Wireless Waffle - A whole spectrum of radio related rubbish
We're Jammin'signal strength
Monday 24 April, 2006, 15:08 - Radio Randomness
dragondroneThe practice of jamming radio transmissions has been around since radio was first used for military purposes when one side would attempt to inhibit the communications of the other side by transmitting on the same frequency at the same time. Indeed such military jamming is usually termed 'electronic counter-measures' or ECM and a whole industry has developed around it to try and produce radio systems that are resilient to jamming known as 'electronic counter-counter-measures' or ECCM. The picture on the right shows an example of a drone in use today for jamming - in this case one known as a Dragon. The payload of the missile is a high power transmitter which can then be sent to the area of interest and remotely activated. You can see the antenna which unfolds from the front of the device when it is deployed.

However jamming is not strictly a tool of the military. Jamming of broadcast radio stations has been a regular activity for many organisations and - and here's the disappointing bit - continues to take place even today. In the height of the cold war, countries such as Russia used to jam short-wave transmissions from countries such as the UK and USA which carried news or information which the Russians viewed as anti-communist propaganda. To try and compensate, broadcasters such as the BBC World Service, Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America used to transmit their programmes on several short-wave frequencies at the same time (usually 4 or more) in the vain hope that at least one of them would be receiveable in a given area clear of the jammers. The Cuban authorities also jammed Radio Marti, a US Government funded station aimed specifically at the country.

shortwaveAlthough they haven't admitted it, China continue to jam Mandarin language short-wave transmissions from the same kinds of stations even today (take a look at this article for example). Tune to the BBC Chinese service (try 9580, 11945, 11980 or 13970 kHz or look at the most recent programme schedule N.B. this page is in Mandarin) and you're likely to hear either the familiar 'wobble' sound over the top of the transmission or 'distorted voices' - both symptoms of a jammed frequency. It's odd that such activities still take place when, with the advent of the internet, the kind of 'propaganda' that the Chinese are trying to guard against is freely available to anyone with a computer. Of course, not all the population of China have access to a computer but with internet cafe's many do (though the Chinese authorities do their best to stop people getting access to such information). There are also case of the Chinese jamming themselves!

Whilst such overt jamming of international stations by such political regimes is virtually taken for granted, there have been deliberate attempts to block transmissions from other stations by apparently respectable regimes. Read the story of Radio Caroline whereby the British Government decided to jam its transmissions to stop them being heard during election times. The British Government pulled another fast trick in 1990 when it licensed a station in London on 558 kHz, the frequency used at the time by Radio Caroline. The choice of frequency was clearly chosen to stop Radio Caroline from being heard in London (though the plan vaguely back-fired as the London station was forced to temporarily simulcast on 990 kHz as the 558 signal was so badly interfered with by Radio Caroline).

jammingMore recently there has been a story suggesting that the US Government was deliberately jamming radio communications during the recent disaster in New Orleans. Whilst the US Government clearly could have done more for the residents of this flood-stricken town, it belies belief that they would actively try to scupper rescue attempts.

What is clear is that despite significant developments in radio technologies and in international relations, radio jamming transmitters seem to be as active today as they have always been, mucking up military communications and supressing freedom of speech. Let's hope that one day soon, neither of these uses will continue to be necessary.
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Wire-More LANsignal strength
Thursday 16 March, 2006, 13:44 - Radio Randomness
Wireless LAN's are fabulous things. You put a box next to your cable or ADSL modem with a little aerial on the back and your broadband internet connection miraculously becomes available all over your house to any device fitted with the appropriate wireless card. Or does it...?

antennagirlIn some cases the position of the modem and wireless box are such that coverage does not extend to all points of your house. For example, most incoming telephone (and cable) connections tend to be on an external wall, which by default, is at one end of a property and not in the middle of it. And often they are at floor level, which is where all the modem/wireless equipment also ends up. Now although radio can at times seem magic, putting a wireless box on the floor at one end of your property probably means that upstairs at the other end, the signal is very weak. So what can be done to extend the coverage of wireless LANs?

The first, and easiest thing, is to put the wireless box in a more favourable position. Many can be wall mounted (though this still puts the device at one end of a building), but even raising the position from on the floor to head-height helps. If you have a phone socket or cable connection somewhere else in your house, i.e. in a lounge that might be more central, move the wireless box here and put it on a shelf so it's not at floor level. Putting the box centrally within a property helps even out the signal throughout the building.

7dBiIf neither of these are possible and the only place where the box can be located is next to the phone socket, is there anything else that can be done to make the signal stronger? The answer is a resounding YES. By far the easiest way to do this is to replace the antenna that comes with your wireless box for one with higher gain. Standard antennas have a gain of 2 dBi - this means that the effective radiated power (erp) of your wireless box is the same as the transmitter power, so if the transmitter is 10 milliWatts (mW), the radiated power will also be 10 mW. Replacing the aerial with one with higher gain increases the radiated power for the same transmitter power and has the added benefit that it improves reception by the wireless box too extending the overall range. Without going into the maths, to double the range of a transmitter, the radiated power has to go up by a factor of 4 (which can also be expressed as 6 dB). So an antenna with a gain of 8 dBi will double the range (or quadruple the coverage) of the system compared to one with 2 dBi gain.

caughtAnd such antennas are available, and they're not expensive. Visit eBay and do a search for 9dBi and you'll find that for about GBP15 (including postage) there are lots of 9 dBi gain antennas available (remember to make sure that the connector on the bottom of the antenna is the right one for your wireless box - R-SMC are the most common, followed by R-TNC). Replace your standard antenna with one of these high-gainers (which are about 40cm long) and you should find that your coverage has gone up significantly.

Is it legal to do this? Good question! In the UK, Ofcom allows powers up to 100 mW erp . The simple answer is 'it depends'. Most wireless LAN access points have a transmitter power of 100 mW already, so installing a high-gain antenna means the erp will exceed the UK limits. What are the chances of getting caught? That's a different matter...
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NOW Wireless Broadbandsignal strength
Tuesday 28 February, 2006, 10:39 - Radio Randomness
Wandering past a local bus-stop, I was intrigued by an advertising poster which shouted, "wireless broadband with no strings attached". Like many people, I have a wireless broadband network at home, however this ad seemed to be offering something different i.e. a broadband connection to the home which didn't rely on wires. Now I know that with a 3G mobile data card you can get a reasonably broadband (circa 256 kbps) connection, but the implication of the poster was that what was on offer was more akin to the services offered by wired broadband.

nowA bit of digging later, I discovered that the service being advertised was one offered by NOW and was indeed a true wire-free broadband to the home connection (so called Broadband Fixed Wireless Access or BFWA). NOW is a trade name for UK Broadband which in turn is a division of pccwPacific Century CyberWorks (PCCW), a Hong Kong based company who also offer BFWA services over the whole of the island of Hong Kong too. UK Broadband won 13 of the 15 regional 3.4 GHz licences available through Ofcom's auction during 2003, securing them 2 x 20 MHz of spectrum (3480 - 3500 MHz paired with 3580 - 3600 MHz). They later bought up one of the other bidding companies giving them 14 of the 15 licences and virtually nationwide coverage.

wirelessbroadbandUK Broadband uses TD-CDMA technology from IPWireless. TD-CDMA is a 3G technology and is part of the UMTS stable. This is in contrast to PCCW's network in Hong Kong which is based on WiMAX. In some ways the choice of this technology is odd, partly from a commercial stand-point as there would have been obvious economies of scale if the company had used the same technology in all its markets; but also because the spectrum they won is paired, making it suitable for frequency division duplex (FDD) technologies, rather than the time division duplex (TDD) technology they have settled on. At the end of the day, financial decisions usually outweigh technology ones so there must have been a commercial imperative for this choice. An alternative line of thought is that as TDD technology can dynamically assign capacity to uplink or downlink as required, and given the asymetric use of bandwidth which internet browsing generates, TDD is actually more spectrally efficient (and economically efficient with it).

It will be interesting to see how successful NOW becomes. Various companies have tried to deliver wireless broadband to the home in the past (including cable giant ntl:) but have always found that the cost of the equipment and specialist installation was prohibitive to competition with fixed line solutions. The NOW service doesn't seem to require specialist installation which is a plus, however presumably the equipment is still expensive compared to the now almost ubiquitous ADSL modem.
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Save Our Set-Top Boxsignal strength
Wednesday 15 February, 2006, 13:26 - Radio Randomness
saveoursettopboxI 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).

trackdownradiousersThe 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! concordeIt 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.
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