The Null Device

Bolinha

In Brazil, the street finds its own uses for obsolescent US military satellites. For over a decade, Brazilians, from long-haul truck drivers and villagers out of the reach of the mobile phone networks of the cities to illegal loggers and organised crime factions, have been bouncing radio signals off a US Navy satellite system using jury-rigged off-the-shelf amateur radio equipment. The satellite system, known as FLTSATCOM to its owners, is colloquially referred to as "Bolinha", or "little ball".
To use the satellite, pirates typically take an ordinary ham radio transmitter, which operates in the 144- to 148-MHZ range, and add a frequency doubler cobbled from coils and a varactor diode. That lets the radio stretch into the lower end of FLTSATCOM's 292- to 317-MHz uplink range. All the gear can be bought near any truck stop for less than $500. Ads on specialized websites offer to perform the conversion for less than $100. Taught the ropes, even rough electricians can make Bolinha-ware.
Truck drivers love the birds because they provide better range and sound than ham radios. Rogue loggers in the Amazon use the satellites to transmit coded warnings when authorities threaten to close in. Drug dealers and organized criminal factions use them to coordinate operations.
When real criminals use these frequencies, it's easy to tell they're hiding something, but it's nearly impossible to know what it is. In one intercepted conversation posted to YouTube, a man alerts a friend that he should watch out, because things are getting "crispy" and "strong winds" are on their way. Sometimes loggers refer to the approach of authorities by saying, "Santa Claus is coming," says Brochi.
One problem for the users is that the US military is still using the satellites (a replacement network isn't due online until later this year), and don't appreciate their communications being degraded by cheering football fans and random dodgy dealers. Bolinha activity is illegal, both in Brazil, and the US, and the authorities don't have too many problems triangulating the signals.
The crackdown, called "Operation Satellite," was Brazil's first large-scale enforcement against the problem. Police followed coordinates provided by the U.S. Department of Defense and confirmed by Anatel, Brazil's FCC. Among those charged were university professors, electricians, truckers and farmers, the police say. The suspects face up to four years and jail, but are more likely to be fined if convicted.
("Operation Satellite?" Either something got lost in translation, or the people who name operations at the Brazilian federal police aren't the most imaginative bunch. Surely high-level operations should have cryptic, vaguely abstract names, redolent either of neo-Classical grandeur or square-jawed military machismo, like, say, "Operation Prometheus" or "Piranha December Blue" or something. But "Operation Satellite?")
In February of last year, FCC investigators used a mobile direction-finding vehicle to trace rogue transmissions to a Brazilian immigrant in New Jersey. When the investigators inspected his radio gear, they found a transceiver programmed to a FLTSAT frequency, connected to an antenna in the back of his house. Joaquim Barbosa was hit with a $20,000 fine.

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