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Going DIGITAL!



DIGITAL!   All the world is going digital..!
 
What about HAM radio??????
 
Please, this is not meant to undervalue the great and dedicated
contributions of all those HAM volunteers that work so hard at
public service, but tonight it just struck me ...   
 
With the upcoming public debut of the movie FREQUENCY and our
opportunity to display our hobby to millions, in the back of my
mind are thoughts about what would make the most impressive display
of amateur radio...  In that context I was driving home late,
and for the entire 30 minute commute, our local repeater was involved
in an EOC exercise.  The NET control was reading and spelling
what seemed like most of the words in a backlog of text messages.  In
that 30 minutes he passed about the same amount of traffic as
my THD7 HT could do in 5 seconds with packet.
 
I found myself wondering why, in the year 2000, our HAM radio
response to the loss of the public telephone service in an 
emergency, is to revert back to 1800's use of voice for reading
messages over a radio that is 100% fully capable of sending the
message 100 to 1000 times faster and ERROR FREE!
 
What happened to packet?  Every PC, every palm device, every digital 
device does (or at least SHOULD) have a plain ascii text capability.  
Our FIRST attempt at re-establishing message communications
should not be to drop back to voice, but should be hook up what we
have to try to establish plain ASCII DIGITAL links.
 
Instead of having these volunteers every 3rd Tuesday of every
month practice reading and spelling messages, wouldnt that time
be better spent teaching everyone how to plug a TNC into a serial
port and how to run HYPERTERM (or PROCOMM)?
 
With the Kenwood radios now coming with built in TNC's, the ONLY thing
I need to re-establish DIGITAL communications from my WALKIE TALKIE
is to remember to carry a serial port cable!  In fact, starting 
tomorrow, I am going to make sure that a serial port cable is included
in my car glove box, so that anytime, anywhere, I can establish
serial data comms using ANY available PC, laptop, or gizmo with a
serial port.
 
Yes, PACKET died.  BUT due to APRS we now have TNC's in HT's and in MOBLIE 
RADIOS.  Why could not PACKET come alive again and in fact THRIVE, 
as a COME-AS-YOU-ARE digital means to communicate messages IN EMERGENCEIS.
 
YES packet is alive and well in many areas.  But in MANY areas it is 
not.  I am only talking about those places.  I got the impression that 
"packet never really worked" in many statewide networks.  I think they 
tried to make it into a superwhammerdyne TCPIP networks that was 
just gaining momemntum when the internet killed packet radio.  
The result was that it only worked when the right gurus were
on each end and spent the whole drill just configuring things...  When
asked how they use it,  Besides shrugs, you got the impression, it 
didnt work, or no one new how to use it, or the network was never 
finished, or.....
 
So whats my point?  I donno.  But why cannot every HAM hook up a TNC
to a PC and use it to TALK to someone else?  I think its because we
made it too hard.  We put a variety of "PACKET SOFTWARE" between the
user and the TNC, such that no one then can operate his TNC without
using his favorite software...  This makes everyone equally crippled
when he needs to use someone elses TNC and software.
 
Why dont we forget all this software, and make sure that EVERY ham
is trained to operate his TNC with any dumb termianl software and 
let that be the fundamental basis for emergecny communications of
message traffic when the phones go out.  (NO HTML, no Attachments:-)
 
There is SO MUCH we can do with a radio and a digital link.  Why do
we totally ignore it in all of our emergency response drills.  Yes,
we still need voice training.  But we should not drop back to voice
for passing written message traffic until ALL ELSE FAILS.
 
Again, I am NOT knocking the voice stuff.  But I think we are 
overlooking an intermediate step in emergency preparedness.  At the
marathon this weekend the net control op  looked at APRS and
made the comment "I have a TNC and HT and complete portable packet
station, but there is no more use for it..."...  as he was sitting
there pulling his hair out because he could not communicate with
one of the checkpoints.  He was AMAZED when our 1W tracker drove  
through with perfect copy because we had directed a DRIVER with a D700 in
his car to go park on a hill nearby and be a DIGI...  THus, the D700 
instantly provided the link into the valley for error free data, yet 
there is no simple way he could do that on voice... and so quickly.
What he realized was that his old tandy 100 and HT packet COULD have
used that same digi to KEYBOARD to that checkpoint and he would have
had perfect comms.
 
BOTTOM LINE.  WE NOW HAVE DIGITAL HT's, we have MOBILE DIGIPEATERS,
WE HAVE GPS, we have APRS and we have digital satellites....   and we
have PC's EVERYWHERE.
HOW can we motivate HAMdom to use them effectively and to train to 
use them just like they spend so much  time training for voice?   
There is no excuse for every ham not having the where-with-all to 
hook up a TNC to the serial port of a PC and being able to establsih 
a digital link with it...
 
Rather than a 5, 13 or 20 WPM code exam, maybe the HAM TESTS should
require every operator to demonstrate this ability?
 
Just like we standardize on the NTS or ARRL Radiogram format for passing
message traffic, we need to assure that all operators can do a minimum
digital comm link.  AX.25 PACKET was becoming that standard up to about
1994.  But the problem was that with digital there is an infinite
number of bells and whilstles you can add to any software and soon we
cannot see the forest for the trees.   APRS is just as guilty.
 
I think the ARRL/TAPR should form a committee to come up with the
fundamental basics that ALL hams should learn so that anytime, anywhere,
they can use a radio to establish a digital link with ANY PC nearby.  Not
just their own.  Here might be a check list:
 
1) A DB-9 serial port cable for your TNC
2) A TNC to radio cable for your Radio
3) A 720K floppy with PROCOMM or other simple dumb terminal program on it.
 
Or, just the audio cables and a disk with SOUND-CARD "TNC" software.
Or your BAYCOM and a disk.   Whatever...
 
The software should RUN from the floppy.  Every operator should then know
how to:
 
1) Establish a connection (or send UI packets)
2) Edit a plain ascii text message or file
3) QSO via Keyboard or send a file
4) Set up his digipeater path
 
SOme will say this diatribe is archaic and that we should be working
on 56 KB data links and superdooper software and networks and all that
stuff.  Thats fine.  But NOT for come-as-you-are emergenceis when the  
phones go out or special events.  Some of the amateur EOC Packet 
systems I have seen are so complex that they are just as vulnerable 
to outages as the phone system they are trying to replace.
 
Yes, this idea is half-baked.  And I am NOT pushing APRS here.  But
amateur radio has had digital technology for 22 years and we are 
LOOSING it.  Instead of thinking of packet dying, think about what 
you can do with digital when it is built into your radio in your 
pocket and in your car?   We DID NOT HAVE THIS when packet died in 
1994...  We have it now...  And you have to be on a desert Island
not to have a PC nearby...
 
EVERYTHING IS GOING DIGITAL!....   What about ham radio???
 
de WB4APR, Bob
 



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