HF email changes mean faster service

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Coast stations that provide email via SSB radio are changing hands, expanding coverage and improving their equipment and software to deliver enhanced services.

SCS Communications’ new PTC II-Pro Pactor modem features enhanced DSP and is software upgradeable to the new Practor III protocol.

This wave of change started with the purchase of PinOak Digital by SeaWave LLC in April 2001. SeaWave now operates station WPC in Gladstone, N.J., with corporate headquarters relocated to Middletown, R.I. Marketing Director Mike Cunningham said SeaWave will continue to support the recreational market, along with commercial subscribers, with a new rate structure that caters to high-volume business users. The company plans to expand the reach of their system by adding stations abroad and on both U.S. coasts. It will introduce new Windows-driven client software this year.

On the equipment front, Pactor modem manufacturer SCS Communications unveiled their new PTC II-Pro modem last June. This announcement followed the release of a new maritime firmware upgrade for SCS modems with features that may determine the future direction of HF email. The new Pactor IP Bridge, or PIB, lets a PTC II emulate a standard Hayes-compatible modem and supports internet-standard TCP⁄IP and PPP protocols using Pactor. With adoption by service providers, PIB theoretically allows the use of off-the-shelf software for HF email, and might support Internet browsing and file transfer via Pactor II.

MarineNet Radio, which operates station WKS in Jupiter, Fla., was among the first to take the PIB plunge. Using Calypso Wireless software, WKS owner John Heron claims to achieve a 30 to 60 percent speed advantage over standard Pactor II solutions, thanks largely to Calypso's on-the-fly data compression. The software can be configured for operation with Globalstar satellite phones and conventional landline connections, keeping a user's email in one place regardless of how it is received. MarineNet plans to expand coverage in the Pacific region early this year, via a new station in Seattle.

In August, New Jersey-based Telaurus Communications acquired the assets of classic public coast station WLO in Mobile, Ala. The purchase included WLO's sister stations KLB in Washington state and WSC in New Jersey. According to Doug Olsen, vice president of marketing and support for Telaurus, WLO's legacy services, including voice phone-patch, will remain in place along with improved Pactor HF email services. In a move to strengthen appeal with the cruising community, WLO introduced a new premium price plan offering rates discounted by 50 to 80 percent for users who pre-register and keep a credit card number on file.

Meanwhile the not-for-profit SailMail Association continues to expand, with new stations in Texas and Belgium and expanded service in Australia. Both SailMail users and amateur radio operators using the Winlink 2000 system can take advantage of improved email software in the form of AirMail version 3.0. Released by developer Jim Corenman for general use in November 2001, AirMail now includes a built-in propagation window to help choose appropriate operating frequencies. Another new feature for hams and SailMailers alike lets AirMail retrieve messages via a direct Internet connection when available. Amateur users get a reorganized and improved catalog for retrieving weather and other bulletins, while SailMail users get an improved Saildocs Internet subscription service to receive text weather bulletins.

SCS Communications broke new ground again in December with their announcement of a new Pactor III protocol. With a reported data rate of 3,200 baud (given very good signal conditions), Pactor III is four to five times faster than the present Pactor II standard and quicker than many satellite options. However, increased speed comes at the cost of increased bandwidth, and the most likely beneficiaries of Pactor III will be commercial users operating powerful radio installations. The protocol is available as a software upgrade to existing SCS Pactor II modems, and both the coast station and the mobile must be operating a Pactor III modem to achieve the faster data rate. Which service provider will be the first to embrace this new standard remains to be seen.

With new faces in industry leadership positions, plans for expansion and continuous improvements in the underlying technology, the prospects for those who embrace HF email as an offshore communications option remain good.Tim Hasson

By Ocean Navigator