Monday, August 20, 2007

Seeing Green

While most hams were getting ready for Field Day, I was getting ready for a field trip! My destination: 3100 miles to the east to visit the land of the green. I touched down in Dublin on Saturday morning, June 23rd at about 9 am. From the first moment I left the plane I felt relaxed and at home. What a beautiful place it was! In many ways, Ireland is quite similar to America, but many things were interesting and new. Let me tell you all about them!

Plugging In

Adapting to the Emerald Isle is easy, at least electronically! Ireland’s power grid provides a standard 220 volts at 50 hertz instead of America’s 110 volts at 60 hertz. Many “travel” voltage step-down converters can covert 220 to 110 volts, but most can not change the frequency from 50 to 60 hertz. American clocks may run slower than expected! A/C hum is also a couple of notes lower at 100 Hz instead of the familiar 120 Hz we all know and love. Inspect all the electronic devices you bring abroad. Many computers and battery chargers (iPod, Nintendo, etc.) accept both 220 and 110 volts by design. If that’s so, then all you’ll need is a simple plastic plug adapter! No heavy power converter would be required! Ireland uses a more rugged power connector larger than our standard three prong plug. This style is universal throughout Ireland and Northern Ireland, with one exception: If you want to use an electric shaver in a hotel it needs to be fitted with an old–fashioned two round pin plug. Also, modern A/C wall receptacles all feature individual on/off switches for each outlet. Take a look at the light bulbs! Ireland uses an interesting twist-lock bayonet style with two connection prongs in the lamp base.

What’s On the Telly?

Four Irish channels are seen most everywhere: RTE One and Two, independent TV3 and RTE’s Irish Gaelic TG4. RTE is “owned by the people of Ireland” and is somewhat similar to our PBS. Each household in Ireland is required to purchase an annual TV licence (158 Euro - about $218) to support RTE's expenses. Most of the hotels I visited also offered Britain’s BBC2, Sky News and Sky Sports and CNN International. A few satellite-delivered channels might also be available such as SkyOne.

The four basic Irish channels were well-balanced and filled with variety. Most viewed are the soap operas Fair City and the British EastEnders, Saturday Night with Miriam (a very popular talk show) and any coverage of Gaelic football or hurling (Ireland’s two great sports.) The world stops every Saturday night around 9:35 pm to watch Miriam O'Callaghan chat with the famous on RTE One. There was no shortage of programs imported from America and Britain, but many shows seen are produced in Ireland. The Simpsons are enormously popular in Ireland seen at 5:35 pm on RTE Two. I caught Wimbledon tennis on the BBC in English with a second match on TG4 with commentary in Gaelic!

Irish television is transmitted using the Pal-I standard at 625 line resolution. (America uses a different system called NTSC.) It looks a little sharper than American TV, but you may see a little bit of on-screen flicker due to the slower alternating 50 hertz power standard.

Television distribution is interesting and diverse. RTE 1 and 2 can be seen in most areas over-the-air on UHF. Two companies, NTL and Chorus, provide most of Ireland’s “cable” television via cable or over-the-air microwave similar to America’s MMDS. NTL and Chorus have recently merged nearly creating a terrestrial monopoly. Irish MMDS antennas are fitted with block downconverters shifting the received microwave signals to UHF television frequencies. In some homes, a “converter” box processes the signals and presents them for viewing. Digital MMDS provides more channels by incorporating signal compression. The widest variety of channels can be seen via subscription service Sky Digital employing 10 GHz Ku band transmission via geosynchronous satellite. Unlike our DirecTV or Dish TV satellite services, a host of channels can be seen free-of-charge using Sky equipment. Of course, Sky wants you to subscribe to one of their many pay packages!

Another interesting quirk is the proliferation of “deflector” transmitters in rural areas of Ireland. When reception is poor in an outback area, many locals have established unofficial repeater transmitters to bring wanted signals to their community for both television and radio. Deflector transmitters date back to the early days of TV and radio when the Irish public was anxious for more diverse (or any!) content. In the early 1950s, deflectors brought the first available television broadcasts to Ireland using high gain antennas on towers installed to snag and repeat BBC signals from nearby Wales. Deflectors are generally tolerated by ComReg, the Irish version of the FCC.

Turn on your television and you’ll immediately know you are not in America! First, most sets sit idle in standby mode. You “wake up” the telly by entering a program number. The power button is only used to put the set back in standby when you are done. TV surfing is arranged by program numbers, not channel numbers. Your television’s auto-scanning set-up allows you to scan the Irish VHF and UHF bands for signals. When they are captured, you assign each a program number and an ID. After your TV is programmed you will never see a blank channel. You will only see the TV services saved in your presets. Manual tuning is very difficult, if not impossible, on modern Irish TV sets.

Irish television also features RTE Aertel, an extraordinary teletext system. Aertel cleverly transmits text data along with regular TV programming. Your home TV set receives and stores the data for your use on-demand. Information worthy of an elaborate newspaper can be seen on-screen using your remote control. First, press the text button. You’ll see the familiar RTE Aertel front page. Then, you can either enter specific page numbers or use the four coloured buttons on your remote to access teletext sub-groups: Full Index, News Heads, TV Now and Sport. You can even see detailed descriptions of RTE transmitter maintenance! Try it out for yourself at:

Closed captioning is available on most RTE programs using Aertel. If you are watching BBC channels, a similar text data service called CeeFax can caption your show, as well. Open the appropriate teletext service (Aertel or CeeFax,) and simply press 888 on your remote to activate. Captions appear in several text colors to distinguish who is speaking. Many Sky channels also offer teletext. Most TVs allow you to superimpose any teletext screen over live programming so you won’t miss a beat!

Aerials Above

Oh, the things you can see in Ireland! My fascination continued by looking up! Irish TV antenna designs are amazingly diverse. I almost thought there was a prohibition on aerial use in Dublin. You have to look very carefully to see even one TV antenna in the city (and it would probably be abandoned in poor condition.) Most everyone here is on cable or watches Sky satellite. Leave Dublin city and the aerial fun begins!

The Irish use both vertical and horizontal polarities to transmit over-the-air TV signals. (The United States uses horizontal polarization exclusively.) The advantage is more efficient spectrum use allowing tighter spacing of multiple transmitters to fill in all the nooks and crannies common to the terrain. Most popular are long inexpensive Yagis. You’ll notice their unusual flat metal grid reflectors and little black button weather-sealed baluns. Other UHF designs use a few elements mounted in a V as a reflector as you would expect to see in The States. UHF bow-tie arrays, with screen back grids, are quite popular as well. Depending on your location, you’ll see any or all of these types of antenna mounted horizontally or vertically and sometimes both!

Many areas still have a remnant or two of the days when VHF transmission was prevalent here. Simple classic design VHF Yagis still stand on chimney mounts. I caught a few built as an upper VHF Yagi in one polarity along with a couple of low VHF elements in the reverse polarity reminiscent of a 2 meter / 70 cm combo familiar to hams. Satellite dishes also have a different look: You can see through most of them! Unlike American home dishes that are solid in construction, Sky dishes are manufactured using perforated mesh. Their current design is oval. Some older dishes, still in use, are nearly identical to our familiar DirecTV designs.

Ireland’s MMDS aerials are equally unusual. You’ll see LNB assemblies much like America’s designs, but the mini-dish reflector is actually a piece of metal screening that has been pressed into a parabola for economy. They are prolific all over Counties Silgo, Galway and Clare. Microwave Internet distribution is quite common using small square antennas resembling white mini-roadsigns seen on many chimney mounts or miniature Yagis usually polarized vertically.

Irish Radio

Things are a wee bit different on the radio in Ireland, as well. Bring a simple radio with continuous analog tuning! Frequency allocations on FM are in 100 kHz increments across the 88 to 108 MHz standard FM band. You’ll find stations in unusual places like 102.0 MHz. Your American digitally-tuned FM radio will only get some stations clearly since they are programmed to receive only “odd” frequencies like 92.7 or 100.1 FM. (We use a wider 200 kHz spacing standard.) An analog radio is also essential for listening to AM since stations are separated 9 kHz apart unlike America’s “even” allocations every 10 kHz. Most European stations also follow these frequency allocation schemes on AM and FM.

Many Irish car radios incorporate the BBC’s RDS (Radio Data System) on FM. Using RDS, you simply set your radio to the network you wish to hear and the radio takes it from there! You’ll only see the name of your chosen network on the front panel display. Chances are, you’ll have continuous reception wherever you go! The radio automatically searches for the strongest signal available for your chosen network and always keeps you tuned in. If you have sharp ears (or a very quiet car) you may hear a slight difference in audio level or processing when the radio swaps to a better frequency. FM stations are allocated in groups of frequencies nationwide. RTE broadcasts four networks: RTE 1 (full-service radio,) 2FM (pop rock and chat,) Raidio Na Gaelachta in Gaelic (news, sports and lots of traditional Irish music,) and Lyric FM, their classical music service. Two independent networks are also heard: Today FM (top 40 pop and chat,) and Newstalk with the motto “different station, different nation” expressing their independence from Northern Ireland. Many areas have smaller independent FM stations that serve one county or area exclusively.

As you travel you will find these networks in the same order across the dial: RTE 1, 2FM and RnaG in a row from 88 to 95 mHz; Lyric shows up midband, followed by Today FM. Newstalk is always at the top of the band up around 106 to 108 MHz. Local FM broadcasters were usually found shuffled into the middle of the FM band. Even at the most remote outposts, I managed to hear at least 5 or 6 FM stations. Many, many transmitters are used to achieve good coverage, especially in rural areas, making RDS nearly a necessity.

Local medium wave “AM” radio is almost extinct in Ireland. RTE 1 is relayed, via a 500 kilowatt transmitter, from Tullamore (located dead center in Ireland) on 567 kHz. You’ll hear it effortlessly, nearly everywhere, even during the day. RTE 1 is also available on longwave via the former Atlantic 252 transmitter in County Meath, also in central Ireland. I searched several electronics shops and never found a modern radio capable of receiving long wave. I also heard a non-identifying (pirate?) AM station in Donegal (far north) playing endless traditional American country music.

Ireland sits much farther north than our native New York at about the same latitude as Canada’s Labrador. In the height of summer, nights are quite short! You won’t see complete darkness until about 11:30 pm, and dawn’s early light peeks in around 4:30 am. Late in the evening, the medium wave band in Ireland begins to sound like shortwave in America. Without any competition from local stations, the world starts to arrive at your receiver.

Possibly the most dominant medium wave signal at night is Radio China International relayed through the facilities of RTL Luxembourg on 1440 kHz with 300 kilowatts. This is the same frequency once used by the famous Radio Lux (208 metres) that delivered rock ‘n’ roll to all of post-war Europe until the end of the 1960s. It is very odd to hear China so clearly in Western Europe on medium wave! Sweden’s 600 kilowatt station is equally prominent on 1179 kHz in English from 9:30 to 10 pm. You’ll hear them in Swedish and other languages throughout the night. Many stations can be heard in French, German and Slavic languages. You’ll also find a host of frequencies airing the BBC’s Radio Wales, Radio 5 and Radio Scotland along with independent Virgin Radio from London. A lifetime could be spent logging all the mysteries heard on Irish medium wave. I only had nine days and a little transistor radio!

Blaupunkt seems to be today’s car radio manufacturer of choice throughout the Emerald Isle. Old German-design wooden table radios, quite popular in the 1960s, can be found seemingly everywhere in quantity as antiques. I saw dozens of them during my trip in hotel lobbies, restaurants, and shop windows. They all share the distinctive Grundig design and shape with dual speakers behind the front grille cloth, two big knobs, volume on the left and tuning on the right, and white “piano keys” for turning the set on and off and changing bands. Most sets offer three bands: Long wave, medium wave and shortwave. The dials note where to look for broadcasts from places like Hilversum, Paris and Munich. You’ll also find a piano key to switch to your Gramophone (record player!) A radio restorer could easily establish a career here. I never met one of these radios that still worked!

New Technology

Ireland is a nation in waiting (for HDTV.) Many hotels and taverns have 16 x 9 sets and some of them actually display HDTV! All HDTV programming arrives from abroad via Sky satellite. Sky TV offers 9 channels of HDTV including BBC HD, the HD channels of History Channel, National Geographic and Discovery and 5 exclusive channels produced by Sky. Nearly every place I went had some sort of widescreen display, but most often it was filled with Irish sports coverage (in zoom mode) or even RTE Aertel’s teletext showing listings of Euro (currency) exchange rates. A late update: RTE aired their first experimental HDTV sports broadcast this past July.

Digital radio is beginning to be broadcast on a new band around 225 MHz via two experimental multiplexes in select areas around the country. Multiplex one carries ten RTE channels including the classic four basic services widely heard throughout the country on analog radios. Multiplex 2 features national independent services Newstalk and Today FM along with 4 local stations from Dublin. A special receiver is required to hear these tests. Ireland decided not to try in-band on-channel digital currently used here in America.

The Places You See

The most fascinating experience of my trip was not fully appreciated until several days after I left The Emerald Isle. I visited the most northerly point in Ireland called Malin Head in County Donegal. As our bus approached the site, we passed a rather elaborate small radio station. With very limited knowledge of the area, I could only guess its purpose. A quick scan with my AM/FM portable produced no clues!

We finally reached our destination: A high bluff featuring gale force winds and gorgeous expansive views. Sailors beware! The seas below were rampant in turmoil and treachery. Two abandoned buildings stood at the summit. One was a three story lookout tower and the other was a concise low profile concrete hut. Both buildings were of a similar vintage - old but not ancient. They were obviously abandoned long ago. I did not give them much thought.

As we drove away, I asked our bus driver if he could pause at the radio station so I could take some snapshots. My curiousity was piqued when I noticed the station was an outpost of the Irish Coast Guard. Outside the small buildings at the station were two short towers, about 150 feet tall, supporting a complex array of wire antennae. I wished I had a back yard like this at home! I documented the site with my digital camera as best I could. On we went!

Only after I had arrived home in The States did I understand what a magical visit that was! Some quick research on the Internet revealed the answers to my questions. The little radio station was Malin Head Radio - callsign EJM - a primary centre for marine communications and rescue support.

Today, EJM operates primarily on 1677 kHz, and the standard safety frequency 2182 kHz, in SSB. The station is home to four one-kilowatt Rohde and Schwarz transmitters, a 750 watt Scanti transmitter, a one-kilowatt Navtex transmitter and an array of professional HF receivers. Malin Head Radio is also the control point for many VHF radio transceivers installed throughout a wide area of the Irish seacoast. It is a beehive of activity for navigation and life saving support.

The abandoned hilltop site proved more remarkable. This bluff is properly known as Banba's Crown. This three-story lookout was built in 1805 by Lloyd's of London as a signal tower to communicate with passing ships. Semaphore and telescopes were used initially along with signal lights. In 1902, Marconi wireless equipment and antennae were installed at the site. The station itself was situated in the tall tower. The low profile building housed the connections and tuning unit for the antennae strung aloft. The original spark transmitter operated at 250 watts.

The Post Office took over the station in 1909. Four years later, in 1913, the station was rebuilt at its present site, two miles south of Banba's Crown, with a 5,000 watt transmitter feeding one tall mast and antenna. The average range of the new station was about 450 miles during the day. At night, Malin Head's signals could be heard 1200 miles away and beyond. The site was ideal for medium wave radio transmission. Malin Head Radio was one of scores of stations worldwide who operated and monitored 500 kHz for CW traffic. The last 500 kHz CW transmission was completed on December 31, 1988. The station now operates exclusively with SSB on medium and shortwave. They have not missed one day's operation since opening day January 1, 1902!

Journey's End

Over the nine days spent in Ireland, I never lost my smile. We traveled north into Donegal followed by a long pleasant journey south through Counties Silgo, Galway, Clare, Kerry and Limerick before casting off from Shannon. No matter where we went, rolling hills of green meadows followed us everywhere. With only six million people living in Ireland, the sheep and cattle far outnumbered people! The sights, the heavenly music, the memorable food and drink all conveyed a single message: You're very welcome! What a lovely place to be. Try it out for yourself and see!


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