The Amateur Amateur: A VARA Difficult Problem

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
August 2020

SPARKY shack computer
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?

Answer: Use Winlink.

So, what is Winlink? Simply put, it is a way to send your email message over the air via Amateur Radio.

Okay, 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, part I and Win-Blink, part II).

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 forms.

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 used.

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.
  • A computer-to-transceiver interface...... Umm...
HOLLY laptop computer
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.

Oh boy.

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.

Before 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 should be able to reach one VARA FM gateway in our area, belonging to Neil, KD7UHR.

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
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 transceivers.

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.



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