[VHFcontesting] Thoughts on the Digital Modes and VHF Contesting

JamesDuffey jamesduffey at comcast.net
Tue Jan 23 15:52:14 EST 2018

Let me preface these comments with the statement that these observations are meant to provoke some productive and objective discussion on the digital modes in VHF contesting and not aimed at criticizing any individuals. Please take it in that spirit.

I find it odd that after years of wringing our hands over declining or steady participation in the VHF contests that some are now criticizing the increased activity that the digital modes, primarily FT8, are bringing to contesting. I realize that there is more to the sentiments some express than that, but to me, any increase in activity is good, particularly for the January contest when propagation is often flat. 

I think that there are three primary reasons that FT8 and MSK144 are popular:

1. FT8 offers many of the advantages that CW offers on VHF. To people who have entered the hobby over the past 25 years without knowing the code, this is a powerful attraction, and one not to be taken lightly.

2. Using both FT8 and MSK144, even a modestly equipped station on 6M can work other similarly equipped stations out to the limits of one hop Es. In some areas it is possible to work everyone within this radius that is on in a contest.  This is not easily possible on either CW or SSB with a modestly equipped station. 

3. A lot of ops run FT8 on HF and many of the skills translate directly to 6M. With the proliferation of HF+6M rigs, this provides a large pool of potential VHF Contesters.  The  contesting skills do not necessarily translate, but it is, in part, our responsibility to educate these potential new VHF ops on how to operate contests. Posts educating newbies on VHF contesting practices on local contesting, VHF, DX, club reflectors and newsletters should be made by those of us who are experienced Contesters. 

It does not do much good to complain that FT8 ops would do better on CW if they don’t know CW. But if conditions support it, they should go to SSB, and we should spread the word that when the indicated SNR on FT8 is over a certain threshold, say +6dB for SSB and maybe -14dB for CW, the band is probably open and they would do better on CW or SSB depending on the operator’s skill.

A nice addition to FT8 would be an alert, perhaps flashing, included in the SNR report on FT8 suggesting that CW or SSB might be a better choice for a QSO and the band may be open. 

I don’t think that there is really a viable analog, that is CW or SSB alternative, for meteor scatter QSOes in a contest, at least not for one that is as quick. 

I understand that it is hard to work scatter out to the limits with CW or SSB. It takes skill and patience. With FT8, these QSOes are much easier and the skill required is less, and hence there are more operators that can utilize these modes. I think that this is good. Again, some education for these ops on what propagation modes they are working on and how best to utilize the various modes would help.  

As several have stated, the problem with the digital modes is that they may take activity away from the conventional modes. I am not sure how best to deal with this, but getting people to use more of the assistance resources available is a start. That will alert the FT8 op that there is a QSO that can be made on SSB or CW that is not available on FT8. They can go to the analog modes after their FT8 QSO is complete, say in a minute or so. After doing this a few times, hopefully it will become second nature. The conflict between MSK144 and other modes is not as easily resolved as the time commitment for meteor scatter is longer. I have heard ops explain that they work FT8 because that is where the activity is and there is nothing to work on CW or SSB, and at the same time rovers in those same areas will complain that there is no one to work on CW or SSB because all of the ops they usually work are on FT8. Emphasizing FT8 over CW or SSB because of lack of analog activity is a self fulfilling prophecy. 

So, I think that to begin with, we should launch an education campaign to those new FT8 contest ops as to how best to maximize their scores by using modes other than FT8. 

Adding alerts to the FT8 software to prompt an op to go to CW or SSB when the SNR is good would help. 

Encouraging the FT8 ops to monitor the various forms of assistance so that they can be alerted when CW and SSB ops are available for QSOes would help as well. If FT8 ops keep an APRS window and local VHF chat room/activity window open, and pay attention to it, that would help alert the FT8 op that there are other, perhaps more fruitful and faster sources of QSOes and points. 

One issue that has not been expanded on much is the impact on rovers. FT8 and MSK144 are additional activities layered on an already busy rover activity. Rovers usually work the easy pickings first when they make a stop. I, and I suspect most rovers, also try to work as many others that are on the air. If the rover goes to MSK144 or FT8 to work stations, that takes additional time, but it may make it worthwhile to get the extra mults and QSO points. Stations that are busy with scatter QSOes will put off working the rover. The end result will be that the rover will miss out on working stations he would normally work, or have to spend more time at a given stop, or perhaps operate on two radios simultaneously, probably with another operator and certainly with more hardware complexity. The  simple three band single op rover may become a thing of the past and everyone will suffer for it. 

I think the digital modes offer great contesting opportunities for the entry level operator and modestly equipped stations. We need to figure out how best to utilize them to derive the best benefit though. Education is a good place to start. 

Rational opposing views and thoughts on the subject?- Duffey KK6MC

James Duffey KK6MC
Cedar Crest NM

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