Thursday, August 2, 2012

Two repeaters, one frequency (part 2)

In Part One I'd described why it might be advantageous to place multiple repeaters of a linked system on the same frequency.  In short:
  • A single frequency conserves spectrum.
  • Being on the same frequency over the system's coverage area is more convenient to the user as it eliminates the need to try to figure out which frequency might works best for a given area.
  • The whole system is greater than the sum of its parts because of the probability that brief periods of poor coverage may be augmented by another site.
 In the first part only the implementation of the receive portion of the system was discussed in which multiple receivers were used in a voting scheme - that is, a system in which the signals from the various receivers in the system were analyzed and the best one at that instant was sent on all transmitter.

How, then, does one implement multiple transmitters on the same frequency without their clobbering each other?

This comes again to one of the peculiar aspects of Frequency Modulation (FM) mentioned in the first part of this series:  The Capture Effect.  Briefly, this is the tendency for the stronger of two FM signals to override the weaker - and if they are of sufficiently different signal strength, there may not even be evidence of the weaker signal.

As it turns out, for a number of reasons this effect is more obvious on wideband FM as used in broadcast and you may have even observed a different FM station to suddenly "pop in" in an area where there was overlap.  On the narrowband FM used on amateur radio this effect is somewhat less dramatic and "doubling" (two stations inadvertently transmitting at once) is typically detectable by there being a rather obvious squeal and distorted speech behind the stronger station transmitting or, in cases where the signals are almost exactly of equal strength, neither party wins as the two obliterate each other in an unintelligible mess of noise.

What is worth noting in the above example is that the two transmitters involved are:
Figure 1:
Inside the frequency control/crossband repeater unit at Scott's.  There is
an identical unit at the other site at Farnsworth Peak.
The 10 MHz oven-controlled oscillator is in the upper-left corner
while the standard GE "EC" channel element is in the upper-
right corner.  This unit - like its twin - is hand-wired on glass-
epoxy prototyping board.
Click on the image for a larger version.
  • On different frequencies.  It's likely that the two transmitters that operated at the same time were on slightly different frequencies - even several hundred Hertz apart.  This frequency difference resulted in a heterodyne (squeal) that decreased intelligibility.
  • The two transmitters were definitely not carrying the same audio.
As it turns out if there are two transmitters that are both held to very tight frequency standards (within a few 10's of Hz at most) and they carry exactly the same audio, they tend not to clobber each other to nearly the same degree if they are of similar signal strength. What's more is that these "similar" transmissions seem to bother each other less as the difference in their respective signal strengths become greater.

Again, the system is laid out thusly:
  •  Farnsworth Peak is the "hub" and the audio for all transmitters in the system originates from there.  The audio to the auxiliary sites (such as Scott's) is conveyed via a UHF link and retransmitted on VHF.
  • All audio from all receivers ends up at Farnsworth and the "best" audio is what is transmitted to all sites.
  • The auxiliary sites (such as Scott's) are essentially crossband repeaters:  2 meter audio is received and relayed to Farnworth on UHF where it is voted upon and this audio is transmitted from Farnsworth  on UHF where it is repeated on VHF at the auxiliary sites.
What this means is that at Scott's, there's a box called the "Disciplined Oscillator" that contains a precision, oven-controlled 10 MHz oscillator that is capable of holding the VHF transmit frequency to within 1-2 Hz of where it is intended to be.  As it so-happens, this same box also contains the intelligence to function as a controller for a pair of crossband repeaters that goes from VHF to UHF for signals that are received and then again from UHF to VHF as the master audio from Farnsworth is transmitted.  This box also provides a few other basic functions such as timeout timer (in the event a link gets "stuck") as well as providing a Morse ID on the UHF link from Scott's to Farnsworth - just to keep things legal.  This same box also has an RS-485 serial interface to allow it to be connected on a bus with other devices so that it may be remotely controlled, configured and polled as needed.

 When we originally designed the system we anticipated that we may need to adjust a few parameters in order to successfully have two transmitters operating on the same frequency without their causing objectionable mutual interference.  The first - and most obvious - of these was frequency control.

Because we use independent oven-controlled crystal oscillators, we couldn't nail the frequencies of the transmitters down precisely to match each other as would be possible were we to have used a GPS or Rubidium-based reference, but we could count on their being within 1-2 Hz of where we had parked them.  Once the system was put on the air we solicited the help of someone who happened to live in an area where the strength of the two transmitters was precisely equal and then tweaked the frequency offsets and then made a subjective analysis as to what was "least annoying."

As it turned out, there were two ranges that seemed to be reasonable in terms of frequency offset:
  • 3-6 Hz offset.  This caused a bit of a "whooshing" sound if the two signal strengths were fairly close and fairly weak.  If the signals were exactly the same strength then the periodic nulls could cause it to drop out briefly and make the signal unintelligible, but even a slight reposition of the receive antenna could mitigate this, however.
  • 40-60 Hz offset.  This caused a buzzing somewhat akin to the sound of a subaudible tone as heard on a signal with severe multipath distortion.
Ultimately, we settled for the 3-6 Hz offset as it was deemed to be the most "user friendly" overall - especially when one considered that one was by far more likely to be traveling mobile through the overlap areas than stationary and that the Doppler shift of a moving vehicle might not only exceed the amount of frequency offset anyway (if it was only 3-6 Hz, at least) but that the "dwell" time in a precise null where the signals of multiple transmitters canceled each other out was going to be extremely short.

Another factor often considered in multiple-transmitter systems is that of audio delay to match the time-of-arrival of the different distances between transmitters - plus additional delay in the audio links used to tie the disparate systems together.  Before we were to go through any hassle of adding an audio delay somewhere, we first wanted to see if it was really going to be a problem in the overlap areas, anyway.

It wasn't.

The only thing that we did do was observe the audio phase at and below 1 kHz and then, using the ability to select either a 0 or 180 degree audio source, set them as close as we could.

So, what does it sound like in the overlap areas?

First of all, the coverage of the sites and their geography meant that about the only significant overlap areas were in canyons to the east of the Salt Lake area where signals from either transmitter would already be subject to multipath, anyway.  As it turns out, traversing these area it's rather difficult to tell where the coverage of one transmitter begins and the other ends - and it often goes both ways.  In those area that do have severe overlap the contention between the two transmitters sounds little different than typical mobile flutter - perhaps slightly "faster" than typical 2-meter flutter but not as fast as what might be heard on a 70cm repeater in an area with severe multipath!

In Part 3, a bit of "nerdy" technical information about how the various parts work...


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