Amateur Packet Radio

Packet radio is a particular digital mode of Amateur Radio communications which corresponds to computer telecommunications. It takes any data stream sent from a computer and sends that via radio to another amateur radio station similarly equipped. Packet radio is so named because it sends the data in small bursts, or packets.

Voice communications are slow and inherently unreliable, since people make mistakes and interference can alter words and voices.

Early digital communications mechanisms such as the Morse Code had little more to offer except for the simplicity of the equipment needed to send and receive the signals, because it still took a human to encode and decode the data, and there was no inherent error checking.

As home computing began to become popular in the late 1970's, many amateurs were caught up in the excitement, and began to consider ways to combine the two hobbies. Out of this, and the results of government research for enhancing battlefield communications, grew packet radio. Amateur packet radio began in Montreal, Canada in 1978, the first transmission occurring on May 31st.

"Packet" is a method of turning data into little bundles with added addressing information and checking mechanisms that allow the sender and receiver of a message to ensure that the entire message got from source to destination without any missing parts or messing up data. Nearly all computer communications mechanisms operate this way.

When the message bundles ("packets") are sent over a radio circuit, errors in transmission can be detected and the errored data retransmitted. It is thus possible to reliably send data point-to-point between two packet radio systems with confidence that the data will arrive whole and correct, even if the radio connection is far from perfect (as they often are).

AX.25 (Amateur X.25)
is the communications protocol used for packet radio. It was developed in the 1970's and based on the wired network protocol X.25. Because of the difference in the transport medium (radios vs wires) and because of different addressing schemes, X.25 was modified to suit amateur radio's needs. AX.25 includes a digipeater field to allow other stations to automatically repeat packets to extend the range of transmitters. One advantage of AX.25 is that every packet sent contains the sender's and recipient's amateur radio callsign, thus providing station identification with every transmission.

AX.25 is considered the defacto standard protocol for amateur radio use and is even recognized by many countries as a legal operation mode. However, there are other standards. TCP/IP is used in some areas for amateur radio. Also, some networking protocols use packet formats other than AX.25. Often, special packet radio protocols are encapsulated within AX.25 packet frames. This is done to insure compliance with regulations requiring packet radio transmissions to be in the form of AX.25. However, details of AX.25 encapsulation rules vary from country to country.

Hardware and Software
Operation of packet radio requires hardware and software such as :

  • TNC ( Terminal Node Controller )
    A TNC contains a modem, a computer processor (CPU), and the associated circuitry required to convert communications between your computer (RS-232) and the packet radio protocol in use. A TNC assembles a packet from data received from the computer, computes an error check (CRC) for the packet, modulates it into audio frequencies, and puts out appropriate signals to transmit the packet over the connected radio. It also reverses the process, translating the audio that the connected radio receives into a byte stream that is then sent to the computer.
    Most amateurs currently use 1200 bps (bits per second) for local VHF and UHF packet, and 300 bps for longer distance, lower bandwidth HF communication. Higher speeds are available for use in the VHF, UHF, and especially microwave region, but they often require special ( not plug-and-play) hardware and drivers.

  • Computer and Software
    This is the user interface. A computer running a terminal emulator program, a packet-specific program, or just a dumb terminal can be used. For computers, almost any phone modem communications program (i.e. Procomm+, Bitcom, X-Talk) can be adapted for packet use, but there are also customized packet radio programs available. A dumb terminal, while possibly the cheapest option, does have several limitations. Most dumb terminals do not allow you to scroll backwards, store information, upload, or download files.

  • Radio ( Transceiver )
    For 1200/2400 bps UHF/VHF packet, commonly available narrow band FM voice radios are used. For HF packet, 300 BPS data is used over single side band (SSB) modulation. For high speed packet (starting at 9600 bps), special radios or modified FM radios must be used. 1200 bps AFSK TNCs used on 2-meters (144-148Mhz) is the most commonly found packet radio.

Networking Schemes
Since amateurs use radios to transmit their data, their range of communications is limited to approximately line of sight. An average packet station talks in a radius of about 10-30 miles. Packet Networks allow amateurs to widen the area of communications past their line of sight, by having a series of packet stations linked by radio, that can be used to get their packet messages to where ever the network goes. Much like the telephone system, networks provide long distance service outside the local area. There are a number of amateur networks which allow amateurs to travel from one area to another.

  • Digipeaters
    The first networking scheme with packet radio was Digipeaters. Digipeaters would simply look at a packet, and if its call was in the digipeater field, would resend the packet. Digipeaters allow the extension of range of a transmitter by retransmitting any packets addressed to the digipeater. This scheme worked well when only a few people were on the radio channel. However, as packet became more popular, digipeaters soon were clogging up the airwaves with traffic being repeated over long distances. Also, if a packet got lost by one of the digipeaters, the originator station would have to retransmit the entire packet again, forcing even more congestion.

  • KA-Nodes
    Kantronics improved on the digipeater slightly and created KA-Nodes. As with digipeaters, KA-Nodes simply repeat AX.25 frames. However, a KA-Node acknowledges every transmission at each link (node) instead of over the entire route. Therefore, instead of an end-to-end acknowledgment, KA-Nodes allow for more reliable connections with fewer timeouts, because acknowledgments are only carried on one link. KA-Nodes therefore are more reliable than digipeaters, but are not a true network. It is similar to having to wire your own telephone network to make a phone call.

    NET/ROM was one of the first networking schemes to try to address the problems with digipeaters. A user connects to a NET/ROM station as if connecting to any other packet station. From there, he can issue commands to instruct the station to connect to another user locally or connect to another NET/ROM station. This connect, then connect again, means that to a user's TNC, you are connected to a local station only and its transmissions do not have to be digipeated over the entire network and risk losing packets. This local connection proved to be more reliable. NET/ROM doesn't use all of the AX.25 protocol. Instead, it uses special AX.25 packets called Unnumbered Information (UI) packets and then puts its own special protocol on top of AX.25. This is again used to increase efficiency of its transmissions. NET/ROM nodes, at regular intervals, transmit to other nodes their current list of known nodes. This is good because as new nodes come on-line, they are automatically integrated in the network. However, if band conditions such as ducting occur, ordinarily unreachable nodes can be entered into node lists. This causes the NET/ROM routing software to choose routes to distant nodes that are impossible. This problem requires users to develop a route to a distant node manually defining each hop instead of using the automatic routing feature. NET/ROM is a commercial firmware (software put on a chip) program that is used as a replacement ROM in TAPR type TNCs. Other programs are available to emulate NET/ROM. Among them are TheNet, G8BPQ node switch, MSYS, and some versions of NET.

  • ROSE
    ROSE is another networking protocol derived from X.25. Each ROSE node has a static list of the nodes it can reach. For a user to use a ROSE switch, he issues a connect with the destination station and in the digipeater field places the call of the local ROSE switch and the distant ROSE switch the destination station can hear. Other than that, the network is completely transparent to the user. ROSE's use of static routing tables ensures that ROSE nodes don't attempt to route packets through links that aren't reliably reachable, as NET/ROM nodes often do. However, ROSE suffers from the inability to automatically update its routing tables as new nodes come on-line. The operators must manually update the routing tables, which is why ROSE networks require more maintenance.

  • TCP/IP
    TCP/IP stands for Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol. TCP/IP is commonly used over the Internet wired computer network. The TCP/IP suite contains different transmission facilities such as FTP (File Transfer Protocol), SMTP (Simple Mail Transport Protocol), Telnet (Remote terminal protocol), and NNTP (Net News Transfer Protocol) The KA9Q NOS program (also called NET) is the most commonly used version of TCP/IP in packet radio. NOS originally was written for the PC compatible. However, NOS has been ported to many different computers such as the Amiga, Macintosh, Unix, and others. Smaller computers like the Commodore 64 and the Timex-Sinclar do not currently have versions of NOS available. TCP/IP based amateur networks are becoming more common each day.

  • TexNet
    TexNet is a 3-port switch designed to create a 9600 baud backbone with 2 local access channels. The TexNet network provides transparent network access to the user. The user simply accesses his/her local TexNet node and then either connects to a user at another node or accesses various system services. TexNet provides the stability of fixed routing, while allowing new nodes to be automatically brought into the network.

These networks are typically built by a local or regional group that allows packet operators to get outside of their area. Amateurs get hooked on building and maintaining such networks, just like some amateurs operate DX or handle emergency communications. The type of network you use locally will depend on your area. Much depends on the network philosophy the local group has chosen when developing their network.

In the "amateur radio" world, packet radio is quite popular for radio-based "bulletin board" systems, keyboard to keyboard "chatting", DX Cluster, APRS, etc.

Packet Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) :
Most cities have one or more packet Bulletin Board Systems, or BBS for short. BBSs do two main things: send and receive personal messages for their local users (like yourself) and send and receive messages or bulletins intended for people locally or around the world. Since the BBS is part of a national system of other BBSs, it has the ability to pass information or messages to any other BBS in the country or the world. This allows you to send messages to friends locally, to someone located in the next area, or to someone on the other side of the world. The second thing that BBSs do is pass local and national bulletins, which are messages intended to be read by everyone. In this way, amateurs can read the latest messages about the ARRL, AMSAT, TAPR, propagation, DX, and other bulletins on varied topics. Message passing is the primary purpose of a BBS system, but BBSs can also support callbook programs, help references, Internet access, and more. Operators of BBS systems are a good place to start when you first get on the air. Because of the service they provide, they have to know how packet is working in the local area.

Keyboard-to-Keyboard :
Like other amateur modes (SSB, FM, etc), packet radio can be used to talk to other amateurs directly. Amateurs can talk to each other simultaneously using their keyboards when they can directly communicate with each other. With the use of networks (see a little later), amateurs can talk at a distance beyond the reach of their own stations by using the network. Keyboard-to-keyboard communications is one of the least frequent methods of packet communications, because amateurs are rarely on packet at the same time. Many packet operators send electronic mail using either personal mailboxes or a local BBS. In this way, messages are read when the amateur is on the air. Another limitation to direct keyboard-to-keyboard packet is that you can only talk to one packet station at a time Q no easy way to hold round-table discussions like on a voice repeater. Some areas support chat or conference bridges, which allow for more than one amateur to talk to each other Q much like a voice repeater. If a chat is supported over a network, then you can talk to someone as far away as the network reaches.

DX Packet Cluster :
Many cities have DX (foreign amateur) spotting nodes or networks. HF (High-Frequency) operators connect to their local DX Packet Cluster in order to receive reports on the latest DX. This type of packet came about from those interested in 'chasing' DX. Many amateurs like to frequent the HF bands looking for rare international operators to contact. A DX Cluster allows many HF operators to be connected over packet radio at the same time while operating HF and hunting for DX. When someone finds a DX station, they send a packet message to the DX Cluster, which then sends the information to all other packet operators using the DX Cluster. In this way, you have several stations monitoring the band, looking for DX. Often an amateur will 'spot' (hear) a DX station and then distribute the DX report almost instantly. DX Clusters allow everyone to operate many more hard to find DX stations in one evening than was possible operating by oneself. Some amateurs have been known to attain enough contacts to qualify for DXCC in a matter of weeks. One point though, if your HF station is not a 'big-gun', then it is sometimes best to operate the DX station before posting your spot for others to find. There is a good chance that a pile-up will occur as soon as you make your spot to the DX Cluster and then you will not be able to work the DX station that you found!

Networking :
Packet Networks allow amateurs to widen the area of communications past their line of sight, by having a series of packet stations linked by radio, that can be used to get their packet messages to where ever the network goes. Much like the telephone system, networks provide long distance service outside the local area. There are a number of amateur networks which allow amateurs to travel from one area to another.

Emergency Communications :
Packet radio is being used in many emergency services. A new application called APRS combines GPS (Global Positioning Satellites) with packet radio to allow a master station to plot on their computer the location of all other stations in the field. The purpose is to coordinate the exact position of weather spotters or searchers, without having to waste radio time informing the control station of their locations.

Satellite Communications :
Many of the amateur radio satellites in orbit contain computer systems that provide packet capability. Most packet satellites provide BBS-like functions for messages to be passed to anywhere in the world within 24 hours. Several contain CCD cameras, which allow amateurs to download images of the earth and some allow users to retrieve data from the onboard experiments. Most satellites use AX.25 with special software developed for satellite communications. DOVE, Digital Orbit Voice Encoder, can be received with any normal VHF/FM 2-meter packet station, but most of the packet satellites use SSB and require more complex equipment in order to operate them. Just something else to spend your amateur dollars on.

For further info on packet radio, you may visit the TAPR website.