Recently having a discussion with Dean K5MPG about Winlink Radio only networks. This topic is so important, I thought to turn my responce to his email into a blog post, albeit with a bit more context.
In emergency communications and communications for preparedness, we see the usual blogs and youtube vids talking about repeaters, winlink gateways, DMR, DSTAR, Fusion, … All of them are excellent for what they were designed for, but also heavily dependent upon the internet in some way, based of course on how we use them. They certainly work for simplex comms in a grid down, but with severe limitations. On VHF/UHF there is also a finite number of these services available, or in range of our stations. These are fine for soft events or “after the fact”, once grid power has been restored. This is the risk we take when basing our communications plan, on infrastructure dependent platforms. Not right or wrong, just not as robust as they could be.
Another approach, and one which brings the majority of hate to the channel focuses entirely on HF communications. Unlike its VHF/UHF cousins, HF communications has little to no dependency on infrastructure. If fact, other than station power, there is barely any infrastructure dependency at all! What we are talking about is Radio Only Winlink Networks. Networks with no services dependent upon the internet, not on cloud servers, and networks which can adapt to changing operational variables DURING THE DISASTER!
For personal preparedness communications, nobody gives a monkey butt about “disaster relief” while the hurricane is ripping the roof off, or forcing us away from our homes. That’s not a knock against emergency services, just a part of the puzzle which until recently, has been ignored. Disaster relief is what comes after the storm has passed. It is extremely important, but not until later. Most of us still require a layer of communications during the storm, after it has passed, and before emergency services arrives in the region. Even when disaster relief is on site, their equipment will be used for their own logistics and communications. Not for finding out where your loved ones are. This is where personal communications for preparedness becomes important. It is the layer which allows us to get in touch with family, friends, or coordinate meet ups while primary infrastructure is still down, congested or somehow unavailable.
The last week of March 2021, Finland had a emergency grid down communications training exercise. The exercise focused on creating a Winlink radio only network to handle message traffic, WITHOUT “any dependency on the internet”. Winlink Radio Only networks are not using cloud based services to store email for retrieval. Instead they act more like store and forward hubs, forwarding and storing messages on a primary MPS, secondary MPS, or a Third alternate if one is configured. This means messages come in from their senders, are forwarded to the recipients configured MPS (Mail Pickup Station) where they are stored. The recipient then retrieves messages from one of the MPS stations he or she configured. This works just as it would from the CMS, only without the need for the internet. Even if one of the configured MPSs go down, messages can still be retrieved from one of the others configured mail pickup stations. These mail pickup stations also synchronize mail between themselves, routing messages between them, when receiving a message intended for a recipient registered to another hub. It is actually quite ingenious.
History has taught OH-Land that some or part of the grid will eventually go down. This will happen either from a mishap, attack, or from mother nature showing us how small we really are. This is odd since OH has a reasonably robust infrastructure. Still, experience has shown us the need to augment traditional means of communications, is real. A need which can fulfil disaster relief, personal preparedness, or augmenting communications for regional services alike.
We augment traditional commercial communications methods , with slower but more robust HF networks. Networks which are able to adapt to a fluid situation. For this reason many operators in OH-Land participate once or twice a year in grid down comms practice, on a national level. This is a deployment and operation of a radio only hybrid winlink network, routing traffic correctly, discovering any weak points or bottlenecks in the system, testing peer-to-peer connections, …. There are a combination of radio only hubs set up for collection, dissemination, and temporary storage of messages. Outside connections to individual stations are still possible through any remaining gateways, or in the case of Finland through gateways in bordering countries. Although Chat and file transfer mechanisms over HF were not tested, I do hope individual radio operators find interested partners to test Vara Chat for file transfers, and JS8Call for near real-time tactical communications, stations tracking and to augment asynchronous messaging.
From a personal preparedness perspective, this should be our goal! A dynamic network made up of hubs. Some of them permanent, others field deployable as required. Then augment the hybrid radio only network with other tools like JS8Call for tactical comms, along with Vara chat for file transfers without unnecessarily congesting the hybrid network channels. This is how we build a robust communications layer, whether for emergency communications, personal preparedness or as a partisan communications network over HF.
I first discovered Radio Only Winlink messages by mistake. I sent a radio only message (by mistake) to an OE station, which actually made it through. We talked about how that was possible for weeks. I understand technically how it worked, but still find it amazing.
IMHO, Radio only email is most effective for “regional “communications, when “hubs” can find a path to one another. Naturally “regional” in HF terms can span multiple countries, so we need to zoom out a little in comparison to VHF/UHF. The more hubs deployed, the the more robust our network. Still, once we start crossing plains, oceans, … it becomes more difficult. Even so, this is the beauty of HF. In part, it is also why my own focus is on NVIS/HF comms, over the infrastructure requirements of VHF and above.
Recently I mentioned on Patreon how the channel is stepping up the technical content once again. One of the projects mentioned was the RMS gateway. Since Dean brought up that topic, I suppose it is ok to let the cat out of the bag. The goal is to deploy a Radio Only network hub for the Northern Gulf of Bothnia region between Finland and Sweden. Naturally it will also route winlink email to the CMS, but that is a secondary function. In our world, many operators mistakenly believe Winlink works like Google mail, eg cloud based email server and storage. It certainly does have that cloud component, but it also has a robust network layer, based entirely on moving email along from hub to hub, until it reaches the Mail Pickup Station the mail is addressed to. I am hoping this change in direction will inspire other operators, bloggers and YouTubers in setting up their own “fill in” stations whether VHF/UHF or HF.
ARES, RACES and the like have this part covered, but Survivalists & Preppers often focus on buying gear, protecting gear, maintaining gear, … We rarely if ever see any videos or blogs about “deploying services”. There is talk about AREDN networks, which are very infrastructure intensive, but a nice attempt at recreating a fast, wide area network. Like VHF/UHF services, I’ll have to pass for now! My personal belief and strategy sees a basic traffic net as a critical requirement, before we start sharing “Nice to have” naughty videos over 5Ghz links. (I digress).
Bottom line, and the reason for the post.
Radio Only Network would work extremely well, if more of us put up our own Radio Only Hubs to pass messages through the network or on to other networks. If we start providing services to the network rather than just consuming resources from the network, we can create a much more robust radio only system. This approach will end up being more valuable to everyone. Think of it as a grass roots radio only traffic net. One which adapts to adding or removing hubs, balances congestion, and easily adapts as it grows or contracts. This as opposed to simply consuming resources as a user eg repeaters, gateways, … all of which have weaknesses most of us already understand. This is where the channel is headed!
Today we have good choices for reasonably priced low current draw, CAT controllable rigs like the Xiegu G90. We can combine them with any one of the increasing number of micro computers on the market today. Add a battery, solar power or wind generator, and we have the makings for own Hybrid Network Hub.
Let’s get off grid capable together!