spread spectrum

Spread spectrum is a form of wireless communications in which the frequency of the transmitted signal is deliberately varied.

Spread spectrum is a form of wireless communications in which the frequency of the transmitted signal is deliberately varied. This results in a much greater bandwidth than the signal would have if its frequency were not varied.

A conventional wireless signal has a frequency, usually specified in megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz gigahertz), that does not change with time (except for small, rapid fluctuations that occur as a result of modulation). When you listen to a signal at 103.1 MHz on an FM stereo receiver, for example, the signal stays at 103.1 MHz. It does not go up to 105.1 MHz or down to 99.1 MHz. The digits on the radio's frequency dial stay the same at all times. The frequency of a conventional wireless signal is kept as constant as the state of the art will permit, so the bandwidth can be kept within certain limits, and so the signal can be easily located by someone who wants to retrieve the information.

There are at least two problems with conventional wireless communications that can occur under certain circumstances. First, a signal whose frequency is constant is subject to catastrophic interference. This occurs when another signal is transmitted on, or very near, the frequency of the desired signal. Catastrophic interference can be accidental (as in amateur-radio communications) or it can be deliberate (as in wartime). Second, a constant-frequency signal is easy to intercept, and is therefore not well suited to applications in which information must be kept confidential between the source (transmitting party) and destination (receiving party).

To minimize troubles that can arise from the above mentioned vulnerabilities of conventional communications circuits, the frequency of the transmitted signal can be deliberately varied over a comparatively large segment of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum. This variation is done according to a specific, but complicated mathematical function. In order to intercept the signal, a receiver must be tuned to frequencies that vary precisely according to this function. The receiver must "know" the frequency-versus-time function employed by the transmitter, and must also "know" the starting-time point at which the function begins. If someone wants to jam a spread-spectrum signal, that person must have a transmitter that "knows" the function and its starting-time point. The spread-spectrum function must be kept out of the hands of unauthorized people or entities.

Most spread-spectrum signals use a digital scheme called frequency hopping. The transmitter frequency changes abruptly, many times each second. Between "hops," the transmitter frequency is stable. The length of time that the transmitter remains on a given frequency between "hops" is known as the dwell time. A few spread-spectrum circuits employ continuous frequency variation, which is an analog scheme.

This was first published in October 2006

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