Extra Class question of the day: operating HF digital modes; error correction

August 29, 2012 Dan KB6NU

Perhaps the most popular digital mode these days is PSK31. PSK stands for “phase shift keying.” One of its main advantages is that it had a very narrow bandwidth—only 31 Hz. In fact, PSK31 is the digital communications mode that has the narrowest bandwidth. (E2E10)

One of the ways is achieves this narrow bandwidth is that uses variable length coding. That is to say, characters have different numbers of bits, depending on how frequently they appear in normal text. PSK31 is an HF digital mode that uses variable-length coding for bandwidth efficiency. (E2E09)

Another type of modulation commonly used on the HF bands is frequency-shift keying, or FSK. RTTY, for example uses FSK modulation. FSK is a type of modulation that is common for data emissions below 30 MHz. (E2E01) One type of FSK modulation is MFSK16. The typical bandwidth of a properly modulated MFSK16 signal is 316 Hz. (E2E07)

Amateur transceivers use two different methods to modulate a signal using FSK: direct FSK and audio FSK. The difference between direct FSK and audio FSK is that direct FSK applies the data signal to the transmitter VFO. (E2E11) When using audio FSK, audio, typically from a computer sound card, is used to shift the frequency of the transmitted signal.

To tune an FSK signal, one often uses a crossed-ellipse display. You have properly tuned a signal when one of the ellipses is as vertical as possible, and the other is as horizontal as possible. When one of the ellipses in an FSK crossed-ellipse display suddenly disappears, selective fading has occurred. (E2E04)

PACTOR is one digital mode that uses FSK. It also uses the ARQ protocol to detect errors. Because of this, PACTOR is an HF digital mode that can be used to transfer binary files. (E2E08) How does ARQ accomplish error correction? If errors are detected, a retransmission is requested. (E2E05)

Another way to detect and correct errors in a data transmission is forward error correction. The letters FEC mean Forward Error Correction when talking about digital operation. (E2E02) Forward Error Correction is implemented by transmitting extra data that may be used to detect and correct transmission errors. (E2E03)

No matter what type of modulation you use, data transmission over an HF radio link is very slow. 300 baud is the most common data rate used for HF packet communications. (E2E06) In fact, due to bandwidth limitations, 300 baud is the maximum data rate.

Many of the digital modes were designed to allow keyboard-to-keyboard operation. That is to say, that operators can type messages back and forth to one another, almost as if they were having a conversation using SSB. Winlink, however, does not support keyboard-to-keyboard operation. (E2E12)

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