Thursday, June 26, 2008

"Digital" Mode of the Week: HF FAX

FAX stands for facsimile, or in this case radiofacsimile. Unlike the more recently developed office FAX machines used over wire telephone circuits, it is completely analog, using FM emission (F3C). It dates from work done by various inventors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to send pictures over telegraph and later radio.

HF FAX was very widely used in the 20th century to send news photos and even entire newspapers over HF point to point circuits. Machines used huge drum scanners and similar drums to print at the other end. They were very precise, and very, very expensive. Now it can be done with simple computer sound card software, though at considerable loss of precision in this rather fussy mode.

Today's HF FAX uses a continuous FM carrier with a narrow 800-Hz deviation. Usually, anything around 1500 Hz, the lower limit, is reproduced as black, with the brightness increasing until it reaches a white point up around the high limit of 2300 Hz. By ear, fax can make a number of different sounds, but usually it makes a cyclic pulsing with a high-pitched shreik underneath.

Nowadays, instead of using true FM transmitters, the corresponding baseband audio tone is sent to a normal, single-sideband, suppressed-carrier, HF transmitter. The result sounds the same, only displaced in frequency due to the offset from the missing carrier. FAX is tuned in USB, or else it will reproduce as a negative, and the dial should read 1.9 kHz (the tone center) lower than published frequencies. Most of the time, one centers the waterfall display between two marks, and it's tuned in. Slight mistuning has no effect except to possibly wash out the blacks or whites, depending on which direction it is.

Two other parameters are essential for the reception of FAX. The first is called drum speed, though obviously nowadays transmission speed would be a better name. It's expressed in lines per minute. The receiving software must sync to this speed, or the pictures will not reproduce properly.

Far, far the most common speed is 120 LPM. It is used for nearly all weather FAX. Some more complex pictures are sent at 60 LPM, a speed which can sound like a time signal.

The second parameter is Index of Cooperation (IOC), expressed as an integer. This is a really arcane thing also dating from the use of drum scanners. It measures the resolution of the FAX. Nobody really has to know what the IOC measures, just what the number is, and it is nearly always 576. On very rare occasion, it's 288. This is way less important for computer screens than it is for rotating drums.

Those who are really curious as to just what the Index of Cooperation is will be pleased to know that it's commonly defined as the product of the total line length and the number of lines per unit length, divided by Pi. It's measuring the ratio of how much distance the scan steps for a new line to the diameter of the drum. The length of time any single FAX can last is determined proportional to the IOC. At 120/576, the standard weather format, this is 18.8 minutes, which is plenty. Going to 60/576 doubles this, along with increasing resolution, though of course the fax takes twice as long to send.

Now it's all clear, right? :-)

Most FAX software allows the setting of black and white or continuous tone (grey scale) modes. Except for satellite weather images, just about every FAX sent on HF nowadays is in black and white. I'll get some argument here, but I've always just kept it on continuous anyway. Otherwise lines get kind of jagged, and typical HF ionospheric multipath fuzz can get grungy looking in a hurry. Plus you have to change it whenever a satellite image is sent, and then change it back again.

Radiofax typically uses a standard called APT (Automatic Picture Transmission). This allows the unattended reception of faxes. Different bands and services use different versions of this, but the one we're interested in is as follows:

5 sec Start Tone (alternate black and white at 300 Hz)

Phasing (30 seconds of white with one black pulse per line)

Image (may have a white interval for sync)

5 sec Stop Tone (alternate black and white at 450 Hz)

Optional 10 sec black

Different agencies have slight variations on this, and these are usually just enough to confuse amateur software. Even so, one will notice that all the information needed to set parameters and receive faxes is here, except maybe for IOC and that's almost always 576 anyway.

Why more computer programs don't take advantage of this is beyond me. They don't however, and so your received fax is usually displaced (left edge is somewhere else in the screen) and slanted (computer is not printing lines at the exact speed of transmission). There are nearly always ways to fix these, either during or after reception.

Slant is way the more annoying of the two, because computer sound cards really aren't up to the task. They don't have the tight frequency tolerance that an expensive dedicated device would have. Typically, the proper slant compensation has to be found manually for a given station, and then it will vary for others, or even change during a long FAX.

I like FAX because it's radio with pictures. One learns how to read the weather charts pretty fast. They're not that different than the ones on the Weather Channel. Also, the satellite images are as good as the ones on your local TV, and better if you get into colorized WEFAX downlinking on higher frequencies.

Many coast guards and weather offices still send hours of these a day, and since they are being used by boats for serious navigation and safety of life at sea, they won't go away any time soon. Check the various lists and radio loggings for something audible in your area.