If you’re a ham radio operator on HF, then you likely know all about FT8 and what it’s done for (or to, depending on your perspective…) amateur radio. It’s made a simple 5 watt QRP station capable of truly worldwide contacts! Here in Washington State, I have worked many Pacific Rim countries including Japan, New Zealand, and more; all with kit or homebrew equipment, with the exception of my amazing Jackite pole.
As neat as FT8 is, it can sometimes leave you wanting just a little more- why can’t I use it for conversational QSO rather than just a quick CQ/SNR/73? It’s just text, right?
Jordan Sherer (KN4CRD) agreed with that notion, but he also had the know-how to do something about it. WSJT-X is an open source program, which means that anybody can fiddle with it and make their own version. That’s exactly what Jordan has done, and so much more.
More than the sum of its parts
JS8Call is more than simply a conversational FT8, which is itself very cool. One of the many things that make it unique are the automatic HeartBeat (HB) transmissions, and the ability to put your station on automatic mode. The way it works is this: STATION1 sends out a HB signal. All stations who hear the HB signal and are on auto will send a reply with a signal report (SNR). Unlike WSPR, this is not for propagation reporting. This informs operators about who is hearing their signal and who can relay transmissions.
Remote stations on Auto are now able to be used to relay messages. Imagine that STATION1 hears STATION2 calling CQ, but ST2 can’t hear ST1’s reply. But you saw ST3 acknowledge ST2’s HB earlier and know they can communicate. So, you reply to ST2’s CQ with ST3>ST2>HW COPY? ST3 hears it, and relays it to ST2. ST2 hears it and it pops up on their screen that they received a relayed message, and they have the opportunity to reply. If they reply it will also go through the relay.
I had such a QSO where I could hear ST2 but they could not hear me, and so I used ST3 as a relay in one direction, and ST2 replied to me directly. Skipping the ST2>ST3 relay definitely made the throughput a lot faster.
Note the image above. This is what it looks like when you receive a relayed message. Using the relay command > I was able to send a message to myself through 3 other stations- one of them in Europe, a continent I have yet to work. I’m still working on a live QSO but it is certainly possible, and just a matter of time. How cool is that?!
How to get on the air with JS8Call
First off, you need a digital interface for your rig to your computer. I use a basic Easy-Digi kit found on ebay, but if you want you can scrounge audio transformers and an optical isolator from other projects or recycled electronics and build your own. Since the setup is exactly the same as FT8, and there are many tutorials on how to setup for FT8 already online, I’ll refer you to those and focus on setting up with JS8Call.
If you’ve never done digital before, then try a few FT8 QSO’s and come back. Done? Okay great! JS8Call is like FT8 but without the structure, and WITH the ability to have a nice chat and relay messages around the planet.
Download and Install JS8Call from the JS8Call Wiki Download Links page. Be sure to read up on it at JS8Call.com also. The documentation sheds a lot of light on the mode and what is possible. I strongly recommend the documentation in full before getting on the air.
Getting started with JS8Call – your first QSO
When someone calls CQ, simply answer “HW COPY?” and thus starts the QSO. It’s that simple. Exchange SNR’s and log it when you’re done. JS8Call is in slow motion. When a reply is coming in, you’ll see it, and if it has a ~ at the end, then you know they’re done. Then you can type your reply and send it. When you’re leaving the QSO just use “SK” at the end of your last message. Simple as that!
The JS8Call community is very welcoming and the developers are willing to listen to your input. I highly recommend joining their Groups.io group. There’s also the Portable Digital and QRP group on Facebook that is quite good!
Let us know how it goes. Post your comments and experiences below!