As a new ham, there are many projects and areas of this hobby that I want to jump into all at once, and the idea of exchanging world wide digital text messages via the FT8 mode was one of the first. Make no mistake, though the amateur radio community might downplay the significance of ‘just another mode’ that can communicate across the globe (like psk-31, rtty, olivia – or even the original weak signal mode: cw,) as a new amateur operation, the idea that I have been able to have an exchange messages with other people over 6000 miles away truly amazes me. In total, I have been able to contact people in all 50 US States, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Argentina, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Canary Islands, Columbia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, England, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Trinidad and Tobago, Ukraine, and Venezuela.
You’ll need the appropriate hardware for FT8:
- An HF transceiver (or receiver/transmitter.)
- An operational feedline/antenna system, ground system.
- A computer (less than twenty years old… ymmv.)
- An audio and command interface between your HF radio and your computer.
- Some software that can be downloaded for free.
Although any HF transceiver (or receiver/transmitter pair) could work if you know how to use your soldering iron, choosing a transceiver that has at least a serial port and hopefully a universal serial bus port (USB) will make this a LOT easier. Let me emphasize that again: choose a transceiver that has a USB port. The USB port and serial ports are similar in that they both allow your computer to receive information from your radio and to send CAT commands to the radio (change frequency, modes, settings, program memories and ptt) however only the USB port has the additional capability to send sound (AF, audio frequencies) to your computer and to receive sounds (Mic input) from your computer – both of these are required for FT8. If your radio does not have a USB, but only Serial, you’ll still be able to use FT8, you’ll just need to use a soldering iron and search google for instructions to build an “easy digi” interface.. or buy one premade for $10 on ebay.
The computer is also key, it’s not important to have the “latest and greatest”, as long as it’s working well for the things you use it for, it will likely also work well to run the few pieces of software you’ll need. Also, although the intructions below are for Windows, the software is also available for both Mac & Linux. In the following order:
- Install the USB drivers for your radio from the manufacturer. You’ll want to do this before you before you connect the radio, because when you plug in the radio Windows will automatically install a generic sound driver to “assist” you. The generic driver may work, or not, and if you do have issues later, you may need to un-install the generic driver and install the manufactures driver.
- Connect the radio using (Read Your Manual) a standard USB A to USB B cable. As soon as you do, you should hear the Windows tones indicating the connection. If you click on the “Speakers” icon on the lower right taskbar, then on the “up” arrow you’ll be able to listen to your radio and you’ll know the connection is working. Okay, now do that again and change it back so you’ll hear your normal computer audio.
- Go to the WSJT-X webpage and download and install the appropriate Installation Package for the latest version (currently 2.2.2) for your computer. For Windows 10 users you can click, download, and install this file. The first time you run the program it will ask for your call sign and grid square and you’ll need to configure the “Radio” and “Audio” tabs in its settings menu (under file.) In the Radio tab, you’ll need to choose your radio from the dropdown box and press the “Test PTT” button (be prepared to unclick it quickly – it will actually PTT your radio if it works!) If it doesn’t work, don’t fret – you can click and choose from the various radio boxes available to try the various data rates, parity bits, etc and keep trying the “Test PTT” button… or google for “Your Radio Model ft8 radio settings” such as “991a ft8 radio settings” and you’ll find the exact settings quick enough. Next configure the audio tab, you’ll just need to choose the proper microphone and speaker settings – click on the two radio boxes and choose the same as you chose earlier with the Windows speaker setting.
That’s it! I hope you’ve got your antenna plugged in (really.. I hope you did before you pressed that Test PTT button,) you’re ready to press the “enable TX” button on the main screen and watch as the program will send your CQ and respond through the QSO process. At the end of the QSO a window will pop up with a logbook entry prefilled and ready for you to add any notes and click to log it, then press “enable TX” to do it again. Logging is also important, even if you’re not worried about achieving “WAS” or “WAC” awards, your QSO partner may be.
An easy was to fulfill that obligation is to go to QRZ.com and sign up for a free account (if you haven’t already! hi hi) and after you log in go your logbook (in the menu under your callsign when logged in) then click “settings” in the call book, then “Import” under the “ADIF Import/Export” heading. Choose and import the adif file from WSJT’s logging directory (you can open the logging directory from WSJT’s file menu) and that it’s, your contacts will be in your logbook. Once the other party does the same, you’ll see your contacts ‘confirmed’ and your eligibility for various awards will grow.
If you want to automate the process a little more, I would also recommend the Winlog32 logging software (available free with thanks to C0CUZ) and a QRZ subscription. With this combination, WSJT-X can be set to transmit a UDP packet transferring the information for each log entry when you hit the “log” button, then Winlog32 can be set to enter said packets into your Winlog32 kept logbook and automatically upload those contacts to QRZ.com.
I have been extremely satisfied with the FT8 mode and it was a ton of fun to get contacts with so many people across the world – and as the software makes the contact, it’s very easy to “right click -> lookup QRZ”, so that although it’s a voiceless protocol, there is still a way to learn about each other during the contact. Also, another benefit to myself was to be able to learn, as a new ham, what type of propagation, at least for a weak signal protocol, I could expect out of my system, and actually the last few days I ran my radio with a secondary antenna to see if I could see and compare the difference (yes, absolutely.. or was it a change in propagation..?) Mostly, it was a great time playing with my radio and time well spent learning some of the minutia and more of the hobby… split send & receive.. logging.. contesting.. grid squares.. geography and so many other cultures!
Overall I don’t think I will run this mode regularly – or ever again for that matter, if 1000 FT8 contacts isn’t enough, a million never would be – and it did end perfectly with a confirmed contact to Japan! With each contact taking only a minute or two and endless sea of traffic across the bands, it’s hard not to stay up late each night chasing another far away station. I think I’ll spend my next bit of time with my mic in hand, or maybe a key… Pending a few more confirmations, I hope to earn WAS and WAC awards for FT8. I’m glad I took the time to learn this mode as I’m sure the experience helped me grow as a ham and will help me in my next weak signal digital protocol: Morse.
For more information, you can read this next: FT8 Digital Tips.
If you have any questions, comments or suggestions for improvement (as I am still a new ham!) please contact me on the air or email me at email@example.com.