VE6MVP's Beginners Guide to Digital Ham Radio

Home Articles ARES Repair Kit Links

(Last updated 2013-01-05)

I'm particularly interested in the digital area of ham radio given my extensive applications designing and programming experience.   There are quite a number of interesting aspects to this ranging from long distance HF chatting to short range position reporting to bulletin board systems and email.    

Digital ham radio is particularly useful for exchanging messages in an ARES situation.  Voice messages are slow and error prone.  It can take five to ten minutes to accurately exchange a twenty five word message via voice.  Compare this to seconds even at 1200 bps.

<Insert overview of digital radio mentioning packet & BBS, APRS, Winlink 2000, digital chatting on HF and somewhat on VHF.  >

You need some means of moving the tones between your computer and your radio.   A Terminal Node Controller (TNC) is the older method of interfacing a serial port to the radio.   Devices which attach to the computer sound card line in and line out jacks, some also with serial port or USB connectors, have become quite popular as they are considerably cheaper.  

There are many software and hardware products which will do pretty much the same thing.  The links below are to specific products favourably mentioned by  hams both local to me and on mailing lists to which I subscribe.

APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System)


Winlink 2000 is now the system of choice for email and BBS.  Winlink 2000 has a very robust, distributed method of handling email via the Internet.   Interested hams or clubs can setup RF PMBOs to handle message traffic in their area so long as they have high speed Internet available.

One interesting feature is the ability to setup an RF link to a remote networked site and give each of the computers on that network an email address to send and receive email.   Limited attachment size.  <smile>

Loading WL2K User Programs aka Winlink 2000 for Dummies Assignments and mailing list for getting comfortable with Winlink 2000 without requiring a radio or TNC.

HAMS to the Rescue! Emergency communications in the wake of Hurricane Katrina came not from the government, but from a private army of amateur radio operators. Here’s how it worked.


Packet radio usage has dropped considerably with the advent of the Internet.  <insert more text>   WinLink 2000 has taken over much of it's role in the last few years.   This section is quite short at the moment as I haven't done much research in this area yet.

The Amateur Packet Radio Handbook by Jim KA7EHK

Interface devices

There needs to be some method of exchanging audio between the radio and the computer.  The two different methods are to hook up a TNC between the radio and a serial port or to use the computers sound card.  (At least one TNC works on a USB port.)

While it may be technically possible to run wires directly between your radio and computer this is definitely not recommended due to grounding and noise issues.   These devices will contain isolation transformers to assist with these problems.   If you want you can extract the transformers from old modems and build these devices yourself.   However I'm not quite interested in doing that.

Sound card

RIGblaster is one of the well known devices for hooking up to your computers sound card.  However the Rigblaster family of devices require you to change jumper cables whenever you change radios with a different mic cable or mic pin out.   Thus this is more suitable for the radio in the shack.

Rascal GLX is another well known device to your computer sound card.  This device has many different cables available which handle the various radios out there.   This is the one I will carry with me along with cables suitable for most of the radios I own.

To use the sound card also requires that you have software such as AGW Packet Engine to encode and decode the packets.  For detailed step by step instructions visit the Sound Card Packet website. 

Hint:  If you are in an area with a significant amount of APRS activity set your radio to the APRS frequency and see if AGWPE is receiving the packets just fine by using the Tuning Aid.   I also set another radio to the APRS frequency just so I could hear get some audio feedback.  

I then ran UI-View, set the Comms Setup Host Mode to AGW and was quite happy to see some APRS packets in the bottom panel of UI-View.


KPC-3+ Packet Communicator is the standard for devices between the radio and the computer however it is relatively expensive.

TNC-X is another such device and has the advantage of having the source code for the firmware available and is considerably cheaper.

USB Micro TNC family is yet another set of such devices.


Ham Radio Deluxe (HRD) is a suite of free Windows programs providing remote control for commonly used transceivers and receivers. HRD also includes mapping and PSK31 software.

MixW is a multimode program for hams. It will help you in regular and contest QSOs.  You only need a soundcard to use this software and do not need a TNC.


Comments and suggestions from Ron VE6SJA, Ray VE6RHS, Curt WE7U, James VE6SRV, Bob WB4APR and David AD6ME

Website copyright 2004-2013 Tony VE6MVP