2017 was “the Year When Digital Modes Changed Forever”

From ARRL:


Club Log author and UK radio amateur Michael Wells, G7VJR, has reported that data compiled from 8,000 Club Log users indicates the proportion of FT-8 usage relative to other modes has risen dramatically since FT8’s introduction last year. Every few years, Wells has posted charts depicting mode usage on the amateur bands, based on log data uploaded to Club Log. Graphs he posted last week show the proportion of contacts on each mode for the last 20 years and then for the last 12 months.

“2017 was, of course, the year when digital modes changed forever with the advent of FT8,” said Wells. “It is a remarkable technical achievement, which has breathed life and enthusiasm into DXing for a whole new audience.”

Now out of beta testing, FT8 continues to capture the imagination of the Amateur Radio community, luring away many of those who had been using the popular JT65 “weak-signal” mode. FT8 is included WSJT-X, version 1.8.0-rc3, with several refinements from the original beta release. Among FT8’s biggest advantages is a shorter transmit-receive cycle, with contacts four times faster than with JT65 or JT9; an entire FT8 contact can take place in about a minute. Many DXpeditions now routinely include FT8 operation.

The new mode is named after its developers, Steven Franke, K9AN, and Joe Taylor, K1JT. The numeral designates the mode’s 8-frequency shift-keying format. Tones are spaced at 6.25 Hz, and an FT8 signal occupies just 50 Hz.

Wells reported that 8,000 Club Log users uploaded FT8 contacts last year, logging 46,000 discrete call signs in that mode. “For reference, in 2017 the total number of QSOs uploaded to Club Log (all modes) was 32 million,” Wells said. “Of that total, the number of QSOs made with FT8 was 4.8 million.” That works out to 15% of all contacts posted to Club Log, which may or may not be representative of Amateur Radio activity at large.

Wells’ graph for 2017 shows a dramatic increase in mid-2017 in the percentage of FT8 contact relative to other modes, by year’s end overtaking CW and SSB usage, already trending downward except for a significant bump in CW usage toward the end of the year. RTTY and PSK31 usage remained comparatively stable over the course of 2017. The usage of “other” undefined modes declined dramatically after the introduction of FT8.

Wells explained it this way. “On any given day [the graph shows] the percentage of QSOs logged with a particular mode, plotted for a year,” he told ARRL. “Say 100 QSOs were made on Wednesday, then, 55 of them were on FT8. It is not showing absolute levels of activity, just relative levels of activity.”

Wells pointed out that the data is smoothed, and the values are for a 28-day moving average. “Therefore, a weekend of only CW and no FT8 has little effect — the trend is gradually adjusted by ongoing activity, and not by shocks.”

Last fall, Taylor expressed some surprise about the “rapid uptake” in the use of FT8 on HF. Rather than viewing FT8 as a game-changer, however, Taylor told ARRL that he sees a dividing line between such digital modes and more traditional modes. As he sees it, SSB and CW are “general-purpose modes,” suitable for ragchewing, DXing, contesting, emergency communications, or whatever.

“FT8 and the other modes in WSJT-X are special-purpose modes,” Taylor said. “They are designed for making reliable, error-free contacts using very weak signals — in particular, signals that may be too weak for the more traditional modes to be usable, or even too weak to hear.”

Taylor pointed out that the level of information exchanged in most FT8 — and other similar digital modes — isn’t much more than the bare minimum for a valid contact. In addition to call signs and signal reports, stations may exchange grid squares and acknowledgments.