Why Your Scanner Has A Hole In It

The SDR revolution has completely changed the way radio enthusiasts pursue their hobby, but there is still a space for the more traditional scanning receiver. If you are an American, have you ever noticed that it has a gap in its coverage between 800 and 900 MHz? The curious reason for this is explored by [J. B. Crawford], and it’s a tale of dusty laws relating to a long-gone technology, remaining on the books only because their removal requires significant political effort.

What we might today refer to as “1G” phones used an entirely analogue transmission scheme, with an easily-receivable FM carrier for the voice and extremely low-bandwidth bursts of serial data only for the purposes of managing the call. Listening to these calls was an illegal activity, but for those with the appropriate scanners it became a voyeuristic hobby within a hobby. It even made the world news via the pages of the gossip sheets, when (truthfully or not) it was credited for the leak of a revealing and controversial conversation involving Diana Princess of Wales.

This caused significant worry to the cellular phone companies who understandably didn’t want their product to become associated with insecurity. Thus they successfully petitioned the US Congress to include a clause restricting the capabilities of scanning receivers into another telecoms-related Act, and here we are three decades later with analogue phones a distant memory and the law still on the books. It may be ancient and unnecessary but there is neither the will nor the resources to remove it, so it seems destined to become one of those curious legal oddities that remains on the books for centuries. Whether an RTL-SDR breaks it is something we’ll leave for the lawyers, but the detail in the write-up makes it well worth a read.

Header image: krystof.k (Twitter) & nmuseum, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Retrotechtacular: Mobile Phones 1940s Style

We think of the mobile phone — well, what we would call a cell phone — as something fairly modern. Many of us can still remember when using a ham radio phone patch from your parked car would have people staring and murmuring. But it turns out in the late 1940s, Bell Telephone offered Mobile Telephone Service (MTS). It was expensive and didn’t work as well as what we have now, but it did let you make or receive calls from your automobile. After the break, you can see a promotional film about MTS.

The service rolled out in St. Louis in the middle of 1946. The 80-pound radios went in the trunk with a remote handset wired to the dashboard. At first, there were only 3 channels but later Bell added 29 more to keep up with demand. An operator connected incoming and outbound calls and if three other people were using their mobile phones, you were out of luck.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Mobile Phones 1940s Style”

The Smallest Cell Phone Picture

Mobile phones are the photography tool for most of us, but they are a blunt tool. If you love astrophotography, you buy a DSLR and a lens adapter. Infrared photography needs camera surgery or a special unit. If you want to look closer to home, you may have a microscope with a CCD. Your pocket computer is not manufactured for microscopy, but that does not mean it cannot be convinced. Most of us have held our lens up to the eyepiece of some binoculars or a microscope, and it sort of works, but it is far from perfect. [Benedict Diederich] and a team are proving that we can get darn beautiful images with a microscope, a phone holder, and some purpose-built software on an Android phone with their cellSTORM.

The trick to getting useful images is to compare a series of pictures and figure out which pixels matter and which ones are noisy. Imagine someone shows you grainy nighttime footage from an outdoor security camera. When you pause, it looks like hot garbage, and you can’t tell the difference between a patio chair and a shrubbery. As it plays, the noisy pixels bounce around, and you figure out you’re looking at a spruce bush, and that is roughly how the software parses out a crisp image. At the cost of frame rate, you get clarity, which is why you need a phone holder. Some of their tests took minutes, so astrophotography might not fare as well.

We love high-resolution pictures of tiny things and that isn’t going to change anytime soon.

Thank you [Dr. Nicolás De Francesco] for the tip.

Adding LoRa Long Range Radio To Smartphones And Connected Devices

Would you add another radio to your smartphone? No, not another WiFi or cellular radio; a smartphone already has that. I’m talking about something that provides connectivity through ISM bands, either 433 or 915 MHz. This can be used where you don’t have cell phone coverage, and it has a longer range than WiFi. This is the idea behind Skrypt, a messaging system that allows you to send off-the-grid messages.

Skrypt is an ESP32-based hardware modem that can communicate with a smartphone, or any other device for that matter, over Bluetooth or USB. Inside, there are two modules, an ESP32 WROOM module that provides the Bluetooth, WiFi, USB connectivity, and all of the important software configuration and web-based GUI. The LoRa module is the ubiquitous RFM95W that’s ready to drop into any circuit. Other than that, the entire circuit is just a battery and some power management ICs.

While LoRa is certinaly not the protocol you would use for forwarding pics up to Instagram, it is a remarkable protocol for short messages carried over a long range. That’s exactly what you want when you’re out of range of cell phone towers — those pics can wait, but you might really want to send a few words to your friends. That’s invaluable, and LoRa makes a lot of sense in that case.

Manhole Covers Hide Antennas

5G is gearing up to be the most extensive implementation of mesh networking ever, and that could mean antennas will not need to broadcast for miles, just far enough to reach some devices. That unsightly cell infrastructure stuck on water towers and church steeples could soon be hidden under low-profile hunks of metal we are already used to seeing; manhole covers. This makes sense because 5G’s millimeter radio waves are more or less line-of-sight, and cell users probably wouldn’t want to lose connectivity every time they walk behind a building.

At the moment, Vodafone in the UK is testing similar 4G antennas and reaching 195 megabits/sec download speeds. Each antenna covers a 200-meter radius and uses a fiber network because, courtesy of existing underground infrastructure. There is some signal loss from transmitting and receiving beneath a slab of metal, but that will be taken into account when designing the network. The inevitable shift to 5G will then be a relatively straightforward matter of lifting the old antennas out and laying the new hardware inside, requiring only a worker and a van instead of a construction crew.

We want to help you find all the hidden cell phone antennas and pick your own cell module.

Via IEEE Spectrum.

Revive That Old Analog Cell Phone With SDR

With the latest and greatest 5G cellular networks right around the corner, it can be difficult to believe that it wasn’t so long ago that cell phones relied on analog networks. They aren’t used anymore, but it might only take a visit to a swap meet or flea market to get your hands on some of this vintage hardware. Of course these phones of a bygone era aren’t just impractical due to their monstrous size compared to modern gear, but because analog cell networks have long since gone the way of the floppy disk.

But thanks to the efforts of [Andreas Eversberg] those antique cell phones may live again, even if it’s only within the radius of your local hackerspace. His software allows the user to create a functioning analog base station for several retro phone networks used in Europe and the United States, such as AMPS, TACS, NMT, Radiocom, and C450. You can go the old school route and do it with sound cards and physical radios, or you can fully embrace the 21st century and do it all through a Software Defined Radio (SDR); in either event, calls to the base station and even between multiple mobile devices is possible with relatively inexpensive hardware.

[Andreas] has put together exceptional documentation for this project, which starts with a walk through on how you can setup your DIY cell “tower” with traditional radios. He explains that amateur radios are a viable option for most of the frequencies used, and that he had early success with modifying second-hand taxi radios. He even mentions that the popular BaoFeng handheld radios can be used in a pinch, though not all the protocols will work due to distortion in the radio.

If you want to take the easy way out, [Andreas] also explains how to replace the radios with a single SDR device. This greatly simplifies the installation, and turns a whole bench full of radios and wires into something you can carry around in your pack if you were so inclined. His software has specific options to use the LimeSDR and LimeSDR-Mini, but you should be able to use other devices with a bit of experimentation.

We’ve previously reviewed the LimeSDR-Mini hardware, as well as covered its use in setting up DIY GSM networks.

EMMC Data Recovery From A Bricked Phone

We’ve probably all got at least one old cell phone lurking somewhere around our bench. In most cases they’ll still work, but their  batteries may be exhausted and their OS could be an ancient version. But sometimes there will be a phone that just died. One minute the flagship model, the next a useless slab of plastic and glass with the added annoyance of those priceless photos of Aunty May’s 80th forever locked in its memory.

[Andras Kabai] had just such a device land on his desk, a high-end Sony whose screen had gone blank. Others had tried, he was the last hope for the data it contained. He zoomed in on the eMMC chip on its motherboard, desoldered it and hooked it up via a specialist eMMC reader to recover those files. That was a very simple description of a far more involved process that he sets out in his post about it, a post that is fascinating reading and serves as a handy primer for any reader who might like to try it for themselves. We learn about the MMC interface and how simple it can be in its serial form, how with some fine soldering you can use a cheap USB reader, and that eMMC chips have a pinout conforming to a JEDEC standard.

Finally we see the software side as he takes the various SQLite databases and extracts the data for the user. It shows, all is not necessarily lost, however dead a phone may be.

We’ve seen [Andras] before, using an old scanner in his PCB fab.