Who has time to troubleshoot?

The model for Radio Engineering these days is such that one engineer is covering multiple stations in various locations. At the very least, this person has a full (if not overflowing) plate. Thus, when something breaks, the procedure very often is; to pull the suspected module or board, call the manufacturer and order a replacement. That works as long as the manufacturer supports the model in question or has parts. As we all have learned by now, replacement parts are subject to the global supply chain, which is tenuous.

Then there is the question of AM transmitters. Is it worth it to replace an AM transmitter these days? I suggest it would depend on the market and revenue. In some cases, yes. In other cases, keeping the older equipment running makes more sense.

Troubleshooting is becoming a bit of a lost art. In addition to the time it takes, we tend to be unfocused and obsessed with rapid gratification, ready for the next social media post. What is lacking is the ability to take apart the layers of a problem, accept our initial analysis may be flawed, move beyond those assumptions, and work until the issue is solved. Troubleshooting is often like a crime scene investigation. There are several logical steps;

  • Assess the current situation; take steps to ensure it is safe to proceed. Remove all power from the transmitter and don’t work on failed transmission equipment during thunderstorms
  • Gather evidence; look for fault indicators, alarms, automated log entries, burned components, abnormal meter readings, etc
  • Check external factors; power failures, lightning or storm damage, excessive heat, moisture, etc
  • Check internal factors; aged components, bad cables or connectors, improperly seated boards or components, and obvious signs of damage
  • Work from one side of the issue to the other
  • Check the maintenance logs (if there are any) to see if this problem has occurred before and what was the fix
  • Use available resources; troubleshooting guides provided in equipment manuals, factory support, and available test equipment
  • If a failed component is found, make sure that it is the problem and not a symptom of something else

Here is a good example of a recent troubleshooting evolution; I went to change over to transmitter #2 and these fault lights appeared:

DX-50 transmitter, faulted, no power output

The conversion error on the A/D converter indicates why the transmitter power output is zero.

The first step; secure the transmitter, remove all power, etc. Next, consult the book!

The Harris DX-50 manual gives good troubleshooting guidance. This transmitter was manufactured on March 22, 1990. It has been a reliable unit, to date. Section K.4 Analog to Digital Converter (A34) of the manual suggests loss of audio clock frequency sample due to the following;

  • Loose connection with the carrier frequency sample cable coming from the RF drive splitter (A15)
  • Bad or missing jumper connections on P-10, frequency divider section
  • Bad U-29 (74HC161, 4 bit binary counter, only in use if the carrier frequency is above 820 KHz, Not Applicable)
  • Bad U-12 (74HC14, Schmitt trigger)
  • Bad CR13 or 14 (1N914)

Fortunately, there was a working DX-50 about 15 feet away, so I was able to make some measurements at various places on the A/D converter board.

On the working transmitter (DX-50-1), at the RF sample input (input of R83) on the A/D converter board, I see a nice strong sine wave, on frequency:

WABC carrier from RF drive splitter to A/D converter board
WABC carrier frequency

Second, I measured the logic pulses on TP-6, as described in the manual. Those look good.

On the non-working transmitter, I made the same measurements and found a fuzzy sine wave way off frequency on the input of R83. The logic pulses on TP-6 were normal.

Definitely lost the RF sample. Since the transmitter is 32 years old, I suspected the cable (#92, RG-188 coax) between the RF drive splitter and the A/D converter had gone bad. Perhaps rubbed though on a rough metal edge or something like that. Several checks with a Fluke DVM showed that there were no shorts to ground or internal conductor shorts. End-to-end check on both the shield and inner conductor proved good. So, not the cable…

I then went on a bit of a wild goose chase suspecting the output from the oscillator to be low or the drive regulator power supply was defective. The drive level going into the PA was close to normal but slightly lower than the previous maintenance log entry. Also, drivers 8A and 8B were both on, which is not normal and made me suspect the drive regulator.

I made a call to GatesAir and spoke with a factory rep, who had me swap out the A/D converter, oscillator, driver power supply regulator board, and the buffer amp/pre-driver module between the working and non-working transmitter (while the low power aux was on the air). With the working transmitter close by, I was able to confirm that these boards or modules were not the cause.

Finally, I went back to the RF drive splitter and use my camera to take a picture:

DX-50 RF drive splitter (A15) J-17, board side

There is a 6-pin connector on the underside of the board (J-17). Pin 2 (from the right) is the center conductor and pin 1 is the shield of the cable going to the A/D converter board. Upon closer examination, the solder joint on pin 2 is suspect. I re-heated this connection with a soldering iron and viola, the transmitter started working again.

WABC DX-50-2, returned to service

The extenuating circumstances; the air conditioning at this site was slowly failing and that part of the transmitter was subjected to heat cycling several times. More recently the HVAC system was in the process of being replaced, of course, on one of the hottest days of the year. This pulled a lot of warm, humid air into the room. Also, as this is transmitter #2, it was not in regular use until recently (we began a procedure for operating on alternating transmitters for two-week periods).

All of this work took place over the course of two and a half days or so. That would be a lot of time for the module swap guys who tend to move on to the next outage quickly. On the other hand, buying a new 50 KW AM transmitter is an expensive proposition these days and there are very long lead times on some of these units. Being persistent and focused paid off in the end.

Filters for Over The Air Television

Many people are surprised that OTA TV (Over The Air Television) is still a thing. I am here to say that there are lots of TV stations still broadcasting. OTA is alive and well, especially around big cities. To wit; I noticed this older TV antenna on the roof of a transmitter building in Lodi, NJ. Being curious, I connected an ATSC 1.0 TV to the antenna lead in the kitchen. One scan captured 62 TV channels and sub-channels OTA in the NYC market.

Somewhat aged TV/FM antenna pointed at Manhattan

That site is 10 miles northwest of the Empire State Building.

I also noted that the satellite dishes on site have had Terrestrial Interference (TI) filters on the LNB’s for many years. Recently, 5G filters were installed as well. Thus, I added a 5G/LTE filter made by Channel Master (part number CM-3201) to the TV antenna splitter. A rescan captured 79 channels. Interesting.

I began ordering TV receiver filters and testing them with my network analyzer. There are many different units made by different manufacturers. The smaller, cheaper units do not have as good performance as the larger, more expensive ones. Go figure.

Here are a few sweeps of various filters:

Channel Master CM-3201 5G/LTE filter. Cut off 608 MHz
Silicon Dust USA LTE LPF-608M. Cut off 608 MHz
Phillips LTE-5G. Cut off 616 MHz

There is also an FM band-stop (Channel Master CM-3202), which is effective for blocking out 87 to 113 MHz.

Channel Master CM-3202 FM band-stop

Sometimes I get questions from non-technical readers, thus for the uninitiated; these sweeps are return loss. The higher the line on the right-hand graph, the less signal will get through the filter. A flat line at 0dB means that little or no signal is getting through on those frequencies.

These filters are helpful, especially with inexpensive consumer-grade TV receivers. If you live near an FM transmitter site, then an FM band-stop filter may help, especially with the low and high-band VHF stations. If you live anywhere near a cell site (and most of us do) then a 5G/LTE filter will likely help.

Happy cord cutting!

1001 uses for a NanoVNA

Recently, I pried open my wallet and plunked down the sum of $150.00 for one of these little devices. Now, to be certain, this is not a replacement for a real VNA, especially at a high power broadcast site. However, it can be used for basic trouble shooting and I have had a good deal of fun fooling around with it.

First, a few quick specifications:

  • Type: SSA-2N NanoVNA V2.2
  • Frequency range: 50 KHz to 3 GHz
  • Power output: -50 to +10 dB
  • Measurement points: 201 (or 1024 with software and computer)
  • Measurement types: S11, S12 and S21
  • Screen Size: 4 inch touch screen
  • Traces: up to 4
  • Battery: 3000mAh Lithium Ion
  • Software OS (VNA-QT): Win 7, Win 10, Linux, MacOS

The unit I purchased came with a small carrying case, calibration loads and test jumpers. The software is downloadable and is easily configured.

What I really like about it is the internal battery and the touch screen.

So what can it be used for?

  • Test a coaxial cable
  • Measure the length of a coaxial cable
  • Figure out what frequency an antenna is designed for
  • Tune a 1/4 wave stub to make a notch filter
  • Measure the characteristics of a crystal/holder
  • Measure a capacitor
  • Measure an inductor
  • Tune a parallel resonant LC circuit to make a notch filter
  • Tune a filter can
  • Test a high pass, low pass or band pass filter
  • Sweep an antenna (Simple AM, FM, RPU, STL, WiFi)
  • Check isocouplers for proper circuit functioning
  • Etc

Pretty much anything you need to know about RF antennas, filters and transmission lines can be learned with a VNA. One thing to keep in mind; the measurement points are limited, especially in the stand alone mode. Thus, the smaller the frequency span, the better the measurement resolution will be.

What is this antenna for?
Antenna under test, 659 MHz center frequency

While this is a very inexpensive device designed mainly for Amateur Radio, it can be useful to diagnose antenna and transmission line problems. Would I depend on it to make precise measurements? No. Especially things required by the FCC like base impedance measurements on an AM tower or channel filter measurements for a TV station. Would it work at a high RF transmitter site with multiple AM/FM/TV transmitters? No and chances are you might burn out the front end. Those types of things are best done with professional equipment that has much better accuracy and resolution.

It is a pretty good little tool for basic troubleshooting. One can look at the individual components of an AM ATU for example, or measure the input impedance to see if there has been a shift (should normally be 50 ohms). It is small enough that it can be included in a basic tool kit. It is self powered. Not bad at all for the price.

All digital Medium Wave transmission

With the approval from the FCC for all digital broadcasting on the Standard Broadcast (AKA AM, Medium Wave, Medium Frequency) band, it might be interesting to dissect Xperi’s HD Radio MA3 (HDMA3) standard a little bit. It might also be interesting to compare that to DRM30 which has been in use in many other places around the world for several years now.

First, I will dispense with the givens; HD Radio sounds better than its analog counterpart. I have also listened to DRM via HF, and that too sounds better than its analog counterpart. Of interest here is whether or not either digital modulation scheme improve reception reliability and coverage area. Medium Wave has a distinct difference from other frequency bands as it can cover vast areas. Something that has been dismissed in recent years as unneeded due to reduced maintenance schedules and the cost of keeping directional antenna systems in tolerance (thus increasing skywave interference).

Secondly; after reading several studies of HDMA3 and DRM30, I will concede that both systems perform betterAnnex E, Ref 2; Section III para C, Ref 6 than their analog counterparts in a mixed digital analog RF environment. Both systems have features which can be used to improve reception during night time operation. Skywave exists, whether or not people want it. If it is not desired as a reception mode, it still has to be dealt with from an interference perspective.

The two main complaints against Medium Wave broadcasting is perceived reduced audio quality (over FM) and interference. The interference comes in two flavors; electrical impulse noise and broadcast (co-channel and adjacent channel AM stations). Both are problematic. To some extent; both can be somewhat mitigated by an all digital transmission. However, if the interference noise becomes too high, the program will simply stop as the data loss becomes too great to reconstruct the audio program.

Of further interest here is the technical aspects of both systems and whether or not one would be superior to the other for Medium Wave broadcasting. I found this comment on a previous post to be particularly interesting:

DRM and HD both use OFDM, but the parameters are quite different, eg. the length of cyclic prefix which determines the performance in sky/ground wave interference are different by a factor of 9 (0.3ms vs 2.66ms). That is why DRM is much robust than HD.

https://www.engineeringradio.us/blog/2020/04/all-digital-am/

First of all, is this a true statement? Secondly, does the cyclic prefix make a difference in sky wave to ground wave interference? Which system might work better in a broadcast service where there are 4560 stations transmitting (as of 9/2020) and creating interference to each other? Finally, could the implementation of either system make a worth while difference in the quality and reliability of Medium Wave broadcasting in the US?

To answer these questions, I decided to begin with the technical descriptions found in the definitive documents; NRSC-5 D 1021s Rev GRef 1 for HDMA3 and ETSI ES 201 980 V4.1.1Ref 2 for DRM30.

There are many similarities between the two systems; both use COFDM modulation schemes, both have various bandwidth and data rates available, both use audio codecs that similar, both have some type of FEC (Forward Error Correction) system. I prepared a chart of these characteristics:

Feature/SpecHDMA3DRM30
OFDM subcarrier spacing181.7 HzVaries according to mode
Effective Data Rate, 20 KHz Channel40.4 Kbps30.6 – 72 Kbps
Effective Data Rate, 10 KHz Channel20.4 Kbps6.1 – 34.8 Kbps
Channel bandwidth10 or 20 KHz4.5, 5, 9, 10, 18, 20 KHz
CodecHDC-SBRHE-AAC, CLEP, HVXC
Operating Modes (QAM carriers and spacing)14
Protection Class (FEC)14
Features of HD Radio MA3 and DRM30

Both systems have 10 and 20 KHz channels available. This could be one feature used to mitigate adjacent channel interference, especially at night. In the US, physical spacing of transmitter sites helps prevent adjacent channel interference during the day. However, at night, half of the 20 KHz wide analog channel is in somebody else’s space and vice versa. Switching to 10 KHz mode at night would prevent that from happening and likely make the digital signal more robust.

DRM30 has additional advantages; multiple operating modes, protection classes and CODECs are available. Another advantage is the number of studies performed on it in varying environments; The Madrid Study,Ref 3 The All India Radio Study,Ref 5 Project Mayflower, Ref 4 and others.

Lets answer those questions:

  1. Are HDMA3 and DRM30 different? Yes, as the commenter stated, both use COFDM however, there are major differences in carrier spacing, symbol rate, and FEC. DRM30 has been designed at tested on HF, where phasing issues from multi-path reception are common. There are many configurable parameters built into the system to deal with those problems. My calculations of the Cyclic Prefix Length came out differently than those stated (I may have done it wrong), however, they are indeed different.
  2. Does the Cyclic Prefix Length make a difference in ground/sky wave interference? This is more difficult to answer. I would postulate that all of the configurable parameters built into DRM30 make it more robust. The various operating modes help mitigate phasing issues and the various protection modes help mitigate multipath reception issues. The only way to know that for certain is to do a side by side test.
  3. Which system would work better in high broadcast interference environments? Again, it is difficult to tell with out a side by side study. There have been numerous studies done on both systems; Madrid,ref 3 Project Mayflower, Ref 4 All India,Ref 5 WWFDRef 6 etc. In order to conclusively determine, one would have to operated HDMA3 on a station for a week, then DRM30 for a week on the same antenna system, with the same environmental conditions. Extensive measurements and listening tests would need to be performed during those tests.
  4. Is it worth it? Possibly. The big issue is the availability of receivers for both systems. Currently, only HD Radio receivers come as stock items in US automobiles. There are current and planned chipsets that have all of the digital radio formats built in (HD Radio, DRM+, DRM30, DAB/DAB+). If consumers want the service, manufactures will make the receivers. It would take a lot of effort to get this information in front of people and offer some type of programming that was highly desirable and available only on the radio. That is a big stretch.

Objectively comparing those two systems, I can see that both systems have advantages and disadvantages. There are some common items required for both systems; a reasonably well maintained transmitter plant, a newer solid state transmitter, and an antenna system with enough bandwidth so as not to distort the digital signal.

There are more receivers available for HD Radio, especially in cars. HD Radio MA3 is less configurable and therefore less likely to be misconfigured. There has been a lot of ink spilled in recent years about the declining number of radio engineers and the increased work load they are facing. Are there enough people with sufficient technical skills to implement and maintain even a basic all digital system? A topic for another post.

DRM30 is more flexible. Operating modes, protection modes and CODECs can be adjusted according to goals of station owners. There has been more testing done with all digital transmission of DRM30 using Medium Wave.

Are there enough reasons to allow a test of all digital Medium Wave DRM30 in the US?

Why not allow both systems and let the Software Defined Receiver decide?

References:

  1. HD Radio Air Interface Design Description Layer 1 AM Rev. G December 14, 2016
  2. Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) System Specification, ETSI ES 201 980 V4.1.1 January 2014
  3. Digital Radio Mondiale DRM Multi-Channel simulcast, Urban and indoor Reception in the Medium Wave Band, Document 6A/73-E September 19, 2008
  4. Project Mayflower, The DRM Trial Final Report, BBC, April 2009
  5. Results Of DRM Trials In New Delhi: Simulcast Medium Wave, Tropical Band, Nvis And 26 Mhz Local Broadcasting, Document 6D/10-E March 28, 2008
  6. All-Digital AM Broadcasting; Revitalization of the AM Radio Service, FCC Fact Sheet, MB Docket Nos. 19-311 and 13-249, October 19, 2019