Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Winlink 2000, Boone Barker KC7RK, no. 68

The Winlink 2000 System: E-Mail by Radio for Radio Amateurs
Boone Barker, KC7RK

This paper provides a brief introduction to the Winlink 2000 system—what it is and how it works, and how to become a user.

To start, here are a couple of defining quotes from the Winlink web site at .

“Winlink 2000 (WL2K) is a worldwide system of volunteer resources supporting e-mail by radio, with non-commercial links to internet e-mail.”

“To use the Winlink 2000 system, you must hold an Amateur Radio license or be a member of a supported organization or agency. Use of the system and all software is free of charge for those who qualify.”

So Winlink is global, with access around the world. It is developed and supported entirely by volunteers. It is free. The system provides e-mail services to licensed Radio Amateurs without access to the internet such as mariners at sea or expeditions in remote areas.

In addition, a growing number of government agencies and organizations have included WL2K in their emergency communication plans. Winlink 2000 can provide user -to-user e-mail services in a familiar format from inside a disaster area, using only a radio to connect to the outside world.

Elements of Winlink 2000
At the heart of the WL2K system are five mirror image, redundant Common Message Server (CMS) hubs. They are located in San Diego (USA), Wein (Austria), Perth (Australia), Halifax (Canada), and Washington DC (USA). With this redundancy, the system will remain operational even if large segments of the internet are down.

Connected to the five CMS sites are a multitude of Radio Message Server (RMS) nodes, like spokes on a wheel. Traffic flows between the CMS hubs and the internet e-mail recipient, and between the end users and the RMS gateways.

As an aside, the term “PMBO” (for a participating mailbox) is being phased out, but still shows up in Winlink writings.

The radio network has both RMS HF stations and RMS VHF/UHF Packet stations.

RMS HF stations form a controlled and frequency-coordinated global network of Winlink stations. The HF stations all use Pactor, a digital ARQ mode that transfers text files and graphics quickly and error-free. Pactor 2 and 3, the faster modes, are only available on TNC’s produced by SCS in Germany. The WL2K Development Team is working on WINMOR, a new HF transmission protocol that will be freely distributed. It will complement, not replace Pactor; RMS HF stations will be able to handle both modes.

RMS VHF/UHF Packet stations are also part of the network, providing automated messaging capability using AX.25 packet radio in combination with the WL2K Common Message Servers. Although limited in range, RMS Packet stations are widely available in the United States and a few other countries. RMS Packet can provide regular local access to Winlink, or a temporary emergency portal for radio e-mail users, or for fixed installation at unattended remote locations where it can provide radio e-mail communications to the “last mile.”

The locations of public and emcomm RMS stations are shown in maps on the Winlink web site. Related status tables list station call sign, with frequency and mode and grid locator. Note that information about frequencies used by RMS HF emcomm stations is limited to authorized sysops and users.

WL2K Client Software
Paclink is a Winlink 2000 radio e-mail client that links to common e-mail programs such as Outlook Express and Mozilla Thunderbird. Paclink adds telnet, VHF packet radio, HF Pactor radio and WINMOR HF radio channels for WL2K connectivity to compatible user e-mail client programs. Installation and configuration are relatively easy.

Airmail is the oldest and most widely used e-mail program for sending and receiving messages on the Winlink system. Airmail supports HF Pactor, VHF/UHF Packet, and telnet connections over any TCP/IP medium including the internet and high-speed radio media like D-Star. Airmail also has position reporting capability, and a very nice HF propagation prediction program. It can be linked to common e-mail programs such as Outlook Express. Installation and configuration are somewhat difficult, but a nice guide is available; just Google “INSTALLATION AND SETUP FOR WINLINK AIRMAIL”.

Airmail is a stand-alone e-mail program. The primary drawback of Airmail is that it only works with a short list of hardware modems. But it is well suited for WL2K HF connections using a Pactor modem. And the latest version of Airmail 3.3.081 can be used with AGW Packet Engine and a soundcard to make VHF/UHF packet connections, by installing AMPE software. See web site.

On the other hand, Paclink has to be linked with an e-mail program. But it works with a wide variety of hardware TNC’s and modems and with AGW Packet Engine. TNC initialization scripts can be modified by the user. Also, scripts can be used to connect through a digipeater or packet node. CMS Telnet is simple and easy on Paclink, to send and receive WL2K messages on an internet connection.

Both programs are free to download from the Winlink web site.

Other software
AGW Packet Engine (AGWPE) handles traffic between your TNC or soundcard and packet programs that are configured to use AGWPE. It is free to download from the web site. A lengthy tutorial for installation and configuration is located at .

Winlink 2000 RMS Packet gateways can also be accessed with regular packet software, to compose and send a message from the keyboard. Just connect to the RMS Packet node and read the greeting. Type H for help and then follow the instructions to compose a message. This is perhaps the easiest way to try out Winlink if you already have a packet setup.

For telnet connection to a CMS, the only hardware needed is a computer with internet access. WL2K e-mail through RMS Packet stations requires a VHF radio, a compatible TNC or modem or soundcard, and necessary interface cables.

To connect with an RMS HF gateway on Pactor 1 requires that you have any one of the hardware TNC’s on setup lists in Airmail or Paclink. Pactor 2 or 3 requires that you have a Pactor TNC made by SCS . These cost $1,000 or more.

How do you get started?
First and obviously, you need an amateur radio license. With that, here is a suggested initial sequence.

Go to, register on the web site, and download Paclink or Airmail—your choice. Install and configure the software for telnet to a CMS site. Compose a test message to your internet e-mail address. Send the message using the telnet connection. When that is successful, reply to your Winlink e-mail address.

Another option: if you already have an operational packet setup, use it to connect to a local RMS Packet node. The Winlink web site has a map that shows all of the active RMS Packet stations. Just zoom in on your local area and pick them out. Then go to the Reports tab on the Winlink Web site, scroll down to RMS Packet Status, and look up frequencies of those stations in the table. Sometimes these local nodes are not functioning. So if you don’t get a connection, try another station.

With your first radio or telnet e-mail you will be registered in the WL2K system. Your e-mail address will be [your call]

You can use WL2K client software with packet and your TNC if it is listed in the setup for Paclink Packet TNC Channels or in Airmail VHF Packet Client Setup. Check out the TNC using a simple terminal program. Then try connecting to one of the local RMS Packet stations.

If you want to use a soundcard for packet, first download and install AGW Packet Engine. Create a new radioport for your soundcard. Then configure Paclink or Airmail to use AGWPE. Remember that Airmail requires that AMPE be running. There is a link to AGWPE is the Airmail TNC list but it is not functional.

You might also want to download AGWTerninal, and AGWMonitor from the SV2AGW web site. They are free. AGW Monitor lets you see all the traffic to and from your TNC/modem/soundcard, and AGWTerminal is a nice simple terminal program. AGWTracker is a simple APRS program, also nice. All require that AGWPE or Packet Engine Pro be running.

If an online course is to your liking, there is a “Winlink for Dummies” course that takes you through all the steps. It can be accessed through www/

Some recommendations
You should always format WL2K e-mail messages in plain text. HTML format adds unnecessary bytes to the message. Attachments should be made as small as possible.

Learn about the Winlink Whitelist and how to work with it. This is an anti-spam filter. E-mails to your Winlink e-mail address need to have //WL2K in the subject line or they will be rejected—unless they come from an e-mail account on your Whitelist. E-mail addresses on outgoing messages are automatically added to your Whitelist.

When you configure a radioport in AGWPE for SignaLink USB, select an unused printer port (LPT3) as your PTT port. It’s easy to hang up at this point in the setup.

Winlink 2000 has been used since 1999 by Radio Amateurs at sea and in the jungles to send e-mail messages by radio. As a result of experience in Katrina recovery operations and other disasters, Winlink has been included in operational plans of a growing number of emcomm organizations such as RACES and ARES units, Red Cross, MARS, Baptist Relief, and the Salvation Army.

Another defining quote from the Winlink web site:

“The WL2K mission is to provide, through a volunteer network, effective last resort communications in civil emergencies and personal communications in non-emergency conditions.”

As a Radio Amateur, you may already have experience with packet radio—that’s all you need to access Winlink by radio. Another simple start involves connecting by telnet over the internet. And if you are already a Winlink user, you might consider becoming the sysop for your own RMS Packet station. Software and guidelines are on the web site.

So have fun setting up Winlink and trying it out. It might well be very useful in an emergency, to you and to your community.

September 9, 2009

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