Full life-cycle approach to RF radio software implementations

Directional "yagi" antennas force all energy in one direction creating a stronger radio signal
Directional “yagi” antennas force all energy in one direction creating a stronger radio signal

As covered in previous posts, modern day two-way radio systems run on software, and software applications require incremental updates to improve performance.  Those software updates are developed over time then implemented when fully tested and approved by the user community.  This approach is referred to as the full life-cycle of software development.  Long story short – servers, including repeater software, get upgraded which changes many things about a repeater.

You, the listener, will not know when a system is being upgraded unless the details happen to be published in the media for public record purposes.  The frustrating thing about software upgrades is that they’ll many times change scanning patterns which, in turn, breaks your scanner programming such as changing frequencies or narrowing broadcast bandwidth.  You may be wondering how you fix this problem which results in a tricky answer.

sdlcIf you are really bored, you can correct it by manually listening to each frequency in the system then find a way to track audible radio traffic which results in patterns.  Those patterns can be documented over time where you’ll find the newly programmed sequences to follow.  Most people are not that bored.  The easiest thing to do is wait until someone else has done all the research then download the latest updates from RadioReference.com.  Once updates are made to the website (as evidenced by the latest modified frequency dates), you can download the updates then reprogram your scanner.  The speed of updates depends on your voluntary scanning population since they will be the ones submitting those updates to RadioReference.

 

The control channel plays air traffic controller

pic credit: redstate.com
pic credit: redstate.com

last covered how the control channel is the software brains behind modern day trunked radio repeaters.  But how exactly does a control channel work?  The system itself can be compared to an air traffic controller.

ATC

An air traffic controller is the logistical gateway for airplane movement both on the ground and in the air.  The airplane pilot may steer the plane, but he isn’t allowed to move or fly until authorized by the controller.  The controller also keeps planes separated on the ground and in the air ensuring no ramp or mid-air collisions occur.

The Control Channel

The control channel of a repeater performs these same operations.  No communication occurs until the control channel gives the go ahead just as an air traffic controller would for airplanes.  From the moment the two-way radio is turned on, the radio checks in with the control channel and electronically asks permission to join the radio network.  Once approved by the controller, the radio is told to hold until for its next task is issued by the control channel.  Just like an airplane pilot, the two-way radio must communicate with the controller before being allowed to talk with other radios on the network.  And similar to runways at an airport, the control channels separates radio traffic to different frequencies (think runways) ensuring no two-way radio traffic collides with each other.

It gets even better

Certain radio towers are part of a regional network and have the potential to be part of a global network using IP based technologies.  This regional network has its own separate control channel which regulates regional traffic just like ATC regions (aka: air centers).

Why the Need?

Radio tower destroyed during the 8+ hour pounding of winds and rain during hurricane Katrina. pic credit: getty images
Radio tower destroyed during the 8+ hour pounding of winds and rain during category 5 hurricane Katrina – the costliest natural disaster in US history.
pic credit: getty images

I agree the systems I am describing are much more complicated than 1990 systems, but there is a need as evidenced in hurricane Katrina when all communication stopped including cell phones.  Temporary satellite towers were strategically positioned in the affected areas after days of no power, towers, or communication in the area.  The resulting advancement of the MSWIN radio and data network is a good example of mission-critical vendor neutral communication network.  Pre-trunk systems were sporadically located and loosely funded resulting in lackluster communication across the full state of MS.  There is a lot of politics involved considering this is a government funded entity working through governmental delays and bureaucratic administration, but today’s MSWIN network is extremely advanced post-Katrina.

noaa Katrina path
noaa Katrina path

As a final side note, you may be wondering how Mississippi inherited the MSWIN network considering New Orleans got all the news coverage of Katrina.  That’s cause the majority of the state was without power in the aftermath as highlighted by Katrina’s path in the adjacent picture.  As a result, most of Mississippi was dark and off-grid for days in major cities and weeks in rural areas.

Where 1990 scanning is exactly the same in 2016 – RF Scanning 101

Because “Where 1990 scanning is exactly the same in 2016 – AND – where it’s completely different” was too long of a title.

I’ll start building off my previous post.  As a reminder, in 1990, your programmed RF Radio scanner looked like this:

Channel 1 – 460.025
Channel 2 – 460.050
Channel 3 – 460.075
Channel 4 – 460.100

Modern day radio towers are lower to the ground than 1990 radio towers.
Modern day radio towers are lower to the ground than 1990 radio towers.  There are also more of them.  1 radio tower in 1990 is usually split into 2 or 3 regional towers in modern day systems since the tx/rx of higher frequency radio waves require it.

Fast forward to 2016 where your receiving scanner (trunked under the hood) looks like this:

Frequency 1 – 460.025 (control channel; aka computer)
Frequency 2 – 460.050
Frequency 3 – 460.075
Frequency 4 – 460.100

Notice the addition of the computer, or control channel, in 2016.  Modern repeaters, known as digital infrastructure radio systems, are computer software driven.  To simplify the functionality, the computer (freq 1) is constantly listening to all computer programmed frequencies to see if someone wants to talk.  The computer knows who wants to talk by the pressing of the push-to-talk (PTT) button on the radio.

To better understand how the radio system functions, I’ll play out the following case scenario:

Freq 1:
Reminder, the computer is constantly waiting for someone to talk then temporarily assign them to one of the available freqs.  Freq 1 is listening on this system and is using freqs 2, 3, and 4 as available freqs.

Freq 2:
When Mayberry police officer 1 presses the talk button on her two-way radio, the control channel tells her portable radio to use the selected frequency (we’ll say freq 2 since nobody is using it).

Freq 3:
At the same moment freq 2 is assigned by the computer, Mayberry fireman 1 starts using his truck radio to call the dispatcher.  The computer searches then tells the fireman’s truck radio to use freq 3.

Freq 4:
Assume the officer on freq 2 is still talking but her partner is on a foot chase and presses a mayday emergency button on his portable radio.  The mayday signal (a HELP alert) is sent to the computer.  The computer is smart enough to override the police officer on freq 2 and tell the dispatcher that he (the officer now assigned to freq 4) needs help.  The computer is programmed to know the mayday call is a higher priority than regular communication so the dispatcher is now in direct communication with Mayberry officer 2 even though officer 1 was originally talking.

So this scenario is as follows before freq 4 in use:

pic credit: policemag.com
pic credit: policemag.com

Frequency 1 – 460.025 (control channel; aka computer)
Frequency 2 – 460.050 (Mayberry police officer 1)
Frequency 3 – 460.075 (Mayberry fireman 1)
Frequency 4 – 460.100 (available for use)

THEN, after Mayberry police offer 2 pushes the HELP emergency button:

Frequency 1 – 460.025 (control channel; aka computer)
Frequency 2 – 460.050 (Mayberry police officer 1)
Frequency 3 – 460.075 (Mayberry fireman 1)
Frequency 4 – 460.100 (Mayberry police officer 2 – HELP)

Isn’t this stuff great!

So we have learned that your scanner in 2016 can scan the exact same freqs as in 1990, but the modern scanner has morphed in functionality and is basically a mini-computer programmed through software to understand it should constantly listen to the radio tower computer (control channel).  The control channel computer does exactly what software programmers have told it to do, and your scanner is constantly listening to the control channel for the same reason – so the scanner will know what freq to choose and listen to at any moment.

Because this is all software driven, any changes to the system software may require you, the listener, to modify your scanner settings to match the system software.  You may also notice a delay in how fast your trunked scanner receives audio from the tower making it sound as if you joined the middle of a conversation.  That’s partly because scanners are searching wide ranges of freqs – they’re not tuned exactly to your local tower.  You can finely tune the programming of your local system since pre-programmed frequencies usually scan a full range (A – Z) rather than specific freqs (just G instead of A – Z).  But that’s getting a little too complex for this post since a site like RadioReference.com usually updates their frequencies by the time the listener realizes there is a problem.

Next RF Scanning 101 post > The control channel plays air traffic controller.

Scanning in 1990 – RF Scanner 101

Scanning in 1990 was so simple it involved 3 steps:

  1. Set scanner to manual
  2. Input desired frequency on the numeric keypad (such as 460.025)
  3.  Press the enter button to save the change
Old school Uniden BearCat 175XL
Old school Uniden BearCat 175XL

It really was that simple

… and still is that simple –  at least the fundamentals are that simple in 2016.

Every modern radio system is made up of frequencies and they’re just like the ones from 1990.  Notice the 460.025 frequency (aka: freq) in the adjacent image.  Assuming you’re located in a densely populated area, you could input that same freq in your scanner today and hear someone or something making noise because the same old freqs are still in use.  It was common in 1990 for 1 “agency” (think police precinct) to be assigned to 1 freq.  So here is what your scanning list looked like in 1990:

Channel 1 – 460.025
Channel 2 – 460.050
Channel 3 – 460.075
Channel 4 – 460.100

Most old school scanner functionality stopped here and left the translation up to you.  So you, the listener, had to know that Channel 1 was “Town Police Department”, Channel 2 was “Town Fire Department”, Channel 3 “Sheriff’s Department”, and on, and on.  This is where the simplicity of 2016 radio scanning changes.

Simple?  Then why is it so complicated to program modern scanners?

To de-complicate today’s scanning, I’ll build on the 3 simple steps from 1990 (presented above).  To make things more efficient, today’s radio systems (the term used for modern repeaters) share freqs with multiple agencies. So 1 freq (such as 460.025 MHz) may be used by 10 to 15 different agencies.  But these agencies don’t just share the 1 frequency – they share anywhere from 10 to 15 different frequencies.

policecall1990
Police Call 1990 (Old School) Edition. Police Call Radio Guide was the pre-internet RadioReference.com commonly sold at Radio Shack stores.

It’s time to stop talking and start playing so get that shiny new scanner out.  Use the RadioReference.com database to find your local police department freqs.  Just click here, choose your state from the map, then narrow down to your local county and city.  This will give you the freqs needed for your locale.

Next, use your scanner vendor website (such as Uniden.com) to find instructions so you can manually input 1 freq as a “conventional” type – as opposed to trunked systems.  Once entered, turn the volume up and listen for a few minutes to hear audible chatter.

That brings us up to the next RF Scanning 101 post – Where 1990 scanning is exactly the same in 2016.

Note: If you happen to hear sound similar to a machine gun while listening in conventional mode, that means you found the control channel.  The control channel is the software running the shared freqs on the repeater, but that detail will be explained in the next post.

RF Scanner 101 for 2016 – It’s Like Yesterday – Just More Complex

Most everyone has heard of RF radio scanners but probably through different terms like police scanner, fire radio, airplane pilot monitors, and even the newer terminology like digital trunk-trackers.  Maybe you came here looking to buy a new scanner and are confused since 1990 was the last time you touched a megaHertz receiving scanner.  I’m here to de-confuse the situation with RF Scanner 101.

…the fundamentals of scanning have not changed since 1990

pic credit: ebay.com
pic credit: ebay.com

First, find comfort knowing the fundamentals of scanning have not changed since 1990.  You’ll probably think I’m crazy if you’re sitting there trying to program a modern day scanner like the Uniden BCD-996-P2.  But it’s true.  Every RF radio system broadcasting today still uses a frequency (eg: 155.700 MHz) to transmit and receive.  Where it gets more complex is the introduction of software that drives these modern day transmitters.

I’ll take the next 5 blog posts to break down each element of scanning in 2016 so we can make sense of the last few decades of changes in scanning technology.  Here is what I’ll cover:

  1. Scanning in 1990
  2. Where 1990 scanning is exactly the same in 2016
  3. The control channel plays air traffic controller
  4. Full life-cycle approach to RF radio software implementations
  5. Digital encryption stops you from having fun
  6. Bonus: Enjoy scanning today since it won’t exist in the future

I agree – number 6 is a buzz kill. But we’ll learn how to use the technology while possible.  See you in the next post.

Why Your Mac is Not Enterprise Software – The 5 Minute Synopsis

appleLet’s get the haters out of the way first…

Yes! I know Apple has a large enterprise customer base, but it’s nothing compared to Microsoft Windows.  Apple has brilliantly moved into the mobile enterprise space and may overwhelm Microsoft in the future, but I don’t have the ability to see the future so we’ll deal with the here and now.

Apple originally sold itself as the unique computer made for those trying to be different as seen below in this 1984 commercial. Microsoft on the other hand was designed with “corporate” in mind using “domains” to categorize and define corporate security environments. Things have changed dramatically in the last ten years much less the last few decades, but history dictated that these two methods (Apple vs Microsoft) originally didn’t communicate with each other since they used different protocols (NetBIOS vs AppleTalk).  In turn, corporate environments chose what worked most profitably and efficient which was generally the IBM designed NetBIOS.

…the next story is being written now…

macrumorsBut, the next story is being written now as Apple uses the common TCP/IP protocols and is pushing software products into many different business areas including healthcare.  My theory – Apple wants to take over your personal life then absorb you into the Mac kingdom so you’ll never leave for PCs again plus they’ll be able to anonymously mine and scrub your health data.  Thinking in this realm, the Apple Watch now wirelessly ties into iPhones and Mac computers using common bluetooth standards.  This makes software setup and syncing as easy as possible.  That data is then uploaded to corporate environments using HL7 and FIHR – common communication standards in healthcare.  Apple is still distinguished in its own right by being different in sales channels and product branding.  Only time will tell if Apple will take over the corporate environment, but they are making great strides.

Barcodes and RFID Make Data Simple

I remember a day where I was really fascinated with what I thought was the complicated mechanism we humans refer to as a bar code. I have worked with bar codes for so many years to the point they have lost their luster, but I still love the underlying bar code concept and its sister RFID technology.

3 of 9 bar code font
3 of 9 bar code font

What is a bar code? That question requires two answers. First, a bar code is simply a font. The black and white ink seen on a piece of paper is just like any other font you would find in Microsoft Word. For the second answer, the bar code font displays a unique identifier whether that be a database identification number or another identifier like a social security number or web address. If you want to experiment and test this theory, open Microsoft Word on your computer and type the word TEST. Highlight the word TEST and change fonts to Free 3 of 9 or whatever bar code font you have installed. Don’t have one installed? Just Google “free 3 of 9 font” and you can download it to your computer.

The wireless version of a bar code is called an RFID (Radio Frequency IDentifier) tag. The RFID tag takes bar codes to another level by allowing a bar code to pass by a wireless receiver as opposed to the old school way of pointing a bar code reader directly at a bar code on paper. Disney, the manufacturing industry, and many retail environments have been leaders in RFID although the technology is still too expensive for other industries to efficiently implement. This technology is the most efficient and will probably become the standard when equipment and implementation prices level out.

We now know what a bar code is, but how does it all tie together behind the scenes. Remember those unique identifiers we talked about earlier. All bar code information is stored in a database of some kind. Every company does this differently, but let’s use Disney and me as an example customer. I (Scott) call Disney and book a room and buy tickets to the park. When I call, I am immediately added to the massive Disney customer database and am assigned a unique numeric identifier that no other person on earth is assigned. At this point, I am referred to as customer number 123456789 in the Disney database.

Disney RFID Bracelet
Credit: disney.go.com

The first time I visit Disney, I am given a wireless bracelet and told to have a good day by the Disney staff. What the customer service rep didn’t tell me is that she just electronically joined my customer ID of 123456789 to the wireless bracelet. The two items (the bracelet and ID number) are now one unit in theory so any time I pass a wireless receiver in the Disney park, the receiver immediately talks across the computer network to a Disney server and checks to see who ID number 123456789 is in the real world (Scott in my case).  It also sends back acknowledgement that I am allowed to be in the park. Different color codes and sounds displayed on the Disney receiver designate other related information sent back about my account such as whether or not I have been banned from the park or even if I am a VIP guest that should have extra care.

You have seen the way Disney uses the technology, but the same can be said for all other uses of bar codes and RFID.  Manufacturers assign codes to furniture as it is shipped throughout the country and hospitals give you a patient number that is pulled from a bar code.  The benefit to bar codes and RFID is only the true author of the software can tell you anything about the number.  You could steal my bracelet at Disney and all you could figure out about me is that my customer number is 123456789.  You would not be able to learn where I live or any of my payment information unless you had access to the internal Disney databases that store that information because that information is joined together behind the scenes while on site at Disney.  All that said, it seems so much easier to just grab your Disney wireless bracelet and run through the park not thinking about what is happening behind the scenes.  But at least now you know how it all works.

Tomorrowland Festival 2015 – Behind the scenes

It’s EDM Tomorrowland Festival weekend in Boom, Belgium.  The festival is so energetic that it’s hard to remember there is a business running behind the scenes. I have always been impressed with the atmosphere of the festival so I wanted to take a behind the scenes look at the impressive technology behind this event along with what it takes for a town smaller than 17,000 residents to transform almost overnight.

Excited Tomorrowland Fan
Credit:Tomorrowland.com TML Live Stream

For those of you unfamiliar, the Tomorrowland Festival started in 2005 and is the biggest and most elaborate electronic music festival. Tomorrowland is much like a temporary college-style Disney World for the EDM community where technology is moved into place and a small city is formed. It’s so popular that last year’s one weekend of 360,000 available tickets sold out within an hour of going on sale. For that reason, the 2015 festival separated into two separate weekends to double the available tickets. By the way, Tomorrowland Festival has nothing to do with the Tomorrowland movie but is a sister project of TomorrowWorld held in September outside of Atlanta.

Tomorrowland2015_Stage
Credit: Tomorrowland.com TML Live Stream

Just like any small town, there are loads of individuals that make the festival come together including on-site security.  AGT International, the hosting organization behind Tomorrowland, monitors the festival from the event control center where officers are monitored using GPS overlay and festival attendees are monitored on Twitter and other social platforms to ensure this drug-free event stays that way. DreamVille (the small on-site town where attendees can book sleeping quarters for a few days) features bakeries, entertainment and most anything else small towns require. The divisional breakdown of the festival support team includes security, decoration and experience and over 3,000 people work to make the weekend festival a reality.

That’s a quick overview.  Check out some of the following links if you care to delve deeper behind the scenes into the Tomorrowland experience.

Related Links:
CNN @ Tomorrowland

Behind the scenes with the ID&T Belgium Organizer

Other interest links:
https://www.agtinternational.com/agt-leveraged-the-internet-of-things-to-improve-attendees-experience-at-tomorrowland-2/
http://www.tomorrowland.com
http://www.hollywoodtake.com/watch-tomorrowland-2015-music-festival-live-stream-online-when-and-where-watch-full-lineup-88798
http://www.gigantstage.com/en/references/tomorrowland/