Designing An NTS Section Traffic Net – Part 4

This is the fourth, and final, part of the “Designing An NTS Section Traffic Net” series. We looked at the basic requirements for our section net in parts 1 through 3 of the series. In this part, we will take those requirements and constraints, refine and organize them, and describe the initial design and operation of the Ohio Section NTS traffic net — the Buckeye Net.

The Buckeye Net mission statement is as follows:

The mission of the Buckeye Net is to provide a pool of well-trained radio operators capable of the accurate and efficient transfer of formal message traffic via medium and long haul HF radio during times of disaster or emergency on the behalf of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service and their served agencies within the ARRL’s Ohio Section.

The remainder of this article will describe how we will accomplish this mission.

Emergency Operations

The Buckeye Net will act to provide the relay of formal record traffic on the behalf of any entity served by the Ohio Section ARES. The majority of the traffic will most likely be FEMA ICS forms and amateur radio radiograms.

Liaison will be maintained with the NTS Eighth Region Net providing two-way access throughout the U. S. for net stations. The Buckeye Net will maintain liaison with stations other than those of the Amateur Radio Service via the 60 meter HF interoperability channels. These may be with MARS, FEMA, or any other federal or state agency with access to these frequencies. The Buckeye Net will maintain liaison with the State of Ohio EOC. These liaison activities will occur on the section net level in order to maintain constant access with and between these stations and the rest of the Ohio Sections’ participating stations throughout the state. Liaison with other organizations and/or agencies will be maintained as needed to serve the communication needs of the Ohio section.

The Buckeye Net network will be based on the standard NTS net structure consisting of a net manager (NM), net control station (NCS), assistant net control station (ANCS), and, liaison stations carrying traffic to both higher and lower level nets.

Buckeye Net operation will be activated on the request of the Section Manager (SM), Section Traffic Manager (STM), Section Emergency Coordinator (SEC), section net manager (NM), any ARES District Emergency Coordinator (DEC), or, any ARES County Emergency Coordinator (EC).

The first net to be activated will be the section-level net. This section-level net will also be the last net to be deactivated. Section-level liaison stations will be assigned as needed and as soon as stations become available. The network will expand or shrink as needed by activating or deactivating additional nets at the Ohio NTS Region or  Ohio ARES district levels, as determined by the needs of the served agencies and the availability of operating stations at any given time. The Buckeye Net will be prepared to operate 24 hours per day for as long as the emergency lasts and communications support is needed.

Operating Frequencies

One of the great strengths the Amateur Radio Service offers during an emergency is frequency agility. The service has access to frequency bands throughout the MF and HF spectrum. In addition, amateur operators are, generally, not restricted to channelized operation. Amateurs may operate on any frequency within any band authorized for the mode in use at the time. Net operating frequencies will be assigned, generally, from the frequency band that provides the best propagation characteristics for the time of day and day of the year.

The vast majority of net operation will occur via NVIS propagation. Most network operation will occur on the 75m/80m band. Operation on the 60m interoperability channels will be maintained as long as that band is usable. Stations will be prepared to change frequency between the 160m, 75m/80m, 60m, and 40m bands as propagation conditions dictate. Other frequency bands, including VHF and UHF bands, will be used as needed by stations equipped for the desired operation.

Operating Modes

Buckeye Net operation will, generally, use SSB voice for general net operations. Operation will switch to CW only if no other band is available to maintain SSB voice operation, and, only as long as such conditions exist. Operation will return to SSB voice as soon as it becomes practical to do so.

Traffic may be passed via SSB voice, CW, or digital mode depending on the characteristics of the traffic, urgency of delivery needed, and propagation conditions. ICS forms and any other traffic that is long or any traffic where high accuracy is required will generally be sent via digital modes. When large quantities of messages need to be sent, digital modes will also be used. Messages that are relatively short and where few messages need to be sent may be sent via SSB voice. When conditions exist where voice and/or digital modes are unable to get through and the message can’t wait for better conditions, CW may be used to pass that traffic.

Non-emergency Operation

Emergencies and disasters requiring the communications services provided by the Buckeye Net are few and far between. When such situations do occur, however, there will be a need for very many well-trained, knowledgeable, and experienced traffic handlers to fill all net roles. The day-to-day operation of the Buckeye Net will serve to provide experience and training opportunities for those radio amateurs desiring to become effective traffic handlers.

Day-to-day operation on the Buckeye Net will provide opportunities to develop and improve radio communication skills  in voice, digital, and CW operation and traffic handling.

The Buckeye Net will participate in training exercises of all sizes and complexities. They will range from single-session tests of capabilities to large-scale exercises involving any and all ARES served government and non-government agencies.

Participation in amateur radio activities outside of the Buckeye Net that provide relevant experience will be encouraged. Activities, such as the annual Armed Forces Day cross-band radio event, provide experience in cross-band operation with a radio service outside of the Amateur Radio service. Frequent participation in contests provides opportunities to develop and improve operation skills under difficult conditions and under pressure to perform well. Multi-day contests provide needed experience choosing the best bands at all times of the day or night and improves understanding of HF propagation.

Conclusion

The Buckeye Net role in a disaster is to relay formal message traffic accurately and efficiently. It takes skilled and experienced operators to perform the required tasks at a high level. These skills include net operation, radio operation using all modes, understanding of propagation conditions and how to overcome adverse conditions. Net control stations need to make on-the-spot decisions in routing traffic and assigning stations to best meet the needs of the originating and receiving agencies. Net managers and net controls need to be able to understand net operations, under all conditions, in order to bring appropriate subnets up and down and assign appropriate frequencies, modes and stations.

The above-mentioned skills and abilities are developed and honed by study, practice, and experience. Participation in the Buckeye Net’s day-to-day operation, along with frequent exercises, will provide net-specific knowledge and skills that will enhance an operator’s skills acquired in normal amateur radio operation. Experienced Buckeye Net operators are the stations that are best able to perform traffic handling and net operation in the stress and conditions likely to be experienced in an actual emergency situation.

Designing An NTS Section Traffic Net – Part 3

This is the third part of a series of articles about designing an NTS section net. In Part 1, we used the Buckeye Net Mission statement to lay out what the net must accomplish. In Part 2, we began looking at the foundational requirements and constraints to determine how the net must look. In this third part, we will expand on what was begun in part two. We will narrow down the operating frequencies we need for operation of the net. We will also look deeper into the structure of the Buckeye Net required to serve the net’s users.

Operating Frequencies

We determined in part one of the series that the section net needs to serve the entire section. In the case of the Buckeye Net, we need to reach from any one place within the State of Ohio to any other one place within the State.

The State of Ohio is approximately 225 miles from the western edge to the eastern edge of the State. It is also approximately 225 miles from north to south. The longest distance within the State, from Conneaut in the northeast to Cincinnati in the southwest is a bit less than 300 miles. These distances are much longer than can be covered by a simplex VHF or UHF net, thus requiring the use of HF frequencies.

Fortunately, we can use Near Vertical Incidence Skywave (NVIS) propagation to reach all of the stations within the State. NVIS propagation is simply using typical HF ionospheric propagation characteristics in a way that emphasizes enhanced propagation within relatively short distances. Normally, amateur radio operators are interested in contacting stations at great distances from their own station. This kind of propagation requires launching our signal at a low angle so that when the F layer refracts it back toward earth, we’ve achieved maximum distance. We use a dipole at a high elevation or even a vertical antenna in order to keep a low angle of radiation. In order to achieve NVIS propagation, we can use a simple dipole antenna at a relatively low height. Old-timers may remember calling this type of antenna installation as a “cloud burner”. This is exactly the effect we need for NVIS operation. The relatively high angle of radiation refracts the transmitted signal back down within the “skip zone”, thus achieving NVIS propagation with solid signals out to 300 – 400 miles. A dipole placed between approximately 0.1 to 0.2 wavelengths high achieves this type of propagation.

Antenna height, however, is not the only consideration for achieving NVIS propagation. NVIS propagation is most pronounced at frequencies from 2 MHz through about 10 MHz. Transmit frequencies above 10 MHz tend to not be refracted back into the skip zone. As the transmit frequency increases above 10 MHz, the signal tends to pass through the ionosphere rather than refract back into the skip zone.

The ham bands that are likely to exhibit NVIS propagation are the amateur radio 160 meter, 80 meter, 75 meter, 60 meter, 40 meter, and, 30 meter bands. These are the bands of most use in carrying out NVIS communications within the Ohio section. These are the bands an NTS section net station should be able to use. Most section net activity will typically be on the 75/80 meter bands. The 160m, 60m, 40m, and 30m bands will be needed for use in specific conditions and/or situations.

Network Size

The next question to address is to determine how many stations might need to check in to the section net. We determined earlier that the ideal net should have seven to ten stations in order to maintain reasonable efficiency. If the section were to experience an emergency covering the entire Ohio section, we would need, as a minimum, an NCS, ANCS, 8RN representative,and 88 county EOCs. If we add interoperability stations and some transient stations, we could easily exceed 100 stations in the network. Obviously, a single net is inadequate to handle such a number of stations.

The solution to this problem is to add sub-nets to the top-level section net. The Ohio Section ARES has divided the 88 counties of the section into ten ARES districts. As a first stab at organizing the section net, we could specify an NTS HF net to cover each district. Assuming one liaison representative for each district net, the section net would have an NCS, ANCS, 8RN rep, and ten district liaisons. The section net size would have 13 stations, minimum. If we add the state EOC, a rep for 60 meter interoperability, and several transient stations, the net far exceeds the desired size.  Adding ten ARES district nets is a start, but, is not sufficient in the worst of cases.

In the state of Ohio, FEMA divides the state into five FEMA regions. We can also consider dividing the Ohio section into five NTS regions, Now, our top-level section net consists of an NCS, ANCS, 8RN rep, five NTS region reps, the state EOC, and a 60 meter interoperability rep. This sets the section top-level net at ten stations. This number is within a reasonable span-of-control and would allow for several transient stations without much problem.

section_net.png

This hierarchical network structure provides a template for the activation of the section net under any conditions while keeping the size of any individual net within a reasonable span-of-control. The section top-level net can be activated first. Additional sub-nets can be added or dropped as the situation warrants. Each sub-net will follow the basic NTS net structure, that is, net manager, NCS, ANCS, and liaison stations. This structure allows for maximum flexibility. Activation and deactivation of any particular sub-net, or group of sub-nets, can be determined by the needs dictated by the situation at any given time.

Network Scalability

The ARES is set up to focus on serving the needs of a single county. The communication needs of the county are coordinated by the ARES county EC. We will assume that the individual county is the smallest unit that the section net will serve.

The smallest emergency would occur within a single county. The existing ARES VHF/UHF net would likely be all that is needed to handle the communication needs and the section net would not need to be activated. Should the need arise for the county to communicate with the state EOC, an HF-equipped local station could make the needed link directly with the state EOC.

The need for the Buckeye Net would occur if the emergency included an area that was too large to be reached by local VHF/UHF nets. Perhaps a winter weather system is coming down affecting the northeast corner of the state. Knowing that the emergency will progress slowly, from northeast to southwest, the Buckeye Net could be brought up in stages. The first level of activation would be the section level net. The section level net would consist of  the section NCS and section ANCS. Knowing that the weather will eventually cover the entire state, the state EOC joins the section net. Each affected county will join the section net as the weather system arrives and communication with each other and with the state EOC is needed.

Network diagram for the initial net.

At some point, the net will have six or seven counties joined in and the net would have ten stations or so. We can reasonably expect this number to rapidly increase becoming too many stations for maximum operating efficiency. The northeast corner of the section is covered by ARES Districts 5 and 10. A net covering each of these districts can be activated relieving the load on the section net. In this case, we would have an ARES D5 HF net and an ARES D10 HF net. Each of these district nets would send representatives to the section net to relay traffic going outside the district and to pick up traffic destined for the district net. Additional counties outside of D5 and D10 would continue checking in to the section net.

nts_net_l2.png

As the storm advances, counties from ARES districts 1, 6, 7, and 9 start joining the section net. Those district nets activate their respective district HF nets. Adding four more liason stations would start to overload the net. Anticipating this need, The necessary NTS region nets would be activated and send their representatives to the section net. Existing district liaisons and county liaisons would be excused from the section top-level net and report in to their district or regional nets.

nts_net_l3

The ability to add and drop sub-nets makes the Buckeye Net both flexible and scalable. Sub-nets can be added in any order and in any number depending on the current needs. Should some unanticipated net show up, they can be coordinated by the top-level net and assigned to the section, region, or district level as is most appropriate for their purpose.

The state EOC and 60m rep stations are shown only on the top-level section net. This arrangement makes any 60m interoperability net (OHMR, FEMA, etc.) and the state EOC easily available at all times to all stations. Should any station at any level have emergency traffic, they can bring it immediately to the top-level net. Routine and priority traffic can be routed through the appropriate net liaison stations. The top-level section net is the first one activated and the last to be de-activated. This makes the 8RN, 60m rep, and state EOC immediately available for the entire section throughout the entire emergency.

Summary

We have further refined the frequency needs of the Buckeye Net in order to serve the needs of the entire section. We have taken a deeper look into the structural requirements for the Buckeye Net in this article. We developed a hierarchical structure to serve as a template for activating the network in an emergency. We examined the flexibility and scalability issues and have presented a proposed solution to meet these requirements.

In the next, and final, part of this series, we will put all the things we looked at in this and the previous articles into a more definite structure and add some final touches in describing the Buckeye Net. Finally, we will discuss some ideas for developing the training needs and non-emergency Buckeye Net structure and operation.

Designing An NTS Section Traffic Net – Part 2

This is the second part of a series of articles going through the process of designing an NTS traffic net. The specific net being designed is the ARRL Ohio Section’s HF NTS Traffic net, the Buckeye net. In Part 1 of this series, we described the foundational requirements and constraints for the Buckeye Net. We described ‘what’ the net must do. Now, it’s time to design the specifics of ‘how’ we’re going to go about doing what is required.

The function the Buckeye Net must perform is to relay formal message traffic for the Ohio section. Several questions must be considered that will tell us what needs to be done. Relaying formal message traffic is something the NTS has been doing for a long time.

Structure

All NTS nets (excluding the NTSD digital nets) have a basic structure that facilitates the relaying of traffic from origination to destination. A basic NTS traffic net ideally consists of a net control station (NCS), an assistant net control station (ANCS), and, one or more operators (OPR). In addition, a net manager (NM), performing administrative duties for the net, is also a key part of the basic NTS net structure. This basic structure is shown in figure 1.
nts_net_1

figure 1.

Roles

Each of the four roles are essential for proper net operation. The net manager role is an administrative leadership role. The net manager is responsible for selecting operating frequencies, staffing the net, keeping records, organizing training, and recruiting operators prior to actual net operation. During net operation, the net manager observes net operation and operating conditions making any necessary changes. The net manager is also available to fill in at any vacant position should the need arise. After net operation, the net manager evaluates net and operator performance and makes any needed adjustments and addresses any weaknesses discovered during net operation.

The net control station is also a leadership position. The ability to understand what is happening on the net and the ability to make the correct decisions in a timely manner are key requirements for the NCS. The net control station must keep track of what traffic needs to go where, what operators are available, and what each station is currently doing. The net control needs to be able to handle changing band conditions, sudden interference, or any other problems that may come up during net operation. The net control station must  be able to make any changes necessary to ensure the accurate and efficient transfer of the message traffic on the net under all operating conditions. The job of the NCS is to keep the net running efficiently, not to pass traffic. The NCS must be a competent traffic handler, however, they should not routinely be called on to handle traffic.

A good assistant net control station is, in military terms, a force multiplier for the net. The assistant net control must have the same skills and experience as the the net control station and be a competent operator. The assistant net control can provide relief for the NCS, can be sent off frequency to relay traffic, or operate a temporary subnet if needed. The ANCS can be sent to other nets with information or to make inquiries. Should something happen to the NCS, the ANCS can step in seamlessly, thus keeping the net in operation. The ANCS is also available to provide relief for other operators on the net.

The net operators are the workhorses of the net. Their primary function is the accurate and efficient relaying of message traffic. The net operators are generally representatives to or from nets at other levels. They bring traffic to the net and/or take traffic from the net. A net operator must be skilled in passing traffic in whatever mode is being used and under any operating conditions.

Each of these roles are required for the most efficient operation of the net. Each role requires full concentration and application of skills specific to the role. Any time roles are combined or not present on the net, the net either cannot take place, or, operates less efficiently than it could.

Net Size

Now that we know the structure of the net, we can turn our attention to the size of the net. NTS experience shows that the size of a net does affect the operation of the net. A net that is too small is wasteful of resources. A net that is too large becomes inefficient, hard to control, and subject to increasing errors.

The NCS must be able to keep track of where all traffic on the net needs to go and needs to know where all net operators are and what they are doing. This is known as the ‘span of control’ of the NCS. As the number of operators on the net increase, the span of control for the NCS increases. Military squads usually consist of seven to ten members. Research has shown that as span of control exceeds about seven, the squad leader’s ability to control the squad and avoid errors decreases dramatically. Experience with NTS traffic nets show similar results with five to seven operators being the most efficient and accurate. As with military squads, increasing the number of operators on a net beyond the ideal number dramatically increases errors and decreases efficiency.

The number of operators on any given net and at any given time will undoubtedly fluctuate with the conditions and specific requirements in place at the time of the net. It makes no sense to set an absolute arbitrary size limit, however, this doesn’t mean that we should not have a planned-for net size. Nets operating under the Buckeye Net banner should not, without good reason, exceed nine or ten stations including net control and the assistant net control. Seven or eight is even better, if practical. These suggested size limits are most important during emergency operation. Nets operated outside of an emergency situation, i. e., day-to-day training nets, can be more flexible.

Operating Modes

Most NTS nets operate as single-mode nets. A net is either voice, CW, or digital exclusively. This is how the Buckeye Net currently operates. It is a CW-only net.

In the NTS Manual (2015), at section 1.2 paragraph one states:

The National Traffic System is not dedicated specifically to any mode or to any type of emission, or to the exclusion of any of them, but to the use of the best mode for whatever purpose is involved. The aim is to handle formal written traffic systematically, by whatever mode best suits the purpose at hand.

The days of single-mode NTS nets needs to be finished. The Buckeye Net is fully embracing this statement and is incorporating it, and all it implies, into it’s operation. All phases of a Buckeye Net will use the mode that best suits the purpose.

Each operating mode has certain strengths and weaknesses. The relative strengths and weaknesses are affected by the purpose of the net, frequency of operation, and, the FCC rules. In designing a net, it is important to understand these strengths and weaknesses, the net purpose, and the rules to decide on what mode to use under what conditions.

We know that the Buckeye Net is a traffic net. We also know that the Buckeye Net is an HF net. This effectively eliminates FM voice as a proper mode of operation. This leaves AM voice, SSB voice, CW, and various digital modes for us to consider. AM voice signals are less efficient and require more bandwidth than SSB voice. In addition, stations that the Buckeye Net would need to interoperate with are unlikely to use AM voice. For these reasons, we will limit our available modes to SSB voice, CW, and the various, yet-to-be-determined, digital modes.

One major strength of SSB voice is that we all know how to speak the language. No real training is needed other than learning some of the traffic handling jargon. Another strength of SSB voice is that any rig we would likely use in a planned traffic net has that capability. Another strength of using SSB voice is that the time to go from transmitting to receiving is minimal. This makes it quite easy to exchange questions and answers and to sort out misunderstandings between NCS and operators or between operators.

One of the main downsides to using SSB voice is that as propagation conditions deteriorate and QRM and QRN increase, SSB voice becomes more subject to errors in understanding and message transfer efficiency decreases substantially. The accuracy of the message, when delivered by SSB voice, is also subject to the vagaries of the language. The English language has many words that sound alike but have very different meanings. Misunderstandings are not uncommon.

The CW mode of operation’s main strength is that a skilled CW operator can copy traffic at times when band conditions are too bad for accurate message transfer by voice and most digital modes. Another advantage of CW is that turn-around time is as quick with CW as with SSB voice. The third advantage to CW is that messages are spelled out letter-by-letter. This can help avoid many misunderstandings when passing a message. Also, most rigs used on HF traffic nets have CW capability already available. The only additional equipment usually required is a key, bug, or paddle.

CW is not without it’s faults, however. The main downside to using CW is that it takes much training and experience to become a good CW operator. Until you approach twenty words per minute code speed, CW is not as efficient as voice for traffic handling. Also, even though turn-around from sending to receiving is as quick as with SSB voice, it is more difficult and much less efficient for the average CW operator to sort out difficulties in understanding using CW.

Digital modes, especially most soundcard digital modes, have some very unique strengths. There are digital modes and methods available that guarantee virtually no errors will occur unnoticed. Some digital modes are especially effective for accurately transmitting relatively long messages. There are also digital soundcard modes available, such as Olivia, that can provide near 100% error-free transfer with signals well below the noise floor where neither SSB voice or CW would be copyable. Digital modes, being machine sent, don’t make errors because they’re sending too long a message or are too tired.

Digital soundcard modes, like all other modes, have some disadvantages. Digital soundcard modes are relatively new to amateur radio. There is not the long history of traffic handling as there is using SSB voice or CW. There are a relatively large number of digital modes available, each with unique strengths and weaknesses. Modes are available that are quite fast. Some modes are very robust and include error detection and/or forward error correction (FEC). The number of unique modes available and the strengths and weaknesses of each mode present a large learning curve for selecting appropriate modes under existing conditions. A very large downside to digital soundcard modes is the relatively long turnaround time when conversing. This makes digital soundcard modes much less efficient than SSB and CW in performing normal net operations such as net check-in, coordinating actions, and discussing problems.

How do we make the best use of each available mode? Given the above information, along with the author’s experience using each mode in each role, the primary mode of operation of the Buckeye net should be performed using SSB voice. Using SSB voice makes calling up the net, taking check-ins, making announcements, coordinating actions, and solving problems easier and more efficient than using CW or digital modes.

Should band conditions deteriorate to a point where the majority of stations can no longer hear each other or pass traffic, and there is a need to maintain the net and pass traffic, stations can use CW, at the direction of NCS, to pass traffic and exchange information. If necessary, the entire net can switch to CW. NTS procedures already exist for running a traffic net using CW. Switching to a CW net, however, will make net operation less efficient and more difficult. The decision to switch to CW should not be taken without due consideration of the disadvantages.

A traffic net needs frequent interaction between NCS and the operators. Problems need to be explained, questions need to be asked, directions need to be given, and many actions need to be coordinated among all stations on the net. The long turnaround times of soundcard digital modes make performing the many interactions needed in operating a traffic net extremely inefficient. The Buckeye Net will not use any digital soundcard mode to run a traffic net.

Sending traffic, whether by SSB voice or CW is subject to human error. As the length and number of pieces of traffic increase, the number and severity of errors also increase. This is where digital soundcard modes can outperform SSB voice and CW. The primary advantage of using digital soundcard modes to an NTS traffic net is in sending a large volume of messages or in sending long individual messages.

The author received an ICS-213 message via CW during the 2019 Ohio SET. It took a bit over ten minutes to receive after all corrections were made. The same message passed by voice took about six minutes on a VHF FM local net including corrections and clarifications. That same message takes one minute and seven seconds to pass via MT63-1KL digital mode. Both the sender and receiver in all cases were competent traffic handlers. That same message sent over a VHF net using MT63-2KL takes thirty-four seconds! The MT63-XL modes use FEC, code redundancy, and long interleaving to achieve essentially error-free transmission. This is the best use of digital modes, i. e., on passing traffic efficiently and accurately.

One of the foundational requirements, as we saw in part 1 of this series, is that an NTS traffic net is tasked with passing formal message traffic accurately and efficiently. The best use of transmission modes for the Buckeye Net is to use SSB voice for most net operations falling back to CW should conditions warrant. Short, routine messages, where absolute accuracy is not required and where relatively few messages need to be sent will be sent by SSB voice unless conditions call for using CW. Passing long messages, messages where absolute accuracy is required, or when relatively large numbers of messages need to be passed will be sent using an appropriate digital mode.

Summary

In this article, we looked at the structure of an NTS traffic net and made some suggestions as to the appropriate size for a net. We examined each of the roles required for a functioning net and established some suggested ground rules for net operation. We also spent a lot of time looking at the best use of operating modes for the net and came to some conclusions on the appropriate uses for each available mode.

At this point, we have determined that an NTS HF section traffic net should consist of an NCS, an ANCS and from three to eight traffic handling operators. The net should perform most net operations using SSB voice unless conditions require a switch to CW. When handling a few routine small messages where absolute accuracy is not required, SSB voice or CW modes may be used. In all other cases, the best choice for traffic handling is to use an appropriate digital mode.

The next article will look at operating frequencies, network scalability, and some operational concepts for the net.

Designing An NTS Section Traffic Net – Part 1

How does one go about designing an NTS section net? This is the question currently facing the Buckeye Net. Several earlier articles (see notes) have addressed the need for the re-design of the Buckeye Net and have outlined the major constraints and capabilities required of the net. These articles provide the foundation upon which the re-design will be built.

Foundations

The first thing to determine is what the purpose of the net is. The Buckeye Net’s purpose is expressed in it’s mission statement:

The mission of the Buckeye Net is to provide a pool of well-trained radio operators capable of the accurate and efficient transfer of formal message traffic via medium and long haul HF radio during times of disaster or emergency on the behalf of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service and their served agencies within the ARRL’s Ohio Section.

This mission statement contains several individual statements, that when taken together, make up the overall purpose for the Buckeye Net. We will take apart this purpose, statement by statement, and see how it drives the design of the Buckeye Net.

The Buckeye Net will “provide a pool of well-trained radio operators”. An important function of the Buckeye Net is to provide for the training of radio operators. There must be training material made available to net operators to aid in their training. Opportunities to provide experience and improve skills, such as training exercises, would help to achieve and maintain operator training. Frequent operation on the net will serve to build familiarity with both net procedures and HF operating conditions.

So, what is it that the training will focus on? The mission statement goes on to say that the operators should be “capable of the accurate and efficient transfer of formal message traffic”. The Buckeye Net does not, generally, provide tactical message traffic capability. The net’s main purpose is to pass formal message traffic, also known as ‘record’ traffic. This requirement places additional burdens, beyond everyday radio operation, on the operators on Buckeye Net. The re-design of the Buckeye Net must take this into consideration when designing both the structure and the operation of the net.

The mission statement tells us that the Buckeye Net should transfer this formal message traffic by means of “medium and long-haul HF radio”. The Buckeye Net is not concerned with passing traffic within the ARES county EC’s area of responsibility. This will generally be done via VHF and/or UHF local traffic nets. The Buckeye Net exists to provide for message transfer when these VHF/UHF nets are not able to make the desired communications. When message transfer beyond the reach of the local VHF/UHF traffic net is needed, the Buckeye Net steps in to provide message relay services for those local nets. The means of achieving this is by employing HF radio communications circuits to relay the traffic.

The Buckeye Net must be capable of operating “during times of disaster or emergency”. The re-design of the Buckeye Net must take into consideration that it may need to operate under the spartan and stressful conditions that may exist during an emergency situation. The re-design must make sure to consider operator, equipment, and staffing needs that will almost certainly be affected by the existence of the emergency conditions.

The mission statement tells us that the Buckeye Net exists to handle formal message traffic “on the behalf of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service and their served agencies”. When the ARES and/or their served agencies need message relay beyond the capability of their local nets, the Buckeye Net will be there to provide that service. It is the needs of the ARES, and more importantly, the needs for message relay of their served agencies, that determines the capabilities that the Buckeye Net must develop.

The final constraint in the mission statement is that the Buckeye Net must provide the message transfers “within the ARRL’s Ohio Section”. The Buckeye Net needs to be able to relay traffic from anywhere within the ARRL Ohio Section, i. e., the entire State. The Buckeye Net needs to be able to take traffic from anywhere in the State and deliver it to any destination, within the state or elsewhere, the originator desires.

These are the foundational needs and constraints that drive the design of the Buckeye Net. Any re-design efforts must always keep these needs and constraints in mind. The success of any re-design is determined by the etent that these foundqtional needs and constraints are met

It’s important to understand that the re-design of the Buckeye Net is not taking place in a void. The current Buckeye Net already exists as a part of the ARRL’s National Traffic System (NTS). We are not starting from ground zero.

The NTS

The NTS has been around a very long time and has accumulated a lot of knowledge and experience in the passing of formal message traffic via HF radio. It would be foolish to try to re-design the Buckeye Net without incorporating this wealth of knowledge and experience provided by the NTS.

The NTS has, in place, a structure capable of passing traffic from anywhere within the U. S. to anywhere else within the U. S. In fact, the NTS has the means of including large parts of Canada in it’s structure. Digital NTS links exist to Great Britain and Germany providing international reach to the NTS. The Buckeye Net, being an NTS section net, also has this international reach.

NTS stations operate in four timeslots, called ‘cycles’. Each cycle has stations at specific levels operating at specific times. This organization of levels and times provides for the smooth and orderly transfer of message traffic from coast to coast in both directions. The four cycles cover twelve hours of each day. In an emergency, where twenty-four hour coverage is needed, the original four cycles are simply repeated.

The details of NTS operation are contained in the NTS Manual (2015) available here at the ARRL HQ website. The methods and principles of the NTS provide additional foundational material to inform the Buckeye Net’s re-design.

What’s Next?

We now have significant foundational material to begin to re-design the Buckeye Net. We have specific operational constraints that will determine ‘what’ we need to accomplish. In part 2 of this series, we will begin to determine ‘how’ we will achieve the desired purposes.

Notes:
1. Toward A Modern Buckeye Net. Published August 28, 2019.
2. A Modern Buckeye Net – Begin With First Principles. Published August 30, 2019.
3. Get Ready For NBEMS. Published August 31, 2019.
4. What Should Buckeye Net Look Like? Published September 11, 2019.

NTS & ARES – What’s The Difference?

The National Traffic System (NTS) and Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) seem to be two very different things. They both are programs of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) serving a public service communications function. Most amateur radio operators I speak with talk of NTS and ARES as two unrelated organizations. The truth of the matter is that while they are two different programs, they are inseparable from each other.

The ARES is a field organization of the ARRL geared toward providing public service communications. ARES has members and a formal organization. The Section Manager (SM) is the head of ARES within the section and is aided by the Section Emergency Coordinator (SEC) and the Section Traffic Manager (STM). In the Ohio Section, there are ten ARES districts. Each district is headed by a District Emergency Coordinator (DEC). Each county within each district is headed by an Emergency Coordinator (EC). There may be various assistants at each level.

ARES members who are not part of the management structure are under the supervision of their county EC. Most activity within ARES is designed to occur at the county level. Most ARES members are active at the county level. The training is generally focused on communications within the county using VHF and/or UHF FM.

The NTS also has a specific organization, however, it is not an organization of people. The NTS is primarily an organization of places, times, and frequencies. The NTS is organized to provide paths (routes) for accurately and efficiently moving message traffic from one place to another anywhere in the country.

The NTS divides the country by location. The country is divided into three main areas; the Eastern Area, the Central Area, and, the Pacific Area. Each area is further divided into regions. Regions are divided into sections. Each of these divisions have a corresponding network that covers their physical area.

The NTS also divides the day into cycles. There are four cycles throughout the day. These four cycles cover a twelve hour period. In an emergency, these four cycles are repeated throughout the night in order to provide 24 hour coverage if needed. The first three cycles start with a section net, followed by a region net, an area net, then, another region net. The final cycle follows the same pattern with a second section net following the second region net. This second section net on cycle 4 means the day starts and ends with a section net. Having each location net in this time order provides an efficient path for message traffic to flow in both east to west and west to east directions several times per day.

Each location net in each cycle is assigned to frequencies appropriate for the time of day, time of year, and portion of the sunspot cycle we are in.

This is what the NTS is, i. e., the NTS is an organization of places, times, and frequencies designed to make the passing of message traffic from coast to coast logical and efficient. The NTS is a tool to be used when message traffic needs to travel beyond the local area.

There are, however, some people involved with the NTS. Nets have net managers, net control stations, liaison stations, and operating stations. All of these are people. Most are ARES members. The people operating on NTS nets do all of the things any ARES member does to serve the public on a local level. In addition, NTS operators have added the knowledge, skills and experience required to effectively operate on HF networks to their repertoire.

The bottom line is that ARES is the general organization designed to provide training and experience in public service communications. Most of the training and experience is geared toward the county level. The NTS is a network organization of places, times, and frequencies designed to efficiently move message traffic from coast to coast and used by the ARES to implement medium and long-haul message traffic requirements. The NTS operators have added the knowledge and skills needed for effective HF operation. Both ARES and the NTS exist to serve the public’s communication needs in times of disaster or emergency.