Thoughts on FT8 Hate

As a newbie to the world of ham radio, some things have been pretty obvious to me that might be missed by those who are steeped in its traditions. One of those is the love/hate relationship between computers and ham radio operators. I think most who are even mildly interested in keeping a log appreciate the flexibility of many logging programs. A significant number of them integrate with radios out of the box and capture pertinent details for logging. I personally love that my computer grabs a contact and pushes it to LotW without my intervention.

But in my experience, when the talk turns away from the computer as an administrative assistant and toward the digital modes, the tenor changes. For emergency communication? Sure! Great idea! But for a QSO? Well, you get a few side glances. And then FT8 comes up and the hate is suddenly on display.

My stated goal was to avoid using computers with radio. I wanted to have a hobby that didn’t touch computers because I work with them all day. Staring at screens kinda sucks. And I love tweaking knobs and listening carefully (why yes, I did work on synthesizers for my degree! Why do you ask?). I didn’t want another reason to stare at the glow. That was before I understood, through practical experience, the cycles of our solar entity and the flat out bummer of being at the bottom of a solar cycle.

Yeah. It was hard to get out. I was in a noisy city with power lines everywhere and on the middle of a hill in an urban area and…things were not optimal for making contacts over voice. An attic dipole can only do so much at the elevation available to me and that was the state of things. I certainly made the most of VHF/UHF, but I didn’t do much at all with HF.

And then I met FT8.

WSJT-X is a simple enough application, but it is not without subtlety. And what I learned by simply watching for a long time was a great lesson in propagation. Then I did my first CQ. I was received at about -17dB and someone heard me out in WI. It was amazing. I was being heard in Europe and South America! All the way out to Alaska! It was really, really exciting to be able to hit these other stations who might very well have been wrestling with the same kinds of constraints and issues that I faced.

Simply put, it was a lot of fun! And I was on the air! On HF!

Imagine my surprise when I came across an opinion in QST saying that FT8 was going to kill ham radio. What? Another killer of ham radio? Imagine that! And then a cartoon with the figure saying, “Alexa, make me a contact on FT8.” I know that it’s supposed to be silly or even a little funny, but in truth, it felt like someone was trying to take the fun out of my experience.

Of course seasoned operators knew about solar cycles and had plenty of fun back in the day when contacts were easy to come by in any mode. So maybe poking at fun at the new kid was just an easy laugh. But for those of us who got licensed during this time, well, it was a little less funny. I mean, we have FT8 and not much other hope of reaching Asia from Ohio or Pennsylvania. Sure, in 2021 things are looking up. But in 2018? Not so much.

I was contemplating this aloud on mastodon.radio not long ago and someone mentioned another thought about digital modes: no one hears your voice. Let’s set aside CW for a moment simply because a new ham is going to need some time to get into that and for some it might not be an option (but please do remind me that new hams aren’t real because we’re all “NO CODE HAMZ”). But digital modes only take a computer, which most hams have, and a rig. And no one hears your voice. I didn’t quite get why that mattered. And that’s why it matters.

I’m a big guy. People hear my voice and they assume I’m male, white, and probably a host of other things. And they’re likely right. I’ve met a few women who are hams and I don’t know if it’s just me, but always being referred to as “YL” or “XYL” might not be endearing. And being very direct, I’m not sure that I’ve known more than 10 or so hams of color here in the states. It might be that it’s more than mic fright keeping someone away from keying up. I have heard some pretty dreadful stuff on random afternoons ‘roud about 20m on phone.

Those are big assumptions, again, coming from a big, white dude. But I have to allow for that possibility, right? And in those cases, a digital mode takes us to the same place as the internet. Remember: on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog! I would link to the cartoon, but that’s more key clicks than I’m into today.

Under analysis, the hate for FT8 falls apart. Using this mode, an operator can make contact with stations all over the world even in horrible conditions. An operator can also learn a great deal about propagation as patterns emerge over days or weeks. It lends itself quickly to the adoption of things like JS8Call for more free-form QSOs and even other digital modes where communication is more than signal report. Most importantly, someone can have fun with radio and that’s what it’s about, right? It’s a hobby with many facets. Enjoy the ones you do, and avoid the ones you don’t. But there’s no reason to take shots at something that someone else enjoys simply because it’s not for you.

IC-705 WLAN with WSJT-X

With the usual tip of the cap to OH8STN I dug in on the v1.24 firmware of the IC-705 to rid my field setup of yet another cable. I think I’m about as close to field nirvana as I’m going to get. So what did I do and what did I learn?

First off, I have to say that I totally gave up on some things. Being in Ham Radio as a hobbiest with limited time means that I had to re-examine the three legged stool principle. What’s that? Well, there are three legs: Time, Money, and Scope. In this case, my scope is QRP operation on primarily digital modes at the park or while I’m camping. My time is, as I’ve mentioned in the past, very valuable to me and is a fixed amount. I do keep a close eye on my hobby budget and I’m not made of money. That said, if I wanted to keep pushing for a Raspberry Pi based solution, I was going to need a lot more time for fiddling with computers and that leads to less time for operating because I don’t have blocks of time for both. So I followed the lead of the mighty OH8STN and got a Surface Go 2. I will say that the world of Ham Radio operators has embraced the Raspberry Pi and GNU/Linux, but at the end of the day, most of the software that works with minimal time investment lives on Windows. Maybe someday…when I have a bit more time?

So what were the ingredients?

  • IC-705 patched to v1.24 firmware
  • Microsoft Surface Go 2
  • ICOM RS-BA1 Version 2 at the latest version
  • WSJT-X

That’s it. Now, what did I do?

First, I turned on the WLAN feature of the IC-705 and set it to Access Point Mode. This broadcasts an SSID of my choice and has a password requirement for joining that network. I spent a lot of time playing with this feature alone as I was hopeful that I could use the IC-705 as an access point for more than one device. After all, it’s just handing out an address and maybe acting as a low-functioning router given that there is no internet capability in this mode. But sadly, only one device can be attached to the IC-705 at a time based on my experiments. This constraint is not anywhere I could find in the documentation and it might be so simple that it’s not worth noting. But I had some ideas…and they’ll have to wait.

With the Access Point mode engaged, I set up the Connections menu to have MOD as WLAN. This means that audio as well as rig control commands will come and go over Wi-Fi. Easy enough.

IC-705 Menu for setting MOD to WLAN

Then we go over to the computer. I connected the computer to the SSID of the IC-705 under the usual Wi-Fi networking panel. I don’t think that the docs for setting up the connection software are particularly cumbersome. Once the software is installed, the connection utililty is launched and the user is left to fill in the blanks on the device that is the server and in that respect it’s not any more difficult than attaching any other device to a basestation. If you leave all of the defaults alone, the connection should Just Work.

When setting up the connection utility, there is the option of selecting a name for the virtual COM port. I chose COM1 because that’s what the software picked for me and I’m not attached to these kinds of things. With that done, one can launch WSJT-X and set the rig to IC-705, the port to COM1 (or whatever you chose), and then set the audio to the ICOM Virtual Audio port. Not really a huge difference here when compared to setting it up for use over a USB connection, though you do need to change the COM port and the audio port depending on your connection.

BUT!

There’s always a “But”…

Deep in the undocumented bowels of the connection utility, there is a button. Actually, it’s right up front and, in my opinion, poorly defined. It says [MOD]. Push that button. In the resulting dialog box, there is an area called [MOD Select]. It defaults to “Mic – Default Device” when what I really needed was “V Audio – ICOM_VAUDIO-1”. Special thanks to SM0TGU on the IC-705 groups.io list for pointing me in the right direction.

Before I was gifted with this configuration information, I was running WSJT-X and receiving just fine but unable to send audio. That is to say, the rig went to TX but had no sound to send. In fact, the whole reason for this post was to highlight this for later when I inevitably have to rebuild my setup from scratch. Now, with that option selected, everything was a GO!

ICOM Remote Utility Dialog for MOD Select

I made a contact not minutes later with W1LEM on 40m using my attic dipole. Not bad!

WSJT-X QSO with W1LEM

This is all great, but isn’t it just chasing a weird little feature for digital modes?

No. This removes the USB cable from the equasion and with it a lot of potential noise. My Surface isn’t awful, but I’ve used laptops that seemed to be purpose built for throwing off RF and noise. It’s also a neater solution. At this point, the only cables I will have in play will be auxillary power to the IC-705 from my battery box, the ATU, and the ATU control cable. All of those things can sit in a pile (for the most part) or in/on my pack while I use any number of digital modes or even a bluetooth headset for phone contacts from almost anywhere at my operating point or campsite. It’s amazing.

I have another post I’m working up on my antenna setup (a wire in a tree vs. the MP1 Super Antenna). I will also be keeping a better log of work in the field (even if that’s just my backyard) with the IC-705 and this setup.

I hope this is helpful! 73!

IC-705 – Part 3: GPS

Your IC-705 will NOT look like this when you’re getting GPS data.

I’m slowly stepping my way through all that the IC-705 has to offer. I still consider myself quite a new ham, so there are features that I know little about that I’m starting to have a lot of fun with. But for a moment, I’m going to indulge something that I’m really getting geared up for this winter: field operation.

In my part of the world, it gets quite cold in the winter. I’m not one to shy away from that and I do indeed love hiking and camping all winter long. Especially if it’s quiet and there is some degree of solitude. In these Strange Times, it’s sometimes nice to take a minute and step outside where we can enjoy the absence of certain things. But there’s no reason I can’t take my radio along, right? And there really shouldn’t be any reason that, given my recent acquisition, I shouldn’t take my radio hobby along for the hike.

There are a lot of operators out there who are far better at field operation than I. OH8STN is definitely one of them and I follow his work closely. The sentiment we share is that in 2020 a radio should do everything with one wire – if there has to be a cable at all. There’s no reason that a single USB cable shouldn’t carry with it all the power of the radio. And with the IC-705, it does.

I wrote before about syncing a laptop’s time using my Kenwood TH-D74 so that the clock is as accurate as it can be for modes like FT8. That still works and it can be done over bluetooth. But I’m not using the TH-D74 for FT8 and I’m already plugged into the IC-705 which has a GPS, so why not leverage that?

This whole entry is more of a way for me to remember what I did to get to the point where it worked and less about trying to teach anyone anything. There are many links to places that taught me what I know. But here are the high points.

The IC-705 really only needs one bit of configuration.

SET > Connectors > USB (B) Function -> GPS Out -> ON

Thanks to Ryan on the IC-705 groups.io list for reminding me of that. See also Painful Radio UI/UX.

With the GPS turned on and that setting in play, the unit will push data out via the USB as soon as it has acquired a lock. A trick? In my experience, it will come out as the port that does NOT do rig control. Every operating system does this differently and you can’t necessarily predict which device will show up where (even when you tell the OS to honor your setup) so it’s good to know that there’s a difference and not get frustrated and stare at a screen for an hour like someone I know.

Hmm…

Now on the computer side, it’s a question of finding some software that will listen to a GPS and go from there. I used GPS2Time on Windows and gpsd on my Raspberry Pi. You can get all the instruction you need from VK4ADC’s site for GPS2Time and THIS is a great tutorial on getting things going with the Raspberry Pi. Though I will caution you to double check the device that is configured for chrony. That tutorial names a device and you just need to confirm that the one you need is the one you configure. Or again, you’ll be staring at a screen like our friend.

So far, everything seems to be working exactly as I would like. It also gets me down to a single connection to the computer. In 2020 that is definitely as it should be.

IC-705 – Part 2: FT8

The adventures with the IC-705 continue!

This week, I installed the most recent release candidate for FT8. It contains a listing for the IC-705 so it doesn’t have to be spoofed. The application ran fine for me on my Windows 10 laptop. The radio did exactly what it should do and I got my first contact on 40m while set to 5 watts and running through my attic dipole antenna.

First FT8 contact with the IC-705. Thanks K9JLX!

No complications. No fiddling. It just worked. And yes, that is a pleasant surprise!

I also got the latest release candidate for FT8 running on my little (newly) Linux WinBook. There was a bit more fiddling to figure out what the IC-705 comes up as in the audio settings. Remember, kids: arecord -l will list all recording interfaces and you can fake it from there. Kind of. In any case, I didn’t make any contacts, but I heard stations and I was heard over on https://pskreporter.info which means I’m getting out! I’m hoping that this combination makes an excellent field setup for FT8. I plan to test that assertion this weekend.

I’m not quite a week in, so I’m trying to save my impressions until I’ve gotten through enough of my use cases for the rig. I will say that it’s a challenge having this unit before many have had any experience with it and posted about it. The manual lacks actual sample configurations for some things and that makes it difficult to validate issues that I’m experiencing (especially with fancy things like D-Star). There’s a great mailing list over on groups.io for the IC-705, but again, the posts only go back so far and there’s not a lot of practical operating advice just yet.

To recap, I now have the following use cases checked off:

  • Connect to D-Star HotSpot
  • Complete a contact via RF repeater
  • FT8 contact on HF

So what’s next?

  • Get out in the field with the Super Antenna MP1C and try to make a contact
  • Prepare for JOTA so that the Scouts can get on the air via UHF/VHF repeater, HF, or D-Star

That’s a lot of “experimenting” (read: playing) to do.

Computers: An Aside

Working closely with technology for an extended period of time has colored my views on computing. I’ve gone from full-on, build it all myself or die to using whatever works reliably and jettisoning anything that fails. I can trace the completion of that transition to the point where I had a little baby boy to care for and no more time in my day for compiling things or tweaking hardware.

That was 13 or so years ago. Since that time, I’ve kept myself mostly in the default use cases covered by MacOS and iOS. Why? Because it works for me 99.999% of the time. I don’t ever find myself having issues that other people hit. Part of this, I believe, is because I understand the use cases. The applications I use are good for what they do and I expect little else from them. That is to say, I have an application for my notetaking and journaling. I have one for music making and editing audio. I have one for browsing. I have one for mail…OK…that’s a lie. I go through mail clients like most people go through shows on Netflix. I hate all email clients for different reasons. They all suck. All of them. Even the one you love. It’s horrible and I can tell you why. At length. You will regret asking.

Anyway, I try to stick to applications that do what I need done and use them for their strengths. I do take the time to give them the respect of learning their primary use cases so that my expectations are in the right place. You won’t catch me keeping an address book in a spreasheet program, for instance. That said, if an addressbook app loses one piece of my data? It’s gone. And I won’t look back. To my mind, the app’s failure is complete and that I do not forgive.

When I started messing around with Ham Radio software, I learned quickly that the vast majority of it was built for Windows. I’ve made a lot of money in my lifetime developing software in Microsoft’s ecosystem, so it’s a stretch for me to complain too loudly. I will simply say that I don’t do Windows at home because of the poor driver support and the endless interventions required on my part to keep things running. This is no less true in the radio sphere as there is always a driver to install for any given cable or device. It’s a disappointment in 2020 that manufacturers can’t read a spec and provide a device that meets it without imposing on the user to add software to their systems. But I digress.

About 2 years ago, I purchased a WinBook TW110 at Microcenter. It has an Atom processor, a touch screen, and is a weird little multi-form-factor device. It also runs Windows 10 and weighs almost nothing with a pretty impressive battery life. I set it up with WSJT-X and some logging software and off I went. I used it primarily to program my radios as there is no Mac software for that outside of CHIRP and not every rig I have likes CHIRP. But then we hit that moment that I hit with every Windows tablet: I ran out of space to update Windows.

This hits me like clockwork. I’ve had some really cool tablets that did really well for my limited use cases that eventually hit this wall. My HP tablet for instance, had a single USB port that was also used to charge the unit. I needed to use a USB stick to hold the updates. The update took longer than the battery could survive. I tried a USB hub to no avail. Finally, it ended up in the parts drawer waiting for me to use the screen for something at a later date.

The real disappointment with the WinBook was that it is really, really lightweight and it charges off of a USB port with 5 volts in a pinch. It’s ideal for FT8 in the field. Having it fail like this made me sad. So my little WinBook was destined for a life as maybe a clock that showed timezones and the position of the sun or sattelites or something. But in the back of my head a voice said, “Just throw Linux on it. If it fails, the worst case is you reload Windows 10 and maybe have enough space.” So I grabbed a Mint image and it worked first shot.

Side note: I used Debian for YEARS. It was my OS of choice for everything and I was intimately familiar with every part of the system. I wrote device drivers for sound cards and had a lot of fun playing with it and learning how it worked. Note that all of that is past tense.

Naturally, the touchpad isn’t supported, but a Bluetooth mouse and a functional touchscreen mitigate that. The battery life is really good. And behold! The entire OS doesn’t really make a dent in the 32 GB of internal storage that this little beast has available. This might work!

Naturally, the current stable version of FT8 doesn’t have the IC-705 in it yet and thus requires spoofing as an IC-7300. The 705 is in the first release candidate for the next version. Which I’ll have to compile from source on this distro. Which will require some time to get dependencies in a row. Which…takes me back…to why I don’t do this anymore.

That said, maybe it’s time. My kids are fully functional and mostly self-sustaining on the weekends and after bedtime. Maybe I do have time a little time to wrestle with this and see if I remember anything from those long nights of compiling entire distributions from source so I could run a new soundcard. It could be that I might even have fun doing it. If I do get this WinBook working for FT8, I know that my back will thank me and my field operations will be easier and last longer.

This feeds my thesis that Ham Radio is the Old Magick and it will take its adherents back to the beginning of all things, in time.