Story 2015-12-31 Z784 Tiny FM transmitters deliver news and entertainment inside Syria

Tiny FM transmitters deliver news and entertainment inside Syria

by
in hardware on (#Z784)
On the top floor of an old brick building in the heart of Berlin, a group of journalists and tech enthusiasts are working to spur the Syrian media revolution. Their weapon is an unassuming black case the size of a shoebox that allows opposition radio stations in Syria to transmit inside hostile territory. Dubbed PocketFM, the device is basically a low-powered radio transmitter. Coupled with a satellite dish to receive new programs, a car battery for power and a one-meter (three-foot) antenna, it can broadcast FM radio within a 5-kilometer (3-mile) radius. That's enough to cover a town or a city district, said Philipp Hochleichter, who oversees development of the device for the Berlin-based nonprofit organization Media in Cooperation and Transition.

The group has been training journalists in conflict zones for more than a decade and often relies on FM radio to reach populations in far-flung areas that don't have access to the Internet or smartphones. But when the group realized that shifting front lines and the brutal treatment of journalists meant operating large broadcast antennae could become too cumbersome or risky, it developed PocketFM. It's now being used to covertly broadcast in nine locations, including two that are controlled by the Islamic State group, said Hochleichter. Connected to a solar panel, a PocketFM transmitter can theoretically work autonomously for long periods of time.

http://www.voanews.com/content/berlin-group-makes-tiny-transmitters-for-syria/3113277.html
Reply 8 comments

appearance (Score: 1, Interesting)

by Anonymous Coward on 2016-01-01 14:11 (#ZB1K)

Kudos to the developers, but really, it looks like a piece of military or ham gear with heat sink fins on three sides of the case. I'm assuming that operating one of these in hostile territory is asking for trouble -- like a swat team through your door. Couldn't they have made it look like a boom box or really almost anything else that looks less incriminating?.
Other points the article didn't mention -- output power (probably illegal if over 100mW?)
Also, isn't it easy to locate a transmitter with some minimal sleuthing gear, like a dipole antenna?

Re: appearance (Score: 2, Insightful)

by evilviper@pipedot.org on 2016-01-01 19:14 (#ZBPH)

You're suffering from a severe lack of context... Syria is several years into a massive and brutal civil war.
didn't mention -- output power (probably illegal if over 100mW?)
Do you know anybody who has been executed for operating a transmitter over the legal power limit? Simple survival is the major pressing concern for everyone there, right now.
operating one of these in hostile territory is asking for trouble -- like a swat team through your door.
That's where the "work autonomously" bit comes in. You go set it up, turn it on, and leave. Someone tracking it down will find a few hundred dollars worth of equipment, and no way to trace it back to anybody.

Re: appearance (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2016-01-02 02:21 (#ZCDR)

Right, the article did say,
> Connected to a solar panel, a PocketFM transmitter can theoretically work autonomously for long periods of time.

In that case, and since it already has a cell radio (to get text messages), why does it have a screen? Wouldn't a smart phone be a better way to initialize it -- then take the phone with you after getting the transmitter running?

Seems like there must be more to the story. For example the autonomous operation is only "theoretical"?

Re: appearance (Score: 1, Interesting)

by Anonymous Coward on 2016-01-10 21:06 (#108G5)

>Seems like there must be more to the story. For example the autonomous operation is only "theoretical"?

One only has to look at some of the U.S. smaller market low-power tv signals to get an idea of what can go wrong. Some are really messed up, and even some of the better performing ones occasionally go down after a power outage or other disturbance and don't come back up unless someone calls the parent station to tell them to check it. Many operators can't see the output of their own transmitters and really don't know what is going on.
Many of the analog stations were rebroadcasting noisy signals from other other low-power stations or misaimed dishes. Some have undetected configuration problems like out of phase audio. (signal produced sound on a stereo tv, but it cancelled out on a mono set) If there is some overlap of coverage of low-power stations, there may still be some audience responses from an area with a sick site. I've seen one station that NEVER has had any audio, and the operator didn't fix it even after being told about it.

Simple things, like a strong wind gust (or sandstorm?) might knock the satellite dish out of alignment. A dish that's close-enough when set up in good weather might not always give adequate signal under other atmospheric conditions. High operating temperatures might contribute to r.f amp failure, or maybe the oscillator going out of lock. Maybe the box isn't quite weather-tight and some moisture gets in contributing to currents between circuit traces, or corrosion.
Old-school equipment would have used a crystal to set the desired transmit channel, but it's more likely there is a digital synthesizer (similar to what's in modern FM tuners) that makes it easy to change frequencies. While the added complexity adds flexibility, it also adds more failure modes. Who knows, a stray cosmic ray might cause the digital section to freeze up. A problem that could be cleared by a simple reset/reboot might persist if there's no one around to do it. If the solar power and battery voltage drops too low, will the equipment always go back to a controlled stable state after experiencing slow transitions through a below normal supply voltage range? Of course these sorts of potential problems apply to the satellite receiver too.

If the transmitter has a display, it's probably a design with a cpu in control of the frequency synthesizer, trim of output power, and monitoring of things like reflected power (an indication of how well the antenna is adjusted to transfer energy from the transmitter). Having a cpu generally lowers reliability, but a custom design might be set up to do intelligent things like adjust the operating hours and power level to make best use of the available power supply ability. I doubt that any custom development is being done.

Re: appearance (Score: 1)

by evilviper@pipedot.org on 2016-01-12 14:17 (#10E32)

Some have undetected configuration problems like out of phase audio.
I've seen one station that NEVER has had any audio,
Those problems likely have to do with station operators not wanting to pay any money to technician to properly set things up, and periodically maintain them. These are unlikely to be issues in Syria, where the guys setting these up are personally interested in having them work, and are not trying to make money on them (or just setting up the basics to maintain their FCC license), and everyone will work for food, anyhow. And with little competition on the air, listeners will no doubt tolerate whatever problems the broadcaster has, to get their news and entertainment fix.

Re: appearance (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2016-01-28 22:36 (#126BA)

they have smart phones in syria?

Despite != because (Score: 2, Interesting)

by fishybell@pipedot.org on 2016-01-01 22:07 (#ZC12)

FTFA:
“People have a day-to-day life despite conflict,” said Abdulhaq. “Despite the sadness and the war, people like to listen to music and even comedy.”
I remember reading about how movie ticket purchase rates were very closely linked to tragedy, economic downturn, etc. I imagine for most people listening to these radio broadcasts, the music and comedy are the often the highlights of their day; just like the movies, they offer an escape.

Woman confesses that all women are wookies (Score: -1, Troll)

by Anonymous Coward on 2016-01-05 04:46 (#ZN31)

"If only they [men] saw us for the filthy creatures we really are." Daisy, 27, told me. "Take me for example" as she lifted up her right pant leg, "I haven't shaved my legs or my pits in 5 years."

How did she get dates, I wonder. Was she married to a blind man?

"I love to live as I really am! In fact, if every feminist were true to themselves they would live as I do. No razor, even if your upper lip sprouts hair." She leaned forward towards me and whispered as if the whole world were listening, "no waxing, not even for my private parts!"

Truly this woman was honest. More honest than any feminist I had ever met. I wondered what she did when she went swimming somewhere.

"Oh I get a lot of looks, a lot!" she laughed. "Mostly curious but it sure does keep the men away." She reached for a coffee mug and pointed to her hairy legs. "This is what we really are! This is how we really should appear. Why hide it?"

Why, indeed. I excused myself and thanked Daisy for her time and honesty.

Finally, I had met a woman. A real woman. "Well, back to the world of lies and perfume on a pig" I told myself, walking out to the street where I hailed a taxi. I looked back at Daisy as she stroked her leg hair. "A reeeeal woman" I blew out through my smiling lips.