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Explore Digital Modes
There is a division in the HAM radio community over digital modes. Some argue that only CW qualifies as a digital mode. In this view new digital modes like FT8, which have become popular, are just novelties and not "real radio" Angry . In fact I've been witness to some rather passionate even angry discussions on the subject.

Being new to the hobby I have no preexisting bias towards any mode. As someone who likes innovation I thought modes like FT8 were just fun. The fact that such a new mode would stir controversy took me by surprise. As a recently minted HAM, operating for only three years now, I've done a good deal of FT8 and other digital modes, I'd like to inject my own point of view on the subject of digital modes from that perspective.

I am somewhat hearing impaired. I'm not deaf, but I do find that during using phones can be a challenge at times. I like the fact that digital modes offer me a way to communicate which is more visual. In addition, as someone in my 70's I find learning Morse to be challenging. I've had a go at it but don't retain it well. I know practice would help but I'm finding that, my retirement projects are rather demanding so I have to prioritize my time. Understanding as I do that I'm in a period of life which time is more precious, I need to carefully choose those things on which I focus.

The primary objection to FT8 issue seems to be that it's mechanical, automated and informal. All those things are true to a certain point but not without exception and some qualification. As I see it, contesting is also pretty informal no matter which mode is being used. Contesting is certainly not done to develop personal relationships with other operators. In that regard FT8 might be seen as something like a daily contest. The intent of using it is not to make long lasting personal contacts. It's just a fun mode which allows one to use low power while contacting stations all over the globe quickly and with some ease. After all, isn't this hobby supposed to be fun?

I accept that FT8 is more automated than other modes. It is true that the software does a good deal of the heavy lifting when it comes to decoding signals but it is far from being automated. The software does require user input in some key areas of operation. The brain does factor into the equation and there is a decision making process involved in chasing a station in a certain desirable grid square. Understanding the fine points of propagation, output power and antenna orientation are all important in the use of FT8 or any other digital mode. Hearing another station does not guarantee they can also hear you. In that regard FT8 really does require that you "work" a station you might wish to add to your log. The efficiency of the software at digging out weak stations from the noise is it's strong suite but that alone does not guarantee success.

FT8 operations might require keeping a note pad and jotting down certain stations you want to watch for. Some stations will pop up again at a different time of day or on a different band offering another opportunity to work them. Just like contesting, some stations get "pile ups" and so are harder to work than others. Once again, this process requires some thought and planning, so it is hardly a matter of set it and forget it. Real effort is required and a fair bit of diligence to work certain areas when the propagation can be uncooperative.

However FT8 is far from the only digital mode, although it is the one which seems to get the most attention. I've also developed a fondness for PSK-31 and 63. Technically these modes are now called BPSK-31 or 63, but they are functionally the same. The added B stands for "Binary" which apparently makes these modes more stable during unstable conditions.

PSK offers keyboard to keyboard chats. These QSO's can be very long, and detailed rag chews and a lot of fun. Because digital modes are more compact a lot of QSO's can take place in a very small piece of bandwidth. Most modes offer a variety of "speeds" with higher speeds having more errors in decoding and taking more bandwidth. Big Grin  parts of PSK QSO's can be captured and saved to a file for future reference and so important information shared can be retained.

Another slow digital mode is Olivia. This mode is so slow that one can get up and wander around for brief periods during a QSO depending on the speed being used. The slowness might be off putting at first but can be seen as practical when also doing other things at the same time. I've heard Olivia dubbed "the old man's mode" but I think that's and unfair description. Having the text decode slowly gives one time to provide a more carefully considered response. Olivia is just not everyone's cup of tea. Olivia does offer faster modes as well but takes much more bandwidth.

Finding English language digital QSO's can be a challenge. There always seem to be tons of European stations using various languages on the air at any moment. The secret to finding English language stations is knowing where to look and when to look. There are tons of digital conversations going on all the time on 20 at 14.070 to 14.078 and 40 meters at 7.070 and 7.078. Yes, there is an overlap with sites using FT8 or JS8 Call, however all these modes seem to cohabit those frequencies without a problem.

There is no hard fast rule about what mode is being used. Olivia likes to be in it's own little part of the band but can sometimes be found elsewhere.

The software you use for digital modes makes all the difference. Fldigi is kind of the free, cross platform, Swiss Army Knife of digital software, but it can be tricky to learn. There are other commercial and free software programs out there and some research might be needed to find those that suite your needs.

For those who have an interest here are some resources to check out.



General info on PSK

Multi-mode frequencies

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