Thursday 13 July, 2006, 08:36 - LicensedDriving along the M4 motorway yesterday evening, I was trying to listen to the news on BBC Radio 4. As usual, the RDS Alternative Frequency (AF) service was doing a good job at re-tuning my radio to a new transmitter once I disappeared out of the coverage of the one I was tuned to. Not long into my journey I noticed that my radio was struggling to find a clear frequency and that even the best it could find was swamped by interference. Having experienced this before, I wondered whether there might be Sporadic-E propagation around. A quick tune to the low end of the FM band confirmed there was.
Sporadic-E propagation exists when the sun's radiation ionises layers of gas in the 'E'-layers of the ionosphere. These ionised layers refract radio signals, often up to high VHF frequencies, enabling signals from far afield to be easily received. Usually such ionisation forms in relatively small 'clouds' such that the signals which are refracted in any one area might differ significantly from those received in another. Often from any given point the signals received are from one specific area.
It can be fun tuning around the FM band at times when Sprodic-E is active as stations from typically 1,000 or more miles away can swamp local stations. With the advent of RDS it's also relatively easy to identify the location of the transmitter you are hearing. A good place to listen (in the UK) is the bottom end of the FM band (87.5 - 88.0 MHz) where, unless there is a local RSL station active, there tends to be nothing but static. This is also the frequency range that is first to respond when the Sporadic-E clouds are around. Yesterday, for example, the highest frequency on which I could hear foreign stations was around 90 MHz.
On my journey yesterday I logged the following stations (the location has been added in after a brief web-search). The map on the right shows the path between me and these stations - you can pretty much see that there must have been 2 'clouds' (one over the Bay of Biscay and the other somewhere near Austria) and how the areas where signals were received from are similar:
87.6 Radio Speranza (Pescara, Italy)
87.7 Antena 1 (Mendro, Portugal)
87.7 HRT HR-1 (Pljesvica, Croatia)
87.8 RNE-3 (Baza, Spain)
87.9 Canal Extremadura (Merida, Spain)
88.0 RNE-5 (probably Huelva, definitely Spain!)
There was also a very strong Spanish station on 88.5 MHz but it never quite registered its RDS and as such remains a mystery! There were also other stations fading in and out, many Spanish, some Italian and Portuguese and a few French, however none were receivable long enough to register their name or RDS.
None of this is particularly amazing. Sproadic-E propagation is common, especially during the summer months. However, it is most common at the height of the sun's 11 year solar cycle. At the moment, though, the sun is at the lowest point of its 11 year cycle. And radio amateurs monitoring the 6 metre amateur band have also regularly experienced enhanced propagation over the past 2 months. This shouldn't really occur. It might be that the sun has been a bit more lively than it should have been - I'm useless at interpreting the complex solar data - but those that do can tell me that the recent conditions are not normal. So what is going on? My own theory, for what it's worth, is that propagation conditions are not just a function of the sun's activity but are also connected to weather conditions here on Earth. This year in the UK we've had at least 3 weeks of weather where temperatures were 10C above the seasonal norm. Could global warming also be playing havoc with radio propagation? If anyone has a few hundred thousand pounds to spare, I would be happy to investigate further!
Wednesday 22 March, 2006, 10:16 - LicensedAccording to Isle of Mann International Broadcasting (IOMIB) around 75% of radios have the long wave band on them. But when was the last time you tuned into long wave? For the cricket coverage on BBC Radio 4? Or when Atlantic 252 was pumping out its 'You're never more than a minute away from the next minute' style of upbeat pop music? Other than that, unless you live outside the UK and keep in touch by listening to Radio 4, you probably rarely switch your radio to the 'LW' setting. But there are a number of broadcasters who are banking that they can start commercial services on long wave and get you to tune in to listen to their programmes - and their advertisements!
In the mid 1990's when Atlantic 252 was in its heyday, three other companies figured that they too could launch successful long-wave radio services for the UK. Of the three, two are still planning their launch nearly 10 years later and one has given up. A combination of political, financial and environmental obstacles have prevented any of the three stations from finally getting on-air and a question has to hang over the two who still have plans as to whether they will ever launch.
The aforementioned IOMIB (whose other web-site can be found at longwaveradio.com) plan to launch a service tentively named 'MusicMann279' on 279kHz with a power of 500kW. Their transmitter site was originally planned to be on the mainland of the Isle of Mann, however due to local objections and despite planning to use a Cross-Field Antenna which is much smaller than a conventional antenna (and some would argue that its performance is in proportion to its dimensions), they now plan to build a platform in the Bahama Bank just off the island. There have been various rumours about a possible launch date for the service and plenty of speculation about what kind of service it might be, but so far no real evidence of any progress. There most recent rumours circulating are that the service will launch in the summer of 2006 at reduced power under the name of 'Caroline 279'. I somewhat doubt this latest rumour as there are a couple of aeronautical navigation beacons (non-directional beacons or NDB's), one near RAF Northolt on 277 kHz and one near RAF Lyneham on 282 kHz which are still in operation and in daily use. The interference to these beacons from the proposed Isle of Mann service would be so strong that they would have to change frequency and... they haven't!
The station which has now given up the ghost was known as variously 'Delta 171' or 'The Lounge' and was intended to provide an adult orientated middle-of-the-road, 'BBC Radio 2' style service, broadcasting out of the Netherlands. In the same way as in the Isle of Mann, there were local environmental objections to having a 500kW (half a MegaWatt!) transmitter on the doorstep so Delta was forced to consider a platform in the North Sea. This proved too expensive and the project collapsed in 2000 when the licence for the long wave frequency which had been awarded by the Dutch regulator expired and was not renewed.
The final station which still claims to be planning a launch is 'Cruisin 216' which will carry Christian programming. Cruisin intends to operate out of southern Norway to put its signal into the UK, however the frequency they have of 216 kHz is shared with Radio Monte Carlo (RMC-Info) who use a powerful 1.4 MegaWatt transmitter from Roumoules in south western France. Cruisin's own web-site indicates that their signal in London will be approximately 13dB (20 times) stronger than that from RMC-Info, however the same article on their web-site also shows that this is insufficient for interference not to be a problem. The fact is that the RMC transmitter already puts in a good and listenable signal into London and most of the south eastern corner of England so the signal from Norway would have to be whopping to compete. In Scotland and the north of England they might stand a chance - of course being a religious station, there may be someone up there lending them a helping hand!
Thursday 9 March, 2006, 15:24 - Pirate/ClandestineWith all this talk of pirate radio, a question that often gets asked is, "But I've never heard a pirate station; where do I find one?". Yes, there are those who have yet to stumble across the skull and crossbones of the airwaves!
The best place to look is on the FM dial of your radio. But with so many stations around, how do you know if the station you are listening to is a pirate or a legal station? There are a few clues which even the least experience listener should be able to fathom:
1. The signal is in mono. Most pirate stations broadcast in mono, however, this is not at all conclusive as many RSL stations do this too and further, some pirates broadcast in stereo.
2. There is no RDS. Including RDS can be complicated for some pirates so they choose not to use it. This is still not totally conculsive though, as some RSL stations have no RDS either.
3. The RDS is 'scrolling' (i.e. it is changing to display a message - as shown here on the right). Legal stations in Europe are obliged by the European Commission to use a static name on their RDS display to make sure drivers aren't distracted. Pirates, however, can change the name of the station to display messages on RDS equipped radios. A few legal stations (not in the UK though) do scroll or rotate the message on the RDS display so this too isn't totally conclusive, however reading the message might give a good indication. If it's advertising a party at a local night club then chances are you're listening to a local pirate!
4. The presenter doesn't have a middle-class accent! This is especially true on FM stations in the UK, where legal stations try to recruit presenters with unoffensive voices that won't turn listeners off. As pirate stations are usually there to promote the music or club nights, whether the presenter can pronounce 'Douglas St.John Farquhar' correctly really doesn't matter!
5. The phone number being given out to contact the station is a mobile number (all mobile numbers begin with '07' in the UK). How many legal stations do you know who would, or would need to, use a mobile number for calls to the studio? Further, if you're requested to leave 'missed calls', i.e. to phone the number but not let it answer, you're almost certainly onto a pirate. This is a way to show you are listening without having to spend a single penny on phone calls - quite smart really!
Of course there are other clues, such as the frequency being used (if it's in the middle of the band used for national BBC stations but isn't a BBC station then it's most likely a pirate), but the ones above don't require any technical knowledge. You're more likely to find a pirate station on FM if you live in, or near, a major city than if you live out in the countryside, but you might be surprised.
Another place to find pirates is in the radio no man's land just at the edges of the normal short-wave broadcast bands, especially the lower frequency bands. Why the lower frequency bands in particular - they're better for broadcasting to nearby areas and tend to be more reliable throughout the daily propagation cycle. Good places to listen for pirate short-wave stations are:
* 3800-3950 and 4000-4100 kHz, either side of the 75m broadcast band
* 5750-5900 and 6200-6400 kHz, either side of the 49m broadcast band
* 6800-7000 and 7350-7600 kHz, either side of the 41m broadcast band (avoiding the 40m amateur band too)
* 9300-9400 and 9900-10000 kHz, either side of the 31m broadcast band
And so on either side of the other short wave broadcast bands too... Though the use of frequencies above about 10 MHz is rarer, there are examples such as Alfa Lima on 15070 (± a bit) and 21900 (± a bit) kHz and WR International on 12256 kHz.
One final place you might come across a pirate station is on the medium wave (MW) band. Most stations prefer FM for local broadcasting as the antennas are smaller and the equipment easier to get hold of, but a few stations do use MW. Radio Free London used to put out a good signal across London on 819 kHz and there are quite a few stations (particularly in continental Europe) who inhabit the no man's land just off the end of the MW band between 1611 and 1640 kHz.
Of course I couldn't possibly condone any activity which would lead you to listen to a pirate and thus break the law in doing so. But at least now you might be able to stop yourself from committing this heinous crime before you get caught!
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!