FT8/FT4 from a contester’s perspective

20M FT8 activity at 11 a.m. on Sunday during the 2020 CQ WW Phone contest. There’s always someone out there to work on FT8 even with there’s a huge contest going on for other modes.


MORE READING: Why use FT8 for contesting, when FT4 is faster? Read why Joe Taylor K1JT thinks you should use FT4 more often.

Okay, as a dyed-in-the-wool CW, RTTY and SSB contester, I openly acknowledge that FT8, FT4 and other emerging digital modes don’t really give me the adrenaline rush I get from fast-mode contesting. There’s something compelling — dare I say addictive? — about working a pileup of stations on CW or Phone, running them as fast as you can and adding four or more stations to the log each minute for long stretches of time.

With that said, why do I compete in the growing number of WSJT-X-friendly contest offerings? Because they are there and, even more important, a LOT of people who are new to contesting have been drawn to radiosport because they enjoy FT8 and FT4 modes. It’s becoming more and more fun, because more and more hams are jumping in.

The barriers to entry are pretty low. You can compete without high power or massive investments in antennas. Frankly, many competitors are casual operators and just don’t feel the need to crank up the power, and the technology built into WSJT-X is powerful for weak-signal QSOs so an average to small-pistol station can do very well, thank you.

BUT even using FT4, where a QSO can be completed in 30 seconds if all goes nicely, the action is pretty slow. I take comfort knowing that even the very competitive stations have that same limitation — throughput (rate of contacts per minute) is a function of the mode itself.

Using FT4, that’s 7.5 seconds to call CQ TEST, 7.5 seconds to receive a caller, 7.5 seconds to acknowledge and thank, and 7.5 seconds for a confirmation and 73. Half a minute, if no repeats are required. Double that for FT8 contacts.

Slow, yes, but here’s the offsetting benefit: the entire FTx passband of three Khz or so, will be stuffed full of stations to work. You will often have multiple callers to choose from after your CQ plea goes out — it’s not unusual to see a dozen stations all trying to get your attention, especially if you are are a rare multiplier in the contest. (Admittedly, British Columbia VE7 can be a fairly rare one).

Another enticing feature of FT8 and FT4 is the sheer diversity of DX entities that are on the air. WSJT-X modes like these make it easy to get on the air, even with mobile setups like holiday DXpeditioners typically have on hand. If you can hear ’em, you can likely work ’em. That makes the Easter Egg factor very cool in FT8/FT4 contesting — you just never know what rare country or multiplier will suddenly show up.

While that’s also true of contest operations generally (the big worldwide DX contests are usually treasure troves of DX), the ease of completing a QSO through tough propagation or on crowded bands seems better with WSJT-X modes. If you’re working toward DXCC or Worked All States, an FT8 contest can boost your totals pretty quickly.

I don’t think the contesting community will see a huge depletion of activity in CW, Phone or RTTY contests due to the emergence of WSJT-X-mode contesting. In fact, it would seem reasonable to expect that other modes will ultimately grow as FT8-only operators dabble in contesting. As it was for so many of us, a casual foray into a fun contest is how people catch the bug and expand their contesting excursions to include other modes and events.

It’s a good thing, Martha says.

Let’s not lament FT8 as a destabilizing influence on traditional modes. Let’s embrace it as a new and exciting part of radiosport, and use it to recruit new contesters.

The recent JARTS (Japan Amateur Radioteleprinter Society) Worldwide RTTY contest — which uses the operator’s age as the exchange — is an annual reminder of just how old contesters are. I’m 55, and of my 600 or so contacts, perhaps two dozen operators were younger than me. The old-timers won’t be around forever, and we must renew our community by enticing young newcomers and nurturing their interests.

Right now, there are a few highlight FT8/FT4 contests on the calendar. The August Worldwide Digi and December FT8 Roundup are two of the largest and most popular. There’s also the FT8 DX Contest in April and the FT4 DX Contest in February, both sponsored by the European FT8 Club, and both well worth a weekend outing. With more events to play in, and more stations to work each time out, we will encourage more participation — more chances to “hook” someone on radiosport.

WSJT-X modes can be a fantastic influence on the future of contesting, if we avid but sometimes change-averse old-timey contesters are open to it and get on to make these contests more fun and rewarding for everyone.

So, what do you say? Let’s all make a special effort to get on for the FT8 Roundup in December and welcome a bunch of new people to contesting.

I’ll see you out there!

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