29 April 2018

Can It Take A Licking and Keep On Ticking?

Or, is it possible to find a laptop that can take a bit of real-world abuse in the rugged outdoors but not break the bank?

Ever break a laptop? Ask most heavy users of laptops and the answer will be yes (if they are honest). I'm in that august group, with no less than four broken units in my 25 years of laptop use. I know that's not a record. I've worked with folks who averaged one broken laptop every two years. At some point you begin to suspect it's intentional.

Not mine, but you get the idea

There's a reason organizations like the US military and police and fire departments spend big bucks for ruggedized laptops like Panasonic Toughbooks. These laptops get used and abused in ways most folks can't even imagine. Like being used as a coffee cup stand in a HMMWV somewhere in Afghanistan.

Most American taxpayers can't afford the entry price for a Panasonic Toughbook or its Dell equivalent (about $3,000, with middling performance specs). To be honest, very few need what a Toughbook offers, like the ability to keep working while being dragged around behind an ATV. But many users do need something in the middle - a laptop that is built into a rugged chassis that can take some real world knocks, bumps and a light shower without begging for mercy or just giving up the ghost without bothering to say goodbye.

Two very capable laptops that wouldn't survive a weekend trip to the mountains.
The Surface Pro 4 (left) is a replacement for one that suffered a shattered screen after a fall from 2.5 feet
 while in a heavily padded case.
The Acer (right) is a very capable laptop and a PC Magazine award winner, but the case is so flimsy that the trackpad
has gone 'wonky' and one of the USB ports has died.

But what does 'in the middle' mean? Well as interpreted by both Panasonic and Dell that means a laptop that has a rugged build but lacks the full MILSPEC rating for shock, dust and water resistance. These 'middle ground' laptops are built around a magnesium chassis, offer covered (but not necessary fully sealed) ports, sealed keyboards and rugged displays that are readable in full sunlight. Generally they are rated at the IP 51 or 53 levels for splash and dust resistance. An additional important consideration is that users can actually use them for day-to-day computing tasks. If you've ever tried to type on something like a Panasonic Toughbook CF-31 you'll quickly understand. It's like trying to type on a brick. These 'middle ground' laptops have keyboards and trackpads that are actually comfortable to use.

A number of manufacturers besides Panasonic and Dell offer beefed-up laptops. Lenovo and Dell offer units that are designed to survive a little rough handling in office or school environments. (My wife's school just bought a load of Dell Chromebooks for student use that seem to be built to the higher end Precision specs. Good idea, given how little regard most kids today seem to have for other people's property). But these laptops are not really designed for use out-of-doors in the elements, or to survive repeated rough handling.

A few years back I needed a new work laptop and after some searching settled on an Acer Aspire. This laptop has great specs and was a 2016 PC Magazine award winner in the low cost laptop category. What made it 'low cost' is the build quality. While not cheaply made, it's clear Acer reached the price point by sacrificing a sturdier build. The laptop is, to be generous, flimsy. For the first 18 months of use this wasn't a problem. But over time, with being schlepped back and forth to work, taken in and out of meetings, being used for demos and presentations, etc. the wear and tear began to take a toll. Now the trackpad suffers from the classic 'randomly wandering pointer' syndrome, one of the USB ports is intermittent and the keys have developed a mushy feel.

One day last year I took it on a mini DX-pedition to a local park to use it to drive my radio on digital modes. While operating at the outdoor site and watching all the spring pollen, dust and grass being kicked up by the wind I concluded that the time had come to replace the Acer and look for something that could spend a day outdoors without worrying about whether or not it would survive. My requirements weren't too stiff; Amateur radio software really doesn't put much of a strain on a modern system (can you say 'legacy 32 bit code'?). Any new computer would need to run Windows10, sport at least an i5 dual core processor, 8 GB of RAM, a 500 GB hard drive, a sunlight readable screen, have at least an IP51 rating for dust and water protection and be MIL-STD-810 compliant for shock and vibration resistance.

Two companies lead the market in building laptops that meet these standards. As discussed earlier, they are Panasonic with their iconic Toughbook line, and Dell with their 'Rugged' (5414) and 'Tough Rugged' (7414) lines. The Panasonic Toughbooks have been an industry standard for over 20 years. They are the 'go-to' laptops for most federal, state and local emergency response agencies and they have been so dominant in the market that I think they are reflexive purchases for most agency buyers  - you need a rugged laptop just put in an order for a Toughbook. Dell is a johnny-come-lately to the rugged laptop market, but I understand they are gaining traction fast, especially with IT managers who already have corporate accounts with Dell.

Panasonic CF-31 Toughbook.
When you say 'rugged laptop' this is what most people think of

A quick review of both manufacturer's offerings leads to the immediate conclusion that buying one would cause a process server to appear on my porch to hand me divorce papers. Apparently rugged laptops are not cheap to build. The entry point for a new Toughbook with the specs I outline above is somewhere north of $3,000. The same holds true for the Dell line. But there's also a huge market in refurbished models. While factory refurbished Toughbooks can be hard to find (most are third party refurbs), Dell actually does a lot of in-house refurbishments and those units (with full factory warranties) end up on third party vendor sites. In fact, eBay is full of Dell refurbished laptops of all varieties. But which one to buy? As I said before, I don't need a high end gaming machine, just a basic unit with good performance specs. Well it turns out Dell has pulled a Goldilocks on me, offering something 'in the middle' that is just right. Dell's 5414 series laptops sit just below their top-of-the-line military grade rugged laptops (7414 series), but offer just the right amount of performance and protection I'm looking for at a refurbished price level that won't cause divorce papers to magically appear.

The Dell 5414. Just rugged enough.

After haunting eBay for a few weeks I finally found a Dell 5414 that fit my needs. Actually, I did a little better than planned. It seems the rugged laptop market is rapidly moving beyond conventional hard drives and adopting SSD hard drives (it only makes sense - with no moving parts an SSD is inherently more rugged). So I managed to snag a  256 GB SSD model with 16 GB of RAM and a high resolution touchscreen. One of the interesting features of both this Dell and Panasonic Toughbooks is the number of legacy ports these units sport. Apparently the main customer base - emergency response agencies - are still hooking up to some pretty old devices. This Dell 5414 comes with a 9-pin serial port (DB-9), a VGA video port and a CAT5 LAN port. The 9 pin serial port will actually get some use, since there are radios being made (Kenwood TM-D710G for example) that still use a standard 9 pin serial connector. But the laptop also sports a plethora of up-to-date connection ports - USB-2, USB-3, HDMI, SD - lacking only the relatively new USB-C port.

The Dell is festooned with a wide variety of ports. On the opposite side
is another covered bay with two USB-3 ports and an SD card slot

All ports except the charging port and the docking stations connector on the bottom sit in bays with snap open covers. The integrated carrying handle may look goofy, but it's actually quite useful. This is not a light device (about 6.3 lbs!), so having a secure carry handle is critical, and the design does not interfere with typing.

But how about performance? Well, it's got an i5 dual core processor and uses Intel integrated graphics, so its no barn burner. But it's way more than capable enough to handle the ham radio software I run - Winlink, Ham Radio Deluxe, Fldigi, VOACAP, Chirp, RT Systems programming software. And it runs Microsoft Office just fine. With 16 GB of RAM and an SSD hard drive performance is actually quite snappy. The high resolution touch screen works great in full sunlight.

More than enough 'oomph' to run any current Amateur Radio software

So how does it work in the real world? After limited testing I can say, "just great!" Remember, one of this Dell's primary missions is to control radios and associated devices in the field. A quick test run to a local park for some HF & VHF operations showed the laptop fits the role perfectly. The plethora of USB ports makes it possible to simultaneously hook up the CAT control cabling for my Yaesu FT-857 and Signalink sound card modem and connect via USB to a Kenwood TH-D72 radio with a built-in TNC for Winlink operations. This was impossible to do with my old Acer unless I had an external USB hub available. Additionally the legacy DB-9 serial port will allow me to connect to my Kenwood TM-D710 without having to use a USB port as a surrogate serial port.

Operations in the field without having to worry too much about dust, dirt or heavy humidity. Yeah!

Some day I expect most of this connectivity will be handled by Bluetooth, but for now it takes cables and cables need ports, and the Dell 5414 excels in this area.

About half of this spaghetti mess has to connect to a computer

So the Dell becomes the system 'hub' and seems to handle the multiple USB connections with aplomb. Actually, Windows 10 handles the connections, and does it very well. I've rarely had 'connection drama' with the Windows 10 operating system like I used to have with Windows 7 or XP. It just works.

The Dell is slated to become my core laptop for daily Amateur Radio use, replacing the old Acer. But because of its rugged construction I suspect it will also end up being something of a daily work laptop, getting taken into environments that the Surface Pro might not do well in (like construction sites). So I'll report back occasionally to keep the readers updated on how the Dell is performing in the real world running Amateur Radio apps.


W8BYH out

22 April 2018

A Hurricane Post-Mortem

The 2017 hurricane season is on the books as the most extensive, and the most expensive, season on record for the Atlantic and Caribbean basins. Mother Nature cut loose with a series of storms that hit just the right land areas at just the right angle and at just the right intensity to cause catastrophic damage from the Caribbean to well up into the southeastern United States. Two storms in particular, Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, caused widespread damage across the Gulf Coast states and Puerto Rico.

How bad was it? This satellite photo taken on 8 September 2017 shows three storms racked and stacked
 to do damage. Left to right they are Hurricanes Katia, Irma and Jose. The middle storm, Irma, ended up
 stomping up the Florida peninsula and then working its way up into Georgia, clobbering south and western
Georgia (including the Atlanta area) before finally running out of steam somewhere up in Tennessee 

Today we'll talk about one particular storm - Hurricane Maria - and the impact is had on the island of Puerto Rico and the emergency communications lessons learned in the aftermath of the storm. There is a lot of talk in the Amateur Radio community about the desperate calls for Amateur Radio operators, both on the island and here on the mainland, to handle emergency and health and welfare traffic. Amateur Radio operators from across the US ended up deploying to support a wide variety of relief agencies like the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, FEMA and even the Dept. of Homeland Security. In some cases Amateur Radio operators deployed with just the shirts on their backs and 'fell in' on equipment already in-place, other times they deployed with donated gear. In one well known instance the ARRL partnered with Icom to put together 'package sets' of HF and VHF radios that volunteers organized by the ARRL took on the plane with them into Puerto Rico to support the Red Cross. And in some instances, like the SHARES volunteers that deployed to support the Dept. of Homeland Security, Amateur Radio operators hauled their own personal radio gear down into the disaster area to provide communications interoperability between government and non-government agencies.

Most of the glowing reports of Amateur Radio support are third party and have been filtered through the public relations arms of the various organizations involved - the ARRL, the Red Cross, etc. So of course the stories are positive. But I come from the military, where no holds barred AARs are the norm. The Army dislikes repeating past mistakes, so AARs, particularly small unit AARs, can be brutally honest. So what bothers me is that I've seen only one AAR of any value come out of a communications agency directly involved in relief efforts. This is the after-action report done by the ARRL, and it's quite good in its honesty and recommendations for improvement.

This post was inspired by the fact that the 2018 hurricane season opens in just a month (1 June) and by a very interesting real-time forum discussion between an Amateur Radio operator named Planemaker who deployed to Puerto Rico in October 2017 to support the DHS under the SHARES program, and fellow Amateur Radio operators back on the mainland who were trying to maintain communications with him. The discussion was hosted on the ham radio section of the AR15.com forum - one of the busiest firearms, survival and disaster preparedness forums on the internet. The thread is titled 'Heading to Puerto Rico With My Radio. Wish Me Luck' and runs for seven pages, starting with the Planemaker's announcement that he's been activated and closing with a very comprehensive one-man AAR. You may have some political qualms about reading a forum thread on a pro-gun site, but all the discussions are actually very professional and tightly focused on the conditions and communications challenges on the ground in Puerto Rico, in real time. The AAR comments start on page 6, but the entire thread is worth reading through as it gives a great overview of the daily communications challenges that Planemaker faced. His observations and evaluations all ring true, and they ring true not just for Amatuer Radio operators deploying to austere environments, but for those of us who just need to hunker down and shelter in-place yet keep communications up and running.

I've summarized both Planemaker's comments and some inferences I gleaned from reading through the forum posts. I think these are observations and lessons any emergency communicator can learn from:

1. Digital Modes
  • Winlink proved to be somewhat fragile, mainly because it does not have a weak signal mode. When band conditions were poor, which was about all the time, Winmor (the soundcard interface for Winlink) had a lot of trouble making and maintaining connections. Agencies using PACTOR modems had much greater success utilizing Winlink
  • Fldigi was the standard digital comms software suite, so familiarity with Fldigi was deemed essential
  • Weak signal modes like FT8 and Olivia seemed to be the most reliable way to go for passing short messages, but even those were iffy depending on the time of day and antennas used
  • Unattended digital modes were important. The ability to park the radio on a coordinated frequency and mode and log all activity for off-line review was a huge time and effort saver
2. Antennas
  • No one antenna setup or design worked 100% of the time. Planemaker's team used dipoles, verticals and end-fed wires. All had their pluses and minuses depending on band conditions, location and local RFI (which was a huge problem). In general, vertical antennas were worse, tuned dipoles were best
  • The ability to re-rig and improvise antenna setups was one of the keys to success. If something doesn't work reconfigure and try again, and keep trying until the signal gets through
  • A simple MJF manual tuner became one of the 'hero' pieces of equipment because it could tune just about any antenna it was hooked up to and could be used with any radio
  • An antenna analyzer proved to be a critical piece of gear as it allowed the team to create home-brew antennas and test for resonance before deploying them to communications sites that didn't have tuners available
  • In many cases horizontal NVIS HF setups were the only thing that got the signal from village to village. Puerto Rico has very dissected terrain, so VHF point-to-point without the use of repeaters is virtually impossible. Most repeaters/towers were either heavily damaged or destroyed during the hurricane, and those few that survived where quickly over-saturated with traffic. For many remote towns & villages HF comms via NVIS was the only reliable 'reach-back' system
3. Computers & Software:
  • Arriving on-site to support a disaster is a lousy time to start loading software (like Fldigi), getting it configured and then trying to learn to run it. Make sure your computers have the necessary software installed and configured for the radios you will be using, and make sure you have at least basic knowledge of how the software works before the disaster strikes
  • If you are 'falling in' on an agency-provided computer be aware that the agency may not want your software on their computers, regardless of how mission critical it is. Also, IT personnel or local computer administrators (they guy with the admin password and the authority to make configuration changes on your computer) will likely be hard to find and badly over-worked. Good computer skills are a must
4. Power
  • Power is a precious commodity in disaster situations, and radios (and computers) are useless without power. Planemaker ended up relying on his LIon battery pack and solar charger far more than he thought he would, and he didn't plan for enough solar panel capacity to account for the cloudy conditions in Puerto Rico. Even the response agency sites with 'reliable' generator systems experienced frequent outages due to gas shortages, poor generator maintenance or, in one case, the generator simply disappeared into the island interior
  • There's power, and then there's power. Poorly maintained generators, brownouts, spikes, overloads, shorts and ground faults and unexpected outages played havoc with electrical systems and ended up frying a number of items. If your systems (radio or laptop) can run on DC then use that as much as possible. Otherwise, make sure your critical equipment is shielded from RFI, well grounded and connected to a surge suppressor. Unplug when not in use!
5. Supported Agencies
  • Planemaker was frankly shocked at how 'unready for HF' most federal agencies are, particularly the US military. It seems that federal agencies have moved wholesale to VHF for local comms and SATCOM systems for long haul communications. If there is an HF capability left in the US military force structure, it wasn't to be found in Puerto Rico. This became a critical issue as the available satellite communications circuits were quickly overloaded. The stopgap remedy of putting commercial satellite phones in the hands of elected officials, administrators and other key people also had drawbacks since nobody had phone lists (mayor A couldn't call mayor B for assistance because A didn't have B's phone number). Plus, to make or receive a call the user had to be standing outside with a clear view of the sky. 
  • The Puerto Rico Army National Guard dug out some old HF radios but had no idea how to use them, meaning they had no way to operate on the MARS or SHARES nets that were handling traffic. Planemaker ended up giving classes on HF theory and helping them get these radios back on the air. The bottom line here is, I think, don't expect the US military to have any deep or extensive expertise in HF communications
  • Don't assume a supported agency knows what to do with you once you arrive. Part of your job may be figuring out for yourself where your skills and talent best fit the need
  • Frequency coordination between agencies was virtually non-existent. This left the Amateur Radio operators to figure it out for themselves. Again, don't assume the supported agencies understand their responsibility in this
6. Equipment

We'll leave aside any discussion of specific radio systems. Everything seemed to work from that perspective. Instead we'll focus on specific issues that Planemaker brought up.
  • PACTOR vs. Signalink. The clear winner here was the PACTOR modem. It offered far greater reliability and throughput than the Signalink being driven by Winmor. The downside? Cost - and it's a huge downside
  • Coax. You can never have enough coax, and it needs to be the lightest and thinnest needed to get the job done. And it needs to be pre-made lengths with connectors
  • Connectors and adapters. Like coax, you can never have enough connectors or adapters. In the Amateur Radio world we generally stick with PL-259/SO-239 setups, but if you need to support military or government systems you'll be dealing with NMO, BNC, and a whole soup-sandwich of connector types. Bring lots and lots of connectors. And don't forget about adapters - barrel connectors, BNC-to-PL-259, SMA-to-BNC, 'gender benders', etc. The golden rule is, even if you don't think you'll need it, you will
  • Anderson Power Poles. If your power connections are via Anderson Power Poles then you'll need a way to make new connectors, patch cables, etc. Bring along a bag of connectors and a crimping tool
  • Ferrite and common mode chokes. Most of the field offices Planemaker worked from suffered from crippling RFI, often traced to generator or wiring issues. This will be a common problem in any disaster scenario as most consumer grade generators are poorly grounded/shielded. To get any communications out he ended up having to 'choke' just about all of his power and feed lines.
  • MARS mods. It sounds like Planemaker was a licensed MARS operator or otherwise had authorization to operate on the MARS frequencies (via SHARES perhaps?), but his HF rig did not have the MARS modification installed. If you are going to operate on the MARS frequencies get the mod done before heading out to the disaster zone
  • Corrosion. The high, salty humidity in Puerto Rico played havoc on any unprotected metal in just a matter of weeks. This meant constant maintenance on antenna setups and the near mandatory use of stainless components. While we don't have the high salt issue here in Atlanta, we do have the humidity issue. Check your connectors for corrosion and water intrusion every few months
I think the biggest point I take away from this review is the importance of good digital communications skills. But it also leaves open the question - just what digital modes and software will your supported agency be using (if any)? What this means is, as Planemaker says, you'll need to be 'semper gumby' (always flexible) 😄

So just who is 'Planemaker'? Turns out he's Mike Logan, KM4WUO from Chesapeake, VA. In December 2017 he gave a talk on his experience to the Chesapeake Amateur Radio Emergency Service group. Here's the video. Highly recommended:

W8BYH out

17 April 2018


Speaking of packet radio...

I'm a huge fan of the radio email system called Winlink. If you are something of a 'prepper' or just want to make sure you can get messages out to your loved ones in case of an emergency this application is a must have. In fact, being able to use Winlink is, by itself, justification for getting your Amateur Radio ticket (Technician or General) and buying whatever equipment is necessary to be able to hit a Winlink node. It's that good.

I mostly use HF radio to hit various Winlink nodes around the country. We have two Winlink nodes in my county just south of Atlanta (run by local ARES coordinators), but because they are VHF nodes they are line-of-sight only and hard to hit. In fact, it was easier for me to hit Winlink nodes in Ohio or Indiana via HF than it was to hit these two VHF nodes just 10 miles south of me!

So our local ARES group decided to install a digipeater on a public service tower in the north-central part of the county to see if that improved the overall ability to hit the Winlink nodes. That forced me to resurrect my (very) rusty telnet skills and re-program a donated TNC. After a few tries and some help from other Winlink sysops, success!

The digipeater, in all its glory, just waiting for someone to connect

The antenna for the digipeater sits at the 250' level on the tower and has clear radio line-of-sight to the two Winlink nodes. We're getting reports that the digipeater can be accessed from as far away as mid-town Atlanta all the way down to Thomaston, GA in the central part of the state. Before installing this digipeater I couldn't hit either of the Winlink nodes with a 50 watt mobile radio hooked to an antenna at 40'. Now I can now sit inside my house with a 5 watt handheld radio and TNC and hit either Winlink node with 100% reliability by routing through the digipeater.

Winlink packet interface screen shot. Note the routing 'Via KK4GQ-15' - this is the digipeater ID

Our spring storm/tornado season traditionally starts ramping up in mid-April, so getting this digipeater on-line was critical. We'll see just how much it comes in to play when the bad weather rolls in.

Aaah, the dulcet tones of two packet stations chatting with each other. In this case passing Winlink email traffic via the digipeater

Being able to hit these VHF nodes does not mean I'll abandon using HF for the same purpose. It just gives local Winlink users more options and ensures there's redundancy and depth to a critical piece of communications infrastructure.

So you see, packet radio really isn't dead.

W8BYH out

15 April 2018

Packet Radio Is... Dead?

Google the term 'packet radio' and what returns are links to discussion after discussion on various ham radio forums focusing on the death of packet radio. Either packet radio is dead or it's dying, or its been dead for decades and why are you bringing this up again? Folks blame the internet, or cheap cell phones, or the slow communications speeds allowed under the Amateur Radio rules, or the antiquated gear, or global warming, or whatever.

There's truth in much of that. Cheap worldwide communications modes via the internet and inexpensive cell phone plans certainly have taken a bite out of the popularity of packet radio, but I think that's over-stated. For hams it was never about communications speed or the ability to instantaneously update your Facebook status so friends on the other side of the globe know which new puppy video you 'liked' this morning. It was about the technical challenge and building robust communications backbones. Packet radio is a digital point-to-point communications protocol, and if you buy the 'internet killed packet radio' line how do you explain the exploding popularity of low speed digital modes on HF?

But first, what is packet radio? The concept is simple; packet radio is the process of bundling digital data (ones and zeros) in to 'packets' of data and sending them out over the airwaves. The make-up of the data packet is controlled by the digital protocol used, and the protocol may add additional information to the packet as it is sent. For example, the standard UHF/VHF packet protocol, AX.25, adds the originating station's callsign, any digipeater routing information and the receiving station's callsign to the information packet as it is sent. This gives any digital repeater (digipeater) the information it needs to move the packet on to its intended recipient station. Some protocols, like D-STAR (discussed below) embed forward error correction blocks to the packet stream to ensure the data is not corrupted in transit. Generating packets is normally done using a terminal node controller, or TNC, connected to a radio which is in turn connected to a computer running one of a number of packet radio applications. A TNC is simply a radio modem that takes an audio signal generated by the packet radio software, and converts it to a digital signal and sends it out over the air. The TNC generates the 'packets' based on the packet protocol used.

The digital communication protocol traditionally used for packet radio - AX.25 - is an old standard that lacks error correction. A new standard with forward error correction was introduced by TAPR about a decade ago (FX.25), but adopting that would mean wholesale abandonment of existing packet gear, and hams are notoriously cheap and will cling to whatever works for as long as possible. So the old AX.25 standard soldiers on, but it is soldering on a shrinking battlefield where fewer and fewer Amateurs are getting involved with VHF or UHF packet.

When I stepped away from Amateur Radio almost a decade ago packet radio was already dying. I used to run a packet station (a VHF radio slaved to an external TNC) and played around with packet bulletin board systems (BBS) and the new-ish Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS). Playing on the packet systems was fun - hopping through digipeaters to get to the station or BBS you wanted check in with. There were digipeater networks that spanned the southeast, and as long as you could get to a local digipeater on a tall enough tower you could in theory 'talk' from Atlanta south into Florida or north into Kentucky. The AX.25 standard, at 1200 baud, was fast enough to support real-time keyboard-to-keyboard chats or, if you checked in to a BBS somewhere, to send or retrieve short messages.

When I stepped back in to Amateur Radio a little over a year ago I was saddened but not surprised to see that packet radio as I knew it was dead. Tune around to the old packet radio frequencies on 2 meters and all you'll hear is dead air. What happened? Well, as I said earlier, the internet, expanding wi-fi services, inexpensive cell phones and rate plans, web-based global email services like GMail, and social media sites like Facebook are partly to blame. Then there's the overall decline in interest in Amateur Radio. In the Atlanta metro area the local voice repeaters sit unused for much of the day, and even the flagship repeaters like W4DOC in downtown Atlanta are silent most of the time.

Some of the blame also goes to new digital modes on HF and UHF/VHF. Hams are like crows - they are attracted to shiny objects, and HF digital modes are big, shiny objects. What helps is that if  you have the gear needed to work one digital mode, an HF radio, a sound card interface and a computer, you have the gear needed to work them all.

A decade ago, on HF, you had RTTY and the new-ish PSK-31. There were other digital HF modes out there but these two were the dominant ones. RTTY was an old standard, predating WWII, but it worked and was great for keyboard-to-keyboard chats. PSK-31 was hot, hot, hot - everyone was getting in to PSK-31. It is a very robust comms mode, used little transmit power, wasn't a bandwidth hog and permitted either traditional keyboard-to-keyboard chats or communications via macros. I believe it was the success of PSK-31 that spurred the development of other digital modes, particularly weak signal modes like JT65 and JT8. For many hams, working HF digital became the all-consuming passion and they turned away from UHF/VHF packet with it's clunky telnet interface and heavy dependency on point-to-point infrastructure.

But things had changed on the UFH/VHF bands too. When I stepped away from Amateur Radio we were just beginning to hear of a new digital standard under development by the Japanese Amateur Radio League called D-STAR. The Japanese amateurs saw the need for a narrow-band digital FM protocol that could carry voice and data. D-STAR is an open protocol with a heavy dependence on the internet. While direct radio-to-radio or local repeater chats via the D-STAR protocol are possible, D-STAR is mainly used in the 'reflector' mode here in the US - a local D-STAR node (or repeater) is connected to one of several internet-based reflectors so that all stations linked to that reflector, regardless of location, can pass traffic. This means that an Amateur Radio operator in Atlanta talking on D-STAR on a local node tuned to reflector 30C can talk to another ham radio operator in Sydney, Australia who's local node is also tuned to reflector 30C (and I've done this). But D-STAR is mainly a digital voice mode, not a data mode. Data can be sent over D-STAR, but most of it is throttled to 1200 baud by hardware restrictions. D-STAR can support APRS-like functionality and be used in packet chat and BBS-like modes using a program called D-RATS, but D-STAR as a digital packet tool seems to have been slow to catch on. The reason? Most likely the near wholesale adoption of Winlink.

Winlink deserves its own separate discussion and I'll cover it more fully in a later post, but essentially Winlink is world-wide email over radio. The system was developed in the 1980's mainly to support sailors, missionaries and other individuals and groups who didn't have access to traditional email services. It is extremely flexible and can use a wide variety of protocols (including AX.25) to 'get the message out'.

Winlink has been adopted wholesale by emergency response services across the US, including Amateur Radio emergency groups like ARES. One of the most common protocols used for sending Winlink emails or messages is (from what I can see) the AX.25 protocol riding on the 2 meter HF band. This means you need a packet TNC to run Winlink on VHF, and I suspect Winlink drives the majority of TNC sales these days.

So packet radio really isn't dead. Old applications for packet, such as BBS systems, have died off, but new ones like Winlink have come on line. No, packet's not dead - it's just carrying on in other ways and in other formats.

W8BYH out