T.A.R.P.N. -- Terrestrial Amateur Radio Packet Network tarpn@groups.io

Just as CW and SSB may be used as tools in operating a national traffic system, packet radio may be used to create a ham-radio social network, with all traffic passing over Amateur-held communications links.  

TARPN is a recipe, a plan, and a few rules, designed to make it fun to build and operate a REAL-TIME packet radio social network.   The TARPN concept is attractive to new hams and old hams, and is extremely educational.  TARPN network devices are easy to build and not particularly risky to invest in since the parts which are uniquely TARPN are not very expensive, and the rest of the parts, radios, antennas, are eminently re-usable.  Even the radio to computer interface devices, called TNCs, have a resale value which is at the retail purchase price.  This is because the TNCs are sold as kits which are actually a most excellent starter kit for somebody just getting into the hobby.  There are also many volunteers who’d build yours for you if you can’t or don’t want to.  

The bottom-line result of building a few TARPN devices and setting them up with ham radio is a real-time multi-station CHAT system based on modern computer components and a great looking UI, usable on tablets and laptops in the WiFi environment of each home hosting a TARPN device.  The system is fully Amateur Radio, and not linked via commercial services.  This is an Amateur Radio project.  No Internet required and no Internet desired.  

So why is this a new thing, and not something established and all over the place?  Well… packet radio networking has had a rocky history starting way back in the late 1980s.  

Packet radio, 1990s style, was very attractive for several reasons, and it grew like crazy, but then seemed to die off when Internet access from our homes became cheap.

Packet radio’s chief winning capability was a trivial side issue when looking at the big picture.  The winning capability was that packet radio could provide access to digital services from a ham’s house without tying up a phone line.  Before packet radio, we already had telephone bulletin boards and Internet-like services.  It wasn’t that packet was the first digital network with BBS capabilities.  The fact that packet radio died off when the Internet became cheap shows that it was all just about cheap vs not-cheap, and not about being ham-radio.  

However, packet radio had other things to offer.  It is perhaps as profound as CW is today, and maybe more so.

Packet radio died, but CW didn’t.  Packet radio died, not only because the users of it could now use the Internet, but because there wasn’t any compelling feature, and precious few packet installations, not also available via the Internet.   I submit that it would not have died if packet radio was purely ham radio, and was the only tool to access unique capabilities or to access groups of hams.  Packet radio is also much more interesting if it is long-distance.  Most parts of the USA never had a robust, real-time, long-distance capability available to individual operators via packet radio networks, and all of those networks went away once hams stopped using them.  Even people who retained the capability of using packet radio, from their ham shacks, lost interest when the long-distance capability moved to the Internet.  It’s really hard to attract new packeteers in the Internet linked packet world, and nearly impossible to attract new packet-network builders. 

The reason the ham-radio packet infrastructure went away is because the infrastructure builders no longer felt the reward for supporting that infrastructure.  The availability of high-speed house to house Internet links gave a backup potential, and even new long-distance potential, which had previously not existed.  Now a new link, or a replacement for a temporary outage, could be handled by the Internet.  Even with all of the intercity capability in place, because of the nature of the network, and because of the mentality (way of thinking) of some of the packet users, the Internet became the preferred linking mechanism and the builders of the long-distance links, especially between cities, felt their efforts were no longer rewarding.  
Builders of linking sites between cities want to be loved, just like everybody else.

Imagine how hard it would be to get new CW operators, if every CW station on the air was also both spitting out the entire text of their conversations onto the Internet or onto a voice/phone transmission, and was also answering to Internet and voice/phone participants.  Why do CW if it is easier to do the other mode?  That's what packet radio networking did to itself.  

With dwindling network infrastructure, eventually all of the remaining services on packet radio connected to the Internet.  Packet radio is relegated to APRS status beacons, shady last-mile to the Internet tricks, and rarely as a grudgingly maintained, rarely tested, backup-scheme in case the Internet goes away.    In very rare circumstances some low-capacity single-frequency mesh networks exist (KA networks and such) but they don't see much traffic load or enthusiasm.  They are completely uninteresting to young hams, and unsuitable for live chat. 

So, why care?

30 years after the start of the packet radio networking boom, many of the methods with which kids and young adults learned about radio, computers, data linking, etc... have been erased from existence. Owning and operating a smart-phone is just so easy.   In the 80s, every 18-year-old would have already been exposed to radio propagation just by driving around and listening to AM and FM broadcast radio or struggling with TV antennas.  They'd know about computers by trying to assemble something useful on a kid’s budget. They may even have played with cheap transistor walkie talkies and had the chance to try to repair broken antennas, 9v battery connectors, or if they were sufficiently interested, they took apart the inevitably broken toy and checked out the innards.  All of this is denied a child of the 2000s.  

Packet radio networking over ham-radio is a really fun, educational, way to tie together several different techniques, many of which are getting more important every year.   This includes radio and packet data linking.  A TARPN can be built by just about every ham, as we saw in the early 90s.  To be hopelessly cheesy, we owe it to the young adults to have a packet radio network?

TARPN is a project which attempts to build a social toy for hams, create long-distance networks built out of our homes.  On the face of it, we're building an old school retro thing, sort of like CW operation.  However, using modern tools, we're bringing ham radio to the embedded computer hobby market and bringing embedded computers to the hams.  TARPN builders learn about 24/7 operation, embedded computers, VHF/UHF radios, antennas, topographical effects on UHF radio signals, and especially about working with other many volunteers on a large project.

We have a fabulous user interface (TARPN-HOME) which is compelling enough to attract new participants.  Hopefully, our system is easy enough, and fun enough, that hams around the world can build their own TARPNs, starting from scratch.  A multi-hop network using VHF/UHF radio, and the user interface, gives us round-table chat as the killer app which makes this practical.  

tarpn@groups.io is a place for discussing the creation and operation of an over-the-air social network, based on VHF/UHF packet networking on Amateur Radio and ISM-band systems, built for educational, hobby and emergency preparedness purposes.   This group is about making a new network that is divorced from commercial communications.

The TARPN group and this email list stand by the desire to make our social network, text messaging, and digital voice network as non-reliant on commercial means as possible. It's ok to operate Internet-based equipment and Internet packet radio gear, but that's not what TARPN or this email group is about.

We think the big reason that packet networks shrink in the USA and don't grow, is because the packet networks use the Internet as a crutch, spoiling the fun to be had by doing it on Amateur Radio.  Also, many of the existing packet networks are aimed at emergency preparedness exclusively.  Some even deny the operators permission to do real-time chatting and round table operation.   So let's not do that.

We will not burden our Network with Internet noise nor use the Internet as a crutch for the lack of radio-based links. We will strive at all times to be obvious WHEN we are depending on Commercial Means of any kind. The founders are interested in promoting digital communications that are independent of commercial carriers.

Please keep the conversations on topics that are not in conflict with that goal.

The group is not geographically limited.

Discussion of competitive orgs and methods are ok here so long as there is no advocacy for commercial or Internet gateways, commercial or Internet shortcuts, or for providing last-mile connectivity to services that only exist because of commercial means.

--At some point, this chat group may be converted into a club-oriented group, in support of an organization called TARPN with the same goals as stated above. We'll see how things develop.

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