(Please note, this is not a Winlink how-to manual)
This past weekend, October 20ish, I found myself in the Ozark National Forest in the western part of Arkansas. This was for a planned Overlanding Rally with the Natural State Overlanders. Because of varying off the beaten path locations, these kinds of events tend to be hit or miss as far as cellular communications is concerned. Now, with camping and the like, one should expect a type of “turning off and tuning out” with regards to staying connected, and I agree. However appealing it is to be off the grid, I am married and have family obligations at home. Therefore, I need to have some sort of a reliable communication plan with my wife.
Although amateur radio would be a very viable two-way method of staying in communication with her, she is like many other people who do not wish to have an amateur radio license. In this case, there are a few options to look at; satellite units for one, driving to a location that would have network access is another. For me, ham radio is a much more apparent choice.
This is where Winlink (www.winlink.org) steps in and really shines. Winlink can best be summed up as a method of sending and receiving email over amateur radio frequencies. Winlink as a service has been around since about 2000 and has been tremendously helpful in not only standard boring emails, but emergency communication as well such as during Hurricane Michael.
Winlink, at it's core, can be thought of as 1) a base unit & 2) a mobile unit. The base unit is what you would find sitting in a house consisting of a amateur radio transceiver that has been connected to a computer running the required software and has access to an internet connection. The mobile unit (can be mobile, portable, or just sitting at your house as well) has the computer and the radio connected, but the assumption is that there is no internet connection.
From the mobile side, Winlink is very easy once everything is set up. I personally use a small tablet PC and is connected to an Icom IC-7200. Using the free software available from Winlink, getting the various volume controls adjusted takes a some fiddling and then you are ready to get an account. Once you have an account, you can then send and receive emails. Over simplified yes, but I like painting in broad strokes!
Prior to loss of my cell connection, my wife and I had set up a communication plan of emailing each other about every four hours, plus or minus. This would account for issues with finding a Winlink channel that I could access. Once I had set up camp, I put this plan into action. For this trip, I used an Icom IC-7200 connected to my PC, and strung an 35 foot or so long wire antenna connected to an Icom AH-4 tuner.
Testing all connections showed I was good to go and so I drafted my first message and looked for an open channel. When sending and receiving messages that are at the mercy of atmospheric conditions, brevity is the goal here; “Hi honey. I am at the camp site. Hope you are good.” I also tend to not use lots of punctuation in order to keep the message simple. She does the same in her response and also does not reply as in a typical email, replying would include the original message. Short and sweet.
Finding a free channel is not typically very difficult but it is a bit of a hunt. When you decide to send the message, you sort though a list that you have updated based on your 6 digit Maidenhead grid and will show you the closest Winlink servers and the probability of success. Most servers are found in the 80 meter and 40 meter bands. There are others available, but these two bands seem to do the best. There are numerous servers across the US so finding one should be easy. However, the upper west states like the Dakotas are a bit thin. Just plan ahead.
Once you find a server/channel, you start the process by selecting the start button and then sit back for a few minutes. If all goes well, you will start a session with the receiving station, obtain information from the Winlink server first and any messages waiting for you. Once that step is complete, your messages in the outbox will begin their journey though a series of exchanges to ensure that your message is complete. In my experience, this can take as little as two minutes to as long as 5. Sometimes, you just don't complete it and may need to look for a better channel.
Winlink uses the same frequencies that all other ham radio operators use and it would be very easy to accidentally cause interference. You should always listen for a few minutes before starting a Winlink session to keep from interrupting a QSO/conversation. Just because you don't hear a QSO doesn't mean one is not taking place and you have not heard the other station.
Keep in mind too that like a lot of digital modes, Winlink does have its share of those opposed to its use. You may also encounter some operators that will intentionally interfer with your Winlink session because they dislike it so much. Just be persistent. Winlink software is fairly resilient and will account for this with it's ability to discriminate against interference.
All in all, Winlink serves the purpose of bridging licensed amateur radio operators with people who for various reasons do not have the authorization to transmit on their own. Once your station and computer are set up, it is only slightly more difficult than regular email. Throughout the weekend, my wife and I were able to exchange about 3 or 4 emails a day with only minor effort. This allowed me to relax even more knowing that she and our house was good to go and the same for her.
I strongly recommend that anyone interested, download a copy and use it a few times to become familiar. Although Winlink is free to use, if you do choose to use the service, you should seriously consider either registering your copy for $25 or donating the same.