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GPS Jamming devices: FCC says No!

The FCC has become concerned about Jamming devices for Cellphones, GPS and WiFi.  So much so, they have released Enforcement Advisory No. 2012-02, which specifies fines in excess of $100,000 per incident.

The advisory states:

In recent days, there have been various press reports about commuters using cell phone jammers to create a “quiet zone” on buses or trains. We caution consumers that it is against the law to use a cell or GPS jammer or any other type of device that blocks, jams or interferes with authorized communications, as well as to import, advertise, sell, or ship such a device. The FCC Enforcement Bureau has a zero tolerance policy in this area and will take aggressive action against violators.

I have two three thoughts:

  1. GPS jammers are increasingly being employed by those who are concerned about their privacy.  That set of people can range from truckers who don’t what their bosses to know every aspect of their journey, citizens concerned about GPS tracking devices on their vehicles, or ordinary people who don’t want the phone company tracking their every move via GPS enabled cellphones.
  2. If only the FCC were as diligent and judicious in pursuit of other interference issues in the radio frequency spectrum.  A few that immediately spring to mind; IBOC to analog adjacent channels, broadband over power line, electrical noise on the medium wave band, illegal 2 way radios on RPU frequencies, etc.  Of course, there is no money in those issues.
  3. Wasn’t the FCC about to allow Lightsquared to install high powered 4G data transmitters all over the place, thus jamming GPS anyway?  I know they nixed that plan after the general uproar over loss of GPS by things like aircraft in flight, etc.

It remains to be seen how, exactly the FCC is going to find things like this:

Small GPS jammer

Small GPS jammer

Hypothetically speaking, in a mobile operating environment while traveling down the interstate at 70 MPH with thousands of other vehicles, it would be the proverbial search for a needle in a haystack.  This would be especially true for a GPS only jamming device, which would require a very small amount of power to jam the weak satellite signals.  It presents an interesting problem for the cash strapped enforcement bureau.

Not all jamming devices are this small, however.  After doing a Google search for GPS jamming devices I notice that some of them are great big honking things, with heatsinks and fans, capable of generating large signals on every cellphone, WiFi, 3/4G and GPS frequency.   Those larger jamming devices would be very easy to locate and disable.

Perhaps if the technology wasn’t so pervasive and readily abused by certain corporate and government entities, the desire to jam it wouldn’t exist.

E-skip, tropospheric ducting and other VHF propagation phenomena

While the FM frequency band (88 to 108 mHz) is mostly line of sight, there are things that cause long distance reception hundreds or sometimes even thousands of miles from the transmitter.  For a radio engineer, this can lead to all sorts of problems.  Some serious like STL cut outs, and some quite funny, such as the general manager panicking when several new stations suddenly pop up in town.  One of the many jobs of a broadcast engineer is to avoid problems and fix them if they show up (preferably the former).

Tropospheric Ducting prediction map

Tropospheric Ducting prediction map

The first and most common of these phenomena is Tropospheric ducting.  This happens in warmer weather when there is a high pressure system nearby and is more prevalent over flat terrain.  What happens is a warmer layer forms in the atmosphere above a cool layer.  That is why it is also known as “temperature inversion.”  This causes a higher refractive index, which means that normally the signal would carry on out into space, however, upon encountering this warm layer it is bent back to earth.   It can last a few minutes to several hours. It effects all frequencies but is most prevalent above 100 mHz.

In some more sever cases, FM stations can travel 500 or more miles and override the local station’s transmitter site 15 miles away.  In the age of digital STL’s, co-channel and adjacent channel interference can cause the STL receiver to unlock and mute.  Analog STL’s will become hissy or drop out altogether.  It can be a big problem.

Unfortunately, not a lot can be done about main channel interference.  It will go away eventually, and no, the station causing the interference is not operating illegally or any other thing.  One consolation, if the duct is open in one direction, it is also open in the other, so say hello to all your new temporary listeners in East Podunk.

As far as STL paths go, the best defense is to have a good strong signal at the receive site.  Boosting the signal with a preamp at the back of the STL receiver will not do anything.  Larger, higher gain antennas at the transmit and receive will help, more transmitter power will help.  Sometimes diversity receive antennas will help because at the 950 frequencies 100 feet or so of altitude may make all the difference.  Other than that, things like a backup RPU path using a lower frequency, a backup T-1, a backup ISDN line, a Comrex Matrix, basically anything to restore programming.

There is a tropospheric ducting prediction site called Worldwide Tropospheric Ducting Forecasts.  They produce daily maps and predictions based on weather patterns.

Night and Day layers of the Ionosphere

Night and Day layers of the Ionosphere

The next propagation type known to abnormally affect VHF frequencies is called Sporadic E or E skip.  This happens went ionized particles appear in the E layer of the ionosphere and it is more prevalent during the high period of the sun spot cycle when the atmosphere is unsettled due to solar storms.  It is more likely to affect frequencies below 125 mHz, so main channel interference may be noted, but STL’s and other broadcast auxiliary services will not likely see any effects.

This can happen anytime of the year in any terrain and in any weather condition although it seems to be more prevalent in summer and for some unknown reason, around Christmas.

Ionospheric propagation is also known as skywave and is responsible for long distance communications in the MF (AM broadcast band) and HF (Shortwave broadcast band).

During sunlit periods, the Ionosphere breaks down into several layers; the D layer, which is responsible for absorption of AM signals during the daytime.  The E layer, which normally reflects signals less than 10 MHz.  The F1 and F2 layers, which primarily effect HF and lower VHF, from 10 – 40 MHz or so.

During sporadic E events, the E layer becomes heavily ionized in specific small thin areas, sometimes called clouds.  This can last a few minutes or up to several hours.  The effect is normally more pronounced with lower frequencies.

In this internet age, there is, of course, a website that can predict or at least define sporadic E, DXMaps.com has maps similar to the tropospheric ducting maps above.

Ionospheric Map

Ionospheric propagation map

Occasionally, solar storms will effect communications on all frequencies. The last time I heard this was in the last sun spot peak around 2000 or so. I was listening to the radio and all the stations faded for several seconds. It turns out a huge solar flare had erupted and send a stream of particles through the Earth’s atmosphere.  I happened to be driving down the road and immediately my cell phone started ringing.  Listening to the panicked program director on the other end, you’dve thought the earth has stopped spinning on it’s axis.  Anyway, it does happen once in a while.

Axiom


A pessimist sees the glass as half empty. An optimist sees the glass as half full. The engineer sees the glass as twice the size it needs to be.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
~1st amendment to the United States Constitution

Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.
~Benjamin Franklin

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is hard business. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
~Rudyard Kipling

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers
~Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, Article 19

...radio was discovered, and not invented, and that these frequencies and principles were always in existence long before man was aware of them. Therefore, no one owns them. They are there as free as sunlight, which is a higher frequency form of the same energy.
~Alan Weiner

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