The Amateur Amateur: Win-Blink, part I

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
June 2017

APRS map
This APRS map also shows Winlink RMS stations in the St. Louis area. I couldn't reach any of them.

Think of me as a sub-atomic particle. There is no certainty as to what I'm about to do, only a probability. When I enter my shack, it may be to start a new activity, or perhaps to finish one that I'd already started. Then again, maybe I won't do either. Even I can't tell for sure. Blink, and you'll find me doing something totally different than what I was doing a moment earlier.

That's probably why my shack is littered with unfinished projects.

Despite my quantum particle nature, I do occasionally find myself rummaging through the piles of orphaned items, searching for some abandoned undertaking that I want to resurrect. (Oh, look! There's our old 45 RPM record player!) Recently, I revved up a front loader and started excavating one of those piles, looking for the notes I'd made on a project I hadn't visited for a long time.

Here's the story.

Years ago, our St. Louis County ARES team started looking into digital modes. One of them was Winlink, a packet system that allows Amateur Radio operators to send email over the air. It was kind of neat, but for 2 meter operations, the sending station needs to be able to reach a "Remote Mail Server". Think of it as a "ground station", something that grabs your message out of the air and pumps it into the Internet.

There were only a few of those in the St. Louis area, and the region being rather lumpy and bumpy, there were many dead spots. So, we moved on and found other digital modes with which to experiment. It seemed like there was a new one every day, and each was touted as being "the absolute best for emergency communications".

open eye Blink

I reconfigured my radio-computer interfaces for something else. I kept my Winlink notes, but didn't actually file them anywhere. They just became part of a pile of such documents, which eventually became tall enough to qualify as a makeshift table for other forgotten items.

Jump forward a few years.

Our team merged with St. Louis City ARES to form St. Louis Metro ARES. We obtained a new, energetic Assistant Emergency Coordinator - Digital Communications. Our sporadic experiments in packet radio solidified into a comprehensive plan. And our Emergency Coordinator decided that the team would go ahead and develop Winlink capabilities.

Okay, as I was the Assistant Emergency Coordinator - Operations, I figured I'd better get on board with the program.

open eye Blink

I dug up my original Winlink notes. They were buried under an electronics experiment kit, two unused Terminal Node Controllers, and so much other neglected detritus that they were in danger of turning into mulch. But, they were still readable.

Winlink Express screen
Winlink Express, the client program.

The first thing I needed to know was, what did I need to plug or unplug from my computer, functioning TNC, and "dedicated digital" 2 meter radio to make Winlink work?

Hah! Nothing! I lucked out. The current configuration would work just fine. And as a bonus, at the moment, I wasn't using it for anything else.

That was a good start. Now, how about the software? Seems to me I had a Winlink account at one time.

I checked and found that my Winlink account was still active. Unfortunately, though, the software on my computer was quite out of date. I downloaded the newer version, wrestled a little to get it installed and configured, then gave it a try.

Uh oh. I couldn't reach any Remote Mail Servers.

What happened? I remember succeeding in doing so a few years earlier.

Not surprisingly, some of those RMS stations were no longer active. But the one with which I'd had the most success was still there.

Ah, but back then, I'd had a nearly 30 foot tall mast on my roof. It had subsequently come down during severe weather, crashing down onto my neighbor's patio and leaving a gaping hole in my roof. After the roof had been replaced, I'd put up much more modest masts. I no longer had the reach I'd had before. I tried putting up a Yagi antenna, but still couldn't reach a RMS (see Plan G from Outer Space).

I gave up.

open eye Blink

Some months later, I had an epiphany. If I couldn't reach a Remote Mail Server, perhaps I could set up my own!

Normally, I would have thought this was madness. But our ARES EC, Steve Wooten, KC0QMU had once done so. I figured that if he had been brave enough to try, I should follow his lead.

Despite a few confusing links and an out of date tutorial, I succeeded in downloading and installing the Remote Mail Server software. Well, there was a hiccup or two in getting my RMS station registered, but after several email messages (via land line, not over the air), it was all sorted. My RMS was ready to go.


The next problem was, how could I test it? The nearest person to me who had Winlink capabilities was Steve, and I already knew that propagation between his house and mine was dismal (that's "0" on your s-meter). Perhaps a few hams north or east of me might be able to reach my server, but it was brand new and no one knew about it yet.

Of course, I did know of one Amateur Radio operator who was relatively close....


RMS Packet
RMS Packet, the Remote Mail Server program.

This gets a bit tricky. You cannot use a Winlink Remote Mail Server to originate email, only to pass it on. So, what I needed to do was to set up a completely separate computer-TNC-radio system and install the Winlink client software on it.

Sometimes it pays to have a lot of unused stuff in your shack., This was one of those times.

In fact, I already had such a system set up in my study. I usually used it to send in Skywarn reports, but I'd sent packet data through it a few times. I put the latest Winlink program on it and was ready to go.

Another problem. The antenna to my Remote Mail Server and the Winlink client system were mere feet apart. In fact, they were located on the same mast.

I dialed down both radios to transmit at absolute minimum power, and then, with great trepidation, I sent a message.

It actually worked.

Nothing got fried. Nothing got overloaded. The email I transmitted popped up on my main computer, having successfully traversed the Internet. I was so stunned that I tried it four more times, just to make sure that it wasn't a fluke.

Okay, my Remote Mail Server worked, though it may only ever have one client. I'd done my duty.

open eye Blink

Time to move on.

(to be continued.. more fun to come)

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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