How to Receive Ham Radio Messages Remotely
Ham radio has made those days where messaging capability is tied to specific phone numbers, bulletin boards, and servers obsolete, just as wireless networks have freed the computer from cabled connections.
Hams can use a computer and a radio to connect directly to gateway stations around the world via terrestrial links on the HF bands or via VHF and UHF to the amateur satellites. The gateway stations transfer e-mail messages between ham radio and the Internet. The satellites transfer messages to and from the Internet via a ground control station.
Either way, a ham far from home can use ham radio to send and receive e-mail.
How to use Winlink
The best-known HF message system is Winlink 2000, referred to as Winlink or WL2K, which enables any ham to send and receive e-mail by using the PACTOR or WINMOR digital mode. Winlink is a worldwide network of stations operating 24 hours a day on the HF bands as well as on VHF and UHF via packet radio.
It has grown from a network used by boaters to a sophisticated, hardened network used for disaster relief and emergencies of all kinds.
To find the frequencies of Winlink stations, visit their website. This extensive and growing network covers much of the Earth. These stations are linked via the Internet, creating a global home for Winlink users. The Winlink system is also connected to the Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) so that position, weather, and other information can be exchanged or viewed via the Internet.
To use the Winlink system, you must register as a user on the Winlink network so that the system recognizes you when you connect. When you’re a recognized user, your messages are available from anywhere on Earth, via whichever Winlink station you use to connect. You must also download and install a Winlink-compatible e-mail program, such as Airmail, which is available on the Winlink website.
Along with a computer that runs the e-mail client software, such as the popular Airmail, you need a way to generate the signals for the digital mode you choose to access the Winlink Radio Mail Server (RMS) stations.
On HF, you need a sound card and software to send and receive via WINMOR mode or an external communications processor that supports the PACTOR family of digital modes, such as the SCS PTC or P4 modem. On VHF and UHF, you can use a standard packet-radio terminal node controller to connect with a local RMS station.
How to connect with Airmail and Winlink
If you’re using Airmail and are registered with the Winlink network, the connection process is straightforward. Follow these steps to connect:
Open the Airmail program.
Click the Terminal icon.
A menu of Winlink stations and frequencies pops up.
Select a station and frequency appropriate for your location, time of day, and equipment.
The computer and radio attempt to connect to the Winlink server and notify you of success or failure. This process is very much like a Wi-Fi card connecting to the Internet through a wireless data router at a library or coffee shop.
The usual regulations on ham radio messages apply, of course. You can’t encrypt messages, send business traffic or obscene content, or use radio links on behalf of third parties in countries where such use is prohibited. Winlink isn’t a web browsing service, but web content is often added to e-mail. That content isn’t available via the Winlink system.
Don’t forget that all the usual operating protocols and requirements still apply. You have to listen to the channel and make sure you won’t interfere with ongoing communications, and you have to monitor your transmissions so that you fulfill your obligations as a control operator.
Also keep in mind that although the Winlink stations are connected via the Internet, your station is connected by a relatively slow digital data radio link. The data rate is limited due to the radio link, so don’t try to send big files or messages.
Nevertheless, Winlink 2000 is a tremendous service and a boon to those who travel off the beaten track and to those who need to communicate during and after emergencies.