Packet Update, Winlink, Is Ham Radio Dying? Puerto Rico

May 26, 2018

Since the inbox shows some got worried when we went west early with only the APRS gate/digi project done I guess an update would be a good idea.

We went west for a friend’s wedding.  Pro Tip: Few things can compare to a wedding set against the Teton Mountains. Since we spent most of the post-holiday Winter season in 4-land I also had several 7-land biz/personal items needing attention. I flew back and the XYL is driving back as she wanted to stop and visit with her Iowa family.

For the worries about the packet stuff getting done this Spring/Summer? Well I had been waiting on two Liebert UPS systems to come in so I can finish up the power and remote control side of the “packet/HF” rack. They are in and this looks like a somewhat slow weekend/week ahead so we’ll see what gets done this week. completion time = good question. Between work and Dad’s health issues I’m not going to commit to any timelines on hobby stuff as I can barely nail down a work schedule beyond a week out. It is what it is, family and work come first.

What’s going to be put on the air?  Well I can say for sure that a 10m RP port and a UHF 9.6k port are coming. Our core occasional EMCOMM needs can be met by a local packet BBS with a 10m RP port plus a UHF 9.6k port. I’m still back-n-forth on spinning up the 2m/220 1.2k stuff. Granted we have lost several local ops in the last decade or so due to SK and job related moves, but I’m frankly more than a little shocked at how dead ham radio seems around here and across Kentucky.

A lot of area packet and voice infrastructure has came and gone within the last few years. “Lack of usage” is usually the reason given. Even worse I often hear sysops of existing gear commenting that they really can’t justify keeping unused stuff on the air. Several have said they’ll run it till they take storm damage then it will not be repaired. Use it or loose it folks.

APRS activity for “Dayton” seemed to be down somewhat. On that note, one of the western Kentucky ops emailed me that he came up for Dayton and could not hit a single Winlink packet gateway with his D710. I looked at the Winlink gateway map below and could only ask where are all the gateways? Lexington/Frankfort is a dead zone??? Several of the WKY gateways seem MIA. The SE KY gateway doesn’t exist, it is actually just a misconfigured Georgia gateway.

ky_rms_pkt_map_dayton_wknd_20180520

The other day I was at a tower site and tapped into a VHF-Hi antenna port to a nice true 6 dBd omni up at 210′ AHAG that I can hit repeaters from Lexington/Richmond, Louisville, and up into Dayton/Columbus from. Fired up Winlink Express, pulled the freshly updated channel list below and could not hit anything. Granted I was just using 4-5w from a FT-817 (very possible 25/45w could change things) to a 150-160 MHz optimized antenna. Still that’s not much of a gateway selection list compared to a few years ago. Lot of previously active systems around here are gone, misconfigured, or off the air for some reason. Yes I checked for the EMCOMM group.

RMS_Packet_few_20180526

Past chats with some of the Winlink sysops I know all reveal a common thread. Folks talk of wanting this or that infrastructure and it sees a brief burst of interest then activity just fades away. One sysop that shut his gateway down told me it was seven months before someone asked about his gateway’s status LOL.

In fairness this is not just a packet problem, we also see similar with the current state of D-Star, DMR, and the analog repeater scenes. I ran our group’s portable analog repeater from a couple sites from October 2017 till early May 2018. I kept it patched into a couple systems so I could both record and monitor any activity on it.  Over all that time the repeater’s total transmit time was just over 52 minutes. 99% of that was just the IDer running from lots of kerchunking, only four unique callsigns heard beyond mine, and two brief QSOs. As I told the guys, no need of risking that to storm damage for that amount of activity so it is back in storage till this Fall.

Several have commented that the hobby is dying a slow death. While I’m not going to be that dramatic the hobby is definitely facing some serious activity related challenges in most areas of the country. This even includes areas which used to be hotbeds of activity. We now have a boatload of paper hams and hams that have gone or remain inactive for a wide variety of reasons.

Kentucky has nearly 10,000 licensed hams so “where the heck are they?” is a fair and obvious question. I found it revealing awhile back when the primary ham radio mailing list for the state revealed only about 450 subscribers when they began a move to another mailing list system. I just looked and only around 190 have migrated to the new system after several months. One does not need to be a Harvard MBA to be floored by those numbers. Yes it’s easy to be a Negative Nate on this stuff, but Step 1 to fixing a problem is recognizing that you have one.

When asked about the latest ARRL licensing proposal I can only respond with “I  don’t think lowering our standards once again is going to change much. The downsides are many for a hobby of technical pursuits. I do thank the ARRL for the free lunch.”  For those wondering about the “free lunch” portion of that? Well I made a lunch bet back in 2016 that if ARRL membership continues to decline then expect another push to lower licensing standards.

To be blunt, the further “dumbing down” of the hobby is not the fix unless the problem revolves around fixing the flow of subscription/advertising money. You know it’s not like passing the current General class test is so difficult. Common to hear stories of folks that take the Tech test, pass it, then be handed the General for giggles and either pass it or barely fail it. It’s not like during the last solar cycle we had Techs piled up deep on the sweet chunk of 10m spectrum they already have access to. Since chasing “quantity” (ahem money) hasn’t worked out so well maybe it’s time to try focusing on quality?  I could go on and on but this post will likely be long enough as is LOL.

So back to VHF/UHF packet…..

Considering all the above I’m obviously going to have to ponder how much 1200 baud VHF gear I want to put on the air. Would it see enough BBS and Winlink usage to justify it? If it wasn’t for already having the gear and putting in the extra rack space for the remote HF-UHF station then it wouldn’t even be on the table for consideration.

 

My stance on Winlink….

I’ve never been overly warm to the VHF/UHF side of Winlink. It doesn’t make as much sense as the HF side of Winlink does. One of the locals did make a reasonable argument that since the Dry Ridge site serves several counties across a handful of power grids and ISPs then there are a few EMCOMM scenarios when VHF/UHF packet Winlink access could be useful, especially at 9600 baud.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Winlink for a variety of reasons. Some are security related, the abuse that goes on, software stability, software roadmap stability, and ability to audit what content is flowing over systems under my license. Let’s examine each one of these..

  1. Security remains a big concern. Moving things onto a certain cloud provider doesn’t help make one feel all warm and fuzzy but I get why they did it.
  2. The abusive use of Winlink on HF remains a concern. Sounds like it’s gotten worse now that the solar cycle has forced more and more of the HF Winlink folks down onto already crowded lower HF bands.
  3. Software stability issues remain. Client software glitches are one thing, but gateway software needs to be rock solid. We are now how many years into the development of the RMS software?
  4. The software roadmap appears as spastic as ever. There is really no reason why the version silliness needs to go on to the degree that it does. I mean come on after all this time surely we can have long term production versions that do the basics and do them well. Then have a beta fork for those that wish to play with whatever new shiny soundcard mode is the current rage. If I put RMS services on my gateway and it’s a never ending PITA of having to upgrade and revalidate new software versions then RMS will quickly go bye bye. I can always use the SMTP functions in BPQ32 for my own limited “Plan D” backup email needs.
  5. The ability of the sysop to audit content flowing over his/her RMS gateway is a mandatory requirement in my book. If you can’t inspect the content flowing over your system then how do you detect abuse and ensure rule compliance. While it’s not as good as it could be I will  credit the WDT for giving RMS gateway sysops some ability to review messages flowing over their gateways. Does it need improvements? Yes, but it is a start in the right direction.

So as you can hopefully see there are many things being considered in regards to what will be reinstalled and what new features will or will not be available.

 

Packet TNC options…..

Some have commented they would consider saving up for some packet gear if they knew with some certainty about what is going to be available long term. 10m RP (Robust Packet), 9.6k UHF, and maybe the 6m/220 1.2k baud AFSK ports should be around for the long haul. Due to how noisy the VHF band can be in some of our needed coverage locations I may convert the 6m 1.2k port to RP also. If I put the 2m 1.2k and 220 1.2k ports back online their future will be dependent upon their usage levels which I will examine in a couple years to see if they are worth maintaining.

Two decades of experience showed the 220 band was more useful than the 2m port. This was due to being cleaner spectrum and greatly reduced desense/bleed-over issues when we worked along side our public safety systems which are predominately 150 MHz. 145 MHz also tends to be full of various noise/QRM sources and that problem is only getting worse.

 

The ARRL / ARES Puerto Rico Adventures?

My KP4 trip was months afterwards and unrelated to any of that hot mess. I’ve heard both some first hand accounts and a lot of second hand stuff including the thought provoking interview the HRN crew did with a couple ops that went into post-hurricane KP4 for disaster relief. In short I could write a mini-novel on that topic. I’ll just hit on a few key points here that will be lengthy enough.

First – The ham radio failures in more than a view major drills and disasters of the last couple years should serve as major wake-the-heck-up calls for the EMCOMM folks. I’m around a lot of LMR and EMA folks for my day job. Trust me today many of these leaders are not impressed by the local ARES groups and are going to call the MARS folks first. Lot of this is due to past bad experiences and the often correct observation that their MARS teams are both better equipped, better trained, and thus more likely to meet a particular EMCOMM tasking.

If ARES wants to sell itself as the ones to call for when all else fails then ARES better be equipped, trained, and well practiced at operating under such conditions.  Hint – it takes more than fancy radios and go kits.

Second – Please DO NOT send folks into disaster zones with only soundcard modes for Winlink needs. Yes I concede that it sounded like they had to put that HF gear together quickly (didn’t already have it????) with portability and accountability in mind. Still for the love of Pete equip them with quality Pactor modems that are going to work better under the often marginal conditions of such deployments. Keep the soundcard modems as backups if you wish. That “you get what you pay for” saying has some merit to it.  Hint – there are reasons why SCS doesn’t sell soundcard Pactor software when they could make a fortune if they did.

PS – SCS would probably deeply discount Pactor modems to such official staged HF disaster go kits if asked via the proper channels. They have been generous towards good causes in the past. Hint hint hint hint!

Third – Even at this point in the solar cycle, down there, that time of the year, the higher bands will often be your best friends so take appropriate antenna system(s) with you. This “we’ll do it all on 80/40m” mentality continues to be a recipe for failure. 60m NVIS will be handy and having a good antenna for the WARC bands is a really good idea. Be aware that 15-10 meters may not only be open some during the day but may provide some nice SNR on the link. The propagation predictions within the Winlink software are barely useful for the lower bands and can’t predict all the propagation modes on the higher bands. A good op learns HF propagation, understands both solar cycle and seasonal changes, is aware of single/multi hop short skip possibilities on the higher bands, checks the beacon subbands, and tries to use the highest band available for a particular path.

Forth – It seems time for AMSAT to start dreaming big again. Imagine what could be done with a 9600 baud store-n-forward digital bird or two up there. Yes that is easier said than done, but we also need to think beyond HF.

All the above aside, at least some aspects of the KP4 deployments in 2017 were moments ham radio could be proud of even if it was an ugly year for ARES stateside. We also got a real world lesson on the importance of knowing how to handle formal traffic and the NTS folks have things to be proud of.

I see some latched onto the lack of good ICS over the deployment cycle. Not thoroughly knowing both sides of the problems revealed afterwards I would refrain from bashing that aspect of things. As someone that was a first responder for nearly two decades I can tell you that regardless of what you are told beforehand you need to go in prepared to walk right into chaos. You’re not there because things are going well. You must be flexible, able to prioritize, work as a team, and able to adapt on the fly to various surprises. These are situations poorly suited to those that can only function off checklists in textbook scenarios. Ultimately they got a limited crew in, did some good, and then got everyone out safely. Could it of gone better? Of course it could of. There will always be room for improvement.

Non-ham politics of the Puerto Rico disaster? Well in many ways KP4 was a long neglected mess before recent events put it front and center. It did not get that way overnight and it will not be fixed overnight. I think the bigger question is will the repaired infrastructure be well maintained long term? Can their previously struggling economy recover from all that has happened?

WA4ZKO


Stay Tuned

April 22, 2018

Well after two weekends worth of discussion and debate, some Kentucky Packet Systems will be returning to the airwaves soon. Not everything is returning and a lot of what is returning will only remain if it sees enough usage to justify it. This week’s projects have been tower climbs to re-feed the VHF/UHF antennas on my personal tower and tweaking the microwave links between the sites that will be used.

Our utility company recently replaced a pole next to the Williamstown building where I still maintain a minimal office/storage site. When they scheduled that I pressured for new hardware (vs just swapping it to a new pole) and better grounding. This has helped some with the nasty 6m/2m noise floor at that location. As such I’m going to see if it will be useful to have a low profile APRS I-gate there. With the loss of the KB9GYO digi last Fall, Edgewood’s limited coverage down this way, and the reduction in coverage from the Lexington digi, the area’s local 2m digi coverage is very poor now. I’m not certain how much a low profile I-gate/Wide1-1 digi in Williamstown will help, but we shall see what T&E reveals this week.

Do note that this I-Gate site will not be permanent, it will eventually be turned off.  I’m leasing that site and seriously doubt I’ll still have any need for it in a few years. The proper fix for the APRS network is a much better I-gate location and a local medium profile digipeater. Sorry but I can’t provide either and others are going to have to step up and provide better 2m APRS infrastructure. Sorry, it is what it is.

Yes the local APRS scene is in near shambles. My inbox since last summer makes it clear that I’m not the only one that has noticed. My initial monitoring of the 2m APRS network from a medium profile location quickly revealed many problems.  A lot of stuff with poor signals, misconfigured software, and of course the usual congestion from abuse/silliness on the channel from adjacent areas. My my what a mess the 144.3900 APRS frequency is anymore. I can’t imagine why I prefer the HF APRS network over the 2m APRS network for my needs LOL.

Some have asked about K4KPN-10’s future? Well I just signed a 3 year contract on two very nice fiber runs into that site and invested in a new HF radio for it last Fall. Safe to say KYPN remains committed to keeping that on the air. Plans to eventually move it to Wyoming? No plans to move it out there since it is not wise to place another HF gate there that close to Bill’s excellent gate in Montana. With VE7OI’s new gate coming online and the excellent observed performance of K4KPN-10 out that way by myself and Randy (K7LNR) it seems clear that the N. American 30m RP APRS network is best served by K4KPN-10’s current location.

With the solid internet (both fiber and dialup) at that site now, it’s proving relatively easy to properly monitor, control. and keep secure from afar which has been one of my top control op concerns. When you run stuff under the automated & remote control rules you have an obligation to monitor and keep control over anything putting RF into the air. Obviously there are no guarantees – it’s a hobby, we provide it for free – but currently KYPN has no plans to change K4KPN-10 for the foreseeable future.

Not sure how much of the local packet gear will be back online before we head back west in a few weeks. Dad’s health and my day job project list will have at least myself coming back to 4-land fairly often this summer. Plenty of opportunities to finish whatever is not completed this time around.

Last but not least, no I’m not back to stay. We will be very “bi-coastal” for a few more years for work/play and helping care for an elderly parent. That said our retirement is coming sooner or later. I like southern Idaho just as much (same quality of life and a heck of a lot cheaper) but the XYL fell in love with NW Wyoming. She recently switched the car registration, moved her business, and made herself an official Wyomingite. You can guess how our WY vs ID homestead planning conversations go….Wyoming it is LOL.

I will do another post soon detailing what is coming back permanently, some background, what is coming back conditionally, and what will be turned off in a few years.

Stay tuned!

Jeff
WA4ZKO