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Software to “do it yourself” Choices abound to help you create schematics and PC boards
The next-generation broadcast chain
The MPX signal is a precious thing. How best to transport this valuable cargo?
Old ideas, new threats
Frank McCoy has an idea to protect your critical systems.
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Vol. 45 No. 15 | June 16 2021 www.radioworld.com FOLLOW US www.twitter.com/radioworld_news www.facebook.com/RadioWorldMagazine CONTENT Managing Director, Content & Editor in Chief Paul J. McLane, email@example.com, 845-414-6105 Senior Content Producer — Technology Brett Moss, firstname.lastname@example.org Technical Advisors Thomas R. McGinley, Doug Irwin Technical Editor, RW Engineering Extra W.C. “Cris” Alexander Contributors: Susan Ashworth, John Bisset, James Careless, Ken Deutsch, Mark Durenberger, Charles Fitch, Travis Gilmour, Donna Halper, Craig Johnston, Alan Jurison, Paul Kaminski, John Kean, Peter King, Larry Langford, Mark Lapidus, Jim Peck, Mark Persons, Stephen M. Poole, James O’Neal, Rich Rarey, Jeremy Ruck, John Schneider, Randy Stine, Tom Vernon, Jennifer Waits, Chris Wygal Production Manager Nicole Schilling Managing Design Director Nicole Cobban Senior Design Directors Lisa McIntosh and Will Shum ADVERTISING SALES Senior Business Director & Publisher, Radio World John Casey, email@example.com, 845-678-3839 Publisher, Radio World International Raffaella Calabrese, firstname.lastname@example.org, +39-320-891-1938 SUBSCRIBER CUSTOMER SERVICE To subscribe, change your address, or check on your current account status, go to www.radioworld.com and click on Subscribe, email email@example.com, call 888-266-5828, or write P.O. Box 1051, Lowell, MA 01853. Licensing/Reprints/Permissions Radio World is available for licensing. Contact the Licensing team to discu ss partnership opportunities. Head of Print Licensing Rachel Shaw firstname.lastname@example.org MANAGEMENT Senior Vice President, B2B Rick Stamberger Vice President, Sales & Publishing, B2B Aaron Kern Vice President, B2B Tech Group Carmel King Vice President, Sales, B2B Tech Group Adam Goldstein Head of Production US & UK Mark Constance Head of Design Rodney Dive FUTURE US, INC. 11 West 42nd Street, 15th Floor, New York, NY 10036
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Air chains then and now We’ve come a long way from the Audimax/Volumax days
Cris Alexander Tech Editor and director of engineering at Crawford Broadcasting
s I began editing this issue, I couldn’t help taking another trip down memory lane, this time over the last 40+ years of FM air chain architecture. The words “Back in the day …” frequently elicit an eye roll from my daughter, who is CE of Crawford’s Denver cluster (though I think she secretly likes hearing about the “old stuff”). So … let the eye rolls begin.
FM as stepchild Back in the day … the FM stations at which I worked early on used simple air chain topography. The program bus of the on-air console fed, through a patch panel, a couple of pairs of CBS Laboratories audio processors: the Audimax and Volumax. These were, if I recall correctly, discrete processors for left and right, although I think stereo versions were available at some point. If there was any kind of control linking between the mono pairs, I have long forgotten. Those processors fed the Collins 310 exciter, which used a stereo generator card to create the multiplex signal. Not a lot of radios could receive and decode the multiplex signal in those days. In fact, not a lot of radios could receive FM in those days! FM was the stepchild, the “also-ran” to which not many paid a lot of attention. I had an FM converter in my car for quite a while, which used an AM modulator to spit out a signal on the high end of the AM band where I could listen to the FM signal. It was mono, but I was way ahead of most folks just by being able to tune into those elevator music FM stations. At some point, I bought and installed a car radio that had an integral FM tuner and a little red stereo light. I was amazed at the big stereo image when I first tuned into our FM station and that red light illuminated. That simple Audimax/Volumax air chain sounded pretty good! Our little (but 100 kW!) FM station in the Texas Panhandle was a pretty low-budget operation, but when Orban
on this or any story. Email rweetech@ gmail.com.
THIS ISSUE THIS ISSUE Air chains 3
then and now
Software xxx xxx solutions for DIY projects
The nextxxx xxx generation broadcast chain
BUYERS GUIDE 18-19
xxx x Marketplace xxx
OPINION Old ideas for 20
xxx a new threat x environment xxx
Then and Now came out with the Optimod 8000 in the 1970s, the owner sprang for one. Installing it took some doing; the Collins exciter had to be reconfigured without the internal stereo generator, and I found out in a hurry that the multiplex cable between the composite output of the Optimod and the composite input of the exciter had to be pretty short if I wanted to have a good, wide stereo image.
Above It’s sobering to think that these great reliable air chain components can now be considered “legacy” products.
Once I got the baseband and pilot levels adjusted to make the Belar FM and stereo monitors happy, I gave the station a listen in the car, and … wow!! That was my first exposure to multiband processing, and the on-air sound was amazing.
New methods As time went on and I moved to the big city, I was exposed to other air chain topology. I can’t recall working at any other stations that had collocated studios and transmitter site, so all used some kind of studio-to-transmitter link (STL). Many used equalized phone lines, but some used Marti discrete 950 MHz links. Both those arrangements had their challenges. The phone lines would sometimes get noisy or hum, especially after a good rain, and the 950 MHz links were occasionally prone to noise and interference. Audio processors were located at the transmitter site. By the late 1970s, all but one that I regularly dealt with used multiband processors. The sound was good, but not as good as that collocated Amarillo FM with its Optimod 8000. And then I was hired as the chief (and only) engineer for a Dallas top 40 radio station. My transition into that job occurred at the same time as the station was transitioning to a new transmitter site and tower on the Cedar Hill antenna farm. The studio was on a multistory building just east of downtown, and a 950 MHz Moseley composite STL was used to get the audio to the transmitter site. That was my first exposure to a composite STL, and I thought it very strange that the new Optimod 8100 processor was in the rack at the studio! There was a loudness war underway in that very competitive market in those days, and we pretty much
ran all knobs all the way to the right. But we needed more to stay ahead of — or even on a par with — our chief competition across town. The issue was overshoots in that composite STL; we had to keep the average modulation down to keep the peak modulation below 100%. The FCC had a field office in town, and they did pay attention to local broadcasters in those days. Our parent company was New York-based, and it had connections, one of which was a brilliant engineer named Eric Small. A mysterious “black box” of Mr. Small’s creation was placed in the air chain downstream of the STL receiver at the transmitter site, and that took care of the overshoots — we could run the modulation way up and stay out of trouble with the newfangled composite clipper in line. I knew it was working because I could see the pilot level dancing with modulation peaks.
Ethernet paths That composite STL air chain architecture persisted for much of my career, until the digital age. We used various digital adapters on our composite links, including the Moseley DSP6000s, to good effect, and audio processors kept getting better. In the early 1990s, a guy named Frank Foti came to Detroit with a weird-looking box that he called the Omnia. He installed it in the air chain of our FM station there, and … wow! Over the next 25 years, Frank’s processors kept getting better and we kept buying them. Then came true all-digital STLs that offered transparent transmission paths between studio and transmitter. HD Radio appeared in the early 2000s, and the Tomorrow Radio Project made multicast channels on FM HD stations possible, requiring additional audio paths between studio and transmitter. It was then that my company made the move to Part 101 bidirectional point-to-point microwave links, putting studios and transmitter sites on the same networks. Air chains, for us, became Ethernet paths involving AoIP, NICs and switches, a far cry from those analog Audimax/ Volumax patch-panel stereo generator chains of old. Now we have even more options, one of which is multiplex over IP. In this issue, Tony Peterle of Worldcast Systems will introduce us to MPXoIP technology. As I enter my 45th year in the business, I can’t wait to see what comes next. How about RF over IP? Put the transmitter at the studio and send 40 kW of RF down a twisted pair … okay, we probably can’t do that ever. But it would sure be cool if we could!
radioworld.com | June 16 2021
DIY Projects Writer
Software solutions for DIY projects
Helpful applications to create your own schematics and PC boards
Curt Yengst CSRE Engineer for Lighthouse TV in Allentown, Pa., and a former radio engineer.
Talk tech to us
Got a suggestion for an article? Email rweetech@ gmail.com.
eaders of my articles featuring DIY projects may be interested in trying their hand at creating a device from scratch. A great place to start is with a clear, well-drawn schematic. For the last several years, I’ve relied on ExpressPCB for creating the necessary diagrams and circuit board layouts for my projects. As with any DIY application such as this, there are numerous such tools available, and most will do nicely. It mostly comes down to personal preference and workflow. I asked some of my buddies at www.groupdiy.com for their recommendations and I got several, a few of which I’ll discuss along with one or two I found on my own. This is by no means a comprehensive list and is not intended to be a review. It’s a sampling of recommended tools available.
A couple guys I chatted with still rely on a hardware-based solution, otherwise known as good old-fashioned pencil and paper. There’s a lot to be said for that. The learning curve is determined only by one’s knowledge of electronics, which is a given at this stage. There’s nothing to
download, no parts library to maintain, and custom or oddball components are easily created. The downside is that all but minor changes in the schematic can require starting over, or trying to read through a mess of eraser smudges. And in my experience, the only professionals with handwriting as bad as doctors are engineers! Using software to create schematics may take a little longer, but the effort often streamlines the completion of the project. The programs I tried all come with PCB creation tools that allow finished schematics to be ported in from their own or third-party software. They also allow for designs to be exported for manufacturing purposes, if the project moves beyond the DIY stage. In order to test the various programs, I took a design for a simple bi-polar power supply I’ve used in several builds, and I tried to recreate both the schematic and the PCB in each program. Since it was originally created using ExpressPCB I’ll start there.
ExpressPCB The free download of ExpressPCB (www.expresspcb.com) installs two separate programs on your PC. (There are no Mac or Linux versions as of this writing.)
Right ExpressPCB’s printed circuit board design view.
radioworld.com | June 16 2021
Above Kicad does a nice job with schematics. This is the board design view. Below EasyEDA’s 3D view shows what the populated board will look like.
ExpressSCH handles the creation of schematics. It includes a library of commonly used parts, and users can also create custom components. ExpressPCB can import those schematics, or users can work from scratch. Again, custom components can be created. The classic version of the software can accommodate PCBs up to four layers, while the “plus” version can handle six. The “plus” version also has a larger library, can copy and paste between designs, and can provide silkscreen patterns for both top and bottom layers. The interface is pretty intuitive, but the online documentation will walk users through the more complicated features. ExpressPCB offers a manufacturing service for completed designs, but it’s also easy to print what’s needed for etching boards at home.
Kicad Next up is Kicad, available as a free download from www. kicad.org. Kicad is open source and available for PC, Mac or Linux. The schematic program, called Eeschema, includes a large parts library, plus the ability to match schematic symbols with specific PCB footprints. This facilitates PCB design by automatically including the correct footprint for each component, and aiding in trace layout. It also includes design rules checks to keep mistakes to a minimum, and a circuit simulator to test designs. Another interesting feature is the 3D Viewer, which allows users to envision how a populated board will look, a big help with figuring out how much space the project will take up inside the chassis. Kicad also exports Gerber files and provides printouts for home etching.
The Online Editor allows users to work on designs from anywhere they have internet. Both versions also allow for team collaboration. The program includes links to a user forum as well as tutorial videos for help with designs. Like Kicad it also has a 3D viewer, design rules checks and Gerber export capability, as well as a large parts library with matching component footprints for PCB work. Multiple PCB layers are supported.
DesignSpark DesignSpark comes from a partnership between RS Components and Allied Electronics. The software requires free registration at www.rs-online.com/designspark/home. The site offers a vast library of tutorials, projects and other information for DIY. The schematic software includes a good-sized parts list, and like Kicad and EasyEDA it includes footprints for common components. Like the others, it includes a 3D viewer, design rules checks and Gerber output, as well as multi-layer board support. DesignSpark also includes a Design Calculator tab, which includes not only a scientific calculator but also calculators for trace width and impedance, RCL frequencies, heat sink values and common conversions. On the schematic side, it includes a Spice simulator.
EasyEDA EasyEDA (www.easyeda.com) also is available for PC, Mac and Linux. It comes in two versions: the Desktop Client and the Online Editor.
radioworld.com | June 16 2021
DIY Projects Right Designspark makes PC board design a snap. Below Eagle by Autodesk offers many of the same features as the other programs.
Finally there’s Eagle by Autodesk (eagle.autodesk.com). This free download includes almost all the same features as Kicad, EasyEDA and DesignSpark. Schematics can be created from a vast library of components that include footprints for automatically porting into the PCB side of things. Dozens of possible layers are supported, as well as error correction and virtual test probes. Another handy feature is the ability to create what are referred to as “design blocks.” These are essentially electronic sub-assemblies that can be saved as standalone components. For example, if several designs use the same power supply or output stage, that section can be saved as a block, rather than having to redraw it every time. There is one drawback to this program: the free version limits the size of PCBs to 100x80 mm. Again this is by no means an exhaustive list of available programs. All of these will certainly get the job done. Some have a much steeper learning curve than others, mostly due to the sheer number of features and options.
It really comes down to each DIYer’s preferences and workflow. I’ll likely stick with ExpressPCB, simply because I’m used to it. There were some nifty features in the others but none that I couldn’t live without. I especially liked the 3D viewers, and while it took a while to find the right parts, having specific footprints for specific parts took a lot of the trial and error out of fitting everything on to the board. On the other hand, most of my projects are not as complex as the majority of these programs are designed to deal with. If you’re looking to take your schematics to the next level, it costs nothing but time to try any of these solutions.
radioworld.com | June 16 2021
White Paper Writer
Tony Peterle Manager of Worldcast Systems Inc. in Miami, Fla.
The next-generation broadcast chain Transport of MPX over IP has its challenges
n FM analog broadcasting, the composite (MPX) signal is a precious thing. It is the result of everything that comes before in the broadcast chain — studio consoles and routing, a carefully cultivated high-resolution music library, and high-end audio processors which are typically the devices that create the composite signal itself. Thousands of dollars — sometimes tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars — are spent creating the perfect MPX signal both in terms of content and quality. If the final creation of the composite takes place next to the transmitter itself as in Fig. 1, that’s great. The transmitter receives the full fidelity. Otherwise, we must consider the best ways to transport this precious cargo. Composite STLs can link to a single remote site with little loss of quality. Distribution of the same audio across multiple sites is a bit more complex.
of centralized MPX generation and distribution. However, network bandwidth limitations can hamper the transmission of a full-quality digital MPX signal. A full linear composite on a 24-bit sample can consume more than 4.5 Mbps. So, the first link in the new broadcast chain is MPX over IP — but with reduced bandwidth. The network bandwidth required to send a digitized MPX signal can be reduced in several ways. First, by filtering out that part of the composite that extends beyond the RDS data being sent on the 57 kHz subcarrier. This can lower the bandwidth of an uncompressed digital MPX signal to approximately 2.1 Mbps using a 16-bit sample. See Fig. 3. Beyond that initial truncation of the MPX, any bandwidth reduction of the digital MPX signal requires some form of compression. How can one reduce the relatively high IP data rate of a composite signal
Above Fig. 1: Production of the composite signal in a typical FM station.
If done at the audio level, each site will need its own set of gear — processor, stereo encoder, RDS encoder — which can lead to variations of the signal quality from site to site. It’s even less convenient to send an identical analog MPX signal to multiple sites. The emergence of MPX over AES technology to transport the signal via digitization presents a new topography, new challenges and new solutions. Using point-to-multipoint distribution becomes attractive for boosters, SFN and even simple applications like separate sites for main and backup TX. Each site receives an identical MPX signal. Only one audio processor is used, ensuring that each broadcast signal will have the same sound, plus reducing costs and possible points of failure. MPX over IP is the first building block of our NextGeneration Broadcast Chain. Fig. 2 shows the topography
I’ve spent loads of money and innumerable hours making my composite signal as perfect as it can be. Why hose it up now?
radioworld.com | June 16 2021
without affecting the quality of the MPX/composite transmission?
First, do no harm Contrary to the beliefs of many (including the author, until he looked it up), the popular phrase above is not part of the Hippocratic Oath — though it is attributed to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. The translation reads more along the lines of “I will … abstain from whatever is deleterious …” But the meaning is clear. In our context, the phrase might be translated, “I’ve spent loads of money and innumerable hours making my composite signal as perfect as it can be. Why hose it up now?” One option to reduce MPXoIP bandwidth beyond simple truncation is to deconstruct the carefully crafted signal, breaking it down into its component parts. Then compression is applied to the audio portion, the pieces are transported over a network connection, and equipment on the far end reassembles the parts for broadcast. Fig. 4 shows how this is done. Consequently, each decoder must re-create the composite signal, which can introduce variations in the signal from site to site. These variations can cause some difficulties, particularly in an SFN application where each signal must hew as closely as possible to every other, in order to minimize
Above Fig. 2: Centralized MPX signal generation Below Fig. 3: IP bandwidth vs. composite spectrum
radioworld.com | June 16 2021
the interference effects in the areas of overlapping signal, commonly called mush zones. Clearly not an ideal solution. Another option is to treat the composite/MPX signal like the carefully crafted single entity that it is. The entire MPX signal is sampled, and variable rate compression is applied. This is a quasi-linear approach that works well on the composite signal, as seen in the measurements depicted in Fig. 5. Three MPX over AES 192 kHz files were recorded directly at the studio output. Each file lasts 15 minutes. Passed through a pair of MPX codecs using this holistic
White Paper compression method, each signal was measured by an Audemat FM-MC5. Comparisons of the occupied MPX bandwidth were made between the original source material, transport by 16- and 24-bit linear MPXoIP, and with the APTmpx compression, focused on the overshoot that can lead to overmodulation. The compressed version shows the exact same results as the linear transport. This solution respects the integrity of the composite signal and can transmit MPXoIP to one or multiple sites, using approximately 900 kbps bandwidth, with no loss of fidelity. So — our Next-Generation Broadcast Chain now has MPX transport over IP, with reduced bandwidth.
IP gonna IP Some additional pitfalls await when we transport the MPX signal by digital means. One example is in regards to packet loss. Packet loss in analog or AES audio is typically a negligible event, causing brief interruptions or a noisy output. However, losing a small percentage MPXoIP packets could cause an output of full-level noise, causing the transmitter to overmodulate or even causing possible damage. An important consideration is the compression
Above Fig. 4: Deconstructive compression allows for compression of the audio portion of the composite signal while leaving the pilot, subcarrier and RDS alone — but at a cost.
Right, top Fig. 5: Results of variable-rate compression on the MPX signal. Right, bottom Fig. 6: Overmodulation cancellation
radioworld.com | June 16 2021
algorithm. Some MPXoIP solutions use a Group of Packets system. Similar to a frame-based audio algorithm, a key packet is sent that contains full data for a given sample, and subsequent packets deliver only the difference from the previous packet. If a packet is lost, several following packets may also be rendered useless. By comparison, the holistic algorithm (APTmpX) is more similar to linear PCM on an audio codec. Each packet contains full data for a sample, and can operate independently, reducing the impact of any lost packets. In addition, some method of overmodulation cancellation should be applied to protect the MPX from overshoots in case packet loss does occur. See Fig. 6. For further security, use of redundant MPXoIP streams via divergent paths and carriers can reduce packet loss on most links to near zero. So if the bandwidth is available, that technology should be applied as well. This is another advantage to the holistic
Above Fig. 7: SureStream provides for redundant paths. Below, top Fig. 8: Multi-frequency network — timealigned content. Below, bottom Fig. 9: Single-frequency network — carriers and content for all sites are synchronized.
Some method of overmodulation cancellation should be applied to protect the MPX from overshoots in case of packet loss. radioworld.com | June 16 2021
MPX compression, it means MPX/Composite can now be reliably delivered over unmanaged public internet. Fig. 7 shows the principle of redundant streaming with APT SureStream. In addition, some method of overmodulation cancellation should be applied to protect the MPX from overshoots in case packet loss does occur. See Fig. 6. So, our new broadcast chain has MPX over IP, reduced bandwidth, a holistic packet-based algorithm, redundant streams for protection against packet loss, and technology to minimize overshoots in case packet loss does occur.
White Paper Left Fig. 10: Three external clocking modes provide for exacting synchronization of both content and carrier.
MPXoIP and SFN
SynchroStream compensates for dynamic latencies in the (IP) transport network up to 1 second without NTP time base, and up to 5 seconds if NTP is applied. Additionally, fixed delay times can be set in increments of +/- 125 nanoseconds; this is an eighth of a microsecond. Drive tests have shown that this level of precision can reduce the size of the SFN interference mush zones by around a factor of 10. That capability, plus precise carrier synchronization and fine adjustments of the delay between sites allows the broadcaster to optimize the SFN coverage. That is not to say this type of synchronization could not be used in other applications, for example synchronizing an MPX signal with a corresponding E2X signal for broadcast on an HD1 signal.
Central MPX creation usually implies that several related transmitters will be supplied. Thus, it makes sense to time the programs to allow seamless transition from one frequency to another in the case of a multifrequency network, such as boosters or translators (Fig. 8). When a single-frequency network (SFN) is desired, precise synchronization of the carriers is required, with reference to external clocks (Fig. 9). Synchronization for MFN is possible with the standard Content Time Alignment feature, which refers to NTP as the time base. SFN synchronization requires a much higher level of accuracy, such as that provided by APT’s SynchroStream option. SynchroStream sets a target latency for all channels and synchronizes the transmission exactly. See Fig. 10. This technology allows for high stability and the finest adjustment of the synchronization.
So — our Next-Generation Broadcast Chain now contains all the essential elements: • Transport of MPX over IP for best fidelity, equipment and cost reductions • Holistic compression that respects the MPX signal while reducing the necessary bandwidth • Redundant stream protection over multiple paths and providers • Overmodulation cancellation technology to minimize the chance of overshoot • Ultra-precise synchronization of the MPX across all sites, for MFN or SFN applications Careful planning and deployment of the latest technologies can yield a broadcast chain that delivers quality audio reliably to any and all transmitter sites in the network .
Marketplace Global Security Systems Adds ShakeAlert GSS acquired a license to participate in the ShakeAlert earthquake notification system through its Alert FM disaster warning system. Alert FM provides tornado, hurricane, fire and other possibly life-threatening emergency notifications. The earthquake information is from the U.S. Geological Survey’s ShakeAlert earthquake detection and warning system. Matthew Straeb, EVP/CTO of Global Security Systems, called it “a tremendous benefit for increasing public safety in all of our communities.” The ShakeAlert system is active on the West Coast, and GSS is implementing AlertFM/ShakeAlert for customers in California, Oregon and Washington state.
In addition, “Alert FM will integrate automated actions to accompany earthquake early warnings for sirens, accessible devices such as bed-shakers and other consumer electronic devices. … GSS will also pursue partnerships with accessible, hospital, transportation and public utility systems,” the company announced. Straeb said GSS will seek partners to integrate its FM technology to control emergency generators, door openers, production machinery and other sensitive equipment in concert with alert messages. “The benefits are nearly endless in earthquake situations.” Info: www.alertfm.com
radioworld.com | June 16 2021
Marketplace TASCAM TM-250U This is a new USB condenser microphone with a supercardioid pattern. It is intended for direct-connection computer audio for podcasting, dialog and vocal recording, music recording, conferencing and other forms of online audio. The digital audio output is 16-bit/48 kHz. It has mic gain and a headphone output volume control along with a mute switch; it also has a dedicated headphone output connector (3.5 mm stereo mini jack) for direct monitoring. It uses USB-C connectors for use with Windows, Mac and Chrome OS platforms. No special driver is required. The mic ships with a 6-foot USB C-A mic cable, mic holder and a desktop mic tripod. Retail price is $299 though we saw it for a good deal less online. The company also recently launched a shotgun, the TM-200SG, for videographers. Info: https://tascam.com/us/product/tm-250u/top
Audinate Dante AVIO USB-C Adapter Audinate introduced a Dante AVIO USB-C adapter. It allows current mobile devices and computers to connect to a Dante audio network for playout or recording. Dante AVIO is a family of adapters to use nonDante analog, USB, AES3/EBU or Bluetooth audio equipment with a Dante audio network. “The Dante AVIO USB-C adapter connects to devices with USB-C or A ports (cables included) to deliver and receive two channels of audio over a Dante audio network,” Audinate said in the announcement. “It requires no additional drivers and works with any application, making it ideal for rapid setup of conference rooms, background music and more.” The adapter may be powered via USB or PoE. When connected to a PoE Ethernet switch, 7.5 watts of power is available to charge USB-C compatible smartphones and tablets that are connected to the network. Info: www.audinate.com/products/devices/dante-avio
radioworld.com | June 16 2021
RANSOMWARE ATTACK Your personal files are now encrypted You have 3 days to submit payment!!! To retrieve the Private key you need to pay! Your files will be lost
Old ideas for a new threat environment
Air-gapping may be the only surefire way to protect critical systems
Frank McCoy Chief engineer of Salem Communications’ Chicago cluster and president of consultancy FM and Co.
’m tired of thinking about hackers. I’m tired of maintaining a sophisticated stateful proxy firewall at home. This is almost surely on top of whatever threat mitigation is employed by my internet service provider Comcast. Even basic firewalls (including the one on your computer) limit the connectivity to a handful of well-known ports and protocols for inbound traffic. That’s a lot of barbed wire fences to climb over. My firewall (pfSense — free for non-com use, runs on Berkeley Linux) even blocks DNS resolution from URLs on several lists like www.spamhaus.org, feds.dshield.org and a list of lists at www.iblocklist.com. Makes loading exploit code harder. I presume most consolidated IT departments employ similar tools. Still, stuff happens.
Easy pickings The reason this keeps happening is that the rewards for successful hacking and the ease with which thousands of exposed attack surfaces can be scanned quickly makes it trivial to pick the low-hanging fruit of misconfiguration. If only 2% of victims pay the ransom, so what? It’s still a bonanza. Users at home might pay a hundred bucks or so to restore their files. A hospital might be good for a hundred
thousand. Meanwhile the software tools to make this mischief are available for sale or rent. Literally, there’s malware software as a service. Bitcoin makes collecting ransom anonymous. So, lacking any true bulletproof software solution, I’m now exploring the kinds of firewall hardware that no amount of probing can circumvent. I’ve arrived at a solution that I think gets the job done, at least as far as the truly malicious software offerings are concerned. For online banking, where I do not enjoy the protection of the $50 limit on credit card fraud, it’s now a machine that is connected only when I am online. Literally, the first order of business is to enable the wired IP interface. It gets disabled when I’m done. Any old hunk of junk will do for this application. This strategy relies on the presumption that network mapping is a prerequisite to successful attacks, and a machine they can’t see is unlikely to be vulnerable. Elsewhere, whole machine backups made to a USBconnected drive pass through an external USB hub. One of my Raspberry Pi timers (described in an earlier column) connects and disconnects the USB hub power on a schedule. Yes, exploring the machine that is backed up using this scheme will reveal a Windows backup schedule and the path to the actual backup but no access. Let ’em wonder how that can be.
radioworld.com | June 16 2021
Cybersecurity K.I.S.S. And so that’s where I’m headed for low-cost, low-tech solutions for the automation network at the radio station. Like most places, we require internet connectivity to pull down paid content, news, weather and such. There’s no avoiding exposure. But I think a custom “jump box” will solve the problem. It’ll be built as an FTP device, reaching out via scripting to harvest needed files, placing them in a quarantine, running them through anti-whatever, then dropping them into an “outbox” for pickup by the automation system’s loading tools. Finally, once the key features are up and working, I’ll burn the entire boot partition to a DVD and boot from that. Reboot every 24 hours. For script storage and the anti-whatever database, a thumb drive with an external write protect switch seems obvious; maybe something like this. You get the idea. Think like a hacker. Create impenetrable physical barriers for him. Presume you’ll be infected and flush their effort before it is productive. Given the target-rich environment, I believe it’ll work like those alarm company stickers on your window. The bad guys will just move on. Finally, I am no longer a fan of unified, company-wide systems for authentication like Active Directory. The recent zerologon attack put a lot of AD users in the ditch. Essentially, one try in 256 would authenticate a
password of all zeros. A glitch in the code, it seems. These systems are robust until they aren’t and, unfortunately, can be bought and set up by anybody. De-compilers allow a view into the binaries, and any vulnerabilities will be found by bad guys. Sadly, response from software vendors to even hacks they’ve been made aware of can be slow. Understandable, I suppose, since hundreds of supposed vulnerabilities are reported for every one that is actually viable. Everybody wants to be a hero. But sorting the real problem from all the chaff reported is time consuming. Often, posting actual exploit code as a proof of concept is the only way to get a vendor’s attention. That’s what it took for the zerologon hack. And the bad guys have plenty of money to buy a version of every software product and every appliance out there, then reverse engineer it all. So it’s a losing battle. On the other hand, a machine that is unplugged is a pretty tough hacking target. And a machine that boots fresh daily from read only media is going to be pretty challenging for a hacker, too. Finally, when machines need updates, let ’em access the public internet for only the time required, then cut them off. Turns out old ideas can apply to new environments. Want to prevent a mishap? Turn off the power, disengage, disconnect.
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radioworld.com | June 16 2021
Radio World Engineering Extra 267 - June 16th, 2021