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In telecommunications, a scrambler is a device that transposes or inverts signals or otherwise encodes a message at the transmitter to make the message unintelligible at a receiver not equipped with an appropriately set descrambling device. Whereas encryption usually refers to operations carried out in the digital domain, scrambling usually refers to operations carried out in the analog domain. Scrambling is accomplished by the addition of components to the original signal or the changing of some important component of the original signal in order to make extraction of the original signal difficult. Examples of the latter might include removing or changing vertical or horizontal sync pulses in television signals; televisions will not be able to display a picture from such a signal. Some modern scramblers are actually encryption devices, the name remaining due to the similarities in use, as opposed to internal operation.

In telecommunications and recording, a scrambler (also referred to as a randomizer) is a device that manipulates a data stream before transmitting. The manipulations are reversed by a descrambler at the receiving side. Scrambling is widely used in satellite, radio relay communications and PSTN modems. A scrambler can be placed just before a FEC coder, or it can be placed after the FEC, just before the modulation or line code. A scrambler in this context has nothing to do with encrypting, as the intent is not to render the message unintelligeable, but to give the transmitted data useful engineering properties.

A scrambler replaces sequences into other sequences without removing undesirable sequences, and as a result it changes the probability of occurrence of vexatious sequences. Clearly it is not foolproof as there are input sequences that yield all-zeros, all-ones, or other undesirable periodic output sequences. A scrambler is therefore not a good substitute for a line code, which, through a coding step, removes unwanted sequences.


Purposes of scrambling

There are two main reasons why scrambling is used:

  • It facilitates the work of a timing recovery circuit (see also Clock recovery), an automatic gain control and other adaptive circuits of the receiver (eliminating long sequences consisting of '0' or '1' only).
  • It eliminates the dependence of a signal's power spectrum upon the actual transmitted data, making it more dispersed to meet maximum power spectral density requirements (because if the power is concentrated in a narrow frequency band, it can interfere with adjacent channels due to the cross modulation and the intermodulation caused by non-linearities of the receiving tract).

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