# How does the signal know where the cable ends and the antenna starts?

I know very little about antennas. I know, that for a certain frequency the antenna needs a certain lengths for good sending/receiving conditions. Often the antenna is at the end of a cable. Why doesn't the length of the cable count in addition to the length of the antenna?

An excellent question! Without diving too deep into the theory, let's start with a few basic terms.

The "signal" that an antenna is receiving or transmitting is called an electromagnetic wave. This is exactly the same type of wave as light. It is just that our eyes are sensitive to a narrow range of frequencies that we call light. Electromagnetic waves that are lower in frequency behave exactly the same but we cannot see them. These lower frequencies are generally called RF (radio frequencies). Antennas are used to radiate (transmit) and receive electromagnetic RF signals.

The cable or wire that goes between the antenna and a receiver or transmitter is called a transmission line. We use this term even if the cable is simply used for receiving purposes. A transmission line is specifically designed to not radiate an electromagnetic wave but only transport it from one end of the transmission line to the other. There are several types of construction that can meet this requirement but you are probably most familiar with coaxial cable - the same type of cable that is used for "cable TV".

In the case of the coaxial cable, the outer shield keeps the electromagnetic wave contained between the outer shield and the inner conductor. And as it does so, the electromagnetic wave moves from one end of the cable to the other.

The device that generates the electromagnetic wave is called the source. This could be a transmitter or, when receiving a signal, it is the antenna. At the other end of the transmission line is the load. When transmitting, the antenna is considered the load and when receiving it is the receiver that is the load. By convention, the electromagnetic wave travels from the source end to the load end.

So now armed with these few terms, we can restate your question as: Why isn't the transmission line included as part of the antenna when accounting for the length of the antenna?

The simple answer is to realize that an antenna is specifically designed to receive or radiate electromagnetic waves. And you are correct that the dimensions of the antenna play a key role in its overall performance. But now contrast this to the transmission line that is specifically designed to not radiate electromagnetic waves.

We can draw a comparison here to a garden hose and a sprinkler. The garden hose is specifically designed to transport the water from one end to the other without leaking any of it along the way (although I have a few hoses that seem not to have gotten that memo). The sprinkler, on the other hand, is specifically designed to "leak" water in a very specific pattern and volume.

I hope that is the level of answer you were expecting. Feel free to use the comments to ask for any clarifications or additional depth.

• Love the garden hose / sprinkler analogy, it made things so clear! Commented Nov 7, 2018 at 12:31

Antennas are often resonant. Their physical dimensions are adjusted so standing waves develop at a particular frequency, like a bell rings at a particular tone.

Feedlines are not usually resonant. Usually an engineer ensures the end of the feedline is terminated (by the antenna or the radio) with an impedance that matches the characteristic impedance of the feedline. This ensures that as a wavefront reaches the end of the feedline it's fully absorbed and none of it is reflected back. Since there are ideally no reflections of energy in this configuration, resonance can't happen.

There are of course counterexamples. Non-resonant antennas exist in some applications, especially when the antenna must be physically small, or in receive-only applications where efficiency isn't as important. And transmission lines can be used to introduce controlled phase shifts into the signal, for example to make phased arrays or matching networks, and for this they must be cut to specific lengths that depend on frequency.

• Just to note that a non-resonant antenna will radiate almost all of the r-f energy that flows along its conductor(s) - as effectively as a resonant antenna. Commented Nov 7, 2018 at 14:36
• Theoretically, assuming no losses, sure. In practice engineers make antennas resonant if there isn't a reason to do otherwise since this minimizes reactive power, and associated losses in real systems. Commented Nov 7, 2018 at 14:38
• However it can be more practical to make the antenna system resonant, rather than its radiating conductor(s). Commented Nov 7, 2018 at 15:15
• Few, if any AM broadcast towers are naturally resonant (j = 0 ohms), with the real term of their input Z = 50 ohms. Almost always they need/use a network at their feedpoint to match them to the Zo of the transmission line connected there. Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 15:42
• To elaborate, a naturally resonant (j0) AM broadcast radiator of slightly less than 90 degrees height might have a radiation resistance of about 33 ohms. Without a matching network, it would need to be driven against an r-f ground connection having a resistance of 17 ohms in order to present a 1:1 SWR match to a 50 ohm line connected to its input terminals. No broadcast station would tolerate that loss in system radiation efficiency, and in almost all cases the FCC would not even permit or license it. Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 16:17

RF signals have no consciousness so they really don't know anything. All they can do is follow the laws of physics. When a signal is traveling in a transmission line conductor there is another signal of equal amplitude and opposite direction (phase) traveling in the other conductor close by. The RF fields from those two signals (almost) cancel so no (or very little) energy is lost to radiation from a transmission line. But suddenly those two signals split up and go off at right angles to each other at the dipole feedpoint so there is no other field close by to cancel the antenna's fields. Both signals are now free to radiate their fields as RF signals propagating through the air - and they do just that. When in the transmission line, the RF signals in each wire are traveling in opposite directions, i.e. are differential. But when one wire takes a 90 degree left hand turn and the other takes a 90 degree right hand turn, it results in the two currents flowing in the same direction, i.e. changes them to radiating antenna currents.

So when does the feedline have an effect on the system and when does it not have an effect? If the feedline SWR is 1:1, it is called "flat" and the feedpoint impedance of the antenna equals the Z0 characteristic impedance of the feedline. This is called the "matched line" case and if there are no common mode signals present, the feedline has very little effect on the conditions surrounding the antenna.

However, if the SWR on the feedline is not 1:1, the feedline becomes a "tuned feeder" and is an active part of the antenna system the length of which determines such things as resonant frequency and the impedance seen by the source transmitter. Some of this effect is explained on my web page at:

http://www.w5dxp.com/notuner/notuner.HTM

"Why doesn't the length of the cable count in addition to the length of the antenna?" It is not so easy to point to the misunderstanding here. Surely the length of the feeder cable matters in some cases. In the first place, sensors for E-fields or H-fields are often described as antennas (loop antennas or whip antennas.) That is misleading because very small (in wavelength) antennas depend on using specific types of amplifiers to provide wideband coverage. For transmit they require VERY special low noise matching that makes the bandwidth VERY limited. Many antennas used by amateurs actually use the feed line as the radiator. If there is a common mode current, (the currents on the two conductors are not exactly equal) the cable is radiating. (Or usually more important, picking up interference.) An antenna cable that is perfectly well installed to not radiate at all might have a length that provides an impedance match to the antenna so cable length is sometimes important. I think the "simple" question does not have a simple answer. With a purist attitude, the transmission cable is "ideal" and then its length does not matter. The "ideal" antenna is matched to the cable at the frequency of operation and then the cable length does not matter. There is a confusion between field sensors (active devices) and antennas. In real life nothing is ideal. As I understand it, most operators have non-ideal antennas that suffer from pick-up of local E- or H- fields because of inadequate means to force common mode currents on feed cables to be zero.