If you like FT8, perhaps you will love JS8Call

20230627_115735 My Camping Station

I got into using FT8 this summer when camping. In 2023 now post COVID I had to adapt to having other campers close by which made it embarrassing to be talking to myself late at night and possibly annoying my fellow campers. I was lucky and able to download all the software and get it running on my laptop during a wet day and then spend the night exchanging contacts using a variant of WSJT-X, JTDX. I improved things by adding GridTracker and spent much of the summer evening working through FT8.  

Laptop Screen when integrated with GridTracker

Good as FT8 is, it didn't satisfy my itch to communicate. It was good at getting to stations, finding out where you could be heard. But just a signal report and location didn't feel sufficient. I stumbled on a fork of FT8 called JS8-Call. Developed by KN4CRD back at the end of 2019 it takes much of FT8 but adds texting. So, you can now have a QSO, although slowly. To quote KN4CDR "JS8Call is an experiment in combining the robustness of FT8 (a weak-signal mode by K1JT) with a messaging and network protocol layer for weak signal communication." This code base is well supported (for Ham software) and has a last release of June 2020. There is an active community with sufficient activity to be able QSO most of the time.

The user interface and operation of JS8Call is different than FT8. They look quite different, but I quickly got used to the new layout. Before writing this blog, I went on air to get some typical screen captures to share what I like about it and why I feel it important to share availability of this digital mode.

The top things I really like are:

  • You can send and receive text messages and so exchange type of rig, antenna, power and such. You also have a chance to spend as long as you both like chatting.
  • There is an automated heartbeat mode where you can send automated messages and get replies including your signal strength.

Main disappointment so far

No automatic link into GridTracker, although might be possible with some work.

JS8Call screen during a QSO

The picture above shows the main screen, you will see that it has the waterfall of activity, above on the left is a list of activities, in the middle you can see the text messages for the current QSO and to the right a list of stations heard. The setup required all the same information as FT8, and I used my radio USB for audio and CAT commands for control. It has interfaces to a central logging program and can be configured for various unattended auto replies as well as full manual operation. It has become something I leave on in the shack and get satisfaction looking where I am being heard.

JS8Call screen response to a heartbeat

This second screen capture shows the responses to an automated heartbeat, you can see a bunch of people responded to my heartbeat with a signal strength. I like this feature as it gives me confidence everything is working.

The system has interesting features a club might want to explore. You can define groups, say the WEARC Group, then messages can be filtered and sent to the group and the group could automatically reply with the heard signal strength.There are also special groups with some set operating periods all designed for interfacing to APRS Packet network. 

Most of my operation was portable and so I was not as experimental as I am back here in the Shack. I want to look at the different modes available as some are faster (less weak signal capable) also try out the many shortcut messages and options which might make it simpler to cover the more standard messages and questions.

If I had to sum up what JS8Call feels like in one short sentence, it would be modern day CW mode, since JS8Call has almost the same message speed and probably works in harsher signal conditions.

I hope a few more club members try this and perhaps we can form our own group able to get automated signal measurements on the major bands between us all.

Please comments welcome.

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Sunday, 16 June 2024

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