Last Updated on May 5, 2023 by John Berry

The signal received from a distant transmitter at a receiving antenna is the vector sum of all arrivals travelling over all paths. This results in fading from a nominal value for the path.

There’s the direct path assuming free space transmission – though transmission over a free-space path is rare. Paths between radio amateur stations are typically attenuated hugely by diffraction loss (discussed in another blog), with huge diffraction contribution from the Earth’s bulge protruding into the path. And then there are all the reflected paths from buildings, atmospheric layers, aircraft and frankly everything and anything in the vicinity of, and mid-way between, both stations.

The resulting distribution of the received signal is described by a combined slow, k-factor, fading component, and a rapid multi-path fading component. See the blog titled The Normal Troposphere for more on k, the Earth radius factor, and how k changes. Rapid or slow fading may dominate the fading at any time.

The resulting frequency distribution is given by combining a Rayleigh and log-normal distribution. Like many distributions, there’s a median signal level, and a variance that gives a signal exceeded for low, and for high, percentages of time.

For radio amateurs, it’s the low percentage of time stuff that excites.

Fade depth

Radio amateur communications is of short duration – a few tens of seconds for data, and a few minutes for voice and CW. This is key when striving to understand fading.

When a communication is attempted, the slow fading can be considered fixed at that moment. Within the term of the communication, the signal received is, unless victim to fast fading, mostly constant.

Its absolute value could be at the path median, slightly above it, or well below it – so things could get better – or worse over time. Over a longer communication, particularly in a net lasting an hour or so, the net can fall apart as the paths increase in loss.

When a communication is victim to fast fading caused by multi-path, this manifests as a flutter on this quasi-fixed state as the signal goes from usable to unusable with a period from milliseconds to seconds. The excursions go from a few dB above median to some 30dB (5 S-points) below.

A typical profile of a signal with time is shown below. This includes a path loss component for change in path loss with distance simulating the stations moving apart.

This image shows how the final signal envelope comes about from the combination of the normal path loss with distance, multipath fading and slow k-factor fading.
Real fading experienced and its three components

Impact of fading

Within the duration of the typical radio amateur communication, the slow fading is not apparent. So, if the CQ is answered, it’s likely that the communication can proceed. Tomorrow, maybe things will be different and there’ll be a ‘lift’. But in that short time of a few seconds or minutes, all is well.

Fast fading, on the other hand can interrupt the communication in train. Voice and CW operators will manage their own error detection and error correction. ‘Again, again’, is a frequent refrain!

Data communication has several similar techniques. Some simple data modes simply crash. They report errors at the receive end and present nothing to the operator. Others present the received recovered bitstream, errors and all. Some mimic the human operator and send an ARQ, and automatic repeat request.

Where there is the data bandwidth available, many others send redundant bits that are used to enable forward error correction. Then an authentic message is received, even during some momentary signal loss. There is of course a limit to this, and even these FEC techniques run out of range and crash if the fading is too severe.

Each data mode is designed to cope in a particular way with in-communication momentary signal loss. Each must be understood in terms of the fading likely to be experienced on the path – tropospheric ‘normal’, tropospheric lift, tropospheric scatter, EME, meteor scatter, sporadic E and auroral communications etc.

This match between fading and data mode will be considered further in other blogs.

  1. See RECOMMENDATION ITU-R P.1057 Probability distributions relevant to radiowave propagation modelling at https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-R/Pages/default.aspx.