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Taking Another Look at Packet Radio

W4KYR (W4KYR) on June 12, 2017
View comments about this article!

In the late 1980's through the mid 1990's packet radio was all the rage. Amateur radio operators could send email to other hams across the state, across the country or even to other countries. Instead of texting with your phone, you did keyboard to keyboard text on the ham bands. You could browse bulletin boards, send and receive files and even pictures.

All this was done over radio without the benefit of the Internet or cell towers. In fact you didn't even need to be anywhere near a cell tower and even need commercial power. You could run your entire packet radio station on 12 volts. You didn't need a sophisticated computer; in fact you didn't even need a PC!

So lets take a peek back at packet radio through this ten part series from the 'Denver Radio Packet Class' so can get a close up look at packet radio in action. These professionally done videotapes were shot in early 1992 at the very height of the 'packet radio revolution'!

Go to

Now click 'DRC Packet Radio Class' and start with the first presentation.

But what about today? Don't we have must faster means to communicate? Yes we do, we have HSMM-Broadband, ARDEN networks and PACTOR III which all can communicate much faster than packet. So why bother at all? After all, isn't packet 'old school' and no one even makes packet modems today.

Not true, in fact packet modems or Terminal Node Controllers (TNC's) are still being sold in 2017. There are several manufacturers that still produce them including Timewave, Coastal Works/MFJ and Kantronics. The TNC that is the "Gold standard" today seems to be the Kantronics KPC-3 Plus which sells for around $200.

All the online vendors sell new packet TNC's. -- If you don't wish to be concerned with configuring the TNC. You can buy HT's with built in packet modems. The Kenwood TH-D7/ag (built in the 1990's) can often be found for less than $150 used on eBay. The Kenwood TH-D72 and the newer TH-D74 both have built in packet modems. Several of Kenwood's mobile radios have built in TNCs.

So why bother with a TNC when you could use a sound card? There are advantages using a TNC instead of a sound card. If you have a TNC with a mailbox, you can set it up so it will receive mail to your TNC inbox without even requiring that you leave your computer on.

You can setup your packet station in the corner of your shack and leave it unattended and free up your computer for more important tasks. If your TNC is fairly sophisticated like the "Kantronics KPC-3 Plus", you can set up your TNC to be an unattended and you can log in without a computer! There are videos that explain exactly how to do this.

So what about KISS modems like the Coastal works/MFJ 1270-X? The problem with KISS modems is that you have to use a program like AGWPE to access the KISS modem. Some find AGWPE a bit difficult to use. Other solutions are to use some other software based program with the KISS modem. But you can't use simple terminal programs like Hyper-Terminal or PuTTY with a KISS modem. You have to use some kind of software.

Sure, Packet Radio is slow, so why use it when there are faster much means to communicate. Well the problem is cost; new Pactor modems cost $1500. Even used Pactor modems can cost more than the price of new basic HF rig!

So what about HSMM and ARDEN?

Sure, while they aren't as expensive (under $200) they are restricted to line of sight. Unless one has a mountain or a tower at their disposal, you might be lucky to get 10 miles coverage. On the other hand, HF packet radio travels hundreds or thousands of miles depending on frequency.

Another issue is that HSMM and ARDEN is not widely used. I asked last year here on eHam how many are using HSMM or ARDEN in the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area. I didn't get one response, which was surprising because Ohio has a large concentration of ham radio operators. There are more packet radio networks and stations in use today than those using HSMM or ARDEN.

Packet radio's biggest appeal is it's cost. It may cost you nothing to start your own packet radio station especially if you been a ham for some years. Chances are you may have everything at your disposal to put your own packet radio station on the air tonight. All you need is a computer (that old XP computer sitting in your basement will do fine, even that old Windows 98 computer sitting in the garage will do. Yes, even that ancient 35-year-old VIC-20 can do as well!).

You'll need a 2-meter radio, that old Icom IC-2A sitting in your drawer or that HTX - 202 sitting in the closet will do just fine. You'll need an antenna. You'll also need a TNC, you can find perfectly functional used ones on eBay for $35 or less shipped! You'll need a terminal program (FREE!). In Windows XP and going back to Windows 98, there is the free "Hyper-Terminal” utility.

Have a newer computer? No problem, you can use the free PuTTY program.

So who uses packet radio today? Winlink does for it's VHF operations. Select Packet under the 'RMS Map' tab, then select the 'RMS List'.

OK, so where do I go for more information about setting up my own packet radio station? Fortunately there are numerous free video tutorials, there are many .pdf tutorials and there are even FREE packet radio books as well.

K8BZ in Michigan produced 17 videos based just around the KPC-3 Plus and the program "Outpost Packet Message Manager". Please go to YouTube and put "K8BZ Packet Radio Networks" in the search.

Or go to this direct link

Another good packet radio video source is from the "Commsprepper Channel"

Packet Radio - West Virginia's DAREN Nightly Check In

How files and data can be transferred between vehicles with PCs, handheld radios (FT-60R & Wouxun) with the TNC-X packet radio controller/modem.

Retreat Packet Radio Node Online

Commsprepper main channel

What about HF packet?
'Network 105' on 20 meters is still popular.


Want a free book or two?

Here is a free complete 'book' of 18 chapters by Larry Kenney, WB9LOZ on packet radio written in 1988 and updated in the 1990's.

Here is another free book is "A Primer For Packet Radio" and "A Handbook For The Advanced Packet Radio System Node Operator" by Buck Rogers.

In addition there are still very old DOS, Win 3.1 and Win 95 packet radio software out there on the 'net. Among them is the classic "PaKet 6”, which runs in DOS.

The bottom line is that while today's Internet and cell phone networks are great, fast and reliable. They can go down due to a local power outage, a bad snow or ice storm. And whether it be a hurricane or an earthquake, you can still send, store and forward email, text, send or receive emergency lists and view images of storm damage in and out of affected areas with packet radio.

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Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by KG7CSS on June 12, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
"1980's through the mid 1990's packet radio was all the rage. "

Hence the fundamentally flaw with packet. Nothing changed since 1980-1990.HF packet is worst. I feel we need to look beyond to ham broad including Microwave band available to ham radio, ham radio 5G anybody?.
RE: Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by K8QV on June 12, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
Now if we could just get packet to operate on coal power we could relive the last century, at least in our minds.
RE: Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by N6KP on June 12, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
During the 1980's I installed over 15 digipeaters in the SF Bay area from Santa Cruz to Clear Lake and Tahoe.

The idea was to provide Red Cross Disaster Services with a way to communicate when the phones went down. This was way before text messages on cell phones.

We used (with permission) FEMA frequencies above 2 meters. Radios, TNC's and antennas were all purchased with money donated after Loma Preita earthquake. Mtn top sites donated.

The system is long gone since Facebook, email and others have eclipsed what I thought was a nifty way of communicating between Red Cross, FEMA, city EOC's and other NGO's.
Ted N6KP
Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by K9CTB on June 12, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
Packet held so much promise. Folks like GRAPES, TAPR and others really pushed the high-speed potential the mode offered. Even things like ham 44. intranet was possible .... but the people pushing those boundaries were innovators ... and making those high-speed networks operate took know-how. The "big three" never bothered with market entries to support it, so there were never any appliances for the appliance operators. Cause-and-effect? The mode "died" and APRS is about the only use remaining for ax.25 ... because, well, there are appliances for that!

RE: Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by AC2RY on June 12, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
Packet radio today is WiMax and networks based on that stack of protocols like AREDN ( You can call things as you want, but WiMax is a packet routing network, though using IP for global routing.
RE: Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by K9MHZ on June 13, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
Packet was great for the day. Even had some store-and-forward microsats in LEO. You could hear their transponders easily on any FM rig, and decoding was a snap. People would drop the newest firmware PROMs into their TNC's processor sockets, and go to town.

Very fun in the day, but we've moved on. Nothing wrong with that.
RE: Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by K9MHZ on June 13, 2017 Mail this to a friend!

Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by W5GNB on June 13, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
Packet is the Modern day SPARK GAP mode of modern day communication.
RE: Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by AI4WC on June 13, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
I recorded my first contact with MIR using my basic TNC/Packet/HTX202 setup. Yes, it was fun and thrilling, but it all seemed to die out, so I gave my TNC away. I guess it was kind of a phase in my amateur radio life. I kind of miss it, though. I still have my MIR QSL card!
Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by KE4ZHN on June 13, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
Amateur radio...always on the cutting edge of obsolete technology.
Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by WB4M on June 13, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
Yes it was a rage alright. Everyone wanted to be a sysop of a packet BBS; they were popping up all over, invaded established RTTY frequencies, cranking up on top of QSO's in progress. Packet belongs on VHF where it was more useful back then as a DX spotting tool.
Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by K5OSX on June 13, 2017 Mail this to a friend!

Line of sight can be powerful. Just look at what some folks in the old countries are doing:

Kind of makes the US look backward by comparison. The German hamnet seems to include packet radio links.

Sounds like things are Great in Germany, and The Netherlands, and Zwitserland, and ...
Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by K9IUQ on June 13, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
Yeah bring back Packet Radio, AMTOR, Benton Harbor Lunch Boxes, Commodore Computers, dial-up 9600 modems, Blockbuster Video stores,VCRS (VHS only no Betamax) Coal Burning Furnaces in Houses and my 57 Chevy along with my 16 yr old girl friend. Those wuz the days...

Stan K9IUQ
RE: Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by KG7CSS on June 13, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
"Now if we could just get packet to operate on coal power we could relive the last century, at least in our minds."

Actually Steam powered and re can live the Steampunk Victorian era.
RE: Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by K9MHZ on June 13, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
"Everyone wanted to be a sysop of a packet BBS; they were popping up all over...."

Ha, yes.....forgot about that. Very true.
Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by K2CMH on June 14, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
Don't discount the simplicity of Packet. While HSMM and ARDEN are definitely faster and have more flexibility, it takes a lot more to get those networks up and running in terms of hardware, desirable locations, and technical know-how. Just about anyone can operate a packet station. Also, there is cost, while HSMM and ARDEN are not super expensive, they do cost more than a simple packet station as the author pointed out, most people either have or can get TNCs very cheaply.
RE: Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by AA4PB on June 14, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
What I miss is the Packet Conference Node. I put one up and all the locals used to be on it every evening "texting" one another. When you typed something on your keyboard it was sent to all other stations checked into the node (in ARQ mode with error checking). When ever a station logged on or off, the node notified all the other users.

Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by KB9ZB on June 14, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
The same issues we had with packet in the 80’s and 90’s still persist today. Slow, mostly LOS and not very efficient. Nothing has changed, so why do we want to go backwards? We have more robust, faster and mode4s that are extremely efficient. TNC is nothing more than a museum piece looking for a museum!!! A good sound card interfaces will get you unlimited modes that run circles around packet and most are free. In addition, you now have the option of HF as well as VHF. The world opens up with less cost than an old TNC.
Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by K0JEG on June 15, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
AX.25 is obsolete, with minuscule fixed length frames and no FEC it is the AM of data modes. Yet there it is, still being used for APRS (at 1200 baud for crying out loud!), stuck in 1995.

Meanwhile the WiFi guys are pushing out Gigabit speeds, advanced error correction and mesh networking that "just works." Not to mention the 4G/5G LTE folks. Yes, the chances of actually pushing a gig out are pretty slim, especially at any distance beyond one end of the house to the other, but that same stuff at lower throughput and in lower bands could do some pretty amazing stuff. But all that 70CM bandwidth is for ATV (When was the last time you got on your local ATV repeater? Oh wait, there never was one), not data, so forget it.
RE: Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by K9MHZ on June 15, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
You should have seen the ARRL "band plan" that continued for years and years, concerning the 33cm band. Same deal..."ATV" in huge chunks, with FM repeater inputs/outputs squashed in the middle of the allocation. Users, repeater custodians, you name it....were pleading with the League to revisit this and change it to reflect the times. Nothing. ISM users, populate the interior of the 33cm band, and render it virtually impossible to use in more populated areas. Weak signals just plain get smoked by ISM. Too, much equipment modified for use in the amateur allocation could only go so far inside the edges. The League was unfazed. Even the Icom band plan charts to this day (as of Xenia, anyway) STILL shows this League buffonery.

Then a "band plan survey" appears, largely because somebody in Newington couldn't stand the heat any longer, as the optics of their slovenly nature was open for all to see. Years and years later, unbelievable. The government moves quicker than that crowd.

Sorry for the rant/veer. "ATV" in the above post struck a raw nerve...I COMPLETELY understand the point he's made.

(League lifetime member, BTW. Sometimes I wonder why.)
RE: Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by N3HKN on June 15, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
Why would I want to mess with packet, Arden, WINLINK, etc? My little cell phone allows text messages with very high reliability as proven by the Dear Leader. I can call almost any country on the planet without waiting for propagation. Building a WIFI/microwave network, and then waiting for a disaster, is a waste of time and money. The only thing keeping Ham Radio out of total obsolescence are contests as shown by the pages of contest material in the ARRL magazine. Returning to the digital modes, where cellphones dominate, does not make sense.
RE: Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by W4KYR on June 15, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
"Why would I want to mess with packet, Arden, WINLINK, etc? My little cell phone allows text messages with very high reliability as proven by the Dear Leader. I can call almost any country on the planet without waiting for propagation. Building a WIFI/microwave network, and then waiting for a disaster, is a waste of time and money."

The only problem with today's high speed broadband and advanced cellular networks is that we take them for granted. We use them daily without giving much thought on what we would do when those networks go down due to some bad storm or some natural disaster.

Sure we could always use CW, PSK31 or simple voice communications during some prolonged commercial grid outage and that is great. But, If we needed to pass along FEMA bulletins, images of storm damage, weather maps along with lists of needed emergency and medical supplies in and out of affected areas. A voice net, CW or even PSK31 is not going to cut it. Especially if the lists and item are repetitive and needed to be quickly relayed.

Amateur Radio operators are said to be the last line of communications. What is the old saying? "When all else fails, ham radio works!". That is of course that we have a method to deliver and receive ALL essential types information, not just simple voice communications.

Sure Packet Radio is slow and antiquated, no doubt about it. After all, we no longer use horseback to travel across the country. And why should we when we could take a coast to coast flight in 4 or 5 hours? But yet we still use horseback, especially for search and rescue. Horseback will enable you to go places where a regular vehicle cannot go.

Same for packet radio, despite being old, antiquated and slow. It gives additional valuable options to the ham operator by enabling him or her the ability to pass along valuable lists, images, bulletins and needed information before, during and after some local or regional crisis no matter what it may be.

How many modes can offer packet radio's ability to store and forward (and rely out and receive) information unattended? With packet radio (and the free program "Outpost"), you can time your transmissions to transmit and receive certain specific intervals. You 'poll' the network every 15 minutes to check to get mail. Mind you this is being done without the internet or any kind of cellular network.

With the free program "Outpost" you can even setup your TNC as a packet BBS. You can even set it up to run without a computer and log in remotely, thus freeing up your computer for other essential tasks (or to save power during an emergency). Remember that Packet radio is independent of the grid, you can still have mail capabilities. Not only is this convenient but by letting packet radio operate in the background. It will free up the voice net. There are free training videos from K8BZ on YouTube that explain how this is done.

Packet's low technical requirements along with it's dirt cheap cost makes this antiquated but still useful delivery system well worth using in this day and age of lightning fast broadband communications. Packet radio within the range of every ham's budget.

Chances are, you might only need a TNC. That old XP (or Windows 98) computer will work just fine with packet radio. That old relic, the Icom IC-2AT would be fine for packet. Or maybe that extra $20 Baofeng radio that you bought recently can be pressed into packet service as well.

These days used TNC's cost as little as $25 and up in working condition, perhaps someone at your ham radio club will give you one for very little cost. Whatever little effort that you put forth in starting your own packet station tonight or this weekend will ultimately help others. You will be rewarded with knowing that you have more options at your disposal in case of an emergency or for routine communications.

The thing is you don't need to wait for some disaster to get on packet. You can start using packet radio tonight. And if no one is running a packet in your area. Start your own network and Packet BBS yourself. You can offer to help hams setup their own packet station. You can make an announcement your local radio club or on your local repeater. This underutilized but valuable resource costs very little and offers so much.

Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by KK9H on June 15, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
Personally, I think packet radio still has a place in our communications bag of tricks. It is fairly simple to set up, it is reliable and not expensive to acquire equipment. We have used it as a secondary, alternative way to communicate short messages to various locations during volunteer events and it has served perfectly in that role. If it works for the purpose you use it for, why not?

73, Don KK9H
Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by NZ2Z on June 15, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
A small group (4) of us used to run a packet BBS back in the day. It was fun. We experimented with software (ka9q was the best followed by wa8bxn) practice remote commands, ftp'ed files, wormholed to Australia and got hops from Cleveland to New Haven, CT. Not to mention connecting to R8MIR.
Things change. That is the nature of being on the leading edge of technology. We hams need to stay on the edge of innovation and experimentation. I also lament the loss of packet. I keep a couple of TNCs in the shack an recently built 2 Pi TNCs, but that said, I am always ready to move on.
RE: Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by W4KYR on June 16, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
Thanks for all the comments so far, please keep them coming. You might be interested that "Taking Another Look at Packet Radio" was also posted over at QRZ. All told, there were 30 pages of comments, which to me indicated a relatively healthy interest in the subject.

I need to mention that there is another fine and free terminal program. It is called Tera Term and it is available both in Linux and Windows versions. Some prefer it to Putty.

Currently the latest release of Tera Term is dated May 31 2017 and it is version 4.95

This is a good basic primer on packet radio. It covers a good portion of the subject despite only running one page.

"So you want to learn and operate Packet Radio?"

(Updated March 3, 2016)


RE: Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by AJ4DW on June 19, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
I appreciate some of the comments about "hams should always be looking for the most up to date and cutting edge technologies... hell, I use a FlexRadio! But there is nothing wrong with using the older technologies... including CW and boat anchors... and Packet Radio. You can do it for the fun (boat anchors) or the advantages (CW cutting through noise and getting out).

Packet radio does the job, it's very cheap (most of us older hams DO already have everything we need) and very easy to set it and forget it.

If everyone rummaged through their junk box and set up a packet radio in the corner of their shack we could have a very nice third or fourth string backup system at almost no cost. No need to dismiss the newer systems, we should use them if they're faster or more efficient, but packet radio could be sitting in the background waiting.

Nowadays modern ham radio itself is dismissed as antiquated...everyone looks at their cellphones and sat phones and asks if we really need to keep ham radio as a backup. Yes, we do. Cellphone communications are the first thing to go during a disaster and with the majority of Americans getting rid of their landlines and relying on cellphones at home there's going to be a lot less communications during future disasters that there was in the past, not more.

So don't dismiss packet radio... if you don't like it don't use it... but if the idea intrigues you, jump in!!!
Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by KZ1X on June 21, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
Look what these guys are doing:

Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by K3WVU on June 21, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
Remember running 2M packet in the late 80's from Germany, and being able to go through digipeaters all the way up and across the English channel. Used a PK-232 with an Alinco ALM-203T with a Mirage 30 Watt amp with a Cushcraft AR-2 Ringo. Good times!
RE: Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by AJ4DW on June 23, 2017 Mail this to a friend!

Neat but I can't figure out where they're situated
RE: Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by KC3ECJ on July 1, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
I'm into ATV. I got gear for 70cm and 900mhz. ATV isn't just repeaters.
RE: Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by KA2DEW on July 31, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
>>>> RE: Taking Another Look at Packet Radio Reply
>>>> by AJ4DW on June 23, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
>>>> KZ1X de AJ4DW
>>>> Neat but I can't figure out where they're situated

There is a decent TARPN running in Orange, Durham, Wake counties in North Carolina (RTP area). The network may even be growing.
For the Central NC map, check out the "network" page on the TARPN web site.

TARPN is an idea for doing a multihop-long packet network connecting hams together using the old packet idea but with some newer (cheaper) equipment and with some streamlining of the network topology to fix some of the old crashing-network & missing-builders problems.

Inspirations for the TARPN plan came from the North East Digital Association in northeast US & eastern Canada which died in 2001 or so, and also from the Mecklenburg ARS group around Charlotte NC which is still ongoing. Thanks Seth!

The NEDA concept was that if you dedicated a frequency locally to two stations talking back and forth, you could up the performance of a link between those two stations by 20:1 over sharing a backbone channel across several stations. 4:1 gain by going from 5 stations to 2. An additional 5:1 gain by eliminating the Aloha/PPersistance slow-downs. Having done this you also have the option to use yagis for any link radios (even horizontal yagis), and now your audio/signalling alignment and upgrade-ability is tied to two stations instead of many or even unkwown stations on the channel. The cost of doing dedicated frequencies is that of doubling the number of radios and TNCs used in the network. That seemed worth it to gain 20:1 performance, increased convenience, and nearly completely eliminating network crash/catastrophic failures. The real problem with this topology is that it makes it nearly impossible to support a truly transient ham station.

TARPN's hope is that if you could do it cheap enough and so it worked well enough, you could make it grow on its own. What are the obstacles to having hams build packet networks? Price? Complexity? Documentation? Tools?

One of the concerns about whether this was practical again, or anymore, was that people would just use the superior Internet. I could be wrong, but I think many people who are currently using ham radio are doing it despite the fact that the Internet and cellphones do it better, faster and with last hassle. Perhaps packet radio networks could exist again now that the ham population has been distilled down to people who actually like playing with radios and building projects that use just ham radio. We can build networks that actually work, over a hundred miles or more, located just at our houses. It would take people located every 20 miles or less here in the Piedmont.

What we DO with the networks is certainly a question. DxClusters and BBSs? Everybody DXing HF is using Internet everywhere they can and email works ver well on Internet. BBSs on packet won't take over now that Internet is everywhere, but we can still mess around with this.

What we are doing is real-time chat, paging, some remote control experiments. We're hoping to have satellite/ISS packet traffic monitoring -- that could happen any time now -- and maybe see if we can do APRS-like activity state-wide without using Internet. We could put a 144.39 receiver at node sites every 40 miles or so and monitor the incoming packets. We'd probably have to be more judicious with how much traffic we relay. Then we repackage the incoming packets into a more dense buffer and send it around to a few servers. Map generation would have to be done locally. APRS on our network is certainly possible with the network's performance but it isn't really handy until our network goes further than anybody's WIDE1 digipeater range. We're past that point or almost at that point already in central NC.

Eventually we'd like to do all the obvious eventual things, like PTT audio and such. But there are some other nifty projects that would have to be done first. We also need much better redundancy in the network.

TARPN's deployment software is very usable even by non technocrats. The UI (TARPN-HOME by NC4FG) is wonderful and runs on any computer or device with a web browser (only at home of course). See our web page at

73 de Tadd, KA2DEW
Taking Another Look at Packet Radio  
by AC7KZ on August 2, 2017 Mail this to a friend!
I wonder if I can change the color on my monitors to mimic the monochrome or green monitors used in packet back in the day.
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