Saturday, June 1, 2024

FT8 is supposed to make DXing easy, why is it so hard?

FT8 has been a revolution. The technology has made DXing really easy. Or has it? I continue to be amazed at how much difficulty people have working DXpeditions on FT8. 

Last year, there were DXpeditions to Bouvet (3Y0J), Crozet (FT8WW) and Sable Islands (CY0S). The most recent DXpedition to Glorioso Islands (FT4GL) has brought it all back to me.

Let's start off with a few observations on people trying to work these DXpeditions:

  • Wrong Cycle - It's amazing the number of folks trying to work DX that are calling on the wrong cycle. FT8 has even and odd cycles. Even cycles start at 00 or 30 seconds, and odd cycles start on 15 and 45 seconds. You always call on the cycle the DX station is NOT transmitting. Indeed, if you double-click on a decode of the DX station, WSJT-X will set up the correct cycle. So how are people getting it wrong?
  • Endless Calling - I've noticed some stations keep calling the DX after the DX station has QSYed or QRTed. A little bit of hopeful calling isn't unusual on Phone or CW, or even RTTY. But stations continue to call much later -- like an hour later, and they are still calling.
  • Calling without Response - Some stations don't respond when the DX station calls them. They keep calling instead of advancing to the next step. This can get really bad. During the FT8WW expedition, I saw FT8WW keep responding to the same station for more than 10 minutes. Each response had a different signal report. This made it clear that FT8WW was heading this caller quite well, but the caller wasn't hearing FT8WW at all. Instead, that station took up a valuable response slot for 10 minutes -- denying perhaps 20-40 stations from working FT8WW.
  • Confusing Fox/Hound (FH) and MSHV - Most DXpeditions using FT8 use either FH or MSHV in order to maximize the number of contacts they can make. It is easy to get confused with these two modes. They appear similar. Both allow for the DX station to transmit multiple FT8 carriers at the same time. FH imposes additional behavior to both the Fox and Hound ends of the contact. In particular, there are audio-frequency dependencies that FH enforces. But, it is perfectly possible to work a Fox station even if you are not in Hound mode. MSHV requires no special modes. And yet someone accused people of DQRM, calling FT4GL below 1000 Hz, when the DX was using MSHV, not FH.
What causes all these odd observations? I believe they all resolve to a single cause -- people are calling DX they cannot hear. That's right, people are calling DX stations they aren't decoding at all.

This is fundamentally wrong. I wrote about this years ago on how to bust a pileup. You cannot work DX if you cannot hear them. If you aren't decoding the DX station, stop calling. Yeah, that's hard, but your calls won't net you a contact, and you may be actively depriving someone who can hear the DX from making one. 

I think FT8 has made some people lazy. They hear some DX station is active on some frequency, probably through a spotting network. So they switch to that frequency, set their watchdog timers to an hour or more, and enable their transmitter. Then they go off and drink a few cool 807s while their computer works the DX for them.

Farfetched? No, it explains all the observations above.

Be a good FT8 operator -- don't call DX when you cannot decode them. Wait until you can decode them reliably, just about every cycle -- then start calling.

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