Monday 18 June, 2007, 15:31 - Radio RandomnessIn a previous entry, I discussed the massive security hole presented to their neighbours like a baboon's bottom, by those still using analogue cordless telephones, as they can be easily received with cheap radio scanners, over quite large distances. However this is as nothing compared to the relatively common practise of bugging one's own house; otherwise known as 'installing a baby monitor'. The majority of these low power (10 mW) transmitters operate using basic analogue FM modulation on frequencies between 49.820 and 49.980 MHz (a low-power, short-range, licence-exempt band in the UK). These devices, like their cordless phone counterparts, can be picked up over several hundred metres, if not further. And whilst the owners often switch off the receivers when their child isn't in range of the monitor, they rarely switch off the transmitter meaning that it's often possible to tune-in to your neighbours going ons all day long (though such activities are strictly illegal in the UK and should not be entered into).
Around the wireless waffle HQ, there are several such baby monitors clearly audible on frequencies of 49.830, 49.840, 49.890, 49.930, 49.940, 49.950 and 49.962 MHz (the latter possibly intending to be on 49.960 MHz but is off-tune). There are also carriers on several other frequencies in this range but which are too lost in noise and interference (caused by other transmitters on the same frequency) to clearly make out. Some devices just produce a steady carrier, modulated with audio, others transmit data too, either as a 'warble' every second or so, or as a continous 'chuff-chuff-chuff-chuff' type noise. The latter types typically revert to being audio transmitters once the microphones detect any sound.
As well as allowing anyone with a cheap receiver to tune in to your private moments, many of these devices are poorly designed or built and have the capacity to cause significant amounts of interference to nearby radio frequencies, in particular the 6 metre (50 MHz) amateur band. It was as a result of such interference that my attention was drawn to the use of these 49 MHz frequencies in the first place, as reception from around 50.000 to 50.200 MHz suffers from out-of-band emissions from these devices (especially the warble and chuff-chuff-chuff-chuff models). What effect a 200 Watt SSB transmission on 50.150 MHz has on reception on neighbouring devices, I have no idea but it's to be hoped the receivers are as bad as the transmitters and that mummy and daddy are startled to find their 6 month old baby calling 'CQ'. It seems that the power supplies used for these transmitters are often badly regulated or smoothed meaning that there's broadband 50 Hz powerline noise, or worse, switch-mode noise emitted along with the intended transmissions.
There are some newer digital baby monitors available which operate either in the 900 MHz range (US models only, not licenseable in the UK), the 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz range. These models are virtually impossible to eavesdrop upon as they use digital modulation and are usually spread-spectrum. That being said, they're not encrypted so I guess it would be possible for some enterprising brainbox to figure out how to listen in, but that's hardly a Sunday afternoon activity (an activity which we do not condone, as it demonstrates utter contempt for people's privacy and is, at least conceptually, even more illegal than listening to the analogue ones). If it were me with a young child, I'd opt for a digital system safe in the knowledge that (a) it offers better features, (b) it's much more difficult to intercept and (c) it causes less noxious emissions that have the capacity to cause severe damage a young humans brain and body tissue. This latter point is exceptionally important, or completely made up, I'm not telling: you decide!
Wednesday 16 May, 2007, 14:14 - Pirate/ClandestineThere's a term used in the UK which takes its roots from an overgarment worn by many to keep dry on particularly squally days. The aforementioned garment is an 'Anorak', which is a kind of winter jacket which, no matter what you wear it with, will never look fashionable (the possible exception being Paddington Bear who at least looked cute, though it could be argued that Paddington wore a Duffle Coat rather than an Anorak if we're being pernickety). The Anorak is generally rather unpopular, being an ugly but practical kind of a coat; but due to the fact that it is a rather warm item to wear, those who spend a lot of time outdoors but do no exercise and thus are in need of something to stop them freezing whilst standing around have taken the Anorak to heart as their overcoat of choice.
But who, I hear you ask, would want to spend all day standing around doing nothing especially if it was cold or raining? A very good question! The Anorak became (and to some extent still is) the de facto uniform of those with hobbies such as train, bus or plane spotting, collecting number plates, "Oooh, V355LOX, a rare one from the OX series when they misprinted the 5 so that it looks like an S and it reads 'V35 SLOX'", watching grass grow, and so on... In the UK, however, the term 'Anorak' has come to be associated with anyone whose hobby is just a little bit weird, sits in a niche so small that only a handful of people understand it, is a touch excentric or is just very, very dull. And thus, most avid radio listeners, especially short wave listeners, DXers and even radio amateurs are regularly tarred with the Anorak moniker.
Why is this of much (if any) interest? Well the picture on the right (click it to see it in its full glory), which is a rather splendid example of a clandestine pirate radio transmitter, designed to transmit music programmes on short wave, brought me to thinking about why the stalwarts who built and operated such things continued to do so. I can think of 2000 or more salient reasons why it's no longer such a good idea:
1. No one (except Anoraks - see above) listens to short wave any more.
2. In most locations, the amount of background noise from computers, electrical equipment and the like makes short wave reception virtually impossible.
3. That aside, short wave reception does not lend itself to listening to music due to the annoying fading in and out.
4. If you want people to hear your radio presenting skills, there are easier and cheaper way of doing it - just upload a programme onto the internet.
5. There are 15,000 better things to do with your time (like collecting number plates for example).
6. If you get caught, the fines can be large (GBP2,000 plus 6 months in gaol).
7. And so on...
So why do the operators stations such as AlfaLima and WR International continue to spending their hard earnt cash and wasting their weekends building, setting up and operating such equipment. I would venture to suggest that there's still a real buzz associated with doing so. For a start, it's illegal, and flouting the law often gets the adrenalin flowing (not that I'd know of course). Then there's the kudos you get by being received by other short wave anoraks, 'Radio Flump was sounding hot last Sunday morning - SINPO 32232 - Best signal yet - I could almost make out what DJ Bobbisox was saying'. Also there's a little bit of exhibitionism and showing off in it, and that too provides an ego boost all of its own.
I argue, therefore, that the real anoraks are those people who tune into and listen to such short wave pirate broadcasts but make no attempt to join in the real fun and build a transmitter and get on air with the pioneers, pirates and thrillseekers who supply their fun to start with. So instead of tuning around the band, get your soldering iron out and build a Grenade or a Corsair, record a rubbish radio programme full of music that you think is cool but everyone else has forgotten, find a remote location, set up a transmitter early on a Sunday morning instead of lying in bed a couple of hours longer. And in the process... throw away your anorak and replace it with a skull and crossbones headscarf instead.
Friday 27 April, 2007, 14:51 - Radio RandomnessAnother train journey, another chance to run good ole Netstumbler and do a survey of channel occupancy for 2.4 GHz (that's 802.11b, g and n and not 802.11a in case you were wondering) to see whether my previous analysis of which are the best WiFi channels to use still holds.
For those who haven't (or can't be bothered to) read my previous article, I came to the conclusion that if you lived in an area of high WiFi penetration, channel 1 was the best channel to use as it was the least likely to suffer interference from other Wireless LAN users. In areas where there was unlikely to be any other wireless LAN activity, channel 11 (or 12, or 13) would be best, as these are the most free from other interferers (e.g. the military, microwave ovens, radio amateurs and so forth).
So what are the results of this train journey? I've plotted them above. I've shown the outbound journey separate from my return journey. As it's highly possible that if I picked up a LAN in one direction, I might have equally picked it up in the other, I've filtered the return numbers to take account of this. Also, I kind of half forgot to switch my system on on the outbound journey so, as you can see, the results for the return journey show many more LAN's than the outbound!
The upshot remains exactly the same as before (phew!) Channel 1 continues to be the best channel to use if you are in an area saturated with other users. Remember when looking at the above graph that channels 2 to 5 interfere with channel 1 and as such are not independent - equally they interfere wich channel 6 - only channels 1, 6 and 11 (or 1, 7 and 13) are actually free from interference from each other. My arguments about channel 11, 12 or 13 being the best to use in quiet areas remain unchallenged.
As a postscript, I though you might enjoy one or two of the network SSID's (names) that I found during my journey. Here are my favourites:
'GARY BARLOW' (was it really...?!)
'Ideal Cleaning Wireless'
and my absolute favourite: 'FRAUDULENT'...! Also, a few other vaguely interesting facts and figures:
Number of networks called 'BTVOYAGER': 12
Number of networks called 'BTHomeHub': 45
Number of networks called 'SKYxxxxx' (where xxxxx is a 5 digit number): 30
Number of networks called 'Belkin54g': 10 (and 7 of them were open)
Number of networks called 'default': 5 (all of them open)
Number of networks called 'linksys': 10 (4 of them were open)
Number of networks called 'NETGEAR': 16 (10 of them were open)
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...!