Line-of-sight propagation

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Line of sight propagation to an antenna Propagation VHF.PNG
Line of sight propagation to an antenna

Line-of-sight propagation is a characteristic of electromagnetic radiation or acoustic wave propagation which means waves travel in a direct path from the source to the receiver. Electromagnetic transmission includes light emissions traveling in a straight line. The rays or waves may be diffracted, refracted, reflected, or absorbed by the atmosphere and obstructions with material and generally cannot travel over the horizon or behind obstacles.

Electromagnetic radiation form of energy emitted and absorbed by charged particles, which exhibits wave-like behavior as it travels through space

In physics, electromagnetic radiation refers to the waves of the electromagnetic field, propagating (radiating) through space, carrying electromagnetic radiant energy. It includes radio waves, microwaves, infrared, (visible) light, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays.

Wave propagation is any of the ways in which waves travel.

Transmission (telecommunications) process of sending and propagating a signal

In telecommunications, transmission is the process of sending and propagating an analogue or digital information signal over a physical point-to-point or point-to-multipoint transmission medium, either wired, optical fiber or wireless.


In contrast to line-of-sight propagation, at low frequency (below approximately 3  MHz) due to diffraction, radio waves can travel as ground waves, which follow the contour of the Earth. This enables AM radio stations to transmit beyond the horizon. Additionally, frequencies in the shortwave bands between approximately 1 and 30 MHz, can be reflected back to Earth by the ionosphere, called skywave or "skip" propagation, thus giving radio transmissions in this range a potentially global reach.

Low frequency or LF is the ITU designation for radio frequencies (RF) in the range of 30 kilohertz (kHz) to 300 kHz. As its wavelengths range from ten kilometres to one kilometre, respectively, it is also known as the kilometre band or kilometre wave.

Hertz SI unit for frequency

The hertz (symbol: Hz) is the derived unit of frequency in the International System of Units (SI) and is defined as one cycle per second. It is named after Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, the first person to provide conclusive proof of the existence of electromagnetic waves. Hertz are commonly expressed in multiples: kilohertz (103 Hz, kHz), megahertz (106 Hz, MHz), gigahertz (109 Hz, GHz), terahertz (1012 Hz, THz), petahertz (1015 Hz, PHz), exahertz (1018 Hz, EHz), and zettahertz (1021 Hz, ZHz).

Diffraction refers to various phenomena that occur when a wave encounters an obstacle or a slit

Diffraction refers to various phenomena that occur when a wave encounters an obstacle or a slit. It is defined as the bending of waves around the corners of an obstacle or through an aperture into the region of geometrical shadow of the obstacle/aperture. The diffracting object or aperture effectively becomes a secondary source of the propagating wave. Italian scientist Francesco Maria Grimaldi coined the word "diffraction" and was the first to record accurate observations of the phenomenon in 1660.

However, at frequencies above 30 MHz (VHF and higher) and in lower levels of the atmosphere, neither of these effects are significant. Thus, any obstruction between the transmitting antenna (transmitter) and the receiving antenna (receiver) will block the signal, just like the light that the eye may sense. Therefore, since the ability to visually see a transmitting antenna (disregarding the limitations of the eye's resolution) roughly corresponds to the ability to receive a radio signal from it, the propagation characteristic at these frequencies is called "line-of-sight". The farthest possible point of propagation is referred to as the "radio horizon".

Transmitter Electronic device that emits radio waves

In electronics and telecommunications a transmitter or radio transmitter is an electronic device which produces radio waves with an antenna. The transmitter itself generates a radio frequency alternating current, which is applied to the antenna. When excited by this alternating current, the antenna radiates radio waves.

Light electromagnetic radiation in or near visible spectrum

Light is electromagnetic radiation within a certain portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. The word usually refers to visible light, which is the visible spectrum that is visible to the human eye and is responsible for the sense of sight. Visible light is usually defined as having wavelengths in the range of 400–700 nanometres (nm), or 4.00 × 10−7 to 7.00 × 10−7 m, between the infrared and the ultraviolet. This wavelength means a frequency range of roughly 430–750 terahertz (THz).

In practice, the propagation characteristics of these radio waves vary substantially depending on the exact frequency and the strength of the transmitted signal (a function of both the transmitter and the antenna characteristics). Broadcast FM radio, at comparatively low frequencies of around 100 MHz, are less affected by the presence of buildings and forests.

Frequency modulation encoding of information in a carrier wave by varying the instantaneous frequency of the wave

In telecommunications and signal processing, frequency modulation (FM) is the encoding of information in a carrier wave by varying the instantaneous frequency of the wave.

Impairments to line-of-sight propagation

Objects within the Fresnel zone can disturb line of sight propagation even if they don't block the geometric line between antennas. Fresnel zone disrupted.png
Objects within the Fresnel zone can disturb line of sight propagation even if they don't block the geometric line between antennas.

Low-powered microwave transmitters can be foiled by tree branches, or even heavy rain or snow. The presence of objects not in the direct line-of-sight can cause diffraction effects that disrupt radio transmissions. For the best propagation, a volume known as the first Fresnel zone should be free of obstructions.

Microwave form of electromagnetic radiation

Microwaves are a form of electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths ranging from about one meter to one millimeter; with frequencies between 300 MHz (1 m) and 300 GHz (1 mm). Different sources define different frequency ranges as microwaves; the above broad definition includes both UHF and EHF bands. A more common definition in radio engineering is the range between 1 and 100 GHz. In all cases, microwaves include the entire SHF band at minimum. Frequencies in the microwave range are often referred to by their IEEE radar band designations: S, C, X, Ku, K, or Ka band, or by similar NATO or EU designations.

Fresnel zone region of space between a transmitting and receiving antenna

A Fresnel zone, named after physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel, is one of a series of confocal prolate ellipsoidal regions of space between and around a transmitter and a receiver. Transmitted radio, sound, or light waves can follow slightly different paths before reaching a receiver, especially if there are obstructions or reflecting objects between the two. The waves can arrive at slightly different times and will be slightly out of phase due to the different path lengths. Depending on the magnitude of the phase shift, the waves can interfere constructively and destructively. The size of the calculated Fresnel zone at any particular distance from the transmitter and receiver can help to predict whether obstructions or discontinuities along the path will cause significant interference.

Reflected radiation from the surface of the surrounding ground or salt water can also either cancel out or enhance the direct signal. This effect can be reduced by raising either or both antennas further from the ground: The reduction in loss achieved is known as height gain.

Ground plane

In electrical engineering, a ground plane is an electrically conductive surface, usually connected to electrical ground. The term has two different meanings in separate areas of electrical engineering. In antenna theory, a ground plane is a conducting surface large in comparison to the wavelength, such as the Earth, which is connected to the transmitter's ground wire and serves as a reflecting surface for radio waves. In printed circuit boards, a ground plane is a large area of copper foil on the board which is connected to the power supply ground terminal and serves as a return path for current from different components on the board.

See also Non-line-of-sight propagation for more on impairments in propagation.

It is important to take into account the curvature of the Earth for calculation of line-of-sight paths from maps, when a direct visual fix cannot be made. Designs for microwave formerly used 43 earth radius to compute clearances along the path.

Mobile telephones

Although the frequencies used by mobile phones (cell phones) are in the line-of-sight range, they still function in cities. This is made possible by a combination of the following effects:

The combination of all these effects makes the mobile phone propagation environment highly complex, with multipath effects and extensive Rayleigh fading. For mobile phone services, these problems are tackled using:

A Faraday cage is composed of a conductor that completely surrounds an area on all sides, top, and bottom. Electromagnetic radiation is blocked where the wavelength is longer than any gaps. For example, mobile telephone signals are blocked in windowless metal enclosures that approximate a Faraday cage, such as elevator cabins, and parts of trains, cars, and ships. The same problem can affect signals in buildings with extensive steel reinforcement.

Two stations not in line-of-sight may be able to communicate through an intermediate radio repeater station. Repeater-schema.svg
Two stations not in line-of-sight may be able to communicate through an intermediate radio repeater station.

Radio horizon

The radio horizon is the locus of points at which direct rays from an antenna are tangential to the surface of the Earth. If the Earth were a perfect sphere without an atmosphere, the radio horizon would be a circle.

The radio horizon of the transmitting and receiving antennas can be added together to increase the effective communication range.

Radio wave propagation is affected by atmospheric conditions, ionospheric absorption, and the presence of obstructions, for example mountains or trees. Simple formulas that include the effect of the atmosphere give the range as:

The simple formulas give a best-case approximation of the maximum propagation distance, but are not sufficient to estimate the quality of service at any location.

Earth bulge and atmosphere effect

Earth bulge is a term used in telecommunications. It refers to the circular segment of earth profile that blocks off long distance communications. Since the geometric line of sight passes at varying heights over the Earth, the propagating radio wave encounters slightly different propagation conditions over the path. The usual effect of the declining pressure of the atmosphere with height is to bend radio waves down towards the surface of the Earth, effectively increasing the Earth's radius, and the distance to the radio horizon, by a factor around 43. [1] This k-factor can change from its average value depending on weather.

Geometric distance to horizon

R is the radius of the Earth, h is the height of the transmitter (exaggerated), d is the line of sight distance Earthbulge.jpg
R is the radius of the Earth, h is the height of the transmitter (exaggerated), d is the line of sight distance

Assuming a perfect sphere with no terrain irregularity, the distance to the horizon from a high altitude transmitter (i.e., line of sight) can readily be calculated.

Let R be the radius of the Earth and h be the altitude of a telecommunication station. The line of sight distance d of this station is given by the Pythagorean theorem;

Since the altitude of the station is much less than the radius of the Earth,

If the height is given in metres, and distance in kilometres, [2]

If the height is given in feet, and the distance in miles,

The actual service range

The above analysis does not consider the effect of atmosphere on the propagation path of RF signals. In fact, RF signals don’t propagate in straight lines: Because of the refractive effects of atmospheric layers, the propagation paths are somewhat curved. Thus, the maximum service range of the station is not equal to the line of sight (geometric) distance. Usually, a factor k is used in the equation above, modified to be

k > 1 means geometrically reduced bulge and a longer service range. On the other hand, k < 1 means a shorter service range.

Under normal weather conditions, k is usually chosen [3] to be 43. That means that the maximum service range increases by 15%.

for h in metres and d in kilometres; or

for h in feet and d in miles.

But in stormy weather, k may decrease to cause fading in transmission. (In extreme cases k can be less than 1.) That is equivalent to a hypothetical decrease in Earth radius and an increase of Earth bulge. [4]


In normal weather conditions, the service range of a station at an altitude of 1500 m with respect to receivers at sea level can be found as,

See also

Related Research Articles

In telecommunication, the term critical frequency has the following meanings:

Path loss, or path attenuation, is the reduction in power density (attenuation) of an electromagnetic wave as it propagates through space. Path loss is a major component in the analysis and design of the link budget of a telecommunication system.

The total harmonic distortion (THD) is a measurement of the harmonic distortion present in a signal and is defined as the ratio of the sum of the powers of all harmonic components to the power of the fundamental frequency. Distortion factor, a closely related term, is sometimes used as a synonym.

Transmission line specialized cable or other structure designed to carry alternating current of radio frequency

In radio-frequency engineering, a transmission line is a specialized cable or other structure designed to conduct alternating current of radio frequency, that is, currents with a frequency high enough that their wave nature must be taken into account. Transmission lines are used for purposes such as connecting radio transmitters and receivers with their antennas, distributing cable television signals, trunklines routing calls between telephone switching centres, computer network connections and high speed computer data buses.

Transmission medium material substance that can propagate energy waves

A transmission medium is something that can mediate the propagation of signals for the purposes of telecommunication.

Horizon apparent line that separates earth from sky

The horizon or skyline is the apparent line that separates earth from sky, the line that divides all visible directions into two categories: those that intersect the Earth's surface, and those that do not. The true horizon is actually a theoretical line, which can only be observed when it lies on the sea surface. At many locations, this line is obscured by land, trees, buildings, mountains, etc., and the resulting intersection of earth and sky is called the visible horizon. When looking at a sea from a shore, the part of the sea closest to the horizon is called the offing.

Very high frequency The range 30-300 MHz of the electromagnetic spectrum

Very high frequency (VHF) is the ITU designation for the range of radio frequency electromagnetic waves from 30 to 300 megahertz (MHz), with corresponding wavelengths of ten meters to one meter. Frequencies immediately below VHF are denoted high frequency (HF), and the next higher frequencies are known as ultra high frequency (UHF).

Rayleigh fading is a statistical model for the effect of a propagation environment on a radio signal, such as that used by wireless devices.

Radio wave type of electromagnetic radiation

Radio waves are a type of electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum longer than infrared light. Radio waves have frequencies as high as 300 gigahertz (GHz) to as low as 30 hertz (Hz). At 300 GHz, the corresponding wavelength is 1 mm, and at 30 Hz is 10,000 km. Like all other electromagnetic waves, radio waves travel at the speed of light in vacuum. They are generated by electric charges undergoing acceleration, such as time varying electric currents. Naturally occurring radio waves are emitted by lightning and astronomical objects.

Medium frequency The range 300-3000 kHz of the electromagnetic spectrum

Medium frequency (MF) is the ITU designation for radio frequencies (RF) in the range of 300 kilohertz (kHz) to 3 megahertz (MHz). Part of this band is the medium wave (MW) AM broadcast band. The MF band is also known as the hectometer band as the wavelengths range from ten to one hectometer. Frequencies immediately below MF are denoted low frequency (LF), while the first band of higher frequencies is known as high frequency (HF). MF is mostly used for AM radio broadcasting, navigational radio beacons, maritime ship-to-shore communication, and transoceanic air traffic control.

Radio propagation behavior of radio waves as they travel, or are propagated, from one point to another, or into various parts of the atmosphere

Radio propagation is the behavior of radio waves as they travel, or are propagated, from one point to another, or into various parts of the atmosphere. As a form of electromagnetic radiation, like light waves, radio waves are affected by the phenomena of reflection, refraction, diffraction, absorption, polarization, and scattering. Understanding the effects of varying conditions on radio propagation has many practical applications, from choosing frequencies for international shortwave broadcasters, to designing reliable mobile telephone systems, to radio navigation, to operation of radar systems.

Skywave propagation of radio waves via the ionosphere

In radio communication, skywave or skip refers to the propagation of radio waves reflected or refracted back toward Earth from the ionosphere, an electrically charged layer of the upper atmosphere. Since it is not limited by the curvature of the Earth, skywave propagation can be used to communicate beyond the horizon, at intercontinental distances. It is mostly used in the shortwave frequency bands.

In telecommunications, particularly in radio frequency, signal strength refers to the transmitter power output as received by a reference antenna at a distance from the transmitting antenna. High-powered transmissions, such as those used in broadcasting, are expressed in dB-millivolts per metre (dBmV/m). For very low-power systems, such as mobile phones, signal strength is usually expressed in dB-microvolts per metre (dBµV/m) or in decibels above a reference level of one milliwatt (dBm). In broadcasting terminology, 1 mV/m is 1000 µV/m or 60 dBµ.

Non-line-of-sight (NLOS) and near-line-of-sight are radio transmissions across a path that is partially obstructed, usually by a physical object in the innermost Fresnel zone.

A cellular repeater is a type of bi-directional amplifier used to improve cell phone reception. A cellular repeater system commonly consists of a donor antenna that receives and transmits signal from nearby cell towers, coaxial cables, a signal amplifier, and an indoor rebroadcast antenna.

Earth bulge is a term used in telecommunications, meaning the curvature of the Earth's surface, which limits the range of communication methods that require a line-of-sight path, like high frequency radio waves, microwaves, or lasers.

Radar horizon distance at which the radar beam rises enough above the Earths surface to make detection of a target at low level impossible

The radar horizon is a critical area of performance for aircraft detection systems that is defined by the distance at which the radar beam rises enough above the Earth's surface to make detection of a target at low level impossible. It is associated with the low elevation region of performance, and its geometry depends on terrain, radar height, and signal processing. This is associated with the notions of radar shadow, the clutter zone, and the clear zone.

Ground Wave propagation is a method of radio wave propagation that uses the area between the surface of the earth and the ionosphere for transmission. The ground wave can propagate a considerable distance over the earth's surface particularly in the low frequency and medium frequency portion of the radio spectrum.

Two-ray ground-reflection model

The Two-Rays Ground Reflected Model is a radio propagation model which predicts the path losses between a transmitting antenna and a receiving antenna when they are in LOS. Generally, the two antenna each have different height. The received signal having two components, the LOS component and the multipath component formed predominantly by a single ground reflected wave.


  1. Christopher Haslett. (2008). Essentials of radio wave propagation, pp 119120. Cambridge University Press. ISBN   052187565X.
  2. Mean radius of the Earth is ≈ 6.37×106 metres = 6370 km. See Earth radius
  3. Busi, R. (1967). High Altitude VHF and UHF Broadcasting Stations. Technical Monograph 3108-1967. Brussels: European Broadcasting Union.
  4. This analysis is for high altitude to sea level reception. In microwave radio link chains, both stations are at high altitudes.