HF Packet Operations

Hints and guidelines for operating packet radio
(mainly for HF, but may apply to VHF too...)

Packet communications on HF present special challenges to both novice and veteran operators alike. Whether this is your first day on the bands or your 20th year, HF packet is quite unique in that it feels like a point-to-point voice contact, but you must type to make it work, something like an instant message or a chat session, except the speed is notoriously slow, 300 Baud, and the bandwidth is not overly accommodating.

So what's the attraction? I suppose it has to be the potential allure of long distance communications, something that Hams love to talk, i.e. brag, about, and the possible international flavor of those contacts. You never know who you are going to bump into on the HF bands, an old long-lost friend, or a new contact from a far-off land. It can be full of surprises, much like its voice counterpart! (Back in the heyday of packet activity, I even made it across the pond a few times... see what I mean about bragging. Much of this also depends on your HF antenna ( Select List), another source that generates plenty of exagerated discussion.) Anyway...

So if you are a newcomer or newbie to this HF packet stuff, what can you do to improve your chances of "making a go" of this facet of the hobby? My first suggestion would be not to give up too soon. Many operators show up for a week, never to be seen again. A typical refrain is, "I called CQ, but no one ever came back to me." On HF packet, this is probably the norm. Remember, many operators are "around" but they are not glued to their rigs waiting for you to show up (SRI about that... ). As you know from voice, it doesn't always work that way. That's why there are BBS'es and Personal Mail Boxes in packet radio software. Many a contact consists solely of a message initiated with the "sp callsign" command line and saved with the "/ex" to be picked up and read at a later time. (This probably represents 90% of packet activity regardless of the band.)

However, you might get lucky! The station operator just might be in the shack and would be happy to take your call. As you can see, this availabillity depends on the style or culture of the packet network. Some networks are very informal and chatty while others seem strangely vacant or cooly distant. When I used to work VHF packet on the Cape, there were many retired operators who were faithfully manning their packet posts just waiting for a chat, no doubt they were simultaneously working voice too, but it seemed they always had time for a chat. When I began to work the Boston and Metro-West nets, I never, or hardly ever, was able to find anyone available for a chat. For a while I took this personally, but slowly realized that most of the Hams up this way are still working and contacts are predominantly made by using BBS mail facilities. Nets do have styles and cultures which seem to be based on location, perhaps urban vs rural, and the user population residing there. (You might keep this in mind for HF contacts and for VHF as well... )

Let's say you want to give HF packet a go. What do you need? The most difficult decision is how much HF resources are you going allocate using that "x" thousand dollar rig you just bought for the voice bands. Some operators own more than one HF rig and so their main concerns are staying on the air 24x7 or just during certain times of the day or night. If you have a second rig, you might consider the 24 hour option. However, most of us can't do that for various reasons. So, even if you operate voice, you might consider taking a time slot out of the day or late evening and switching your HF radio over to packet operation for a few hours. Consistency is probably more important than duration here. Stations are often used as relay points and it is very convenient to know when a station will be available on a regular basis.

Hardware options: there are a few. Firstly, if you are handy, it is possible to purchase older, flea-market or eBay equipment and then modify it for frequency stability. For example, Network 105 ( Index Page), an HF packet net, operates on 14.105 LSB. You could install a crystal, dedicating the rig to this mode and slice of the band. (The rig ought not to exceed a few hundred dollars.) Secondly, you might consider working HF packet on 10 meters. The up side is that you may run at 1200 but the down side is that 10 meters is exactly that, an up-and-down band, and not many packet operators can be found there consistently. It's alot like 10m voice, catch-as-catch can, and very dependent on conditions...

In regard to packet software, the sky is truly the limit. Excellent packages abound for both Microsoft and Linux platforms today! Very often, when you purchase a TNC, software is included. And for HF, the KAM makes a great starter since it can be specifically setup for HF and VHF operation. If you are thinking about running a server, the *NOS ( Select List) family of code is quite popular and is usually freely downloadable. And not least, APRS has gained significant momentum in recent years even among the former tcp/ip crowd. There is more than enough to choose from...

After you have setup ( Index Page) your station, it is always a good idea to take the time to listen to what is going on on the band before you dive in. Try to assess what type of activity is prevalent and how you think you can effectively join in. This is the "advice" you always get from an Elmer no matter what you are endeavoring, but it is time-tested wisdom that can make a huge difference in your enjoyment of the hobby. (I'll put the soap box away now :) Determine if the net is very informal and chatty or more formal and message oriented, or a possible mix. Most are a mix, and that mix can vary depending on the time of day or night. How you perceive this activity can determine how you advertise yourself via your IDs or Beacons ( Select List). Many operators keep several sets of Beacons, indicating that they are at the KBD and available, or are just around and accepting message connects on the BBS mail system. A clever Beacon ( today's samples) has been known to snag a host of contacts on a Saturday afternoon.

And perhaps the most important factor in all this is you, your willingness to participate in initiating contacts. The press that printed out those special private invitations broke years ago; take the initiative and reach out to your fellow hams even if you only leave them written messages in their BBS'es. Everyone loves to get a signal report and this is always a good opener and useful information on the HF bands. If it is really your first day on the band, or if you are transmitting from the space station, you will be swamped with calls, but after that you join the ranks of everyday working Hams just trying to keep the net going. Have patience, hang in there, and don't be afraid to be the first to "walk down the isle."

And last but not least is the potential for emergency ( Select List) operations. HF packet is not typically used in emergency situations, where those resources would probably be switched over to voice, but this doesn't automatically preclude its use. It is likely that it might find use in conjunction with VHF packet systems in the sending of email or emergency related documents. See if you can think of, and apply, a few new uses for HF packet in times of emergency.

(Courtesy KBNorton Computer Services)