Some hams question “Is FT8 real ham radio?” I think it is and here’s why.
FT8 and other weak signal modes work by exchanging limited amounts of data slowly and often at low power. These modes use redundancy, error correction and various forms of frequency shift keying. They sound weird. But they work quite well close to the noise level.
I hear hams questioning “Is FT8 real ham radio” for three reasons.
First, FT8 and other weak signal modes depend on software more than people. Exchanges are largely automated. Second, the information exchange is severely limited. It is impersonal, more like a quick handshake with no personality. Third, weak signal modes rely on an internet connection to synchronize the computer clocks at both ends of the contact.
Fair enough. These criticisms are valid. But, are they meaningful?
Hams have used automation for years. For example, the electronic keyer to send Morse Code, either with a paddle or keyboard. For example, a voice keyer or memory stack to semi-automate exchanges during contests. And as for using software, virtually every radio these days uses firmware (as do cars) and many are software defined. Logging programs look up locations, format exchanges, turn antennas, and so on. Software and various forms of automation have become mainstream in ham radio for pretty much all modes.
The limited exchange criticism is a bit more meaningful. The WSJT-X User Guide says “By longstanding tradition, a minimally valid QSO requires the exchange of callsigns, a signal report or some other information, and acknowledgments.” This is what FT8 does as shown in the graphic above. The long standing definition of a QSO does not specify a conversation – merely a contact with some exchange of information. ARRL and other ham organizations are accepting weak signal mode exchanges as valid QSO.
And, besides, even in SSB and CW, most contacts – especially with DX – don’t really exchange much more information than FT8. Perhaps a name. I am not saying this is good. Just that it is what it is.
Is FT8 Real Ham Radio? – A Question of Timing
However the criticism of FT8 requiring an Internet connection is a bit different. Most weak signal modes require synchronization of computer clocks to a time standard. Typically, this is done over the Internet. This synchronization could be done over the radio, such as with a WWV receiver. But the Internet is easier and more reliable.
This takes away from the “pure ham radio” aspect of communication. But again, ham radio has a recent history of cooperating side-by-side with network and satellite technologies. Many ham rigs these days have the option for a GPS Disciplined Oscillator. This means that the radio listens to GPS satellites and uses them as a very accurate frequency standard.
And, of course, most newer VHF and UHF radios include Automatic Packet Reporting System. APRS uses GPS data to indicate the location of a transmitter.
So my answer to the question “Is FT8 real ham radio?” is Yes. And, given the rise in the HF noise floor and antenna restrictions, FT8 and other weak signal modes make ham radio enjoyable, again. A valid QSO? Yes, but not necessarily a real conversation. Let’s not forget those.