RF Noise Floor Concerns From Both Sides Of The Atlantic

Our feed is full of stories about the RF noise floor today, and with good reason. The ARRL reports on the International Amateur Radio Union Region 1 president, [Don Beattie, G3BJ] warning that in densely populated parts of Europe there is a danger that parts of the RF spectrum have become so swamped with noise as to be rendered unusable, while on the other side of the Atlantic we have RadioWorld reporting on similar problems facing AM broadcasting in the USA.

At issue are the usual suspects, interference from poorly shielded or suppressed domestic electronic devices, VDSL broadband, power-over-Ethernet, solar and wind power systems, and a host of other RF-spewing electronics. The combined emissions from all these sources have raised the noise level at some frequencies to the point at which it conceals all but the strongest signals. Any radio amateur will tell you that a station in a rural location will be electrically much quieter than one in a city, it seems that this effect has now reached a crescendo.

In the RadioWorld article, the author [Tom F. King] and his collaborator [Jack Sellmeyer] detail a series of tests they performed on a selection of lighting products from a quality brand, bought at a local Home Depot store. They were gathering data for a submission to the FCC enquiry on the noise floor issue we reported on last year. What they found was unsurprising, significant emissions from all the products they tested. They make some stiff recommendations to the FCC and other bodies concerned with radio spectrum to get tough with offending devices, to stay on top of future developments, and for operators of AM stations to pursue sources of interference.

It could be that there is so much equipment contributing to the noise floor that this battle is lost, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Anyone who has had to prepare a product to pass a properly carried out EMC test will tell you that the requirements are stringent, and it is thus obvious that many manufacturers are shipping products unworthy of the certification they display. It is to be hoped that the authorities will begin to take it seriously before it becomes an order of magnitude worse.

Compliance label image, Moppet65535 [CC BY-SA 3.0].

The ARRL Raises A Stink About Illegal FPV Transmitters

We have all been beneficiaries of the boom in availability of cheap imported electronics over the last decade. It is difficult to convey to someone under a certain age the step change in availability of parts and modules that has come about as a result of both the growth of Chinese manufacturing and Internet sales that allow us direct access to sellers we would once only have found through a lengthy flight and an intractable language barrier.

So being able to buy an ESP8266 module or an OLED display for relative pennies is good news, but there is a downside to this free-for-all. Not all the products on offer are manufactured to legal standards wherever in the world we as customers might be, and not all of them are safe to use. We’ve all seen teardowns of lethal iPhone charger knock-offs, but this week the ARRL has highlighted an illegal import that could take being dangerous to a whole new level as well as bring an already beleaguered section of our community to a new low.

The products the radio amateurs are concerned about are video transmitters that work in the 1.2GHz band. These are sold for use with FPV cameras on multirotors, popularly referred to as drones, and are also being described as amateur radio products though their amateur radio application is minimal. The ARRL go into detail in their official complaint (PDF) about how these devices’ channels sit squarely over the frequencies used by GLONASS positioning systems, and most seriously, the frequencies used by the aircraft transponders on which the safety of our air traffic control system relies.

The multirotor community is the unfortunate recipient of a lot of bad press, most of which is arguably undeserved and the result of ignorant mass media reporting. We’ve written on this subject in the past, and reported on some of the proposals from governments which do not sound good for the enthusiast. It is thus a huge concern that products like those the ARRL is highlighting could result in interference with air traffic, this is exactly not the association that multirotor fliers need in a hostile environment.

The ARRL complaint highlights a particular model with a 5W output, which is easily high enough to cause significant interference. It is however just one of many similar products, which a very straightforward search on the likes of AliExpress or eBay will find on sale for prices well under $100. So if you are concerned with multirotors we’d urge you to ensure that the FPV transmitters you or your friends use are within the legal frequencies and power levels. We’re sure none of you would want an incident involving a manned aircraft on your conscience, nor would you relish the prospect of the encounter with law enforcement that would inevitably follow.

In the past we’ve taken a look at some of the fuss surrounding reported drone incidents, and brought you news of an Australian sausage lover in hot water for drone-based filming. It’s a hostile world out there, fly safe!

Using The FCC EAS For Fun And Profit

When a consumer electronics device is sold in the US, especially if it has a wireless aspect, it must be tested for compliance with FCC regulations and the test results filed with the FCC (see preparing your product for FCC testing). These documents are then made available online for all to see in the Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) Laboratory Equipment Authorization System (EAS). In fact, it’s this publishing in this and other FCC databases that has led to many leaks about new product releases, some of which we’ve covered, and others we’ve been privileged enough to know about before the filings but whose breaking was forced when the documents were filed, like the Raspberry Pi 3. It turns out that there are a lot of useful things that can be accomplished by poring over FCC filings, and we’ll explore some of them.

Continue reading “Using The FCC EAS For Fun And Profit”

Preparing Your Product For The FCC

At some point you’ve decided that you’re going to sell your wireless product (or any product with a clock that operates above 8kHz) in the United States. Good luck! You’re going to have to go through the FCC to get listed on the FCC OET EAS (Office of Engineering and Technology, Equipment Authorization System). Well… maybe.

As with everything FCC related, it’s very complicated, there are TLAs and confusing terms everywhere, and it will take you a lot longer than you’d like to figure out what it means for you. Whether you suffer through this, breeze by without a hitch, or never plan to subject yourself to this process, the FCC dance is an entertaining story so let’s dive in!

Continue reading “Preparing Your Product For The FCC”

Police Baffled? Send For The Radio Amateurs!

The police force in Evanston, Illinois had a problem on their hands. A mystery transmitter was blocking legal use of radio devices, car key fobs, cellphones, and other transmitters in an area of their city, and since it was also blocking 911 calls they decided to investigate it. Their first call for help went to the FCC who weren’t much use, telling them to talk to the manufacturers of the devices affected.

Eventually they approached the ARRL, the USA’s national amateur radio organisation, who sent along [Kermit Carlson, W9XA] to investigate. He fairly quickly identified the frequencies with the strongest interference and the likely spot from which it originated, and after some investigation it was traced to a recently replaced neon sign power supply. Surprisingly the supply was not replaced with a fault-free unit, its owner merely agreeing to turn it off should any further interference be reported.

The ARRL are highlighting this otherwise fairly unremarkable case to draw attention to the problem of devices appearing on the market with little or no pretence of electromagnetic compatibility compliance. In particular they are critical of the FCC’s lacklustre enforcement response in cases like this one. It’s a significant problem worldwide as huge numbers of very cheap switch-mode mains power supplies have replaced transformers in mains power applications, and in any center of population its effects can be readily seen with an HF radio in the form of a significantly raised RF noise floor. Though we have reported before on the FCC’s investigation of the noise floor problem we’d be inclined to agree with the ARRL that it is effective enforcement of EMC regulations that is key to the solution.

City of Evanston police vehicle picture, [Inventorchris] (CC BY-NC 2.0) via Flickr.

Google Unveils Their Experimental Plan For Wireless Broadband Service

Two years ago, the FCC, with interested parties in Microsoft, Google, and many startups, created the Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS), a rule that would open up the 3550-3650 MHz band  to anyone, or any company, to create their own wireless backbone between WiFi access points. It is the wireless solution to the last-mile problem, and last year the FCC enthusiastically endorsed the creation of the CBRS.

In a recently released FCC filing, Google has announced their experimental protocol for testing the new CBRS. This isn’t fast Internet to a lamp pole on the corner of the street yet, but it lays the groundwork for how the CBRS will function, and how well it will perform.

Google will be testing the propagation and interference of transmissions in the 3.5 GHz band in places around the US. Most of the Bay Area will be covered in the tests, as well as Boulder, CO, Kansas City, Omaha, Raleigh, NC, Provo, UT, and Reston, VA. Tests will consist of a simple CW tone broadcast in the 3.5 GHz band.

The 3.5 GHz band is already allocated to shipborne navigation and military radar systems, posing an obvious problem to any wireless broadband system using this spectrum. To this end, the FCC is proposing a novel solution to the problem of coexistence between the CBRS and the military. Instead of simply banning transmissions in the spectrum, FCC Chairman Wheeler proposes, “computer systems can act like spectrum traffic cops.” A computer is able to direct the wireless traffic much more effectively than a blanket ban, and will allow better utilization of limited spectrum.

Google’s FCC filing is just for testing propagation and interference, and we have yet to hear anything about how a network built on 3.5 GHz spectrum will be laid out. One thing is for certain, though: you will not have a 3.5 GHz USB networking dongle for the same reason you don’t have a Google Fiber input on your desktop.

FCC Reaches Agreement With Router Manufacturers

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission proposed a rule governing the certification of RF equipment, specifically wireless routers. This proposed rule required router manufacturers to implement security on the radio module inside these routers. Although this rule is fairly limited in scope – the regulation only covers the 5GHz U-NII bands, and only applies to the radio subsystem of a router, the law of unintended consequences reared its ugly head. The simplest way to lock down a radio module is to lock down the entire router, and this is exactly what a few large router manufacturers did. Under this rule, open source, third-party firmwares such as OpenWRT are impossible.

Now, router manufacturer TP-Link has reached an agreement with the FCC to allow third-party firmware. Under the agreement, TP-Link will pay a $200,000 fine for shipping routers that could be configured to run above the permitted power limits.

This agreement is in stark contrast to TP-Link’s earlier policy of shipping routers with signed, locked firmware, in keeping with the FCC’s rule.

This is a huge success for the entire open source movement. Instead of doing the easy thing – locking down a router’s firmware and sending it out the door – TP-Link has chosen to take a hit to their pocketbook. That’s great news for any of the dozens of projects experimenting with mesh networking, amateur radio, or any other wireless networking protocol, and imparts a massive amount of goodwill onto TP-Link.

Thanks [Maave] for the tip.