Got Noise?

courtesy: ARRL's Utility Noise (RFI) Signatures
It seems that the FCC has suddenly become interested in the radio spectrum noise floor and have struck an inquiry ... now hold on to your hats, "... to determine if there is an increasing noise problem ...". They also seek input on "... the scope and quantitative evidence of such problem(s) ..." and if further "study" is necessary.

Excuse me if I seem somewhat cynical, but where have they been for the past twenty years as RF pollution, of now unbelievable proportions, has become the norm for most amateurs living in populated regions? In view of the present ubiquitous level of noise pollution, asking this question now is really akin to closing the barn door long after the horses have escaped ... and sadly, they are going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to round-up.

As radio amateurs, we are probably high on the list of those most negatively impacted by unwanted RF crud and were probably the first to bring this issue to the forefront. Many amateurs have watched, and continue to watch helplessly, as their noise floors climb higher and higher.  For some, it happened overnight. In major cities and suburbs, it has become increasingly difficult to listen to normal AM radio because of RF noise pollution, so it's not just hams who are affected.

In many cases, the noise is powerline related and although this is part of the inquiry, in most cases this is probably not the main problem. Powerline noise is well acknowledged and here in Canada, RF pollution stemming from powerline radiation is illegal. Hydro authorities are required to clean-up noisy lines by government mandate (Industry Canada) and seem to react positively to complaints by amateurs. I believe a similar mandate is in play south of the border but because of the vast numbers of hydro operators operating in so many jurisdictions, getting action often seems fraught with difficulty.

The inquiry seems focused on the more nefarious types of radiation sources ... those that are not powerline-related, such as RFI caused by switching power supplies, light dimmers, electric motors, high efficiency lighting, computers, portable electronic devices, wireless routers ... generally any type of device radiating unwanted RF emissions.

Presently, complaints about this type of RF noise to governing bodies or to national associations, mostly seem to go without effective response ... solutions to the problem seem to be left to the amateur to "fix" the offending device or to just "accept it", rather than to put responsibilities on the manufacturers creating the problems. I know personally of amateurs who have just given up the hobby or have moved to the countryside because of impossibly-high illegal noise levels. It seemed as if calls for tighter government controls on electronic device emission-levels, especially on inexpensive and poorly-designed imports, largely from the far east, fell upon deaf ears. Some European jurisdictions found a ridiculous solution to the growing complaints by slackening even further, the allowable 'accepted' levels of spurious emissions. Previously illegal noise-making devices became legal overnight!

In the meantime, noisy electronic devices continue to flood the market at exponential levels ... only now, does the FCC pose this mind-boggling question! Equally stunning is their assertion that "... in search for concrete evidence of increased noise floors, we have found limited quantitative data to support this presumption." Perhaps if they had been maintaining vigilance instead of ignoring complaints when the problems were first reported, they would already have a huge body of the 'quantitative data' they are now seeking.

The Technical Advisory Council Noise Floor Inquiry (ET Docket No. 16-191) is well worth reading for any radio amateurs interested in finding solutions to growing noise problems. The three-page document includes a short list of questions to which responses are sought ... your input is vital, especially if hard data can accompany your comments.

Is it too late to turn the tide? There is no doubt that at this late date,  it will be a huge uphill climb. The public notification document can be found here and the deadline for submissions, which can be made here, is August 11, 2016.
Steve McDonald, VE7SL, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from British Columbia, Canada. Contact him at [email protected].

5 Responses to “Got Noise?”

  • Richard KWøU:

    At least they are asking this question, even if it is decades too late. The issue I see with the technical notification is that it wants quantifiable data. I can say, “Yes it is getting worse here”, which it is, but that doesn’t do much for the engineers. If anyone out there has kept records and (hopefully) can point at what is causing this real problem that would be great. Also, has anybody passed this request on to the ARRL and the RAC? It is likely these organizations, or at least some of their more technical members, are keeping track of this pollution.

  • Boots VK3DZ:

    ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) examined the noise present on mains within its Melbourne studio & production complex (Southbank) around 2004 and found that switch-mode power supplies had raised the noise floor in the low LF to low HF range to levels where it was affecting production. Switch-mode PSUs are now the norm whether in plug-packs (“wall warts”) or internal PSU in most equipment. These noise sources add and, whether conducted or radiated, have the demonstrated capacity to degrade performance. Of course the relevant agencies have been reluctant to formally investigate – it’s a bucket of manure you couldn’t jump over.

  • John NV4L:

    Amen. About two years ago my noise floor went from about S-3 to S-9 +10dB. Large amounts of rain reduce it to S-7. I did all the self help things I could do including turning off the main breaker at the house (no effect)

    . Finding a distinct source has eluded me and contacting Florida Power and Light is my only recourse.

  • KD0TLS:

    I don’t think the situation is as hopeless as the author makes out.
    Most consumer electronics are shoddy, disposable, and not worth repairing. If new standards are implemented, it shouldn’t be very long before the noisy products are swapped out with newer (and quieter) products simply by attrition.

  • David G3UNA:

    Search your QSTs for this item which outlined a method of detecting and recording noise on 5 discrete frequencies in the HF range:
    NOV 2013 – QST (PG. 62)
    RSGB Noise Measuring and Reporting Campaign
    (Technical Correspondence)
    Author: Cutter, David, G3UNA
    You can read the article from the digital database.
    I had no replies or further enquiries. We need someone to convert the Windows XP OS to something like a Raspberry Pi, then it should take off. 73 David G3UNA

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