EMCOMM / Technical Articles

EMCOMM: What is the NTS?

The National Traffic System (NTS) is a field organization of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL). It’s comprised of a network of amateur radio operators who relay messages throughout the United States and Canada. The purpose of this network is to have operators trained and equipment working so the system can be used when needed.

Messages are sent in the standard ARRL Radiogram format. During normal times messages are routine greetings like “Happy Birthday.” The Radiograms are relayed through amateur radio operators within a series of formal networks. The message is eventually delivered to the intended person, amateur or not, by any means necessary, including telephone or regular email. When there is an emergency or disaster, the NTS works closely with the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) to provide emergency communications. The most common type of disaster-related messages are “health and welfare” inquiries and notifications into and out of the area affected by the disaster.

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How are NTS Messages Handled?

From the ARRL:

Messages are usually relayed using a system of manual “nets,” (short for “networks.”) NTS nets are on-the-air meetings of message handlers at an appointed time and a designated frequency. There are four levels of nets, each covering broader territoryLocal, Section, Regional, and Area. Local nets are usually on VHF, all others are on HF frequencies. Local nets relay messages to and from the Section nets; Section nets to the Region nets; Region nets to the Area nets. These nets are held throughout the day in order to move messages around the country. (Only designated operators participate in the Region and Area nets. These nets are not open for general participation.) Manual NTS nets operate in a variety of modes such as CW, voice and teletype.

The National Traffic System is not limited to any specific mode or frequency. The goal is to handle formal written traffic systematically, by whatever mode best suits the purpose. SSB, CW, RTTY, AMTOR, packet or other digital modes can be used for passing traffic; the specific mode is up to the Net Manager. Sometimes there is a mixed mode net where multiple modes can be used. From the ARRL: “One of the most important features of NTS is the system concept. No NTS net is an independent entity which can conduct its activities without concern for or consideration of other NTS nets. Each net performs its function and only its function in the overall organization. If nets fail to perform their functions or perform functions intended for other nets, the overall system may be adversely affected.”

As noted by the ARRL, all NTS officials must be current ARRL members; resolve Net, TCC function and Digital Relay Station problems in cooperation with the Area Staff Chairman and the Field Services and Radiosport Manager, as appropriate; expand NTS capabilities, especially in the areas of system redundancy/reliability and emergency/disaster communications; issue certificates to Net or function operators as required; and report monthly on Net/function activity to ARRL headquarters

Further, no action or recommendation of an Area Staff will usurp the broad prerogatives of individual TCC Directors, Area Digital Coordinators, Region and Area Net Managers in matters concerning the internal operation of the net, or function, except in those subject to review by the full Area Staff due to possible impact on the System external to the net.

In discussing the importance of NTS, the ARRL says it best:

Formal traffic handling is an essential part of Amateur Radio emergency communications public service as well. Effective ARES/RACES operations need not invent a new wheel to accomplish this. Where formal traffic handling is required, cooperative effort and training between NTS operators and those of ARES/RACES will produce benefits for the overall effort. The distinction between the groups with respect to traffic handling can be made to vanish. ARES and RACES operators can become NTS operators within their domain.

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

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