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Propagation of Radio Waves (802.

11)
June 2014

Propagation of Radio Waves


In order to be able to install a wireless network, and in particular to place the access points so as
to get the best range possible, a little background should be given on how radio waves
propagate.
Radio waves (shortened to RF for Radio Frequency) propagate in a straight line in several
directions at once. In a vacuum, radio waves propagate ar 3.108 m/s.
In any other medium, the signal gets weaker due to
Reflection
Refraction
Diffraction
Absorption

Absorption of radio waves


When a radio wave reaches an obstacle, some of its energy is absorbed and converted into
another kind of energy, while another part is attenuated and continues to propagate, and another
part may be reflected.
Attenuation is when a signal's power is reduced as it is being transmitted. Attenuation is
measured in bels (symbol: B) and is equal to the logarithm base 10 of the output intensity of the
transmission, divided by the input intensity. Decibels (symbol: dB) are generally preferred as a
unit of measure; each decibel is one-tenth of a Bel. With a Bel representing 10 decibels, the
formula becomes:
R (dB) = (10) * log (P2/P1)
When R is positive, this is called amplification, and when negative it is called attenuation. In the
case of wireless transmissions, attenuation is more common.

Attenuation increases with a rise in frequency or in distance. Also, when a signal collides with an
obstacle, the level of attenuation depends strongly on which type of material the obstacle is made
of. Metal obstacles tend to reflect a signal, while water absorbs it.

Reflection of radio waves


When a radio wave hits an obstacle, some or all of the wave is reflected, with a loss of intensity.
Reflection is such that the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection.

By its nature, a radio wave may propagate in several directions. After being reflected several
times, a source signal may end up reaching a station or an access point after having taken
several different paths (called multipath).

The time difference in propagation (called propagation delay) between two signals which had
taken different paths may interfere with reception, since the data streams that are received
overlap with one another.
This interference becomes greater as the speed of the transmission increases, since the intervals
between receiving the data streams become shorter and shorter. Therefore, multipath limits
transmission speed in wireless networks.
To overcome this issue, Wi-Fi cards and access points use two antennas per emitter. With an

AGC (Automated Gain Controller), which immediately switches from one antenna to the other
depending on signal strength, the access point is able to distinguish two signals coming from the
same station. Signals received by these two antennas are said to be decorrelated (independent)
if they are spearated by Lambda/2 (6.25 cm at 2.4GHz).

Properties of media
The weakening of signal strength is largely due to the properties of the medium that the wave is
passing through. Here is a table showing attenuation levels for different materials:
Materials

Degree of
attenuation

Examples

Air

None

Open space, inner courtyard

Wood

Low

Door, floor, partition

Plastic

Low

Partition

Glass

Low

Untinted windows

Tinted glass Medium

Tinted windows

Water

Medium

Aquarium, fountain

Living
creatures

Medium

Crowds, animals, people, plants

Bricks

Medium

Walls

Plaster

Medium

Partitions

Ceramic

High

Tiles

Paper

High

Rolls of paper

Concrete

High

Load-bearing walls, floors, pillars

Bulletproof
glass

High

Bulletproof windows

Metal

Very high

Reinforced concrete, mirrors, metal cabinet,


elevator cage

Propagacin de las ondas de radio (802.11) Die Ausbreitung von Radiowellen (802.11) La
propagation des ondes radio (802.11) La propagazione delle onde radio (802.11) Propagao
das ondas de rdio (802.11)
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