Kim Elliott on shortwave radios & signal jamming in 2015

"Russian Federation (orthographic projection) - Crimea disputed" by FutureTrillionaire - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Russian_Federation_(orthographic_projection)_-_Crimea_disputed.svg#mediaviewer/File:Russian_Federation_(orthographic_projection)_-_Crimea_disputed.svg

(Source: USC Center on Public Diplomacy)

BBC Russian Wants to Expand, But It’s Not So Easy

The BBC, as part of its 2015 Charter Review document, announced proposals to “invest” in BBC World Service. This includes a desire for a “bigger digital presence in Russian through a new digital service on platforms such as YouTube and the Russian equivalent Rutube, together with TV bulletins for neighbouring states. We would also start a feasibility study for a satellite TV channel for Russia.”

[…]The feasibility of BBC satellite TV for Russia is problematic. Very few Russians have rotatable satellite dishes, surfing the Clarke Belt in search of outside news. About 25% of Russian homes have fixed Ku-band satellite dishes to receive proprietary domestic direct-to-home services such as TricolorTV and NTV+. Western Russian-language news channels are not included in these channel packages and are unlikely to be invited aboard. Content from Western Russian-language broadcasters, including Voice of America and Radio Liberty, is also legally not welcome on Russian domestic terrestrial television and radio stations.

[…]So far, Russia has not blocked the Internet content of Western international broadcasters, at least not on a continuous basis. The Kremlin’s repeated denials of any intent to block Internet content suggest that it has at least been thinking about it. And recent press accounts indicate that Russian authorities may even try to ban anonymizers and other methods used to work around online censorship. Circumvention tools would have to become even cleverer, and Russian users would have to be willing and able to use them. In an extreme scenario, Russia could physically cut off the landlines of Internet traffic into the country. Then no circumvention tool within the Internet Protocol would work.

This could bring BBC Russian full circle to the venerable but unfashionable medium of shortwave radio. To be sure, Russians are out of the habit of listening to shortwave. Shortwave is no longer used for domestic broadcasting in Russia. BBC Russian eliminated its shortwave broadcasts in 2011. But, if need be, Russians could dust off their Cold War era shortwave radios. Or they could purchase inexpensive Chinese-made portable radios with shortwave bands.

In addition to traditional voice broadcasts, text, images, and even formatted web pages can now be broadcast using existing shortwave transmitters, and received on any shortwave radio. The audio must be fed to a PC or mobile device equipped with appropriate (free) software. Such a method allows reception of content even in difficult reception conditions, and allows unattended reception. This new capability of existing shortwave broadcast technology has been demonstrated through the VOA Radiogram experiments.

If Russia blocks Internet content from abroad, it will also probably try to jam shortwave radio content from abroad. Most jamming transmitters of the Cold War era have been dismantled or have fallen into disrepair. Many of the jamming transmitters are outside of Russia, in former Soviet republics. Reviving a shortwave jamming apparatus would be a much more expensive proposition than blocking Internet content. Various Cold War anti-jamming tactics, using various tricks of ionospheric propagation, can be employed. Text via shortwave would be even more resistant to jamming than voice broadcasts.[…]

Read the full article by Kim Andrew Elliott at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy online.

Want to develop a VOA Radiogram application?

VOARadioGramAre you an application developer?

The VOA Radiogram is seeking a developer to create software for PCs and mobile devices “to simplify the decoding of text and images transmitted by VOA and other radio stations.”

The RFQ and Statement of Work from the Broadcasting Board of Governors can be dowloaded by clicking here.

Note that there is a very short deadline–September 26–to submit your proposal.

One Post reader notes that, “although BBG will make the software available for free, and will provide the source code, this is a paid procurement. Respondents are expected to state their fee.”

The category is $15,000 – $25,000 as can be seen here:

http://www.bbg.gov/partnerwithus/doing-business/

Again, responses are due September 26, 2015!

VOA Radiogram this weekend mixes bad noise with good noise

VOARadioGram(Source: VOA Radiogram)

During the past weekend, we experimented with mixing music with MFSK text modes. Reducing the MFSK modes by 9 dB was not a problem if the signal level was good, but the MFSK text did break up for some listeners if reception conditions were marginal.

This weekend, 15 and 16 June, we will mix some actual noise taken from shortwave with MFSK text. After the noise begins, a VOA News story in MFSK16 will first be transmitted at full level, then reduced to -6 dB, then reduced to -12 dB. I will probably lose many of you when the level is reduced to -12 dB, but please stay tuned: the audio level will soon be restored.

Here is the lineup for VOA Radiogram, 15 and 16 June 2013:

  • 2:10 MFSK16: Program preview
  • 1:58 MFSK16: Introduction to noise experiment
  • 10:09 MFSK16: At -0 -6 -12 dB versus noise
  • :59 MFSK16: Image of VOA logo
  • :47 MFSK16: Introduction to MFSK32
  • :51 MFSK32: Image of VOA logo
  • 3:19 MFSK32: VOA News re Curiosity Rover on Mars MFSK32: VOA Radiogram logo
  • 2:40 EasyPal Image of the week
  • 1:10 MFSK16: Closing announcements
  • :20 Surprise mode of the week

VOA Radiogram transmission schedule

(all days and times UTC)
Sat 1600-1630 17860 kHz
Sun 0230-0300 5745 kHz
Sun 1300-1330 6095 kHz
Sun 1930-2000 15670 kHz

All via the Edward R. Murrow transmitting station in North Carolina.

Please send reception reports to radiogram@voanews.com

Capture images on the VOA Radiogram this weekend

VOARadioGram(Source: VOA Radiogram)

VOA Radiogram for the weekend of May 11 and 12 will feature long stretches of VOA News in plain text, using the MFSK 32 and 64 modes. No Flmsg or Flamp this time. This weekend’s program will also include our first test of slow scan television (SSTV).

Here is the lineup:

MFSK16 (2:28)     Preview

MFSK32 (12:08)     VOA News stories

The first of the three stories will be in Spanish. This is to determine how letters with accent marks appear on your display. The second VOA news story will be followed by an accompanying MFSK32 image

MFSK16     Intro to the next mode

MFSK64 (3:34)    VOA News story

MFSK16     Intro to the next mode

SSTV Scottie DX (4:31)

There are several software programs that decode SSTV, including Digital Master 780 (DM780) andMMSSTV. A free receive-only SSTV decoder is RX-SSTV from users.belgacom.net/hamradio/rxsstv.htm

MFSK16 (1:11)     Closing announcements

Closing music, accompanied by the surprise mode of the week

Please send reception reports to radiogram@voanews.com

Screenshots and audio samples are welcome, especially audio of less than perfect reception conditions.

VOA Radiogram transmission schedule
(all days and times UTC)
Sat 1600-1630 17860 kHz
Sun 0230-0300 5745 kHz
Sun 1300-1330 6095 kHz
Sun 1930-2000 15670 kHz
All via the Edward R. Murrow transmitting station in North Carolina.

 

More shortwave digital text (and the reason behind it)

Screenshot of digital mode being selected in FLDIGI. Click image to enlarge.

SWLing Post readers have seen previous posts regarding text being broadcast via shortwave digital modes on WBCQ, WRMI and The Mighty KBC (which broadcasts again this weekend).

Recently, Kim Elliott explained his mission behind these digital tests. Not only do I agree, but I support him completely. Why? It’s proof that the shortwave spectrum is an excellent medium to transmit digital information across the globe. Decoding requires a very basic shortwave radio, some free software and a computer. I believe, in the near future, there will be a smart phone app that can handle this with ease–it simply needs a developer (hint, hint).

Here is Kim Elliott’s post on the topic–I have emphasized points in bold:

Radio amateurs use several modes to transmit text via shortwave. It occurred to me that text via shortwave might be a workaround whe[r]e the internet is not available because of disasters, dictators, or other causes.

I have not yet convinced any major international broadcasters to let me test this hypothesis on their (remaining) shortwave transmitters. However, the Netherlands-based Mighty KBC has kindly been allowing me two one-minute segments during their broadcast to North America at 0000 to 0200 UTC on 9450 kHz. This is via leased time on a transmitter in Bulgaria.

Reception of text via shortwave is possible on an inexpensive shortwave radio, even one without single sideband (SSB) capability. The audio is patched into a PC that does not have to be especially powerful. This involves a patch cord from the earphone jack of the radio to the microphone input of the PC. If there is no patch cord, placing the radio’s speaker near the built-in microphone of a laptop might work.

Software for decoding the text should be installed in the PC. There are several available to radio amateurs, including DM780, MixW, and MultiPSK. Especially popular these days is Fldigi. This is available from www.w1hkj.com. While you are there, please also download Flmsg, because it will be needed for this weekend’s test on KBC. [Note: This software is free and open source.]

This weekend’s test on KBC will feature the MT63 modes with long interleave. After Fldigi is installed, go to Configure > Modems > MT-63 > check 64-bit (long) interleave, 8-bit extended characters, and Allow manual tuning. Also, go to Configure > Misc > NBEMS > check Open with flmsg and Open in browser and, below that, indicate where your flmsg.exe file is located.

The first KBC text transmission will be around 0130 UTC Sunday (Saturday evening 8:30 pm EST). The MT63-1000 mode with long interleave will be centered at 1000 Hz on the waterfall visible on the software display. PSKR125 will be cenetered at 2200 Hz. Decode one while listening, and decode the other from your recording of the transmission.

The second text transmission will be just before 0200 UTC Sunday (9 pm Saturday EST). This will be MT63-2000 centered at 1500 Hz. This message will be formatted for Flmsg. If all goes well, the shortwave transmitter in Bulgaria will open a new window of Flmsg and then open a new window of your web browser with formatted content, in color no less.

One week after my first text transmissions (11 November) on KBC, Arnie Coro at Radio Havana Cuba began transmitting digital text modes on his Dxers Unlimited program (in English). He might do so again this weekend. The schedule for DXers Unlimited can be found at the World of Radio website (where all times and days are UTC, so those UT Monday transmissions are actually Sunday evening in North America).

More discussion of the concept of digital text via analog shortwave broadcast is in Kim’s December 2012 column (pdf) for the North American Shortwave Asociation.

Saturday, from Bulgaria, Dr. Elliott will control your web browser

As DRMNA.info says:

“Let Dr. Elliott take control of your PC!”

I agree.

On several occasions now, Dr. Kim Elliott has transmitted digital messages via shortwave radio in an assortment of digital modes. We’ve mentioned this in the past (and we even posted a tutorial on decoding his WBCQ message).

Early Sunday morning (UTC–Saturday night for many) The Mighty KBC will once again broadcast some of Elliott’s digital messages from 00:00-02:00 UTC on 9,450 kHz. This time, they’ll even broadcast two different messages in two different modes simultaneously (details below). No Johnny, this isn’t your granfather’s shortwave:

(Source: Kim Elliott)

The Mighty KBC, 21 Nov 2012: “This UTC Sunday, 25 November, more digital text during the broadcast of The Mighty KBC at 0000 to 0200 on 9450 kHz. At about 0130 UTC, PSK125 will be centered at 1300 Hz on the waterfall, MFSK32 at 2200 Hz. Decode one from the radio, and the other from your recording. Just before 0200, only one mode, MFSK32, will be transmitted, centered at 1500 Hz. For this message, please have Fldigi and Flmsg (both available from www.w1hkj.com), as well as your web browser, all running on your PC. If all goes well, at the end of this transmission, the message should pop up in new windows of Flmsg and your browser. (In Flmsg, click Configure, then Misc, then NBEMS, then check Open with flmsg and check Open in browser.)

[Elliott’s comments] “UTC Sunday 25 November at 0000 to 0200 UTC is the same as Saturday evening, 24 November, 7 to 9 pm Eastern Time in North America. This transmission on 9450 kHz is via a leased transmitter in Bulgaria.

To decode the two text transmissions, download Fldigi and Flmsg from w1hkj.com. Configure Fldigi to work with your PC’s sound card.

Also, in Fldigi, click Configure, Misc, NBEMS. Under NBEMS data file interface, click Enable. Under reception of flmsg file, click Open with flmsg and Open in browser.

During reception, patch audio from the earphone or line out jack of your radio to the microphone input of your PC. You may have to experiment a bit with audio settings. You should see a “waterfall” on your Fldigi display.

If all goes according to plan, when the text message just before 0200 UTC (9 pm Eastern) is completely received, it should pop up in a new window of your default web browser.

By the way, if you haven’t noticed, I’m a big fan of The Mighty KBC. Not only do they broadcast an excellent mix of music on shortwave radio, but they’ll also blast these digital messages to their listeners. Thanks, KBC!

Again, please comment if you decode these messages!

Smith-Mundt is a tough Act to follow

May, June and July have been very busy months for me (hence the lack of daily updates).

In May, I attended and presented at the North American Shortwave Broadcasters annual meeting in Washington DC, then spent nearly a week in Ohio at the Dayton Hamvention–June and July have been filled with sporadic travel.

During my travels in May, controversy swirled around the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act and its impact upon radio broadcasting since it passed mark-up as an amendment to the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act on May 18. The bill is now before the US Senate.

What is the Smith-Mundt act? Per Wikipedia:

The US Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 (Public Law 80-402), popularly referred to as the Smith–Mundt Act, specifies the terms in which the United States government can engage global audiences, also known as public diplomacy.

The act was first introduced as the Bloom Bill in December 1945 in the 79th Congress and subsequently passed by the 80th Congress and signed into law by President Harry S. Truman on January 27, 1948.[…]

There are three key restrictions on the U.S. State Department in the Smith–Mundt Act.

The first and most well-known restriction was originally a prohibition on domestic dissemination of materials intended for foreign audiences by the State Department. The original intent was the Congress, the media and academia would be the filter to bring inside what the State Department said overseas […]

The second and third provisions were of greater interest to the Congress as they answered critical concerns about a deep-pocket government engaging domestic audiences. Added to the Bloom Bill, the predecessor to the Smith-Mundt Bill in June 1946 by Representative John M. Vorys (R-OH) “to remove the stigma of propaganda” and address the principle objections to the information activities the Congress intended to authorize.

The Smith-Mundt Act is the very reason why so few US Citizens have ever heard of the international radio broadcaster Voice of America (VOA):  the law forbids them from “targeting” an American audience. In their current state, the VOA and many other BBG international broadcasting entities are not likely to be a source of the type of propaganda many fear could be unleashed with the lifting of the Smith-Mundt Act.  Speaking as one familiar with the VOA’s broadcasts–I know many who work at the VOA, I’ve listened to their broadcasts for decades and I actively read their online content–I can comfortably state that VOA produces quality journalism and certainly provides another credible voice in the cloud of international broadcasters on the air or online. Their journalists have a mandate to report the truth, even when they find it necessary to be critical of the US government.

Don’t be mislead, however; VOA is a diplomatic arm of the United States, and as such would fit the broadest definition of what might be considered propaganda. In other words, VOA represents an American viewpoint on the news. Indeed, I consider (and it’s only fair to acknowledge) that every radio or television broadcaster’s voice exhibits some bias, even if the broadcaster makes claims of “fair and balanced reporting” or says they are “reporting the truth.”  There is always a leaning, however modest.  Even at the tender age of eight, listening to my Zenith Transoceanic in my bedroom, I recognized this.

So why all of the fuss about the Smith-Mundt Act?  Even as a child, I remember finding it quite easy to tune in the Voice of America. The magic of shortwave radio almost by default means that there are no borders that can control how shortwave distributes content. It’s even more absurd to think of enforcing these restrictions now in the internet age–indeed, by clicking this link, you can freely go to the VOA website to read, watch or listen to thousands upon thousands of hours of content.

So, in reality, VOA has never been prevented from delivering its content to the US.  It’s just not well-known in our country.

But this is the state of things today:  If the Smith-Mundt Act were lifted, the US State Department could, if they choose, funnel resources into effectively targeting US audiences. In the US, you could see VOA ads on Facebook, hear ads on the radio, a VOA TV channel could be launched–FM relay stations could be established in, say, Nebraska.

Does that sound strange? Keep in mind that in the UK (and in many other countries) there has never been this division between government-funded international and domestic broadcasting. The BBC broadcasts to both a domestic audience and an international audience via the BBC World Service. They routinely recycle content between the two.

The Smith-Mundt Act has both critics and supporters on both the left and right of the aisle. The think tank, The Heritage Foundation, recently held a panel discussion with a slant towards lifting the Smith-Mundt Act. They stated:

Critics […] have charged that modernizing the Smith-Mundt Act will lift the floodgates for U.S. government propaganda aimed at U.S. citizens. Not so. Rather, the amended act will force greater government transparency and accountability and it will allow Americans insights into what Washington is communicating to audiences around the world.

Yet, many of my friends who work within the VOA see the lifting of Smith-Mundt as a means to target various diasporas within the US. Perhaps, for example, via local FM relay, VOA could broadcast in Swahili to communities the US with large populations of recent immigrants who could benefit from this news source.

The watchdog organization BBG Watch, on the other hand, describes their concerns about lifting Smith-Mundt:

While BBG Watch supports placing all Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) international broadcasts and other programs in the public domain for anyone to use free of charge, some of us are concerned that the proposed Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 is so broadly written that it gives BBG and other US government officials unrestricted power to target American citizens with government information marketing. We would support the modification of the Smith-Mundt Act if it included clear and strict rules and a prohibition on active direct marketing of BBG programs to US citizens and US broadcasters. There is a real fear that BBG officials would take advantage of the new law, if it passes, to move resources from international to domestic information activities.

Herein lies my fear regarding this restructuring–that the State Department could tap into the already limited resources allotted for international broadcasting via shortwave radio, in order to shift attention to a domestic audience (who already, in truth, has full access to all of the US international broadcasting entities via the world wide web).   Yet the international broadcasting need is much greater than our own–many who receive these broadcasts–in rural Africa, for example–have little else to rely upon for their understanding of the United States and their perspective on the world.  It could harm starve the United States’ relationship with people in these regions, in essence lopping off one of our valuable diplomatic arms.

A balanced approach

The best way to be informed about the progress of the act is to follow Kim Andrew Elliott’s blog on international broadcasting and diplomacy.  He does an amazing job of picking out news items relevant to the act and posting them along with his comments.  Indeed, when I last asked him about the Smith-Mundt act several weeks ago, he suggested checking out this post: http://kimelli.nfshost.com/index.php?id=13356

Within that post, there is a link to a previous post, in which he state why the domestic dissemination ban is now enforceable rather than outmoded by the internet. Dr. Elliott also commented:

Sen. Gillibrand removed the Thornberry-Smith language from the Senate version of the DAA.  Thornberry-Smith could possible return in the conference process, or perhaps even from the floor, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

In future attempts to relax the domestic dissemination ban, the BBG should not be involved. It should remain neutral. The stakeholders in the US should initiate any such legislation. Such stakeholders would include….

1) US ethnic media, who could use news about the countries of interest, in the languages of their audiences.  At no extra cost to the taxpayers, USIB could provide a valuable public service.

2) Americans who are interested in what in contained in US international broadcasting and public diplomacy

3) US domestic media who could barter their content on US domestic affairs for USIB content on world affairs.  This win-win would bring USIB content to US audiences, hence a need to relax the ban.

Note that the UK never had any qualms about domestic distribution of BBCWS.  It was available only in the overnight hours, on BBC R4, because it was assumed the content was not of sufficient interest to sustain a domestic service.  Now it’s available 24/7 via digital BBC radio bouquets in the UK and, of course, via internet.  BBC even proudly proclaims the domestic RAJAR ratings for BBCWS.

A tough act to follow…

So, is lifting or modifying the Smith-Mundt Act wise?  Only time can tell.  One thing is certain: careful consideration of all eventualities must be taken into account before action is taken, and envisioning all potential outcomes could truly prove tough.

For more on the Smith-Mundt act and hundreds of other news items that have an impact on international broadcasting and diplomacy, subscribe to Kim Andrew Elliott’s news feed.