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RF Propagation Terms

Multipath propagation basics

Multipath propagation is a fact of life in any terrestrial radio scenario. While the direct or line of sight path is normally the main wanted signal, a radio receiver will receive many signals resulting from the signal taking a large number of different paths. These paths may be the result of reflections from buildings, mountains or other reflective surfaces including water, etc. that may be adjacent to the main path. Additionally other effects such as ionospheric reflections give rise to multipath propagation as does tropospheric ducting.
The multipath propagation resulting from the variety of signal paths that may exist between the transmitter and receiver can give rise to interference in a variety of ways including distortion of the signal, loss of data and multipath fading.
At other times, the variety of signal paths arising from the multipath propagation can be used to advantage. Schemes such as MIMO use multipath propagation to increase the capacity of the channels they use. With increasing requirements for spectrum efficiency, the use of multipath propagation for technologies such as MIMO are able to provide significant improvements in channel capacity that are much needed.
Multipath radio signal propagation occurs on all terrestrial radio links. The radio signals not only travel by the direct line of sight path, but as the transmitted signal does not leave the transmitting antenna in only the direction of the receiver, but over a range of angles even when a directive antenna is used. As a result, the transmitted signals spread out from the transmitter and they will reach other objects: hills, buildings reflective surfaces such as the ground, water, etc. The signals may reflect of a variety of surfaces and reach the receiving antenna via paths other than the direct line of sight path.

Multipath fading

Signals are received in a terrestrial environment, i.e. where reflections are present and signals arrive at the receiver from the transmitter via a variety of paths. The overall signal received is the sum of all the signals appearing at the antenna. Sometimes these will be in phase with the main signal and will add to it, increasing its strength. At other times they will interfere with each other. This will result in the overall signal strength being reduced.At times there will be changes in the relative path lengths. This could result from either the transmitter or receiver moving, or any of the objects that provides a reflective surface moving. This will result in the phases of the signals arriving at the receiver changing, and in turn this will result in the signal strength varying. It is this that causes the fading that is present on many signals.It can also be found that the interference may be flat, i.e. applied to all frequencies equally across a given channel, or it may be selective, i.e. applying to more to some frequencies across a channel than others.

Interference caused by multipath propagation

Multipath propagation can give rise to interference that can reduce the signal to noise ratio and reduce bit error rates for digital signals. One cause of a degradation of the signal quality is the multipath fading already described. However there are other ways in which multipath propagation can degrade the signal and affect its integrity.

One of the ways which is particularly obvious when driving in a car and listening to an FM radio. At certain points the signal will become distorted and appear to break up. This arises from the fact that the signal is frequency modulated and at any given time, the frequency of the received signal provides the instantaneous voltage for the audio output. If multipath propagation occurs, then two or more signals will appear at the receiver. One is the direct or line of sight signal, and another is a reflected signal. As these will arrive at different times because of the different path lengths, they will have different frequencies, caused by the fact that the two signals have been transmitted by the transmitter at slightly different times. Accordingly when the two signals are received together, distortion can arise if they have similar signal strength levels.

Another form of multipath propagation interference that arises when digital transmissions are used is known as Inter Symbol Interference, ISI. This arises when the delay caused by the extended path length of the reflected signal. If the delay is significant proportion of a symbol, then the receiver may receive the direct signal which indicates one part of the symbol or one state, and another signal which is indicating another logical state. If this occurs, then the data can be corrupted.

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