The Amateur Amateur: Packet, Part II
One obvious flaw that you may have noticed is that since the Alinco's TNC was built-in, I couldn't use it with any other transceiver. That eventually became a serious irritation, but it wasn't my biggest problem. As it turned out, my packet setup wasn't very robust. I got that figurative slap in the face when I started setting up to run Winlink.
Winlink 2000 (sometimes written as WL2K) is a clever system that uses Amateur Radio to send basic e-mail. This can be an extremely valuable tool in a disaster situation where access to the Internet has been lost. In fact, the ARRL now recommends that ARES® groups develop Winlink capabilities. If you tell an incident commander that you will try to get a message to his state's emergency management agency by setting up a NVIS array and bouncing your signal off of the ionosphere in a conical propagation pattern, he will just stare at you. If, on the other hand, you tell him that you can give his laptop computer temporary e-mail access, a huge grin will appear on his face. Now you're talking his language.
With this in mind, and with a little prodding from Jim, N0OBG, and Craig, K4LSU, I decided I'd give Winlink a try. I'd succeeded in working other digitally-based systems, how hard could this one be?
Pretty darned hard, it turned out.
Actually, running Winlink was a piece of cake. But setting it up was a nightmare. And before you say, "Well, I certainly won't try it now!" or conversely, "How dare you say it's difficult!" please read on.
In an ideal situation with correct equipment, the right mental state and a certain amount of a priori knowledge, installing and setting up Winlink can be very simple. But on either side of that ideal pathway lies a quagmire of confusion and frustration. Fortunately, the clever folks who develop and manage Winlink are very aware of this and have set up a rescue squad to come pull you out of the quicksand. There is a whole Yahoo group dedicated to getting you through the process with your sanity intact.
Being the Amateur Amateur I went through the prescribed steps very slowly. I didn't try to do it all in one day, or even one weekend. I took it one step at a time; if I completed an assignment successfully, I let out a big sigh of relief, quickly shut off my computer and ran upstairs to tell my wife Nancy how clever I was. If, however, I failed with an assignment, I stayed in my shack for a long, long time. At this point I would like to thank the aforementioned Jim and Craig for answering my e-mails and periodically throwing me life preservers.
I was eventually able to get almost all the way through the installation and setup process.
And then I slipped off of the path.
No matter what I did, I could not get my TNC to do what it was supposed to do. It was tremendously frustrating. At some point I started searching through the files on the Winlink Yahoo site. And in one of them I found the following statement:
"However, (the Tasco Radio Modem) is not a satisfactory TNC for WL2K E-mail over ham radio."
The quicksand oozed over my head.
Let me tell you, I was not a happy person (just ask Nancy). But after sulking for a while I decided I'd go back to the beginning. I either needed to buy a more robust TNC, or I needed to buy software that could properly manage my computer's soundcard.
I got them both.
In one major assault on my credit card I bought a Kantronics KPC3+ TNC, Packet Engine Pro software and a mess of adaptors and cables to connect everything. And naturally, one key item to set up the new TNC was temporarily out of stock, and one key item to set up the soundcard pathway was temporarily out of stock.
Iono, the mirthful demi-god of the upper atmosphere, was having a good laugh at my expense.
Well, skipping over the delays in getting my purchases, I was able to make both pathways work. The KPC3+ worked like a dream, and so did the Packet Engine Pro software. So now I do have a robust digital system, insofar as I can operate either through a TNC or through a soundcard.
Now fully armed, I was able to take on Winlink again, and this time I succeeded. All of the pieces fell into place, and I was finally able to send and receive e-mail through an Amateur Radio transceiver.
It was a very satisfying feeling.
That's as far as I've gotten playing around with packet radio. For those of you who were anxiously awaiting a column about APRS, sorry, that is still on my to-do list. But Jim and Craig have promised to explain it to me Real Soon Now.
Editor's note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant, Missouri. He's been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column's name -- "The Amateur Amateur" -- suggests the explorations of a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related Web page. Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail.
Gary Hoffman, KB0H