A 56 KILOBAUD RF MODEM
Originally Published in the ARRL 6th Computer Networking Conference
Proceedings August 29, 1987
By Dale A. Heatherington, WA4DSY
This paper describes a 56 kilobaud synchronous RF modem with a 70
kHz bandwidth. The modulation is bandwidth limited MSK generated
by a digital state machine driving two digital- to-analog converters, and
two double balanced modulators. The carrier phase is shifted plus or
minus 90 degrees for each bit. Demodulation is accomplished with a
standard quadrature detector chip but various coherent methods can be
used for operation at lower signal to noise ratios. The design is
relatively simple and easily reproduced.
Design Philosophy and Goals
This modem was designed so that advanced Amateur radio
experimenters can duplicate it.
Since packet radio uses a synchronous protocol, the modem was
designed to be synchronous also. Characteristics of this synchronous
modem are as follows:
- No exotic, expensive or hard to find parts.
- Stable, easy to align design.
- Operation on any band allowing 56 kBaud.
- Synchronous design.
As a result, the synchronous serial interface in the TNC doesn't need a
baud rate generator, clock recovery circuit, or a NRZI to NRZ
- Modem supplies transmitter clock.
- Modem receiver recovers and supplies clock and data.
- Modem does NRZ-NRZI conversions.
- Modem scrambles data prior to transmission and descrambles it
To simplify the design and construction and to allow operation on
various bands, the modem operates at low power (1 mW) in the 28-30
mHz range. The final operating frequency and power output are
obtained by selecting an appropriate transverter module. Good
performance has been obtained with the Microwave Modules MMT
220/28s and MMT 432/28s. These transverters provide 5 to 7 watts of
output power in the 220 or 432 mHz band. These units require a small
modification to improve their transmit/receive switching time. A
capacitor in the T/R switching circuit must be changed or removed.
Many different modulation methods were tried in order to find one with
the most desirable characteristics. BPSK was not used primarily
because it has large amplitude variations (zero to full power) and uses
more bandwidth than the chosen method. Amplitude variations are a
problem because they must be passed unchanged by the transmitter.
Any nonlinear amplifier stages will cause spreading of the spectrum and
interference to adjacent channels. This effect is the same as "flat
topping" in SSB transmitters.
FSK was not used because it cannot be demodulated with a coherent
demodulator and it is difficult to design and build a stable frequency
modulated oscillator capable of large linear frequency shifts (28 kHz).
The chosen method is a bandwidth limited form of minimum shift
keying (MSK) . It is slightly different from the ordinary textbook
example of minimun shift keying. Minimum shift keying is basically
FSK with precise control of several parameters. The frequency shift is
exactly 1/4 the baud rate and the phase of the carrier shifts exactly 90
degrees during each baud interval. The amplitude is constant.
Unfortunately MSK produces many unnecessary sidebands which make
the signal very wide. When MSK is filtered with a bandpass filter to
eliminate the unwanted sidebands, the carrier phase no longer changes
by exactly 90 degrees and the amplitude is no longer constant.
The method used in this design removes the unnecessary sidebands and
maintains the 90 degree phase shift during each baud interval at the
expense of about 3.5 dB of amplitude variation. Also, when the signal
is detected using any kind of FM demodulator, the high frequency
components appear to be boosted. This necessitates the use of a simple
de-emphasis network following the FM demodulator. This network also
reduces high frequency noise which results in improved performance.
Bandwidth limited MSK characteristics include:
- 26 dB bandwidth is 1.25 Hz/Baud.
- Uses slightly less bandwidth than BPSK.
- Error rate vs carrier to noise ratio performance comparable to BPSK
when a coherent demodulator is used.
- Has much less amplitude fluctuation than BPSK.
- Can be demodulated with several types of detectors.
- quadrature detector
- differential phase detector
- Costas loop
Modulation is accomplished with two double balanced modulator chips
(type 1496). One modulator is called the "I" (in phase) modulator and
the other is call the "Q" (quadrature) modulator. (See Fig. 1) . The
carrier frequency is generated by a crystal oscillator operating in the 28
to 30 mHz range. The carrier drives the I modulator directly but is
phase shifted by 90 degrees before driving the Q modulator.
Modulation waveforms are stored in an EPROM chip. These waveforms
are read out by a digital state machine into two digital to analog
converters (type DAC-08). The analog waveforms are filtered with
simple three pole active low pass filters to remove digital sampling
noise before being sent to the I and Q modulators. The outputs of the
modulators are combined, amplified, and output to the transverter
module. Signals generated this way are unconditionally stable in terms
of phase shift and frequency deviation.
Almost any modulation type can be generated with this hardware
configuration because the digital state machine has complete control of
the amplitude and phase of the carrier. The modulation characteristics
are defined by the data stored in the EPROM. The same EPROM also
contains the code to run the state machine and NRZ to NRZI converter.
Data rates from 1 to about 120 kilobaud are easily generated by
changing the baud rate crystal and/or the divide ratio in the baud rate
circuit. Six resistors in the low pass filters also need to be changed for
different data rates.
Several methods of demodulation can be used. Since the carrier phase
changes by exactly 90 degrees during each baud interval, a Costas loop
demodulator could be used. The signal also has a frequency shift of 1/4
the baud rate which allows conventional FM or FSK demodulators to be
The Costas loop is an intelligent phase lock loop which locks an
oscillator to the phase and frequency of the received carrier even with
the presence of phase modulation. The received signal is multiplied by
the locally generated carrier to recover the original modulation. The
main advantage of the Costas loop is its ability to operate at low signal
to noise ratios. The disadvantages are its complexity and slow lock-up
time. A Costas loop demodulator was built for this project but temporarily
shelved because of its 60 ms lock time and large number of parts.
It did have a 5 dB S/N advantage over the quadrature detector
that will be described below.
In the interest of cost, simplicity, and fast signal acquisition, a
conventional quadrature FM demodulator was used in this design (see
fig. 2) . The Motorola MC3359 chip was chosen for this task. It's
more than just an FM demodulator. It also includes an oscillator,
mixer, limiter, and several other functions which were not used.
Receiver Bandpass Filter
The receiver bandpass filter was a major stumbling block at the
beginning of this project. It had to be 70 to 80 kHz wide with low
group delay variations. No "off the shelf" filters could be found at any
price. Custom crystal filters had very long lead times and high prices.
The solution was simple and cheap: a 3 section L-C bandpass filter
operating at 455 kHz. It consists of three 50 uH slug tuned coils and 5
capacitors. The cost is about $4.00. Another filter was required for the
10.7 mHz IF stages. Since its major purpose is image rejection, the
response shape was not too critical. A Radio Shack FM broadcast band
receiver IF filter had the desired characteristics. It's 280 kHz wide,
small, and cheap ($1.00).
Data and Clock recovery
After demodulation the signal must be processed to recover the clock
and data. The data is detected with a tracking data detector, then
converted from NRZI to NRZ format. It is then descrambled and sent
to the output connector on the modem. Clock is recovered with a
sampled-derivative phase locked loop circuit. This circuit aligns the
active clock edges with the center of the incoming data bits.
Tracking Data Detector
A data detector is basically a analog comparator. Its threshold is set
exactly halfway between the voltage level of a "1" and a "0". It outputs
a "1" if the input is higher than the threshold and a "0" if it's lower.
There is a problem when the carrier frequency of the incoming signal
changes. The voltage levels of the ones and zeros change so the
threshold is no longer exactly half way between them. This causes an
increase in errors. One common solution, which doesn't work very
well, is to AC couple the output of the demodulator to the detector.
This is fine if the short and long term average of the number of ones
and zeros is equal. This ideal condition cannot be guaranteed even if a
scrambler is used. A much better solution is to put some intelligence in
the detector so that it averages the voltage level of the ones separately
from the average of the zeros then subtracts the two averages to obtain
the ideal threshold level. This circuit doesn't care about the ratio of
ones to zeros as long as there is a reasonable number of each. A
scrambler is used to make sure there is a reasonable number of both
ones and zeros. The circuit will compute the correct threshold if the
input signal carrier frequency is anywhere within the expected range of
the ones and zeros, in this case plus or minus 14 kHz. The maximum
frequency offset that can be tolerated is actually limited by the
bandwidth of the receiver filter. In this implementation the error rate
starts to increase slightly with frequency offsets greater than 5 kHz.
NRZI to NRZ Converter
NRZ is a data signaling format in which zeros are represented by a
certain voltage level and ones by another. NRZI is a signaling format
in which zeros are represented by a change in voltage level while ones
are indicated by no change. NRZI coded data is not affected inverting
the data voltage levels or the mark/space frequencies in the case of
FSK. This modem converts the incoming NRZI data to NRZ data with
a simple circuit consisting of a "D" Flip Flop and XOR gate.
There are two good reasons a data scrambler was used in this modem.
First, it makes the data stream look like a random stream of ones and
zeros regardless of the data being transmitted. This characteristic makes
the tracking data detector and clock recovery circuits work better.
Second, it makes the RF spectrum look and sound like band limited white
noise. In other words, the RF energy is spread evenly over the modems
bandwidth and shows no single frequency lines regardless of the data
being transmitted. Any potential interference to near by channels is
limited to an increase in the noise floor instead of squeaks, squawks,
and other obnoxious noises. This type of scrambling is also commonly
used in high speed syncronous modems for telephone use.
The hardware to implement the scrambler and descrambler is very
simple It consists of a 17 bit shift register and two XOR gates. See
Fig. 3. Each transmitted bit is the result of the exclusive ORing of the
current data bit with the bits transmitted 5 and 17 bits times before. To
descramble the data it is only necessary to exclusive OR the current
received bit with the previous 5th and 17th bits. If the data consist of
all ones, the scrambler will produce a pseudorandom sequence of bits
that will repeat after 131,071 clock pulses or every 2.34 seconds at 56
Some people may complain that scrambling violates the FCC rule
concerning codes and ciphers. It does not. The scrambling algorithm is
published here and is available to anyone who wants it. For this reason
it does not actually obscure the meaning of the data. If all codes and
ciphers were illegal we could not use Morse code, ASCII, or NRZI!
For the lowest possible error rate the clock recovery must be fast,
accurate, and have low jitter. The state machine circuit used in most
TNCs today has a large amount of phase jitter and is not suitable for
this application. Its main advantage is low parts count ( 2 chips). The
circuit described here is a sampled-derivative phase locked loop. It gets
its phase information from the bit centers, not the zero crossings like
most circuits in common use. It does this by taking the derivative (rate
of change) of the demodulated data. This converts the data peaks
(centers) to zero crossings. This works because the rate of change is
zero at the peak of the data bit. This signal is then further processed
and compared to the phase of the VCO. The result is an error voltage
which is then integrated and applied to the VCO control voltage input.
The VCO phase locks to the centers of the incoming bits. Lock time is
about 5 milliseconds in this implementation.
The carrier detector circuit works by measuring the signal to noise ratio
of the signal. This is not an easy task because the data resembles
random noise in most aspects. This design solves the problem by first
taking the derivative of the demodulated signal, then sampling only the
zero crossings of the derivative with the active clock edge. Since the
rate of change at the bit centers should be zero, the output of the
circuit should be zero. Random noise has random rates of change at the
sampling instants which cause the circuit to output a random voltage.
This noise voltage is rectified, filtered, and sent to a comparator. If the
noise voltage is below a preset threshold, the comparator turns on the
carrier detect signal at the digital interface and also turns on a data
gate which allows the received data to go out to the interface.
An unmodulated signal will also trigger this circuit since there
would be no noise at the sampling instants to inhibit the comparator.
There are several measures of a modem'sperformance. One of the most
important is its bit error rate. Any well designed modem should not
produce any errors if the signal has no noise or distortion in it. The
true measure of a modem's quality is its performance under weak signal
conditions when the signal to noise ratio is low. These modems were
tested to determine their error rate performance at various signal levels
and frequency offsets.
The results are summarized in the table below.
Errors per 1 million bits
Signal level Freq. offsets ( kHz )
uV dBm 0 +5 -5
.71 -110 3620 43261 11280
.79 -109 2736 8490 3110
.89 -108 843 4694 1510
1.0 -107 129 1680 285
1.1 -106 29 536 77
1.2 -105 0 240 19
1.4 -104 0 23 3
1.5 -103 0 0 0
1.7 -102 0 0 0
The table shows that 1.5 microvolts of signal are necessary to achieve
an error rate less than 1 per million over a plus or minus 5 kHz
frequency range. It also shows that the performance is degraded by 2
dB if the frequency is offset by 5 kHz.
This data was obtained using a MMT 432/28 transverter without a
GASFET pre-amp. The published noise figure for this unit is 3 dB.
Adding a pre-amp should improve the performance.
Another important performance parameter is the delay time from
transmitter turn-on to valid data at the receiver. This modem requires a
10 to 13 millisecond delay after the transmitter is keyed before data can
be transmitted. 5 to 7 ms of this time is required for the crystal
oscillator to start and stabilize. The remaining 5 to 6 ms allows the
distant receiving modem time to phase lock its clock to the incoming
signal and detect the carrier. This time delay is not as low as it should
be and work is being done to reduce it. If the delay were zero, a 256
byte packet should take 36.5 ms to transmit. This modem takes up to
50 ms of transmission time or 36% overhead. This overhead percentage
could be reduced by transmitting longer packets.
So, what do you do with a 56,000 baud RF modem? One obvious
application which has received much press lately is network backbones.
One popular opinion seems to be that high speed modems will solve
network congestion problems. This assumes that current firmware and
software will run at 56 kilobaud. It doesn't! One of the major
problems of this project was getting packet software to operate at this
speed. No TNC running AX.25 will operate at 56 kilobaud. IBM PCs
running at 8 mHz can only handle serial port data at 38.4 kilobaud or
less without dropping characters. To conduct on the air tests it was
necessary to make major modifications to a Z-80 assembly language
program called KISS-TNC written by K3MC. This program resides in
an EPROM in the TNC. Its main job is to convert SYNC frames to
ASYNC frames and send them to the serial port on a PC. A program
running in the PC is responsible for doing the protocol, in this case
NET.EXE by KA9Q, which implements TCP/IP. Although KISS-TNC
was successfully modified for 56 kilobaud, NET.EXE would not run
any faster than 19.2 kilobaud. The result was that the PC to TNC
interface ran at 19,200 baud while the TNC to RF modem interface ran
at 56,000 baud. Needless to say, NET.EXE could not keep the channel
busy. This may not be a problem because the channel is a shared
resource and should not be hogged by one user anyway.
This modem is fast enough to carry real time digitized speech. Two
methods of converting speech to digital format are popular. The phone
company uses Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) at a 64 kilobaud data rate.
Unfortunately someone set the upper limit for amateur digital
communication at only 56 kilobaud thus preventing the use of many cheap
CODEC chips in the market today. They only work at 64 KBPS. One
good alternative to PCM is continuously variable slope delta modulation
(CVSD). Distorted but intelligible speech can be transmitted at speeds
as low as 9600 BPS with CVSD. At 56 KBPS it sounds as good as
typical communications quality FM. The CVSD chip used in the
experiments with this modem is the Motorola MC34115. Its price is in
the $2.00 range. CVSD also works well in the presence of data errors.
Digitized speech can be understood with more than 10% bit errors. It's
quite noisy at that error rate and sounds like a weak FM signal.
Video frame grabbers are available which digitize and store pictures
from a NTSC video source in computer memory. Images stored in this
manner can be transmitted digitally. A video frame consisting of 256
by 256 pixels with 64 shades of gray can be transmitted in 7 seconds at
56 kilobaud. The same images would take more than 5 minutes to send
with the current 1200 baud standard.
Bandwidth limited MSK is a power efficient modulation method with
reasonable bandwidth requirements and low amplitude fluctuations. The
hardware required for generation and demodulation is simple and
reliable. A wide variety of demodulators can be used depending on the
cost/performance tradeoffs. It is an excellent choice of high speed RF
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