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Fundamentals of Radio Link Engineering

© 1999 J. Frank Jimenez

1.0 Introduction

This paper introduces the fundamental elements involved in atmospheric propagation and line-
of-sight microwave systems, which often inter-connect remote locations in today’s voice or data
communications networks. These basics must be mastered before learning how to properly
design and implement a “line-of-sight” (LOS) microwave path. This information is crucial,
because the serial path that a point-to-point RF link system represents frequently becomes the
“single-point-of-failure” in the reliability model for the overall system.

Although many believe that establishing a line-of-sight radio link merely requires a visual line-
of-sight between the antennas, this is not the case. It may be possible to establish very short
radio links using “point-and-shoot” methods, but the reliability of such systems is usually
unpredictable, and this approach is likely to result in system outages.

Creating reliable radio frequency line-of-sight systems generally requires path clearances greater
than those required in achieving visual line-of-sight. The amount of additional clearance
depends on the particular frequency at which the system operates.

2.0 An Overview of Microwave Radio System Planning

The process of establishing a reliable microwave system should include the following steps.

Step 1: A preliminary engineering study for feasibility and budgetary proposal purposes.
Step 2: A site survey to determine equipment installation requirements.
Step 3: A field path survey to verify station coordinates, path topology, and any
Step 4: Final system engineering, utilizing verified data from the site and path survey, to
address critical path clearances, reflection analysis, link analysis, and
determination of required antenna heights above ground level.
Step 5: Revision of the initial budgetary proposal into a firm, fixed-price quotation for
the turnkey system.

Step 1: The preliminary feasibility engineering study. Based on topographical map work and
customer-provided coordinates or site locations, this engineering documents assumptions that are
made to determine whether a microwave path is feasible. It does not involve any site visits or a
field path survey. These studies can appear quite detailed to the inexperienced, which may tempt
them to use the information for implementation of the system—without any further engineering.
While they may get lucky occasionally, in most cases they will end up regretting that decision.

Step 2: The site survey. Frequently combined with other pre-sales visits to the prospective
customer, this survey identifies where equipment will be installed at each end of the link. It also
documents cabling, powering, and grounding requirements, so that installation costs can be
determined, based on assumed equipment installation locations.

Step 3: The field path survey. Although this step is strictly path related, it might be possible to
combine it with Step 2, during a single visit—if the system involves a very short path that can be
visually verified and if a qualified engineer is available to perform both functions. Longer paths

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© 1999 J. Frank Jimenez
frequently require more than one “virtual day.” That means it either requires two or more days
in the field, or more than one person will be needed to complete the work in one day.

Step 4: Final system engineering. This work can only be performed after the previous steps
have been completed and the results are documented.

Step 5: The fixed-price quotation. This quotation can only be developed based on the outcome
of the previous steps. For example, the antenna height requirements could significantly affect
system costs or result in a zoning impact that requires mitigation or renders the system

2.1 Cost Issues

Anyone who believes that the cost of proper system design is too expensive to justify, risks
spending considerably more money trying to resolve system problems that could have been
prevented through proper design. It’s important to keep in mind that the total of all system costs
is the real bottom line.

When justifying the total system cost, consider whether the system is replacing an expensive
leased circuit with recurring monthly costs. These costs may be justified by the system’s high
reliability and ability to meet specified performance expectations. In such cases, a “shoot from
the hip” replacement will usually end up being a costly disappointment.

This could occur, for example, when a wireless Ethernet system is used for real-time voice
communication, which is not tolerant of bit errors or path outages. On the other hand, if the
application is strictly Ethernet, and the proposed system will only be used to provide additional
bandwidth in parallel with existing facilities, then the customer may choose a less-robust system,
based on his own informed risk assessment.

Note: In order to avoid liability for a system that may turn out to be unreliable, it is important to
properly inform each customer of the risks involved in deploying a wireless system without
benefit of proper engineering.

System engineering costs should be included in every system proposal presented to a client (even
as a separate line item), so that system performance guarantees can be clearly linked to whether
or not the engineering is performed. Clients not willing to pay for the engineering must then are
willing to assume responsibility for the system performance that will result. Experience has
shown that someone must pay, sooner or later, one way or the other. It’s just a question of who
and when. Of course, every case has an exception, and as a system integrator becomes more
experienced in assessing a path during a visit to the client, he may be able to “SWAG” the
engineering aspects of a short or simple path. On the other hand, paths as short as 800 feet in
length have been known to fail, due to a multi-path reflection.

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© 1999 J. Frank Jimenez
3.0 The Fundamental Elements of “Line-of-Sight” Microwave Radio Systems

This section covers the basic technical elements that provide a foundation for understanding line-
of-sight radio frequency systems. The topics include:

• Frequency
• Wavelength
• Free-space Loss
• Precipitation Loss
• Antenna Gain
• Antenna Beam-width
• Fresnel zones
• Phase Relationships
• Multi-path Reflections
• Atmospheric Refraction
• Earth Bulge

These elements must be clearly understood before attempting to undertake the design of a
mission critical line-of-sight microwave radio link.

3.1 Frequency

Frequency is measured in terms of the number of events in a given time duration. The moon
completes a single cycle in about a month—or a frequency of approximately 12 cycles per year.
The human auditory system can detect cyclical barometric pressure changes occurring at rates
between 20 to 20,000 cycles per second. It is interesting to note that low frequency sounds tend
to propagate in a less directional manner than high frequency sounds, as evidenced by the low
frequency “boom, boom” we can hear (or feel) from a high-powered audio system three cars
away at a signal light. High frequency sounds tend to propagate in a more directional or “line-
of-sight” manner than lower frequencies, and they are, therefore, attenuated to a larger degree by
obstructions. This difference explains why the low frequency output from a woofer appears to
be omni directional and can be easily heard around the corner in the next room, while the highest
frequency sounds from a tweeter are usually not audible unless one is situated in front of the

This same characteristic applies to radio frequency signals, particularly signals in the microwave
frequency range where most wireless broadband communication systems operate. Since
microwave frequencies have short wavelengths, they generally require a “line-of-sight” (LOS)
propagation path. They also need clearance for what is referred to as “the 1st Fresnel zone,”
whose boundaries vary with the frequency and wavelength of the specific system.

Fresnel zones will be discussed in depth later in this paper. For now, the key point to remember
is that the “1st Fresnel zone” is a boundary surrounding the signal path between the two antennas
which requires additional clearance beyond simple “visual line-of-sight.” This extra clearance is
needed because the wavelength of visible light is extremely short, compared to microwave
frequencies—approximately 0.55 microns, or 0.0000216 inches. This results in a 1st Fresnel
zone boundary that is virtually non-existent for a “visual line-of-sight” path.

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At microwave frequencies, however, wavelength is considerably longer (4.92 inches at 2.4 GHz
and 2.036 inches at 5.8 GHz). The resulting 60% 1st Fresnel zone boundaries range from
approximately 3 feet, for a 528-foot-long, 5.8 GHz path, to over 57 feet for a 15-mile-long, 2.4
GHz path. By including the clearance needed for 60% of the first Fresnel zone, “radio frequency
line-of-sight” differs significantly from “visual line-of-sight.”

3.2 Wavelength

To be able to solve radio system engineering problems, you need to understand wavelength.
Wavelength is related to system frequencies and is an important factor in determining free space
loss, antenna gain, and Fresnel Zone boundaries—as well as the phase relationship between two

Electromagnetic waves propagate at the speed of light (in free-space or a vacuum), or

300,000,000 meters per second. As a result, wavelength in meters can be calculated by dividing
the number 300 by the frequency in MHz. To derive wavelength in inches, one can divide 11811
(the number of inches in 300 meters) by the frequency in MHz. From a practical standpoint, the
results of these formulae are approximate, since real-world electromagnetic waves propagate
through a medium, whether it’s the atmosphere, a conductor, or some other transmission

Our atmosphere consists of numerous gases and water vapor, each of varying density. These
materials slow the propagation of radio waves to approximately 99.97% of their speed in a
vacuum or free space. Coaxial cable slows the signal down even more. For example, Times
Microwave LMR 400 coaxial cable, which is commonly used in RF antenna systems, has a
velocity factor of 85%. This means that the RF signal transmitted through that particular cable is
slowed to 85% of its free-space velocity.

What does this have to do with wavelength? As shown in the following example, the density of
the transmission medium produces changes in radio wavelengths; similar to the way it affects

One 2400 MHz wavelength in free-space = 11811/2400 = 4.921 inches

One 2400 MHz wavelength in normal atmosphere = 11811/2400 x .9997 = 4.920 inches
One 2400 MHz wavelength in LMR 400 coax = 11811/2400 x .85 = 4.183 inches

These seemingly minute differences can be far more important than they seem at first, since
radio link systems have path lengths that are measured in miles. Over these distances, the minute
differences in each wavelength become very significant, because of the vast number of
wavelengths required to cover even a single mile.

This information may seem to contradict what we have all been taught—that wavelength is
related to frequency and that for wavelength to become shorter, frequency has to go higher.
Although this principle is true, exceptions must be made when there are differences in
propagation velocity.

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Let’s use the example of a fish swimming in a still lake. With every cyclical movement of its
tail, the fish moves forward in the water one meter. This establishes his wavelength (or linear
distance per cycle) at 1 meter. If the fish can complete and maintain 2000 tail cycles per hour,
then his frequency would be 2000 cycles per hour. With that frequency and wavelength, the fish
could cover a linear distance of 2000 meters in an hour, with 2000 cycles of tail movement.
Keep in mind, however, that this distance is achieved in still water, representing propagation in
free space.

Now, let’s say the fish must swim out of the still lake and move upstream in a river flowing at 1
kilometer per hour. The fish would still complete 2000 cycles of tail movement in one hour, but
it would only cover a linear distance of 1 kilometer in that same time period. Its wavelength
under these conditions would now be ½ meter in linear distance per cycle, rather than 1 meter as
in still water.

These same principals apply to radio signals propagating through mediums that modify their
propagation speed. As propagation velocity decreases, wavelength is shortened without a
corresponding change in frequency. If you keep this phenomenon in mind, it will help you
understand atmospheric refraction, which will be explained later in this document.

3.3 Free Space Loss

Free space attenuation, commonly referred to as path loss, and is dependent upon the frequency
of the system involved and the length of the signal path. Free space attenuation (or loss)
increases as frequency goes up, for a given unit of distance. This occurs because higher
frequencies have shorter wavelengths, and to cover a given distance; they must complete many
more cycles than lower frequency signals, which have longer wavelength. During each cycle
(wavelength) the signals propagate, some of their energy is “spent.” Consequently, the higher
the frequency (and shorter the wavelength), the more rapidly the signals weaken as they
propagate. Although the formula for computing free space attenuation assumes signal
propagation in a vacuum (outer space), the attenuation through the atmosphere is reasonably

The amount of free space attenuation can be computed using the following formula:

36.6 + 20 Log (F) + 20 Log (D)


F = Frequency in MHz
D = Distance in Miles

Example: A 2.4 GHz 5 mile path

Log (2400) = 3.380211 (x20) = 67.604225

Log (5) = 0.698970 (x20) = 13.979400

Path Loss = (36.6 + 67.604225 + 13.979400) = 118.183625 dB

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3.4 Precipitation Loss

Frequency and wavelength are also affected by precipitation, which comes in many forms. The
detrimental effects of precipitation vary according to the physical properties of its form, as well
as its wavelength relationship to that of the particular frequency involved.

As explained earlier, wavelength is directly related to frequency, and one can determine the
approximate wavelength of a frequency in free space. To determine the wavelength in inches,
we simply divide 11811 by the frequency in MHz, as shown in the following calculations:

11811/5800 = 2.036, with ¼ wavelength then being approximately 0.509 inches.

11811/23000 = 0.514, with ¼ wavelength then being approximately 0.128 inches

Basically, when an object’s physical properties approach ¼ wavelength of a particular frequency,

they become highly reflective at that frequency. As shown in the two examples above, raindrops
can easily attain a dimension of 1/8 inch or more, effectively becoming multiple reflectors (or
more accurately stated, deflectors) in the path of a 23-GHz signal, while having much less
impact on a 5.8 GHz signal.

From a practical standpoint, systems designed with frequencies as low as 10 GHz should allow
additional fade margin to overcome the attenuation effects of precipitation. For systems at
frequencies above 23 GHz, water droplets of smaller size, including fog, can become a major
consideration for these millimeter wave systems. Point rainfall rates approaching 4 inches per
hour can occur in many parts of Florida and the states located along the Gulf of Mexico. This
instantaneous rainfall rate would result in approximately 66 dB of rain attenuation over a 23-
GHz, 4-mile path. That’s why 23-GHz systems are not a very wise choice for some parts of the
country, unless path lengths are extremely short and rainfall attenuation is factored into the
system fade margin.

3.5 Antenna Gain

Antenna gain is directly related to frequency and the antenna signal-capture area. The number of
wavelengths in its signal-capture area determines gain of an antenna. Therefore, antenna gain
will go up in either of these two situations—if frequency goes up (allowing more, shorter
wavelengths) or if the size of signal-capture area goes up (also allowing more wavelengths). The
concept of signal-capture area can be explained with the following analogy.

Imagine that radio energy is represented by hundreds of butterflies fluttering across the sky with
an equal density of 3 butterflies per square foot. Now visualize a 1-square-foot butterfly net
being held in their path to “capture” butterflies. We could then measure the capture effect of this
1-square-foot net as a reference for measuring the capture effect gain of larger net sizes. If the
net size were increased from 1 square foot to 2 square feet, we would capture 6, rather than 3
butterflies. This numerical ratio increase would correspond to a gain of 6 dB in voltage (20 Log)
terms, a doubling of the number. In other words, the gain of an antenna increases by 6 dB each
time the signal capture area is doubled.

Although there are many types of antennas, most point-to-point microwave systems utilize
parabolic antennas in order to achieve the required gain and reduce interference. The standard
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© 1999 J. Frank Jimenez
formula for computing parabolic antenna gain assumes 55% illumination efficiency of the
antenna’s capture area. The term “illumination efficiency” refers to the percentage of power
being radiated by the source at the antenna’s focal point that “illuminates” the antenna reflector
surface. This formula, shown below, results in gain figures that fall within the median
distribution of antennas available on the market:

7.5 + 20 Log (F) + 20 Log (D)


F = Frequency in GHz
D = Diameter in Feet

Example: A 2.4 GHz, 6 foot diameter, parabolic antenna

Log (2.4) = 0.380211 (x20) = 7.6

Log (6) = 0.778151 (x20) = 15.56

Parabolic Antenna Gain = (7.5 + 7.6 + 15.56) = 30.66 dBi

3.6 Antenna Beam-width

Antenna beam-width is another important antenna parameter, which is closely related to the
forward gain of an antenna. Since antenna gain results from redirecting available radiated
energy in a given direction, the higher the antenna gain of an antenna in its forward direction, the
lower its gain in other directions. That’s why larger antennas with higher gain are more
directional. Consequently, they are often used to solve interference problems when the
interference source may be located off-azimuth from the affected system path.

The beam-width of a parabolic antenna can be approximated with the following formula:

70/F x D

F = Frequency in GHz
D = Parabola diameter in feet

Example: A 2.4 GHz, 6 foot diameter, parabolic antenna

70/(2.4 x 6) = 4.86 degrees

It is important to realize that the beam-width of an antenna is merely the peak-to-peak angle of
the antenna’s ½ power (or –3dB) point and not an absolute tight beam. If an antenna has 30 dBi
of gain and a 6-degree beam-width, then at +/- 3 degrees off the antenna’s beam peak, the
antenna still has 27 dBi of gain. From the standpoint of interference rejection, this specification
has little value. It only provides an industry-standard method of defining the antenna’s main
forward gain characteristics, nothing more.

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For interference engineering and analysis purposes, it is necessary to obtain accurate antenna
radiation pattern data from the antenna manufacturer, which includes antenna gain characteristics
out to +/- 180 degrees off the main gain lobe or beam. This data is required in both the vertical
and horizontal planes, since solution of interference problems frequently requires cross
polarization of the antennas with respect to the interference source. However, we will not
discuss the complexities of interference engineering in this document, since this topic probably
requires its own dedicated paper.

3.7 The Fresnel Zones

Creating “RF line-of-sight” for a microwave path requires more clearance over path obstructions
than is required to establish a visual “line-of-sight.” The extra clearance is needed to establish an
unobstructed propagation path boundary for the transmitted signal, based on its wavelength.
These boundaries are referred to as “Fresnel zones.” which are concentric areas surrounding the
direct path of the signal beam between the two antennas. To establish “RF line-of-sight,” it is
necessary to clear 60% of the 1st Fresnel zone boundary, from the signal beam centerline
outwards, across the entire signal path. Failure to do so will result in additional signal loss
caused by diffraction; the amount of loss will depend on the degree of Fresnel zone

Although we are primarily concerned with clearing 60% of the 1st Fresnel zone radius to avoid
signal diffraction loss, it is important to realize that Fresnel zones are infinite in number. Each
succeeding Fresnel zone has an exact ½ wavelength relationship to the previous one, and the
distance separating each Fresnel zone diminishes as the Fresnel zone number increases. For
now, we can simply focus on the definition of the 1st Fresnel zone boundary, which is described
as follows:

The reflection point offset from a direct signal path, where the length of the reflected path is
exactly ½ wavelength longer than the direct signal path. These boundaries can be calculated
with the following formula:

d1 • d 2
F1 = 72.1
f •D

F1 = First Fresnel zone radius in feet

d1 = Distance from one end of path to reflection point in miles
d2 = Distance from reflection point to opposite end of path in miles
D = Total length of path in miles
f = Frequency in GHz

A reflected path length that is exactly ½ wavelength longer than the previous one defines the
succeeding Fresnel zone boundaries. Therefore, the boundary for any Fresnel zone radius can be
calculated directly using the following formula:

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© 1999 J. Frank Jimenez
n • d1 • d 2
Fn = 72.1
f •D

Fn = Specific Fresnel zone radius in feet

d1 = Distance from one end of path to reflection point in miles
d2 = Distance from reflection point to opposite end of path in miles
D = Total length of path in miles
f = Frequency in GHz
n = number of specific Fresnel zone

3.8 Phase and Its Relationships

Phase can be described either in terms of degrees or radians (1 radian being approximately 57.3
degrees). This paper will refer to degrees, because it relates more clearly to microwave system

Webster defines a cycle as: “an interval of time during which a sequence of a recurring
succession of events or phenomena is completed.” The drawing below represents one complete
cycle, depicted in red, which is equivalent to 360 degrees—or one wavelength. If this drawing
were extended, the next cycle would be identical to the previous one, and so on.

Phase can be used to identify the state of progress within a cycle. Accordingly, one-half of a
wavelength corresponds to 180 degrees of phase; one-quarter of a wavelength corresponds to 90
degrees of phase; and so on.

Phase relationships are important in radio communications, since radio signals propagate through
the atmosphere in analog form, with an amplitude voltage that varies much like the drawing
below, at the rate of the system frequency.

0° 90° 180° 270° 0°

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© 1999 J. Frank Jimenez
Since atmospherically propagated radio signals can take many paths between one point and
another, as in the case of a multi-path reflected signal, it is possible for them to arrive at the
destination in different phase states.

As long as the signals travel a direct path between the antennas, they will arrive fairly closely in
phase with one another, as depicted by the red and green signals in the following drawing. In
this case, there will be no problem, because the two signals will add, resulting in an increase of
signal strength.

0° 90° 180° 270° 0°

In the following example, however, the red and blue signals have a 180-degree phase (or
opposing) relationship with one another. This relationship frequently occurs in the case of a
multi-path reflected signal, causing the signals to cancel each other. The degree of signal
cancellation depends on the degree of phase opposition and the relative amplitude of the two

0° 90° 180° 270° 0°

Obviously, these illustrations present extreme cases, but the results always follow the same
principle. Just as in-phase vectors add, opposing ones subtract.

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3.9 Multi-Path Reflections

Multi-path reflections occur when the reflection point for a given path has a reflective surface
that can be “seen” by both antennas. Multi-path reflected signals frequently cause problems in
wireless systems that have been implemented without proper path engineering. When people
don’t understand path engineering, they often believe that providing a “line-of-sight” path
between the two antennas is the only requirement. To avoid path obstructions, they simply
install the antennas as high as possible, hoping to overcome any obstacles, while avoiding the
cost of system engineering. Sometimes this approach works, but far more frequently, it produces
systems with unpredictable multi-path outages and susceptibility to interference from other
systems in the area.

The path survey report is a very important part of the microwave system engineering, and is
prepared by the field engineer who carefully verifies and documents antenna coordinates, path
obstacles, terrain topology, and surface characteristics. The resulting report provides crucial
information that is required by the system engineer in order to perform reflection, link, and
reliability analysis of the system design. During the design process, the system engineer can then
determine the most cost-effective way to avoid a multi-path outage problem and determine the
required height above ground level for the antennas at each location.

These steps should be completed before any equipment is ordered. In a few cases, the only
technically feasible solution to a stable system may not even be economically or politically
feasible. When a system cannot be made to work, it’s better to avoid selling the system than to
end up with a dissatisfied customer—and “eating” the cost of the system.

3.10 The Reflected Signal

The nature of point-to-point terrestrial line-of-sight microwave systems causes most reflected
signals to occur at small angles, primarily due to the high ratio of path length versus antenna
height above a specific reflection point. This has the following negative effects:

1. The antenna’s primary signal beam-width is usually broad enough to illuminate the
reflection point with the full signal power of the antenna’s primary beam.

2. Reflections occurring at small angles result in an inversion of the signal.

In addition, if the reflection surface is reasonably flat and has sufficient area, it can provide gain
to the reflected signal, such that its amplitude can equal or exceed the amplitude of the direct
signal. For example, this kind of unintended but efficient reflection can occur on empty parking
lots, road surfaces, lakes or ponds of standing water, flat metal surfaces, or glass surfaces with
metallic tinting, such as the windows of modern office buildings.

The following sketch depicts what occurs to a signal during the reflection process, as the
reflected signal becomes inverted. In other words, the top of the original signal becomes the
bottom of the reflected one. This results in a reflected signal that is 180 degrees out of phase
with respect to any direct path signal that has not been reflected.

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3.11 Atmospheric Refraction

Earth is a living source of the gases, vapors, and water molecules that make up our atmosphere,
which decreases as it dissipates outward from the earth’s surface. Atmospheric content and
density varies significantly with local geophysical characteristics and time of day and season.
For example, we consume oxygen and emit carbon dioxide and other gases. Vegetation
consumes carbon dioxide and produces oxygen. Autos generate carbon monoxide. Livestock
operations generate methane, and so on. Population-to-vegetation density varies with region, as
does temperature and humidity. The only thing one can say for sure is that the atmosphere
changes dynamically and is never constant. Keep this principle in mind, as we discuss the
effects of atmospheric refraction, which significantly affects radio signal propagation.

We have already discussed radio wave propagation—and the formulas that define this process in
a vacuum or free space. We also know that propagation velocity— the speed at which a signal
travels through a medium—changes with respect to the density of the medium. These
differences in propagation velocity result in refraction of a signal propagated through the
atmosphere, as shown in the following example.

Wave Front
Atmospheric Refraction

In “normal” atmosphere near the earth’s surface, propagation velocity is approximately 99.997%
of that in free space. Under normal circumstances, atmospheric density decreases linearly with
altitude, resulting in a propagation velocity differential between the top and bottom of a wave
front. Since the upper part of the wave front propagates through less dense atmosphere than the

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lower part to which it is coupled, it propagates faster than the lower part. The result is a signal
path that normally tends to follow earth curvature, but to a lesser to a degree. The bending of the
radio signal path caused by differences in atmospheric density is referred to as atmospheric

In radio engineering, atmospheric refraction is also referred to as “the K factor,” which describes
the type and amount of refraction. For example:

A K factor of 1 describes a condition where there is no refraction of the signal, and it propagates
in a straight line.

A K factor of less than 1 describes a condition where the refracted signal path deviates from a
straight line, and it arcs in the direction opposite the earth curvature.

A K factor greater than 1 describes a condition where the refracted signal path deviates from a
straight line, and it arcs in the same direction as the earth curvature.

Later, this document will explain the importance of the K factor in line-of-sight radio
engineering. For now, we are simply introducing the concepts of atmospheric refraction and the
K factor.

3.12 Physical Earth Bulge

Line-of-sight radio system engineering must deal with the effects of earth curvature, or “Earth
Bulge” as it is sometimes called. This term can reflect two different forms, so usage must be
specific. The first form, “physical earth bulge,” refers only to the effects of physical earth
curvature. The second, “effective earth bulge,” includes both the effects of physical earth
curvature and the effects of atmospheric refraction. This section focuses on “physical earth

Earth bulge describes the effect of physical earth curvature along a direct path between two
points on the earth’s surface. The earth surface appears to “bulge upwards” in the path, with the
peak of the bulge occurring at mid-path. This assumes that the earth’s surface is flat, with no
topological variation along the path between the two points. In radio path profiling, the effects
of physical “earth bulge” must be added to the terrain topology (earth surface variation) profile.
The amount of physical “earth bulge” along a path can be calculated from the following formula:

d1 • d 2 h
1 .5
d1 d2

Where: Point A Data Point B

h= Vertical distance from a horizontal reference line in feet
d1 = Distance from the data point to point A in miles
d2 = Distance from the data point to point B in miles

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The data point shown in the example above happens to be the mid-path point, or maximum
“physical earth bulge” point, but it could be any point along the path.

Physical Earth Bulge reflects earth curvature only and does not take into account the effects of
atmospheric refraction. For purposes of line-of-sight radio link design, we must always combine
Physical Earth Bulge with the effects of atmospheric refraction, or K. When these two
parameters are combined, a modified earth bulge profile results, which is known as “Effective
Earth Bulge.” This modified profile, discussed in the following section, must be used in
determining path clearance.

3.13 Effective Earth Bulge

Effective earth bulge represents the effects of atmospheric refraction, or K, combined with
physical earth bulge. Any discussion of effective earth bulge must begin with an understanding
of the following rules. Otherwise, it is easy to become confused about K factors and earth bulge.

1. K factor represents the amount and type of atmospheric signal refraction.

2. A K factor of 1 represents the absence of any refraction effects and results in an “effective
earth bulge profile” that is identical to the “physical earth bulge profile.”
3. A K factor value other than 1 results in an “effective earth bulge profile” that differs from
the “physical earth bulge profile” by an amount equal to the atmospheric refraction effects.

Microwave signals propagated through normal atmospheric conditions do not travel in a straight-
line. Instead, they “normally” propagate in an arc with a radius approximately 1.33 (4/3) times
that of true earth radius. Therefore, we refer to this condition as K=4/3, or “normal earth.” This
refers to the amount of “earth bulge” that would normally result under these “standard”
atmospheric conditions. Because the signal arc of a propagated signal path through “normal
atmosphere” follows earth curvature, to a degree, this curvature effectively reduces the amount
of “earth bulge”—making it less than it is, when considered in strictly physical terms. When the
effects of atmospheric refraction are combined with “physical earth bulge,” a modified profile is
produced, known as “effective earth bulge.”
Keep the following four rules in mind, since they are true under all conditions.

1. When K=1, there is no refractive effect, and the signal path is a straight line. Under
these conditions “effective earth bulge” will be equal to “physical (or true) earth bulge.”

2. When K is less than 1, the refractive signal path arc is inverted (opposite) relative to
physical earth curvature, and “effective earth bulge” will be greater than “physical earth

3. When K equals a number greater than 1, the refractive signal path is an arc in the
same direction as earth curvature, but may vary significantly from earth curvature,
thereby reducing “effective earth bulge” to something less than “physical earth bulge.”

4. When K = infinity, the refractive signal path arc follows earth curvature exactly, totally
canceling any “earth bulge” effect, making the earth appear “flat”. Since the propagated
signal arc follows earth curvature exactly regardless of path length, it can be stated that
the relationship between the two arcs remains constant for infinity.
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© 1999 J. Frank Jimenez
5. When K = Negative, the refractive signal path is an arc that exceeds physical earth
curvature (beyond K = infinity), and effectively reverses the curvature of the earth with
respect to the signal path, making its surface appear like a “bowl”.

The following formula can be used to compute “effective earth bulge,” in feet, at any data point
in a path. It includes the effects of the applicable K factor:

d1 • d 2
h= h
1 .5 • k
d1 d2

Where: Point A data point Point B

h= Vertical distance from a horizontal reference line in feet

d1 = Distance from the data point to point A in miles
d2 = Distance from the data point to point B in miles
k= The K factor value representing atmospheric refraction

The following examples were derived using the above formula:

A 10-mile path on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah would have a mid-path “earth bulge” of 16.7
feet, due to earth curvature, without any refraction effects (K=1). This would be very similar to
“visual line-of-sight.”

The same 10-mile path, with the effects of K=4/3 refraction, would have a reduced mid-path
“earth bulge” of 12.5 feet. This result compensates for the signal path’s tendency to follow earth
curvature as a result of atmospheric refraction.

The same 10-mile path, with the effects of K=2/3 refraction, would have an increased mid-path
“earth bulge” of 25 feet, since the K value is less than 1. The resulting refraction arc is inverted
with respect to earth curvature.

Changes in atmospheric refraction are the most common cause of signal fading that occurs on
line-of-sight microwave paths, typically due to secondary effects. The first and most obvious
change is the difference in path clearance caused by changing the amount of “earth bulge.” A
loss of critical path clearance can result in diffraction losses, which consume fade margin. If the
amount of temporary diffraction loss exceeds available fade margin, then a system outage will
occur—until the refraction index is restored to its original condition and “gives back” the
necessary path clearance.

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© 1999 J. Frank Jimenez
The second effect of a change in refraction is that it alters the signal beam path and effectively
moves the signal beam off the far-end antenna. The effect would be similar to mis-aiming both
antennas for the duration of time that the refraction index is changed. Assuming that the
antennas were aimed with atmospheric conditions of K=4/3, the signal beam alignment would be
restored to the original conditions when atmospheric conditions of K=4/3 return.

Industry-standard practice in designing point-to-point microwave paths under 30 miles involves

factoring in refractive conditions of K=4/3 and K=2/3. Although atmospheric refraction can
exceed either of these values on occasion, these criteria virtually assure that path availability
objectives will be met, provided that adequate fade margin is designed into the system.

One exception might be a challenging path implemented over water or in a region subject to
temperature inversions and/or ducting. These systems typically require space diversity, which is
not supported by most products, which were specifically designed for building-to-building data
networking applications.

4.0 Summary

As you can see, much more is involved in reliable radio-link design than just establishing a
visual line-of-sight path between the two antennas of a “line-of-sight” radio link. Consideration
must be given to maintaining adequate clearance for the “inner 60%,” the invisible Fresnel zone,
while not allowing the reflection point on the path to be visible to both antennas. If visibility of
the reflection point cannot be avoided, then system designers must choose antenna heights that
will place the point on a non-reflective surface along the path, position it on an odd-numbered
Fresnel zone, and analyze where the reflection point may move within the range of possible
refraction conditions that can occur. In addition, path clearances must be checked under these
same conditions, since an increase or decrease in the height of path obstructions will occur,
depending on K factor. The physics of each individual path, and the atmospheric refractivity
conditions that can occur in the environment that the path is located in, will dictate what the
maximum reliable path distance will be. If the required path distance exceeds what can be
reliably achieved, some sort of space diversity path design will be required.

None of these problems are impossible to manage, and none of them fall into the category of
“black magic.” They are simply engineering issues that must be addressed by the designer of the
system. It is possible to effectively address them all up front, so that an accurate bill of materials
can be developed and quoted, proper antenna support structures ordered and put in place, and the
predicted level of system performance can be achieved when the system is installed and cut-over.

However, there are no short cuts to success in reliable microwave radio link design. A
systematic and detailed engineering approach is required to assure predictable results. By its
nature, engineering is a discipline of science and precision, not guesswork and shortcuts. Further
details of microwave path and system design will be provided in a separate paper.

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© 1999 J. Frank Jimenez