Wireless Waffle - A whole spectrum of radio related rubbish
How Not To Install A Satellite Dish (Part I)signal strength
Tuesday 31 March, 2015, 04:51 - Radio Randomness, Satellites, Much Ado About Nothing
Posted by Administrator
It's been a long while since anyone at Wireless Waffle installed any satellite dishes, however as part of a project to improve language skills, it was decided that the WW HQ would be fitted with the kit needed to receive German television. This is the sad story of the trials and tribulations of what should have been a simple job in the hope that it may help others trying the same thing not to fall into the same traps that befell our attempts!

Firstly, a visit to Lyngsat and a browse through the dozens of satellites that cover Europe quickly yielded the fact that the channels that were wanted could be found on various Astra 1 satellites at an orbital position of 19.2 degrees East (19.2E). As a ready reckoner, the following orbital positions are the 'hot-slots' for various European languages:
  • English - 28.2E
  • French - 5W
  • German - 19.2E
  • Italian - 5W or 13E
  • Polish - 13E

astra 1m footprintThe next thing to do is find out what size of dish is needed to receive the satellite that's of interest. This is more complex as it requires a knowledge of the satellite's footprint and the strength of signal at a particular location. For 19.2E in the UK, even a 55cm dish should be fine pretty much everywhere, so a Triax 54cm dish was duly purchased together with a suitable wall bracket and an Inverto LNB.

The mounting of the dish on the wall was relatively straightforward, having made sure that there were no obstructions in the line-of-sight from the dish to the satellite (such as trees or other buildings). With the dish on the wall, the next step is to align it so that it is pointing at the satellite. In general a rough idea of the right direction can be gathered if you know your latitude and longitude and the satellite you wish to receive through many online tools (such as dishpointer.com).

Getting the dish pointing in roughly the right direction is not too difficult, but even a small dish needs to be pointing with an accuracy of better than plus or minus 1 degree (bigger dishes have to be even more accurately aligned) and so some form of fine tuning is needed.

In analogue days gone past, by far the best way to align a dish was to connect it to a satellite receiver, and connect the satellite receiver to a television, and put the whole lot in a place where the TV could be seen from the dish. With the satellite receiver tuned to a channel on the appropriate satellite, it was then just a matter of moving the dish about until a signal could be seen on the TV. Once the signal was found, gently moving the dish from side-to-side and up-and-down to a point where the quality of the picture was maximised was all that was needed. Of course the same method can still be used today, but there has to be a less crude way, right? Right...

slx satfinderThe SLX Satellite Finder costs less than a few metres of CT-100 coax, and provides both a visual indication of signal strength (using the in-built meter) and an audible indication (using the in-built buzzer). All that is then required to use this to align a dish is a 'patch lead' so that the dish can be connected to a socket on the meter and then a lead coming from the (indoor) satellite receiver connected to the other socket on the meter to supply power. So far, so good.

Now, turn on the satellite receiver and return to the dish. In theory, the meter should only register a signal if the dish is pointing at a satellite. However, the modern Inverto LNB was obviously doing a far better job of receiving than the systems that the crusty SLX meter was being designed to work with resulting in a full-scale meter deflection (and an annoying beep that could not be turned off) almost regardless of the position of the dish. No amount of experimentation yielded anything other than full-strength or nothing, and the full-strength indication happened across a wide arc of the sky and with the elevation angle of the dish anything within 10 degrees of that which should have been right. In a word, beeping useless!

sf 95dr satfinderNot to be defeated, and rather than cart the TV and receiver outdoors, a second, seemingly more modern meter was purchased, the SF-95DR Satellite Finder. This proved to be marginally better, but having the dish within 'a few' degrees of the right position still yielded a full-scale signal. At least the beep could be turned off.

An old trick from the analogue days to reduce the signal to make fine tuning the position of the dish easier if the signal was very strong, was to cover the dish in a damp tea-towel. The water in the towel will attenuate the signal making the signal weaker and thus the dish easier to align. This trick was tried using the SF-95DR but alas, only resulted in the need to keep picking up a damp tea-towel from the floor, every time the wind blew it off.

Eventually, more through luck than skill, a point was found where the meter indicated a peak that was within a degree or so of nothingness in nearby directions, suggesting that the dish was aligned to a satellite. An excited scan of the receiver revealed some signals but alas, from the wrong satellite (13 East instead of 19.2 East). Of course the meter would no more know which satellite it was pointing at than an amoeba would know the difference between a car and a lorry, just that both seem pretty big. More fiddling, and a slightly damper tea-towel and a second 'peak' was found. Another tune of the receiver and 'Allelujah!' channels that were being transmitted from 19.2 East were found. But only from one transponder...

dish alignment girlWhat could this mean? Was it that the dish was roughly aligned but that only the very strongest signal was being received? Was it that the LNB was faulty? Was there a fault in the cable from the dish to the receiver indoors? Any (or all) of these could be the problem and with nothing more to go on, it seemed that the only way to resolve the issue was to resort to carting the TV and receiver outdoors so that the screen could be seen from the location of the dish. Doing this would mean that the 'signal strength' and 'quality' bars on the receiver's on-screen menu display could be used to point the dish more accurately.

A new patch lead from the dish to the receiver was fitted with F-connectors (thereby ruling out any problem with the coax feeding indoors). Power up... And the receiver is showing 100% signal strength (very good!) but a signal quality of only 60% (OK but not brilliant). No amount of dish repositioning would yield any improvement and still just the one transponder was receiveable. Before giving up and ordering a new LNB, and with an increasing level of suspicion building up, the meter was taken out of line so that the dish was connected directly to the receiver without the meter in circuit.

Hey presto...! Now the receiver was showing 100% signal and 80% quality and, wait for it, all of the transponders on the satellite could be received. A final fine-tune of the dish position and the quality of reception was increased to 90% - not a bad result at all. Moving the TV and receiver back indoors to the other end of the original run of coax and this excellent result was maintained. It seems that the meter may have been overloaded by the signal from the satellite and was somehow distorting the signal (possibly it was generating harmonics or intermodulation products).

So the lessons from this cautionary tale are:
  • Don't use cheap 'satellite finder' meters to help align dishes, they cause more problems than they solve.
  • Stick to the tried and tested methods and just move a TV and receiver to a place where they can be seen from the dish and use the receiver's signal meter for alignment.
  • Damp tea-towels should be used for wiping down surfaces in kitchens and not for the setting-up of sensitive electronic equipment.

At this point you're probably thinking that this is the end of this cautionary tale, but you'd be wrong... there's more to come! Stay tuned to Wireless Waffle for our next extremely uninspiring episode of: HOW NOT TO INSTALL A DISH.
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Nuff sed...?signal strength
Friday 27 February, 2015, 15:09 - Spectrum Management, Much Ado About Nothing
Posted by Administrator
Experts at the University of Surrey have allegedly achieved wireless data transfer speeds of 1Tbps (Terabits per second), albeit in laboratory conditions and over a distance of just 100 metres. Sizzle! Then again, just imagine the cost of rolling out the 10 million or so cell sites that would be needed to cover the UK. Ow! Nonetheless this is a significant achievement. Yay!

1tbps zoom zoom

Mobile data connections working this fast would be able to transfer the contents of a blu-ray disk (typically 50 GigaBytes) in just under half a second. Wow! At typical current average mobile internet tariffs, the cost of transferring the data for the blu-ray would be around GBP200. Wowzer! Assuming you wanted to do this every day, the monthly cost of your mobile contract would be around GBP6000. Zowee!

Do we really need to say any more?
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Why-Fi No-Fly Zonesignal strength
Friday 7 November, 2014, 17:20 - Spectrum Management, Much Ado About Nothing
Posted by Administrator
Various news web-site including CNN and the BBC report that American Airlines flight 136 due to fly from Los Angeles to London on October 26 was delayed by almost a day when a passenger sitting on the aircraft noticed a WiFi network named 'Al-Quida Free Terror Nettwork'. As a result, the aircraft was emptied and a search conducted by US Customs and Border protection officials but the source of the offending WiFi signal was never found. No doubt the misspelling of 'Al Qaeda' and 'Network' enhanced the level of terror indicating, as it does, that the person who set up the network was potentially:
  • someone for whom English was not their first language;
  • a dimwit whose IQ was far below average;
  • someone with scant regard for spelling in an infidel's tongue; or
  • a person deliberately trying to mask their true intentions by appearing as one of the above.
Any of the cases above would no doubt strengthen a belief that the network was established by a terrorist group to whom any and all of those characteristics could apply.

As the BBC notes:
Many broadband subscribers re-name their home wi-fi network to personalise it.

ideal cleaning wirelessBack in 2007, Wireless Waffle undertook a survey of WiFi channel usage which found networks with such kooky names as 'Gary Barlow', 'Slapheads Network', 'Toast' and 'Fraudulent'. The practice of personalising WiFi network names (or SSIDs as they're technically known) is not a new one and whilst naming a network after a terrorist organisation is clearly a very bad idea (especially whilst at an airport) there's no law against it. If just setting an SSID to such a name can disrupt flights at a busy airport, then it opens the door to widespread misuse of, for example, the WiFi tethering options on mobile phones, to conduct all kind of Rabelaisian ruses.

Many airports and other major venues and events (such as at the London Olympic Games) use radio spectrum monitoring equipment to check for people using unlicensed frequencies as the wireless landscape in such places is very complex with many networks sharing neighbouring frequencies. Careful planning is essential to ensure that the myriad of users do not interfere with each other (especially to the safety critical air-ground systems for example) and monitoring is vital in keeping the airwaves free of signals that could cause problems.

Maybe airports and other establishments that might be the target of people intent on causing havoc with their naughtily named WiFi SSIDs could take a leaf out of the book of Marriott and also install WiFi monitoring systems that would allow naughty network names to be traced and closed down before they caused multifarious mayhem.
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All Are Bored with On-Train Wifisignal strength
Thursday 5 June, 2014, 09:23 - Spectrum Management, Much Ado About Nothing
Posted by Administrator
bbc watchdog presentersLast night’s BBC Watchdog programme discussed the issue of the apparently poor WiFi connectivity available on a number of inter-city train routes across the UK. The programme conducted a survey of the paid-for WiFi service of three long-distance train operators. They measured the percentage of the journey for which a connection was available, and the time it took to download a short file. The average results, together with the current tariffs for WiFi on the three train companies surveyed are shown below.

Train OperatorConnection AvailableTime To Download A FilePrice
Cross-Country96.7%39 seconds£2 for 1 hour, £8 for 24 hours
East Coast79.4%13 seconds£4.95 for 1 hour, £9.95 for 24 hours
Virgin Trains82.2%112 seconds£4 for 1 hour, £8 for 24 hours

WiFi services on trains are provided by using antennas on the roof of the trains to connect to mobile networks. These mobile internet connections are then shared amongst all the WiFi users on a train. Companies such as Icomera and Nomad Digital provide boxes that enable multiple mobile internet connections to be combined together to increase the speed of the connection as a single 3G or 4G connection is not going to cut it when shared between multiple WiFi users.

icomera rail solution

In the programme, self-proclaimed IT Guru Adrian Mars then goes on to explain that the problem with the East Coast and Virgin services is that they make use of the signal from just one mobile operator and share that amongst all the WiFi users on the train, whereas Cross-Country use connections from multiple operators. This would explain why the time for which a connection was available on Cross-Country’s WiFi service was so much higher than on the other two, as they can make use of the overlapping coverage provided by multiple operators.

wifi on board trainIt is also true to say that many of the UK’s inter-city train routes pass through very sparsely populated areas, as well as tunnels and deep cuttings, where there is unlikely to be much in the way of a mobile signal. Given the different routes taken by Cross-Country, East Coast and Virgin Trains it is therefore unfair to directly compare them as each route will have a different proportion of these hard-to-get-at areas. 3G and 4G mobile networks also don’t work as well at high speed and (usually) trains travel at speeds that are fast enough to begin to affect performance.

Where the Watchdog’s IT guru did go astray was to suggest that it might be better for train passengers to rely on the connection to their own mobile phone for internet rather than the on-train WiFi. Why is this wrong? There are two main reasons. Firstly, the antennas used by the on-train WiFi systems are mounted on the train roof, whereas your phone will be lower down, inside the carriage. A previous Wireless Waffle article highlighted the need to get high to improve reception and the signal on the roof of the train will be bigger than that inside by dint of this fact alone.

But there is a much bigger problem… trains are typically constructed of metal. Some, including Virgin Trains’ Pendolino trains, have metallised windows. Passengers are thus enclosed in a Faraday cage which will do a grand job of stopping any signals on the outside of the carriages from making their way into the carriages. According to a paper written by consultants Mott MacDonald for Ofcom:
In modern trains the attenaution[sic] can be up to -30dB.

This means that of the signal presented to the outside of the carriage, only one thousandth of it makes it inside the carriage. Add this immense loss to the difference in height between the roof-mounted antenna and you sat in the carriage and it becomes apparent why using your own phone is highly unlikely to yield a better connection than that available through the on-train WiFi.

sandwiches or wifi trainThe Watchdog team suggested that due to the poor quality of the on-board WiFi it should be offered for free instead of making passengers pay. Many fare-paying train passengers would no doubt express a lot of sympathy with this suggestion. The cost to the rail companies of doing this is not trivial. East Coast, it was claimed, are upgrading their on-board WiFi to the tune of £2 million which compared to the paltry £7m profit they made in 2012/13 is quite a bite. But given the choice of free sandwiches (whose quality is as notoriously dubious as that of the WiFi connection) or free WiFi, most would surely prefer to enhance their digital diet instead of their gastronomic girth.
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