Winlink 2000 – Email on the Wind

Since I have my ham rig already set up for soundcard modes, I decided to give WinLink 2000 a try. WL2K is an email-over-the-air transport system that can take advantage of many modulation modes and frequencies, and allows a remote station with no Internet access to send and receive email messages complete with attachments. It’s useful for ship/boat stations, emergency communications during disasters, mobile/roving stations, camping/hiking stations, as well as a great thing you can do to get better at long-distance digital modes for fun and practice.

There’s a moderate amount of work that needs to happen up-front in order to use it. The Winlink service requires a valid amateur radio license from your country’s licensing authority. You will need to install some client application in order to compose/read mails and orchestrate communications. Once you sign up and make your first connection to the Winlink system, you will receive an email with your on-air password, which is then required to make subsequent connections. Your email address will be <callsign>@winlink.org and your inbound messages (to you) are filtered by a whitelist that is fairly restrictive. You can edit your whitelist on the Winlink web portal if you’re connected to the Internet, but otherwise any email address that you send to through the system will get added to the whitelist automatically; all other inbound mail is rejected.

On my home workstation, I installed and configured Winlink Express (published by the Winlink group). Winlink Express requests that you install the VOACAP (published by the Voice of America) propagation estimation software if you want to use its automatic link quality estimates. You’ll also need to install whatever software will be the modem between Winlink and your soundcard/radio (I used Direwolf in this situation).

The system can use several modes. The first, and simplest, is to use a basic telnet connection on an Internet-connected workstation to transfer messages. Your client software talks directly to the Winlink servers via the Internet. This is how I set up my account and got the basics worked out.

Another mode is Packet, which is your basic AX.25 packet radio mode, either 1200 or 9600 baud, “connected mode”. This is primarily used on VHF/UHF frequencies. If you don’t have a hardware TNC (Terminal Node Controller) that runs in Packet KISS mode, you can definitely use the Direwolf software TNC and tell Winlink to use it at a local network address and port instead of a hardware TNC at the other end of a serial connection. Direwolf requires some configuration from defaults to use your audio device. This is a good exercise to help you learn how to stitch multiple software components together to perform the work.

The third mode is Pactor, and is the mode of choice for anyone who happens to own an external Pactor TNC. This is a high-efficiency mode with extra error correction, signal processing, and high bandwidth (for MARS bands or if the FCC allows during disasters), but the external modems are expensive and outside the budget of the casual ham.

The built-in mode is Winmor (published by the Winlink software team). It is fairly robust and has a lot of handshaking and error correction, and the Winmor software TNC runs in a graphical dialog window to show you the signal quality, current action, and status of the transfer. Winmor uses QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation) at certain times of the conversation with various constellation densities and bits-per-second speeds to fit what’s best for the HF link condition.

Winlink supports many more modes that I haven’t experimented with yet.

The Winlink system relies on a worldwide group of volunteers who run stations that listen on a published list of frequencies for remote stations that wish to connect. They will rotate through their frequencies until they hear a request. They then do a song and dance with the remote, and forward any mail between the Internet and the remote station. It is essential that you download the latest published list of RMS stations before you go offline. You can also request the latest list over the radio, but you’ll need to know at least one station you can reach for that to work.

Aside: you can also request help files, propagation reports, weather reports, etc., automatically with a click with Winlink Express; the Winlink base station will provide a copy on connection.

One thing that tripped me was the option to connect to a Winlink station versus connecting to a “radio-only” system. Winlink architecture allows stations to connect radio-only or P2P, allowing them to shuffle email around without an Internet connection. My assumption is that if a radio-only station gets a message and accepts it, it will use the next available time slot to start up an HF link to the next reliable station and pass it off until it eventually gets to where it needs to be. Not quite.

On the times I tried to connect to a station to transfer, it got through the handshake, my client saw that the outbound mail I had wasn’t destined for that host, and both sides closed the connection without transferring anything. In that situation, I should’ve used “Connect to Winlink” instead of “Connect to Radio Only”. But OK. Lesson learned.

I was highly successful with Packet, because there’s a station W3MRC here in Austin which is a gateway. I was able to transfer mail at less than 10W with a 2m antenna. However, transferring on the HF bands is significantly more difficult. The concerns with Winlink on HF are the same as any other HF mode: propagation is important, and so is your radio, antenna, feedline, etc. If they can’t hear you in the noise, you’re gonna have a hard time.

So the software will show you a list of stations (a “channel list”) sorted by estimated link quality. Your best bet is to find something with a high estimate. But keep in mind the frequency you’re using, the time of day, and the skip zone (ionosonde data is useful here). It’s no good trying a station 500km away if you’re on 40m at night and your skip zone is 1500km. I tried to reach stations in Ohio, California, Baja Mexico, Florida, from my Texas apartment on 40m, but my crappy dipole just couldn’t get enough energy into the atmosphere for anyone to hear me. So my best success was to reach station K0SI in Missouri (which is in the skip zone, so I dunno about that), which heard me well enough, even with the fading, to do the job.

I’d really, really love to experiment more with this, to get better at it and learn how to set up a great antenna for it (groundplane vertical would be nice), to learn how to set my audio filters to really narrow the audio down to the middle 1KHz of audio in the passband, and to find that favorite collection of remote stations that are highly reachable in case of emergency.

One final note on this rambling post: watch your radio power. This is a digital mode, and your radio’s duty cycle could approach 100% depending on transfer action. You could overheat your final amplifier or exceed your radio’s ability to cool itself. Luckily, my Yaesu FT-857 limits or shuts off the output power if it overheats to save itself. But unless I’m watching the needles on my antenna tuner, I wouldn’t know it was not transmitting. If your side suddenly stops being heard, the other station is left in the lurch and in a bad state, making it unusable by anybody until its timeout expires. Don’t be that guy. Drop your power to something reasonable; I had to set mine to 40W, but the audio level from the soundcard is only driving it to 30W peak, and still that’s almost too hot. Be ready for fan noise. A great antenna would be your friend in this case.

Overall, this has been a positive experience. I hope to use it more, and for more legitimate purposes than sending myself test messages. It’s a super-useful system, and it’s during these relaxed times that we practice and get better so we can do it reliably during stressful times.

Pandimensional

Social media has perverted and supplanted my ability to express myself artistically, literarily, philosophically, poetically. The things I used to say, things I want to say from the back of my soul — in the front of my mind is now installed a filter, a tuned circuit to impedance match and pipe that natural, raw sound inside into the echo chamber to get maximum resonance. To get more likes. To get more comments. To incite reactions. And not exactly for my own good end, either. Social media doesn’t actually benefit me, or you, or anybody; its sole good is for the benefit of media itself. The platforms I use have insinuated themselves into my thinking. This is death of self, really.

I had something I wanted to post 10 minutes ago, but I stopped myself. Why? Because of the reasons stated above. I can’t keep going down that straight one-dimensional line; there are so many more dimensions to this world. There’s depth and space. If I can’t see that, and remember that, and try stretching out, to find the meat, to see where the people actually are instead of where they want to be seen, then my life is shallow. Meet me somewhere, or call me out of my stupid rut. I dare you.

I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something I’m just not doing, or finding, or finishing. Satisfaction hasn’t shown her face in my door in a long, long while. I must find her. I must find you.

Host

Well, I reckon it’s safe enough to finally announce to you fine folks that I am gainfully employed. I have been working at Hostway Corporation for the past two weeks doing Enterprise-level support for managed servers. What that means to you is that I work at the Internet. Not on the Internet — AT the Internet. Every time you look at a website or send an email or have a chat, your computer is making a connection to some physical server that’s sitting in some warehouse at the other end of a wire. This is one of those places at the other end of that wire.

Our customers are generally large companies or private individuals who run a bunch of websites. We own the equipment, we keep it powered and cooled, we make sure the wires aren’t crossed and everything is secured, and then the customers lease that equipment from us to do whatever they need. My job is to answer calls, emails, and trouble tickets from customers who need something changed or have a problem with their server.

Since the Internet doesn’t sleep, it’s a 24/7 operation, so someone has to be on staff in the datacenter at all hours of the day and night. I’m not thrilled at the prospect of shift rotations, but my application to the job was completely voluntary; I knew this going in. The past weeks of getting up at 6AM and filling my head with a wheelbarrow of new knowledge are wearing me down, but I’ll eventually get used to it. I think once the first paychecks start coming in, I’ll be a little more grateful. Until then, I’ll keep plugging at it. It’s a heavy load to take in, but I expect that with a new career.

Offline and Out

So the apartment saga grows more absurd. I’ve been without an Internet connection since Thursday because of the actions of idiots. There is a small construction crew doing work on the apartment complex; they’re rebuilding the supports for all the upper-floor walkways, replacing the rotting wooden vertical beams with steel. Fine, I say.

But Thursday, I noticed that my ssh connection to my house had gone dead. Nothing I could do from work would bring it back. OK, I thought. So after I finally get home, I take a look. The power to the apartment is on; it didn’t burn in a fire; the server was running and was responsive; but the cable modem was offline. So I log into the cable modem, the signal level was low enough that it basically said “Hey, I’m physically disconnected.” So I grab my flashlight and look outside, tracing the cable line as far as I can. Didn’t take long before I found the problem: the construction crew intentionally cut my cable line. They cut a lot of people’s lines. Intentionally.

So I called Time Warner and let them know what was going on; they’ll send me a tech to service the line, but the soonest he can come out is — get this — Sunday. Three days without Internet at my apartment. I had a nice little chat with the landlady about it the next morning. She basically covered for their stupid asses and made excuses. Blowing smoke, basically. “Oh, they had to do that, it was in the way…they’ll fix it today.” Like I trust welders to repair my telecommunications lines. By end of Friday, you know what happened? Absolutely nothing. They didn’t fix it. Why did she feel like it was necessary to lie like that?

At least I know I’m not the only one inconvenienced by the debacle. There were at least ten other lines cut. My only hope is that Time Warner will take notice and see fit to fine the apartment management for letting this happen, and that the management will pass the buck on to the contractors. It’s a damn good thing I’m moving out; this whole things just feels like a final “Fuck you, get out” sort of thing.

On a positive note, my lease application was accepted at the new place, and all I gotta do is sign the lease agreement, decide on a move-in date, and write a check. Can’t wait. Been slowly moving stuff out of my apartment and into the storage. Now that I’ve gotten a lot of stuff trashed, given away, or stashed in the storage unit, the amount of stuff I have doesn’t seem so unbearable.

Mushroom, Cloud

There once was a DARPA defense project to create a decentralized communications network that had very few points of weakness and therefore could survive a nuclear attack. ARPAnet.

Academia joined on. The network grew, proved it was functional. Project a success, network renamed The Internet, as in “a network of networks”. All was well.

Electronic mail — email — and remote login to connected mainframes — telnet — was born. Researchers could share work, loan computer time, and join each other’s projects without traveling.

Realtime communications between users on the same system had existed — chat — but eventually a method to share and broadcast these chat messages between users on physically separate but connected systems came into being: Internet Relay Chat, or IRC. The network grew more vivacious.

File servers were set up to archive and share any file of interest: File Transfer Protocol, or FTP. A user could upload a picture or download a program.

Indexes were created to help users search these file and message archives: Archie and Gopher. The future was handy.

People could mail messages to special addresses to be publicly posted into groups based on common interests: Usenet. Anybody could come along and read these messages, then post a reply if they felt so inclined. Like posting a note on an office message board.

A few major businesses and a lot more schools joined the Internet. Those students graduated and formed a class of businesses called Internet Service Providers to allow themselves, and their customers, to retain access to the network.

In the early 90’s, a researcher at a European particle physics lab, CERN, built the greatest killer app of them all: The World Wide Web. Hypertext had hit the mainstream. Anyone could publish a document and link it to other documents anywhere else, giving rise to the “spiderweb” of threads between documents. The possibilities multiplied.

Late 90’s, the Internet, with the bright light of the WWW, began to attract those with lots of money to invest like moths to a porch light. New money was born, “DotComs” flourished, stock speculators placed bets. The Web reached critical mass. Soon, anything and everything you’d want began showing up on the Internet; things previously inaccessible found their way online for either profit or community. A new world dawned.

The rise of journaling and weblogs gave new voice to millions who discovered the richness and depth of long-form commentary. Every person could have a say, each one an audience. The banquet tables were filled with plenty of food for thought for everybody.

Then along came Facebook and those of its ilk, and all was forgotten about the rest of the Internet. All attention became centralized; where once was many voices in delightful cacophony became a few choirs singing nursery rhymes amongst themselves. The vast mindshare all across the net quickly funneled into one point of weakness. An attack on this would be devastating, and like subway riders in a power outage, all would be lost in the dark.