The new FT4 protocol for digital contesting

Introduction: FT4 is an experimental digital mode designed specifically for radio contesting. Like FT8, it uses fixed-length transmissions, structured messages with formats optimized for minimal QSOs, and strong forward error correction. T/R sequences are 6 seconds long, so FT4 is 2.5 × faster than FT8 and about the same speed as RTTY for radio contesting. FT4 can work with signals 10 dB weaker than needed for RTTY, while using much less bandwidth.

Basic parameters: FT4 message formats are the same as those in FT8 and encoded with the same (174,91) low-density parity check code. Transmissions last for 4.48 s, compared to 12.64 s for FT8. Modulation uses 4-tone frequency-shift keying at approximately 23.4 baud, with tones separated by the baud rate. The occupied bandwidth (that containing 99% of transmitted power) is 90 Hz. Threshold sensitivity for 50% decoding probability is S/N = –16.4 dB, measured in the standard 2500 Hz reference noise bandwidth. A priori (AP) decoding can push threshold sensitivity down to –18 dB or better.

Random concluding thoughts: FT4 is a special-purpose mode designed for rapid-fire contest QSOs. It serves this purpose very effectively, but like FT8 the mode is not useful for more extensive conversations. FT4 uses much less bandwidth than RTTY and provides reliable decoding at much lower signal levels. It has no need for “Super Check Partial” or similar contesting aids, and skilled operators using FT4 will find less motivation to use a DX Cluster or other non-radio aids. All information necessary to score well in a contest can be obtained over the air, during the contest, through one’s own antennas and radios. With FT4 there is little distinction between CQ and S+P operation, so it’s easy to switch frequently between the two ways of finding QSO partners. Stations using low power and compromise antennas can participate effectively in a contest using FT4.