Saturday 31 August, 2013, 15:07 - Spectrum ManagementAccording to an article in the Daily Mail, a funeral taking place in Windsor, direcly under the flightpath for aircraft landing at London Heathrow airport was interrupted by the voice of a stewardess coming over the church's public address PA system saying, "fasten your seatbelts", and, "prepare the doors for landing".
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The article claims that this occured because the 'church's wireless microphone and the plane's radio were on the same frequency'. Radio microphones in the UK operate in a variety of frequency bands. Most commonly they operated between 173.1 to 175 MHz and 863 to 865 MHz, both of which are available on a licence-exempt basis for such purposes. There are other frequencies available but these are subject to the need for a licence and are only normally used for professional programme making and special event (PMSE) uses. Most domestic and everyday business use (including local DJs, schools, hotels and churches) use the licence-exempt channels.
So how could the church's radio microphone be operating on the same frequency as an aircraft? If this is true, there are two possibilities:
- The systems on-board the aircraft used the same licence-exempt frequencies that the church's radio microphone used. Or
- The radio microphone system being used by the church was not on the officially sanctioned frequencies but was operating on frequencies reserved for aeronautical communications.
The CEPT has considered the use of short-range devices on board aircraft and it has concluded that, from the regulatory perspective, such use is allowed under the same conditions provided in the relevant Annex of Recommendation 70-03. For aviation safety aspects, the CEPT is not the right body to address this matter which remains the responsibility of aircraft manufacturers or aircraft owners who should consult with the relevant national or regional aviation bodies before the installation and use of such devices on board aircraft.
So it would not be illegal for an aircraft manufacturer to use licence-exempt wireless microphones on-board their planes. There is also increasing interest in using wireless technology to control the actual flight of the aircraft (the ailerons, flap, engines and so on). Planes using 'fly-by-wireless' technology have already been tested and there are now moves to try and find dedicated spectrum for them to operate in. This negates the need for the usual wiring that is required and saves weight which in turn saves fuel and cost.
Looking at the second possibility, there are radio microphones on the market which operate in the aeronautical communications (VHF) band from 108 to 137 MHz. These devices, commonly imported from China, are available on internet outlets at very low cost (check the frequency range on this microphone for example). They are, of course, completely illegal to use and not only are they subject to the kind of interference from aircraft that would have caused the problem in our church above, but they also have the potential to cause interference to air-to-ground aircraft communications which is stupid and potentially life-threatening. However despite such devices being available, this scenario is much less likely because the stewardess's voice would not be transmitted on the air-to-ground communication frequencies which are for pilot and air traffic controller communications only.
So it seems that it was probably the use of licence-excempt frequencies for short-range audio communications on-board the aircraft that was the culprit. It's worth considering that interference is usually bi-directional, especially where the systems are using similar powers and modulation. So it is just as likely that passengers on-board the aircraft could have been subject to the eulogy being given from the church as vice versa.
Which opens up a completely legal but very naughty set of ruses that anyone with suitable equipment could carry out if particularly bored on, say, a Sunday afternoon. Just stand near the end of the runway at an airport with a completely legal radio microphone operating, most likely, on the 863 to 865 MHz band and pick yourself a channel. As each aircraft comes overhead shout 'Brace, brace, brace' and if the aircraft's on-board wireless audio system happens to be on the same channel as your microphone the passengers are going to go ape. Of course, Wireless Waffle would never condone such activity, but if aircraft manufacturers are going to use licence-exempt frequencies, which are subject to no protection from interference, for on-board communications they are opening themselves up to all manner of prankery. If they choose to use bluetooth to actually control the aircraft itself, heavens only knows what might happen. Perhaps it would be best to stick to using wires or even optic fibre for controlling aircraft.
Wednesday 24 July, 2013, 07:44 - SatellitesSatellite officionados will no doubt be aware of 'O3b' but to the rest of the world, the launch of their first four satellites probably passed them by. O3b stands for 'other three billion' and is meant to highlight the plight of the significant proportion of the world's population who do not have access to high speed internet connections. O3b's role is to provide a 'backbone in the sky' which will allow places that are remote from terrestrial infrastructure to have high speed connections.
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The idea is not that new. 20 years ago, Teledesic had much the same idea. The two networks share a lot of common features:
- They both use Ka-band spectrum (around 18 and 28 GHz). At these frequencies, even small dishes have very narrow beams, requiring accurate pointing.
- They both use low(er) orbits than the geostationary arc. The lower orbits reduce the time delay normally associated with satellite communications but require that the dishes are able to track the movement of the satellites.
- They both have big-name backers. Microsoft was an investor in Teledesic. Google is an investor in O3b.
Wireless Waffle has discussed the different bands used by satellites before. Ka-Band is the band of choice for new broadband satellites as it's used less than the now almost saturated Ku-Band. The thing is that there are an increasing number of satellites using the band, the majority of which are in geostationary orbits. As the O3b satellites are in a medium earth orbit (MEO), and thus move through the sky when seen from the ground, it is quite feasible that they could end up positioned between a dish on the ground, and a geostationary satellite. In these cases, there is the potential for the O3b satellite to cause interference to the dish on the ground. As there are potentially millions of such dishes, ensuring that the O3b constellation is 'switched off' when it is in a position to cause such interference is an interesting technical challenge.
Then there's the issue that as the satellites appear to move in the sky, ground stations for O3b would require tracking dishes. Much development has been done to try and develop dishes which can track the movement of satellites without the dish itself needing to move. Such dishes would be ideal for use on trains, aircraft or cruise ships to circumvent the need for tracking dishes on moving vehicles. The same idea could be applied to ground stations that are fixed but satellites that move. However this is not the plan for O3b. The plan is to have traditional steerable satellite dishes which track the satellite through the sky. And as it takes time to move a dish around, two will be used with the second picking up a connection from a second satellite as the first dish loses its connection when the satellite passes over the horizon.
Two steerable dishes makes for a complex system and one which will require significant and regular maintenance costs, and maintenance by skilled engineers who are not (currently) likely to be present in large numbers in the kinds of areas that O3b wishes to serve. There is also the question of what happens when the service is handed over from one satellite to another. Such a hand-over could introduce a variable delay in the connection (technically, known as 'jitter'). One solution to this would be to have a buffer to stabilise the connection, but adding a buffer adds a delay and it is precisely to try and reduce delay that the satellites are in a lower orbit to start with. Oops!
Current Ka-band satellite services typically offer connection speeds of around 20 Mbps and use 65 or 80 cm dishes. Delivering 600 Mbps requires a bit more effort and as such the steerable dishes for O3b will each be 4.5 metres in size! At Ka-Band this means they will have a beamwidth of less than 0.2 of a degree, requiring highly accurate tracking. Not to mention the fact that 4.5 metre dishes are large and heavy and take up a lot of space. If you think about the intended market for O3b, which is rural area far from traditional infrastructure of any kind, running two, highly accurate, steerable 4.5 metre dishes is not the kind of technology which would easily blend in with the environment. And where do you get a power source to drive them with?
Putting these technical issues aside for a minute, there is then the question of speed to market. Many of the far flung places that O3b is looking to serve are already beginning to be connected via fibre, whether undersea or overland. Take the Pacific Islands, slowly but surely, these are being connected to the world via subsea fibre. Fiji, Guam and Hawaii have long had connections, but Norfolk Island, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Wallis, Samoa and American Samoa are due to be connected via a project called Hawaiki Cable (though it's fair to say that a previous such projects known as SPIN did not materialise). Perhaps O3b has the upper hand here, then again if Hawaiki goes ahead, it will offer connection speeds nearly a thousand times faster than O3b.
Would you pour your hard earned money into O3b shares? Don't decide just yet as there's one other issue we need to talk about... the Van Allen belt. You may have heard of this. It's a region of space above the Earth which is full of particles charged by solar energy but trapped by the Earth's gravity. It is one of the more unfriendly space environments and the O3b satellites flying at just over 8000 km above the Earth will sit right in the middle of it. This gives them around 100 times the dose of radiation that a satellite in geostationary orbit would experience and as a result makes them more susceptible to radiation damage of various kinds. There are currently no commercial satellites (other than O3b) operating in the Van Allen belt.
Of course all these obstacles are worth the effort if the end services can be supplied more cheaply than competing technologies. O3b's pricing is not yet clear but it will have to compete with other Ka-band services such as Inmarsat's Global Xpress. This will give you a connection of up to 50 Mbps for prices purported to be around US$3000 per month. At rates of income in some countries, it would require an awful lot of users to club together to raise that kind of finance. It is therefore to be hoped that O3b can offer a service that is more cost effective. With the cost of the dishes alone likely to be at least US$50000, that seems rather unlikely.
Perhaps a better description of O3b would be 'over 3m big'. Still, it looks as if their dishes will provide good protection against angry dinosaurs!
Wednesday 12 June, 2013, 11:54 - Amateur RadioOfcom have just opened a consultation on the use of 2310 to 2450 and 3400 to 3475 MHz spectrum band by radio amateurs. To cut a long story relatively short, the Ministry of Defence who are the current occupants and owners of these bands, have decided to release parts of them for new uses, most likely to be LTE mobile broadband networks. The MoD are releasing the spectrum from:
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- 2350 – 2390 MHz; and
- 3410 – 3600 MHz.
This would leave UK radio amateurs with a still reasonably healthy allocation at 2.3 GHz comprising 2310 – 2350 and 2390 – 2450 MHz, noting that the frequencies above 2400 MHz are shared with WiFi, Bluetooth and other licence exempt devices. At 3.4 GHz, the situation is much worse as the current allocation of 75 MHz, would be reduced to just 10 MHz from 3400 – 3410 MHz.
The Ofcom consultation document claims that there are only around 200 or so amateurs who are active in these bands and any economist will tell you that upsetting 200 people for the potential benefit of 60 million, no matter how important those 200 people are, is a no-brainer.
But the consultation is not really about the continued use of the bands which are being handed over to commercial users, it’s more about whether radio amateurs should also be allowed to continue using the other parts of the band. The logic seems to go:
- Once the released chunks of spectrum are given over to new users, any existing use (e.g. MoD, government and programme makers) which was previously in that band, will be concentrated in the remaining pieces of spectrum.
- Whilst, at present, radio amateurs share nicely with existing users, once everyone is forced into less spectrum the potential for interference is commensurately greater.
- Further, as radio amateurs can use high power transmitters, they may also cause interference to the commercial users in the adjacent spectrum.
- As such, it would be easier all round, if the use of the whole of the 2.3 GHz and 3.4 GHz bands, and not just the released bits, were denied to radio amateurs.
Graciously, Ofcom is not proposing such a draconian measure, but is instead suggesting that radio amateurs be given continued access to the remaining portions of the 2.3 and 3.4 GHz bands but with a reduced notice period of 3 months. The plan would be that if users experience interference from amateurs, Ofcom would terminate amateur use in a 3 month timeframe (instead of the more usual 1 year cut off period). This seems like an eminently reasonable and pragmatic proposal.
Activities such as this, where users are forced to give way to others is commonplace in the radio spectrum and has been termed ‘re-farming’ as it is akin to a farmer changing the use of his land. Not long ago, Ofcom undertook a similar activity with radiomicrophone users, forcing them out of channel 69 and into channel 38 in the UHF television band to make way for LTE services at 800 MHz. The key difference here, though, is that Ofcom recognised that there was a cost associated with thousands of radiomicrophone users having to buy new equipment, and set up a scheme to fund the replacement of the equipment. The funds were paid for from the dues generated by the sale of the spectrum.
Moving out of the 2.3 and 3.4 GHz amateur bands will incur costs to many radio amateurs, not least those who operate television repeaters within the affected sections. It seems only fair, therefore, that Ofcom (or the MoD) should support radio amateurs by funding the necessary modifications to this equipment, and making the issue of new licences and frequencies as quick and easy as possible. Given how few users there are, this should not be a costly exercise, compared to the sums that will no doubt be raised when the spectrum is sold to commercial market players.
Tuesday 7 May, 2013, 08:14 - Spectrum ManagementThe Aussie auction of 700 MHz spectrum (one of the first of it's kind in the world) has, on the one hand, left the Australian government a few cents short of a brass razoo but at the same time left operators paying big bikkies for the spectrum. Wireless Waffle has previously discussed who the winner of the UK spectrum auction actually was. Whilst the UK auction (and most others around the world) are for 800 MHz spectrum, the Australian auction is relatively unique in that it is for 700 MHz spectrum. The auction has left a third of the available 700 MHz unsold, which is not a good place to be as: (a) the spectrum is not being used, which is clearly inefficient, and (b) it means it will have to be re-auctioned, which means a bit more hard yakka for the Australian regulator ACMA.
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The fact that spectrum could remain unsold had been predicted by some, as a result of having set the reserve price too high. So just how does the price paid in the Australian auction compare to that paid elsewhere? The table below sets out the prices paid for 800 MHz spectrum in Germany, France, Italy and the UK and compares this to the price paid for 700 MHz spectrum in Australia. The comparison made is on a 'price per MHz per population' basis and for fun, GDP (PPP) has been factored in to see whether this makes any odds. Prices are all converted to Euro.
|Country||Band||Euro per MHz per pop||Euro per MHz per pop
|United Kingdom||800 MHz||0.51||0.52|
What does this tell us? Other than the fact that it demonstrates an ability of Wireless Waffle to do some simple maths, it shows that the price paid per MHz per person in Australia was almost 40% higher than the average of all these countries put together. Similarly, when scaled for GDP, the price paid is still 20% over the odds. The only more expensive spectrum was that sold in Italy and this is only because Italy's GDP per capita is somewhat smaller.
So why would operators down under be willing to shell out more moolah for spectrum than elsewhere? Perhaps the secret lies in the rapid population growth taking place. Just a few days ago, it was predicted that the Australian population had reached 23 million. But more importantly, the population is predicted to rise to 40 million in around 40 years time representing growth of around 1.5% per year. This is much faster than the population growth in other countries and means that in just 10 years time, the population of Australia will be 15% larger. If you do the price per person calculation now, the €1.06 becomes €0.92 and the €0.92 becomes €0.80. This puts the prices on a GDP adjusted basis just 5% ahead of average. In 15 years time the prices would be 5% below average. So over the life of the licence maybe these prices are not too high. Of course the population of other countries is growing too, and this would have to be factored in to any more detailed comparisons (such as a competent economist might make).
There are statistics to show that the number of bananas imported into the UK is closely correlated with the growth in population (as the above graph clearly demonstrates). It therefore follows, using Spock-strength logic, that there is a connection between bananas and the price differentials paid at auction for spectrum. Australia grows lots of bananas and it's population is rising, and lots was paid at auction. Q.E.D. as they used to say in ancient Rome.
What does this prove? Nothing at all, but having called the European Commission 'nuts' last month, the time was right to make another foodstuff related comment about a regulator somewhere or other. And so it seems (as so obviously can be deduced) ACMA is clearly bananas!