Wireless Waffle - A whole spectrum of radio related rubbish
Wave To Go!signal strength
Monday 27 January, 2014, 15:30 - Broadcasting, Licensed, Spectrum Management
Posted by Administrator
The BBC recently reported that Radio Russia have quietly switched off the majority of their long-wave broadcast transmitters. Whilst the silent passing of Russia's long wave service will not rattle the front pages either in Russia or anywhere else for that matter, it does raise the question of the long-term viability of long-wave broadcasting.

atlantic252During the early 1990s there was a resurgence of interest in long-wave radio in the UK caused by the success of the pop station Atlantic 252. But by later in the decade, the poorer quality of long-wave broadcasting compared to FM, together with the increased proliferation of local FM services in the UK eventually led to the demise of the station. Similar logic appears to have been used by the Russian authorities who now have a much more extensive network of FM transmitters and clearly feel that the expense of operating long-wave is no longer justified.

One of the great advantages of long-wave broadcasting is the large area that can be covered from a single transmitter. For countries whose population is spread over very wide areas, long-wave offers a means to broadcast to them with very few transmitters. Conversely, the large antennas and high transmitter powers required to deliver the service make it an expensive way to reach audiences. Presumably there is a relatively simple equation that describes the cost-benefit of long-wave broadcasting, i.e.:

worthwhileness equation


Where:
W = Worthwhileness of Long-Wave Broadcasting
C = Total cost of providing the service
A = Audience
FM = FM
LW = Long Wave
Tot = Total

As long as W>0 as A(FM) increases it continues to be worthwhile to broadcast on long-wave as the cost of providing the service is greater than the cost of doing the same thing using FM.

The cost of providing an FM service - C(FM) - is not constant, and will increase with the audience served, and not in a linear fashion either. The final few audience will cost significantly more than the first few. This is because stations which only serve small, sparse communities tend to be more costly (per person) than ones serving densely packed areas.

The cost of providing the LW service - C(LW) - however, is largely constant regardless of how many people listen to it.

It's therefore possible to draw a graph of the cost per person - C/A - of the FM audience and the cost per person of the long-wave audience, as the FM audience increases.

long wave fm graph

The figures used in the graph above are illustrative only. They assume that:
  • The cost per person of providing an FM service increases by a factor of 10 between the first and the last person served;
  • The cost per person of providing the long-wave service is initially only a third of that of providing the same service on FM.
Based on these assumptions, it is not until the FM audience reaches almost 90% of the population that the cost per listener of FM is less than that of providing the same service on long-wave. As FM coverage becomes more widespread, it is this factor that is causing many broadcasters to cease long-wave transmissions (the BBC has a plan to end its long-wave service too, though there is no date set for the closure yet).

Of course there are many other factors to take into account, in particular the difference in service quality between FM and long-wave, and the proportion of receivers that have a long-wave function. There are thus other factors that will hasten the end of long-wave as FM coverage increases. The same could largely be said for medium-wave where arguably, the problems of night time interference make it even worse off than long-wave (though more receivers have it).

long waveWireless Waffle reported back in 2006 on the various organisations planning to launch long-wave services, not surprisingly none of them have (yet) come to fruition.

There is, however, one factor in favour of any country maintaining a long-wave service (or even medium-wave for that matter), and it's this: simplicity. It is possible to build a receiver for long-wave (or medium-wave) AM transmissions using nothing more than wire and coal (and a pair of headphones) as was created by prisoners of war.
Prisoners of war during WWII had to improvise from whatever bits of junk they could scrounge in order to build a radio. One type of detector used a small piece of coke, which was a derivative of coal often used in heating stoves, about the size of a pea.

After much adjusting of the point of contact on the coke and the tension of the wire, some strong stations would have been received.

If the POW was lucky enough to scrounge a variable capacitor, the set could possibly receive more frequencies.

In the event (God forbid) of a national emergency that took electricity (such as a massive solar flare), it would still be possible for governments to communicate with their citizens using simple broadcasting techniques and for citizens to receive them using simple equipment. Not so with digital broadcasting! Ironically, most long-wave transmitters use valves which are much less prone to damage from solar flares than transistors.

So whilst long-wave services are on the way out in Russia and elsewhere, it will be interesting to see whether the transmitting equipment is completely dismantled at all sites, or whether some remain for times of emergency. Of course if every long-wave transmitter is eventually turned off, there is some interesting radio spectrum available that could be re-used for something else... offers on a postcard!
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Where next for radiomicrophones?signal strength
Monday 16 December, 2013, 23:10 - Broadcasting, Spectrum Management
Posted by Administrator
It wasn't that long ago that Wireless Waffle was discussing the need for spectrum for programme making and special events (PMSE). At the time we were considering how the needs of the burgeoning demand for radio spectrum for the Eurovision Song Contest would be met. Most radiomicrophones currently operate in the UHF television band, in the gaps between transmitters. These gaps (which are there to protect neighbouring television transmitters from interfering with each other) are also being eyed by the wireless broadband and machine-to-machine community amongst others and have been given the moniker 'white space' (though one person infinitely more learned in these things believes they should correctly be considered 'grey spaces' as they aren't as white as you might believe).

tv squashedThere are also moves afoot to squash television broadcasting into even less spectrum to make way for more mobile broadband. At present the spectrum from 470 to 790 MHz is generally available (40 channels - channels 21 to 60). The new plans involve using the spectrum from 694 MHz upwards for more mobile broadband leaving the terrestrial television broadcasters with just 28 channels (channels 21 to 48). And at the moment, there is no guarantee that there won't be further erosion of the UHF television band for other uses.

If TV use is squashed into less spectrum, there will be less 'grey space' available for radiomicrophones, or for anyone else for that matter. To make matters worse, the tuning range of most radiomicrophones (and similar devices) is very limited and each time they are forced to change frequency, new equipment needs to be bought. Of course, this is good news for manufacturers such as Sennheiser and Shure, but is bad news for the end users.

The need for spectrum for radiomicrophones and other PMSE uses is recognised at an European level in the Radio Spectrum Policy Programme (RSPP) article 8.5 of which states:
Member States shall, in cooperation with the Commission, seek to ensure the necessary frequency bands for PMSE, in accordance with the Union's objectives to improve the integration of internal market and access to culture.

So what can be done? Are PMSE users to be left as the nomads of the radio spectrum, packing down their camps, wandering across the desert and re-assembling their tents in a new area every 3-4 years? Or is there a long(er)-term solution that would allow them to lay solid foundations and put down some bricks?

For many years, a band at 1785 - 1800 MHz has been available for wireless microphone use, but only for digital microphones (see CEPT Report 50). Almost no use has been made of the band and the views of Audio-Technica illustrate why this is the case:
The frequency range [1800 MHz] is not really suited for wireless microphones, as the higher frequencies (i.e. shorter wavelengths) create more body absorption and shadow effects due to the directivity, etc. The use of these frequencies will only work adequately when there is a line of sight and a short distance between the transmitter and the receiver.

alesha microphoneUsing diversity reception (already commonplace in radiomicrophone equipment) and careful antenna placement, there is no reason why the 1.8 GHz band could not prove useful. But one of the other problems with this band is that radiomicrophones are not well suited to using digital technology. To send audio digitally, it must first be converted from analogue to digital. For 'high quality' audio, this would yield a 'raw' data rate of at least 512 kbps, if not more - and more like 1 Mbps by the time error correction is added in. If we were to try to transmit this data in the 200 kHz channels that microphones currently use, we would have to use a high-order modulation scheme (such as 8-PSK or 16 QAM) and this causes problems because:
  • transmitters need to be linear meaning they draw more power and would drain batteries much more quickly;
  • higher-order modulation schemes require decent signal-to-noise levels and thus higher powered transmitters;
  • it takes time to encode and decode complex modulation schemes.
It is this latter point that is perhaps the Achilles Heel of the system. The delay between words being spoken, and the sound coming out of the PA system has to be very small. If it is not, problems of lipsynch soon occur (e.g. the speakers lips are out of synch with the sound you hear). A delay of only a few 10s of milliSeconds is usually regarded as the largest tolerable.

This means that the other way in which digital systems use spectrum efficiently is also a no-go. Compressing the data (e.g. using a compressed audio format such as mp3 instead of the raw digitised audio) also takes time - generally longer than the time taken to transmit the signal digitally. And so we reach an impasse: compressing the audio to use less spectrum takes too long, and transmitting the raw data uses more spectrum than their analogue counterpart and involves a number of other trade-offs. All this means that digital radiomicrophones, whilst slowly being developed, tend to offer no better performance than analogue versions (and at much higher cost).

But the fact is, that if the radiomicrophone industry does not make some strides towards adopting higher frequencies or more spectrum efficient modulation techniques, it might find itself without enough spectrum in which to operate.

So where could microphones go? There are a whole host of frequencies which are currently assigned at a European level by CEPT for radiomicrophone use (as per ERC Recommendation 70-03, Annex 10). These include:
  • 29.7 - 47 MHz - manufacturers claim that these frequencies are not ideal as they are too noisy and antennas are too large (fussy lot aren't they)
  • 174 - 216 MHz - VHF band III - mostly occupied by TV broadcasting and DAB radio
  • 470 - 790 MHz - the aforementioned UHF band that is now being squeezed
  • 863 - 865 MHz - licence exempt and shared with other devices
  • 1785 - 1805 MHz - 'too high'
The UHF band accounts for over three quarters of the available spectrum, so if it is lost, where next for the radiomicrophones? How's about:
  • 1215 - 1350 MHz - mostly an aeronautical radar band but shared with many other uses and therefore presumably sharable with others
  • 1350 - 1400 MHz - low capacity fixed links and some mobile services
  • 1492 - 1518 MHz - more low capacity fixed links - and already proposed in ERC 70-03 but available in a tiny amount in the UK only
  • 1675 - 1710 MHz - a downlink band for meteorological satellites but not heavily used - sterilisation zones around official downlink sites would protect professional users
If the big guns (Sennheiser, Shure, Audio-Technica, AKG) refuse to find a way to use higher frequencies, perhaps the time is right for one of the small guys to. You can bet your bottom Renminbi that if they don't, some enterprising Chinese company will!

china wins microphone
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Topping TP20 Mark II - A Noisy Noise Annoys (Part 4)signal strength
Wednesday 25 September, 2013, 11:35 - Radio Randomness, Spectrum Management, Equipment Reviews
Posted by Administrator
In the past, Wireless Waffle has discussed various things that cause radio interference but which are not supposed to including, for example Power Line Telecommunications devices. This time around it's the turn of a Class T audio amplifier to come under the spotlight.

topping tp20 spotlight

Class T amplifiers are really Class D amplifiers but are supposedly more efficient. Any clearer? No, probably not. The idea behind these types of audio amplifiers (noting that the Class D principal is also used in some radio transmitters too) is that instead of amplifying an analogue signal in an analogue way, such that the output voltage is just an amplified version of the input voltage, they switch the output voltage on and off at a frequency higher than the audio signal, and then use a filter on the output to smooth the square wave that they produce back into a nice analogue signal. This method is known as pulse width modulation.


pulse width modulationThis switching technique is exactly the same one that is used in the majority of modern power supplies (SMPS) and has the prime advantage that as the transistors that do the switching are either turned on or off, they are never in some intermediate state where they would have to act as a resistor and in doing so dissipate power and heat. So they are highly efficient and it is possible to generate audio with over 90% efficiency meaning that more of the power is converted to sound and less is lost as heat, which is, after all, a very admirable quality.

As with switch mode power supplies a good filter is critical in ensuring that none of the original square waves find their way to the output. Square waves are very good at producing harmonics and therefore are equally good at generating radio signals and, of course, radio interference. There have been many cases of switch mode power supplies causing such radio interference and their use in, for example, LED lighting, means that the number of possible sources of interference is ever increasing.

The main problem is that, in many cases, the device will work without the filter fitted - if (and only if) the device that it is powering is not too fussy about all those square waves (e.g. an LED) or has a method of smoothing them out itself (e.g. a loudspeaker). A loudspeaker is basically a large inductor, which is what the filters in switching amplifiers also comprise. Feeding the nasty square waves on the output of the switcher directly into a loudspeaker will not result in a noticeable loss in fidelity (assuming the switching frequency is well above the audible frequency range), nor any particular loss of efficiency. So why fit the filter? To stop radio interference, that's why.

topping tp20 examination

So step up to the examination table, the Topping TP20-MK2 Class T Digital Mini Amplifier. One of these was recently purchased for the Wireless Waffle office, so that we could listen to the oidar through a bigger set of speakers. Being compact, and efficient, and coming in a shiny silver case, it ticked all the right boxes. But ouch, what noise from yonder shiny case breaks? As soon as the amplifier was turned on, reception of radio signals on just about any frequency was wiped out by noise. Even an FM tuner sat receiving a strong local transmission which was previously a perfectly quieting signal, was sent into oblivion by the amplifier. Obviously, the filter on the output of the Topping amplifier is completely inadequate for the purposes of curbing radio interference.

In cases such as these, there is little that can be done. Other than taking the device apart and replacing the filter components with better ones (an idea that is not as daft as it sounds), the solution is to junk the device and use a traditional linear amplifier instead. Which is what has been done. Bye bye trendy, offendy Topping, hello dusty, trusty Sony.
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700 MHz - The Heat Is Onsignal strength
Wednesday 4 September, 2013, 09:46 - Spectrum Management
Posted by Administrator
The new 700 MHz mobile band (703 - 748 paired with 758 - 803 MHz) is a hot topic amongst spectrum aficionados around the world. It raises a number of technical and political issues which are far from being fully resolved. On the political side, the main battle is between broadcasters (who currently occupy the band) and the mobile community who are keen to brush the broadcasters aside to clear the spectrum for more mobile broadband services. Broadcasters argue that they need more spectrum to cope with high definition and other developments whilst the mobile operators believe that the spectrum has greater value if used for extending broadband capacity and especially, given the good propagation characteristics at 700 MHz, the coverage, of their networks.

unlit bonfireWhilst the political issues are like a pile of tinder dry kindling just waiting for a spark to set them alight, there are technical problems to address as well: The way in which the band is paired means that mobile handsets will be transmitting in the frequencies immediately adjacent to television broadcasts. Television broadcasts using channel 48 (in the Region 1 8 MHz raster) will use frequencies up to 694 MHz. Mobile handsets will use frequencies as low as 703 MHz. This leaves a 9 MHz gap between the two.

Whilst it might seem that the likelihood of a low power (50 milliWatt) transmission from a mobile phone causing interference to reception of a high power (100 kiloWatt) television service is small given the vast (2 million times) difference in transmitter power, the reality is that the mobile handset could be within only a few metres of the television receiver whereas the television transmitter might be tens of kilometers away. The strength of interference from the handset could therefore be orders of magnitude higher than the incoming television signal. Using free space path loss:
  • A 50 mW (23 dBm) mobile transmitter 3 metres away produces a field strength of 91 dBuV/m
  • A 100 kW (80 dBm) television transmitter 30 kilometers away produces a field strength of 68 dBuV/m
So the signal caused by the mobile would be 23 dB (or 200 times) bigger than the television signal. In reality the digital signal would be much smaller than this as the free space calculation takes no account of terrain or other topographical factors and thus the difference would be even bigger.

guard band girlThe 9 MHz gap between the mobile transmissions and the television reception is known as a guard-band and is there to give a chance for the television receiver to filter out the unwanted mobile transmissions. There is plenty of work going on to check that this is the case but it will depend on a number of factors that are outside the control of the mobile operators or television broadcasters such as:
  • The quality of the television receiver. Those made to a low price may not perform as well in this regard as more expensive receivers.
  • The quality of the receiver installation. An old antenna may receive less signal and poor coax will allow more mobile signal to leak into the receiver exacerbating the problems.
  • The proximity of the mobile transmitter to the television antenna. In the case where television reception is through a 'rabbit ears' antenna on top of the TV, the distance between the antenna and the mobile could be far less than 3 metres, or even 1 metre.
  • The distance of the receiver from the television transmitter. Those close to the transmitter are less likely to suffer interference but those in areas of fringe reception are at much greater risk.
  • The use of television signal amplifiers. Such amplifiers can easily overload and stop working when presented with a strong nearby mobile signal.
There are other factors too. There are also things that can be done to mitigate against these problems such as replacing aging installations and fitting filters.

The rules of spectrum use state that new users should implement their transmitters in such a way as to protect existing, incumbent users from interference and in that respect, the work to ensure that the new mobile services do not cause harmful interference to television services is totally appropriate. But there is another technical issue that needs to be considered, that of interference from the television transmitter into the mobile network.

Consider a mobile base station that is 1 kilometer away from the television transmitter, trying to receive a signal from a mobile handset that is 500 metres away. Let's run the free space path loss equations again:
  • A 50 mW (23 dBm) mobile transmitter 500 metres away produces a field strength of 47 dBuV/m
  • A 100 kW (80 dBm) television transmitter 1 kilometer away produces a field strength of 98 dBuV/m
streichholzerIn this case, the mobile signal would be 51 dB (or 125,000 times) weaker than the television transmitter. Again the 9 MHz guard-band is there to allow the mobile base station to filter out the television transmission but the job is much (much!) more difficult. Move the mobile handset further away from the base station, or increase the transmitter power of the television signal, or move the base station closer to the television transmitter and the situation gets even worse. In terms of who needs to protect who from interference, interference caused by the television signal into the mobile networks is secondary to ensuring the protection of television reception but is potentially an equally burning problem.

Whilst it is possible to develop filters that can provide 50 dB, 60 dB or even more rejection of the television signals, they are costly. Of course not every site requires such an expensive filter: only those close to television transmitters on channel 48 will need them. But whilst television frequency use is not normally very dynamic, as re-planning of networks takes a lot of co-ordination, they do change channel from time-to-time and so knowing which site to fit the filters to cannot be done with complete certainty.

So if the political issues form tinder dry kindling just waiting to be lit, the problems of interference from mobile handsets into television receivers are a bucket of petrol poured on that kindling. It may therefore be that the problems of interference from television transmitters into the mobile network are the spark that gets the fire burning!

midsummer bonfire
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