When disaster strikes in the UK, they call on Raynet.
Today in the Last Wire Podcast, we’re joined with Tom, (M7GMZ). Who’s part of the South Wiltshire Raynet in the United Kingdom. His group is part of a volunteer communication service provided by licensed radio amateur operators. Ray net was formed in 1953, following the severe East coast floods to provide a way of organizing the viable resource that amateur radio is able to provide to the community.
Since then it’s grown into a very active organization with over 2000 members providing communication assistance on many hundreds of events each year. Welcome to the last wire podcast. Tom, thank you for having me for people that have never heard of RayNet before. Can you share with me what this group is all about and how you got involved?
Sure. So the idea of South Wiltshire Raynet was around the floods in 1953 huge flooding across the UK and a number of amateur radio operators came together to support their local communities and their, their counties. From that they realized, actually, this is something we could use on an ongoing basis in support of what we call the category.
One organization. So things like fire, police, ambulance St. John’s, ambulance NHS organizations like that for formal organizations. Rain. That’s been a really, really interesting organization for me. I’ve only recently become a licensed amateur. So despite a lack of amateur radio capability, I’ve still been able to take an active part in what raynet does, particularly in my group, in the South Wiltshire area.
Because they’ve been looking at supporting not only the category, one organizations, but the local community as well in things like command and control communication support with business license radios, as well as amateur radio. Because that way we can provide a service to. The user community and provide our comms experience and expertise, but actually in a lot of events, handover a radio to somebody that they are able to use on a business license rather than have to go through the third party message passing requirements of the amateur license.
So it’s been fantastic from my perspective because it’s allowed me to get out into the local community. Support a number of organizations that I wouldn’t necessarily get to see or interact with as well as work with those blue light agencies, fire, police, ambulance, et cetera and support them in what they’re doing.
As a member you took on the role of mesh network, project leader for people not familiar with mesh networks. Can you tell me a little bit about the system and how it can be used in an emergency? Sure. So putting it into amateur radio terms effectively, if you’ve got a repeater up on a Hilltop site you’ve then got the ability to relay communications across a broader area.
The mesh network was designed to do that, but focused around data. While there are plenty of data modes within amateur licensed frequencies. Again, what we wanted to do is be able to provide something that was modern as up to date as possible and as flexible as possible. So. I took my previous networking experience as a Royal signals officer and as a network engineer by degree and said, okay, what can we get?
What equipment can we use that would allow us to build a mesh network? So a network that is able to communicate within itself, self-forming self-healing network. And we used a number of bits of equipment, predominantly ubiquity. Reflash the firmware on them to allow them, rather than set up a point-to-point link microwave style link that you would normally have actually allowed them to all communicate with each other.
So if any of the nodes are in range they can communicate with any of the other nodes in range. And what that meant was we could put a point of presence in different geographical areas on the ground and provide a wifi connection or a. Local area network, Ethan, that connection like you’d have off your home router at home and say to somebody, there you go.
There is a data connection back to either other locations on the ground or potentially connected to the internet to provide that service there. That, again, it allows us to hand off the communications element to the people that need it, rather than focus on the, the message passing element. So in, in summary, it’s a self forming self-healing IP based digital network.
I think a lot of our listeners may question, why are amateur radio groups involved in setting up mesh networks and setting up a wifi? Why can’t these organizations just bringing their own rotors, set it up and allow people to connect. So the idea was actually to, to do what, yeah. You’re saying that to be able to provide somebody with a wifi connection to simplify it, if they want to bring their own device, their own software you know, their own connection back to, let’s say it’s a, the fire service needs to communicate back on some mapping or coordination tool that they’ve got that normally they’d have on a 4g connection.
And we’re sat in a big Valley somewhere. What we can do is provide that wifi connection for them, similar to the home broadband. But across a far greater geography than you otherwise might be able to with contingency planning and resiliency planning, we’ve factored in the idea that actually we might not have connections over 4g.
We might not have a broadband connection. But they still may want that data connection between different sites actually out on the ground. For me contingency planning, command and control perspective. We added in a number of other features to try and improve that as well. Cameras that can be fed across the network and Digital telephones as well, just using Cisco telephones.
When we’ve worked with other organizations, one organization we work with called Servon, they’re an international disaster response organization. They have a satellite connection. So they’ve paid for satellite broadband that they have a permanent subscription to. So what we can then offer similar to what you were saying.
There is, we can say in this tent, in this field, in the middle of nowhere with no other mobile phone signal, no other communications here is a phone on your desk and a wifi connection that is connected to the internet at large. And that way, if you had entire County or actually in real extreme circumstances, the entire UK network has gone down because we’re using that satellite link and our mesh network.
We can still provide that. From the end user’s perspective. Simple thing of here is a wifi connection and a network connection out to the wider internet. When the public envisions, ham radio groups coming in and setting up an emergency communication network, they pitcher your two meter radios. They picked your grandpa’s radio, but your group really envisions the future and what people really need be it fire please.
Paramedics is to be able to access wifi to transfer there. Documentation is be able to communicate with their dispatch. It isn’t just a two meter radio anymore. We need more and more advanced communications from packet radio to digital communications and the needs are greater than they’ve ever been.
Would that be a fair statement? I think it would. When I first joined rhino, as you mentioned at the start, I didn’t actually have an amateur license. So in order to be involved, I couldn’t do anything that involved that to me to 70 centimeter hate chef, anything like that. Despite having previous experience doing that within the military and doing, you know, national and international communications on HF VHF satellite links, all that sort of thing.
That’s all in the military licensing, military frequencies, et cetera. With a very expensive military equipment. Doing that with Reyna without an amateur license allowed me to think, okay, what could I provide? What could we provide that doesn’t rely on that amateur licensed piece? What it does bring in is the experience and the RF knowledge and the communications management knowledge of amateur radio licensees, but providing a service beyond, as I said, the message passing element of the amateur license and being able to provide.
What on the surface appears a simple wifi connection network connection phone on the desk under circumstances that they otherwise wouldn’t have. What goes into planning when it comes to deploying each one of these nodes when planning such a high volume network during an event or disaster, what is the process that goes into setting up these infrastructures?
So part of my thinking around the initial design of the mesh network was actually how much work the software and the system should do for you to make it simple, to deploy and use versus how much control and flexibility did we want as operators. And my thinking on it was. Some amateur radio operators are going to be very experienced in data and IP and networking.
And some of its radio operators are going to be very inexperienced in that, but very, very good at dealing with RF and where the actual comms planning. So a lot of the software within it, and the idea of the mesh being that self forming self-healing, there’s no central control node. There’s no master location.
There’s no single repeater that you need to work with. I wanted to make it so that we could with a very quick bit of training. Get an amateur radio operator, somebody with some RF experience. Who’d never seen this before and say, this is the bean width. This is the transmission power of this node. Here’s a bit of comms planning work to do, but go empower this and plug it in somewhere and point it back to our location.
They can then use their understanding of a map analysis, compass, bearings, RF theory, all that sort of thing to work out how to get the RF Lincoln and let the software in the system do that management of, okay. How do we get data from a to B? And that’s part of what the underlying software does within the mesh.
To simplify that as best as possible within that as come a few different sacrifices. For example, if we really, really optimized it and tweaked and configured it on every deployment, we could probably increase the available bandwidth we have. But we’ve found in our deployments so far that the bandwidth we have internal to the mash is more than enough.
And the bottleneck is usually that satellite connection or that borrowed internet connection that we’ve got plugged into them. A big part of your group’s involvement in the community is not just disaster planning and dealing with floods and dealing with the typical emo type of activations. You actually offer a service to the community as a fundraiser, as a way to train and get people ready for disasters.
Can you talk a little bit about the role you play in the non-emergency capacity? Sure. So the events that you’re referring to there was a support at a community farm. So there is a near to where I live the community farm just inside the city limits of salt spring, and one of the things they do there in order to support the community and be raised a bit of money for the farm is a live events.
So this was a live show concert that was being put on, had different stools stands stages and people able to go into the community farm into the farm shop, that sort of thing. And we were asked if we could provide an element of calm support from a radio perspective and data support from the mesh networking perspective.
Predominantly actually to provide wifi connection into the bars and the, the stores and the shops that were around the community farm, because a percentage of those profits were going back into that community farm, which was then feeding back into the community as a whole. So we deployed the mesh network out and we actually used the broadband that existed on the farm itself.
That was limited to the little farm cafe ran a network cable in, connected it into the mesh. Part of the mesh design is that you can plug the internet into any of the nodes anywhere on the mesh. And it will identify that it’s got an internet connection and broadcast that to the rest of the network.
We then put different nodes out at the different locations around the farm to broadcast both the wifi signal, as well as a link back to our control station. And, that allowed us to push that data network out. In theory, they could have done that through a commercial provider or having a permanent set up there, but to do so would have been cost-prohibitive for the community farm.
And wouldn’t be used for a large amount of the year. So we’re able to add quite a lot of value there. They took, I think it was about 20,000 pounds over eight hours through the bars and the the different stools that were there. So that raised a really good amounts of money for the community from.
I think membership and community leaders really undervalue digital communications and even two meter communications that an amateur radio operator can provide for the community. And I think your group has really gone outside their comfort zone and said, Hey, we have a skill and an asset that we can offer to the public sector.
And it’s a great tool for us to raise money, to buy equipment that we need. But also to train and to utilize the equipment on a regular basis and develop that comfort zone where it’s easy and intuitive just to set up equipment quite quickly. And it keeps everyone busy and using the gear that we’re so familiar with.
Plus allows us to buy a new equipment by having a fundraising stream. Yeah, I think it’s got a number of intangible and tangible benefits. For that one, for example, we had a voluntary donation of a few hundred pounds from the community farm for supporting the event which allowed us to feed back into our equipment costs, our ongoing maintenance costs, that sort of thing.
So rather than direct fundraising, we were able to, to get that donation from them, for our services and our support. It also gives us an opportunity to test the mesh network in anger. Under pressure with a live internet connection with live traffic going over it, but without lives at stake, it’s not supporting a category one organization, you know, we’re not supporting the fire services.
They’re trying to coordinate a rescue and they’ve got no communications. We’re in a fairly benign environment where we can actually stress test the equipment a little bit. We can trial a couple of extra connections on the mash that we might not otherwise be able to do. And we can do that. In an environment where we’re already doing something else to support.
So it’s not like we’re going to take up the team’s weekend testing with no real data, no real users. So you get those benefits as well of actually almost exercising your team and exercising the equipment and learning some really useful lessons for if we would have to deploy it in an emergency situation.
When I look at the origin of radio and many capacities and the development and research has gone into radio communications. A lot of it can be traced back to its military roots. And with your military experience, is there something that should be incorporated into our disaster plan? Something that we should look at and reflect on?
Is there a missing link that in the civilian world we’re not gravitating towards that we should be at this time. I think one of the things I’ve seen, particularly not necessarily Reyna, but with serve on supporting serve on the disaster response organization. We talked about earlier. One of my friends who is a volunteer with that is ex signals as well as a formative signal.
So a communications plan, a communications manager, and a technical expert. In, in their field, they did 22 years in the military. And this is part of what they do now is they’re they’re retired service and they, they do full-time volunteer work with server, but what they did was put together what they’ve called the volunteer organization control cell.
And the idea of that was take a 18 foot by 24 foot military green tent, put some desks, tables and chairs in there. But some lighting heating power and RayNet come in and then put phones on the desk and a network connection and the wifi and help with the comms elements of that. But what we bring as a team is that command and control that coordination, the operations planning and the operations management, that a lot of volunteer organizations don’t necessarily have the skills or experience to deal with.
But as amateur radio operators, every ham I’ve met has an element of planning of coordination of operations management. Even if they don’t know they’ve got it because being able to run a net. As a ham. If you’re running that repeat in it on a Thursday night, that’s not significantly different from running a military network, having done it in the past, sitting there as the net controller, as zero as we’ve called them and ensuring that comms are up and you’ve got communications with your different organizations and you’ve got the right messages to the right people at the right time.
All of that stuff isn’t necessarily something you’d think you’d have as a hat. But it’s definitely something I would say you have above and beyond the average person or the average volunteer in these organizations. If you’ve got a search and rescue team, what they want to do is go and do search and rescue.
They don’t necessarily want to man, the radio, they don’t want to, they don’t know, or don’t have the experience to do the ops room piece, which I think is where we, as a community can really add value to these things.
The reliability on HF, the ability to use two meters, 70 centimeters radios have been a standard in every emergency management plan or their go kits. But as we look and reflect on what are the needs of our community and what do we want. And our community, when it comes to disaster planning, we really need to think outside the box.
And I think your group really highlights that, that you’re more than just a repeater and a radio. You are a digital network and providing a service for community group that needs to access the internet. It needs access of white phone, and those technologies are important to consider when planning your disaster plans.
Yeah. And that, that was a big part of, of what we were looking at. So one of the things that is coming in is this tool called resilience direct, which is a mapping overlay tool that a lot of the emergency services are using, but it’s tied into servers on the internet. It’s tied into data connections.
And if, as you said, as I said before, if you’re sat in a Valley somewhere and you’ve got no 4g link resilience, director’s useless. So us being able to sit there and say, here’s a table, here’s a chair, here’s some heating and here’s a phone and it looks like the phone in your office. And it works and you go, but we’re in the middle of nowhere, we’re in a field in a tent and I say, give you, give your office a call and they pick it up and they die.
Luckily with a normal phone. And all it is, it’s a VoIP phone. It goes over the mesh. It goes over whatever internet connection is available back to a sip server online, which ties into the real PSTN network and Darcy office. It’s no different to avoid network in an office environment. We’ve just.
Abstracted out into the field, but what they see is a phone on the desk where they can phone their office and they go, but my mobile has got no signal and they go, yeah, that’s what we offer now. And it is that I completely understand why we have the pass messages on behalf of an authorized third party rule within the licensing.
Cause it would be a slippery slope to allow anybody to just grab the mic and start talking. But a lot of the time, if somebody is trying to coordinate, that’s what they want. They want a handset to talk into, to talk directly to somebody on the other end who speaks their language, whether that’s fire place, search and rescue, whatever it is.
And I think that’s where using our comms expertise to provide that service really adds value beyond Like I say it to me two 70 centimetres. Thanks, Tom. I really appreciate you coming to the show today. Thank you very much. You’ve been listening to Tom Easton from the South Wiltshire Raynet on this week’s episode with the last wire podcast.
I’m your host, John Bignell, VE1 JMP. Remember in times of crisis and natural disaster, amateur radio is often used as a means of emergency communication. When all other conventional methods of communication have failed the last wire podcast we’ll profile and share stories of hams who have volunteered their amateur radio knowledge.
And equipment for communication duty. When disaster strikes, if you have a storage share, we want to hear from you, send us your [email protected] until next time, this is V1 Jambi, 73. .