Modulation

In many telecommunications systems, it is necessary to represent an information-bearing signal with a waveform that can pass accurately through a transmission medium. This assigning of a suitable waveform is accomplished by modulation, which is the process by which some characteristic of a carrier wave is varied in accordance with an information signal, or modulating wave. The modulated signal is then transmitted over a channel, after which the original information-bearing signal is recovered through a process of demodulation.

  1. Many transmission channels are characterized by limited passbands—that is, they will pass only certain ranges of frequencies without seriously attenuating them (reducing their amplitude). Modulation methods must therefore be applied to the information signals in order to “frequency translate” the signals into the range of frequencies that are permitted by the channel. Examples of channels that exhibit passband characteristics include alternating-current-coupled coaxial cables, which pass signals only in the range of 60 kilohertz to several hundred megahertz, and fibre-optic cables, which pass light signals only within a given wavelength range without significant attenuation. In these instances frequency translation is used to “fit” the information signal to the communications channel.
  2. In many instances a communications channel is shared by multiple users. In order to prevent mutual interference, each user’s information signal is modulated onto an assigned carrier of a specific frequency. When the frequency assignment and subsequent combining is done at a central point, the resulting combination is a frequency-division multiplexed signal, as is discussed in Multiplexing. Frequently there is no central combining point, and the communications channel itself acts as a distributed combine. An example of the latter situation is the broadcast radio bands (from 540 kilohertz to 600 megahertz), which permit simultaneous transmission of multiple AM radio, FM radio, and television signals without mutual interference as long as each signal is assigned to a different frequency band.
  3. Even when the communications channel can support direct transmission of the information-bearing signal, there are often practical reasons why this is undesirable. A simple example is the transmission of a three-kilohertz (i.e., voiceband) signal via radio wave. In free space the wavelength of a three-kilohertz signal is 100 kilometres (60 miles). Since an effective radio antenna is typically as large as half the wavelength of the signal, a three-kilohertz radio wave might require an antenna up to 50 kilometres in length. In this case translation of the voice frequency to a higher frequency would allow the use of a much smaller antenna.

 

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