Winlink Primer

The purpose of this page is to bring CCARES members up to speed on the Winlink email system. We’ll also go over the Winlink Express email client software. After reading through this material, please see the “Additional Resources” section at the bottom and don’t hesitate to ask questions via email or on our weekly Sunday NET. Our bi-weekly Club Days are also a great way to connect with fellow members and practice your skills.

What is Winlink?

Winlink is an email system created by the Amateur Radio Safety Foundation exclusively for Amateur Radio operators with special functionality focused on emergency communications. Unlike other email services you may be used to, the Winlink Express client software is able send/receive emails and Incident Command System (ICS) forms during an emergency using your radio. No internet needed!

Note: On occasion, Winlink Express is called by an older name “RMS Express”. It is safe to use these names interchangeably. 

When to use Winlink?

The ability for the Winlink software to send standardized ICS forms during emergencies ensures the accuracy, consistency, and speed of communications. For this reason, Winlink email has been the “go to” ARES and other Emergency Communications organizations nation-wide. Winlink can also be used by amateur radio operators anytime for general communications just as you would any email. Keep in mind that FCC Part 97 rules apply here, so the content of your email should be in line with how you would conduct yourself on the air by voice. Also bear in mind that Winlink email sent over the radio is unencrypted, as per the Part 97 rules for data transmissions.

Where to use Winlink?

The short answer to this question is – Winlink can be used anywhere in the world! To use Winlink without internet, you’ll have to connect your computer to a radio using one of the methods shown later in this article. Winlink email can also be used in a web browser (like Gmail) wherever there is internet present.

Why Winlink?

As mentioned previously, Winlink email can be used without internet and it has the ability to send standardized Incident Command System (ICS) forms during an emergency. Since it is created by and for Amateur Radio operators, the system is set up to fit nicely within our “ham” ecosystem. For example – your callsign@winlink.org  is your email address. It is very easy to look up other operators and communicate! Plus Winlink could keep you connected to email if you ever decide to write your memoirs in some remote part of the globe. 🙂

How to use Winlink?

Staying within the Emergency Response scope, I am going to concentrate on using Winlink over radio (without internet) for this article. As mentioned previously there are other ways to use it with an internet connection, but they are quite simple and easily grasped if you can understand this content. As for radios I will focus on VHF/UHF for now, though I should mention that Winlink can be used on HF radios as well using the same principles.

Lets go back in time for a moment and revisit the way we checked email in the 1990s:

Setting up Winlink over radio is similar, except we’re sending packets of information over the radio waves instead of the phone lines. A TNC is used instead of a MODEM, though they perform similar roles.

As noted in the image above, the easiest way to use Winlink over the radio is when your radio has a built-in TNC. This is the path of lease resistance and, as it turns out, is the way our CCARES “Go Box”es are set up*.

*For reference, each “go box” contains a Kenwood TM-D710G radio with internal TNC. A laptop is simply connected to the radio via USB cable and the Winlink Express email client software communicates with the TNC to send/receive email. 

Step-by-Step Guide to setting up Winlink Express:

  1. First we should ask – What operating system is running on the computer that you plan to use Winlink Express? Microsoft Windows users (Vista and newer) are good to go and should proceed to the next step. Apple MacOs and Linux users must first install Microsoft Windows in a virtual or dual-boot environment before proceeding with this guide. In short – Winlink Express is a Microsoft Windows application and a Windows PC is recommended. I’ll add some links In the “Additional Resources” section to solutions for non-Windows operating systems.
  2. Obtain a Winlink Express account using the guidance here. (an active Amateur Radio license is required). You’ll be walked though installing the Winlink Express client software and setting up your Winlink account.
  3. You can read The Winlink Book of Knowledge to become a Winlink Express expert, but here are a few of the sections that apply directly to CCARES:
  4. Before connecting your radio to your PC, ask yourself: Does my radio have a built-in TNC?
    • YES – You should be able to purchase a USB cable for your radio and plug it in to an available USB port. In the PACKET section of Winlink Express, you can enter your radio details and be up and running quickly. Reference the knowledge-base on winlink.org for more detail. (This is the recommended path)
    • NO – This is the more challenging path and you may want to reach out to CCARES members that have experience with this. Here you’ll need to connect a Signalink audio interface or an external TNC between your radio and computer. Instructions for configuring a Signalink device in Winlink Express with the Winmore protocol can be found in the winlink.org knowledge-base. An external TNC setup is an advanced configuration and will not be covered in this guide. 

Additional Resources: