June 7, 2004

Concerned hams question amateur radio choice of closed code and controller

Author: Jay Lyman

Amateur emergency radio is all about helping out, quickly, dependably, and without charging fees, in a time of need such as terrorist incidents and natural disasters. Now some ham radio operators, who have evolved from a network of high-tech hobbyists to a Federal Communications Commission-regulated radio service, are worried that a recommendation for proprietary software and hardware for the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) may close out communications and communicators.

An American Radio Relay League (ARRL) ad-hoc committee on ARES has recommended the adoption of two proprietary technologies -- Winlink 2000 software to bridge radio frequency and Internet connectivity and the Pactor II and III controllers -- as standard for the national public service and emergency radio organization.

The ARES Communications Ad Hoc Committee (ARESCOM) argues that to provide a means of quickly moving high volumes of radio email traffic across the nation, the Winlink 2000 system (WL2K) and Pactor II/III is the most feasible and can be combined with existing resources or deployed as new.

"The WL2K system provides for the movement of radio email with multiple addressees, multiple copies, blind copies, and encoded binary attachments between all client email applications," said the ARESCOM recommendation. "Compression is used to conserve valuable spectrum."

ARESCOM claims the move is an efficient use of spectrum that will allow more simultaneous access and provide room for the growth of data rates to better align with wired networks and future commercial wireless networks. The main idea behind the recommendation is to digitally complement existing voice communication.

"It is not meant to be a replacement for such longstanding and proven services," ARESCOM's documentation says, referring to current technologies of ARES and the National Traffic System (NTS), which is used to systemize amateur radio traffic.

However, some higher-up hams say that while the committee may not be going entirely pro-proprietary -- or at least they deeply hope not -- the ARESCOM committee does not realize the problems of proprietary software and hardware. The individuals, who have asked to remain anonymous to avoid loss of access and influence, say amateur radio and open source are aligned in community spirit, as well as technical symmetry.

After the committee recommendation, hams looking into the matter have have reportedly uncovered limitations to only NTS and ARES communications in the Winlink documentation, limiting ham freedom. There are also concerns about the price of the personal mailbox station (PMBO) with the recommended hardware and software, which takes the average price of a ham setup from a few hundred dollars up to around $3,000, according to one ham who is concerned.

Another issue with the recommendation from ARESCOM, which will consider finalization of the move at its board of directors meeting in July, is that ARES communications are not normally conducted through formal messages, instead relying on voice communication coming into an Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which is better served with a "chat" mode and phone patching.

"Most of the local EOC emergency coordinators don't feel that Winlink will be of much benefit," says a source with ARRL.

A third issue involves the manufacturer of the Pactor II and III units. Some question whether it can keep up with hardware demand, and wonder what the results would be if it exits from the business or existence.

"These questions need to be answered and considered by the committee members, and the ARRL directors need good answers before they proceed," the source says.

Yet another issue arises from the fact that -- as is often the case with proprietary solutions and people's positions -- two of the ARRL committee members are also on the Winlink Development Team.

"The ARRL ARESCOM is a work-in-process and I have been asked not to provide
details until they have been made officially public by the ARRL," said the ARRL's Steve Waterman, who is also a Winlink 2000 developer. "I can tell you that the objective is meant to provide seamless, end-to-end email from the desktops of the offices in the served agencies with no invasive software behind the agency firewall. It is meant to do this using the existing email agents on the desktops.

"Further the objective is to accomplish this with no
Internet available," Waterman added. "Incidentally, Pactor plays a minor role, if any at all, in this scenario."

The ARESCOM committee did leave the door cracked open with its reference to Winlink's binary B2F protocol. B2F purportedly delivers 44 percent compression and "excellent error correction," making it a good means to link radio and Internet communications. A FAQ document notes that "Nothing has yet been discovered that is more robust, and should it be found, it will be used. Likewise, should a more robust or efficient mode be discovered to wrap around the B2F protocol, we will certainly be using it."

Hams with open source sympathies have put out a call for papers or proposals on an alternative, preferably open source and inexpensive.

"Certainly amateur radio would welcome any and all open source [ideas]; we do 802.11a/b/g and are really interested in high-speed, robust data on HF as well as 56 Kbps and higher data on VHF and UHF frequencies," says an ARRL source.

Waterman said proposed solutions should go to Dick Mondro, vice director for the ARRL Great Lakes Division and chairman of ARESCOM.