In a world of mobile phones, satellites and the internet, some old school technology is making a major comeback. The shortwave radio, used by spies for decades to send encrypted messages, is being resurrected for the war in Ukraine.
According to Dr. Andrew Hammond, curator and historian at Washington, D.C.’s International Spy Museum, the shortwave radio “is a classic tool that was used for espionage.
“With a shortwave radio like this, you can transmit information over huge distances,” he told CTV National News.
As Ukraine’s Defense minister was quoted in The Guardian: “Moscow aims to cut off communications to ‘break the resistance of the people’.”
One of the first things an invader tries to shut down is a country’s free press; traditionally, this has meant swift control of newspapers and radio. No surprise here–this is a standard part of an invader’s playbook.
These days, of course, this also includes TV and the Internet. So far, Russia’s attempts to completely cut off Internet in Ukraine hasn’t been successful, but it’s not from a lack of trying.
Shortwave portables are accessible, affordable, and effective tools for circumventing censorship.
It’s sad that they aren’t as common as they were back in the Cold War. Most people under 40 years old have likely never used or even heard of shortwave. I mean, if so many today don’t realize that you can receive television over the air, how could we expect them to know what a shortwave radio is?
Unlike the Internet–robust and decentralized as it may be in some countries–shortwave radio can’t be controlled by any one ruler or easily shut down. Shortwave broadcasting infrastructure isn’t within reach of an invader without causing a serious international conflict.
In addition, radio listening is an amazingly covert and untraceable activity. With a good pair of earphones, you can listen to any station within range and no one will be the wiser. A radio can’t be confiscated and the owner’s listening history exported.
Smart phones, on the other hand, often have location services in play which leak user location information. Unless encryption is used, those in charge of internet services also have access to all communications that pass through the pipeline as well.
It’s not difficult for those in power to gain access to information that passes through the internet.
Don’t get me wrong: smart phones are amazing tools. They give the user access to news, social media, and instantaneous information that might help their ability to seek safety–but they require a little savvy if you don’t want to be tracked. They also need frequent recharging. Shortwave portables, on the other hand, will often last weeks if not months on one set of batteries. They allow you access to international news, and the vast majority can deliver local and regional news via FM and Mediumwave stations.
Most importantly, though? Shortwave radio is the ultimate free speech medium, as it has no regard for national borders, nor for whom is in power (or not in power) at any moment. Shortwave radio works everywhere on the planet; no matter how remote you are, you can still receive stations over shortwave.
So yeah. I think every family should have at least one shortwave radio. Especially when someone is actively trying to cut off your access to news and information.
Note to our friends in Ukraine:
The BBC has added two shortwave broadcasts to Ukraine on 5875 kHz from 8/10 UTC and on 15735 kHz from 2/4 UTC.
SWLing Post readers, please comment if you know of other new shortwave broadcasts to help those in Ukraine and Russia.
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Jock Elliott, who shares the following guest post:
Why listen to shortwave radio?
By Jock Elliott, KB2GOM
Decades ago, an entrepreneur challenged his audience with a concept of critical importance: “Every once in a vhile, it is important to ask ourselves vhy are we in business?” He had a waaay cool Austrian accent, and his point was valid: every once in a while, we should examine our fundamentals.
So why, indeed, listen to shortwave radio?
For me, the short answer is: because there are treasures out there on the shortwave spectrum, that’s why. Further, with a relatively inexpensive shortwave receiver (even better if you have a receiver with single-sideband – SSB – capability), you hear them too. You can discover things that you are unlikely to find anywhere else, and not only are they fun to hear, they are also fun to find.
So let me present for your approval a shortwave journey that I took on October 24, 2021.
1115Z – It all starts when I am flipping through my old shortwave reference materials, and a copy of a page from Popular Communications magazine, April, 1986, catches my eye: “Handy Ute Finder by Hubble Gardiner, KNE0JX.” Utes are utility stations (as opposed to hams or international broadcasters), like ships at sea, planes in the air, and fixed commercial and military stations, and the like. The article presented places to look in the HF radio spectrum between 4000 kHz and 26960 kHz, for utility stations transmitting in SSB, CW, and RTTY/ARQ modes. Is this chart still valid? I don’t know, but since I enjoy hearing people doing their jobs on the air, why not start tuning from 4000 kHz in upper sideband and see what I can hear? Freeing the Tecsun PL-880 from its case, I extend the antenna, press the power button, punch in 4000 kHz, and start turning the dial. And while my initial impulse was to discover some “utes,” I am open to whatever comes through the headphones.
1128Z, 4426 kHz USB – a ute, super loud and clear, a weather forecast from the US Coast Guard Communications Command, including a forecast of tropical weather from the National Hurricane Center. If I were a mariner, I would be pleased to hear this forecast.
Duties call, and my cruise of the bands is interrupted, to be continued later in the day . . .
2130Z, 7490 kHz AM, — highly unusual music that sounds like a mash-up between 1930s movie music and oompah bands. It’s odd but pleasant and certainly not anything you are going to hear on the “regular” broadcast stations. Turns out it is a program called Marion’s Attic on WBCQ from Monticello, Maine. Two females, Marion (with a high squeaky voice) and Christine, play recordings from yesteryear (including wax cylinders, I think). Evidently, this program has been on the air for 22 years, and it made me smile.
2150Z, 8950 kHz USB, — a ute, European weather conditions for aviators from Shannon VOLMET, Ireland, very difficult to hear on the PL880’s whip antenna, but fully copyable on my Satellit 800 with wire antenna. How cool to hear weather from all the way across the pond!
2206Z, 9350 kHz AM, (back on the PL880) — USA Radio News on WWCR, then Owen Shroyer and a Dr. Bartlett discussing the problem of a hospital in Texas apparently putting plastic bags on the heads of covid patients. Unusual, I think, but I had heard enough about the virus of late and continue to rotate the tuning knob.
2215Z, 9395 kHz AM, — My ears are tickled by cool jazz, a very together group, laying it down with style. “This is cool jazz, jazz from the left coast,” the announcer intones as he cues up another group. It’s WRMI, transmitting from Okeechobee. Hearing it, I flashed back to “The Hawthorn Den, Jazz after Midnight” Saturday nights, listening under the covers when I was a kid.
2226Z, 9830 kHz, Voice of Turkey, in English — A professor presents an analysis of the United Nations, which he thinks needs to be reformed due to the shifting of the axes of power. This is followed by exotic music with nice female singer.
2239Z, 9955 kHz,WRMI, — Glen Hauser hosts The World of Radio, detailing the status of various shortwave stations around the world. Fascinating stuff and well worth the time.
2257Z, 10051 kHz USB, — a ute, weather for aviators again, but this time from Gander, Newfoundland. Makes me glad to be in a nice warm house.
So that’s what a little over an hour of turning the knob yielded, and that’s why to listen to shortwave radio: because you never know what you may encounter. Who knows what you might discover with a shortwave radio and a little wandering around?
Remember what Gandalf said: “Not all who wander are lost.”
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributors Michael Guerin and Dennis Dura who share the following story from C4ISR.net (my comments follow excerpt):
LONDON — Special operations commands across Europe are ramping up their capabilities with high-frequency communications to ensure connectivity on the battlefield. Leaders there are turning to high frequency communications as a way to optimize properties that provide a low probability of interception and detection.
Special forces in France, Germany, Poland and Ukraine continue to receive high-frequency, or HF, systems as a way to diversify communications plans, industry sources confirmed to C4ISRNET.
Some special operations organizations have selected L3Harris’ AN/PRC-160(V), industry sources said.
Enhancements in HF come at a time when NATO members and partner forces are suffering from a disruption of satellite communications, particularly along the alliance’s eastern flank where Russian armed forces continue to conduct electronic warfare.
In an online presentation to the Association of Old Crows on Aug. 6, Paul Denisowski, product management engineer at Rohde and Schwarz North America, described how communications satellites are vulnerable to antisatellite systems as well as ground-, air- and space-based “kill vehicles.”
“China, Russia and the U.S. have all carried out ASAT tests and many other countries are developing ASAT capabilities,” Denisowski said, using an acronym for anti-satellite. To boost resilience, some commands are turning to high-frequency communications.
During the presentations “Lost Art of HF” and the “Rebirth of Shortwave in a Digital World,” Denisowski explained that HF is making a comeback in local and global communications. This renaissance comes as the result of improvements in a range of fields, including antenna design, digital modulation schemes and improved understanding of propagation.
The market is also helped by reductions in size, weight and power requirements as well as the introduction of wideband data, enhanced encryption algorithms and interoperability with legacy HF sets, he said.
“This means end users are now benefiting from easier-to-use and cheaper solutions featuring improved data performance, audio quality, availability and operation. And because of a lack of infrastructure, HF is less expensive and relatively robust, although solar events may temporarily disrupt HF communications,” he said. Specific upgrades include “Adaptive HF,” which comprises automatic selection of frequency and the establishment of communication through automatic link establishment, or ALE, technology.
The latest technology of its type — 4G ALE — is capable of supporting wideband HF communications, or WBHF for short, providing end users with the ability to “negotiate bandwidth, modulation type, error correction and the number of sub-carriers,” Denisowski explained.
“ALE selects frequencies using link quality analysis, which allows it to listen and determine if a channel is in use and adapt if conditions change,” he said.
He added that HF can now support data rates up to 240 kilobytes per second on a 48-kilohertz channel, particularly useful for more robust communications in hostile environments.
“WBHF has already [been] used in military trials. It’s a technology which is most definitely here and now,” Denisowski said.
[…]The report explained how the U.S. Army and European NATO partners explored such scenarios during a series of joint exercises in 2019 and 2020. “A new need arrives for alternative communication skills, justified through the increasing vulnerability from SATCOM jamming as well as the potential failure of SATCOM as a result of attacks on spacecraft or through the use of anti-satellite surface-to-air missiles,” the report’s author, Jan Pätzold, told C4ISRNET. “The development of alternative skills is important to reduce dependence on SATCOM.”
According to Pätzold, so-called Skywave HF, which bounces signals off the ionosphere, enables beyond line-of-sight communications across “thousands of kilometers” without requirements. HF communications is also ideally suited to supporting local network coverage. “This offers advantages over SATCOM in urban areas, but also in mountainous areas or far north latitudes where no line of sight to existing satellites is possible,” Pätzold said
The shortwaves–which is to say, the high-frequency portion of the radio spectrum–will never disappear, even though international broadcasters may eventually fade into history. I often think of the shortwave spectrum as a global resource that will always be here, even if we humans are not. But on a brighter note, I expect the shortwave spectrum will be used for centuries to come, as we implement various technologies that find ways to make use of the medium.
HF communications require so little infrastructure to be effective. It’s a global communications medium that carries messages and data at the speed of light with no regard for national borders. Sure, there are reliability issues with HF propagation, but even amateur radio enthusiasts employ weak-signal digital modes that almost seem to defy propagation. I’m certain with the backing of the military, even more robust digital modes will be used (above and beyond ALE).
In the age of social media and internet technology, shortwave may be seen as traditional technology — but it still plays an important role in reaching far-flung communities, with Vanuatu’s public broadcaster now investing millions of dollars to boost its shortwave service.
The Vanuatu Broadcasting Television Corporation (VBTC) is investing AUD$12 million in upgrading its national radio service through its shortwave and and medium wave service.
VBTC chief executive officer, Francis Herman told the ABC that only 30 per cent of the country can access national radio but after the upgrade, this would increase to 100 per cent coverage across Vanuatu’s 80-plus islands.
“Radio as you know is cost effective, people can pick it up on their phone, in the villages where television can not reach, radio is the companion for people,” Mr Herman said.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation shutdown its shortwave service to the Pacific in 2017, in favour of a digital presence while China and New Zealand have increased their shortwave coverage.
Technology commentator Peter Marks said investing in shortwave is a great way to complement Vanuatu’s national radio service.
“Shortwave comes from over the horizon it will continue to work even when local conditions are difficult like extreme weather that might knock out local FM and AM stations and internet,” Mr Marks said.
Vanuatu is listed by the United Nations as one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world and regularly experiences, earthquakes, cyclones and floods.
Mr Herman said this makes having a national shortwave service even more important.
“We have general elections in March next year, we are about to head into the cyclone season beginning in November and so its important, it’s crucial that the people of Vanuatu can get access to a reliable and credible broadcaster,” Mr Herman said.
Along with its shortwave broadcasts, the VBTC is also looking to improve its television coverage over the next two years, with funding support from the Vanuatu government, New Zealand and China.
London (CNN Business) As a communications blackout continues in Kashmir, the BBC is using one of the only ways to reach listeners in the Indian-controlled state: shortwave radio.
The BBC is extending its Hindi radio output by 30 minutes, launching a 15-minute daily program in Urdu, and expanding its English broadcasts by an hour. All are being broadcast via shortwave signals.
“Given the shutdown of digital services and phone lines in the region, it’s right for us to try and increase the provision of news on our shortwave radio services,” Jamie Angus, director of the BBC World Service, said in a statement.
Indian-controlled Kashmir is under a tight security lockdown and total communications blackout. The blackout has included internet and landline phones, and some television channels have been cut. The repressive measures, in place since August 5, were introduced just days before the Indian government announced that it was withdrawing Article 370 of the constitution, reclassifying Kashmir’s administrative status from a state to a union territory. The move took away Kashmir’s semi-autonomous special status.
Pakistan, which also controls territory in the region, reacted angrily to the move by India. The two neighbors have fought three wars over Kashmir, and the region has been the focus of periodic conflict for more than 70 years.
Shortwave radio bands are able travel long distances using very high frequencies, unlike traditional radio waves that need to travel in straight lines.
In an interview with CNN Business, Angus said most people in the region don’t normally use shortwave to listen to their programs. But due to the communications blocks, “we’ve got limited options,” he said.
“The shortwave audience has historically been in decline, but it’s an important lifeline as a way to reach people,” Angus said. “People value the BBC because it’s independent and one step removed from the national heat around these discussions, that’s why people value our reporting.”[…]
The BBC World Service has extended output on shortwave radio in Indian-administered Kashmir to provide reliable news and information.
The Director of the BBC World Service, Jamie Angus, says: “The provision of independent and trusted news in places of conflict and tension is one of the core purposes of the World Service.
“Given the shutdown of digital services and phone lines in the region, it’s right for us to try and increase the provision of news on our short wave radio services. Audiences in both India and Pakistan trust the BBC to speak with an independent voice, and we know that our reporting through several moments of crisis this year has been popular and valued by audiences who turn to us when tensions are highest.”
BBC News Hindi radio output (9515 and 11995kHz) will be extended by 30 minutes from Friday 16 August. The full one-hour news programme will be on air from 7.30pm to 8.30pm local time.
On Monday 19 August, BBC News Urdu will launch a 15-minute daily programme, Neemroz. Broadcast at 12.30pm local time on 15310kHz and 13650kHz, the programme will focus on news coming from Kashmir and the developments around the issue, and include global news roundup tailored for audiences in Kashmir.
BBC World Service English broadcasts (11795kHz, 9670kHz, 9580kHz, 7345kHz, 6040kHz) will be expanded, with the morning programming extended by an hour, ending at 8.30am local time; and the afternoon and evening programming starting an hour earlier, at 4.30pm local time.
The shutdown has left people with very few options for accessing news at this time. However, news services from the BBC continue to be available in the region – through shortwave radio transmissions in English, Urdu, Hindi, Dari and Pashto. As well as providing an important source of news to the region, the South Asian language services have brought added depth to the BBC’s coverage of the Kashmir story.
The recent introduction of four new languages services for India – Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi and Telugu, following additional investment from the UK Government – has enabled the BBC to offer a wider portfolio of languages and distribution methods to a region that is geographically diverse as well as politically tense. This year’s Global Audience Measure for the BBC showed that India is now the World Service’s largest market, with a weekly audience of 50m.
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