HAM Radio 101

EMCOMM: The Value of Winlink in Emergency Communications

Winlink Global Radio Email®️, often referred to as just Winlink, is a worldwide radio messaging system that uses amateur-band radio frequencies and authorized government stations to provide radio pathway emails. It is capable of functioning completely internet-free and can pass attachments, position reporting, weather bulletins, emergency or relief communications, message relays, and various form templates. Also known as the Winlink 2000 Network (WL2K), the system is built and administered by volunteers and is financially supported by the Amateur Radio Safety Foundation.

So how do you use Winlink? First you need the email program on your computer or tablet. Winlink Express (formerly known as RMS Express) is the only client that supports the Winlink Hybrid Network and all new system features. The program only works on Windows platforms; Apple users need to use Windows virtually. There are some options for Linux users, but not all system options are supported, and the user must have experience with programming and Linux code to use these options.

So, you’ve downloaded the software. What’s next? An interface is needed between the software and radio. There are several different ways to go about this. You can use a Terminal Node Controller (TNC), whether internal or added on as a separate piece. With a TNC, the packet radio option would be used by sending the signal over a local U/VHF gateway. Another option is a Pactor modem for use on HF as well as U/VHF. Pactor is a digital data protocol combining elements of Packet and AMTOR ARQ. Many stations use this modem, usually in more remote areas; however, they can be quite pricey. Other options require the use of a USB digital communications interface, like SignaLink, in order to utilize a software-based TNC. These options work on both HF and U/VHF. Lastly, there is an option using standard internet known as Telnet. Although it doesn’t use radio signals at all and relies on commercial internet, it can be helpful in diagnosing simple radio connections from point to point.

Winlink is widely used in EMCOMM situations. Its complete lack of commercial dependency makes it a great backup communication system, especially while using HF. It also isn’t dependent on sending only to other amateurs. The system integrates fully with regular email servers, making it an ideal system when communication is down in one area but not another.

As ITU representative Miguel Alcaine noted in 2019:

It (Winlink) has a proven track record for emergencies. As recently as 2017, Winlink was extensively used in the aftermath of the high-impact hurricane season in the Caribbean and also after the earthquake in Mexico.

Questions? Share them in the comments below or email me at KE8FMJ@arrl.net.

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