Winlink 2000: An NTS Gray Area?

Recently, I’ve been having mixed thoughts about NTS stations passing traffic via the Winlink 2000 (WL2K) radio email system.
WL2K is a nifty system that allows people to get Internet email via a radio connection. It’s especially useful to operators at sea. They or anyone else can send and receive email with a computer, a sound card interface and a ham rig. As long as they can connect to any of many gateway stations worldwide, they can send email and retrieve email that’s waiting for them.
The system does not store email at the gateway station. It stores it via the Internet on multiple, identical, redundant Common Message Servers (CMS). In short, when a WL2K user connects via radio to a gateway station, that gateway station connects via the Internet to one of the CMS to exchange email.
So, what does this have to do with NTS? Well, some NTS officials have proposed a change to NTS Methods and Practice Guidelines that would officially incorporate WL2K into NTS. But that’s not what I’m writing about here.
What’s on my mind is what’s happening in the meantime. Some NTS operators are using WL2K radio email to complete traffic assignments they receive on phone (voice) nets. For example, it’s not unusual for a station on a region net to check in, list 10 messages for one of the sections and then tell the section representative that the traffic will move via radio email.
Is this a problem? I’m not really sure. Maybe not. But here’s the part I find interesting:
The history of NTS has been “radio all the way.” For example, if I check into a section net and pass a message for California to a region net representative, that station is expected to retransmit the message on the region net via radio to an area net representative. NTS would frown on him telephoning it to the area net representative or sending it to the area net rep. via Internet email. He’s supposed to move it on the air.
But if my region representative sends the message to the area net representative via WL2K, he is necessarily sending it over the Internet. This is true even if he uses his radio to connect to a WL2K gateway station. It’s true even if the area net rep. later connects via radio to the same WL2K gateway station to pick it up. The message will still have traveled via the Internet to and from a WL2K CMS.
Now, imagine this scenario: W9AAA tells N9BBB on the phone region net that he’s sending him traffic via radio email. W9AAA then connects via radio to WL2K gateway K9RMS and sends my California-bound message. When N9BBB tries to connect to K9RMS later, propagation has changed and K9RMS can’t hear him. So, he connects instead to WL2K gateway N6RMS and picks up the message. The message route would look like this:
W9AAA—(radio link)—K9RMS—(Internet link)—CMS—(Internet link)—N6RMS—(radio link)—N9BBB
From a practical viewpoint, I wonder if the above route is really all that different from K9RMS putting my message in a regular Internet email to N6RMS. Or for that matter, is it really different from K9RMS calling N6RMS on the telephone with my message?
And the area gets even grayer. Referring again to the example above, W9AAA doesn’t even have to use his radio to put the message on WL2K. The same software with which stations connect via radio to WL2K can also connect directly to a WL2K CMS via the Internet. So it’s possible for all those NTS stations using WL2K to move their phone net traffic to each other without radios! Of course, we assume they use their radios and not the available direct Internet links. But to a purist like me (I admit it!) the whole thing seems, well, gray.
Don’t read what I’m not writing! I’m mostly thinking out loud here and I do not condemn the use of WL2K. As I said at the beginning, it’s a nifty system and using WL2K radio links to get Internet email the “last mile” into and out of a disaster area is an especially excellent idea.
I just wonder sometimes whether using it routinely in connection with our phone nets is in keeping with the spirit of NTS. I don’t know. I just wonder. What do you think? Click the “comments” link below and add your thoughts.

Traffic Handling and Antique Engines

Have you ever been to a county fair or similar event and saw an area with guys sitting around running very old “hit-and-miss” engines? Today, those engines are anachronisms. But many people get enjoyment out of restoring them, running them and displaying them. Sometimes, I feel how those guys must feel when I’m handing traffic on ham radio, especially using Morse code.

There was a time, not too many decades ago, when the American Radio Relay League’s (ARRL) National Traffic System (NTS) served a real purpose on a day-to-day basis. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, people often hesitated to make long-distance telephone calls, because such calls were expensive. It wasn’t unusual for them to turn to their neighborhood ham radio operator to send a free radiogram for simple greeting messages, like “happy birthday.” The NTS was full of real messages being relayed on behalf of real people. And if a disaster stuck, citizens and government officials relied on NTS to fill in for incapacitated telephone and other communication systems.
Things sure are different today. Most people have telephone plans (either landline or cellular) that include long distance. Most have email, not to mention text messaging, Facebook and Twitter. There’s no longer incentive for the general public to use ham radio to wish someone a happy birthday. Even disasters don’t always create a big demand for ham radio. Many (if not most) local emergency managers are equipped with satellite phones that will put them in touch with the outside world even if landline telephone, cellular telephone and Internet services are unavailable. And it takes a pretty huge incident to disconnect the Internet. Not long after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, pictures of the scene were showing up on web pages and Twitter, provided by “citizen journalists.”
So, why do I invest my time practicing a craft that has little practical value except in the most dire of circumstances (e.g. something even bigger than the 2010 Haiti earthquake)? Well, I’ve never talked to one of those hit-and-miss engine hobbyists but I suspect I handle traffic for the same reason they keep their antique machines running.
It’s fun. I enjoy it.
There’s a certain order to traffic handling procedures that gives me comfort. Even if I’m relaying a “mail merge” radiogram addressed to some unsuspecting ham by someone who sent it only to provide “grist for the mill,” I get a feeling of accomplishment from keeping my skills honed. So, yeah, I realize I might never be pressed into service to handle real emergency traffic. But I know I can. And I enjoy the exercise. I’d be interested in hearing your reasons for participating (or not participating, as the case might be).