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CHAPTER 1

The What and Why of RFI in Radio and


Wireless Communications

Radio frequencies (RFs) lie in the broad spectral range of 100 kHz to 100 GHz and
employ the principles of radio wave propagation and electrical communications.
We concern ourselves here with how what emanates from a transmitting antenna
of one radiocommunication system causes radio frequency interference (RFI) that
enters the receiving antenna of another. By “what,” we mean the fact that one
radio signal can deteriorate proper reception of other radio signals by preventing
the associated receiver from properly detecting the information, or data, on that
particular signal. By “why,” we mean that the RF spectrum must be shared by many
users and many applications in point-to-point communications and broadcasting;
as a result, no user can expect to enjoy any particular part of the spectrum on a
dedicated basis. These principles are explored in detail in this book, but the idea is
relatively simple.
RFI is something that occurs by the very nature of this means of communica-
tion; as spectrum use increases, so does RFI. It is analogous to vehicle traffic on
highways and streets. With little or no traffic (e.g., at 2 a.m.), traffic flows freely
at the posted speed; with high traffic (during rush hour in major cities), traffic is
intense and we all have to watch out carefully as we drive. That doesn’t mean that
traffic cannot be handled in heavy situations; just that there must be techniques and
tools to help address those places and periods of congestion. Similar analogies can
be drawn with respect to flying airplanes on air routes.
RFI is one category of a much broader field of electromagnetic practice
involving:

•• Electromagnetic interference (EMI) is disturbance that affects an electrical


circuit due to either electromagnetic induction or electromagnetic radiation
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emitted from an external source. EMI occurs due to physical proximity of


components and elements of an electronic device or system, whether through
cabinets, cables, or antennas. RFI is a subset of EMI, as discussed above.
•• Electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) is the branch of electrical sciences
which studies the unintentional generation, propagation, and reception of
electromagnetic energy with reference to the unwanted effects that such en-
ergy may induce. The goal of EMC is the correct operation, in the same elec-
tromagnetic environment, of different equipment that uses electromagnetic

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The What and Why of RFI in Radio and Wireless Communications

phenomena, and the avoidance of any interference effects. Emission issues


are related to the unwanted generation of electromagnetic energy by some
source, and to the countermeasures that should be taken to reduce such gen-
eration and avoid the escape of any remaining energies into the external en-
vironment. Susceptibility or immunity issues, in contrast, refer to the correct
operation of electrical equipment, referred to as the victim, in the presence
of unplanned electromagnetic disturbances.

The mechanisms for EMI are illustrated in Figure 1.1 [1]. We see many paths for
EMI to take, beginning at the signal line with conducted coupling at the bottom and
multiple other potential paths crisscrossing among the principle elements of both
the interfering and interfered-with (victim) systems. At the top is the RFI path (of
primary interest in this book), indicating radiated coupling between the antennas
(the dashed arrow). Keep in mind that we are speaking of two normally uncon-
nected systems and that the radiated coupling is undesired. It should be possible
to eliminate the non-RFI paths through proper design, construction, and testing
of each of the operating systems. Often, one of these paths ends up the cause of a
specific interference issue. When RFI arises in an operating system, we often must
consider all paths for the interference to take, which makes this illustration particu-
larly valuable.
The definitions of EMI and EMC are meant to distinguish these related (and
important) practices from our focus on RFI. The radiocommunication systems op-
erating on licensed or otherwise authorized frequencies can meet all of the relevant
EMC requirements and still cause RFI to one another. This is because one person’s
RFI is another person’s communication, and vice versa. It is up to the designers
and operators of these radiocommunication systems to minimize how RFI impacts
their respective operations. To address and control RFI (i.e., the “how”), we use
the same principles of radio engineering as are applied to the design of the systems
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Figure 1.1  Coupling of EMI between two different radio systems [1]. RFI is illustrated as “radiated
coupling” between the antennas; all other paths are unintentional and avoidable (although still pos-
sible in a working system).

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1.1  Engineering of Radiocommunication and Wireless Systems in Light of RFI 5

themselves. The following summary of radio engineering is to provide readers with


this background.

1.1  Engineering of Radiocommunication and Wireless Systems in Light


of RFI

RFI appears in the receiver of a radiocommunication system like the thermal noise
from the atmosphere and produced within active devices like amplifiers and mixers,
and any type of passive matter that produces signal attenuation. From a technical
standpoint, RFI may be equivalent to an amount of thermal noise, or if consider-
ably different, as a unique interfering signal. Many radiocommunication systems,
such as cellular mobile radio and satellite transmissions, have internal forms of RFI
that are evaluated as part of the operation of that particular system. Engineering in
this context consists of techniques for analysis and means to take corrective action,
and the methodologies for accomplishing this within the constraints of radiocom-
munication system operation.
Figure 1.2 illustrates the generic nature of a radiocommunication system, pro-
viding a point-to-point link. The transmitter contains a microphone that represents
the information source, a modulator to transfer the information signal into a radio
carrier suitable for transmission, and a transmitting antenna. From there, the car-
rier is propagated over the medium (to be discussed in detail) and received by the
receiving antenna and the distant receiver. Electromagnetic energy is converted by
the antenna into an electrical signal that is transferred to the demodulator. There is
a bandpass filter between the receiving antenna transmission line and the demodu-
lator for the purpose of restricting the bandwidth to only that of the desired carrier.
As such, it is the principle element that protects the receiver from unwanted signals
that couple through the receiving antenna. The recovered information is amplified
before it is applied to a loudspeaker. Modern radiocommunication systems transfer
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Figure 1.2  Elements of a radiocommunication system (simple voice communication is assumed).

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The What and Why of RFI in Radio and Wireless Communications

information in digital form and employ modulation with digital coding to maxi-
mize the capacity and reduce the effects of distortion and interference that result
from transmission and propagation.
Any system that radiates from antennas in the typical frequency bands is po-
tentially a source (or receiver) of RFI from other radiocommunication systems.
Examples of the former include radars, RF identification (RFID) systems, and navi-
gations systems using Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system, and other radio
techniques. Within the radio spectrum, we see allocations for all of the applications
that employ RF and wireless schemes. Any and all can become part of a particular
RFI issue.
All this may appear to be uncontrollable and beyond precise investigation;
however, the basic physics behind all RFI issues and concerns are well known and
quantifiable. This book provides a review of the relevant principles involving an-
tennas and RF devices, mathematics of electromagnetism, radio wave propaga-
tion in free space and on obstructed paths, communications technologies involving
signal processing and detection, and engineering principles such as budgeting and
design specifications, for considering RFI in modern radiocommunication systems
on land, sea, in the air, and in space.
RFI may not obey national borders, but it can be constrained by geography.
Propagation in free space is governed by the inverse square law, wherein the signal
strength decreases by a factor of 4 (6 dB) for each doubling of distance. According
to the range equation, also called the Friis transmission equation, the attenuation
due to a free space path of distance R and at a wavelength λ can be expressed as

2
 4 πR 
A0 = 
 λ 

According to this equation, the attenuation as a ratio is also inversely propor-


tional to the square of the wavelength, which means that it is directly proportional
to the square of the frequency (e.g., f=c/λ). In Figure 1.3 free space loss is plotted
for frequencies of 1 and 10 GHz (or wavelengths of 30 and 3 cm) as a function of
R, in the range of 10 to 10,000 km. Attenuation at 10 GHz is 20 dB greater than
that at 1 GHz.
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If we rely on range alone (and not isolation afforded by blockage or absorp-


tion), increasing the distance from 10 km to 10,000 km (a factor of 1,000) provides
60 dB of protection from RFI. Such protection is called isolation in RFI terms.
Isolation on the ground is provided by the presence of the ground itself, in
conjunction with variation in geography, due to hills, buildings, vegetation, and so
forth. Figure 1.4 compares free space attenuation, governed by the inverse square
law, with attenuation produced by diffraction and reflection by typical ground.
Frequencies of 900 and 1,800 MHz are given over a distance range of 1 m to 10
km. The smooth curve at the bottom is based on the same equation as that provid-
ed in Figure 1.3, adjusted for 900 MHz instead of 1 GHz. The other curves include
the effect ground reflection, diffraction, and absorption, resulting in greater attenu-
ation than from free space propagation. Beyond a distance greater than 1,000 m (1
km), the attenuation on the above Earth path follows a power of four (4) instead of
two (2). Therefore, a doubling of distance reduces signal strength by a factor of 16,
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1.1  Engineering of Radiocommunication and Wireless Systems in Light of RFI 7

Figure 1.3  Free space attenuation as a function of range for two frequencies: 1 GHz and 10 GHz.
Copyright © 2016. Artech House. All rights reserved.

Figure 1.4  Path attenuation for propagation between two locations taking account of free space and
flat Earth. This assumes that the transmitter and receiver are at heights of 20m and 2m, respectively.

or 12 dB. That is 6 dB more than free space propagation would indicate. This extra
isolation helps with the reassignment of the same spectrum to a separate geographi-
cal region. This figure indicates that at a distance of 10 km, the attenuation of the
path over the Earth experiences 20 dB more attenuation than that in free space.
Having an obstacle, such as a hill or building, adds significant attenuation
through the principle of diffraction and blockage. The amount of attenuation de-
pends on the frequency, distance, and degree to which the obstacle penetrates the
line-of-sight path. This will be addressed in detail in Chapter 5. As an example,
Figure 1.5 is the profile of a path between an interfering transmitter and a receiving

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The What and Why of RFI in Radio and Wireless Communications

Figure 1.5  Example of an obstructed path between a potential source of RFI (on the left) and a
receiver on a hill top (on the right), courtesy of SoftWright.

point approximately 20 km away. There are several tall hills in the way, reducing
the received RFI by in excess of 80 dB. Thus, near-complete isolation is afforded. In
other cases, the diffraction loss from an obstacle will range between 6 and 20 dB,
necessitating precise calculation using the principles reviewed in Chapter 5.

1.1.1  Efficient Use of Radio Spectrum


One of the truths about radiocommunication is that the RF spectrum is a limited
resource, a limitation posed by the very RFI that we evaluate in this book. In an
ideal world, we have ample spectrum to play with and its cost would, like the air, be
free. After all, it takes a considerable investment to be able to transmit signals and
thus occupy spectrum. The introduction of extensive radio infrastructure for broad-
casting and cellular/wireless has resulted in crowding of the bands as these systems
reach almost everybody. The spectrum is divided into ranges, called bands, that
allow for specific sets of services to be provided. Thus, the users within particular
bands, such as 11.7 to 12.2 GHz for satellites that broadcast TV signals and 1,850
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to 1,920 MHz for 3G and 4G mobile wireless services, transmit very similar signals
and can be considered to be homogeneous. That means that carrier characteristics
and susceptibility to RFI are comparable among users of the particular band. This
approach has been followed for almost 100 years and reduces uncertainty in the
realm of RFI.
Allocations of bands are made by the International Telecommunication Union
(ITU) through the auspices of the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC)
held every three or four years in Geneva, Switzerland. The ITU Table of Frequen-
cy Allocations [2], along with how these are carried forward within a particular
country or jurisdiction, provides spectrum for applications in the wireless domain.
The band allocations are contained in the first of four volumes of the Radio Regu-
lations, a free download from the ITU website (www.itu.int). There are literally

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1.1  Engineering of Radiocommunication and Wireless Systems in Light of RFI 9

hundreds of spectrum allocations across the RF range, broken down among three
ITU regions: (1) Europe and Africa, (2) North and South America, and (3) Asia and
the Pacific. There are three major communication application areas: Fixed Service,
providing communication between points on the ground, Mobile Service, among
mobile platforms on ground, on water and in the air, and Broadcasting Service, the
one-to-many application for distributing information and programming. There are
comparable satellite-specific services in the three domains: Fixed Satellite Service
(FSS), Mobile Satellite Service (MSS), and Broadcasting Satellite Service (BSS).

1.1.2  Frequency Band Assignments


In any given country, there is a national frequency regulatory body, such to the Fed-
eral Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States, and Ofcom in the
United Kingdom. Because radio waves do not recognize national borders, however,
there is an overall international coordination effort through the ITU.
Other applications include radio navigation and radiolocation (radar and di-
rection finding), radio astronomy, space research, and amateur (ham) radio. As
relates to radiocommunication, the tables discriminate between Earth-based (ter-
restrial) applications and satellite-based (space) applications. The tables cover over
130 pages and include footnotes that add to or subtract from the allocations, as
prescribed for a particular country or countries. There is a saying that what the
table of allocation provides, the footnotes take away (they add as well). Guidelines
exist for individual governments when authorizing users and operators in their
respective countries; generally speaking, they follow these allocations reasonably
well. A particular government may deviate from the standard allocations to accom-
modate specific users, who could be government agencies or private companies or
groups. A general rule is that when a government or its assignee fails to follow the
table, they must not cause harmful interference to those who do.
Another important aspect of the Radio Regulations is the processes they de-
scribe for how countries apply for and obtain internationally recognized protec-
tion of their particular use of spectrum. This is because radio waves do not obey
national borders, an aspect of the technology that led to the development of these
rules and allocations in the first place. The approach taken is that of frequency
coordination and registration of spectrum use, including the use of satellite orbits.
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The procedures are laid out in detail, and ITU members are treated as equals before
the Radio Regulations and the ITU bureaucracy. A brief discussion of this system is
provided in the next section and further in our other work [3].
International and national rules for use of spectrum limit the frequency range
and power of transmission as a means of increasing utilization. In addition, users
are required to minimize the amount of energy radiated outside of their authorized
bandwidth. This is especially important where frequencies are used to receive very
weak signals, such as from spacecraft and distant stars (i.e., radio astronomy).
Legacy and incumbent radio systems often receive special protection due to their
extensive use and sometimes antiquated technology. There are cases where a pro-
spective user with a new application must pay these incumbents to facilitate their
transfer to new frequencies or even retirement.

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What and Why of RFI in Radio and Wireless Communications

1.1.3  Efficient Use of the Geostationary Satellite Orbit and Other Space
Environments
There is value to having spectrum applied to the purposes of highest importance or
economic value. Sometimes, regulations end up holding spectrum resources back
from their best use in terms of allowing more access and application. We see this
play out in licensed wireless spectrum where terrestrial operators pay billions of dol-
lars to acquire the spectrum they need to meet demand and remain competitive. In
the satellite domain, most usable Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) orbit positions
are occupied by operators established decades ago. This resulted from a general
presumption that an operator may replace a satellite in an existing orbit location
with another of equal or better performance when the prior satellite either reaches
end of life or experiences a failure. To economize on spacecraft vehicles, some op-
erators have joined together on shared communications satellites. The overall RFI
environment, discussed later in this book, is well understood and reasonably well
contained within the GEO domain.
An aspirant operator with capital and operational resources will find it dif-
ficult, but not impossible, to obtain an appropriate GEO orbit longitude location
through the process defined in the ITU Radio Regulations in conjunction with the
system of licensing from a particular host country. The licensing bodies have vary-
ing degrees of experience with the process; the regulators in the United States, the
Russian Federation, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Luxembourg,
Hong Kong, Japan, Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia having been at the game the
longest. Completing the ITU and national regulatory process will take from two
the five years, and there is risk that the assignment may end up being contested.
The process is illustrated in Figure 1.6.
There are cases where holders of licenses and prior registrations of the ITU
have sold or otherwise transferred their right to a location to a new operator or an
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Figure 1.6  Basic structure applied to the process of obtaining a new orbit location through the
auspices of the ITU and a domestic regulatory body (administration).

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1.1  Engineering of Radiocommunication and Wireless Systems in Light of RFI 11

existing operator needing expansion capacity. For example, the Kingdom of Tonga
registered many orbit locations in order to rent them to prospective satellite opera-
tors. Intentional RFI has occurred on a few occasions as disputes boil over. The
Isle of Man has become a popular jurisdiction for satellite companies wishing to
obtain orbit locations, although the actual jurisdiction is the UK. There have also
been outright purchases of operating satellites by operators in different countries
and the associated licenses and ITU registrations have crossed borders. While the
process is legal, it nevertheless can result in disagreements involving countries and
their associated satellite operators.
The basic mechanisms of orbital RFI can be seen in Figure 1.7, which illustrates
the geometry between the satellites in GEO and the transmitting and receiving
Earth stations. The case of uplink interference, shown in the left, results not from
the adjacent satellite but from the Earth station transmitting to that satellite. We
see how energy radiated in off angles from the Earth station antenna can reach the
satellite on the left, potentially interfering with the carrier coming up from the asso-
ciated earth station on the left. Downlink interference, illustrated on the right side
of the figure, is what we would normally associate with orbital RFI. The adjacent
satellite (on the right) radiates toward both receiving Earth stations, including the
one on the left that is not intended as a point of reception. Interference enters that
Earth station antenna through its off angle and thus can interfere with the desired
signal coming from the left-hand satellite.
Non-GEO orbit constellations like Iridium and O3b involved a somewhat dif-
ferent process because only one such constellation can operate in a particular fre-
quency band at a time. Iridium engaged the FCC and the entire membership of the
ITU to obtain its ability to launch something that had not been done before. O3b
rode on the coattails of a previous effort called Teledesic that did not itself proceed.
It is therefore a different process to gain access to non-GEO orbital spectrum re-
sources and more time could be required than for the typical GEO satellite. One of
the reasons for this is that RFI would occur as satellites move through the sky and
at an altitude considerably below GEO. Thus, terrestrial radiocommunication and
GEO satellite systems may also be subject to a new source of RFI. The approach
usually taken is to segment the particular frequency band so that the non-GEO
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Figure 1.7  Basic geometry for RFI in GEO satellite operations; uplink interference is shown on the
left and downlink interference is shown on the right.

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What and Why of RFI in Radio and Wireless Communications

system has its own, noninterfering bandwidth to occupy. See Section 8.1.3 for a
discussion of band segmentation.

1.2  Identifying RFI Modes and Consequences

We could call this RFI management because it encompasses the vital functions of
reducing the problem to something that is manageable within the capabilities of
the organization or industry. It can be broken up into the familiar discussion of
Who, What, Why, When, Where, and How. We have to perform these studies and
investigations well before the radiocommunication system is designed and brought
into use, as well as after it is in operation when the RFI is actually experienced (at
any time). Doing this within the system itself may be the easiest part of the problem
because the characteristics of the radio stations and their locations are presumably
known. The analysis can be performed according to the procedures in this book.
What can be much more difficult is taking into account radiocommunication sys-
tems and radio emitters that are external. Some of these will exist prior to operation
of the potentially interfered with system (the RFI going both ways), and some will
come later when the undesired source (or receptor) of RFI appears on the scene.
The impact could be anticipated if the new radio emitters must notify existing us-
ers through an established regulatory process, and the impacts determined before it
goes live. Otherwise, it would be particularly troublesome because its characteris-
tics would not normally be known ahead of time.

1.3  Electromagnetic Compatibility and Spectrum Sharing

What we are trying to achieve when a new radio emitting system initiates operation
is compatibility with all incumbent radiocommunication operations. Recall that
all spectrum is shared among multiple user types and applications, using principles
of RFI management. A review of the Table of Frequency Allocations of the ITU
Radio Regulations makes it clear that spectrum sharing is in the DNA of all radio
frequency assignment procedures. The Radio Regulations attempt to address this
through technical rules governing how the frequencies are to be used with each
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service. If these rules are followed (and many are quite complex), spectrum sharing
should work reasonably well. Actual enforcement of the rules is up to the member
nations themselves and their regulatory agencies. Most of these entities lack criti-
cal resources for thorough review of license applications and monitoring the use
of spectrum to identify violators. Companies like Aerosystems, Inc., of Canada,
sell spectrum-monitoring systems that automate the scanning and verification of
spectrum use in critical bands used by wireless and satellite operators. There are
software tools that employ propagation models and mapping systems to predict
RFI conditions and how one operator would have an impact on another. In addi-
tion, the operators themselves have a big stake in spectrum sharing and manage-
ment, both within their own bounds and on the borders where RFI can exceed an
acceptable level.

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1.4  Addressing RFI When It Occurs 13

1.4  Addressing RFI When It Occurs

RFI incidents represent some of the more serious problems that beset radiocommu-
nication systems when we are dealing with an unknown assailant. The cause can
be due to an equipment malfunction in our own system or in one within our field
of view. It could come from the introduction of a new radio emitter or system of
emitters of which we were unaware. Last, RFI can come from an intentional jam-
mer who wishes to disrupt the operation of a properly licensed or authorized user.
There are some tried-and-true techniques used in the troubleshooting of RFI
incidents. These are can summarized as follows. More detail on measurement and
mitigation techniques is presented in Chapter 7.

•• Is it from your own radio facility or system? Carefully review current opera-
tion and eliminate the possibility that the RFI is internally caused. All poten-
tial sources must be reviewed and eliminated from consideration.
•• Are there other “usual suspects”? These are RFI sources that have appeared
in the past. Build a database of RFI incidents and corrective actions taken.
•• How can I gather facts to allow deductive reasoning? Use instrumentation
such as a portable spectrum analyzer (discussed in Chapter 7), along with
detailed reports from credible sources; from this, brainstorm what the pos-
sible RFI sources could be and how to gather additional data for verification
and corrective action.
•• How can I get the attention and cooperation of possible sources? RFI identi-
fication and resolution, especially in the satellite communications and micro-
wave fields, involves getting the word out to all potential sources. Often, the
RFI results from an issue with otherwise properly working equipment. The
perpetrator has a stake in finding the source because it may accompany a loss
of service on their end. Involve those entities that can assist with the process,
including the high-level service operator (e.g., the satellite operator or domes-
tic telecom operator) as well as other users of the same or adjoining spectrum.

These are practical guidelines to get started in any RFI investigation, but the
devil is in the details. Take advantage of all of the brains and thinking that come
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from good research as well as failure modes and effects analysis. Often, the process
itself has its way of resolving the RFI issue even if the actual cause is never identi-
fied. More information and guidelines are provided in Chapter 8. A very serious
RFI situation that prevents service may require its treatment as an incident in the
context of emergency management is discussed in Section 8.4.

References

[1] Malaric, K., EMI Protection in Communication Systems, Norwood, MA: Artech House,
2010.
[2] ITU Radio Regulations, Vol 1, Chapter 2, Geneva, Switzerland, 2012.
[3] Elbert, Bruce R., The Satellite Communication Applications Handbook, Second Edition,
Norwood, MA: Artech House, 2004.

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Copyright © 2016. Artech House. All rights reserved.

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