Tracking Down Radio Frequency Noise Source, With Help From Mother Nature

Amateur radio operators and shortwave listeners have a common enemy: QRM, which is ham-speak for radio frequency interference caused by man-made sources. Indiscriminate, often broadband in nature, and annoying as hell, QRM spews forth from all kinds of sources, and can be difficult to locate and fix.

But [Emilio Ruiz], an operator from Mexico, got a little help from Mother Nature recently in his quest to lower his noise floor. Having suffered from a really annoying blast of RFI across wide swaths of the radio spectrum for months, a summer thunderstorm delivered a blessing in disguise: a power outage. Hooking his rig up to a battery — all good operators are ready to switch to battery power at a moment’s notice — he was greeted by blessed relief from all that noise. Whatever had caused the problem was obviously now offline.

Rather than waste the quiet time on searching down the culprit, [Emilio] worked the bands until the power returned, and with it the noise. He killed the main breaker in the house and found that the noise abated, leading him on a search of the premises with a portable shortwave receiver. The culprit? Unsurprisingly, it was a cheap laptop power supply. [Emilio] found that the switch-mode brick was spewing RFI over a 200-meter radius; a dissection revealed that the “ferrite beads” intended to suppress RFI emissions were in fact just molded plastic fakes, and that the cord they supposedly protected was completely unshielded.

We applaud [Emilio]’s sleuthing for the inspiration it gives to hunt down our own noise-floor raising sources. It kind of reminds us of a similar effort by [Josh (KI6NAZ)] a while back.

Second-Hand Television SHINEs, Takes Down Entire Village’s Internet

We occasionally get stories on the tips line that just make us want to know more. This is especially true with tech stories covered by the mass media, which usually leave out the juicy tidbits that would just clutter up the story for the majority of non-technical readers. That leaves us to dig a little deeper for the satisfying details.

The latest one of these gems to hit the tips line is the tale of a regular broadband outage in a Welsh village. As in, really regular — at 7:00 AM every day, the internet customers of Aberhosan suffered a loss of their internet service. Customers of Openreach, the connectivity arm of the British telco BT, complained about the interruptions as customers do, and technicians responded to investigate the issue. Nobody was able to find the root cause, and despite replacing nearly all the cables in the system, the daily outages persisted for 18 months.

In the end, Openreach brought in a crack team from their Chief Engineer’s office to investigate. Working against COVID-19 restrictions, the team set up a spectrum analyzer in the early morning hours, to capture any evidence of whatever was causing the problem. At the appointed hour they saw a smear of radio frequency interference appear, a high-intensity pulse of noise at just the right frequency to interfere with the village’s asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) broadband service.

A little sleuthing led to the home of a villager and a second-hand TV, which was switched on every day at 7:00 AM. The TV was found to be emitting a strong RF impulse when it was powered up, strong enough to knock out the ADSL service to the entire village. Openreach categorized this as SHINE, or single high-level impulse noise. We’d never heard of this, but apparently it’s common enough that BT warns customers about it and provides helpful instructions for locating sources with an AM radio.

We’ll say one thing for the good people of Aberhosan: they must be patient in the extreme to put up with daily internet outages for 18 months. And it’s funny how there was no apparent notice paid by the offending television’s owner that his or her steady habit caused the outage. Perhaps they don’t have a broadband connection, and so wouldn’t have noticed the borking.

In any case, the owner was reportedly “mortified” by the news and hasn’t turned the TV on since learning of the issue. This generally seems to be the reaction when someone gets caught inadvertently messing up the spectrum — remember the Great Ohio Key Fob Mystery?

Thanks to [Kieran Donnelly] for spotting this for us.

The RFI Hunter: Looking For Noise In All The Wrong Places

Next time you get a new device and excitedly unwrap its little poly-wrapped power supply, remember this: for every switch-mode power supply you plug in, an amateur radio operator sheds a tear. A noisy, broadband, harmonic-laden tear.

The degree to which this fact disturbs you very much depends upon which side of the mic you’re on, but radio-frequency interference, or RFI, is something we should all at least be aware of. [Josh (KI6NAZ)] is keenly aware of RFI in his ham shack, but rather than curse the ever-rising noise floor he’s come up with some helpful tips for hunting down and eliminating it – or at least reducing its impact.

Attacking the problem begins with locating the sources of RFI, for which [Josh] used the classic “one-circuit-at-a-time” approach – kill every breaker in the panel and monitor the noise floor while flipping each breaker back on. This should at least give you a rough idea of where the offending devices are in your house. From there, [Josh] used a small shortwave receiver to locate problem areas, like the refrigerator, the clothes dryer, and his shack PC. The family flat-screen TV proved to be quite noisy too. Remediation techniques include wrapping every power cord and cable around toroids or clamping ferrite cores around them, both on the offending devices and in the shack. He even went so far as to add a line filter to the dryer to clamp down on its unwanted interference.

Judging by his waterfall displays, [Josh]’s efforts paid off, bringing his noise floor down from S5 to S1 or so. It’s too bad he had to take matters into his own hands – it’s not like the FCC and other spectrum watchdogs don’t know there’s a problem, after all.

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Hackaday Links: November 10, 2019

In the leafy suburbs of northern Virginia, a place ruled by homeowner’s associations with tremendous power to dictate everything from the color of one’s front door to the length of grass in the lawn, something as heinous as garage doors suddenly failing to open on command is sure to cause a kerfuffle. We’ve seen this sort of thing before, where errant RF emissions cause unintentional interference, and such stories aren’t terribly interesting because the FCC usually steps in and clears things up. But this story is a little spicier given the source of the interference: Warrenton Training Center, a classified US government communications station located adjacent to the afflicted neighborhood. WTC is known to be a CIA signals intelligence station, home to spooks doing spooky stuff, including running high-power numbers stations. The interference isn’t caused by anything as cloak-and-dagger as that, though; rather, it comes from new land-mobile radios that the Department of Defense is deploying. The new radios use the 380-400 MHz band, which is allocated to the Federal Government and unlicensed Part 15 devices, like garage door remotes. But Part 15 rules, which are clearly printed on every device covered by them, state that the devices have to accept unwanted interference, even when it causes a malfunction. So the HOA members who are up in arms and demanding that the government buy them new garage door openers are likely to be disappointed.

Speaking of spooks, if you’re tired of the prying electronic eyes of facial recognition cameras spoiling your illusion of anonymity, have we got a solution for you. The Opt-Out Cap is the low-tech way to instantly change your face for a better one, or at least one that’s tied to someone else. In a move which is sure not to arouse suspicion in public, doffing the baseball cap deploys a three-piece curtain of semi-opaque fabric, upon which is printed the visage of someone who totally doesn’t look creepy or sketchy in any way. Complete instructions are provided if you want to make one before your next trip to the ATM.

It’s always a great day when a new Ken Shirriff post pops up in our feed, and his latest post is no exception. In it, Ken goes into great detail about the history of the 80×24 (or 25) line standard for displays. While that may sound a bit dry, it’s anything but. After dispelling some of the myths and questionable theories of the format’s origin – sorry, it’s not just because punch cards had 80 columns – he discusses the transition from teletypes to CRTs, focusing on the very cool IBM 2260 Display Station. This interesting beast used an acoustic delay line made of 50′ (15 m) of nickel wire. It stored data as a train of sound pulses traveling down the wire, which worked well and was far cheaper than core memory, even if it was susceptible to vibrations from people walking by it and needed a two-hour warm-up period before use. It’s a fascinating bit of retrocomputing history.

A quick mention of a contest we just heard about that might be right up your alley: the Tech To Protect coding challenge is going on now. Focused on applications for public safety and first responders, the online coding challenge addresses ten different areas, such as mapping LTE network coverage to aid first responders or using augmented reality while extricating car crash victims. It’s interesting stuff, but if you’re interested you’ll have to hurry – the deadline is November 15.

And finally, Supercon starts this week! It’s going to be a blast, and the excitement to hack all the badges and see all the talks is building rapidly. We know not everyone can go, and if you’re going to miss it, we feel for you. Don’t forget that you can still participate vicariously through our livestream. We’ll also be tweet-storming and running a continuous chat on Hackaday.io to keep everyone looped in.

All Quiet On The West Virginia Border: The National Radio Quiet Zone

Ask a hundred people why they like to escape to the forest and you’ll probably get a hundred reasons, but chances are good that more than a few will say they seek the peace and quiet of the woods. And while the woods can be a raucous place between the wildlife and the human visitors, it is indeed a world apart from a busy city street, at least in the audio frequencies. But on the EM spectrum, most forests are nearly as noisy as your average cube farm, and that turns out to be a huge problem if you happen to run exquisitely sensitive radio receivers.  That’s the reason for the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000 square mile electromagnetic safe-zone in the woods west of Washington DC. Who’s listening to what and why are a fascinating part of this story, as are the steps that are taken to keep this area as electromagnetically quiet as possible.

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