FT8 – The Third Mode?

By Allan VK2CA


Digital modes have been with us for many years now and have seen many changes over time.  Of course, the most popular and enduring digital mode, until recently, was RTTY.  The rise of computers in Amateur radio has seen the diversity and use of digital modes explode over recent years to the point where they have become dominant.

Look at an analysis1 of Clublog2 data for just the last five years and you will see the trend:

Year CW FT8 Phone RTTY PSK Other
2018 28.89% 41.09% 20.62% 7.00% 1.57% 0.84%
2017 38.00% 14.50% 28.88% 7.76% 2.92% 7.94%
2016 43.91% 0.00% 34.48% 9.63% 3.30% 8.68%
2015 42.02% 0.00% 38.42% 9.70% 3.57% 6.29%
2014 40.79% 0.00% 40.38% 10.12% 3.70% 5.01%
2013 42.02% 0.00% 38.61% 10.25% 4.87% 4.26%


While PSK enjoyed a surge from around 2009 onwards, its useage has waned in recent years as other digital modes like JT65 and Olivia have become popular.  These modes, while allowing rudimentary chat facilities in a QSO, have been restricted somewhat by the slowness of the transmissions and thereby overall QSO times.  They have proven extremely effective at low power, weak signal operation, but their slowness held them back from wide scale adoption.

What everyone seemed to want was to be able to work low power and weak signal but much more quickly.  Enter Steven Franke, K9AN, and Joe Taylor, K1JT with FT8.

FT8 promises completed QSO’s in as little as 1 minute, with sensitivity down to around -20dB.  Not quite as sensitive as JT65 (at around -30dB) but at four times the QSO rate: what’s not to like!

While most CW and SSB segments are quiet, you will normally find two or three bands hopping to the sound of FT8 signals.  This activity, especially welcome here at the bottom of a very low cycle, has proved a boon for DXers both hard-core and casual alike.  In fact, many Amateur operators are reporting they are DXing for the first time because of FT8.  Add the (in trials) DXpedition mode that potentially could work up to 300 QSO’s per hour and the sky seems the limit for this new mode.

While this all seems a positive for Amateur radio, FT8 does have its detractors who consider it “not real ham radio” etc.   These arguments have been going on forever especially when a new mode comes along.  If you are old enough you may remember SSB was going to kill AR when it first became popular…..

Some think the shortened computer generated exchange in FT8 does not really count as a QSO, but then if you listen to CW DXing you will find even shorter exchanges and these are often machine generated as well.  That is an endless discussion (for another time), but personally, I think that anything that gets Amateurs on the air using the bands is a good thing.

Will FT8 prove to be just the latest “bright and shiny” for us?  What will evolve from FT8?  What will be next?  Only time will tell but for now the FT8 juggernaut does not look like going away anytime soon.

1 Thanks to LA8AJA for the analysis data at: https://la8aja.com/modestats/index.php

2 Thanks for Michael Wells G7VJR for Clublog data at: http://www.clublog.org