Emails Over Radio

The modern cellular network is a marvel of technological advancement that we often take for granted now. With 5G service it’s easy to do plenty of things on-the-go that would have been difficult or impossible even with a broadband connection to a home computer two decades ago. But it’s still reliant on being close to cell towers, which isn’t true for all locations. If you’re traveling off-grid and want to communicate with others, this guide to using Winlink can help you send emails using a ham radio.

While there are a number of ways to access the Winlink email service, this guide looks at a compact, low-power setup using a simple VHF/UHF handheld FM radio with a small sound card called a Digirig. The Digirig acts as a modem for the radio, allowing it to listen to digital signals and pass them to the computer to decode. It can also activate the transmitter on the radio and send the data from the computer out over the airwaves. When an email is posted to the Winlink outbox, the software will automatically send it out to any stations in the area set up as a gateway to the email service.

Like the cellular network, the does rely on having an infrastructure of receiving stations that can send the emails out to the Winlink service on the Internet; since VHF and UHF are much more limited in range than HF this specific setup could be a bit limiting unless there are other ham radio operators within a few miles. This guide also uses VARA, a proprietary protocol, whereas the HF bands have an open source protocol called ARDOP that can be used instead. This isn’t the only thing these Digirig modules can be used for in VHF/UHF, though. They can also be used for other digital modes like JS8Call, FT8, and APRS.

38 thoughts on “Emails Over Radio

  1. Why use a proprietary protocol when AX.25 has already been the standard for thirty years? APRS has email entry nodes, doesn’t involve proprietary anything, and leverages an existing network of thousands of nodes worldwide—including several HF nodes.

    Amateur radio should never involve proprietary algorithms, codecs, or protocols. That is entirely opposed to the entire purpose and spirit of amateur radio.

    1. Speaking of AX.25, there’s FX.25 now. It adds an FEC frame, for better reliability. It’s fully backwards compatible, too. Soundmodem and Direwolf have it as an option. Vintage hardware (old TNCs, PTCs etc) doesn’t see FX.25 and continues working as usual. There’s no special support in the applications needed, also. It’s ideal to bring APRS and Packet-Radio into early 21th century. :)

    2. AX.25 and Aloha are not a hill worth fighting for. 5W on APRS is extremely limited in range due to competing digipeaters doing WIDE3, WX stations with 1m updates, and other OTA abuse. Any improved standard would be a great benefit. Sure there would be an uptake delay… perhaps even indifference, so a replacement should be faster, more robust, and still inexpensive to implement. AND individual HAMS have to see the benefit/incentive to get onboard.

    3. Winlink is primarily used on Windows computers, so it starts from an entirely proprietary system and doesn’t get better from there. But I’m with you.

      Unfortunately many hams are non-technical (pejoratively called “appliance operators”) and either don’t care or don’t understand about Freedom beyond the ability to transmit on Ham bands. Most of the “name brand” radios are also proprietary. You can still get schematics for many of them, but they aren’t much use now that most functions are in closed-source firmware/software that controls the radio.

      (Shout-out to Farhan VU2ESE for his completely-open uBITX line of radios.)

  2. Winlink has historically been a bad actor. The transmitter never checks that the frequency is clear, and just transmits. This causes interference to anyone else who is using the frequency.

    1. What are you talking about?

      Amateur radio regulations are clear, and Winlink plainly reminds you, it is the responsibility of the operator (the one initiating contact with a Winlink gateway) to make sure the frequency is clear before transmitting.

      Winlink even helps you by displaying an indication if the channel is busy.

      And, in HF anyway, Winlink maintains and regularly updates a list of gateways you can (probably) work (and therefore HEAR) given current propagation, and won’t even LET you transmit on frequencies you probably can’t hear.

      I’d say Winlink is doing its due diligence here.

          1. I’m just a CBer, but.. I think it’s still the responsibility of any radio amateur to make sure transmissions are clean and causing no interference of any kind.

            Automated stations have to be supervised by the amateurs who’re maintaining them, too.
            They can’t be left alone all day, legally speaking.

            The person responsible for a local FM repeater must be around (in reach) to monitor the repeater, strictly speaking, and he/she must be available anytime (in person, via radio, phone or e-mail etc).

            That’s necessary, for example, if suddenly troublemakers (licensed or unlicensed) do appear on the local repeater and start to misbehave (hate speech, propaganda, utter nonsense).

            In such a situation, the responsible amateur must be available to react ASAP and for example, shut the repeater down (fellow amateurs who are standby on the repeater may report the current situation to the amateur in charge who then checks the repeater).

            All in all, it’s not unlike a moderator on a forum or of a comment section.

    2. Dead wrong; a properly implemented Winlink station checks for a clear channel before trying to connect to a Winlink mail box. All proper automated communication systems do this.

    1. Winlink isn’t encrypted – the commands to post, list, retrieve, delete, etc are in plain text. Winlink command set isn’t obscured or hidden, which is all that is required of any amateur radio protocol. Winlink is similar to any other personal bulletin board system found in TNCs for example, except that it adds structured routing between nodes.

    2. Proprietary does not mean encrypted.

      Winlink is neither proprietary or encrypted. Heck, in the interest of transparency they even go so far as to publish on the open web all the (US) traffic it passes.

      The (optional) VARA software modem is proprietary, closed source and sold for money. Don’t buy it if that irks you, but it has a free tier if you want to sit on the fence. If you choose to use the more open, slower protocols you might find some people don’t want to talk to you.

    3. I could have sworn that the law said something like “You cannot use codes or cyphers meant to obscure the meaning”. The last time I went looking for this language I couldn’t find it though. Did Part97 get changed?

      I point this out because if that is what the law says… technically it’s not a ban on encryption. It’s a ban on hiding the meaning of your message. The difference? What if control codes were transmitted using public/private key encryption? What if the decryption key was sent clear-text right along with the encrypted content. This could prove the sender is really who they say they are as no one else would have that encryption key. But the message would still be readable by anyone who wanted to.

      Add a timestamp to the encrypted portion to prevent replay attacks and this could be useful.

      I’ve never heard anyone else talk about encryption in ham radio in this way. I think it would make amateur radio a lot more interesting to the HaD crowd, or at least those frequencies which are available for auxiliary station use.

      I also think I remember there being a carve out, allowing encryption for the control of space stations. But with this you don’t have to do that. Unless… the command being sent to the space station needs to be secret. I’m pretty sure I remember reading that this space station carve out had been interpreted pretty liberally to include things like earth-bound repeaters that weren’t conveniently located for a control operator to access directly. Again… wouldn’t be necessary. Most repeaters I know of though either just use DTMF codes and trust the only people who even know they are there are other hams who don’t typically want to do bad things to the repeaters.. or they use landlines for the control signals.

      1. I have heard of this, of people trying to pry open a loophole by using encryption (literal translation is “to hide”) to save on bandwidth instead of explicitly to obscure comms. I’m not sure how it worked out for them.

        I wonder if anybody tries to encrypt their encrypt so to speak, for example by masking an encrypted datastream by hiding it in background noise of a voice conversation

        1. That reminds me of higher PACTOR modes using compression.

          I once read the compression isn’t being allowed on the ham bands.

          PACTOR 1 using FSK and no compression is safe to use, though.

          1. Pactor 2, and IIRC 3, is allowed because the information regarding their compression and encoding schemes is publicly available. It’s just that to use PACTOR levels higher than 1, you are required to have a rather expensive proprietary SCS modem. I have an SCS PACTOR 2 modem, which I use, but my non-SCS modems are all PACTOR 1 because SCS does not license out PACTOR technology above level 1.

      2. I think you are talking about authentication.

        Normally when people talk about “encryption”, they are referring to the use of cryptography to protect the confidentiality of data. This is not allowed in amateur radio.

        I am not aware of any rule that prohibits the use of crypto simply to protect the authenticity of data on ham bands.

    4. Not all proprietary systems are encrypted; PSK, PACTOR, Piccolo, FT8, and many other transmission schemes are legal because:
      1) the technical information regarding their encoding (not “encrypting”) schemes are publicly available, and
      2) their coding schemes are NOT MEANT to hide or obscure their message content.
      Encryption is generally a separate function which is laid on top of the plain text transmission scheme, and that is what is prohibited. Morse, ASCII, and RTTY are all “codes”, meant to allow transmission of data over communications networks, but are permitted because information to allow anyone to decode them is publicly available.

  3. I think its great that Hackaday is posting Amateur Radio related articles! (thanks guys, and its a big part of the Maker / electronics hobby for anyone interested in the subject!) :) much appreciated!

  4. From my Technician’s exam (many moons ago)

    T1 When is it permissible to transmit messages encoded to obscure their meaning?

    A. Only during contests
    B. Only when transmitting certain approved digital codes
    Correct Answer is C
    C. Only when transmitting control commands to space stations or radio control craft
    D. Never

    1. Hang on a second, I understand the control channel for an amateur space station ( e. g. satellite) but why a radio control craft? (not a ham – but it sounds from the wording that the craft can be on earth)

      1. This is actually for platforms like homebrew RC cars and planes– some models will use amateur bands for greater range and power allotments. It’s okay if the control signals aren’t human- or machine-legible and are intended for machine use only. You may still have to beacon a callsign every few minutes, though, and many RC controllers with amateur band capability will accept a programmed callsign and will beacon on your behalf.

        1. Ah, yes. I remember this, too.

          Though I’m more used to homebrew r/c projects using the old 27,12 MHz r/c frequency (used in my place here).

          The frequency was in 11m ISM/CB band and could be used by model makers and tinkerers.

          Back in the day, even building your own remote control was being allowed, if it was being quarz stabilized and if a registration formular was being filled out.
          A small fee was also necessary.
          If everything went okay, a license then was sent back to you via snail mail.

  5. Funny. I read the title and instantly thought about Winlink. It’s a very common way to send mails from remote places. I know someone who has a Winlink server running and he receives e-mails from stations all over the world. People connect to his antenna from thousands of kilometers away. His mail server handles quite a lot of mail, much more than I expected. His antenna is on top of a tall building, the tallest building in the area by a longshot. That building is build on top of a hill. Pretty cool tech.

  6. we have 21 century.
    Sorry but when we can use this band (eu need 169Mhz for ISM) in normal router. Or send a messager like tox, irc, matrix etc. (or reticullum)
    email is big, need servers , many new network no needs server (mute)

    I need simple modem usb like GSM and put normal to router and send receive emergency data

  7. “VHF/UHF … within a few miles” sounds a little pessimistic even though this is data and may be more limited than voice. I haven’t tried lately, but the furthest fm voice repeater I could probably hit from home is over 60 miles away, and people who go for distance or have elevated terrain on one side can do better than that. Even just a full size car-mounted antenna hooked up to a handheld radio should get into a good repeater from 10-30 miles if there’s no major obstructions or interference, so if that was a gateway instead…? On the other hand I admit you might not even make it a mile if it’s between two handhelds with bad antennas in the woods on opposite sides of a hill.

    1. Traditionally, radio amateurs are tinkerers, experimenters, pioneers. Not consumers. Real radio amateurs build and modify their equipment according to theie needs. That’s part of their nature, their independence and competence. Of course, like everywhere in life, there are black sheep, too. Amateurs who are into mindless consumption and using pre-made products and popular brands. They aren’t bad, just lost their way.

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