Digital communications via amateur radio is a powerful tool for emergency communications. It allows stations setup in shelters or other deployed locations to transmit formal messages or forms via email. Winlink is one software application that provides the ability to compose, send, receive, and manage digital communications over an analog radio. The Winlink organization also maintains a complete global infrastructure for processing these emails over the internet, using radio for the ‘last mile’.
How does it work?
Just like an ‘old school’ acoustic modem, digital radio works by taking digital data and translating the bits into sounds. Then the sounds are transmitted over the air and re-translated back to digital information on the other end. The specific way that the data is encoded, packaged for transmission, and reassembled is the protocol.
Winlink is a complete end-to-end system that enables a radio operator to send emails and forms to any email address, or directly from one radio to another.
Winlink provides three primary modes of operation:
- Direct radio to radio transmission of emails and forms,
- Transmission via radio to a ‘gateway’ which then uses the internet to send the emails, or,
- Full communication over the internet, by passing the radio completely.
But wait, no radio at all? Why use Winlink?
Good point, if you aren’t using the radio, why not just use your regular email client? There are a couple of reasons for doing it this way. The first is that the Winlink system uses a common interface, regardless of the method that is use to transmit/receive a message. This means that once you get used to sending emails, files, forms, or images using the telnet mode, you have learned how to do those thing using any available mode from a gateway to peer to peer over HF. The second is that, when the internet is available it is much faster than radio. Over the internet you might be sending a 10 kilobyte form in under a second, but it might take a minute via radio – in and EmComm situation seconds can count. So let’s get you set up with telnet Winlink first!
Telnet is used to send a message to the CMSs (Common Message Servers) which hold the message. When the recipient of the message logs into the CMS, they receive the message, also via Telnet. The Winlink program is used to log into the CMS. Note that this requires internet access. This is known as a ‘store and forward’ model – there is no need for the recipient to be on the air (or on-line) when you send your message. The CMS system will store the message until they log in, then send it to them.
Getting Winlink Setup
- Download the Winlink program onto your computer
- Setup an account with the Winlink Server, and
- Send an email
Download Winlink Express
The first step is to get the software on your machine. Goto the Winlink Download page and follow the instructions to download the most recent version. You will need to install it on a Windows based computer (there are other packages that work with Macs and Linux computers)
Once the installation is completed, you will need to configure a few things. When you start the program you will see a screen like this:
This is a pretty standard email display. The Header has a lot of options, including
- new message
- reply all
You have different folders for inbox, deleted, etc. The upper panel shows the contents of the current folder (inbox in this case) and the main right panel shows the message contents. About the only thing that is odd is in the upper right corner where you see “Open Session Packet Winlink” this is where you tell the program how you want to send and receive your messages. “Packet Winlink” says, use the radio, not the internet. You will also see in the upper left a box with a call sign in it, and next to that is a menu item for “Settings”, that where we go next.
Setting up your Winlink Account
Click Settings under the window title. This screen will open. Fill it in with your information. You should register your copy of Winlink Express, if you don’t like to be nagged to do so. Fill in the registration code.
There are 4 things you must change:
- Enter your call sign
- Create a password
- Add a password recovery email
- Put in your Grid Square
- Add Service Codes : PUBLIC and EMCOMM
Optionally you can add your Contact information.
Once this is done you will press the Update Button, this will send your info to the CMS servers at Winlink, and set up your account. After a bit, you should get an email sent to your recovery email address with the rest of the setup.
A note on the Winlink Express registration key:
- This is not required – but I recommend that you sign up for one. It helps the Winlink people cover the costs of maintaining all the servers, and doing software development.
- If you don’t register there are two small penalties:
- There is a 5 second or so delay when you lauch the Winlink Express program with a nag about not having a registration key, and
- In some modes you may have more limited speed.
Okay, once you get your confirmation from the nice folks at Winlink, you are ready to send your first Winlink email!
Sending your first Winlink email
From here it is pretty straightforward. You are going to:
- Draft an email
- Post it to your ‘outbox’
- Connect to a CMS server and send it.
Draft an email:
To draft an email either click on the message tab on the menu bar, then select New Message, or click on the ‘New Message’ icon on the tool bar – the one on the far left that looks like a sheet of paper.
When the email draft message pane opens you need to do 4 things (See the boxes in the image):
- Confirm that it is being sent from your call sign
- Make sure it is being sent as a Winlink Message
- Check the box for a return receipt
- Send the email to KE0ONS
A quick note on the last item. If you are sending to another Winlink account, all you need is their call sign, or a tactical call (Some responses will create special email addresses like “ARC-Niwot-Shelter” to help track the messages, just like a tactical call sign.) If you want to send to a non-Winlink email, you can just put in any email address and it will get sent.
Once you are happy with your email, there is one more step.
Modern email assumes that you are always connected, so it gives you a simple send button. With radio email this isn’t true – you only connect when your radio is on and connected to a destination. So, instead of “SEND” you post your email to the outbox (think of it as dropping a snail-mail letter into a mailbox, when the carrier picks it up it gets put into the system), So, click on the ‘Post to Outbox’ on the menu bar.
The email draft window will go away, and if you look at the main window ‘System Folders’ panel, you will see that the Outbox Folder has 1 new message ready to be sent.
Select a session
Now that you have an email ready to go, you need to decide how you want it to be sent. You need to select a session. If you are just getting started, you probably only have one choice – you need to send it by internet. Later we will get you set up with a lot more options, be patient!
On the upper menu bar of the main window is a pull-down list on the right. it is labeled “Open Session:” open the pull-down and scroll to the top to select ‘Telnet Winlink’ After that, you will click on the ‘Open Session:’ label (it is really a button), and a session window will pop up.
Sending Email via the Internet
This is the simplest session window, and it is almost all automatic. All you need to do is press “Start”
When you do that, the system will connect to the CMS server, It will then send everything in your outbox. Next it will check to see if you have any incoming emails and download them if you do. Finally it will disconnect. Once you have the disconnect message, you can close the window.
That’s it – you have just sent your first email using Winlink!
The gentle introduction will continue with:
- Winlink Hardware Setup – connecting via gateway (VHF/UHF)
Winlink Peer to Peer operations – no internet required
Winlink HF Operations – going global
Winlink and Winlink Express are registered trademarks of Winlink.org