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.

Tower

If I ever get too cocky and think I know lots of things very well and have a full grasp of the world and all the things in it, I need merely to practice Morse code to knock myself off my high horse.

Radio is hard.

Dit-Dah

I’ve decided that I need to take my radio hobby to a new direction. I have difficulty getting out of the region with my radio and antennas with only voice communications. I haven’t gotten into the digital modes because, honestly, I don’t have a decent laptop to do it. Everything I have is kind of a hack.

If I want to log any sort of long distance (DX) contacts, I’m gonna have to use something that’s not voice. I’m jealous of the stations that talk about logging contacts from South America, Europe, Africa, places all over the world, on 10 Watts or less. I’m over here going “how the hell did they do that? I’m using 100 Watts!” The answer is Morse Code. Once you learn it, it’s fairly easy to make contacts that are readable — the code key turns the radio transmitter on when you key down, so either the radio signal is there, or it isn’t. It’s the most efficient use to radio energy ever.

In that light, what I’m proposing to do is dedicate the month of April 2018 to learning Morse Code. All 26 letters, all 10 numbers, all important punctuation. I want to be able to hear and key the code proficiently by month’s end.

I have a few apps, among them is one called Morse Machine. It’s pretty decent, and it allows me to learn code using the Koch method, which is recommended (it plays symbols at their normal speed with extra space between so I have time to recognize the sound and type the symbol). Once I can demonstrate a high enough proficiency with a few symbols, it unlocks the next group.

My plan is to do this for at least 15 minutes a day, every day. I already got far enough along, but since it’s been a few months since I last tried practicing, I’ve forgotten it all. So this time around, I’m going to clear my training scores and start from scratch. It’s really the only way.

I hope I can get up to at least 10 WPM by month’s end, at least for being able to hear code. I have a practice code key at home with an oscillator so I can pound it out without going over the air. But really, the best practice is to just Get On The Air. But first I need to learn the language.

Wish me luck.

Year and a Day

Personally, I subscribe to the “one year and one day” concept in matters of learning a vocation, skill, belief, or hobby. During that period, a person is considered an initiate, a neophyte, a newbie. They may know a few things, but they’re only learning. They can’t be promoted to higher levels of trust during this lockout period; they have to pay with time and dedication. By no means are they to be considered a journeyman or a master of their class.

So January 20 came and went, and I forgot to write up a thing. January 20 is the one year anniversary of my first amateur radio grant, a Technician Class license (General Class upgrade came in April). I’ve been a ham for over a year and a day. I’ve gone through a heavy bit of learning by the books to shore up my knowledge and comprehension of radio communications, but the true learning comes by experience. I have to actually do the thing to know the thing, and this past year has been a lot of that.

I wish I knew more, did more, understood more, talked more, made more contacts. Even at my age, I feel like I still need to earn my stripes to gain some levels of respect in myself and from others. If I’m going to be talking the talk, I better be walking the walk. People ask me for advice, but more than half of it isn’t backed by any personal experience. Without experience, I’m just a blustery blunderbuss spouting off what I believe to be true. In the back of my mind, I can feel the real pros rolling their eyes when they listen in.

On my anniversary evening, I was asked to host the AARC ElmerNet because the usual host, Jeff N5MNW, was down with illness. I was glad for the privilege to do so, and thankful that he thought well enough of me to ask for a fill-in. I think it’s apropos that this happened on my year-and-a-day.

I’m no longer an initiate. I’m set loose from the nest to fly on my own. Learning is life-long.

So, from my QTH, to the F2 layer, and down to you all. 73.

A Day In the Field

If anybody’s keeping tabs on my good decisions for this year, you can add another to the list: I participated in the ARRL Field Day exercise this past weekend, and it was time well-spent.

Lighted sign and knife switch, ready to burn like an Olympic flame during the event.

Field Day is a 24-hour contest where amateur radio clubs and ad-hoc groups go into the field (or anywhere that’s not their permanent operating station) to raise their antennas and run their radios on emergency power while making as many contacts as possible for points. The goal of Field Day is to help hams stretch their legs and train to operate in adverse conditions, ostensibly to prepare for emergency communications. One of the benefits of amateur radio is reaching into or out of disaster areas in times of crisis, and Field Day is among the best ways to prove that you’re up to the task before you ever have to need it.

The Austin Amateur Radio Club set up operations in the American Red Cross office near the Mueller district in Austin. We had 3 radios running under the W5KA station callsign, all powered by the Austin Energy solar demo trailer. Overall, we made just over 300 contacts, working almost all 50 states, half of the Canadian provinces, and even some Caribbean countries like the Virgin Islands. It’s not as many contacts as most clubs, but it was a herculean effort considering the modest turnout by club members and visitors alike.

Vertical antenna for CW in white on left, 40M inverted V dipole for digital in black on right.
Primary mast on trailer with 2M Yagi, 6M Yagi, and 40M dipole which carried the bulk of our voice contacts.
Austin Energy solar demo trailer, with voice antenna mast in the background.

On a personal note, the benefit of the weekend was in the effect it had on me. It started by just showing up. I got there Saturday morning to help raise the antennas and set up the radios, and I spent the rest of the day on-site to work a handful of contacts and be with others to share knowledge with my fellow new hams and to learn a massive amount of material from the elmers running the event. I went home for a few hours overnight to sleep off the exhaustion, but came back later the following morning to continue with the group and help break down at the end of the contest.

I’ll go on record to say that the event was transformative. I participated and learned. I volunteered and helped as often as possible. I got my hands dirty and paid in sweat equity. I worked holes into my leather gloves and made use of hard hats and hammers. I got exposure to new antenna designs and learned how to jump into an on-air pileup and get a contact in the noise. I had a great opportunity to work with a body of people that was neither a corporation nor a church camp. This group serves some other purpose, and that’s a refreshing change. It’s new air to breathe.

The lessons I’m learning are paying off. Today I took my radio to the park and worked 6 contacts where usually I’d get only 1. I’m honing the craft. I’m growing. That is its own profit.

I look forward to next year’s Field Day, and hope I can get some of you to join in too.

A big and heartfelt thank you to members Jeff, Lew, Stu, Bob, and everybody else whose names and calls I can’t remember who ran the event and made it work fabulously despite the hardships. Finding creative solutions to difficult problems is the soul of engineering, and you people are filled with that living spirit. Thank you.