Using the Wisconsin Network - Part 23

by Andy Nemec, KB9ALN

All of us know that technology changes, just like the rest of life. After all, it was not all that long ago that packet radio was a brand-new mode, and more of a curiousity than useful. Not only have various aspects of packet radio operation been improved, there are promising innovations just waiting for the right opportunity to become practical and useful. So far, we have only scratched the surface and have seen a more of an improvement of packet radio rather than a revoloution. This improvement is reflected by the changes we see in the network here in Wisconsin.

A few years ago for example, TCP/IP operation was limited to one experimental frequency. Improvements in the programs used and the methods used to route TCP/IP "packets" made it possible to "mainstream" this mode. A good many of the network nodes in Wisconsin are now capable of passing TCP/IP traffic. This only makes sense considering that it is the protocol set used for the Internet. Although our Amateur packet network differs from the Internet, there is a great deal we have in common. It all boils down to computers exchanging information. Whether it is a keyboard chat or sending files to and fro, the common element is this exchange of information.

Right now our network is evolving from the use of two protocols - methods of transporting information. Why would we need other protocols? Think of a protocol as a vehicle used to transport information. The information comes in various types. Think of this information as items that need to be transported. You would never try to transport firewood through the Northwoods with a Cadillac Eldorado, would you? It is not suitable for the purpose. Likewise, you probably wouldn't want to take a cross-country trip in a logging truck. The Cadillac is better suited for this purpose.

The same can be said of protocols. Using AX.25 and Net/Rom will not fulfill the potential that packet radio has - they are not suitable for performing the advanced work we would like to do. The bulk of the information transported from one Amateur packet radio station to another is passed in much the same way it was 5 years ago (a long time in the computer world!). If we really want to bring packet radio into the "information age" and find new uses for it, we will have to look at the technology used by the Internet for inspiriation. While we don't want to mimic every aspect of the Internet, we can adapt, rework, and refine the technology so that we can use some of it with radio. In the process, we will can come upon innovations unique to Amateur digital radio networking.

Innovation is, of course, a natural part of Amateur Radio. Change does not come easy to our packet radio system. Let's stop and think of why things have not changed significantly in the last 5 years. One reason may be that some TNC manufacturers and Amateur Radio equipment vendors find the status quo a comfortable place to be. It makes them money (not a bad thing in and of itself) by rehashing the same old technology. Not to mention the fact that we have not pushed for advanced technology. Until recently, our eyes have not really been opened to new, exciting possibilities. There has been no percieved need to change things, so there has been no effort expended toward innovation. If we are continue to keep packet radio exciting, we will need increased capability in this mode.

Presently, Amateur packet radio is limited to being a mail service, an ocassional way to chat, and a way to transfer small text files. Binary files can be difficult because there is no standard transfer protocol that everyone uses. One does not get a graphical user interface and other conveniences like search "engines" that we find on the Internet. If we want to expand the capabilities of packet radio, we may very well have to adjust to new ways of networking - and using the network.

We are doing well getting the Wisconsin network constructed, better than a lot of states. 9600 baud nodes are fast becoming part of the network, and some are even cropping up as end-user LAN nodes. One of the more important steps that WAPR took was recommending the installation of TheNet X-1J node firmware. It's expanded AX.25 and Net/Rom capabilities, in addition to the ability to route TCP/IP, certainly are a great step forward. While we are in a fairly good position to step closer to the "New Age" of packet radio, there is considerable that remains to be done, and new possibilities to explore.

And that is what the next few parts of this series concerns, opening our eyes to new possibilities. We will see new uses for packet radio, and new methods to transport information through a network. We will see how other parts of this country are constructing their packet radio networks and what hams in other countries are doing with their systems. We will discover just what "more" is, how we may get there, and how to utilize it when it does arrive. After we see what is possible, we will explore a few ways to make your current packet station a little close to the "new age". Hope you find this direction interesting.

On to Part 24 - The New Age of Packet Radio - Part 2

Back to Part 22  - How to avoid "Flame" messages on Packet Radio

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