|Return Path Troubleshooting
John J. Downey
Broadband Network Engineer
With today’s reliance on return path continuity, we can’t justify taking the system down to troubleshoot anymore. Reverse service activity dictates how non-intrusive we must be. In order to keep our customers happy we must be non-intrusive. This could mean working at 3:00 am, but even then, some people are using their cable modems to do work.
Taking the system down will be unacceptable to the subscribers who will lose communication, get a slower throughput, have periodic “clicking” in their phone calls, or most importantly, they’ll go elsewhere for service.
We must have an understanding of the test points that will be used when troubleshooting our networks before we can be totally non-interruptive. We must also use new testing procedures and then learn to apply new troubleshooting techniques. Refer to the article entitled Test Points & Sweeping for an overview of different test points and their associated issues. For this article we will jump right in to return path troubleshooting procedures.
The first logical step for return path troubleshooting is to verify it’s truly on your network and not self-induced. Use some type of spectrum analyzer to view the anomaly. Cross reference with frequency charts that identify different ingress sources to get a best-guess idea. Acterna has a nice Return Path Frequency chart at the following url: www.acterna.com/products/network_types/cable_networks/training/AutomatedPrograms.html.
Noise and transient ingress above the diplex filter region is probably laser clipping or induced at the node. Most reverse lasers are specified for 5-200 MHz so you may also see some forward channels leaking back on the reverse. This may not pose a problem as long as the channels are at least –50 dBc from the reverse signals. You may want to view the frequencies below 5 MHz as well to verify it’s clean. Noise below 5 MHz is sometimes associated with electrical transient noise from amplifier power packs and could affect the laser’s dynamic range.
Listening to Ingress to Identify the Source
The second step in this process of troubleshooting is to demodulate the ingress, if possible, to identify the type of ingress. Reverse path ingress is usually amplitude modulated (AM), but could also be FM. Listening to the ingress helps to identify the source.
Use FM demodulation for the audio of forward channels, certain shortwave radio, and analog cordless phones. AM demodulation can be used for most reverse interference and ingress, such as CB, Ham, and shortwave radio. CB is multiple channels between about 26.9 and 27.4 MHz.
Listening to the signal may give you some insight into the location of the source or at least the nature of the source. You may be able to get the call signs of a ham radio operator or a mile marker from a truck driver using his CB. This could aid in pinpointing the ingress location.
Observing how it reacts and changes could indicate different sources such as a trucker or home user. A CB level changing quickly is probably a home user, whereas a spike at 27 MHz changing level slowly could indicate a trucker passing by a crack in your cable.
A single source of interference such as Ham or CB is easy to track down. If it’s constant, just use the “divide and conquer” theory to dissect the system. Multiple ingress sources such as shortwave radio and common path distortions (CPD) are a totally different story. These sources may be intermittent, bursty, and very difficult to pinpoint. Electrical transient noise is also difficult to track down because of its quick burst and broadband affect.
Keep in mind that lower value taps contribute more noise and ingress than the higher value taps. The lower attenuation from tap values of 14 dB and below, coupled with the low attenuation in the cable at lower frequencies, creates an easy path for noise and ingress to funnel back.
Return Path Power Addition
Many people don’t fully understand power addition and become discouraged when trying to perform noise mitigation. A little decrease could be more than you think. Understanding power loading for return path ingress is essential to help aid in troubleshooting.
For example: A CB signal at 27 MHz is observed in the headend at 20 dBmV total power. One leg of the node is disconnected by removing a reverse input pad and the level drops to 18.8 dBmV. Forget that this is very intrusive and you may not have the luxury to do this. The second leg is disconnected and the level drops to 17 dBmV. After disconnecting the third leg, the total power drops to 14 dBmV. After disconnecting the last leg, the ingress at 27 MHz is eliminated. So the question that remains is, which leg has the largest amount of ingress? The answer is none. All four legs of the node are funneling equal amounts of noise to the headend of 14 dBmV! Two 14s equal 17. Three 14s equal approximately 18.8 and four 14s equal 20 dBmV. Remember, every doubling of power is 3 dB. It is also assumed that the CB signal was adding in phase!
Test Location Considerations
Because the return path signals are low in level, it may be warranted to use a preamp. Newer units may have a preamp built-in. The preamp is used to raise the signal above the noise floor of the test equipment. This is especially a problem on return signals that are read from high loss test points and test equipment with their own noise floor no greater than –50 dBmV. If you look at the noise floor and it looks extremely flat or too good to be true, it probably is. Do a “noise-near-noise” test by disconnecting you test lead to see if the noise floor drops. If it drops less than 10 dB, you may need a preamp. Some meters self-calibrate the gain out of the readings and some don’t, so understand what your meter does before adding more variables to the equation.
If a problem is observed at the output seizure screw of a tap, continue on. Technically, it could still be upstream from a cracked cable before the next amplifier, but we’re assuming the ingress is from cable drops at this point.
Some new probes from SignalVision and Gilbert, part number NS-9178-1, create a good ground and quick connect for this type of troubleshooting.
Note: A probe will always be bi-directional unless it’s in series with the circuit and will cause an impedance mismatch itself. This is something to keep in mind when troubleshooting. Sometimes an in-line pad can be attached to decrease the amount of energy tested, which in turn, may create a better match. Be careful when probing seizure screws, though. The ac present will harm in-line pads and certain test equipment. You’ll have a very distinctive smell of burnt electronics.
Start with 14 dB taps and lower. If the problem is at the input of the tap and not the output, then the problem is from one of the drops. Look at one drop at a time to determine the biggest contributor.
Be careful with spectrum analyzer, noise level readings. Two dB per div is a good scale for sweeping and 5 or 10 dB/div is best for the spectrum mode.
The level displayed is based on the resolution bandwidth (RBW) setting and will be very different from one setting to another. A -20 dBmV noise floor with 30 kHz RBW is really 1.2 dBmV in a 4 MHz bandwidth and there’s usually a correction factor on top of that.
Measurements with no point of reference are very misleading. If there’s a reference carrier present, you can make a relative measurement, such as desired-to-undesired ratio (D/U). One fault with this, though, is RBW settings affect noise and continuous wave (CW) carriers differently. A CW carrier is theoretically 0 Hz wide and the level won’t change with different RBW settings while the noise level will, thus giving a different D/U ratio. A CW carrier will change shape on the analyzer display because of the RBW filter width. The narrower the RBW, the narrower the CW will appear.
A pad on the analyzer will lower the level as well. Attenuation and gain affect noise and carriers equally. The point to all this is to specify: 1. How much bandwidth of noise to measure. 2. Understand what’s realistic. 3. Pick a relevant location to test.
The "Noise" Mode
The ability to switch between a headend mode and a remote analyzer mode has many advantages. One can successfully use the “divide and conquer” technique to quickly find the source of the problem and not have to rely on another person’s interpretation. This also eliminates inefficient use of resources and employee time.
Newer sweep gear units have a "noise/ingress" feature, which can be used for troubleshooting. This displays the noise seen in the headend with optimum resolution. This simplifies reverse troubleshooting and testing of headend reverse noise or ingress. The headend unit will transmit or broadcast the ingress from all the return amplifiers connected to it back to the field unit. This transmits the ingress seen in the headend on the forward telemetry frequency. So if no reverse communication is achieved, you will still get a display of the reverse ingress and noise floor.
It’s good to take a systematic approach to any type of troubleshooting. The first step is education of what potential problems exist and how to identify them. The second step is methodically testing and basing your next step on your results and your understanding of the problem.
The next installment of this series will focus on Common Path Distortions (CPD), tracking impulse noise, and using the Zero-Span mode of a spectrum analyzer for modem upstream measurements and troubleshooting.