This post is rather technical, and assumes a knowledge of PSK demodulator design. I apologise if it is difficult to understand for the general reader. I have spent the last few weeks working on this part time so felt compelled to record the results somewhere. Thanks to Bill Cowley VK5DSP and Peter Martinez G3PLX for their email advice on this work.

I have a background in modems for satellite communications, which use non differential PSK and coherent demodulation. This has a 3dB advantage over DPSK, at the cost of additional complexity. The FDMDV modem used for FreeDV uses Differential Phase Shift Keying (DPSK). This is the usual choice for HF radio channels which have phase distortion due to multipath propagation. However 3dB is a big potential improvement, so I couldn’t help wondering if coherent demodulation would work for HF radio channels. So I wrote some Octave code to try it.

First I needed to develop a phase estimation algorithm that could be bolted onto the FDMDV demodulator, but using the same DPSK modulator and over the air specification. True coherent demodulation requires a unique word to resolve phase ambiguities. This isn’t possible with the current FDMDV modem specification as there are no spare bits. So I went for a pseudo coherent scheme where we coherently demodulate the PSK symbols, then pass them to a DPSK decoder. This has a performance hit compared to coherent PSK, but resolves the phase ambiguity without a unique word.

The function rx_est_phase() in fdmdv.m estimates the phase over a window of Nph symbols.

As a first step I plotted the scatter diagram of DPSK (top) versus pseudo coherent DPSK (bottom) for data from a real HF channel.

The psuedo coherent scatter plot looked a bit better to me so I decided to go a little further. I implemented a demodulator simulation that could measure bit error Rate (BER) for AWGN channels. During development I found that the phase estimator couldn’t be used to track frequency offsets larger than 0.5 Hz. I think this is because of the low 50 Hz symbol rate. So the existing DPSK demodulator was run in parallel to provide frequency offset tracking.

Here are the BER results for two Eb/No values (5 and 7 dB) for the two different algorithms.

Demod | 7dB | 5dB |
---|---|---|

Differential | 0.0128 | 0.0487 |

Pseudo Coherent | 0.0068 | 0.0252 |

The bit error rates are about half, which is a 1dB improvement. This is not very much, but I decided to “run it to ground” and test using some FDMDV modem data from real HF channels. Mark VK5QI kindly gathered these samples for me. Rather than Codec 2 data, a known test sequence is transmitted so BER can be determined at the receiver. The fdmdv_demod_coh.m script implements a demodulator that uses sample files as input.

Here are the results for 50W Tx power (VK2-VK5_20m_50W_TX.raw) using 1400*10 bits. The “Nph” parameter is the size of the window used to estimate the phase. More symbols means a smoother estimate but a slower response to phase variations.

Demod | BER |
---|---|

Differential | 0.0541 |

Pseudo Coherent Nph=5 | 0.0517 |

Pseudo Coherent Nph=7 | 0.0484 |

Pseudo Coherent Nph=9 | 0.0442 |

Pseudo Coherent Nph=13 | 0.0458 |

Not a very impressive improvement, at best a 20% improvement in BER. The results with 18W of Tx power (VK2-VK5_20m_18W_TX.raw) using 1400*10 bits are also marginal:

Demod | BER |
---|---|

Differential | 0.0991 |

Pseudo Coherent Nph=9 | 0.0926 |

On the HF channel we have multipath pushing FDM carriers down into the noise. My guess is that the HF channel can be modelled as either good, where the SNR is high, or bad, where a fade knocks out one of the FDM carriers entirely. A small improvement in demodulator performance only affects the transition between the two states.

So, the next step in improving FreeDV performance is to explore Forward Error Correction (FEC).