WAPR News December 2003

by Andy Nemec, KB9ALN

Hello again everyone. On behalf of everyone involved in WAPR, I wish you Happy Holidays, a Happy New Year and many more.

"The Wisconsin Packeteer" took a little vacation from the Badger State Smoke Signals last issue. There were a lot of things going on for me at deadline time, and there was just no time to finish everything and make it coherent. As a result, there is some news that needs to be reported.

Network News

Two recent developments that don't mean good things for the Wisconsin Packet Network are on the agenda first. Their impact on our network is significant, too

Al, formerly KB9BYQ and now K9ALS has decided to shut down his Appleton node stack and BBS after more than 10 years of operation. This impacts the network in two ways. First, his node stack was a "switch" between two network branches on different frequencies. Second, his BBS fed packet mail to a great many of the BBSs in Wisconsin.

So now, the Fox Valley has no node other than the one on Bob KA9JAC's BBS. And it goes nowhere as of now. The North and East network that serves Green Bay northward to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Door and Kewaunee Counties cannot connect to the Western network. The Western network used to extend from Waupaca to the Minnesota border, and southwest to Madison.

There's even more bad news, although it may be a temporary situation. The Tomah node stack is also off the air because of a site closing. There is the potential for a new site on the horizon and there are people who are willing to operate it when it can be moved to a new site. Stay tuned here for any changes in that situation.

The immediate effect of this closing is that La Crosse is now not able to go East. Currently, Walt AA9AW has his BBS off the air - no feed means no users, no users means no need to have a BBS. He has, however, said that he will reactivate the BBS if the Tomah node is placed back into operation.

The worst problem posed by these closures is the lack of a digital radio network for Emergency Communications purposes. Very few places can connect via packet to the State Emergency Operating Center. This is one more mode of communications that is sorely needed to supplement our voice channels in Drills or Emergency situations. We need the ability to both keyboard chat or send large amounts of data in relatively short times.

Another side-effect of these closings is that few BBSs in Wisconsin are able to get any messages. My own BBS in Green Bay has not seen anything new since mid-September. It is still up and operational, and I intend to keep it that way as long as there is promise of the network being reconnected. There is also the possibility of more exciting news coming forth (see the companion article here in this issue titled "High-Speed Packet, WAPR and the Future"), so there may be even more interesting things to do on packet aside from the BBS.

While this is a serious situation that can eventually be fixed, it does make us appreciate the work that people like Al have done to keep their node stacks on the air - often when it required a significant commitment of resources to do it. It reminds us to say Thanks to Al and the folks who have been tending the Tomah site (as well as the site owners themselves for their past accommodation). We do appreciate their past efforts as we now see how much of a contribution they've made.

New BBS

In contrast to the node closures, we have news of a BBS going on the air. Southern Wisconsin ARES is putting up a BBS on 145.61 MHz to support their operations. The call is KB9UNX and it's located in the Janesville area. Plans call for it to run FBB software. As I hear more, I will pass it on here in this column.

WAPR's Status

Lately, I've been getting inquiries concerning the current status, as well the future of WAPR. Some have noticed that the web site hasn't been updated in a while, and others have heard about the network closures and are concerned.

No question about it, Packet Radio as we know it is at a crossroads, and so is WAPR. The current officers have been involved in the operation of the organization for several years and unable to spend much more time keeping the organization up-to-date and moving forward.

Exciting possibilities exist, but new blood and new ideas and new talents are needed. The companion article to this report is the first of a series concerning updating our packet radio system, why WAPR should become an important part of it, and why it's worth it to keep an organization like WAPR viable. Please read it and consider what the future could bring, and how it can help in Amateur Radio's mission of public service through communications.

If nothing is done, WAPR - like many other leading packet radio groups - will, sadly, wither on the vine and die. In short, I am saying that WAPR's future is up to the Wisconsin Amateur Radio Public and in order for the public to invest their time and energy into WAPR, this public needs to know why. That's what this and the following articles are all about.

I am interested in hearing your comments and will relate them here, if you approve. Some of the focuses of these articles are possible future directions we can take, and we are all open to suggestions. Please pass them on

That's all I have for this time. Until next time, 73 from Andy.

Packet Radio, WAPR and the Future by Andy Nemec, KB9ALN

In the past several years, we've seen a steady decline in the packet radio user base, meaning less packet radio activity overall. The purpose of these articles is to first explain why we need a good packet network and user base, examine why the current system is in decline, and to present alternatives to the current situation. In addition, we’ll discuss WAPR's role in the future of packet, as well as what WAPR needs to do to survive and grow.

What's Packet Good For, Anyway?

Regular readers of The Wisconsin Packeteer columns probably can anticipate the answer to this question. Many times I have related my experiences concerning the value of Packet Radio in Emergency Communications situations. Now more than ever, the ability to communicate digitally is essential. A lot of Emergency Management is done via the Internet and connection to it - which are vulnerable in any number of ways, in spite of their usual robustness. In order to successfully provide a backup communications role for Emergency Management, we need to be able to provide all of the services that the internet does and be able to link into it when necessary. Understand I am not saying that we should build a packet network through the internet, merely have the capability to link into it should the need arise.

Current packet radio technology dates to the 1970s, believe it or not. Most of the current packet radio technology is unchanged since the mid-1980s. We're still using a digital communications protocol that was intended only to be temporary, and it is badly out of step with what's available on the internet. Therefore, it is of limited use to the Emergency Management community.

Notice I said "limited use...”. We can still use it for some things, such as E-Mail, but the process can be cumbersome if one is not properly equipped for it. As most user links are at 1200 bps, it's slower than internet users find acceptable.

Building a New Network

Building a network has always proven to be a challenge. Usage justifies need, and capability sparks usage. In order to provide capability, we need to replace our current infrastructure with higher-speed networks capable of carrying TCP/IP, the protocol set used in the internet, and it needs to be carried painlessly (unlike our current system). This makes for an interesting "Chicken-and-Egg" situation.

Amateur operators, like the general public, would like to have fun with their digital experience. In order to attract Amateur Radio users, we need to provide facilities and activities that are fun. That's why we need the speed and capability of the Internet - yet radio-based

In order to provide these capabilities, we need to build a new, much more capable network, which will stimulate usage. Usage will generate the expansion of the network and get more people interested in building that network. We saw this in the 1980s and 1990s when packet radio enjoyed nearly explosive growth.

WAPR and the Future

Suppose we have growth in the packet radio user base with newer technology. Increased activity and more digital communications do not build a network - a network needs to be coordinated, managed and maintained in order to be useful.

WAPR has in the past done just that. WAPR is a frequency coordinating and network management body. We oversaw a lot of packet network growth in the past, and did so in a coordinated fashion. WAPR members were the first in this state to experiment with 9600 baud backbones, TCP/IP operation and putting web pages on packet. WAPR members know what it takes to make a network work.

Any future technology needs to be carefully evaluated before implementation and implemented correctly. The organization has experience with this that can be very valuable.

In short, WAPR is the ideal organization to manage and propel future packet growth.

Future Technologies

There are two main technologies that hold promise for future packet radio networks. One has been embraced by the ARRL, the other is being marketed by Icom. Both have advantages and disadvantages. The focus of this article is not to fully explore them both, but a brief discussion is in order to show that there is hope.

The ARRL has started a "High-Speed Multimedia Working Group" and has attempted to standardize Amateur adaptation of 802.11 digital wireless consumer equipment. These are the wireless networking cards that operate under the FCC Part 15 rules in their bare-bones form, and are used with higher power than their consumer counterparts by Amateurs.

These cards are relatively easy to put on the air, are relatively inexpensive, and are enjoying quite a bit of use these days. The ARRL has a vision of what they cal the "Hinternet", a contraction for Ham Internet.

However, it needs to be noted that anyone can use these devices legally and many do. The band reserved for 802.11b, for example, is the 2.4 GHz band and it is rapidly becoming populated by hams and non-hams alike. In addition to the wireless network cards, one can also find cordless phones, wireless speakers and any variety of wireless consumer products populating that band. This means a significant possibility of both interference and congestion, making the wireless network card speed that is advertised unattainable in a lot of circumstances.

In addition to this fact, Hams cannot count on an easy Amateur-Only network - these wireless cards provide a significant security risk. It is a popular activity amongst "Crackers", the Black-Hat hackers, to drive around looking for networks to break into. While constructing a network using this technology may look tempting, it may not be the best solution.

Enter the Japan Amateur Radio League (JARL) and Icom. The JARL and Icom jointly developed D-Star, a digital radio system that not only is capable of data operation, but digital and analog voice as well. It operates on the 1.2 GHz band, and does not compete with the Part-15 wireless cards on the 2.4 GHz band.

It is truly an Amateur solution and provides a lot of promise. It operates at 128 Kbps for end users (about twice as fast as dial-up internet service), and 10 Mbps (Ten Million bits per second) on it's 10 GHz backbone models. It is tailor made for Amateur operation, so your call-sign is on every packet (just as now). I invite you to check it out at:

http://www.icomamerica.com/amateur/dstar

It needs no additional TNC, just a computer with a network card and a free USB port (RS-232 serial ports are not supported). In addition, you don't have to spend hours configuring a NOS station to enjoy capabilities of internet-style digital communications. Oh, and it can act as a gateway to the internet.

Where to Now?

That's up to all of us. WAPR can get in on these new technologies and oversee the building of a new network that is capable of everything that hams find useful and appealing (including internet-compatible operation). However, we need a sustained commitment from the amateur community to see it happen.

Emergency communications people are perhaps the first potential adopters of the newest packet technology in whatever form it takes. And they are in the best position to implement a backbone network. But they aren't the only ones who can benefit - any interested amateur can.

So I propose that anyone who may have an interest in a new, improved and vastly more capable packet radio system keep watching this space in the coming months. Next month, we'll introduce you to the Icom ID-1 D-Star transceiver. We'll tell you all about how they work, and talk about actual field trials that I have been fortunate enough to be a part of.

After that, we'll investigate the 802.11 technology. Subsequent articles will ask report on the interest level we've seen and what direction the packet community in Wisconsin will take for the future.

Eventually, we'll measure the future potential of WAPR and see if it will remain a viable packet development entity, or pass on into the ether. WAPR needs something to do, and people to do it with. Otherwise, it will not move forward.

As always, I welcome your comments and you may pass them on by E-Mail or regular Postal Mail - my addresses are at the top of this page.

That's all for this time.

Until next time, 73 from Andy.

 

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