Visualising shortwave band activity throughout the year

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Sunday, February 12, 2017
24-hour shortwave spectrum image, showing activity for a single day in the first week of February 2017 (©PA3FWM, Twente WebSDR).
As many of my readers and followers will already know, these days I mostly enjoy listening to shortwave radio via the outdoor spectrum captures I make in my local park. Although I have built a system that helps me deal with urban radio interference at home, some of the weaker signals still can't make it through the indoor noise. Since I have a limited amount of time for making outdoor trips, capturing entire portions of the spectrum allows me to record a lot of shortwave signals simultaneously, which I can then explore individually at a later time. However, these trips still need to be carefully planned because the time of the day and the time of the year both affect long-distance signal propagation, and do so differently depending on the frequency range. For example, signals on the 16 meter band are usually at their strongest during the daylight hours, whereas the 31 meter band is at its busiest around sunrise and sunset. Because my current portable recording set-up allows me to capture only 10% (3 MHz) of the shortwave spectrum at any one time, I decided to carry out a systematic exploration of activity on the shortwave bands to help me time my outings so as to capture as many signals as possible during each trip.

Luckily, I didn't need to make any of my own measurements for this. For over a year, the wide-band WebSDR at the University of Twente has allowed its users to see what the shortwave spectrum has looked like over the past 24 hours in a single image. More recently, however, the creator of the service, Pieter-Tjerk de Boer PA3FWM, has opened up his spectrum image archives, so it is now possible to see the past conditions of the bands on any single day in the last two years. Intrigued by how band activity changes depending on the time of the year, I created a timelapse animation of these images by taking two from each calendar week and lining them up in sequence. With Pieter-Tjerk's kind permission, I share this animation below.

First, a really fast version to illustrate the broad effects the time of the year has on peak activity times across the bands:


The X axis represents the frequency and the Y axis is the time of day, starting at the top. Conventional wisdom about band behaviour can be easily confirmed by watching this video: the 60m, 49m and 41m bands are mostly active after dark, with the 60m and the 49m bands being generally busier during the winter months. The 31m band is most active around sunset, but carries on all night until a few hours after sunrise. The 25m band is active during sunrise and for a few hours afterwards, and around sunset during the winter months, but carries on all night during the summer. Peak activity on the 22m and 19m bands is also clustered bi-modally around the morning and the evening hours, though somewhat closer to the middle of the day than on the 31m and the 25m bands. The 16m band is mostly active during the daylight hours and the 13m band is quiet throughout the year except for the occasional ham contest.

It almost seems as though someone positioned in the middle of the image's right edge (corresponding to noon UTC) is shining two flashlight beams on the bands in a V-shaped pattern, and is changing the angle of this pattern depending on the time of the year: wider in the summer and narrower in winter. Here's a slower version of the animation that shows some finer week-on-week changes:


Thanks to this data being made freely available, visualising and understanding these dynamics will help me schedule my spectrum capture outings in the weeks and months ahead. Continue reading →

Farewell to Radio Australia

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Monday, January 30, 2017

It's official: Radio Australia are no longer on shortwave and only time will tell of all the implications of what I feel is an incredibly short-sighted decision.

Having heard that they might switch off their transmitters at midnight universal time on  January 31st, I monitored their 17840 kHz signal remotely via a KiwiSDR server located in New Zealand (there is no night-time propagation path from their Shepparton transmitter site to the UK at this time of the year). I was encouraged to find that they were still on the air after midnight UTC and thought this meant they would go on until midnight Sydney time, in which case I might be able to record their sign-off from my usual outdoor shortwave listening and spectrum capture spot.

However, I hadn't seen the most recent updates informing listeners that transmissions would be cut at noon Australian Eastern Standard Time (0100 UTC). I thus missed their sign-off on the KiwiSDR, but I was able to record their last news bulletin from it, which gave me some faint hope that we might see them back on the air one day:


I made my last personal recording of their shortwave signal out in the park on January 30th, using my portable spectrum capture set-up. The signal was a lot weaker than normal at this time of the day but still perfectly intelligible.


Three and a half years earlier, I tuned into them for the very first time, while on a trip to Moscow, Russia:


Fairwell, Radio Australia. You will be missed. Continue reading →

Shortwave gems: January 2017

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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Below are some of my favourite pieces of music that I managed to extract out of the shortwave static earlier this month, using my portable spectrum capture set-up:

Two in one! Catchy Dubstep and R&B tunes recorded from Medi1.



A melodic tune captured from China Radio International Cantonese broadcast.



An Indian song recorded from Radio Afghanistan, Kabul.



Another song from All India Radio's Baluchi service.

Continue reading →

Radio Australia shortwave shutdown: the state of play

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Saturday, January 21, 2017

With 10 days to go until Radio Australia shuts down its shortwave transmissions after close to 80 years of uninterrupted service, below is a short survey of significant reactions to this development and related media coverage:

From The Strategist: Silencing Australia’s shortwave voice in the South Pacific
Killing shortwave disregards—disenfranchises—an unknown number of listeners. As broadcasting policy, it’s highly questionable. As strategy, it’s dumb—another bout of recurring Oz amnesia about its South Pacific role, responsibilities and history.

ASPI asked the ABC: How many shortwave listeners does Radio Australia have in PNG and the South Pacific?

ABC spokesman: ‘While there are no firm figures on audiences numbers in these regions, they are understood to be low.’

Q: What percentage of RA’s users in PNG and the South Pacific get the content by shortwave?

ABC: ‘This level of data is not available.’

No evidence-based policy there. In its closure announcement, the ABC expressed future confidence based on no knowledge of present usage:

‘Due to the nature of the technology and the remote locations of shortwave users, it is very difficult to ascertain with any precision the number of listeners who use the service… There is no available data on audience numbers for the regions affected by the closure of ABC International services. The ABC believes that technological advancement has improved accessibility of FM and online services and will negate the impact of no longer offering shortwave services.’

To stress the strangeness: Australia has no idea of the numbers or listeners in the Pacific who’ll be affected when the shortwave transmitters go silent. It has been a vital service for 75 years; with two months notice it’s redundant.
Meanwhile, Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop raised the Pacific region’s concerns about the ABC’s planned abolition of Radio Australia’s shortwave service with the national broadcaster and sought "an update in the New Year". NT Labor senator Malarndirri McCarthy and Northern Territory MP Warren Snowdon have been making repeated calls to halt the closure of Radio Australia's NT regional shortwave broadcasts, referring to the concerns of their constituents, only to be met with intransigence by the ABC's management.

In a related and somewhat ironic development, the ABC advised Northern Territory residents to obtain satellite phones for emergency use in an informational advert about the closure of its shortwave services.

Is the irony of this really lost on the ABC management? Replace shortwave radio (~$20) with a satellite phone (~$700 plus subscription). Source: Lisa Herbert on Twitter
For AM, FM and DAB services to be viable alternatives to the ABC's shortwave transmissions, the local power grids and wired infrastructure would need to remain intact during emergencies. The story about phone lines going down in a remote north Queensland community after storms demonstrates that this assumption is questionable at best.

More evidence that shutting off shortwave would have negative consequences for the entire region came from French Polynesia, where the national broadcaster's decision to switch off its local AM signal in favour of FM transmissions left multiple pockets of the population without any radio coverage (Radio New Zealand International: Loss of AM radio irks French Polynesia). Meanwhile, it has been reported that in Papua New Guinea, only 10% of the population have online access, while recent failed engineering works cut the Marshall Islands off from the Internet, leaving the country largely isolated from the outside world.

Reading all of the above while the ABC management shows no signs of paying attention to the concerns of their listeners in Australia and beyond feels like watching a train derail in slow motion, with the consequences already known well in advance.

Source: Melanie Horsnell on Twitter
Continue reading →

Endangered stations update: January 2017

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Saturday, January 07, 2017
Endangered stations list on The Shortwave Archive website.
In addition to moving Radio Australia to the "Critically Endangered" part of our endangered stations list for obvious reasons, I reached out to Glenn Hauser of World of Radio to see what shortwave stations he currently considers to be under the threat of closure. He kindly provided the following response:
Endangered:

Need to add Radio Tirana, Albania. Sole transmitter has severe problems, and is reported off the air lately. The webcast has been sporadic.

Recently closed down:

It should be pointed out that R. Belarus does have some relays via Germany, probably not by its own initiative.

Radio Kuwait --- recent reports that they are getting transmitters refurbished, so maybe will be back.
Vulnerable:

Amazonia is back with two transmitters functioning well for some time now.

[New Zealand], they turned one transmitter off permanently, but the remaining one is on full schedule, partly DRM.

Perhaps you should mention that some stations survive, only thanks to WRMI putting them on SW: such as R. Slovakia International, Radio Prague, Radio Ukraine International. I am sure WRMI would be open to doing more of that.
It would be sad to see Radio Tirana go, but not entirely surprising, since they have had multiple outages and transmission problems over the past three years. At the same time, it would be great to see Radio Kuwait back on air, and it's also good news that we can take Radio Nacional da Amazonia off the "vulnerable" broadcaster list. Continue reading →

Shortwave gems part 6

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Tuesday, January 03, 2017

In this post I upload more music from my shortwave recording archives. Clips no. 2 and 3 are a bit noisy but I'm posting them as they are, since Shazam can't recognise them (otherwise I would have included them in my shortwave playlist series).

A song taken from an outdoor recording of Denge Kurstistane, which, to my ear, sounds like it could be a fusion of Kurdish and Irish musical traditions.



Below is another song that reminded me of Irish music, taken from an outdoor recording of Radio Oromiya (Ethiopia).



A slow, mellow tune from the Voice of Nigeria, recorded outdoors.



Orchestral music by Pannalal Ghosh from All India Radio, recorded indoors.

Continue reading →

Reaction to Radio Australia's planned shortwave closure

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Saturday, December 17, 2016
Image credit: Matt Kieffer
Further to my previous post on the planned closure of Radio Australia's shortwave transmissions, below are some of the reactions I subsequently came across in the Australian and Pacific media. There is now also a petition on Change.org calling on the Australian government to cancel the decision, which I encourage all Radio Australia's supporters to sign.

ABC boss Michelle Guthrie urged to abandon 'perplexing, alarming' Northern Territory broadcast decision (Canberra Times)
ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie is facing conflict on a new front after two Labor MPs demanded the national broadcaster reverse a decision over the future of broadcasting in the Northern Territory.

Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and member for Lingiari Warren Snowdon have expressed "deep disappointment" and concern about the plan to end shortwave broadcasting in the NT from the end of January.

[...]

The ABC is continuing to broadcast via FM and AM frequencies, the viewer access satellite television (VAST) service and online streaming but various NT figures have argued the shortwave transmitters - in Katherine, Tennant Creek and Roe Creek - allow remote listeners to access radio and are a crucial platform during natural disasters.

A group of Indigenous rangers told the ABC last week that ending the shortwave service could be life-threatening because, when operating remotely, the service is the "only way of getting the weather reports" that can warn of incoming cyclones.

[...]

Their intervention comes as Ms Guthrie marks an intense first year in the job, with staff at Radio National recently passing a no confidence motion in management.
Australian opposition concerned about cuts to ABC shortwave services (ABC audio interview)
Australia's opposition is asking the ABC questions about its decision to shut down its shortwave service to the Pacific.

Labor's spokesperson on International Development and the Pacific, Senator Claire Moore, says they are concerned that Australia's engagement in the Pacific will suffer because of the decision.

She was recently in the Pacific as part of a bipartisan delegation of Australian politicians visiting Vanuatu, Solomon islands and Samoa.

Ms Moore tells Bruce Hill Labor has concerns about what happens with radio broadcasting during cyclones, and whether other countries might want to fill the gap left by Australia withdrawing.
Pacific nations lose shortwave radio services that evade dictators and warn of natural disasters (The Conversation, republished by the Huffington Post)
[...] The move away from shortwave to FM transmissions and digital and mobile services has been accelerated despite the fact that FM frequencies can easily be shut down by disaffected political leaders, as happened in Fiji in 2009 on the order of then self-appointed Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.

It was a matter of national pride at the time for the ABC to be providing independent information for Fijians via shortwave, with then managing director of the corporation, Mark Scott, highlighting a text message sent from inside Fiji to the ABC, which read “We are trying to listen to you online but are having difficulty. Please keep broadcasting. You are all we have”.

Shortwave radio has played a valuable role in getting information to communities in the middle of civil disturbance, such as in East Timor in the lead up to independence.

In Burma, it was internal leaders who sought the shortwave services. In 2009, Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi called on Australia to provide shortwave broadcasts. At the time the ABC’s director of international, Murray Green, said the move reflected the ABC’s ongoing commitment to serving people in those parts of Asia and the Pacific who live without press freedom. Even before this announcement was made, the price of shortwave radios was increased in Burma’s Sittwe market.

[...]

[The] BBC clearly recognises a need to boost its international broadcasting, using shortwave to beat censors in autocratic regimes.

It is a great shame for the Pacific that Australia no longer agrees.
Stop shortwave cut to Pacific (Pacific Freedom Forum)
[...]

"As Pacific nations are going through the usual cyclone cyclone, its just such a shame that they will lose a key, credible information source to rely on,” says Miller.

“It's clear that no thought was given to the link between disaster communications and this service, or even the fact that FM is largely unreliable in bad weather and only available in urban areas."

"It's a slap in the face for the millions who've connected to Australia and to regional news through this service, because they are unlikely to be the ones targeted in the new digital content offerings being touted by ABC."
ABC decision to halt shortwave broadcasts criticised (ABC audio interview)
A decision by the ABC to halt shortwave broadcasts early next year has been criticised by a former manager of Radio Australia.

The shortwave transmissions to Asia and the Pacific will cease from January 31st next year, as alternatives such as FM and Internet become more prevalent.

Former head of Radio Australia and subsequently a consultant on international broadcasting in the Pacific, Jean Gabriel Manguy, tells Bruce Hill the decision is short sighted.
Continue reading →