Sunday, November 27, 2011

WinLink Classic

Somewhat of a geeky post, sorry ...

One of my recent ham radio adventures has been setting up WinLink Classic, for purposes of participating in NTSD, the digital arm of the National Traffic System.

This software is "maintained" by the traffic handling underground, since the authors don't want to have anything to do with it any more.  That is what makes it an adventure.  Originally I was sent a complete "working" radio station for NTSD - computer, TNC (radio modem) & rig, which was supposed to get me up & running right away.

The antenna tuner in the rig can't handle my wire antenna, however.  No problem - a new TNC/rig cable got me going with Pactor on my own rig & computer (see next paragraph).  I have been using WINMOR, a sound card application, to access WinLink for many months now.  I very quickly discovered that Pactor is much faster & more usable in poor conditions than WINMOR seems to be.  (The down side is that the SCS PTC-IIex TNC is quite a bit more expensive than an external sound card for the computer.)  WinLink allows me to send traffic by "radio email" to NTSD MBO (mailbox operation) stations that can put it into the NTSD system.  The MBO stations, however, have to do a manual operation to accomplidh that, however.  Same with them sending me traffic by WinLink.  Running WinLink Classic, like the MBO stations do, would make this much more seamless & also allow automatic routing of traffic.

Being software from the Stone Age, WinLink Classic requires a Stone Age computer.  Windows XP works, but only if the software is installed in Windows 98 compatibility mode.  Also, TNC requires a serial port.  The supplied computer definitely fell into that era.  It would not recognize one quarter of its own memory.  The fan makes it sound like it's about to levitate.  And it's SLOW ...

I lucked out in this regard.  A friend of mine heard me complaining & offered an XP desktop machine that had been languishing under her desk for at least a year.  In summary, it works great!  And it's at least as fast as my laptop.  Now for the installation of WinLink Classic ...

There isn't any nice installation package downloadable from the Internet.  The NTS Pacific Area Digital Coordinator sent me a CD & spent 2.5 hrs on Skype with me getting the software installed & configured properly.  Part of the "voodoo" of running this stuff is that, if you make a configuration change & save it, you are likely to have to save it at least twice before it sticks.  He didn't know why & I certainly don't.  I have to say it still doesn't work exactly right.  It will connect with a local MBO station, but it insists on switching to "keyboard mode" instead of "BBS" mode, so nothing happens.  When the CW contest ends later today, I will try saving the config changes a few more times & try again.

(CQ WW CW pretty much precludes a Pactor connection, as all the CW parts of an open band are packed with signals.)

The goal is to be able to check into the 6th Region MBO seamlessly, pick up traffic for my Section & if needed, send traffic out that I can't manage to get onto the CW nets.  The future might include becoming a more-or-less continuously operating NTSD MBO, as a backup to the current 6th Region MBO.  That requires quite a bit more work - a dedicated antenna & an automatic tuner that will handle it.  Not going to happen tomorrow.

It would be nice, though, if the NTSD could eventually use supportable software.  What will happen, for example, when Windows 8 comes out & we can't get an XP compatible computer any more?