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Radio propagation

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Title: Radio propagation  
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Subject: Ionosphere, Amateur radio, Wi-Fi, Earth–ionosphere waveguide, Radio frequency propagation
Collection: Radio Frequency Propagation
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Radio propagation

Radio propagation is the behavior of radio waves when they are transmitted, or propagated from one point on the Earth to another, or into various parts of the atmosphere.[1] As a form of electromagnetic radiation, like light waves, radio waves are affected by the phenomena of reflection, refraction, diffraction, absorption, polarization, and scattering.[2]

Radio propagation is affected by the daily changes of water vapor in the troposphere and ionization in the upper atmosphere, due to the Sun. 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.

Radio propagation is also affected by several other factors determined by its path from point to point. This path can be a direct line of sight path or an over-the-horizon path aided by refraction in the ionosphere, which is a region between approximately 60 and 600 km.[3] Factors influencing ionospheric radio signal propagation can include sporadic-E, spread-F, solar flares, geomagnetic storms, ionospheric layer tilts, and solar proton events.

Radio waves at different frequencies propagate in different ways. At extremely low frequencies (ELF) and very low frequencies the wavelength is much larger than the separation between the earth's surface and the D layer of the ionosphere, so electromagnetic waves may propagate in this region as a waveguide. Indeed, for frequencies below 20 kHz, the wave propagates as a single waveguide mode with a horizontal magnetic field and vertical electric field.[4] The interaction of radio waves with the ionized regions of the atmosphere makes radio propagation more complex to predict and analyze than in free space. Ionospheric radio propagation has a strong connection to space weather. A sudden ionospheric disturbance or shortwave fadeout is observed when the x-rays associated with a solar flare ionize the ionospheric D-region. Enhanced ionization in that region increases the absorption of radio signals passing through it. During the strongest solar x-ray flares, complete absorption of virtually all ionospherically propagated radio signals in the sunlit hemisphere can occur. These solar flares can disrupt HF radio propagation and affect GPS accuracy.

Since radio propagation is not fully predictable, such services as emergency locator transmitters, in-flight communication with ocean-crossing aircraft, and some television broadcasting have been moved to communications satellites. A satellite link, though expensive, can offer highly predictable and stable line of sight coverage of a given area.


  • Free space propagation 1
  • Modes 2
    • Surface modes (groundwave) 2.1
    • Direct modes (line-of-sight) 2.2
    • Ionospheric modes (skywave) 2.3
      • Meteor scattering 2.3.1
      • Auroral backscatter 2.3.2
      • Sporadic-E propagation 2.3.3
    • Tropospheric modes 2.4
      • Tropospheric scattering 2.4.1
      • Tropospheric ducting 2.4.2
      • Tropospheric delay 2.4.3
      • Rain scattering 2.4.4
      • Airplane scattering 2.4.5
      • Lightning scattering 2.4.6
    • Other effects 2.5
      • Diffraction 2.5.1
      • Absorption 2.5.2
  • Measuring HF propagation 3
  • Practical effects 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8

Free space propagation

In free space, all electromagnetic waves (radio, light, X-rays, etc.) obey the inverse-square law which states that the power density of an electromagnetic wave is proportional to the inverse of the square of the distance from a point source[5] or:

\rho_P \propto \frac{1}{r^2}.

Doubling the distance from a transmitter means that the power density of the radiated wave at that new location is reduced to one-quarter of its previous value.

The power density per surface unit is proportional to the product of the electric and magnetic field strengths. Thus, doubling the propagation path distance from the transmitter reduces each of their received field strengths over a free-space path by one-half.


Radio frequencies and their primary mode of propagation
Band Frequency Wavelength Propagation via
ELF Extremely Low Frequency 3–30 Hz 10,000-100,000 km Fundamental mode standing wave of the Earth–ionosphere cavity with a wavelength equal to the circumference of the Earth, see Schumann resonances.
SLF Super Low Frequency 30–300 Hz 10,000-1,000 km
ULF Ultra Low Frequency 0.3–3 kHz (300–3,000 Hz) 1,000–100 km
VLF Very Low Frequency 3–30 kHz (3,000–30,000 Hz) 100–10 km Guided between the earth and the ionosphere.
LF Low Frequency 30–300 kHz (30,000–300,000 Hz) 10–1 km Guided between the earth and the D layer of the ionosphere.

Surface waves.

MF Medium Frequency 300–3000 kHz (300,000–3,000,000 Hz) 1000–100 m Surface waves.

E, F layer ionospheric refraction at night, when D layer absorption weakens.

HF High Frequency (Short Wave) 3–30 MHz (3,000,000–30,000,000 Hz) 100–10 m E layer ionospheric refraction.

F1, F2 layer ionospheric refraction.

VHF Very High Frequency 30–300 MHz (30,000,000–300,000,000 Hz) 10–1 m Infrequent E ionospheric (Es) refraction. Uncommonly F2 layer ionospheric refraction during high sunspot activity up to 50 MHz and rarely to 80 MHz. Generally direct wave. Sometimes tropospheric ducting or meteor scatter
UHF Ultra High Frequency 300–3000 MHz (300,000,000–3,000,000,000 Hz) 100–10 cm Direct wave. Sometimes tropospheric ducting.
SHF Super High Frequency 3–30 GHz (3,000,000,000–30,000,000,000 Hz) 10–1 cm Direct wave. Sometimes rain scatter.
EHF Extremely High Frequency 30–300 GHz (30,000,000,000–300,000,000,000 Hz) 10–1 mm Direct wave limited by absorption.
THF Tremendously High frequency 0.3–3 THz (300,000,000,000–3,000,000,000,000 Hz) 1–0.1 mm

Surface modes (groundwave)

Lower frequencies (between 30 and 3,000 kHz) have the property of following the curvature of the earth via groundwave propagation in the majority of occurrences.

In this mode the radio wave propagates by interacting with the semi-conductive surface of the earth. The wave "clings" to the surface and thus follows the curvature of the earth. Vertical polarization is used to alleviate short circuiting the electric field through the conductivity of the ground. Since the ground is not a perfect electrical conductor, ground waves are attenuated rapidly as they follow the earth’s surface. Attenuation is proportional to the frequency making this mode mainly useful for LF and VLF frequencies (see also Earth-ionosphere waveguide).

Today LF and VLF are mostly used for time signals, and for military communications, especially one-way transmissions to ships and submarines, although radio amateurs have an allocation at 137 kHz in some parts of the world. Radio broadcasting using surface wave propagation uses the higher portion of the LF range in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Early commercial and professional radio services relied exclusively on long wave, low frequencies and ground-wave propagation. To prevent interference with these services, amateur and experimental transmitters were restricted to the higher (HF) frequencies, felt to be useless since their ground-wave range was limited. Upon discovery of the other propagation modes possible at medium wave and short wave frequencies, the advantages of HF for commercial and military purposes became apparent. Amateur experimentation was then confined only to authorized frequency segments in that range.[6]

Direct modes (line-of-sight)

Line-of-sight is the direct propagation of radio waves between antennas that are visible to each other. This is probably the most common of the radio propagation modes at VHF and higher frequencies. Because radio signals can travel through many non-metallic objects, radio can be picked up through walls. This is still line-of-sight propagation. Examples would include propagation between a satellite and a ground antenna or reception of television signals from a local TV transmitter.

Ground plane reflection effects are an important factor in VHF line of sight propagation. The interference between the direct beam line-of-sight and the ground reflected beam often leads to an effective inverse-fourth-power (1/distance4) law for ground-plane limited radiation. [Need reference to inverse-fourth-power law + ground plane. Drawings may clarify]

Ionospheric modes (skywave)

Skywave propagation, also referred to as skip, is any of the modes that rely on refraction of radio waves in the ionosphere, which is made up of one or more ionized layers in the upper atmosphere. F2-layer is the most important ionospheric layer for long-distance, multiple-hop HF propagation, though F1, E, and D-layers also play significant roles. The D-layer, when present during sunlight periods, causes significant amount of signal loss, as does the E-layer whose maximum usable frequency can rise to 4 MHz and above and thus block higher frequency signals from reaching the F2-layer. The layers, or more appropriately "regions", are directly affected by the sun on a daily diurnal cycle, a seasonal cycle and the 11-year sunspot cycle and determine the utility of these modes. During solar maxima, or sunspot highs and peaks, the whole HF range up to 30 MHz can be used usually around the clock and F2 propagation up to 50 MHz is observed frequently depending upon daily solar flux 10.7cm radiation values. During solar minima, or minimum sunspot counts down to zero, propagation of frequencies above 15 MHz is generally unavailable.

Although the claim is commonly made that two-way HF propagation along a given path is reciprocal, that is, if the signal from location A reaches location B at a good strength, the signal from location B will be similar at station A because the same path is traversed in both directions. However, the ionosphere is far too complex and constantly changing to support the reciprocity theorem. The path is never exactly the same in both directions.[7] In brief, conditions at the two terminii of a path generally cause dissimilar polarization shifts, dissimilar splits into ordinary rays and extraordinary or Pedersen rays which are erratic and impossibly identical or similar due to variations in ionization density, shifting zenith angles, effects of the earth's magnetic DIPOLE contours, antenna radiation patterns, ground conditions and other variables.

Forecasting of skywave modes is of considerable interest to amateur radio operators and commercial marine and aircraft communications, and also to shortwave broadcasters. Real-time propagation can be assessed by listening for transmissions from specific beacon transmitters.

Meteor scattering

Meteor scattering relies on reflecting radio waves off the intensely ionized columns of air generated by meteors. While this mode is very short duration, often only from a fraction of second to couple of seconds per event, digital Meteor burst communications allows remote stations to communicate to a station that may be hundreds of miles up to over 1,000 miles (1,600 km) away, without the expense required for a satellite link. This mode is most generally useful on VHF frequencies between 30 and 250 MHz.

Auroral backscatter

Intense columns of Auroral ionization at 100 km altitudes within the auroral oval backscatter radio waves, perhaps most notably on HF and VHF. Backscatter is angle-sensitive—incident ray vs. magnetic field line of the column must be very close to right-angle. Random motions of electrons spiraling around the field lines create a Doppler-spread that broadens the spectra of the emission to more or less noise-like—depending on how high radio frequency is used. The radio-auroras are observed mostly at high latitudes and rarely extend down to middle latitudes. The occurrence of radio-auroras depends on solar activity (flares, coronal holes, CMEs) and annually the events are more numerous during solar cycle maxima. Radio aurora includes the so-called afternoon radio aurora which produces stronger but more distorted signals and after the Harang-minima, the late-night radio aurora (sub-storming phase) returns with variable signal strength and lesser doppler spread. The propagation range for this predominantly back-scatter mode extends up to about 2000 km in east-west plane, but strongest signals are observed most frequently from the north at nearby sites on same latitudes.

Rarely, a strong radio-aurora is followed by Auroral-E, which resembles both propagation types in some ways.

Sporadic-E propagation

Sporadic E (Es) propagation can be observed on HF and VHF bands.[8] It must not be confused with ordinary HF E-layer propagation. Sporadic-E at mid-latitudes occurs mostly during summer season, from May to August in the northern hemisphere and from November to February in the southern hemisphere. There is no single cause for this mysterious propagation mode. The reflection takes place in a thin sheet of ionisation around 90 km height. The ionisation patches drift westwards at speeds of few hundred km per hour. There is a weak periodicity noted during the season and typically Es is observed on 1 to 3 successive days and remains absent for a few days to reoccur again. Es do not occur during small hours; the events usually begin at dawn, and there is a peak in the afternoon and a second peak in the evening.[9] Es propagation is usually gone by local midnight.

Observation of radio propagation beacons operating around 28.2 MHz, 50 MHz and 70 MHz, indicates that maximum observed frequency (MOF) for Es is found to be lurking around 30 MHz on most days during the summer season, but sometimes MOF may shoot up to 100 MHz or even more in ten minutes to decline slowly during the next few hours. The peak-phase includes oscillation of MOF with periodicity of approximately 5...10 minutes. The propagation range for Es single-hop is typically 1000 to 2000 km, but with multi-hop, double range is observed. The signals are very strong but also with slow deep fading.

Tropospheric modes

Tropospheric scattering

At VHF and higher frequencies, small variations (turbulence) in the density of the atmosphere at a height of around 6 miles (10 km) can scatter some of the normally line-of-sight beam of radio frequency energy back toward the ground, allowing over-the-horizon communication between stations as far as 500 miles (800 km) apart. The military developed the White Alice Communications System covering all of Alaska, using this tropospheric scattering principle.

Tropospheric ducting

Sudden changes in the atmosphere's vertical moisture content and temperature profiles can on random occasions make microwave and UHF & VHF signals propagate hundreds of kilometers up to about 2,000 kilometers (1,300 mi)—and for ducting mode even farther—beyond the normal radio-horizon. The inversion layer is mostly observed over high pressure regions, but there are several tropospheric weather conditions which create these randomly occurring propagation modes. Inversion layer's altitude for non-ducting is typically found between 100 meters (300 ft) to about 1 kilometer (3,000 ft) and for ducting about 500 meters to 3 kilometers (1,600 to 10,000 ft), and the duration of the events are typically from several hours up to several days. Higher frequencies experience the most dramatic increase of signal strengths, while on low-VHF and HF the effect is negligible. Propagation path attenuation may be below free-space loss. Some of the lesser inversion types related to warm ground and cooler air moisture content occur regularly at certain times of the year and time of day. A typical example could be the late summer, early morning tropospheric enhancements that bring in signals from distances up to few hundred kilometers for a couple of hours, until undone by the Sun's warming effect.

Tropospheric delay

This is a source of error in radio ranging techniques, such as the Global Positioning System (GPS).[10] See also the page of GPS meteorology.

Rain scattering

Rain scattering is purely a microwave propagation mode and is best observed around 10 GHz, but extends down to a few gigahertz—the limit being the size of the scattering particle size vs. wavelength. This mode scatters signals mostly forwards and backwards when using horizontal polarization and side-scattering with vertical polarization. Forward-scattering typically yields propagation ranges of 800 km. Scattering from snowflakes and ice pellets also occurs, but scattering from ice without watery surface is less effective. The most common application for this phenomenon is microwave rain radar, but rain scatter propagation can be a nuisance causing unwanted signals to intermittently propagate where they are not anticipated or desired. Similar reflections may also occur from insects though at lower altitudes and shorter range. Rain also causes attenuation of point-to-point and satellite microwave links. Attenuation values up to 30 dB have been observed on 30 GHz during heavy tropical rain.

Airplane scattering

Airplane scattering (or most often reflection) is observed on VHF through microwaves and, besides back-scattering, yields momentary propagation up to 500 km even in mountainous terrain. The most common back-scatter applications are air-traffic radar, bistatic forward-scatter guided-missile and airplane-detecting trip-wire radar, and the US space radar.

Lightning scattering

Lightning scattering has sometimes been observed on VHF and UHF over distances of about 500 km. The hot lightning channel scatters radio-waves for a fraction of a second. The RF noise burst from the lightning makes the initial part of the open channel unusable and the ionization disappears quickly because of recombination at low altitude and high atmospheric pressure. Although the hot lightning channel is briefly observable with microwave radar, no practical use for this mode has been found in communications.

Other effects


Knife-Edge diffraction is the propagation mode where radio waves are bent around sharp edges. For example, this mode is used to send radio signals over a mountain range when a line-of-sight path is not available. However, the angle cannot be too sharp or the signal will not diffract. The diffraction mode requires increased signal strength, so higher power or better antennas will be needed than for an equivalent line-of-sight path.

Diffraction depends on the relationship between the wavelength and the size of the obstacle. In other words, the size of the obstacle in wavelengths. Lower frequencies diffract around large smooth obstacles such as hills more easily. For example, in many cases where VHF (or higher frequency) communication is not possible due to shadowing by a hill, it is still possible to communicate using the upper part of the HF band where the surface wave is of little use.

Diffraction phenomena by small obstacles are also important at high frequencies. Signals for urban cellular telephony tend to be dominated by ground-plane effects as they travel over the rooftops of the urban environment. They then diffract over roof edges into the street, where multipath propagation, absorption and diffraction phenomena dominate.


Low-frequency radio waves travel easily through brick and stone and VLF even penetrates sea-water. As the frequency rises, absorption effects become more important. At microwave or higher frequencies, absorption by molecular resonances in the atmosphere (mostly from water, H2O and oxygen, O2) is a major factor in radio propagation. For example, in the 58–60 GHz band, there is a major absorption peak which makes this band useless for long-distance use. This phenomenon was first discovered during radar research in World War II. Above about 400 GHz, the Earth's atmosphere blocks most of the spectrum while still passing some - up to UV light, which is blocked by ozone - but visible light and some of the near-infrared is transmitted. Heavy rain and falling snow also affect microwave absorption.

Measuring HF propagation

HF propagation conditions can be simulated using radio propagation models, such as the Voice of America Coverage Analysis Program, and realtime measurements can be done using chirp transmitters. For radio amateurs the WSPR mode provides maps with real time propagation conditions between a network of transmitters and receivers.[11] Even without special beacons the realtime propagation conditions can be measured: a worldwide network of receivers decodes morse code signals on amateur radio frequencies in realtime and provides sophisticated search functions and propagation maps for every station received.[12]

Practical effects

The average person can notice the effects of changes in radio propagation in several ways.

In AM broadcasting, the dramatic ionospheric changes that occur overnight in the mediumwave band drive a unique broadcast license scheme, with entirely different transmitter power output levels and directional antenna patterns to cope with skywave propagation at night. Very few stations are allowed to run without modifications during dark hours, typically only those on clear channels in North America. Many stations have no authorization to run at all outside of daylight hours. Otherwise, there would be nothing but interference on the entire broadcast band from dusk until dawn without these modifications.

For FM broadcasting (and the few remaining low-band TV stations), weather is the primary cause for changes in VHF propagation, along with some diurnal changes when the sky is mostly without cloud cover. These changes are most obvious during temperature inversions, such as in the late-night and early-morning hours when it is clear, allowing the ground and the air near it to cool more rapidly. This not only causes dew, frost, or fog, but also causes a slight "drag" on the bottom of the radio waves, bending the signals down such that they can follow the Earth's curvature over the normal radio horizon. The result is typically several stations being heard from another media market — usually a neighboring one, but sometimes ones from a few hundred kilometers away. Ice storms are also the result of inversions, but these normally cause more scattered omnidirection propagation, resulting mainly in interference, often among weather radio stations. In late spring and early summer, a combination of other atmospheric factors can occasionally cause skips that duct high-power signals to places well over 1000km away.

Non-broadcast signals are also affected. Mobile phone signals are in the UHF band, ranging from 700 to over 2600 Megahertz, a range which makes them even more prone to weather-induced propagation changes. In urban (and to some extent suburban) areas with a high population density, this is partly offset by the use of smaller cells, which use lower effective radiated power and beam tilt to reduce interference, and therefore increase frequency reuse and user capacity. However, since this would not be very cost-effective in more rural areas, these cells are larger and so more likely to cause interference over longer distances when propagation conditions allow.

While this is generally transparent to the user thanks to the way that cellular networks handle cell-to-cell handoffs, when cross-border signals are involved, unexepected charges for international roaming may occur despite not having left the country at all. This often occurs between southern San Diego and northern Tijuana at the western end of the U.S./Mexico border, and between eastern Detroit and western Windsor along the U.S./Canada border. Since signals can travel unobstructed over a body of water far larger than the Detroit River, and cool water temperatures also cause inversions in surface air, this "fringe roaming" sometimes occurs across the Great Lakes, and between islands in the Caribbean. Signals can skip from the Dominican Republic to a mountainside in Puerto Rico and vice versa, or between the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, among others. While unintended cross-border roaming is often automatically removed by mobile phone company billing systems, inter-island roaming is typically not.

See also


  1. ^ H. P. Westman et al., (ed), Reference Data for Radio Engineers, Fifth Edition, 1968, Howard W. Sams and Co., no ISBN, Library of Congress Card No. 43-14665 page 26-1
  2. ^ Demetrius T Paris and F. Kenneth Hurd, Basic Electromagnetic Theory, McGraw Hill, New York 1969 ISBN 0-07-048470-8, Chapter 8
  3. ^ Radiowave propagation, edited by M.Hall and L.Barclay, page 2, published by Peter Peregrinus Ltd., (1989), ISBN 0-86341-156-8
  4. ^ Radiowave propagation, edited by M.Hall and L.Barclay, published by Peter Peregrinus Ltd., page 3, (1989), ISBN 0-86341-156-8
  5. ^ Westman Reference data page 26-19
  6. ^ Clinton B. DeSoto (1936). 200 meters & Down - The Story of Amateur Radio. W. Hartford, CT: The  
  7. ^ G.W. Hull, "Nonreciprocal characteristics of a 1500km HF Ionospheric Path," Proceedings of the IEEE, 55, March 1967, pp. 426-427; "Origin of non-reciprocity on high-frequency ionospheric paths," Nature, pp. 483-484, and cited references.
  8. ^ Davies, Kenneth (1990). Ionospheric Radio. IEE Electromagnetic Waves Series #31. London, UK: Peter Peregrinus Ltd/The Institution of Electrical Engineers. pp. 184–186.  
  9. ^ George Jacobs and Theodore J. Cohen, Shortwave Propagation Handbook. Hicksville, New York: CQ Publishing (1982), pp. 130-135. ISBN 978-0-943016-00-9
  10. ^ Frank Kleijer (2004), Troposphere Modeling and Filtering for Precise GPS Leveling. Ph. D. thesis, Department of Mathematical Geodesy and Positioning, Delft University of Technology
  11. ^ WSPR Propagation Conditions Map:
  12. ^ Network of CW Signal Decoders for Realtime Analysis:

Further reading

  • Lucien Boithais: Radio Wave Propagation. McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. 1987. ISBN 0-07-006433-4
  • Karl Rawer:Wave Propagatiom im the Ionosphere.Kluwer Acad.Publ.,Dordrecht 1993. ISBN 0-7923-0775-5
  • H. Ward Silver and Mark J. Wilson, (eds), "Propagation of Radio Signals" (Ch. 19, by Emil Pocock), in The ARRL Handbook for Radio Communications (88th edition, 2010), ARRL, Newington CT USA ISBN 0-87259-095-X
  • Yuri Blanarovich, VE3BMV, K3BU: "Electromagnetic Wave Propagation by Conduction" CQ Magazine June 1980, p. 44,

External links

  • Solar widget Propagation widget based on NOAA data. Also available as WordPress plugin.
  • ARRL Propagation Page The American Radio Relay League page on radio propagation.
  • HF Radio and Ionospheric Prediction Service - Australia
  • NASA Space Weather Action Center
  • HF Propagation Tutorial by the late NM7M
  • Space Weather and Radio Propagation Resource Center Live data and images of space weather and radio propagation.
  • Solar Terrestrial Dispatch
  • Online Propagation Tools, HF Solar Data, and HF Propagation Tutorials
  • - Propagation links
  • HF Radio Propagation Software for Firefox - Propfire Firefox plug-in for monitoring propagation, website utility to display HF propagation status, and article on understanding HF radio propagation forecasting
  • The Basics of Radio Wave Propagation A resource by Edwin C. Jones (AE4TM), MD, PhD, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Tennessee.
  • Dynamic Radio Propagation Data Constantly updated radio propagation data pulled from various sources.
  • Solar Cycle 24 prediction and MF/HF/6M radiowave propagation forecast webpage (
  • 160 Meter (Medium Frequency) Radiowave Propagation Theory Notes webpage (
  • Unusual HF Propagation Phenomena. 13 Apr 2009 Includes useful recordings each type. Retrieved 9 Oct 2009.
  • Overview of radio propagation modes
  • Propagation: Es & Thunderstorms by Thomas F. Giella, NZ4O, ex KN4LF.

The following external references provide practical examples of radio propagation concepts as demonstrated using software built on the VOACAP model.

  • Online MOF/LOF HF Propagation Prediction Tool
  • High Frequency radio propagation de-mystified.
  • Is High Frequency radio propagation reciprocal?
  • How does noise affect radio signals?

The following external link is designed for use by cell phones and mobile devices that can display content using Wireless Markup Language and the Wireless Application Protocol:

  • WAP/WML Space Weather and Radio Propagation Resources Space weather and radio propagation resources.
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