Using the Wisconsin Network - Part One

by Andy Nemec, KB9ALN

This is part one of a series of articles designed to help packeteers understand and use the packet radio node network in Wisconsin. In Part one, we start off with a general discussion of nodes and networking, in basic terms. It is oriented toward the newer packet operators, but even experienced operators may find some useful information in here. We hope that this series adds to your enjoyment of the packet radio, and you find it good reading.

What is a node?

A node in it's basic form can be called an intellegent digipeater. Those of you who have operated your packet stations any time at all know that every TNC can be used as a Digital Repeater. This is done in order to extend the distance a packet station can send and receive packets. A digital repeater just simply repeats packets that are addressed to it. An intellegent digipeater has the ability to make sure that the repeated packets reach where they are supposed to go. Nodes are sophisticated, intellegent digipeaters, and some types are capable of much more than just digipeating. For our purposes, we will lump these nodes into 3 catagories, Non-Network Nodes, Special Purpose Nodes, and Network Nodes.

A Non-Network node is one that basically is an intellegent Digipeater. It recieves a packet from one station, And sends it to another, checking to see if it arrived. Alone it serves a useful function. It will also tell you what stations it has heard, and when. A good example of a non-network node is a Kantronics KA-Node, sometimes called a "Wild Node". This KA-Node is part of most Kantronics TNC's. Some nodes, including fancier Kantronics nodes, perform special purposes, like Gateway Service.

This brings us to the Special Purpose Nodes. These may connect 2-Meter packet radio activity to 20 Meters, connect Packet radio to a satellite link, access to a Public Bulletin Board System, or a DX Spotting system. Special purpose nodes may be linked to other nodes in a Network, but not always are. Some newer nodes provide so many features that they almost can be classified as Multi-Purpose.

Then we come to Network Nodes. The Network Node is connected to other Network Nodes, and together they offer one attractive feature. That is the ability to send and receive packets over great distances with great speeds. These nodes carry digipeating on to a science, and even speak their own language to make sure the packets reach their destination. There are several different kinds of Network Nodes out there, and we will not devote the time and space to something you aren't likely to encounter. In Wisconsin, the over- whelming majority of Network Nodes in use are called "TheNet". This is the type of firmware (operating system) that the node uses to route packets to the right place. Our discussion of Network Nodes will be oriented toward "TheNet" type nodes found in Wisonsin.

Note that the Network Nodes know how to get "route" a packet based on where you want to tell it to go. Each node has talked to other network nodes, telling it what it can hear and talk to. They exchange information on what other nodes it can connect to, and the signal quality of these nodes. We won't get into the details of how the process works here, but this fact is useful to know.

Each of these nodes has a callsign, like any other Ham Radio Station. They are sponsored by a club or an individual, like a voice repeater. They also have another name they are known by, an alias. This alias generally starts with the state name, and 3 to 5 letters that give some clue to its location. Usually these are chosen from the local airport designator. For example, here in Green Bay our local network node is known as WIGRB, WI for Wisconsin, with GRB the airport designator. Other nodes on the network know that WIGRB exists, the best way to get to it, and where else it can go.

This is valuable information for packet operators, because it helps to get them where they want to go. In Part-2, we will discuss how a Network is put together, so you understand how to use it in an effective way.

On to Part 2 - How nodes are connected together in a network

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