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Saturday, November 12, 2011

EAS - Take a Giant Step "Back to the Future"

The national EAS test has come and gone. I’ve been through about 400 or so posts about what went right (the event did happen, it brought the tech community a lot closer together and spotlighted the common goal of success, a majority of decoders did trigger, there was no Mercury Theater of the Air panic by the citizenry and no actual attacks were initiated during the test period) and what went wrong (missed relays - including an entire state, daisy chains that looped back on themselves, cable and over-the-air test info either duplicated or non-existent, dropped audio, poor audio, reverb/echo/feedback audio and a few others).

The recommendations for moving forward are coming from every direction:

• Scrap the whole system and start over
• Keep the system as-is, the test went well
• Modify the system to (place your favorite verb here) and then ____ (about 50 different ideas)
• Make it smartphone-centric
• Make it satellite-centric
• Make it Internet-centric
• Increase the number of PEP’s
• Decrease the number of PEP’s
• Run more frequent national tests
• Take it away from the government
• Turn it all over to the government

After fielding calls from a number of clients – before, during and after the test – it becomes abundantly clear that KISS (keep it simple, stupid) was made for this.

First, stop and think of what the test was about. This wasn’t CAP. It wasn’t a series of chlorine tank cars on their sides in Omaha or Denver. It was national. It was to see how the system works when there’s an emergency that affects the entire country. That’s it. It sought the answer to a simple question: Can the POTUS (or his/her designate) get a message to all of us in case of emergency. This message may take 30 seconds or it could continue for days or even weeks. After all, we don’t know what the emergency might be and/or what instructions need to be given or citizen actions need to take place.

So now think about KISS. We’re certainly not doing that. The relays and daisy chains work – to a degree – but they take time and every level is subject to error. If you know that you’re going to have a 5% error factor in every layer of relay, which is better: 10 layers or 2? Doh!

So how do you do that. Whew-boy. Here’s where I get pummeled for talking about that positive step backward…to AM radio. To AM being the platform for launching all national alerts.

I must be kidding, right? Well would a kidder go one step further and suggest reexamining 500 kilowatt operation. Now I must really be kidding. Nope. Here’s the thinking:

As was proposed years ago, many of the clears could operate at 500kW. Yes, some may have to directionalize to protect neighbors to the north and south. A few would have to protect one another. But with a little study, we could get to a .5 mv/m or at least 100uv/m coverage* of the entire country with few – very few – facilities. Fewer facilities means fewer mistakes. Remember, this is for national alerts. Yes, the “PEP’s” (not so primary anymore) would be involved and each station would be part of a chain, but with all stations monitoring the 500kw operators, there’s be only two – count ‘em, two – links. Not bad.

Now, a couple of other advantages:

Contrary to using satellites, the web, or cellular as the base platform, 500 kW transmitters with tube modulators and finals are much less susceptible to EMP. Many AM towers are some distance away from cities’ population centers…less likely to be affected by nuclear or EMP attacks (wow – this IS going backwards). In fact, the only real danger would be if an enemy attacked us with CFL light bulbs.

Now the forgotten selling point: give me a little wire, let me unwrap a 1N34A from its lead-foil package and attach it to a crystal headphone and I’m listening to AM. No discriminator, no limiter, no D/A converter, NO BATTERY. Now someone’s going to say that I need a tuned circuit – and offer to sell me a 365mmf variable – but, believe it or not, in many cases, one station will dominate, at least enough for communication to take place. Yeah, if you live in Itasca, IL, halfway between the WBBM and WGN towers, I don’t want to hear from you. Go buy yourself a ferrite loop and tuning cap. And don’t bring up preemphasis. It’s not a factor here. The words will get heard.

Heck, you could even go digital! CW that is. I just don’t want to be the telegraph operator if they direct cathode-key the final.

Your counter to that argument should be, “Wait, you said national emergency and that AM’s should be the primary platform.” That’s true. The recommendation is that the super power AM’s provide the initial link. So the entire discussion of individuals and their 1N34a’s shouldn’t apply. Well, take the whole emergency thing one step further. It’s an actual emergency. EMP or other types of non-ionizing or, worse, ionizing radiation has limited or prevented travel while, at the same time, wiping out all those MOSFET gates, TWT’s, and maybe even good old bipolar transistors. Let’s hope it never gets to that point but if it does and my local FM’s and lower power AM’s are off the air, I’d sure like to unwrap the lead from around that little gem, hook it up, and find out if it’s safe to drive the heck out of town.

OK, back to EAS. High power AM can work. Because it’s just simple. Now – why won’t it happen? The filings and counterfilings, suits and countersuits that will ensue as stations seek upgrades, the jealousy of owners locked out of a power increase because of an overlap, and the thinking that complex is better than simple. Or the thinking that complex employs more people than simple.

But remember, to reach the entire country, the fewer hops the better. And this one has just 1. That’s probably its downfall. The president communicates to the 500 kilowatters and everyone monitors them. Just doesn’t sound complex enough to work.

Then I think of DaVinci’s words, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” If you do a study of 1400’s Italian you find the translation actually means KISS.

*Important to note that man made noise certainly has impact here. Power lines, ignition noise and those great compact fluorescents will definitely be a problem. But then, there’s a lot of this country where power lines and ignition noise aren’t problems…and CFL’s can at least be turned off – if there’s any electricity at all.