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HAMming It Up
by Mark Sedenquist

In the last couple of weeks the Road Wirer has received some questions about using the HAM radio network instead of cellular to access the Internet on the road. Megan and I have met a number of HAMs on the road who are using HAM radios and it might be a good alternative for some of our fellow Dashboarding pioneers. Amateur radio operators use the AMPRnet or Amateur Packet Radio Network. The AMPRnet supports the Internet protocols of TCP/IP, TELENET, FTP AND SMTP. It also supports the Packet Radio protocols of AX-25, NET/ROM and PBBS.

There are a number of abbreviations that users of e-mail and local area networks, (LAN) use every day without knowing what they are. One of the things I try and do is to demystify some of these odd terms and so a quick time-out: TCP = Transmission Control Protocol and IP = Internet Protocols were developed by the U.S. Government under the aegis of DARPA = Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency thirty years ago. In the last fifteen years the TCP/IP has come to be signify all of the combined protocols that have been developed to enable e-mail and web retrieval systems to operate. But the one I like the best is PING. When I first heard these term, way back in '96, my web guru-of-the-time sent a "ping" down the Internet path to test the routing path for a brand new Web site known as RoadTrip America. I assumed it was some sort of magical electrical signal. It actually was a "Packet Internet Gopher" that traced the routing path through the gateways to determine which of the local stations were active. Now, you know more than you probably wanted about "Pings!"

Back to amateur radios: There are a number of bandwidth allocations used by commercial and amateur radio users. Within the amateur bandwidths there are established frequencies which are reserved for packet data radio use. In each geographical area, local HAM groups have constructed repeaters which pick up the weak signals of mobile radios and then retransmit them at a higher wattage. In order to operate an amateur radio, a person must be licensed by the FCC. The easiest license to obtain, that allows access to the radio packet network, is the "Technician Plus." Information about how to obtain this license can be found at The American Radio Relay League, www.arrl.org

Once licensed, an operator needs a transceiver, a PC, the appropriate software to gain access to the packet radio network and an antennae. One of my Road Wirer correspondents, Patt Kipp estimates that such a set up can be obtained, (except for the PC) for about $1,000. There are some difficulties, first this is an amateur system and any use in a business application is prohibited by US law. Second, the routing system is less efficient than the public telephony used by the generalized Internet and substantial delays in delivery of e-mail can occur. Third, an operator needs a permanent base station, even if one's normal transceiver is mounted in a vehicle. For the needs of the Road Wirer this is not a perfect solution, but one that you might want to consider.

Mark Sedenquist
Oceano, California
June 14, 1999

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