The Amateur Amateur: A VARA Difficult Problem
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
This computer didn't play nice
Hypothetical question: You're an
Amateur Radio operator and you need to send an email message, but you
don't have an Internet connection. What can you do?
So, what is Winlink? Simply put,
it is a way to send your email message over the air via Amateur
obviously it's more complex than that, but that's the essence of it.
Winlink is actually a network of Internet connections and Amateur
Radio stations, operating on a variety of bands and modes. Yes, you
really can send your email over the air, but you have to be able to
reach a receiving station that will inject your message into the
Internet. The receiving station is called a Remote Mail Server (RMS),
or a gateway. A few years ago, I experimented a great deal with
Winlink and eventually set up my own RMS (see Win-Blink,
Here is what has happened since then.
First, our local ARES team has
become much more serious about using Winlink. A lot more of our
members are now able to use it as clients, and some have even set up
their own RMS stations. There are plans to set up even more at local
served agencies. And recently the team participated in a nationwide
American Red Cross exercise using Winlink to send built-in Red Cross
Second, Winlink has introduced a
new mode called VARA, and the local users have been experimenting
with it. (VARA is not an acronym. It has something to do with a
popular Spanish super hero.)
What has not
changed is that my house is still located in a bad location for radio
propagation. (You'd think that it'd have figured this out by now and
moved to a better spot.) So, my own RMS station remains sparsely
The word in the local Winlink
community was that VARA was able to communicate father, faster, and
clearer than packet. There was only one VARA gateway in the St. Louis
area, but it seemed that just about everyone who tried was able to
reach it. That made me wonder.
If I set up a RMS based on VARA
instead of packet, would more Winlink clients be able to reach me?
I decided to give it a try.
Right. So, what would I need?
A computer... Check.
The VARA FM software... Check.
A transceiver... Check.
An antenna system... Check.
This computer played nice but didn't understand the game
Reading the VARA FM installation
instructions, I found that I needed to connect my computer to my
transceiver using a sound card interface.
I had successfully used a sound card interface in the past, but
disliked such systems because they tended to stop working for no
apparent reason. I might be able to get it running again, but it
would inevitably fail again, and for a completely different reason.
Linking a computer to a sound card interface to a transceiver just
seemed to introduce enough instability that I could never rely on
anything to work. (I know, I know, sound card interfaces work
reliably for you.
But in my
shack chaos is more than just a theory. It's a fact.)
I decided to try anyway. I had a
Signalink sound card interface device, two, in fact. I had the proper
cables to connect the Signalink to my computer, and also to my Yaesu
FTM-350 dual band transceiver. The transceiver was currently part of
my go-kit, so it wasn't doing much other than collecting cobwebs.
Oh, but wait. The Signalink
needed to be configured for the specific transceiver.... ah. It
already was. A bit of good luck there. I connected everything and
then moved on to install the software.
trying to get a VARA FM gateway on the air, I figured I'd better
start a bit simpler. So I installed the client software instead. I
be able to reach one VARA FM gateway in our area, belonging to Neil,
Not surprisingly, I couldn't.
After reading and re-reading the
sparse documentation on VARA, I wound up contacting Neil by phone. He
talked me through the appropriate settings, and I did make sporadic
contacts with his gateway, but they were always short-lived and not
repeatable. After a lot of frustrating attempts, I moved into
Gary-mode. Which is to say, I started randomly swapping things and
moving them around.
Signalink sound card interfaces configured every which-way
I changed all of the cables.
I swapped Signalink boxes. (It
turned out that despite the labeling, one particular internal chip
worked for almost all of my transceivers.)
I moved everything from the tower
computer in my shack to my laptop.
I changed antenna systems.
I tried three different
I deleted the VARA software and
carefully re-installed and re-configured it... several times.
In the end, I set up two
completely separate systems, one as a client and one as a gateway.
That worked..... for about a minute. After that initial success, I
was never able to make any kind of connection.
My tower computer eventually
rebelled and flat-out refused to communicate with either Signalink
box, regardless of how many cable and USB port changes I made, or how
much tweaking I did to the system software. The laptop would at least
talk to the boxes, but the sound levels would never stabilize.
I kept at it for weeks, buying
new parts, trying new configurations, waking up in the middle of the
night with more ideas to try. I simply got nowhere.
But, not being the sort of person
who gives up easily...... I gave up.
There are some battles that you
just can't win.
E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman