A downconverter is a circuit that allows the RTL-SDR to receive frequencies above its maximum frequency range of about 1.8 GHz. It works by converting all higher frequencies down into a lower frequency which can be received by the RTL-SDR. It is the opposite of an upconverter which is used to receive HF frequencies on an RTL-SDR. In the past the Outernet project was working on a commercial downconverter product for the RTL-SDR, but they had to unfortunately put an end to that project as the costs were not economical.
Earlier in June YouTube user T3CHNOTURK posted a video demonstrating him receiving signals above the maximum 1.7 GHz range of the RTL-SDR by using a modified SUP-2400 downconverter. Back in April it was discovered by KD0CQ that a $5 DirecTV SUP-2400 circuit could be modified and turned into a downconverter for use with the RTL-SDR.
Now T3CHNOTURK has uploaded a new video showing more demonstrations of the RTL-SDR + SUP-2400 combo in action. This time he adds a PGA-103 based LNA to boost the signal strength, which gives him better effective range. In the video he shows reception of a wireless keyboard once again, and then goes on to show him receiving 2.4 GHz analog PAL video using the RTL-SDR program TVSharp. The picture is not particularly clear, but it is a decent demonstration.
Back in April we posted about how KD0CQ found that he could receive signals up to 4.5 GHz with an RTL-SDR by using a $5 downconverter for DirecTV called the SUP-2400. The RTL-SDR can only receive up to a maximum frequency of about 1.7 GHz, but the SUP-2400 downconverter can be modified to convert frequencies at around 2.4 GHz down into a range receivable by the RTL-SDR.
When we first posted the story the instructions for modifying the SUP-2400 to use as a downconverter weren’t uploaded yet, but they are now. The modification requires decent soldering skills as it involves desoldering a few small SMD components and bridging some points with wires.
Over on YouTube user T3CHNOTURK has uploaded a video showing the downconverter in action. With the SUP-2400 downconverter and RTL-SDR he is able to receive some WiFi at 2.447 GHz as well as signals from a wireless keyboard at 2.465 GHz
Outernet are a startup company that hope to revolutionize the way people in regions with no, poor or censored internet connectivity receive information. Their service is downlink only, and runs on C and L-band satellite signals, beaming up to date news as well as other information like books, educational videos and files daily. To receive it you will need one of their official or homemade versions of the Lighthouse or Lantern receivers (the latter of which is still to be released), or an RTL-SDR or similar SDR. Recently they began test broadcasts of their new 5 kHz 1539.8725 MHz L-band signal on Inmarsat I4F3 located at 98W (covers the Americas), and they hope to begin broadcasts in more regions soon too.
The typical RTL-SDR is known to often have poor or failing performance above 1.5 GHz (though this can be fixed to some extent), so Outernet have been working on an L-band downconverter. A downconverter works by receiving signals, and shifting them down to a lower frequency. This is advantageous because the RTL-SDR is more sensitive and does not fail at lower frequencies, and if used close to the antenna, the lower frequency allows longer runs of cheap coax cable to be used without significant signal loss.
Earlier this week we received in the mail a prototype of their downconverter. The downconverter uses a 1.750 GHz LO signal, so any signal input into it will be subtracted from this frequency. For example the STD-C frequency of 1.541450 GHz will be reduced to 1750 MHz – 1541.450 MHz = 208.55 MHz. This also means that the spectrum will appear reversed, but this can be corrected by selecting “Swap I & Q” in SDR#. The downconverter also amplifies the signal with an LNA, and has a filter to remove interfering out of band signals.
We tested the downconverter using their patch antenna which they had sent to us at an earlier date (the patch antenna is used and shown in this Inmarsat STD-C reception tutorial). Our testing found that overall the downconverter works extremely well, giving us much better signal levels. Previously, we had used the patch + LNA4ALL and were able to get reception good enough to decode STD-C and AERO signals, but with the requirement that the patch be carefully pointed at the satellite for maximum signal. With the downconverter the signals come in much stronger, and accurate pointing of the patch is no longer required to get a signal strong enough to decode STD-C or AERO.
The downconverter can be powered by a bias tee connection, and this works well with our bias tee enabled RTL-SDR dongles. We also tested with the bias tee on the Airspy R2 and Mini and had no problems. It can also be powered with a direct 5V connection to a header, and they note that the header will be replaced by a USB connector in the production version.
The release date and exact price that these will be sold at is not confirmed, but we believe that it will be priced similarly to upconverters at around $50 USD or less. A good low cost downconverter should help RTL-SDR and other SDR users receive not only the Outernet signal better, but also other satellite signals such as STD-C and AERO. Although the input is filtered and the RF frequency is specified at 1525 to 1559 MHz, we had no trouble receiving signals up to GPS frequencies of 1575 MHz, and even up to Iridium signals at 1.626 GHz, though reception was much weaker up that high.
Below are some screenshots of reception. Here we used the Outernet patch antenna sitting in a windowsill with the downconverter directly after the antenna, and then 10 meters of RG6 coax cable to the PC and bias tee enabled RTL-SDR. We found that with the downconverted ~200 MHz signal the loss in the RG6 coax was negligible. Better reception could be obtained by putting the patch outdoors. In some screenshots we used Vasilli’s R820T driver with the decimation feature, which allows you to zoom into narrowband signals much more clearly.
The secret to doing this cheaply is revealed by KD0CQ. He shows that a very cheap $5 Directv SUP-2400upconverter can be converted into a 2.4 GHz downconverter simply by removing some filters. He writes that he hasn’t uploaded the full set of steps to modify the SUP-2400 yet, but he intends to do so in the near future.
There is also a discussion about this mod on Reddit. Several posters have been discussing what applications a cheap downconverter could open up. Some mentioned applications include receiving various satellites in the C/S bands, DECT cordless phones @ 1.9 GHz, SiriusXM satellite radio @ 2.3 GHz, ISM @ 2.4 GHz, RADARs, RC aircraft control/telemetry/video and ham beacons.
Adam (9a4QV) is well known in the RTL-SDR community for creating and selling the LNA4ALL low noise amplifier and several filter circuits as well. Now Adam has uploaded on his YouTube channel a new video that shows a prototype of his latest upcoming RTL-SDR compatible product called the MIX4ALL. The MIX4ALL is a downconverter that will improve the ability of the RTL-SDR to receive satellite signals in the L-band which are usually at around 1.5 GHz.
It is known that the most common R820T/2 RTL-SDR’s are not very sensitive at 1.5 GHz, and some can even stop receiving properly at this frequency when they get too hot. A downconverter will simply convert the 1.5 GHz signals into a lower frequency which can be received much better by the RTL-SDR.
In the first video Adam shows the MIX4ALL being used with an RTL-SDR to receive various Inmarsat signals with a patch antenna. In the second video he shows reception of AERO-I signals.
Adam writes that he expects to be able to sell the MIX4ALL near the end of January 2016.
Over on YouTube Adam Alicajic, seller of the LNA4ALL low noise amplifier has uploaded a video showing how to create a simple downconverter using a 1.3 GHz local oscillator and an LNA4ALL. A downconverter extends the frequency range of the RTL-SDR to frequencies higher than the RTL-SDR’s 1.7 GHz limit.
Adam capacitively connects the 1.3 GHz local oscillator to the input of the LNA4ALL, which causes the input signal to be mixed with the input signal from the antenna. This moves a test 2.8 GHz signal down to 1.5 GHz, which is receivable by the RTL-SDR.
Since 2.4 GHz is out of any of the RTL-SDR’s receivable range, Omri used a cheap downconverter which he was able to buy from China using Aliexpress. The downconverter converts the 2.4 GHz signal into a lower frequency at around 400 MHz which is in the receivable range of the RTL-SDR.
He was then able to use his NRF24-BTLE-Decoder software that he developed to convert the received data from the NRF24L01+ transceiver into a decoded packet by simply piping the output of RTL_FM into his program.
Since the NRF24L01+ uses hardware similar to the Bluetooth Low Energy (BTLE) protocol, Omri was able to modify his code to be able to also decode BTLE packets.