Emergency WWW via Packet Radio & More

Providing for the vulnerable

This is a demonstration of several cool features I have added to a regular packet radio switch, one of which enables access to crucial information that would otherwise have be unobtainable for a vulnerable and isolated radio amateur without Internet (they exist!)

The idea was initially sparked in a chat with a fellow ham Sholto, K7TMG who had expressed the desire to fiddle with websites over packet. At first, I wasn’t too keen on the idea namely because of legal restrictions on the type of information permitted over amateur radio frequencies, however after some thought it occured to me that it would be possible to implement a portal with some precautionary measures in place, but the idea was then shelved.

A couple of weeks passed, and COVID had just began to spread forcing lockdown/shelter in place in many countries. It was not long after the United Kingdom entered its first major lockdown when a series of packet radio delivered mails arrived from a curious British ham.

I quickly established that this was a much older gentleman that had become isolated and unable to look up information online due to having no Internet or relatives that lived on site that would have been able to. The only people he had any physical contact with were community volunteers dropping off the weekly groceries!

Since he had maintained for many years a “2 meter” ham radio and packet radio modem linked to the local packet node, it was through this with which he established a connection to his local bulletin board, GB7COV, Coventry, in central England.

Over the course of a couple of weeks, numerous requests for up-to-date COVID information as well as prices for replacement motorcycle parts came in to my BBS mailbox here in the Netherlands. It was a little unsettling to see directly how dependent the old and vulnerable are on others in close physical proximity, as he was amidst a world where essentially almost everything is now online-only without so much as a mobile phone.

Still- it was pretty neat that he’d got packet up and running and it was surprising that the node nearest to him was still on the air (thanks to the sysop, Roger- G3ZFR!) after many many years of dwindling usage.

It is important to remember that packet radio was the forerunner of the modern Internet and many hams had packed up shop not long after access to the Internet had become ubiquitous, established affordably in almost every home as just another household utility.

Here follows a video about the interface I had quickly hacked together to work across packet radio at very slow speeds without breaking license rules, utilizing the Lynx browser wrapped within a turn-based-GUI, leveraging the web-to-text conversion system of Lynx together with a custom script converting the hyperlinks to numeric choices from a simple text menu.

The same interface also expanded into additional services such as provisioning text-adventure games over packet radio. Take a look:

QtSoundModem / UZ7HO SoundModem

UZ7HO’s modem has been ported to multi-platform by G8BPQ. The sound-modem is used for interfacing radio with the BPQ switch, in turn providing access to users via RF. Released currently under alpha and beta test as QtSoundModem Software-Terminal Node Controller.

BPQ32 / LinBPQ Packet Network Switch

BPQ switch is the system that connects all of the bits and pieces together: Radio, Computer, Internet, Services and applications.

For simplicity, a simple telnet terminal is sufficient to interface with BPQ32, and BPQ32 also provides a web-browser based terminal and advanced features such as RMS (Winlink Gateway), BBS, APRS and more.

A terminal program.

The DOS program Paket 6.2 running in DOSBOX is for demonstrative purposes only, it is not necessary to run this when more modern alternatives exist…

However for this test case, Paket 6.2 is actually the terminal used by the fellow ham mentioned in the introduction. It has been used in this scenario to optimise the appearance of the web portal for the end user.

Paket 6.2 for DOS

Security

I mentioned earlier the restrictions on certain types of data over amateur radio links, this is where OpenDNS FamilyShield came into play, and a HTTP proxy server that serves as the filter for requests going to the internet. This is accomplished by setting the proxy to use OpenDNS’s DNS-servers, therefore inheriting their DNS-based safety features.

Another risk reduction measure is the Express Menu- this makes getting information directly pertaining to COVID-19 easier and a simple matter of entering two or three digits. One of the choices available enables one to enter any web address if desired, and those requests are logged, and if necessary- filtered (denied).

On the flip side, retrieving sensitive information across this portal isn’t likely possible due to how there is no method for form submission however for those unaware, all traffic is assumed to be going over the air unprotected and unencrypted, this is due to the legal requirements upon which amateur radio licenses are granted.

Source Code

All of the tools demonstrated in the video such as Packet Web Portal, Games, Graphs – are all available from my GitHub: