Amateur Radio’s True Cost of Digital DXing

Discussion in 'Ham Radio Discussions' started by NT2X, Aug 3, 2021.

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  1. NT2X

    NT2X Ham Member QRZ Page

    By Edward Kritsky, NT2X

    This is a bitter-sweet narrative. We are observing a trend

    Off the bat: we are not anti-anything. Not against CW skimmers, DX clusters, LoTW, FT8, FT4, digital modes, operating ham radio remotely, electronic QSLs, Amateur Radio phone apps. On the contrary, we are a happy beneficiary of skimmers, clusters and remote operating.

    Although we have been around the bands for the last 46 years, what you shall find below are not musings and laments of an “older ham radio geezer” who sheds tears over the “good old days”. Lately, life is abundant with wonderful electronic gadgets and software advancements that are pleasure to use, to touch and operate. Our radio systems are capable of amazing feats, unheard of at the time we joined the hobby as a younger guy.

    Progress is great. It propels mankind forward; the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed crowd, eager for the next milestone in miniaturization, automation, sleekness and lower cost per benefit.

    Throughout 1970-80’s operator-assisted, long-distance phone calls placed to overseas destinations could have seriously hit you in the pocket, with 3-5-10 dollars per minute charges. Today they cost cents or even nothing. The same is happening in today’s hobby. You don’t “spend” as much hunting down and working distant countries, to gain contacts.

    In the early 1980’s we could have only dreamed of DX clusters, they didn’t exist. I remember DX announcements on 2-meter repeaters around NYC where I live. Emergence of clusters seriously lowered the cost of DX hunt. We all use them and love them, but unless someone posts you to the cluster, you can call CQ until you are blue in the face. Others will not find you. Actually, almost no one is looking. They don’t tune the bands anymore. The skill of DX search is being lost. Click the DX call on your screen with computer mouse - and voila, log DX without further ado. But searching and listening? Nah, that’s for the old-timers.

    Skimmers are a wonderful addition, too. CW contesting wouldn’t be so much fun if it wasn’t for them, bringing you the pileups. The same goes for DXing. Skimmers are great timesavers and assistance to all of us. At the same time, until and unless you are spotted - no pileups. Where did everyone go?

    The world is going digital and it’s not all that great. QSL cards are becoming passé when you can upload your logs to databases and offer confirmations that way. QSL cards remind us of awards bestowed upon warriors, for the battles they won. What do you have to show for your efforts these days? Database entries someplace?

    With advent of amazing K1JT-created FT8/FT4 software, our lives as hams have changed. JOSEPH TAYLOR gave us communications tools, terrific ham technology suitable for interplanetary or even interstellar communications. It hears what human ear can’t.

    For better or worse, digital communications became a boon and damnation, all at once.

    FT8 is a utility - powerful, useful and convenient. At the same time it deprives us of skills other than tuning the radios to precise frequencies. It is hardly an education or an expertise. Is this really Ham Radio where one does not use ears and brain to process the information received over the air? All you really need are two typing fingers.

    We reached the point where software lets us run our stations in automatic mode. Much like a trawl, a fishing long-line, it scoops up what it finds or lets others find you. Today (regulations non-withstanding), one can take a walk or go shopping, off to bed – and when you get to look at the log there will be some catch. It cost you nothing and its value for the fun, camaraderie, pile-up busting and adrenaline is ultimately zero. What comes easy has no value. What will you boast about to your buddies? How your computer found and worked something under the noise floor one cannot possibly hear?

    We are not against FT8 per se. There is nothing wrong with it. Many-many of us are hog-happy. People are working countries they never even heard of. At the time of low solar spots they play their beloved DX game nonstop. They work DX they couldn’t work otherwise. And if you are not on FT8 then something is wrong with you. Who wants to work the outdated modes anyway?

    Invoking romantic times of tube radios and spark gap transmitters wouldn't do anyone any good today. They belong to history. FT8 and other digital modes are here and now.

    FT8 is a route to the parallel universe. You find things there not available to us, here. One can never hear these stations on SSB, CW or even RTTY. This parallel universe is akin a good farmer’s market – come and get anything you want, selection is unlimited, the state of radio propagation is of no concern to anyone. Modern “Alice in Wonderland”, how sweet.

    We aren’t telling anyone we don’t approve. It’s not our place or our intention. But we cannot approve of the direction where it leads us as Hams. Bands have become devoid of regular CW and SSB activity. Looks like FT8 confined us to few KHz of radio spectrum and the rest is hardly being used. Should we eventually give it up the spectrum to commercial interests? We exaggerate a little, of course. But computer-to-computer communications is a specialized niche, where humans almost need not apply.

    We heard of a DXpedition where multiple FT8 streams were worked by computer alone, without human intervention; with some added software it recognized what was going on the screen; just analyzed the elements of the FT8 interface and made the program log contacts. Great for DXpeditions - stay on the beach and let computers do the work. Also heard this from a friend of ours: “…I was away from the shack for a minute and worked xxx station”. Did it ever happen to you as well? Would it be a red line for you personally?

    DXing has become difficult when digital noise from cheap Oriental-made electronics, like unfiltered power supplies, pollute our airwaves everywhere. Big cities these days are hopeless black holes to be playing radio. FT8 gives out an illusion of a QSO that one cannot make otherwise. You really don't need an antenna for FT8 and you don't need power. You should know a thing or two about syncing your radio to exact time and few FT8-specific operating techniques. But is still PC-to-PC at core. You can operate FT8 with a wet noodle for antenna and QRP radio with single watts for power. Ham radio is going through miniaturization and QRPing. FT8 lets you into the game where before you could not.

    When you chat with friends, will you boast how you busted the pile up and finally worked the last country on band/mode? But who did the busting? Was it you or your computer? Do you even know what a pile-up is these days?

    Are we alone in the “party-pooper” mode, when everyone is celebrating and having a good time? Is FT8 having a corrupting influence? The likely reply: this is a fad, a novelty; let them play, it’s only a hobby. Yet FT8 and its derivatives are bitter-sweet additions to ham radio. FT8 has most pronounced effect on the people who used HF for voice and CW contacts. Go to the .074 channel on any band to hear the “wailing wall” of stations. Yet many Kilohertz’s of totally un-busy band space can now be observed elsewhere; the bands often appear empty. Is it propagation, one’s poor antenna or is the radio going deaf? It’s neither. It’s us, hams, and the way we are behaving lately.

    You don't have to read further if this doesn’t apply to you.

    We, as hams, may slowly digitize ourselves out of existence.

    Morse code was and continues to be the mark of distinction; it separates the graying aging men from the "boys". There are still enough of us, tuning the bands, listening, but not calling. A lot less to work these days using traditional modes. Yet contests and DXpeditions still attract large SSB and CW crowds. When we get together at Dayton Hamvention (may it quickly return to our lives), most of us are there for that 20th century child called “Amateur Radio”. The real deal. Whatever that means these days.

    So let us say this: any mode that doesn't utilize brain, eyes and ears to process the incoming signals should take a back seat, no matter how advanced it is. Unless you are engaged fully and challenge yourself, it’s not Ham Radio in our book. We are not apologizing if we just offended anyone. So think carefully about the choices you make.

    We know some people who reject FT8 and its “derivatives”. We tried it and didn’t like it either. We are one of those guys, stuck in the 20th century. Blame us for not understanding how important it is to advance the radio art with digital communications. Well, maybe we don’t embrace it, but we surely know a thing or two about Ham Radio which we love dearly.

    So, what’s the point of this story?

    We are offering our pensive look at where the hobby is going. No stopping progress, no stopping digital modes which continue to evolve. Perhaps this is the only future we are ever going to know, as Morse and even voice are prone to QRM and will be obsolete in time. We don't have a crystal ball to know what lies ahead. Can you guess?

    But at least one thing is certain: we are slowly but surely losing important traits, like curiosity, some operating skills and desire for exploration that made us into the “travelers and adventurers of the airwaves”. The progress comes with a cost. It can’t be stopped nor are we trying to. It is you who choose the road and the means of traveling. A horse or an airplane? Go with the flow or buckle the trend. Succumb to the temptation of a short, point-to-point trip or try the longer mountain road with beautiful vistas and amazing discoveries.

    But who’s got the time these days? And that is the whole point. Leave the frenzy behind. Shouldn’t we be savoring our meals vs. grabbing some munchies on the go? Maybe, just maybe, slowing down to enjoy life isn’t so bad after all.

    These musings are so much broader than “FT8 question” alone.

    The deeper issue here: are we becoming so fond of “quick and easy” that “hard and challenging” is no longer attractive? Digital revolution in our society brought us remote operation (work DX from a parking lot at lunch break, using your phone). A terrific tool at the same time. Things require less time and effort. No more sleepless nights behind the radio. Properly set band/mode filter will alert you to DX Summit posting when desired DX shows up.

    What comes cheap isn’t treasured as much. A hundred new countries your computer works in a day means nothing to anyone. You just deprived yourself of a challenge; the sweet exhaustion and glory of “got DX in the log” after calling in the pileup for an hour. But we can’t tell you what to do. This is your road and your choice. And by the way, if you “worked” a hundred countries yesterday and another hundred today, what will you do tomorrow? The thrill is disappearing. And the daily thrills are what this wonderful hobby of ours is all about, wouldn’t you say?

    We should say something smart here, to cap the subject. Instead, we’ll leave it open and unfinished, for you, the readers, to express opinions and stir the discussion on our Ham future as human beings. Ham Radio is still about people, not machines.

    73, be well and stay safe out there.
    NI0C, KY4GD, WB7PMP and 19 others like this.
  2. WF4W

    WF4W Ham Member QRZ Page

    who is "we"? What group are you speaking for?
    VK2PDX, K1OIK, KD5PME and 19 others like this.
  3. KN4LGM

    KN4LGM Ham Member QRZ Page

    There is no full auto mode that comes with the standard WSJT-X package. The only way to do this is to write your own software which is hard(I tried and failed). This undermines the majority of your argument.
    Last edited: Aug 3, 2021
  4. KC3EWJ

    KC3EWJ Ham Member QRZ Page

    Thank you for your thoughts. Well said.
    WN1MB, N4FZ and WA1GXC like this.
  5. W9FL

    W9FL Ham Member QRZ Page

    Times change.

    Adapt or fade away.
    N3AWS and W4NNF like this.
  6. W7HV

    W7HV Ham Member QRZ Page

    tl,dr. Executive summary?
    KN4XJ, NY7V, KU4X and 2 others like this.
  7. WA9SVD

    WA9SVD Ham Member QRZ Page

    Right or wrong, you don't speak for "US" or use "WE" properly:mad:. You are expressing a personal opinion, that is all.:rolleyes:
    VK2PDX, K1OIK, N6PAT and 3 others like this.
  8. N3RYB

    N3RYB Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    Oh that's just hogwash. Voice and CW aren't going to disappear from the bands. If QRM gets that bad, we just move to more QRM resistant digital voice modes. I don't have a crystal ball, but my guess is they're not going to disappear. It's a pretty good guess too.
    WD4ELG, VK2WP, N3AWS and 1 other person like this.
  9. W4NNF

    W4NNF XML Subscriber QRZ Page

    CW has killed King Spark! Ham radio is DEAD!" :rolleyes:

    And who is this "we" you speak of? Do you have a mouse in your pocket?

    As for me, I still like paper QSLs, but I don't miss green stamps, waiting months, and the dreaded, "QSL VIA BURO." ;)
    UT7UX, KD5PME, NY7V and 6 others like this.
  10. NK7Z

    NK7Z Ham Member QRZ Page

    Another Ham that is unhappy with change. I think what bothers me most about the initial post is the "I like it, but it is bad for everything", method of writing... Here is one example:

    "We aren’t telling anyone we don’t approve. It’s not our place or our intention. But we cannot approve of the direction where it leads us as Hams."

    Why are you saying you are not telling anyone you don't approve, then telling everyone you don't approve? The use of "we" gets old as well, and the, "FT8 is great, but it is ruining the Amateur world", style of writing gets old...

    Sorry to be harsh here, but here is a little advice from nature, change or be replaced... BTW, who is "we", and "our"?
    NY7V, VK2WP, WG7X and 1 other person like this.

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