Packet radio began in the 1960's. It was first seen on the amateur bands in 1978. The first transmission occurred on May 31st. This was followed by the Vancouver Amateur Digital Communication Group (VADCG) development of a Terminal Node Controller (TNC), also known as the VADCG board, in 1980. This was then followed by TAPR (Tucson Amateur Packet Radio) with the creation of the TNC-1 in 1982 and then the TNC-2 in 1984-1985. The packet radio revolution really picked up when TAPR sold over a thousand TNC-2 kits. The TNC-2 was what was needed to make this into something that every amateur operator could enjoy. Packet radio now has thousands of amateurs using it daily, many manufacturers making and selling TNCs (terminal Node Controllers), and over a hundred thousand TNCs having been sold.
The good thing about packet radio is that you have to know a lot about how it works or memorize a whole new set of technical terms. Almost every town has someone on packet radio who can help. A basic TNC lets your computer use your radio to talk to another computer. The cost of the TNC depends on what you want to do. Packet provides amateurs with a way of having fun and a way to improve the radio art. Packet provides a lot of different operating opportunities. Those opportunities are bulletin board systems, DX Clusters, chat bridges, networking, emergency communications, satellite operations and much more.
Packet radio can be used to talk to other amateurs directly. Amateurs can talk to each other using their keyboards they can directly communicate with each other. With networks, amateurs can talk to people that are out of the range of their station. Keyboard-to-keyboard communications is one of the least used methods of packet communications, because amateurs are not usually on packet at the same time. Many packet operators send e-mail using either personal mailboxes or a local BBS. Messages are read when the amateur is on the air.
Most cities have one or more packet bulletin board systems. BBS's do two things, send and receive personal messages for their local users and send and receive messages or bulletins intended for people locally or around the world. Since the BBS is part of a national system of other BBSs, it has the ability to pass information or messages to any other BBS in the US or the world. This allows you to send messages to friends locally, to someone located in the next state, or to someone on the other side of the world. The second thing that BBSs do is pass local and national bulletins. Amateurs can read the latest messages about the ARRL, AMSAT, TAPR, propagation, DX, and other bulletins on different topics. Passing messages is the primary purpose of a BBS, but BBS's can also support callbook programs, help references, internet access, and more.
Many cities have DX (foreign amateur) spotting nodes or networks. HF (High-Frequency) operators connect to their local DX Packet Cluster in order to receive reports on the latest DX. This type of packet came about from those interested in watching DX. Many amateurs like to frequent the HF bands looking for international operators to contact. A DX Cluster allows many HF operators to be connected over packet radio at the same time while operating HF and looking for DX. When someone finds a DX station, they send a packet message to the DX Cluster, which then sends the information to all other packet operators using the DX Cluster.
Many of the amateur radio satellites in orbit have computer systems that provide packet capability. Most packet satellites provide BBS functions for messages to be passed to anywhere in the world within 24 hours. Several contain CCD cameras, which allow amateurs to download images of the earth and some allow users to get data from the onboard experiments.
Packet radio is being used in many emergency services. Packet is used to pass a message accurately and in large quantities and to handle messages passed by the National Traffic System, it can provide an important function like any other amateur mode when used correctly. A new application called APRS combines GPS (Global Positioning Satellites) with packet radio to allow a master station to plot on their computer the location of all other stations in the field. The purpose is to coordinate the exact position of weather spotters or searchers, without having to waste radio time informing the control station of their locations. Amateurs in Oklahoma have been distributing Doppler Radar images via the packet network. The small weather image file takes but a few minutes to retrieve and display. This helps those amateurs outside of the local ATV coverage to get an accurate weather picture from the Doppler Radar.
Since amateurs use radios to transmit their data, their range of communications is limited to approximately line of sight. An average packet station talks in a radius of about 10-30 miles. Packet Networks allow amateurs to widen the area of communications past their line of sight, by having a series of packet stations linked by radio, that can be used to get their packet messages to where ever the network goes. Much like the telephone system, networks provide long distance service outside the local area.
These are just some of the things you can do with packet radio. Once you find something that you can do with packet radio, then you have a reason to buy the equipment necessary to get on the air. A good place to start is to find a friend who uses packet and go visit.