All mapped out: how we plan our communications networks

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RF Propagation

How do you create a radio communications network? All projects begin with the same foundational building block: a careful understanding of radio frequency, or RF propagation.

Simply put, RF propagation is about predicting the pathway that radio waves will take across the terrain or environment in question – whether that environment is as small as an office or as big as a country. It’s about establishing where those waves are likely to be disrupted or distorted, whether because of obstacles, environmental features, building materials or rugged terrain – and then finding ways of working around those disruptions, to ensure a powerful and reliable signal throughout. If you want to end up with comprehensive and resilient coverage (which is, of course, our guarantee on every project), then you need to begin with a thorough RF propagation phase.

This foundation is broadly the same no matter what the scale or complexity of your project. Whether you are planning out a simple network to cover a small area, or developing an integrated communications network to cover the entirety of the UK, like the ongoing Emergency Services Network (ESN), RF propagation is still a critical piece of the puzzle.

How we do it

There are two key elements to the RF propagation stage of any project. First, we carry out radio surveys, to establish a physical understanding of the terrain to be covered. On many projects, the locations of at least some masts and antennas are already fixed, which means we are working within certain parameters from the outset. On others, there is some flexibility as to where these masts can be placed, and it’s our job to identify the optimum locations. Occasionally, all the locations are up for grabs.

Next, we use specialist software to carry out desktop studies. These use a range of algorithms, built up over decades of RF propagation projects, to produce intuitive graphical interfaces of the entire environment. From there, we can predict the radio wave pathway through that environment, and, where relevant, experiment with different mast locations, signal strengths and so on to determine the best possible structure for the new network.

It’s a painstaking process. Even simple office buildings require a careful understanding of room and corridor layout, and structural materials, in order to avoid creating signal ‘blackspots’ which can have a hugely detrimental effect on business efficiency.

We have to consider other elements too. Factors like air pollution levels, temperature and weather can all impact on the performance of network hardware. A mast situated in a mountainous region which gets buffeted by wind and snow is going to perform differently to one in a town, and differently again to one in a really built up, urban area. Then there’s the question of licensing, since frequencies may be re-used between different user groups. Standards and protocols like POCSAG and TETRA also have an impact on the way in which networks need to be planned out.

Sounds complicated? That’s why it’s so important, no matter what the scope of your communications network project, to work with a trusted partner who has extensive experience in RF propagation and network planning. Whether you’re communicating across an entire country, or just an entire office, propagation mapping and planning are crucial.

Are you thinking about planning a new radio communications network? Get in touch with us today.