Paul, VK4MA left a comment on another post regarding the recent information about 3D2CR QSOs not being credited for IOTA. 

What the “3D2CR No QSOs Credited” saga appears to highlight is something which is causing a bit of a rift within the IOTA program (chasers & activators) and with that we leave Paul to write some words on it. Note, it’s a lengthy piece but worthwhile to read and digest. 

Comments are open to Paul’s guest post, but you should be careful if writing anything about 3Z9DX as he may well threaten legal action against you (or DX-Word). 

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“I question where DXing is at, as a hobby, when two major Award programs (DXCC and now IOTA) are using the phrase “contemporaneous direct initiation” to define what constitutes a valid QSO. What does this phrase even mean and why the need for such legalistic language in a hobby involving amateurs where little in the way of money or commerce is involved?

 

The DXCC rule requires  “that each claimed contact include contemporaneous direct initiation by the operator on both sides of the contact. Initiation of a contact may be either local or remote.” (Aug 2019)

 

The recently introduced IOTA rule is even more expansive and reads:

 

Contacts claimed for IOTA credit must include contemporaneous direct initiation by the operators on both sides of the contact. Automated contacts, i.e contacts not initiated and completed personally by both operators at the time of QSO, such as simultaneous multiband activity, are not acceptable in a programme founded on an ethos of recognising personal operating performance and skill.

 

Rather than analysing this legalistic gibberish, let us examine the intention of the clauses which seem to be directed at invalidating QSOs where the DXpeditioner is not “initiating” the qso. For both the DXCC and IOTA rules “contemporaneous direct initiation” presumably means pressing the “enable TX” button in FT8 related software at the end of each QSO cycle and selecting callsigns to join the QSO queue whether it be a single or multiple F/H QSOs. 

 

The IOTA rule appears to be more hard-line in that simultaneous multiband FT8 activity is prohibited regardless (it seems) of whether the operator is manually queuing the QSOs or not.

 

In short the new IOTA rule appears to be saying that if an operator is not pressing the enable TX key and queuing the callsigns, or is operating FT8 in any form with two radios on two different bands, then this operator is deemed to not have the requisite personal operating performance and skill to qualify his or her QSOs for IOTA accreditation.

 

This is clearly ridiculous. I could teach my XYL or child, with no radio or DXpeditioning experience whatsoever, how and when to press the “enable TX’ key in WSJT and similarly, to randomly queue an incoming call. The fact that they could learn this skill in 5 minutes without any radio or DXpeditioning experience whatsoever suggests that it is ridiculous to define the validity of a QSO by whether this button pressing occurs or not.

 

I just don’t get the fuss about QSO automation. When I started in ham radio in the late 1970s I had to tune my FT101E and amplifier by hand, I had to turn my antenna by hand, I had to write the QSO down using a pen in my logbook. Now in my radio shack the tuning of radios and amplifiers are gone, my SPE amplifiers switch bands automatically, my rotators are software controlled, my FT8 QSOs are logged automatically into AClog. I have automation everywhere and this is apparently all OK until I get to the issue of that pesky WSJT-X “enable TX button”. I can automate absolutely everything else but heaven forbid if I get software to press that magic TX key.

 

Surprisingly, despite supporting FT8 automation, I have more in common with the hardline anti-FT8ers. I agree that FT8 QSOs are made by two computers. I agree that the FT8 QSO process is largely automated whether a human is callsign queuing or pressing the TX key. Whether a human is present or not, the computer is doing 99% of the work. Where I draw a different conclusion from the anti-FT8 crowd however, is that I think these new rules are tokenistic and are artificially trying to incorporate human involvement in what is largely an automated process. K1JT has conceded himself that only the most basic programming change is required to convert WSJT-X into a robotic piece of software (refer WSJT-Z for a real life example). If the computer is or can do 100% of the work I just don’t buy that adding back a 1% human involvement (via these silly rules) suddenly makes the operator “skilled”. It is akin to having a human standing by an automatic ticket machine. It may be good for human jobs but fundamentally it is a fraud.

 

Maybe this is an issue that has crept up on us by stealth. Lets be honest, this new, more expansive IOTA rule is all about the dislike of JT modes. The “old school” are uncomfortable with computers making qsos instead of people. Where this has crept up on us, is that of course, we have had computers making QSOs for a long, long time – RTTY, PSK software has been around since the 1980s and really functions no differently in that core area of whether it is the person or the software making the qso. These old digital modes were however pretty clunky and as they had little mainstream appeal there was no angst to be found among the cw crew that these rtty and PSK QSOs were effectively being made by a computer. Of course, the JT modes have revolutionised the digital space – FT8 is RTTY or PSK on steroids. Digital has gone from the most inefficient way of making a DX QSO to the most efficient virtually overnight. All of a sudden, computer generated QSOs that were once not a problem are now considered QSOs “of the devil”. So what can we do?

 

I think we have two options:

 

The first is to simply disallow any QSO made by a computer whether it be JT modes, RTTY, PSK etc. What about CW contest software? At least half of a CW contest QSO is done by a computer if you use CW generation software and auto logging etc? I think we can already see that the “horse has already bolted” in this space and invalidating QSOs simply because they are made by a computer is just too difficult.

 

The second option is to embrace this concept of automation and let’s see where it takes us.

 

I think the point the IOTA committee is missing and why IOTA DXpeditioners should be insulted by this new rule, is that the “ethos of recognising personal operating performance and skill” has so very little to do with whether a button is humanly pressed at the time of a QSO. Remember this is a rule aimed at the DXpeditioner, not the caller sitting at home in his armchair happily using his FT8 software to make IOTA QSOs. Frankly, I find it insulting that I can travel to a remote island, often at considerable personal expense and risk, set up my station in the boiling heat or frigid cold, expend effort in trying to keep the station operational, fight with local officialdom, extreme weather, makeshift equipment repairs etc but as soon as I get a piece of software to press the “enable TX” button, I am suddenly deemed to be lacking in the requisite level of “ethos” sought by the IOTA committee. What constitutes the DXpeditioner ethos is everything that came before the pressing of that “enable TX” button. The arranging of licenses and DXpedition teams, packing of equipment, booking flights or boats, clearing alien custom procedures, irate hotel management or guests, dodgy roads, bad weather – overcoming all this and still putting a radio on air is how the DXpeditioners ethos should be defined. In many respects the making of the QSOs is the easy bit, and why should we not try to make this aspect a little easier or more efficient for both dxpeditioner and caller. We are in a technology hobby after all.

 

I have seen it claimed that callers value a QSO less with a DXpedition computer than they do if they contact an actual human. Really? When I make a DXpedition FT8 QSO I frankly could not care less whether some poor soul is sitting there pressing a TX button every minute just because the IOTA committee requires him to do so. I would actually think it a pretty useless way to use DXpedition time when he could be on a second band working CW and keeping a wry eye on the FT8 robot when it hiccups from time to time. Requiring a skilled DXpeditioner to sit at a computer mindlessly pressing a TX button like a monkey is a significant under utilisation of that person’s skill and an insult to that particular DXpeditioner.

 

Now, putting 5 radios in front of that same DXpeditioner all working FT8 and suddenly we do have a task that the average monkey cannot handle. Keeping all the balls in the air with a multi radio setup like this does require a fair degree of operator skill and would be an entertaining task. Sitting at one radio with one computer moronically pressing a TX button on the JT software is my idea of a DXpedition made in hell. But of course the IOTA rule seemingly prohibits the more complicated multi radio FT8 setup as well.

 

I also see argued that most countries’ rules and regulations do not allow for the use of unattended radio transmitters. Fair enough – a good DXpeditioner should be following local rules. Of course such rules are intended to lessen the opportunity for runaway transmitters causing interference to other users and are not exactly applicable to transmitters located on a remote island. But rules are rules and I am sure the Award Committee will be equally feverish in monitoring the power output of DXpedition radios to ensure they comply with local power output requirements. I personally have no issue with a rule that requires some human oversight of an FT8 radio (or group of radios) but this does not mean that a person should be required to sit there for days on end pressing an “enter” key.

 

One mysterious aspect of this IOTA rule change is that there seems to be some suggestion by Cezar, VE3LYC (IOTA Deputy General Manager and Operations Manager) that he is concerned about the long operating times being put in by DXpeditioners on FT8 and that this rule somehow benefits them in this regard. I am sorry Cezar, but I do not need an Awards Committee to tell me how much sleep I should or should not be getting when DXpeditioning. If I want to stay up 24 hours per day for a week then that is my prerogative. It is strange that apparently “sleepy – lazy operators” meet the IOTA committee DXpeditioning ethos but the guy getting only 2 hours sleep per day somehow needs a new rule to invalidate his DXpedition if he does not get enough shut eye. What will be next – a new IOTA rule advocating gender and diversity criteria for the DXpedition team.

 

Possibly what Cezar is saying indirectly is that the way he will detect cheating under the new IOTA rule is by checking QSO times and if an operator has had no sleep then he must automatically have been cheating using an FT8 robot? Who knows how the “checking” for this new rule will work in practice?

 

As a final comment, I should mention that I was once a very keen IOTA chaser of some 25 years standing with around 1090 islands confirmed. About 3 years ago I left the program and requested the deletion of all my IOTA QSO data. Back then an IOTA rule was introduced whereby it was prohibited to favour the working of IOTA enthusiasts when conducting an IOTA dxpedition as done by K6VVA on one of his DXpeditions. Now I personally have little time for K6VVA and his operating practices but I do respect his right to operate his pileups as he sees fit. He paid for and organised the DXpedition and frankly prioritising IOTA enthusiasts / donors had been going on unofficially for years anyway (and still is – and probably rightfully so).

 

It appears this ‘K6VVA rule” was just the beginning for Award Committees to now start dictating how DXpeditioners should operate their pileups and now (via this latest rule) how their equipment should be setup. Is this really the role of an Awards Committee?

 

In any event, I have very little interest in IOTA any more so why you may ask am I commenting on this new IOTA rule at all? Cezar, VE3LYC has stated that this new rule affects IOTA DXpeditions only and if this was truly the case I couldn’t care less. But what about DXpeditions that are conducted for both DXCC and IOTA purposes (ie 3D2CR or the forthcoming 3Y0J DXpedition). Will the 3Y0J team be using some form of FT8 automation or multiple FT8 radios under the control of just one operator? I certainly hope so, because with all the ham radio money being dedicated to the 3y project, I think they have a responsibility to maximise the greatest number of QSOs for the greatest number of callers as is possible. Of course the 3Y0J team may not care about IOTA accreditation and simply ignore the IOTA rule but this will of course deprive IOTA enthusiasts of a very rare counter for the IOTA award. It is however possible that 3Y0J comply (agree) with the new IOTA rule and employ FT8 in its most inefficient form (single radio – single op) which may deprive DXCC chasers of a much needed new country. In short – the tougher IOTA regulation DOES have the potential to affect DXCC activity as well.

 

The IOTA program does not exist in a vacuum. There is no doubt that this new rule is all part of the backlash against FT8 and automation technology and that it affects the hobby of DXing in general.

 

I propose it is time to rethink the issue of FT8 automation and I believe the IOTA rule in particular is a step in the wrong direction.

 

If you are using FT8, I prompt you to ask yourself the following questions:

 

Do you really care if there is a human pressing the keys at the other end of the qso? How much key pressing are you actually doing – are you using the Auto TX functionality in say JTDX – and if you are, are you being a little hypocritical re the automation issue. Why should a dxpedition op be forced to unnecessarily press keys like a monkey when you are minimising this effort in your own shack to just make a “single” QSO.

 

Do you really believe that a human dxpeditioner pressing buttons unnecessarily for days on end makes a significant enhancement in how you view the quality of your FT8 QSO? 

 

If you despise and never use FT8, would you not prefer the DXpedition team be given the opportunity to free up operator time by automating FT8 and thus dedicating the operator to working cw or ssb, thus increasing your chances of making a CW or SSB DXpedition QSO? If you believe FT8 is robotic in any of its forms what difference does it really make if we use the robotic technology to its full potential. A robotic QSO will simply confirm your low opinion of the mode rather than employing these new DXCC / IOTA rules which are simply “rolling an FT8 turd in glitter”.

 

There can be no doubt that a QSO made between your station and an FT8 robot is still a radio contact – the radio waves have allowed the QSO to happen – the hard work on your station has made the contact possible, as has the hard work of the DXpeditioning team in getting their system operational in a remote location. Should Award Committees have the right to declare an actual radio contact invalid simply because a DXpedition team has not substituted a human to complete the menial key pressing tasks that a computer could easily complete?

 

Finally, I would like to thank Col for the opportunity of publishing this opinion piece on his DX World website. I understand that I am probably in the “minority position” re: FT8 automation, but as always, Col is happy to post diverse opinions on DX-World.

(for the record I personally use JTDX for my own FT8 QSOs with AutoTX and Autoseq2 engaged. I have tried WSJT-Z but as I am almost exclusively a “pounce on DX” sort of guy, I found little value in it for me personally)

 

Cheers
Paul – VK4MA