signal-to-noise ratio (S/N or SNR)

This definition is part of our Essential Guide: Network management and monitoring: The evolution of network control
Contributor(s): John Burke

In analog and digital communications, signal-to-noise ratio, often written S/N or SNR, is a measure of signal strength relative to background noise. The ratio is usually measured in decibels (dB).

If the incoming signal strength in microvolts is Vs, and the noise level, also in microvolts, is Vn, then the signal-to-noise ratio, S/N, in decibels is given by the formula

S/N = 20 log10(Vs/Vn)

If Vs = Vn, then S/N = 0. In this situation, the signal borders on unreadable, because the noise level severely competes with it. In digital communications, this will probably cause a reduction in data speed because of frequent errors that require the source (transmitting) computer or terminal to resend some packets of data.

Ideally, Vs is greater than Vn, so S/N is positive. As an example, suppose that Vs = 10.0 microvolts and Vn = 1.00 microvolt. Then

S/N = 20 log10(10.0) = 20.0 dB

which results in the signal being clearly readable. If the signal is much weaker but still above the noise -- say 1.30 microvolts -- then

S/N = 20 log10(1.30) = 2.28 dB

which is a marginal situation. There might be some reduction in data speed under these conditions.

If Vs is less than Vn, then S/N is negative. In this type of situation, reliable communication is generally not possible unless steps are taken to increase the signal level and/or decrease the noise level at the destination (receiving) computer or terminal.

Communications engineers always strive to maximize the S/N ratio. Traditionally, this has been done by using the narrowest possible receiving-system bandwidth consistent with the data speed desired. However, there are other methods. In some cases, spread spectrum techniques can improve system performance. The S/N ratio can be increased by providing the source with a higher level of signal output power if necessary. In some high-level systems such as radio telescopes, internal noise is minimized by lowering the temperature of the receiving circuitry to near absolute zero (-273 degrees Celsius or -459 degrees Fahrenheit). In wireless systems, it is always important to optimize the performance of the transmitting and receiving antennas.


Getting started with signal strength
To explore how you can increase signal strength in an enterprise setting, here are some additional resources:
How wireless network encryption affects signal strength, connectivity: Our wireless networking expert explains how Wi-Fi encryption could affect signal strength and therefore connection loss, in this expert explanation.
Understanding WLAN signal strength: Learn how to predict, measure, and improve wireless LAN signal strength in this expert tip.
Are there 802.11n wireless network range extenders to boost my signal?: Learn how to increase Wi-Fi range when multipath reflections aren't enough in this advice from an expert in wireless networking.
Understanding 802.11n wireless antennas: Learn how 802.11n wireless antennas have been improved to increase network footprint, available bandwidth and resilience to problems that crippled older 802.11a/b/g access points, and how improved speed and capacity is made possible using techniques called spatial multiplexing and transmit beamforming.
This was first published in August 2015



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