Wednesday 15 February, 2006, 13:26 - Radio RandomnessI read an article in The Times newspaper yesterday entitled 'Coastguard scrambled as set-top box sends SOS'. It would appear that, on two separate occasions, radio emissions from a Freeview set-top box had raised an alert with the coastguard who had sent search and rescue helicopters out to find the source, apparently costing GBP20,000 or so on each occasion (special 'centrifrugal' helicopter fuel is very expensive you see).
The alert concerned was simply a transmission on a frequency of 121.5 MHz, one of the internationally recognised distress frequencies. Devices called Emergency Position-Indicating Rescue Beacons (EPIRBs) use this, and other frequencies (406.1 MHz for civil and 243.0 MHz for military emergencies) to alert an international network of Search and Rescue satellites (SAR-SATs) when a vessel is in distress. The various satellites which monitor this frequency can pin-point to within an accuracy of about 20km, the location of any transmission, over an area comprising about 60% of the surface of the earth. The unintentional radiation from the set-top box would therefore have triggered the satellites (which believed it was a distress beacon) to alert ground stations to the signal. The fact that the set-top box concerned was located in Plymouth, a busy naval town as opposed to in the middle of the English countryside would have further alarmed the coastguard (as boats in distress surrounded by miles of farmland would be rather suspicious).
The story continues to say that officials tracked down the source of the interference and knocked, antennas in hand, on the door of the poor unsuspecting lady whose box was at fault. She clearly thought she had been tracked down for television licence evasion, though why she would think this if she had a licence is rather confusing. Obviously the signals were strong enough to merit intervention from the authorities, who took the action of tracking and closing down the problem rather than allowing it to continue.
Two things are surprising about this story. Firstly, the fact that the transmissions from the set-top box were strong enough to raise the alert with the satellite network. EPIRBs operating on 121.5 MHz typically use a power of 50mW or more. The malfunction of the set-top box must have caused some device within the box to oscillate and these oscillations were then radiated back through the TV antenna or the down-lead. To get a 50mW signal in such circumstances, however, is pretty good going. Even a well designed VHF oscillator would struggle to provide a stable 50mW of power on a fixed frequency without drifting as the oscillator got warmer or cooler. And given the poor performance of the antenna at these frequencies, it is likely that the power generated by the set-top box would need to be significantly more than this. It is no surprise that a ground-based search was also able to track down the signal! It is worrying in many ways that this is the case. Had the transmission been on a different frequency (for example 121.9 MHz) it would have interfered with air-traffic control (in this case at Heathrow airport). Such events do regularly occur, however there are no satellites that can pin-point the location of the transmission and many go unchecked.
The second thing which is surprising is that the box could produce such radiations in the first place. All electronic equipment has to conform to a set of standards known (in Europe) as the EMC directive. This requires all manufacturers to certify that their equipment does not suffer when in the presence of nearby radio transmissions AND that it does not cause unintentional radiation. The set-top box would have had to conform to this standard and thus should have been checked for emissions. Clearly, in this case, the set-top box was malfunctioning, which means that the tests conducted by manufacturers are not extensive enough to capture the results of fault conditions. Does that mean that I could produce a toaster which, if held upside down radiated a couple of Watts in the FM band and claim it conformed when used normally, to toast bread?
What's most worrying is that there are probably hundreds more cases of such radiation which go on unnoticed. In one respect the fact that they are unnoticed means that they are not causing anyone any problems. On the other, it does question whether opening up the use of the radio spectrum in a less controlled manner would really cause the mass devastation that many people seem to think it would.
Wednesday 8 February, 2006, 12:10 - LicensedI used to supply VHF FM radio transmitters for Restricted Service Licence (RSL) stations in the UK. The licences allowed a maximum transmitter power of 25 Watts and a maximum antenna height of 10 metres above the ground. As such, the range of such stations was normally very limited compared to regular FM stations who used powers typically in excess of 400 Watts and with much higher antennas. To maximise the range of the RSLs, it was best to identify and use transmitter sites which were as high above the surrounding land as possible but in some areas the land was so flat that no such sites existed.
One question which was constantly asked by the operators of such stations was, "Should I broadcast in stereo?". On the face of it, stereo is the norm for FM broadcasts and most stations believed that if they weren't in stereo they would be seen somehow as inferior. However, what most failed to take into account was the fact that in order to receive a good quality stereo signal, the signal strength has to be 10 times (20dB) higher than that required to receive a good quality mono signal. This translates into a reduction in coverage area of 100 times, i.e. the coverage in stereo is only a hundredth of the coverage area achieved by the same transmitter in mono (ignoring topographical issues such as terrain and buildings).
Why is there so much difference? The answer lies in the bandwidth which a stereo signal occupies compared to a mono signal. The audio bandwidth of an FM transmission lies in the range of 30 Hz to 15000 Hz (15 kHz). However the way that a stereo signal is generated expands this bandwidth to 53000 Hz (53 kHz). (Don't get this confused with the RF bandwidth of the signal which is 180 kHz for mono and 256 kHz for stereo).
How does the audio bandwidth extend to 53 kHz? Well the mono signal which is made by adding the left (L) and right (R) channels together - expressed as L+R - is transmitted as usual so that the resulting signal is compatible with mono receivers. The difference between the left and right channel (L-R) is amplitude modulated onto a carrier at 38000 Hz (38kHz). This produces a signal which occupies the audio frequencies from 23 to 53 kHz - above the standard audio range and thus inaudible on a mono receiver.
A 'pilot' tone which is a low-level tone at 19000 Hz (19kHz) is also added to this signal and then the whole lot is sent to the FM transmitter. In a stereo receiver the presence of the pilot tone triggers the stereo decoder to recover the original signals. The left channel is reproduced by adding the mono to the stereo difference signal (L+R+L-R=2L) and the right channel is produced by subtracting the difference signal from the mono signal (L+R-(L-R)=L+R-L+R=2R).
The noise received by an FM receiver increases as the square of the bandwidth of the modulated/demodulated signal and as such the increase in noise (i.e. the decrease in signal to noise) for a stereo signal is (53/15)˛ or 12.5 times. Some of this increase is counterbalanced by 'pre-emphasis' where higher audio frequencies are enhanced before transmission and then reduced at the receiver, reducing the effect of some of the noise. The resulting improvement leaves a difference of the factor of 10 mentioned above.
The question of whether to broadcast in stereo for a low-power RSL (or indeed a pirate!) FM station is therefore a question of quality and coverage. If you have a high site and can expect that most of the listeners you wish to target will receive a good strong signal, stereo is great. If not (which is usually the case), using mono ensures your coverage is maximised. Of course, in fringe stereo areas where the signal becomes 'hissy' the listeners could always switch to mono, but how many people actually know that this solves the problem, let alone know where the mono/stereo switch on their receiver is?!
There are some pirate stations I have heard who transmit only the pilot tone so that the stereo 'light' on receivers comes on, which looks nice, but don't actually transmit in stereo. This is the worst possible case, as all it will serve to do is reduce the coverage, without giving any additional benefit to the listeners!
Friday 3 February, 2006, 18:32 - Much Ado About NothingMy attention was recently drawn to a product called the 'Power Strip Antenna Booster' (though I believe these devices first came to fame in the USA in about 2001). It was being offered for only 1 pence by a mobile retailer (I won't embarrass them by naming First Phone Shop, oops...) if bought in conjunction with other cellular products worth more than GBP12.
The claims being made for this amazing device are quite impressive, "It dramatically reduces static and increases reception by up to 50%", and "It's like having a FIVE foot antenna on your phone". But what I particularly enjoyed were the descriptions of how the device functioned...
"It is a passive device designed to capture the stray radiation inside the body of the phone and re-direct the signal to improve the phone's performance."
"The Signal Booster captures stray static electricity around your phone and focuses it back to the signal, dramatically improving reception."
"It creates a megnetic [sic] field around the handset and draws in more signal also giving better clarity."
To most people these explanations might seem perfectly plausible. As someone who has handled radio for many years, its utter bunkum. 'Focusing stray static electricity back into the signal' makes about as much sense as 'Gathering stray exhaust fumes and channelling them back into the steering wheel'. Surely the fact that the device can be stuck anywhere on the phone, particularly inside the battery compartment, must at least have raised doubts in some people's minds. How can signals get out better if they are trapped behind the battery?
There are devices which can 'focus radio signals, increasing reception quality'. These magical devices are known as aerials (or antennas to our North American cousins). However, there is already an antenna inside every cellular phone, otherwise it wouldn't receive any signal at all!
There are a number of devices around which genuinely try to improve upon the performance of these in-built antennas, however the resulting product looks remarkably like... an aerial. A 'patch' that focuses stray radiation, what will they think of next?
Incidentally, having said all this, I do have a supply of Radio Atomising Crystals. Sprinkling these crystals around your phone, particularly under the key-pad and in that hole where the SIM-card fits has the effect of absorbing nearby interference channels, dispersing weak signals and leaving stronger signals to be more easily filtered by the phone's in-built diplexing separator. These crystals are guaranteed to deliver a massive increase in my wealth and are available for only GBP19.99 for a 5 gram sachet from all bad retailers and some rather gullible good ones who got taken in…
Thursday 2 February, 2006, 21:28 - Radio RandomnessNo doubt a lot of people received cordless phones in their Christmas stocking, not least because with cellular phones all the fashion, it seems rather restrictive to have to use a fixed phone at home. Cordless phones come in many flavours, but in particular come in analogue and digital varieties. It's not always that simple to identify, however, which phone is which. In the radio sense, an analogue phone is one which uses analogue modulation (usually FM) to carry the audio to and from the phone. Conversely, a digital phone is one which uses digital modulation. However some unscrupulous retailers who believe that the 'digital' tag is something which sells, often call phones with digital answerphones (i.e. that record messages digitally) as 'digital cordless phones' - they aren't!
Why does all this matter? Well, only true digital phones offer any level of security over eavesdropping on your calls. Analogue phones are as very easy to tune into (more of which later...) I know of people who have bought 'digital cordless phones' in the belief that their calls were secure. A brief demonstration using a portable receiver as to how easy it is to overhear their calls sent them rushing back to the retailer from who they purchased the phone. Would the retailer swap it for a proper digital phone - not without them paying an additional fee (It's true to say that true digital phones still command a slight margin over analogue phones).
So how do you know whether the cordless phone you have is digital or not? Well, firstly if it is clearly marked as a 'DECT' phone (usually shown as the letters 'DECT', standing for Digital Enhanced Cordless Telephony, inside an oval shaped blob) then you're fine. As well as being digital, DECT, a European standard, normally operates at frequencies between 1880 and 1900 MHz which means that signals don't tend to travel far outside the house. There is an equivalent American DECT standard known as DCT-U and alternative American digital standards, all operating around 900 MHz.
For a practical test, try holding your phone next to an electrically noisy device such as a food blender, electric drill or lift/elevator motor. If you can hear crackles or whooshes over the top of your call, chances are you are using an analogue phone.
In the UK, there are three bands in which analogue cordless telephones, termed CT0 - cordless telephony 0 - to represent the '0th' generation of technology - can legally operate (phones imported from other European countries or outside Europe may operate in different bands).
The first of these bands, specified in UK standard MPT 1322 has a base transmitter on frequencies between 1.642 and 1.782 MHz, just off the end of the medium-wave broadcast band, paired with handset transmitters on frequencies between 47.44375 and 47.54375 MHz with a maximum radiated power of 10mW (erp). They can be identified as the base unit has a wire, up to 3 metres long, which trails out of the back. Using such a low frequency, the base transmitters can radiate over quite some distance. These phones are being phased out in preference to the band identified below, but a tune over the lower frequency band will usually yield a number of units still in operation. The handsets, being low power and with small antennas, tend not to radiate over such a wide area.
In 1996 the Radiocommunications Agency, then responsible for managing the radio spectrum in the UK, realised the need for additional channels for analogue cordless telephony to relieve the congestion that was occuring in the existing bands. A further 8 channels were released (specification MPT 1384) with base units transmitting in the range 31.0375 to 31.2125 MHz, and handsets in the range 39.9375 to 40.1125 MHz again at a power of 10mW (erp). Ranges for the base transmitters vary but can extend to over a km.
One final range of frequencies is used for long range cordless phones (complying with UK standard MPT 1371) with only two channels available and a maximum radiated power of 100mW (erp). Base units transmit on either 47.43125 or 47.41875 MHz and handsets on 77.5125 or 77.5500 MHz.
If you have a receiver that tunes across the range of frequencies used by these analogue phones, particularly those used by the base units, have a listen (though obviously I haven't told you to do this as doing so would force you to break the law and I can't possibly condone that kind of thing). It's amazing what range 10mW can give at some of these frequencies. Far be it for me to suggest that you could make a game out of guessing which of your neighbours regularly visits a 'medium', or which one's son has just come out as or which has insurmountable debts or ...! And remember, if you buy a cordless phone for yourself, make sure it's digital!