WAPR News - September 2000

By Andy Nemec, KB9ALN

Hello again everyone, hope the summer has been good to you and that you arc preparing for the slow ride taking us toward the cold time of the year.

There is little new to report this month. We are still waiting to hear about our fall WAPR meeting. As soon as the arrangements have been confirmed, we'll distribute word via the packet BBS network.

Speaking of networks, this month's article deals with our network - mixing it up with the Internet - and the future. This is one area that we in WAPR are very interested in and already have made baby steps toward the future of packet.

But there is much to be done. I am going to pitch for you to join WAPR, of course. But there are other things you can do as well. Most of all, you must want to do packet radio better, faster and further than you've done it before. And you must want to do something about it, no matter how seemingly small.

The main reason for this particular topic - packet radio being reliant on the Internet - is an attempt to show why we should think twice about heading in this direction. Not only can we do things better, but we should not be reliant on the Internet to make packet radio better.

Now back to the membership pitch. WAPR needs your support to manage the Wisconsin Packet Network and perform frequency coordination duties, and plan for the future, as f have already pointed out. As a member of the Mid-America Coordination Council, we are the official packet radio frequency coordination body for the state of Wisconsin. But we can't do it without your help.

You can join with or without a subscription to the Badger State Smoke Signals.. Membership is currently at $20 per year with the BSSS, $15 without. This is likely to increase soon, so if  you want to get in oh a real bargain, join before the cost of membership increases to help us deal with the rising costs our organization is encountering. You can mail off your dues to: Allen Schnepf, N0GMJ, P.O. Box 558 Ogema, WI. 54459.

Make any checks payable to the Wisconsin Amateur Packet Radio Association, or WAPR. And Thank-You for your support!  And thanks for your patience about these membership pitches. It is one of the things we need to do to keep packet radio healthy in Wisconsin

That's all for now. As always, send me your packet news and comments. I am always glad to see them

Until next time. 73 from Andy.

Is the Internet the Packet Radio Answer? by Andy Nemec, KB9ALN

Over the course of the past few years, the Internet has made quite an impact in the world, and Amateur Radio is no exception. While the rest of the world deals with e-commerce, on-line this'n'that, IPOs and stock offerings, we concern ourselves with gateways, mail forwarding, and content. We think of the Internet as another way to extend our ability to communicate.  It definitely has done this, and introduced us to a whole new set of circumstances and even problems.

The Packet Radio Networks and the Internet.

Most of us think of Amateur Radio as having a packet network. That is correct, we do have one network. Actually, we have three others that arc almost forgotten when we think of digital Amateur Radio. These other networks all operate independently of one another, occasionally crossing paths. In addition to the Amateur Packet "Store and Forward" BBS and Node network, the other three are the "amprnet", the "DX Cluster Network", and the APRS network.

All of these networks have one thing in common besides their Amateur origins. They all have a connection to the Internet at some point, even the BBS forwarding network.

Captive Ease

Using the Internet solves some real technical problems that plague amateur packet radio, and quite easily. Long haul links that were marginal or unreliable are replaced by wired counterparts, with consistent good results. Node lists are full, with plenty of good connections available. And it is (mostly) easier to configure a computer than to build a node, modify and tune up a radio, and climb a tower to install an antenna.

And it might well be too easy. While the Internet works well most of the time, it is subject to failure. Which means that we as Amateurs arc held captive by another infrastructure we can't control. Yes, forwarding mail via the Internet is easy and fast. Seeing a big node list with a bunch of foreign nodes on it is impressive, especially when you can actually make connections through them. And using the Internet to spot DX and to beacon your location makes these modes a heck of a lot more fun. However, there is a down side.

Internet Vulnerabilities

When new technology becomes well-established, people tend to take it for granted. In the early days of television, for example, transmitter outages, signal fade from distant stations, and poor quality pictures were accepted as "part of the deal". After all. everyone was so enamored with the fact that you could watch pictures cast out into the air from far away that a few interruptions were tolerable. Nowadays, the cable goes out and we are on the phone in seconds. The technology is no longer novel, we expect it to be there and part of our lives all the time.

Now we are in the Internet age. The novelty is no longer part of the Internet experience for most of us. In spite of the fact that a world-wide connection of computers is really a phenomenal accomplishment, it's all become routine to the general public. Hams being part of the general public, we are no exception.

The Internet, as accessible by you, is vulnerable in any number of ways. Some guy with a back hoe can cut a fiber-optic cable. A flood can cause massive problems with your local Internet Service Provider. And even though the Internet is robust and has multiple routes to destinations, one bad routing computer can wreak havoc with the network for at least a short time.

When we amateurs connect to this Internet, we get the good, the bad, and the unique. Not only are we subject to the usual (though infrequent) service interruptions, we are subject to other possibilities. Consider this problem that cropped up this summer, causing us to reassess our linkage to the Internet.

Hams, Spam and E-Mail

Most of us have, by now, heard the term "Spam". Not the lunch-meat, the E-Mail kind. Spam is unwanted E-Mail, generally sent by a commercial entity, to unsuspecting Internet users. Most spam is harmless, though annoying advertising. Some is of questionable content, advertising pornographic web-sites and such. Other spam is downright fraudulent, conveying messages about various illegal schemes, or maybe a blatant rip-off.

Internet systems administrators have been getting wise to the tactics that spammers use to get their messages out One such method is to use a "mail relay" - an computer on the Internet which accepts a message, and then retransmits it to it's destination. Most mail on the Internet is transferred between computers directly. Spammers use the "Store and Forward" method.

They do this to circumvent "lock-outs", where a particular computer is kept from connecting to another for the purposes of transferring mail. If you have another computer that is not secured from spammers, the spamming computer can connect to it. This other computer then relays the spam mail to it's destination, bypassing the lock-out.

Increasingly, hams have had quite a presence on the Internet with numerous gateways, nodes and BBS's appearing there. Hams by and large are a trusting lot, and as a result have not always been prompt in preventing spammers from using their computers to do their bidding. This summer, it became quite a problem. Spammers were using Amateur Radio Gateways connected to the Internet as mail relays, circumventing the lockouts that system's administrators had implemented. As a result, amateur gateway routing on the Internet was suspended until the problem could be resolved.

What Next?

This meant that mail forwarding, large node lists, and the like disappeared from the Internet: No mail on your local BBS (unless your local BBS was fed by an HF station). In effect, a large packet mail forwarding network was brought to it's knees, unable to get things from point A to point B.

Lessons, Anyone?

It's obvious by now that we are in a vulnerable position. Not just because we can't see what's for sale or read the arguments in the debate messages, it's because we lost our connection with other hams via a digital mode.

If we are heavily reliant on the Internet and it is inaccessible, then what do hams do? After all, we are supposed to be the big emergency communications people. What do we do when part of our digital network disappears? Unless you are set up with a backup system, there really is not much you can do.

In Wisconsin, we're lucky because we do not rely on the Internet to connect various-parts of the state together. If we have not been able to do it via RF, we did without.  A lot of areas of the state can gain access to the state Division of Emergency Management ham shack via packet, because we have an RF path down there. When it comes to BBS mail, we get our BBS feeds from stations that are - you guessed it - fed via the Internet.

In other parts of the country things are different Greg Jones, president of Tucson Amateur Packet Radio (TAPR) has advocated using the Internet to connect various parts of the Texas network that were once connected by radio. This was proposed not so much to replace existing RF links, but to replace ones that had "gone silent".

While the intent is good, and one can't fault Greg's desire to see the packet radio network complete and useful, our experience with the gateway shutdown should cause us to think very carefully about this. It shows that the Internet, from an Amateur point of view, is vulnerable and not what we need to carry out our duty as Emergency Communicators. While it is tempting with it's speed and ease of connection, it is really not the best way to build an Amateur Radio Packet Network.


I hope you were able to see the June, 2000 issue of CQ magazine. There is a wonderful article written by a well-known ham amongst packeteers, Buck Rogers, K4ABT (along with a companion article written by a less well-known ham). What Buck proposes we do is to create our own radio-based Internet.

The Phoenix Shall Rise

Web Pages on Packet Radio

His logic is good, the time is right, and he puts forth one great vision for everyone to look at. He points out that the technology is there to make it all possible, all it takes is for hams to do it.

And it all begins with every packet operator -whether he or she is an occasional user, node operator, BBS operator, DX node operator, APRS operator, or system operator. It all has to start somewhere, and has to involve everybody. It can't be done overnight, and there is a lot of foundational work to be done first.

First, Standards have to be designed, based on an open digital radio protocol of the highest quality. Network standards have to be designed, and be compatible with the rest of the world, should we need to interconnect with it.

From there we can start the process of band planning, and with an eye toward the future. We should make plans for satellite usage, eventually we may see a geostationary satellite to help in this network endeavor. We need to make this a country-wide (possibly world-wide) band plan for microwave-length radio wave bands.

Then, as Buck suggests, make contact with the ham radio manufacturing industry so that we can truly have cutting-edge technology available for those of us (most of us) who don't have the time or facilities to make it.

From that point on, more of the hard work gets under way - building the radio nodes that make up the network infrastructure. This will take time and there is no painless way to do it.

Buck points out that this network, if designed with high speed and high capacity in mind, can also be used to transfer audio. This could be an attractive resource for organizations such as Skywarn, RACES and ARES that need to link repeaters for long-distance communications.


Packet radio has lost a lot of operators in the last few years. Some had stations that were integral parts of the network. This means we lost a lot of our infrastructure and we have tried to use the Internet to replace it. At the same time, we have steadily lost the digital speed race to the wired network. This means there is little to retain experienced operators, not much to entice newcomers All of this points to the need for drastic action to be taken by the ham community, specifically the Amateur Packet Radio community. As I mentioned before, the ability to carry digital audio could gain the interest of the general ham radio public in addition to we who spend a lot of time with packet radio.

Want to help? First, read Buck's article. Then, get together with other, hams in your area. Exchange ideas, network with those who have the same desire, and help to get your local ham radio club involved.

Let the ARRL know of your point of view. The League should know about something that has such broad national implications. Talk this up with other hams, and get the word out.

I can also suggest joining WAPR. WAPR is committed to help build the digital radio network in this state. We want to be in on the future of packet radio, and have tried to make it come a little closer. But there is power in numbers, and the more members we have, the more we will be listened to. If we get a dialog going, get standards and a band plan in place, we have a healthy start on making the New packet radio a reality.

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