Today we talk about perceptions. Perceptions regarding who the services we deploy, and who these services actually serve.
As I learn, research and build the equipment for my own Hybrid Winlink gateway, I began to wonder if we have forgotten, who the “customer” actually is. The customer is the one who gains the most benefit from the system, when the system is in use. The system is not built for connections exclusively between hybrid stations connecting to each other. It is there to facilitate the movement of messages from the originator, to the messages destination. That station could certainly be a contest quality station, another top tier winlink gateway, or it could also be a poorly equipped make shift field hospital, as we saw in the Nepal earthquake or Puerto Rico Hurricane. It might be a portable ham radio operator with a broken ankle outside of cell phone range, trying to reach out from a camp for help. It could be a yachtsman and ham radio operator circumnavigating the world, sending out that POS, so we know exactly where that vessel was. If we forget who the system is designed for, we can’t serve “the customer” effectively!
Certainly the “backbone” of these networks is critical, and the radio only connections between stations have to be solid. Still, we should never forget the customer. The customer is the one who takes the system into use. The customer is the reason our hybrid stations exists. Without the customer, these stations have no purpose!
Initially I believed following the lead of Winlink sysops in country, was the best way forward. Definitely true while learning. This is especially true when coordinating compatible resources. There is no point for me to add something incompatible with the rest of the winlink network here in Finland. In contrast Sweden, Norway and Russia take a different approach regarding access to the winlink network. A more “customer” driven approach.
The value of the customer
It may not always be easy to understand what value the “customer” brings to a system designed to serve a specific agency, during a grid down disaster. There is one extremely pragmatic reason for giving the best access to the network, on a daily basis. That is TESTING!
Building a customer accessible system gives the sysop a constant source of testers, testers always putting a load on the system. A system which would rarely get any real-world testing, other than the training ops once or twice a year. Most of the time, the lessons gained during a training op, are forgotten shortly after the training op ends. Sure we write reports, share ideas, but without having the problems presented daily, these systems are often nothing more than a “cool” hobby we tinker with every now and then. A live system in actual use will ultimately be more reliable than one occasionally pressure tested, during the next training scenario!
Here are some thoughts in regards to building my own station, and taking lessons from local stations and neighboring countries in regards to winlink RMS deployment strategy.
- Narrow connections
In Sweden, Norway and Russia, it is perfectly common to find 500hz Vara RMS stations to connect to. Understanding the gateway is usually doing the heavy lifting, many hybrid stations also have narrow 500hz filters to focus incoming connections like a laser beam. This helps weak signal stations be heard more effectively, especially when QRM/QRN are factors. 500hz connection although slower, often allow connections when wider bandwidth isn’t making the trip. It is simple physics! The rifle versus the shotgun. The laser versus the floodlight. CW versus SSB. Add filters on both ends and that connection gets through with less power, despite QRM/QRN. Sure it will be slower, but a slower connection versus no connection at all is better isn’t it!? When we think of the “customer”, it is almost impossible to disagree.
- Alternate bands
Alternate bands are also incredibly important. This is especially true when your primary radio only network is on a contesting band eg 80 meters. 80 meters during the day (for an average station), is much more difficult to work than 60, 40, or 30 meters. In my own humble but experience-limited opinion, I believe there should also be an alternate band for a public facing RMS. eg 80 meters primary, 60 or 30 meters secondary as an example. The reasons I mention 60 & 30 meters is the need for a “sanctuary” band, free of contesters. It could be any WARC band. 80/60, 80/30, … It might also be 80 night & 40 day. Just an alternative to keep message traffic flowing, when our primary bands are locked down, for whatever reason. Putting all Hybrid station on the same band has no redundancy. It is not criticism, just thinking about my own successes and failures connecting during poor (contest) conditions on 80m. We are not all always operating from “reference” stations.
There is at least one RMS on 160 meters, and another on 50 mhz here in Finland. Also some 40 meter activity lately. I have never been able to connect to either the 40 meter or 6 meter stations, but 160m RMS is solid and reliable. That has often been my backup when operating fixed station. It is too difficult to build an efficient enough 160m antenna for field work, but I will try later on.
I had planned on a 2m Vara FM RMS, but perhaps adding an additional 50mhz RMS would be more beneficial for the network. It would be nice to know how much traffic that 50mhz station gets. There is now a 2m Vara FM station in Norway. That is another option for creating a network.
- Backup power
When we think of the customer, we should also consider our own stations reliability. This already seems quite amazing with stations in Finland, as they take emergency preparedness and the emergency network very seriously. My own station is running on solar power 6-8 months out of the year. As I am very near the sea, the solar system will soon be augmented by a wind turbine. This insuring a constant source of power, all year round. I chose solar and wind because they are renewable sources of power. I also chose them because there is a relatively small amount of RFI being generated versus the same noise from a petrol generator. Battery storage for my own winlink station is 576wh LiFePO4 solar generator. 2x 40 watt solar panels, with a back up 120 watt portable panel, which can be deployed as needed. The wind turbine is a 100 watt 2 stage vertical model.
It was also important to improve the antenna system, rather than just running more power to make a connection. In an off grid system, the more power one can save, the longer that system can stay operational. That is the point of the Skyloop project incoming. Better antenna, lower TX power, longer runtime. We just need to find the balance.
The point of this post is a reminder. A reminder that we setup these stations, systems, networks for a “customer”. The customer could be an disaster relief organization, it could also be someone in trouble, cut off from grid communications. We need to remember the importance of a fast, reliable and robust network, but also an accessible network, available to those who may need it when their grid possibilities, are extremely limited.