when ‘R2D2’ falls over – then the chasers get frustrated. Here the ‘DX’ should be fully aware. Don’t run it automated – period. Be at the laptop controlling the QSO’s and the rate and if it does fall over, then a quick reboot normally solves the problem.

FT8 screen grabs. How ‘NOT’ to be a ‘Numpty’:
FT8 has its normal QSO frequencies per band. DX activations tend to use frequencies away from the normal FT8 ‘QSO’ frequencies so why call ‘CQ’ on the DX frequency? You’ll never be answered as everyone else is calling the ‘DX’ and you’ll probably get some derisory comments like ‘G0UIH IDIOT’.

See below; F1IEH is calling ‘CQ’ when FT4GL is actively working everyone and it’s not on the normal FT8 frequency. F1IEH gets the ‘Numpty of the Week Award’ – many congratulations!! – Click for a larger image.

Those who call the DX are using the wrong period.
Not everyone understands FT8 but ‘Periods’ are a fundamental part of the mode and must be understood before even keying up. Normally a ‘DX’ station will use what we call the ‘Even’ period. Think of it like this. FT8 transmits every 15 seconds. Starting at ‘00’ this is called an even period. Other ‘Even’ periods with the minute are ‘30’ – so 00 seconds and 30 seconds. The ‘Odd’ periods are 15 and 45 seconds. In essence the DX calls CQ on the even periods and the chasers or ‘Hounds’ reply in the odd period.

Here we see the DX station ‘FT4GL’ working 20m FT8 calling on the ‘even’ periods [00 and 30] as expected. You can clearly see this as time stamps show 202100 [the ‘00’] is they key with ‘20’ being the hour, 21 being the minutes and 00 being the seconds.

Below, ‘HA7RY’ has decided to call the ‘DX’ at the same time the DX calls. You can see he’s calling on the ‘Even’ 00 time-stamp as its shown as 2021′00‘. Unfortunately, HA7RY will never get in the log if he calls the DX at the same time the DX calls. Click for a larger image.

Successful working of the ‘DX’
Here’s’ some screen grabs on working DX on FT8 – just get the basics right and the rest will fall into place.

G0UIH FT8 working 3D2CCC [Conway Reef] – 17m FT8 with 70w 3 Element Monobander

G0UIH working a pile-up into BA and JA on 17m FT8 [70w 3 Element Monobander] – endless, they just kept coming!!

Good hunting!! – 73 Steve G0UIH