Winlink 2000 Considerations for SATERN
Joe Hobart, W7LUX
Don Seitz, KK7XW
What is Winlink 2000?

Winlink 2000 is a high frequency (HF) digital radio communications system that allows amateur radio operators to send and receive electronic mail (e-mail) and small attachments without a direct connection to the Internet. Winlink is a store and forward system only; it does not allow browsing the Internet. Being able to send and receive e-mail without an internet connection is especially valuable to those in RVs, maritime mobile stations, and at remote canteens, shelters, or fire bases.

Basically an operator composes e-mail using the Airmail program, connects to a Personal Mail Box Operator (PMBO) station, and Airmail sends the e-mail and downloads any e-mail waiting at the PMBO. If the amateur has one of the more advanced Pactor modems and a reasonably modern transceiver, Airmail takes care of all the details including setting the selected frequency. Airmail even includes an effective propagation tool to help the amateur select an appropriate PMBO station and frequency. Airmail can send your position, which could be helpful if a person were to develop a problem at some remote location. One PMBO in Texas can even point a beam antenna at your position.

How can Winlink 2000 help SATERN? A portable Winlink 2000 station could send daily reports to a Salvation Army headquarters and/or the SATERN NCS operator at any time. Digital communications are especially good for lists of supplies that are tedious to send by phone or CW. Winlink uses error correction, so the list will be accurate. More importantly, there are many Winlink PMBOs at a variety of distances and using several different frequencies. It may be easier to contact one of the PMBOs than to contact the SATERN NCS on a fixed frequency at a fixed distance and at a specific time.

A Winlink system might be popular at a remote fire base (with no regular communications) to send welfare messages for the fire fighters and canteen crew. Several short messages could be entered into Airmail and then sent error free in a very few minutes; Winlink even offers a *small* amount of privacy that voice nets cannot provide. Also, the ARRL is trying to establish Winlink 2000 as the digital system for emergency communications, and it is relatively easy to use Winlink to input messages into the National Traffic System (NTS).

What equipment is needed?

Winlink 2000 uses Pactor modes I, II, and III. Mode I is the slowest, and mode III is roughly 12 times as fast. There are several modems made by Kantronics and Timewave that will run mode I, but only the modems made by SCS (Germany) run modes II and III. You will need a small computer to run the Airmail program, and, of course, you need a HF transceiver, power supply, antenna tuner, and antenna. Most modern transceivers by Icom, Kenwood, and Yaseu will work with Pactor. I use Icom 728, 735, and 756 transceivers, which all use the same modem cables. The transceiver frequency must be reasonably accurate and stable. The Airmail program is free.

There are many old PK-232 multi-mode modems available. While these are inexpensive, most will require significant upgrades to run Pactor I, which is the slowest mode. Several people who deployed after Katrina, told me that the operators using PK-232 type equipment had more trouble getting and keeping Winlink going than those using other modems. This is not what you want in the field.

Also, there are changes in the wind: Due to the very significant speed advantages of modes II and III over mode I, many PMBOs limit mode I operations. During the Katrina recovery efforts when there were many mode I Winlink stations in the field, most of the PMBOs relaxed their restrictions to allow all modes of operation. Having at least mode II available will increase your chances of finding an appropriate PMBO, especially for casual operation and tests.

What are the disadvantages and complications?

Cost: A Kantronics KAM XL costs about $400 and only runs Pactor mode I (plus other digital modes). Even the least expensive SCS Modem is $740 plus $150 for the license if you want to run mode III. This modem will NOT control your transceiver. A SCS modem with mode III license that will control your transceiver is about $1100. You will also need to buy or make cables to connect your computer and radio.

Learning curve: It takes some effort to install the software and learn the most effective ways to use Winlink 2000, and one should practice weekly to stay proficient. The key is learning to use Airmail, which is similar to regular e-mail programs and has good propagation and other tools. Being familiar with basic HF propagation and working just below the MUF is a real help. You must install and learn to use Airmail and get the equipment working well before you deploy.

There is a real time map of PMBO stations at:

Another problem people who deployed for Katrina mentioned is that they deployed, set up their Winlink stations, and started sending e-mail to people back home. The people back home, however, only checked their e-mail every few days. The deploying volunteers had not made sure someone would look frequently for any e-mail they sent.

A detail for using HF Winlink is that one must establish an account with the Winlink system by contacting one of the PMBOs on HF. The system then checks to see if your amateur call is valid and if you have HF privileges; this may take several days. One should do this well before a deployment and also contact several appropriate PMBOs so the Winlink system will know where to direct e-mail for you. Otherwise it may take a while to get your incoming e-mail.

Are there any alternatives?

There is another way to access the Winlink 2000 system: through a Telpac gateway. A Telpac gateway is a relatively simple VHF or UHF packet radio system set up at a home, business, EOC, or similar location. I have one running 24/7 at my home south of Flagstaff, Arizona. The gateway allows any nearby amateur to connect to my system using two meter packet equipment and send and receive e-mail using the Airmail program in a way similar to the HF system. My gateway is on the same 145.01 frequency as a 9300 foot mountaintop digital repeater (node), so stations within many miles of Flagstaff can access my gateway.

There is a real time map of available Telpac gateways at:

You must be within VHF/UHF range of one of these gateways or at least within range of one digital repeater that can reach the gateway. During a large scale disaster, any of several problems could prevent the digital repeater or Telpac gateway from working.

A portable packet station can be as simple as a computer and a HT. The AGWPE program lets a computer with a sound card code and decode packets without a TNC, but setting up AGWPE takes some time and patience. Using a TNC will give more reliable results, and it will free up the computer from having to code and decode packets.

I just learned this:

"The data stream signal of a USB interface is located in the middle of the shortwave bands. Therefore, the USB data signal cannot be separated from the shortwave signal being transmitted or received by simply filtering. Mutual interference is possible, especially where the antenna is located close to the modem/PC setup (ship borne installations). Mutual interference in this case means that the transmitted HF-signal can disturb the USB data stream between PC and modem, as well the USB data stream can disturb the radio reception of shortwaves. Bluetooth can help solve this problem, as Bluetooth and shortwave radio signals don't interfere with one another. Additionally, eliminating the USB cable connection, the danger of ground loops and parasitic currents distorting the radios signal modulation are removed, which will lead to a better transmission quality."

This is from the SCS people who make the Pactor modems. The fact that they now offer a Bluetooth option for the USB version of their modem suggests this is more than a casual problem - especially for mobile and portable operation.

I have to reconsider the USB version of their modems.

MUCH more information about Winlink 2000 is available at:

Information about Airmail, Telpac, and more:

Information about modems:

There is a handy "Cable Reference" link on the above page that indicates which transceivers will work with these modems:

Lots of information about Pactor) and

Sounds of Pactor are at the bottom of: