The existence of radio waves was first proven by German physicist Heinrich Hertz on November 11, 1886. In the mid 1890s, building on techniques physicists were using to study electromagnetic waves, Guglielmo Marconi developed the first apparatus for long-distance radio communication, sending a wireless Morse Code message to a recipient over a kilometer away in 1895, and the first transatlantic signal on December 12, 1901.Karl Ferdinand Braun invented the phased array antenna in 1905. The first commercial radio broadcast was transmitted on November 2, 1920, when the live returns of the Harding-Cox presidential election were broadcast by Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company in Pittsburgh, under the call sign KDKA.
The word "radio" is derived from the Latin word "radius", meaning "spoke of a wheel, beam of light, ray". It was first applied to communications in 1881 when, at the suggestion of French scientist Ernest Mercadier [fr], Alexander Graham Bell adopted "radiophone" (meaning "radiated sound") as an alternate name for his photophone optical transmission system.
The French physicist Édouard Branly, who in 1890 developed the radio wave detecting coherer, called it in French a radio-conducteur. The radio- prefix was later used to form additional descriptive compound and hyphenated words, especially in Europe. For example, in early 1898 the British publication The Practical Engineer included a reference to "the radiotelegraph" and "radiotelegraphy".
The use of "radio" as a standalone word dates back to at least December 30, 1904, when instructions issued by the British Post Office for transmitting telegrams specified that "The word 'Radio'... is sent in the Service Instructions". This practice was universally adopted, and the word "radio" introduced internationally, by the 1906 Berlin Radiotelegraphic Convention, which included a Service Regulation specifying that "Radiotelegrams shall show in the preamble that the service is 'Radio'".
The switch to "radio" in place of "wireless" took place slowly and unevenly in the English-speaking world. Lee de Forest helped popularize the new word in the United States—in early 1907 he founded the DeForest Radio Telephone Company, and his letter in the June 22, 1907 Electrical World about the need for legal restrictions warned that "Radio chaos will certainly be the result until such stringent regulation is enforced". The United States Navy would also play a role. Although its translation of the 1906 Berlin Convention used the terms "wireless telegraph" and "wireless telegram", by 1912 it began to promote the use of "radio" instead. The term started to become preferred by the general public in the 1920s with the introduction of broadcasting.
During radio's first two decades, called the radiotelegraphy era, the primitive damped wave radio transmitters could only transmit pulses of radio waves, not the continuous waves which were needed for audio modulation, so radio was used for person-to-person commercial, diplomatic and military text messaging. Starting around 1908 industrial countries built worldwide networks of powerful transoceanic spark transmitters to exchange telegram traffic between continents and communicate with their colonies and naval fleets. During World War 1 the development of continuous wave radio transmitters and rectifying electrolytic and crystal radio receiver detectors enabled amplitude modulation (AM) radiotelephony to be achieved by Reginald Fessenden and others, allowing sound (audio) to be transmitted. On November 2, 1920, the first commercial radio broadcast was transmitted by Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company in Pittsburgh, under the call sign KDKA featuring live coverage of the Harding-Cox presidential election.
As they travel farther from the transmitting antenna, radio waves spread out so their signal strength (intensity in watts per square meter) decreases, so radio transmissions can only be received within a limited range of the transmitter, the distance depending on the transmitter power, the antenna radiation pattern, receiver sensitivity, noise level, and presence of obstructions between transmitter and receiver. An omnidirectional antenna transmits or receives radio waves in all directions, while a directional antenna or high-gain antenna transmits radio waves in a beam in a particular direction, or receives waves from only one direction.
Radio waves travel at the speed of light in vacuum.
Many other types of modulation are also used. In some types, a carrier wave is not transmitted but just one or both modulation sidebands.
The modulated carrier is amplified in the transmitter and applied to a transmitting antenna which radiates the energy as radio waves. The radio waves carry the information to the receiver location.
At the receiver, the radio wave induces a tiny oscillating voltage in the receiving antenna which is a weaker replica of the current in the transmitting antenna. This voltage is applied to the radio receiver, which amplifies the weak radio signal so it is stronger, then demodulates it, extracting the original modulation signal from the modulated carrier wave. The modulation signal is converted by a transducer back to a human-usable form: an audio signal is converted to sound waves by a loudspeaker or earphones, a video signal is converted to images by a display, while a digital signal is applied to a computer or microprocessor, which interacts with human users.
The radio waves from many transmitters pass through the air simultaneously without interfering with each other because each transmitter's radio waves oscillate at a different rate, in other words, each transmitter has a different frequency, measured in hertz (Hz), kilohertz (kHz), megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz (GHz). The receiving antenna typically picks up the radio signals of many transmitters. The receiver uses tuned circuits to select the radio signal desired out of all the signals picked up by the antenna and reject the others. A tuned circuit (also called resonant circuit or tank circuit) acts like a resonator, similar to a tuning fork. It has a natural resonant frequency at which it oscillates. The resonant frequency of the receiver's tuned circuit is adjusted by the user to the frequency of the desired radio station; this is called "tuning". The oscillating radio signal from the desired station causes the tuned circuit to resonate, oscillate in sympathy, and it passes the signal on to the rest of the receiver. Radio signals at other frequencies are blocked by the tuned circuit and not passed on.
A modulated radio wave, carrying an information signal, occupies a range of frequencies. The information (modulation) in a radio signal is usually concentrated in narrow frequency bands called sidebands (SB) just above and below the carrier frequency. The width in hertz of the frequency range that the radio signal occupies, the highest frequency minus the lowest frequency, is called its bandwidth (BW). For any given signal-to-noise ratio, an amount of bandwidth can carry the same amount of information (data rate in bits per second) regardless of where in the radio frequency spectrum it is located, so bandwidth is a measure of information-carrying capacity. The bandwidth required by a radio transmission depends on the data rate of the information (modulation signal) being sent, and the spectral efficiency of the modulation method used; how much data it can transmit in each kilohertz of bandwidth. Different types of information signals carried by radio have different data rates. For example, a television (video) signal has a greater data rate than an audio signal.
The radio spectrum, the total range of radio frequencies that can be used for communication in a given area, is a limited resource. Each radio transmission occupies a portion of the total bandwidth available. Radio bandwidth is regarded as an economic good which has a monetary cost and is in increasing demand. In some parts of the radio spectrum, the right to use a frequency band or even a single radio channel is bought and sold for millions of dollars. So there is an incentive to employ technology to minimize the bandwidth used by radio services.
A slow transition from analog to digital radio transmission technologies began in the late 1990s. Part of the reason for this is that digital modulation can often transmit more information (a greater data rate) in a given bandwidth than analog modulation, by using data compression algorithms, which reduce redundancy in the data to be sent, and more efficient modulation. Other reasons for the transition is that digital modulation has greater noise immunity than analog, digital signal processing chips have more power and flexibility than analog circuits, and a wide variety of types of information can be transmitted using the same digital modulation.
The ITU arbitrarily divides the radio spectrum into 12 bands, each beginning at a wavelength which is a power of ten (10n) metres, with corresponding frequency of 3 times a power of ten, and each covering a decade of frequency or wavelength. Each of these bands has a traditional name:
It can be seen that the bandwidth, the range of frequencies, contained in each band is not equal but increases exponentially as the frequency increases; each band contains ten times the bandwidth of the preceding band.
The term "tremendously low frequency" (TLF) has been used for wavelengths from 1–3 Hz (300,000–100,000 km), but the term has not been defined by the ITU.
The airwaves are a resource shared by many users. Two radio transmitters in the same area that attempt to transmit on the same frequency will interfere with each other, causing garbled reception, so neither transmission may be received clearly.Interference with radio transmissions can not only have a large economic cost, but it can also be life-threatening (for example, in the case of interference with emergency communications or air traffic control).
To prevent interference between different users, the emission of radio waves is strictly regulated by national laws, coordinated by an international body, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which allocates bands in the radio spectrum for different uses. Radio transmitters must be licensed by governments, under a variety of license classes depending on use, and are restricted to certain frequencies and power levels. In some classes, such as radio and television broadcasting stations, the transmitter is given a unique identifier consisting of a string of letters and numbers called a call sign, which must be used in all transmissions. In order to adjust, maintain, or internally repair radiotelephone transmitters, individuals must hold a government license, such as the general radiotelephone operator license in the US, obtained by taking a test demonstrating adequate technical and legal knowledge of safe radio operation.
Broadcasting is the one-way transmission of information from a transmitter to receivers belonging to a public audience. Since the radio waves become weaker with distance, a broadcasting station can only be received within a limited distance of its transmitter. Systems that broadcast from satellites can generally be received over an entire country or continent. Older terrestrial radio and television are paid for by commercial advertising or governments. In subscription systems like satellite television and satellite radio the customer pays a monthly fee. In these systems, the radio signal is encrypted and can only be decrypted by the receiver, which is controlled by the company and can be deactivated if the customer does not pay.
Broadcasting uses several parts of the radio spectrum, depending on the type of signals transmitted and the desired target audience. Longwave and medium wave signals can give reliable coverage of areas several hundred kilometers across, but have a more limited information-carrying capacity and so work best with audio signals (speech and music), and the sound quality can be degraded by radio noise from natural and artificial sources. The shortwave bands have a greater potential range but are more subject to interference by distant stations and varying atmospheric conditions that affect reception.
In the very high frequency band, greater than 30 megahertz, the Earth's atmosphere has less of an effect on the range of signals, and line-of-sight propagation becomes the principal mode. These higher frequencies permit the great bandwidth required for television broadcasting. Since natural and artificial noise sources are less present at these frequencies, high-quality audio transmission is possible, using frequency modulation.
AM (amplitude modulation) – in AM, the amplitude (strength) of the radio carrier wave is varied by the audio signal. AM broadcasting, the oldest broadcasting technology, is allowed in the AM broadcast bands, between 148–283 kHz in the low frequency (LF) band for longwave broadcasts and between 526–1706 kHz in the medium frequency (MF) band for medium-wave broadcasts. Because waves in these bands travel as ground waves following the terrain, AM radio stations can be received beyond the horizon at hundreds of miles distance, but AM has lower fidelity than FM. Radiated power (ERP) of AM stations in the US is usually limited to a maximum of 10 kW, although a few (clear-channel stations) are allowed to transmit at 50 kW. AM stations broadcast in monaural audio; AM stereo broadcast standards exist in most countries, but the radio industry has failed to upgrade to them, due to lack of demand.
Shortwave broadcasting – AM broadcasting is also allowed in the shortwave bands by legacy radio stations. Since radio waves in these bands can travel intercontinental distances by reflecting off the ionosphere using skywave or "skip" propagation, shortwave is used by international stations, broadcasting to other countries.
FM broadcast transmitter of radio station KWNR, Las Vegas, with a power of 35 kW on 95.5 MHz
Digital radio involves a variety of standards and technologies for broadcasting digital radio signals over the air. Some systems, such as HD Radio and DRM, operate in the same wavebands as analog broadcasts, either as a replacement for analog stations or as a complementary service. Others, such as DAB/DAB+ and ISDB_Tsb, operate in wavebands traditionally used for television or satellite services.
Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) debuted in some countries in 1998. It transmits audio as a digital signal rather than an analog signal as AM and FM do. DAB has the potential to provide higher quality sound than FM (although many stations do not choose to transmit at such high quality), has greater immunity to radio noise and interference, makes better use of scarce radio spectrum bandwidth and provides advanced user features such as electronic program guides. Its disadvantage is that it is incompatible with previous radios so that a new DAB receiver must be purchased. Several nations have set dates to switch off analog FM networks in favor of DAB / DAB+, notably Norway in 2017 and Switzerland in 2024.
A single DAB station transmits a 1,500kHz bandwidth signal that carries from 9–12 channels of digital audio modulated by OFDM from which the listener can choose. Broadcasters can transmit a channel at a range of different bit rates, so different channels can have different audio quality. In different countries DAB stations broadcast in either Band III (174–240 MHz) or L band (1.452–1.492 GHz) in the UHF range, so like FM reception is limited by the visual horizon to about 40 miles (64 km).
Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) is a competing digital terrestrial radio standard developed mainly by broadcasters as a higher spectral efficiency replacement for legacy AM and FM broadcasting. Mondiale means "worldwide" in French and Italian; DRM was developed in 2001, and is currently supported by 23 countries, and adopted by some European and Eastern broadcasters beginning in 2003. The DRM30 mode uses the commercial broadcast bands below 30 MHz, and is intended as a replacement for standard AM broadcast on the longwave, mediumwave, and shortwave bands. The DRM+ mode uses VHF frequencies centered around the FM broadcast band, and is intended as a replacement for FM broadcasting. It is incompatible with existing radio receivers, so it requires listeners to purchase a new DRM receiver. The modulation used is a form of OFDM called COFDM in which, up to 4 carriers are transmitted on a channel formerly occupied by a single AM or FM signal, modulated by quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM).
The DRM system is designed to be as compatible as possible with existing AM and FM radio transmitters, so that much of the equipment in existing radio stations can continue in use, augmented with DRM modulation equipment.
Television broadcasting is the transmission of moving images by radio, which consist of sequences of still images, which are displayed on a screen on a television receiver (a "television" or TV) along with a synchronized audio (sound) channel. Television (video) signals occupy a wider bandwidth than broadcast radio (audio) signals. Analog television, the original television technology, required 6 MHz, so the television frequency bands are divided into 6 MHz channels, now called "RF channels".
The current television standard, introduced beginning in 2006, is a digital format called high-definition television (HDTV), which transmits pictures at higher resolution, typically 1080 pixels high by 1920 pixels wide, at a rate of 25 or 30 frames per second. Digital television (DTV) transmission systems, which replaced older analog television in a transition beginning in 2006, use image compression and high-efficiency digital modulation such as OFDM and 8VSB to transmit HDTV video within a smaller bandwidth than the old analog channels, saving scarce radio spectrum space. Therefore, each of the 6 MHz analog RF channels now carries up to 7 DTV channels – these are called "virtual channels". Digital television receivers have different behavior in the presence of poor reception or noise than analog television, called the "digital cliff" effect. Unlike analog television, in which increasingly poor reception causes the picture quality to gradually degrade, in digital television picture quality is not affected by poor reception until, at a certain point, the receiver stops working and the screen goes black.
Television studio control room, Celebro Studios, London
Government standard frequency and time signal services operate time radio stations which continuously broadcast extremely accurate time signals produced by atomic clocks, as a reference to synchronize other clocks. Examples are BPC, DCF77, JJY, MSF, RTZ, TDF, WWV, and YVTO. One use is in radio clocks and watches, which include an automated receiver that periodically (usually weekly) receives and decodes the time signal and resets the watch's internal quartz clock to the correct time, thus allowing a small watch or desk clock to have the same accuracy as an atomic clock. Government time stations are declining in number because GPS satellites and the Internet Network Time Protocol (NTP) provide equally accurate time standards.
(left) Cellphones, typical for Japan of the early 21st century. (right) Cellular phone tower shared by antennas belonging to 3 different networks.
A two-way radio is an audiotransceiver, a receiver and transmitter in the same device, used for bidirectional person-to-person voice communication with other users with similar radios. An older term for this mode of communication is radiotelephony. The radio link may be half-duplex, as in a walkie-talkie, using a single radio channel in which only one radio can transmit at a time, so different users take turns talking, pressing a "push to talk" button on their radio which switches off the receiver and switches on the transmitter. Or the radio link may be full duplex, a bidirectional link using two radio channels so both people can talk at the same time, as in a cell phone.
Cell phone – a portable wireless telephone that is connected to the telephone network by radio signals exchanged with a local antenna at a cellular base station (cell tower). The service area covered by the provider is divided into small geographical areas called "cells", each served by a separate base station antenna and multichannel transceiver. All the cell phones in a cell communicate with this antenna on separate frequency channels, assigned from a common pool of frequencies. The purpose of cellular organization is to conserve radio bandwidth by frequency reuse. Low power transmitters are used so the radio waves used in a cell do not travel far beyond the cell, allowing the same frequencies to be reused in geographically separated cells. When a user carrying a cellphone crosses from one cell to another, his phone is automatically "handed off" seamlessly to the new antenna and assigned new frequencies. Cellphones have a highly automated full duplex digital transceiver using OFDM modulation using two digital radio channels, each carrying one direction of the bidirectional conversation, as well as a control channel that handles dialing calls and "handing off" the phone to another cell tower. Older 2G, 3G, and 4G networks use frequencies in the UHF and low microwave range, between 700 MHz and 3 GHz. The cell phone transmitter adjusts its power output to use the minimum power necessary to communicate with the cell tower; 0.6 W when near the tower, up to 3 W when farther away. Cell tower channel transmitter power is 50 W. Current generation phones, called smartphones, have many functions besides making telephone calls, and therefore have several other radio transmitters and receivers that connect them with other networks: usually a Wi-Fi modem, a Bluetooth modem, and a GPS receiver.
5G cellular network – next-generation cellular networks which began deployment in 2019. Their major advantage is much higher data rates than previous cellular networks, up to 10 Gbps; 100 times faster than the previous cellular technology, 4G LTE. The higher data rates are achieved partly by using higher frequency radio waves, in the higher microwave band 3–6 GHz, and millimeter wave band, around 28 and 39 GHz. Since these frequencies have a shorter range than previous cellphone bands, the cells will be smaller than the cells in previous cellular networks which could be many miles across. Millimeter-wave cells will only be a few blocks long, and instead of a cell base station and antenna tower, they will have many small antennas attached to utility poles and buildings.
Satellite phone (satphone) – a portable wireless telephone similar to a cell phone, connected to the telephone network through a radio link to an orbiting communications satellite instead of through cell towers. They are more expensive than cell phones; but their advantage is that, unlike a cell phone which is limited to areas covered by cell towers, satphones can be used over most or all of the geographical area of the Earth. In order for the phone to communicate with a satellite using a small omnidirectional antenna, first-generation systems use satellites in low Earth orbit, about 400–700 miles (640–1,100 km) above the surface. With an orbital period of about 100 minutes, a satellite can only be in view of a phone for about 4 – 15 minutes, so the call is "handed off" to another satellite when one passes beyond the local horizon. Therefore, large numbers of satellites, about 40 to 70, are required to ensure that at least one satellite is in view continuously from each point on Earth. Other satphone systems use satellites in geostationary orbit in which only a few satellites are needed, but these cannot be used at high latitudes because of terrestrial interference.
Cordless phone – a landline telephone in which the handset is portable and communicates with the rest of the phone by a short-range full duplex radio link, instead of being attached by a cord. Both the handset and the base station have low-power radio transceivers that handle the short-range bidirectional radio link. As of 2022[update], cordless phones in most nations use the DECT transmission standard.
Land mobile radio system – short-range mobile or portable half-duplex radio transceivers operating in the VHF or UHF band that can be used without a license. They are often installed in vehicles, with the mobile units communicating with a dispatcher at a fixed base station. Special systems with reserved frequencies are used by first responder services; police, fire, ambulance, and emergency services, and other government services. Other systems are made for use by commercial firms such as taxi and delivery services. VHF systems use channels in the range 30–50 MHz and 150–172 MHz. UHF systems use the 450–470 MHz band and in some areas the 470–512 MHz range. In general, VHF systems have a longer range than UHF but require longer antennas. AM or FM modulation is mainly used, but digital systems such as DMR are being introduced. The radiated power is typically limited to 4 watts. These systems have a fairly limited range, usually 3 to 20 miles (4.8 to 32 km) depending on terrain. Repeaters installed on tall buildings, hills, or mountain peaks are often used to increase the range when it is desired to cover a larger area than line-of-sight. Examples of land mobile systems are CB, FRS, GMRS, and MURS. Modern digital systems, called trunked radio systems, have a digital channel management system using a control channel that automatically assigns frequency channels to user groups.
Walkie-talkie – a battery-powered portable handheld half-duplex two-way radio, used in land mobile radio systems.
Airband – Half-duplex radio system used by aircraft pilots to talk to other aircraft and ground-based air traffic controllers. This vital system is the main communication channel for air traffic control. For most communication in overland flights in air corridors a VHF-AM system using channels between 108 and 137 MHz in the VHF band is used. This system has a typical transmission range of 200 miles (320 km) for aircraft flying at cruising altitude. For flights in more remote areas, such as transoceanic airline flights, aircraft use the HF band or channels on the Inmarsat or Iridium satphone satellites. Military aircraft also use a dedicated UHF-AM band from 225.0 to 399.95 MHz.
Marine radio – medium-range transceivers on ships, used for ship-to-ship, ship-to-air, and ship-to-shore communication with harbormasters They use FM channels between 156 and 174 MHz in the VHF band with up to 25 watts power, giving them a range of about 60 miles (97 km). Some channels are half-duplex and some are full-duplex, to be compatible with the telephone network, to allow users to make telephone calls through a marine operator.
Amateur radio – long-range half-duplex two-way radio used by hobbyists for non-commercial purposes: recreational radio contacts with other amateurs, volunteer emergency communication during disasters, contests, and experimentation. Radio amateurs must hold an amateur radio license and are given a unique callsign that must be used as an identifier in transmissions. Amateur radio is restricted to small frequency bands, the amateur radio bands, spaced throughout the radio spectrum starting at 136 kHz. Within these bands, amateurs are allowed the freedom to transmit on any frequency using a wide variety of voice modulation methods, along with other forms of communication, such as slow-scan television (SSTV), and radioteletype (RTTY). Additionally, amateurs are among the only radio operators still using Morse coderadiotelegraphy.
One-way voice communication
One way, unidirectional radio transmission is called simplex.
Baby monitor – a crib-side appliance for parents of infants that transmits the baby's sounds to a receiver carried by the parent, so they can monitor the baby while they are in other parts of the house. The wavebands used vary by region, but analog baby monitors generally transmit with low power in the 16, 9.3–49.9 or 900 MHz wavebands, and digital systems in the 2.4 GHz waveband. Many baby monitors have duplex channels so the parent can talk to the baby, and cameras to show video of the baby.
Wireless microphone – a battery-powered microphone with a short-range transmitter that is handheld or worn on a person's body which transmits its sound by radio to a nearby receiver unit connected to a sound system. Wireless microphones are used by public speakers, performers, and television personalities so they can move freely without trailing a microphone cord. Traditionally, analog models transmit in FM on unused portions of the television broadcast frequencies in the VHF and UHF bands. Some models transmit on two frequency channels for diversity reception to prevent nulls from interrupting transmission as the performer moves around. Some models use digital modulation to prevent unauthorized reception by scanner radio receivers; these operate in the 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz or 6 GHz ISM bands. European standards also support wireless multichannel audio systems (WMAS) that can better support the use of large numbers of wireless microphones at a single event or venue. As of 2021[update], U.S. regulators were considering adopting rules for WMAS.
Wireless networking – automated radio links which transmit digital data between computers and other wireless devices using radio waves, linking the devices together transparently in a computer network. Computer networks can transmit any form of data: in addition to email and web pages, they also carry phone calls (VoIP), audio, and video content (called streaming media). Security is more of an issue for wireless networks than for wired networks since anyone nearby with a wireless modem can access the signal and attempt to log in. The radio signals of wireless networks are encrypted using WPA.
Wireless WAN (wireless wide area network, WWAN) – a variety of technologies that provide wireless internet access over a wider area than Wi-Fi networks do – from an office building to a campus to a neighborhood, or to an entire city. The most common technologies used are: cellular modems, that exchange computer data by radio with cell towers; satellite internet access; and lower frequencies in the UHF band, which have a longer range than Wi-Fi frequencies. Since WWAN networks are much more expensive and complicated to administer than Wi-Fi networks, their use so far has generally been limited to private networks operated by large corporations.
Bluetooth – a very short-range wireless interface on a portable wireless device used as a substitute for a wire or cable connection, mainly to exchange files between portable devices and connect cellphones and music players with wireless headphones. In the most widely used mode, transmission power is limited to 1 milliwatt, giving it a very short range of up to 10 m (30 feet). The system uses frequency-hopping spread spectrum transmission, in which successive data packets are transmitted in a pseudorandom order on one of 79 1 MHz Bluetooth channels between 2.4 and 2.83 GHz in the ISM band. This allows Bluetooth networks to operate in the presence of noise, other wireless devices and other Bluetooth networks using the same frequencies, since the chance of another device attempting to transmit on the same frequency at the same time as the Bluetooth modem is low. In the case of such a "collision", the Bluetooth modem just retransmits the data packet on another frequency.
Packet radio – a long-distance peer-to-peerwireless ad-hoc network in which data packets are exchanged between computer-controlled radio modems (transmitter/receivers) called nodes, which may be separated by miles, and maybe mobile. Each node only communicates with neighboring nodes, so packets of data are passed from node to node until they reach their destination using the X.25 network protocol. Packet radio systems are used to a limited degree by commercial telecommunications companies and by the amateur radio community.
Text messaging (texting) – this is a service on cell phones, allowing a user to type a short alphanumeric message and send it to another phone number, and the text is displayed on the recipient's phone screen. It is based on the Short Message Service (SMS) which transmits using spare bandwidth on the control radio channel used by cell phones to handle background functions like dialing and cell handoffs. Due to technical limitations of the channel, text messages are limited to 160 alphanumeric characters.
Microwave relay – a long-distance high bandwidth point-to-point digital data transmission link consisting of a microwave transmitter connected to a dish antenna that transmits a beam of microwaves to another dish antenna and receiver. Since the antennas must be in line-of-sight, distances are limited by the visual horizon to 30–40 miles (48–64 km). Microwave links are used for private business data, wide area computer networks (WANs), and by telephone companies to transmit long-distance phone calls and television signals between cities.
Telemetry – automated one-way (simplex) transmission of measurements and operation data from a remote process or device to a receiver for monitoring. Telemetry is used for in-flight monitoring of missiles, drones, satellites, and weather balloonradiosondes, sending scientific data back to Earth from interplanetary spacecraft, communicating with electronic biomedical sensors implanted in the human body, and well logging. Multiple channels of data are often transmitted using frequency-division multiplexing or time-division multiplexing. Telemetry is starting to be used in consumer applications such as:
Electronic toll collection – on toll roads, an alternative to manual collection of tolls at a toll booth, in which a transponder in a vehicle, when triggered by a roadside transmitter, transmits a signal to a roadside receiver to register the vehicle's use of the road, enabling the owner to be billed for the toll.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) – identification tags containing a tiny radio transponder (receiver and transmitter) which are attached to merchandise. When it receives an interrogation pulse of radio waves from a nearby reader unit, the tag transmits back an ID number, which can be used to inventory goods. Passive tags, the most common type, have a chip powered by the radio energy received from the reader, rectified by a diode, and can be as small as a grain of rice. They are incorporated in products, clothes, railroad cars, library books, airline baggage tags and are implanted under the skin in pets and livestock (microchip implant) and even people. Privacy concerns have been addressed with tags that use encrypted signals and authenticate the reader before responding. Passive tags use 125–134 kHz, 13, 900 MHz and 2.4 and 5 GHz ISM bands and have a short range. Active tags, powered by a battery, are larger but can transmit a stronger signal, giving them a range of hundreds of meters.
Submarine communication – When submerged, submarines are cut off from all ordinary radio communication with their military command authorities by the conductive seawater. However radio waves of low enough frequencies, in the VLF (30 to 3 kHz) and ELF (below 3 kHz) bands are able to penetrate seawater. Navies operate large shore transmitting stations with power output in the megawatt range to transmit encrypted messages to their submarines in the world's oceans. Due to the small bandwidth, these systems cannot transmit voice, only text messages at a slow data rate. The communication channel is one-way, since the long antennas needed to transmit VLF or ELF waves cannot fit on a submarine. VLF transmitters use miles long wire antennas like umbrella antennas. A few nations use ELF transmitters operating around 80 Hz, which can communicate with submarines at lower depths. These use even larger antennas called ground dipoles, consisting of two ground (Earth) connections 23–60 km (14–37 mi) apart, linked by overhead transmission lines to a power plant transmitter.
This is radio communication between a spacecraft and an Earth-based ground station, or another spacecraft. Communication with spacecraft involves the longest transmission distances of any radio links, up to billions of kilometers for interplanetary spacecraft. In order to receive the weak signals from distant spacecraft, satellite ground stations use large parabolic "dish" antennas up to 25 metres (82 ft) in diameter and extremely sensitive receivers. High frequencies in the microwave band are used, since microwaves pass through the ionosphere without refraction, and at microwave frequencies the high-gain antennas needed to focus the radio energy into a narrow beam pointed at the receiver are small and take up a minimum of space in a satellite. Portions of the UHF, L, C, S, ku and ka band are allocated for space communication. A radio link that transmits data from the Earth's surface to a spacecraft is called an uplink, while a link that transmits data from the spacecraft to the ground is called a downlink.
Communication satellite – an artificial satellite used as a telecommunications relay to transmit data between widely separated points on Earth. These are used because the microwaves used for telecommunications travel by line of sight and so cannot propagate around the curve of the Earth. As of 1 January 2021[update], there were 2,224 communications satellites in Earth orbit. Most are in geostationary orbit 22,200 miles (35,700 km) above the equator, so that the satellite appears stationary at the same point in the sky, so the satellite dish antennas of ground stations can be aimed permanently at that spot and do not have to move to track it. In a satellite ground station a microwave transmitter and large satellite dish antenna transmit a microwave uplink beam to the satellite. The uplink signal carries many channels of telecommunications traffic, such as long-distance telephone calls, television programs, and internet signals, using a technique called frequency-division multiplexing (FDM). On the satellite, a transponder receives the signal, translates it to a different downlink frequency to avoid interfering with the uplink signal, and retransmits it down to another ground station, which may be widely separated from the first. There the downlink signal is demodulated and the telecommunications traffic it carries is sent to its local destinations through landlines. Communication satellites typically have several dozen transponders on different frequencies, which are leased by different users.
Direct broadcast satellite – a geostationary communication satellite that transmits retail programming directly to receivers in subscriber's homes and vehicles on Earth, in satellite radio and TV systems. It uses a higher transmitter power than other communication satellites, to allow the signal to be received by consumers with a small unobtrusive antenna. For example, satellite television uses downlink frequencies from 12.2 to 12.7 GHz in the ku band transmitted at 100 to 250 watts, which can be received by relatively small 43–80 cm (17–31 in) satellite dishes mounted on the outside of buildings.
Radar is a radiolocation method used to locate and track aircraft, spacecraft, missiles, ships, vehicles, and also to map weather patterns and terrain. A radar set consists of a transmitter and receiver. The transmitter emits a narrow beam of radio waves which is swept around the surrounding space. When the beam strikes a target object, radio waves are reflected back to the receiver. The direction of the beam reveals the object's location. Since radio waves travel at a constant speed close to the speed of light, by measuring the brief time delay between the outgoing pulse and the received "echo", the range to the target can be calculated. The targets are often displayed graphically on a map display called a radar screen. Doppler radar can measure a moving object's velocity, by measuring the change in frequency of the return radio waves due to the Doppler effect.
Radar sets mainly use high frequencies in the microwave bands, because these frequencies create strong reflections from objects the size of vehicles and can be focused into narrow beams with compact antennas.Parabolic (dish) antennas are widely used. In most radars the transmitting antenna also serves as the receiving antenna; this is called a monostatic radar. A radar which uses separate transmitting and receiving antennas is called a bistatic radar.
Airport surveillance radar – In aviation, radar is the main tool of air traffic control. A rotating dish antenna sweeps a vertical fan-shaped beam of microwaves around the airspace and the radar set shows the location of aircraft as "blips" of light on a display called a radar screen. Airport radar operates at 2.7 – 2.9 GHz in the microwave S band. In large airports the radar image is displayed on multiple screens in an operations room called the TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control), where air traffic controllers direct the aircraft by radio to maintain safe aircraft separation.
Secondary surveillance radar – Aircraft carry radar transponders, transceivers which when triggered by the incoming radar signal transmit a return microwave signal. This causes the aircraft to show up more strongly on the radar screen. The radar which triggers the transponder and receives the return beam, usually mounted on top of the primary radar dish, is called the secondary surveillance radar. Since radar cannot measure an aircraft's altitude with any accuracy, the transponder also transmits back the aircraft's altitude measured by its altimeter, and an ID number identifying the aircraft, which is displayed on the radar screen.
Electronic countermeasures (ECM) – Military defensive electronic systems designed to degrade enemy radar effectiveness, or deceive it with false information, to prevent enemies from locating local forces. It often consists of powerful microwave transmitters that can mimic enemy radar signals to create false target indications on the enemy radar screens.
Marine radar – an S or X band radar on ships used to detect nearby ships and obstructions like bridges. A rotating antenna sweeps a vertical fan-shaped beam of microwaves around the water surface surrounding the craft out to the horizon.
Phased-array radar – a radar set that uses a phased array, a computer-controlled antenna that can steer the radar beam quickly to point in different directions without moving the antenna. Phased-array radars were developed by the military to track fast-moving missiles and aircraft. They are widely used in military equipment and are now spreading to civilian applications.
Synthetic aperture radar (SAR) – a specialized airborne radar set that produces a high-resolution map of ground terrain. The radar is mounted on an aircraft or spacecraft and the radar antenna radiates a beam of radio waves sideways at right angles to the direction of motion, toward the ground. In processing the return radar signal, the motion of the vehicle is used to simulate a large antenna, giving the radar a higher resolution.
Ground-penetrating radar – a specialized radar instrument that is rolled along the ground surface in a cart and transmits a beam of radio waves into the ground, producing an image of subsurface objects. Frequencies from 100 MHz to a few GHz are used. Since radio waves cannot penetrate very far into earth, the depth of GPR is limited to about 50 feet.
Collision avoidance system – a short range radar or LIDAR system on an automobile or vehicle that detects if the vehicle is about to collide with an object and applies the brakes to prevent the collision.
Radar fuze – a detonator for an aerial bomb which uses a radar altimeter to measure the height of the bomb above the ground as it falls and detonates it at a certain altitude.
Global Positioning System (GPS) – The most widely used satellite navigation system, maintained by the US Air Force, which uses a constellation of 31 satellites in low Earth orbit. The orbits of the satellites are distributed so at any time at least four satellites are above the horizon over each point on Earth. Each satellite has an onboard atomic clock and transmits a continuous radio signal containing a precise time signal as well as its current position. Two frequencies are used, 1.2276 and 1.57542 GHz. Since the velocity of radio waves is virtually constant, the delay of the radio signal from a satellite is proportional to the distance of the receiver from the satellite. By receiving the signals from at least four satellites a GPS receiver can calculate its position on Earth by comparing the arrival time of the radio signals. Since each satellite's position is known precisely at any given time, from the delay the position of the receiver can be calculated by a microprocessor in the receiver. The position can be displayed as latitude and longitude, or as a marker on an electronic map. GPS receivers are incorporated in almost all cellphones and in vehicles such as automobiles, aircraft, and ships, and are used to guide drones, missiles, cruise missiles, and even artillery shells to their target, and handheld GPS receivers are produced for hikers and the military.
Radio beacon – a fixed location terrestrial radio transmitter which transmits a continuous radio signal used by aircraft and ships for navigation. The locations of beacons are plotted on navigational maps used by aircraft and ships.
VHF omnidirectional range (VOR) – a worldwide aircraft radio navigation system consisting of fixed ground radio beacons transmitting between 108.00 and 117.95 MHz in the very high frequency (VHF) band. An automated navigational instrument on the aircraft displays a bearing to a nearby VOR transmitter. A VOR beacon transmits two signals simultaneously on different frequencies. A directional antenna transmits a beam of radio waves that rotates like a lighthouse at a fixed rate, 30 times per second. When the directional beam is facing north, an omnidirectional antenna transmits a pulse. By measuring the difference in phase of these two signals, an aircraft can determine its bearing (or "radial") from the station accurately. By taking a bearing on two VOR beacons an aircraft can determine its position (called a "fix") to an accuracy of about 90 metres (300 ft). Most VOR beacons also have a distance measuring capability, called distance measuring equipment (DME); these are called VOR/DME's. The aircraft transmits a radio signal to the VOR/DME beacon and a transponder transmits a return signal. From the propagation delay between the transmitted and received signal the aircraft can calculate its distance from the beacon. This allows an aircraft to determine its location "fix" from only one VOR beacon. Since line-of-sight VHF frequencies are used VOR beacons have a range of about 200 miles for aircraft at cruising altitude. TACAN is a similar military radio beacon system which transmits in 962–1213 MHz, and a combined VOR and TACAN beacon is called a VORTAC. The number of VOR beacons is declining as aviation switches to the RNAV system that relies on Global Positioning System satellite navigation.
Emergency locator beacon – a portable battery powered radio transmitter used in emergencies to locate airplanes, vessels, and persons in distress and in need of immediate rescue. Various types of emergency locator beacons are carried by aircraft, ships, vehicles, hikers and cross-country skiers. In the event of an emergency, such as the aircraft crashing, the ship sinking, or a hiker becoming lost, the transmitter is deployed and begins to transmit a continuous radio signal, which is used by search and rescue teams to quickly find the emergency and render aid. The latest generation Emergency Position Indicating Rescue Beacons (EPIRBs) contain a GPS receiver, and broadcast to rescue teams their exact location within 20 meters.
Cospas-Sarsat – an international humanitarian consortium of governmental and private agencies which acts as a dispatcher for search and rescue operations. It operates a network of about 47 satellites carrying radio receivers, which detect distress signals from emergency locator beacons anywhere on Earth transmitting on the international Cospas distress frequency of 406 MHz. The satellites calculate the geographic location of the beacon within 2 km by measuring the Doppler frequency shift of the radio waves due to the relative motion of the transmitter and the satellite, and quickly transmit the information to the appropriate local first responder organizations, which perform the search and rescue.
Radio direction finding (RDF) – this is a general technique, used since the early 1900s, of using specialized radio receivers with directional antennas (RDF receivers) to determine the exact bearing of a radio signal, to determine the location of the transmitter. The location of a terrestrial transmitter can be determined by simple triangulation from bearings taken by two RDF stations separated geographically, as the point where the two bearing lines cross, this is called a "fix". Military forces use RDF to locate enemy forces by their tactical radio transmissions, counterintelligence services use it to locate clandestine transmitters used by espionage agents, and governments use it to locate unlicensed transmitters or interference sources. Older RDF receivers used rotatable loop antennas, the antenna is rotated until the radio signal strength is weakest, indicating the transmitter is in one of the antenna's two nulls. The nulls are used since they are sharper than the antenna's lobes (maxima). More modern receivers use phased array antennas which have a much greater angular resolution.
Animal migration tracking – a widely used technique in wildlife biology, conservation biology, and wildlife management in which small battery-powered radio transmitters are attached to wild animals so their movements can be tracked with a directional RDF receiver. Sometimes the transmitter is implanted in the animal. The VHF band is typically used since antennas in this band are fairly compact. The receiver has a directional antenna (typically a small Yagi) which is rotated until the received signal is strongest; at this point the antenna is pointing in the direction of the animal. Sophisticated systems used in recent years use satellites to track the animal, or geolocation tags with GPS receivers which record and transmit a log of the animal's location.
Radio remote control is the use of electronic control signals sent by radio waves from a transmitter to control the actions of a device at a remote location. Remote control systems may also include telemetry channels in the other direction, used to transmit real-time information on the state of the device back to the control station. Uncrewed spacecraft are an example of remote-controlled machines, controlled by commands transmitted by satellite ground stations. Most handheld remote controls used to control consumer electronics products like televisions or DVD players actually operate by infrared light rather than radio waves, so are not examples of radio remote control. A security concern with remote control systems is spoofing, in which an unauthorized person transmits an imitation of the control signal to take control of the device. Examples of radio remote control:
Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV, drone) – A drone is an aircraft without an onboard pilot, flown by remote control by a pilot in another location, usually in a piloting station on the ground. They are used by the military for reconnaissance and ground attack, and more recently by the civilian world for news reporting and aerial photography. The pilot uses aircraft controls like a joystick or steering wheel, which create control signals which are transmitted to the drone by radio to control the flight surfaces and engine. A telemetry system transmits back a video image from a camera in the drone to allow the pilot to see where the aircraft is going, and data from a GPS receiver giving the real-time position of the aircraft. UAVs have sophisticated onboard automatic pilot systems that maintain stable flight and only require manual control to change directions.
Keyless entry system – a short-range handheld battery powered key fob transmitter, included with most modern cars, which can lock and unlock the doors of a vehicle from outside, eliminating the need to use a key. When a button is pressed, the transmitter sends a coded radio signal to a receiver in the vehicle, operating the locks. The fob must be close to the vehicle, typically within 5 to 20 meters. North America and Japan use a frequency of 315 MHz, while Europe uses 433.92 and 868 MHz. Some models can also remotely start the engine, to warm up the car. A security concern with all keyless entry systems is a replay attack, in which a thief uses a special receiver ("code grabber") to record the radio signal during opening, which can later be replayed to open the door. To prevent this, keyless systems use a rolling code system in which a pseudorandom number generator in the remote control generates a different random key each time it is used. To prevent thieves from simulating the pseudorandom generator to calculate the next key, the radio signal is also encrypted.
Garage door opener – a short-range handheld transmitter which can open or close a building's electrically operated garage door from outside, so the owner can open the door upon arrival, and close it after departure. When a button is pressed the control transmits a coded FSK radio signal to a receiver in the opener, raising or lowering the door. Modern openers use 310, 315 or 390 MHz. To prevent a thief using a replay attack, modern openers use a rolling code system.
Radio-controlled models – a popular hobby is playing with radio-controlled model boats, cars, airplanes, and helicopters (quadcopters) which are controlled by radio signals from a handheld console with a joystick. Most recent transmitters use the 2.4 GHz ISM band with multiple control channels modulated with PWM, PCM or FSK.
Wireless doorbell – A residential doorbell that uses wireless technology to eliminate the need to run wires through the building walls. It consists of a doorbell button beside the door containing a small battery powered transmitter. When the doorbell is pressed it sends a signal to a receiver inside the house with a speaker that sounds chimes to indicate someone is at the door. They usually use the 2.4 GHz ISM band. The frequency channel used can usually be changed by the owner in case another nearby doorbell is using the same channel.
Radio jamming is the deliberate radiation of radio signals designed to interfere with the reception of other radio signals. Jamming devices are called "signal suppressors" or "interference generators" or just jammers.
During wartime, militaries use jamming to interfere with enemies' tactical radio communication. Since radio waves can pass beyond national borders, some totalitarian countries which practice censorship use jamming to prevent their citizens from listening to broadcasts from radio stations in other countries. Jamming is usually accomplished by a powerful transmitter which generates noise on the same frequency as the target transmitter.
US Federal law prohibits the nonmilitary operation or sale of any type of jamming devices, including ones that interfere with GPS, cellular, Wi-Fi and police radars.
Radio astronomy is the scientific study of radio waves emitted by astronomical objects. Radio astronomers use radio telescopes, large radio antennas and receivers, to receive and study the radio waves from astronomical radio sources. Since astronomical radio sources are so far away, the radio waves from them are extremely weak, requiring extremely sensitive receivers, and radio telescopes are the most sensitive radio receivers in existence. They use large parabolic (dish) antennas up to 500 meters (2,000 ft) in diameter to collect enough radio wave energy to study. The RF front end electronics of the receiver is often cooled by liquid nitrogen to reduce thermal noise. Multiple antennas are often linked together in arrays which function as a single antenna, to increase collecting power. In Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) radio telescopes on different continents are linked, which can achieve the resolution of an antenna thousands of miles in diameter.
Remote sensing – in radio, remote sensing is the reception of electromagnetic waves radiated by natural objects or the atmosphere for scientific research. All warm objects emit microwaves and the spectrum emitted can be used to determine temperature. Microwave radiometers are used in meteorology and earth sciences to determine temperature of the atmosphere and earth surface, as well as chemical reactions in the atmosphere.
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^"Wireless Telegraphy". The Practical Engineer. February 25, 1898. p. 174. Dr. O. J. Lodge, who preceded Marconi in making experiments in what may be called "ray" telegraphy or radiotelegraphy by a year or two, has devised a new method of sending and receiving the messages. The reader will understand that in the radiotelegraph electric waves forming the signals of the message starting from the sending instrument and travel in all directions like rays of light from a lamp, only they are invisible.
^"Wireless Telegraphy", The Electrical Review (London), January 20, 1905, page 108, quoting from the British Post Office's December 30, 1904 Post Office Circular.
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^Sungook Hong (2001), Wireless: From Marconi's Black-box to the Audion, MIT Press, pp. 5–10