I presently live in a medium sized apartment
building where I am surrounded by hundreds of electronic devices;
televisions, cordless phones, computers, fax machines, baby monitors and
lord only knows what else. Imagine my pleasure when I set up my 2 meter
rig with a simple antenna on my balcony and found the band was very
quiet; almost no noise level at all.
For quite a while I considered myself lucky to be in such
a fortunate location for good FM chatter. From my 6th floor apartment in
St. Catharines, I talked to hams all over Southern Ontario. I could
"hit" repeaters in Hamilton, Brantford, Kitchener, Oakville and Toronto
using 5 and 10 watts with no problem. Hearing and getting back to
simplex stations 100+ kilometres away was common. I received many
compliments on how well my little "cube dweller" setup was doing.
For several months after obtaining my landlord's
permission to put up a small antenna, I checked with him at least once a
week to see if there were any interference problems and none were
reported. So I was doubly happy as everything seemed good for my hobby.
Then in the beginning of September, seemingly out of no
place, I suddenly had an S7 noise spike about every 50khz all the way
from 138mhz to 162mhz. There were over 140 of them dominating my
receiver so that I couldn't even hear some of the stronger repeaters in
my area. The noise was of a nature that it mixed in with other signals
and made conversation practically impossible.
Now I'm a relatively patient person. I waited a bit
because problems like this usually don't stand alone. Whatever the
source of this was, the equipment was almost certainly experiencing
other problems and in the process of fixing them the noise would be
cleared up too. Well, two weeks into it I'd had enough so I went "Fox
Hunting". This lead me to my next door neighbour's apartment.
After reluctantly knocking on his door and explaining the
intrusion, I discovered he had a haybail mess of a computer installation
that had to be seen to be believed. He had 3 computers crowded onto a
smallish desk with piles of stuff on the floor all around it. There were
cables, wires and parts scattered all over the place. The computer cases
had been "modded" with plastic windows inserted into the sides,
defeating any shielding the case provided. In all my 30 years in
electronics, I'd never seen such an open invitation for trouble; a
nightmare just waiting to come true.
Sniffing about with the HT I found the loudest of several noise sources
was his network router; a Linksys wireless-g router like the one
pictured on the left. It was sitting right in the middle of the whole
tangled up mess, with the cable modem on top and spewing RF like a
My first step was to confirm that it actually was the
router. Ok, lets try this: remove power, noise gone, reinstate power,
noise returns. Off quiet, on noisy... Yep, it's the router alright and
it's sitting just a few metres down the hall from my antenna.
So what's to do about this?
There were so many things wrong with his setup I hardly
knew where to begin explaining the problems it would cause and, frankly,
I really didn't want to be the one to give him a laundry list of
everything wrong with his pride and joy. He actually seemed to like the
mess he'd created and I immediately understood that if I tried
explaining why computers are in metal cases and why the wiring should be
routed in some organized fashion he would react as though I was
personally insulting him.
While I still had his cooperation, I thought to try some
simple corrective measures. We quickly wrapped it in tinfoil, faraday
cage style, and grounded a corner of the foil to the connector shield;
this actually made it worse. There was no point to making coils or
adding ferrite chokes to his cables in such a totally disorganized setup
where literally everything was radiating, so I didn't even suggest it.
Next we tried disconnecting the network cables one at a
time; no difference until the last one was removed. Finally with
everything disconnected the router was sitting there powered up and the
noise was gone. The wireless (RF) part of the router was actually dead
Next we reconnected his cable modem and one computer. As
soon as he accessed the router the racket returned and did not stop. The
noise was clearly the result of activity on the ethernet ports and buddy
tells me he's a downloader with stuff coming in day and night. Oh joy.
He was complaining of his network stalling all the time, I
still had my noise problem. It was beyond obvious the router is
defective. At that point the only advice possible was to take it back
and get another one. Which, for some reason, he refuses to do.
By this time his patience with this intrusion was thinning
and my mood was fading fast. So, as a final step I took him over to my
place and showed him the problem on my base rig. He reluctantly agreed
it was a problem but with no solution in the offing we called it a
Update: August 2007
Buddy next door has moved on,
taking his noise and interference with him. As of right now, the problem
is solved. Noise levels are back down in the S1 region and no noise
spikes anywhere. Time will tell what the next tenant brings with them,
but for now, all it's all good.
About RF Shielding
In recent years I have noticed a significant reduction in
care taken to prevent interference. Where I used to open a monitor and
find all kinds of RF shielding, now there is none. Where I would open a
simple clock radio and find the display logic shielded from the RF
sections, now I find everything on a single circuit board. Often when
looking inside new equipment I find a circuit board inside a plastic
box, with no attempt to prevent either ingress or egress of radio
The goal of RF Shielding on most electronic devices is
First we want to prevent "Ingress", keeping outside
signals such as strong local radio signals or signals from other
devices in close proximity from getting into the high impedance inputs
of audio and CMOS digital devices.
Second, we want to block "Egress" by trapping the
switching noise caused by high frequency oscillators and switching
logic within the device itself. If it is allowed to radiate into free
air, the risk of one device interfering with another in close
proximity can and often does become a reality.
RF bypassing in the form of ferrite beads, small coils and
capacitors is used inside these devices for sound reason:
Ingress along exposed cables is blocked as unwanted RF
signals are shunted to ground before reaching the sensitive inputs
inside the device.
Extraneous RF that can leak from cables is blocked
before it leaves the confines of the source device.
We run cables in organized groups for several reasons:
Most obvious is the cosmetics of not having a
workspace that looks like a bomb went off.
Grouping cables together often brings about
considerable phase cancellation that can and does reduce the field
strength of any leaked RF.
Finding the source of RFI in a "dog's breakfast" setup
can be nearly impossible.
Computers and other digital equipment pose a real problem.
They are almost entirely switching logic, tens of thousands of square
waves dancing about a printed circuit board millions of times a second.
If precaution is not taken --if the device is not shielded-- these
signals can and do radiate as low powered radio waves that will bother
Add to this the matter that most PC cabling is totally
unshielded. Video cables, running between computer and monitor, carry
frequencies well into the upper HF regions. CAT5 network cables carry
signals that can actually get into the VHF frequencies. Printer cables,
USB cords and external drive cables all carry signals that get well into
radio frequencies. Each and every one of these has the potential to
become a source of RFI that can invade nearby equipment. Each of them is
an antenna that will carry any strong local signal into it's host
As we move to the "wireless world" so often touted by the
WiFi industry, these problems will become increasingly prevalent.
Networks sitting only inches apart on opposite sides of apartment walls
will begin shutting each other down. Cellphones already do cause so many
problems they are banned in many RF sensitive locations. Cordless phones
will shut down entire computer networks. Wireless devices of all kinds
will increasingly cause erratic behaviour in nearby electronics. We are
already running out of frequency space for them and the problems of
physical proximity will only get worse as more and more of these devices
flood the airwaves.
Computer "geeks" with their case mods and increasingly
complicated setups are seldom aware of RFI or the problems it can cause.
Many don't even know that ham radio exists, never mind taking it into
consideration when hacking great huge holes in the manufacturer's metal
covers and grounded cases. They are broadsided by problems that appear
to defy explanation and most often the cause is co-interference within
their own hardware. As with my neighbour, the very idea that a computer
could cause interference to other devices is foreign to them and, often,
they simply don't care when alerted to it. He's doing his thing and to
heck with anyone else... not good.
Radio frequency interference --the mystery invader-- may
well become the "noisy stereo" of the new millennium as neighbours
increasingly come into conflict because of electronic interference
instead of loud music.
On Further Investigation
I'm a curious sort, so I wanted to know the exact cause of
the problem with my neighbour's router and I began researching this on
the web. I found a ton of links to the problem, all kinds of people
--not just hams-- were experiencing interference from Linksys products.
I found pages detailing how Linksys routers are shutting down nearby
networks, interfering with cellphones and messing up WiFi connections.
And, of particular interest, I found quite a bit about interference to
A couple of large forum threads told of interference
problems from Linksys routers. This Thread on
the EHam website was damning; the correspondents were actually
organizing an FCC complaint against Linksys. Also This Thread was particularly interesting as people talked
about essentially the same problem from a different set of Linksys
From the computer user's side, people aren't exactly happy
about this router either. This Review on the Small Net Builder website lays out how
the router has problems with low throughput and multiple connections.
The users on the Toms Hardware seem just as unhappy with these routers
as they talk about constantly loosing internet connections and entire
batches of them have had to be swapped out by home network installers
when inexplicable communications failures started showing up.
It was slowly becoming clear there was a larger problem so
I started researching the routers directly and found the pictures of
Linksys router internals shown on the right.
The first thing to notice is that these are simply circuit
boards housed in a plastic box. There is no shielding either over or
under the printed circuit boards and there is no conductive coating on
the inside of the enclosure. No shielding at all.
On closer inspection, you can also see that aside from a
tin box over the connectors and a cover over the wireless portion there
is no shielding or RF bypassing on the boards, either. Nothing stops any
source of RF from either escaping or invading these boards.
Also, Please note that these two completely different
circuit board designs have both been marketed under the same model code:
WRT54G. The latest version is on top, the oldest on the bottom.
Applying a little logic to the situation gave me the rest
of the explanation.
The RF part of the router is not the problem. It's at 2.4
ghz, far enough away from my gear that the two should be unaware of each
other This is confirmed by the router going silent when all the cables
Next we have the noise being triggered by ethernet
activity on the router's ports. Linksys says it only happens at 100
mbps, which provides the final clue.
These things use square waves with really sharp rise and
fall times (10ns for 100 mips). Given the nature of ethernet transfers,
this can happen over a very wide range of frequencies ranging from 1/2
the data rate (50mhz for 100mips) all the way down to a few kilohertz
for sparse data exchanges.
Now add in the matter that a square wave is actually a
fundamental frequency plus all harmonics of that fundamental frequency
and you shouldn't have much trouble figuring out how this thing could
cause a noise spike every 50 khz along the entire VHF spectrum.
There are 5 ethernet ports on that router. Each one
producing about a 3 volt square wave on the 50 ohm load presented by the
cables. A quick power calculation tells us that 3 volts on 50 ohms is
actually 180 milliwatts. Five little transmitters, each with enough
power to transmit a signal over a mile and I have, in fact, heard my
neighbour's router on my handy talkie from nearly a block away.
Next add in the 5 ethernet (cat5) cables. These are
twisted pair cables with absolutely no shielding. In theory, with
differential drivers and inputs, the phase relationships in each pair
causes signal cancellation. But very few network cards use true
differential I/O. One wire of the pair is often simply grounded,
destroying any chance of phase cancellation. Connect these cables to the
source of Ethernet's racket and you have a bunch of antennas radiating
this RF hash out into the air, on its way to find a nearby antenna...
I was actually hearing the switching "hash" from the
ethernet ports in the router. Simply adding ferrite beads to the
ethernet signal lines inside the router itself would likely have stopped
the RF egress. With even minimal shielding in the case, the whole messy
problem would most likely have never come up.
Getting Linksys Involved
The morning after checking my neighbours equipment I
called the Linksys support line (1-800-326-7114) explained
that I am a ham radio operator and I was experiencing a rather nasty
problem with interference from one of their routers. To my surprise they
seemed quite aware of the problem, and put me on with one of their
senior technicians. After considerable discussion we settled on the
Set all NIC card speeds to 10 mbps.
Coil up extra cable length on a "three finger" form
Disable unused ports.
Make certain all connectors are clean and in good
Keep the router at least 6 inches from metal objects.
Disconnect unused cables.
Ok, this sounded reasonable so I wrote it up on a note and
dropped it in my neighbour's mail slot. A couple of hours later the
noise stopped as abruptly as it started. At least one of the items on
that list had stopped the noise so the next day I dropped in another
note thanking him for fixing the problem.
A couple of days later the noise returned and, as of this
October 2006 update, has not stopped. I am effectively put out of
"business" by it.
Other Routers Too?
In researching this, I looked at reviews and webpages on
other routers and found little or no information about interference of
this kind. There were a couple of comments about D-Link's cheaper
products being in plastic cases. A couple didn't like the 3Comm units
very much. But I found nothing to match the dozens of pages I found on
I seriously doubt this is an "every single router" problem
with Linksys products. I rather suspect it's a compatibility issue
between their products and some other network products. I found a number
of hams using Linksys products who had no trouble. But the ones who did
report problems were almost always Linksys users.
Summing It All Up.
Ethernet, itself, is very RF unfriendly, and you may run
into problems like mine with any setup where the owner is not careful
about wiring and shielding. Of course the closer the router is to your
antenna the worse the problem is going to get.
The tips above are not a perfect solution. The old saws
about coiling wires and keeping things tidy absolutely do apply but I
doubt they'd have much effect in this case. The 10mbps recommendation is
unconfirmed: it may simply shift the interference to a block of
frequencies I can't hear.
Bottom line... this router is a lousy design that never
should have reached production.
With respect to my neighbour, the most obvious first step
is for him to take the router back and get one from another maker. If
that gets it we're done. If not, well, that would take a diplomatic
These things can be worked out, provided all remain
cooperative. It is when communication stops that trouble starts.
You may also want to see the article about this on Ham
Universe. Don. N4UJW, has been researching this same problem, is
building a list of model numbers and offers good advice on isolating
interference sources. You can see his Article Here
Radio Amateurs of Canada (RAC) has a page on interference
with links to many sources of information and guidance on dealing with
RFI problems. You can access Their Page
There is an excellent article for hams dealing with RFI
problems and their neighbors on Ham Universe. It covers everyting from
diplomacy to "fox hunting" for noise. The article is written from an
american perspective, but the principles apply just as well in Canada.
That Article Is