Thursday 31 January, 2008, 20:22 - Amateur RadioA quick scan of the 430-440 MHz (70cm) amateur band in the UK usually reveals very little, other than the occasional repeater and one or two low-power licence exempt data transmitters (for weather stations and so on). But the other day I stumbled across a number of transmissions in the band which puzzled me.
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The first of these were foreign voices being transmitted on what was clearly some kind of repeater on a frequency of 430.0375 MHz. This turned out to be an Echolink node near Heathrow Airport in London that was being accessed by some Maltese radio amateurs. OK, so I should have known about this and it's certainly no mystery. But then I heard something similar on 430.0875 MHz and as far as I can make out, there are no Echolink nodes on this frequency in the UK.
The next signal was encountered when listening to the GB3FN repeater on 433.375 MHz. I kept receiving bad adjacent channel interference. In the end this turned out to be a strong voice transmission on 433.3875 MHz (12.5 kHz up from the repeater output). From my memory of the 433 MHz band in the UK, the Ministry of Defence (MoD)'s MOULD repeater network has outputs that are interleaved between the UK repeater network outputs (a bit of a silly arrangement if you ask me - just asking to be overheard), so this is likely to have been one of these - but could equally be an illegal user making use of amateur equipment with the hope of going unnoticed (in which case it was a bad choice of frequency).
Finally, I have noticed a data carrier on 437.575 MHz which seems to be on-air continuously (at least it's always been there when I've listened). At first I thought this might be a spurious response from some other frequency but checking on a second receiver the signal was there too which pretty much confirms it. This part of the 70cm band is (according to the UK bandplan) assigned for amateur television and satellites. The signal is too fluttery when mobile, and too steady when not, to be a satellite (and anyway the frequency is not listed for any amateur satellites I could find) and is certainly not television. All this means that the things I've heard could be:
* Perfectly legitimate transmissions from the primary user of the band (the MoD)
* Radio amateurs operating outside the bandplan
* (In the case of the 437 MHz signal) An illegal link set up in the band hoping no-one will notice
The difficulty is that, because radio amateurs are secondary users of 70cm in the UK, it is to be expected that other signals will be found in the band. However, as it would be against the terms of the operating licence to listen to non-amateur transmissions, it is effectively illegal to listen to these signals to try and identify their source - we cannot police our own frequencies. Unless the 'powers that be' (or the primary user) take an active interest in monitoring the band, it is therefore quite possible for illegal usage to go unnoticed and unreported. It is quite likely that if anyone is monitoring they put any anomolies down to radio amateurs.
Now the use of frequencies (430.0875, 433.3875 and 437.5750 MHz) by some other user does not necessarily represent a mass invasion of the band by unwanted types, but it does serve to highlight a problem. The only (legal) recourse to action is to report this usage to Ofcom and let them investigate (though by doing so you would have admitted to having heard them and thus breached your licence already). Which offers up a second problem - if the transmission is found to be legitimate, you have to pay Ofcom for the privelege of them telling you so (at least that seems to be the case - their web-site does not specifically touch the matter as amateur radio is not a business radio user nor is it domestic television or radio reception). Whether Ofcom have a database of MoD usage and thus would be able to dismiss any enquiry rapidly is unclear.
As secondary users, radio amateurs must accept any interference caused by the primary user, and this is an accepted symptom of sharing the band. But does it also mean that we are to suffer interference from potentially unlicensed and illegal users, without any clear method of redress? Or worse, be blamed for such intrusions? It seems this may be the case. For now, I thought the best thing I could do was post the frequencies here and see if it raises any interest from the UK radio amateur community.
Monday 23 April, 2007, 15:16 - Amateur RadioIn a previous post I discussed the fact that the powers that be in Europe had taken a decision with respect to low power, licence exempt radio equipment that meant that the 'heart' of the 70 centimetres amateur radio band had been ripped out due to a mountain of noisy interference produced by wireless doorbells, weather stations and so on.
But that's not the end of the story, or so it would seem. Not content with annoying noisy oysters by wiping out 433.500 MHz (the EU 70cms FM calling channel) as well as the repeater input and output frequencies in the UK (as well as Finland, Slovenia and certain other countries) from 433.000 to 433.375 paired with 434.600 to 434.975 MHz, I recently discovered that they have also managed to pull the wool over our eyes with respect to another travesty against 70 cms radio amateurs. But this time, it's not those of us in Europe that are suffering, it is amateurs in the USA and in particular, in areas where European tourists congregate.
What would be the worst possible frequency to interfere with? Probably the calling frequencies which in Europe are 433.500 for FM (already messed up with the aforementioned low power devices) and 432.200 for SSB. But hang on... US amateurs have a wider 70cm allocation, from 420 to 450 MHz and... their FM calling frequency is 446.000 MHz. So what type of wool have the ERO pulled over the eyes of US amateurs then? PMR 446 of course! Yes, this low power (half a Watt) licence exempt walkie-talkie technology runs on frequencies from 446.000 to 446.100 (and recently extended to 446.200 for digital modulation) - slap bang in the middle of the US 70 cms FM calling and working channels.
Now obviously, there's little, or no chance, of UHF signals propagating from Europe to the US, so the likelihood of European PMR 446 equipment causing a problem to American amateurs is nil isn't it? Well, if the equipment is used in Europe there is no chance of interference. However, if it's taken to the US by European holidaymakers to allow them to keep in touch with each other whilst on the beach, at a theme park, or even whilst lost amongst the endless miles of aisles at Wal*Mart, then yes! And this is just what is happening. Europeans, blissfully unaware that their equipment is operating illegally once taken outside the EU, are using PMR 446 equipment in the USA (and Canada) and, in the process, producing endless interference on the main FM channels.
Somewhere in the basement of the ERO, CEPT or similar, someone is having jolly good fun thinking up increasingly intricate wheezes for messing up the 70 cms amateur bands. What next? How's about sharing the band with a very high powered radar that wipes out reception across most of Northern Europe? Oh, I forgot, they've already done this haven't they...!
Tuesday 17 April, 2007, 15:58 - Amateur RadioThese days, a lot of radio planning (broadcasting and cellular for example) relies heavily on the ability to use computers to predict coverage from a site. So Wireless Waffle thought it would prove an interesting exercise to do some coverage predictions from a known radio station and compare them with actual reception. It's probably worth adding that using a single receive antenna in a fixed location for comparison isn't necessarily fair - reflections could mean that there are strong nulls in a particular direction, though with the antenna mounted nice and high and above most nearby obstacles these effects are minimised.
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The prediction tool used is RadioMobile, which is a freeware tool designed for radio amateurs and does pretty good VHF and UHF predictions as well as path profiles which can be used to hazard a guess at microwave links too. The 70 centimetre amateur band was used as the test case and the signals from various neighbouring repeaters as the benchmark. Most repeaters have decently sited antennas at a reasonable height and free of local obstructions and so should make for a reasonably accurate prediction.
First off, a scan around the 70cm (433 MHz) band on a day when propagation is flat was conducted, to see which repeaters could be heard and what strength they were. Here's the list (channels not listed are ones on which nothing was heard):
RB0 GB3BN S9+ (Bracknell)
RB1 GB3BV S3 (Hemel Hempstead)
RB2 GB3LV S1 (Ealing)
RB3 GB3HL S9+ (Hillingdon)
RB6 GB3LW S3 (Central London)
RB7 GB3HZ S9+ (Amersham)
RB12 GB3GF S9+ (Guildford)
RB13 GB3VH S3 (Welwyn Garden City)
RB14 GB3HR S9+ (Harrow)
RB15 GB3FN S9+ (Farnham)
So the question is, could a computer prediction reproduce this set of results? The parameters of the station plus those of all the nearby repeaters (including those that are nearby but which weren't received) were entered into RadioMobile and a plot produced. The results are shown on the right (click to see the full size version).
The easiest way to see what the results show is to look at the colour of the line between the amateur station used and the various repeaters. A solid red line indicates that the prediction shows there to be no possibility of a signal getting through; yellow indicates that reception would be on the fringes of possibility and green indicates that all should be OK. A dotted line shows that the prediction is borderline between two possible outcomes. So here's what the prediction says (ignoring all those which are purely red and thus should be inaudible):
RB0 GB3BN Green
RB1 GB3BV Dotted Red
RB2 GB3LV Dotted Green
RB3 GB3HL Green
RB4 GB3NK Dotted Green
RB6 GB3LW Green
RB6 GB3DI Dotted Red
RB7 GB3Hz Green
RB11 GB3HN Dotted Green
RB12 GB3GF Green
RB13 GB3VH Green
RB13 GB3ET Dotted Yellow
RB14 GB3HR Green
RB15 GB3FN Green
A number of predictions have been highlighted in bold as these are at variance with what was borne out in practice. It seems there are 4 other repeaters which should be audible that aren't. Also, GB3BV is shown as very marginal on the prediction yet is a reasonably good signal. However, the prediction has correctly identified approximately the correct likelihood of reception for 9 of the original 10 repeaters being received.
So are predictions any good? From the results shown here, they're not bad, however the relatively simple predictions produced by RadioMobile are probably insufficiently complex to take account of other factors that play a major role in radio propagation such as clutter from trees and buildings. Nonetheless, not a bad result and an interesting illustration of the power of computers.
Friday 9 February, 2007, 16:06 - Amateur RadioSo having whet your appetite with details of the ZS6BKW multi-band antenna, I've finally finished my own installation of the antenna and will share my findings with you. The good thing about this particular multi-band antenna is that it covers the majority of the HF amateur bands that I'm interested in, particularly 80m, 40m, 17m and 12m, as well as 20m. 10m coverage (and 80m for that matter) is a bit poor.
The original design shows two wires of 14.2 metres fed with 11.1m of 300 Ohm twin-feeder. However having scouted around the internet, I discovered that there is a revised version using 450 Ohm ladder-line feeder (which seems to be as easily if not more easily available than the 300 Ohm stuff). It has the main advantage that it's marginally smaller which, given the rather small size of my back garden meant that it should just squeeze into the available space.
One element of the original design that seems odd is the suggestion that no balun is needed at connection between the twin-feeder and the coax cable. Fundamentally, twin-feeder is a balanced system and coax is an unbalanced system and any radio (or audio) engineer will tell you that connecting one to the other is a recipe for disaster. In the case of radio systems, the upshot is usually that RF radiates from the outer of the coax increasing the potential for RFI and picking up more interference from neighbouring electrical devices (computers etc).
I managed to get a pole on the back of the house, the top of which is about 30ft (10m) above ground level and stretched the necessary 13.75m of copper wire (uncoated) from the pole to the two corners of the back garden which just fits. The whole installation is in the form of a sloping inverted-V with each end probably no more than about 12ft (4m) above ground level. The 450 Ohm ladder line is fastened along the soffit board, runs down the back of a plastic drain pipe and then along a wall until it meets the 50 Ohm coax - not straight or vertical or perpendicular to the antenna in any way. At this point, the coax (RG-58U which is sufficient as the run is so short) is wound 8 times through a iron powder ferrite to form a choke balun. A run of less than 10m of coax then terminates in the shack.
Like all experimenters, I cut both the wire (13.8m) and the ladder line (12.3m) slightly too long to allow for tweaking later. My first assembly resonated on 6.86, 13.76, 17.64 and 24.15 MHz (and less well on 3.4 and 28.44 MHz too) - on average about 4% low in frequency. The original ZS6BKW article does mention that installed in an inverted-V configuration, resonances would be a little low.
After reducing the length of the ladder line to the design figure of 12.2m and tweaking the length of the wires, ending up at 13.5m, the antenna now resonates beautifully on 7.1, 14.11, 18.06 and 24.8 MHz. On each of these frequencies, the SWR is below 1.3:1 indicating a pretty good match. There are also dips in SWR at 3.55 MHz (SWR 5:1) and 29.02 MHz (2:1) and, usefully, at 50.84 MHz (3:1) meaning I can also use the antenna on 6m too with a bit of a tweak of a tuning unit.
I haven't had the antenna in place long enough to determine its DX potential yet, but stations over 5000km away are readily audible. Having searched the net for articles on this antenna, I found very few so I thought documenting my experience might help others. Let me know how you get on.