Tag Archives: tafl

Summary of my off-the-cuff Maptime Presentation: Canadian Microwave Links

Screenshot from 2014-07-26 10:17:15@MaptimeTO asked me to summarize the brief talk I gave last week at Maptime Toronto on making maps from the Technical and Administrative Frequency List (TAFL) radio database. It was mostly taken from posts on this blog, but here goes:

  1. One of the many constraints in building wind farms is allowing for radio links. Both the radio and the wind industries have agreed on a process of buffering and consultation. Here’s how I handled it in Python: Making weird composite shapes with Shapely.
  2. The TAFL databases — which contains locations and technical data for all licensed transmitters — are now open data. You can find them here: Technical and Administrative Frequency List (TAFL).
  3. The format is a real delight for all legacy-data nerds: aka a horrible mess of conditional field widths and arcane numeric codes. I wrote a SpatiaLite SQL script to make sense of it all: scruss/taflmunge. This (kind of) explains what it does: TAFL — as a proper geodatabase.
  4. Here’s a raw dump (very little metadata, sorry) from 2013 in the wonderful uMap: Ontario Microwave Links.
  5. In a fabulous piece of #opendatafail, Industry Canada have migrated all the microwave data (so, all links ≥ 960 MHz) to a new system which doesn’t work yet, and also stripped out all of the microwave data from recent TAFL files. They claim to be fixing it, but don’t hold your breath. If you want data to play with, here’s Ontario’s data from October 2013 (nb: huge) — ltaf_ont_tafl-20131001.

Accurate distance buffers over very large distances

Today, I’m going to describe how I get fairly accurate buffer distances over a really large area.

But first, I’m going to send a huge look of disapproval (great big red look of disapproval, if your browser doesn't support inline data) to Norway. It’s not for getting all of the oil and finding a really mature way of dealing with it, and it’s not for the anti-personnel foods (rancid fish in a can, salt liquorice, sticky brown cheese …) either. It’s for this:

norway I disapprove of what you did there

The rest of the world is perfectly fine with having their countries split across Universal Transverse Mercator zones, but not Norway. “Och, my wee fjords…” they whined, and we gave them a whole special wiggle in their UTM zone. Had it not been for Norway’s preciousness, GIS folks the work over could’ve just worked out their UTM zone from a simple calculation, as every other zone is just 6° of longitude wide.

Canada has no such qualms. In a big country (dreams stay with you …), we have a lot of UTM zones:

canada's UTM zones; *EAT* it, Norway…We’re in zones 8–22, which is great if you’re working in geographic coordinates. If you’re unlucky enough to have to apply distance buffers over a long distance, the Earth is inconveniently un-flat, and accuracy falls apart.

What we can do, though, is transform a geographic coordinate into a projected one, apply a buffer distance, then transform back to geographic again. UTM zones are quite good for this, and if it weren’t for bloody Norway, it would be a trivial process. So first, we need a source of UTM grid data.

A Source of UTM Grid Data

Well, the Global UTM Zones Grid from EPDI looks right, and it’s CC BY-NC-SA licensed. But it’s a bit busy with all the grid squares:

canada-gridWhat’s more, there’s no explicit way of getting the numeric zone out of the CODE field (used as labels above). We need to munge this a bit. In a piece of gross data-mangling, I’m using an awk (think: full beard and pork chops) script to process a GeoJSON (all ironic facial hair and artisanal charcuterie) dump of the shape file. I’m not content to just return the zone number; I’m turning it into the EPSG WGS84 SRID of the zone, a 5-digit number understood by proj.4:



  • h is the hemisphere: 6 for north, 7 for south.
  • zz is the zone number.

I live in Zone 17 North, so my SRID is 32617.

Here’s the code to do it: zones_add_epsg-awk (which you’ll likely have to rename/fix permissions on). To use it:

  1. Unzip the Global UTM zones grid.
  2. Convert the shape file to GeoJSON, using ogr2ogr:
    ogr2ogr -f GeoJSON utm_zones_final.geojson utm_zones_final.shp
  3. Process it:
    ./zones_add_epsg.awk utm_zones_final.geojson >  utm_zones_final-srid.geojson
  4. Convert the modified GeoJSON back to a shapefile:
    ogr2ogr utm_zones_final-srid.shp utm_zones_final-srid.geojson
  5. Now some magic: create a simplified shapefile with entire UTM zones keyed against the (integer) SRID:
    ogr2ogr wgs84utm.shp utm_zones_final-srid.shp -dialect SQLITE -sql 'SELECT epsgsrid,ST_Union(Geometry) FROM "utm_zones_final-srid" GROUP BY epsgsrid;'

And, lo!

canada-sridSo we can now load this wgs84utm shapefile as a table in SpatiaLite. If you wanted to find the zone for the CN Tower (hint: it’s the same as me), you could run:

select EPSGSRID from wgs84utm where within(GeomFromText('POINT(-79.3869585 43.6425361)',4326), geom);

which returns ‘32617’, as expected.

Making the Transform

(I have to admit, I was amazed when this next bit worked.)

Let’s say we have to identify all the VOR stations in Canada, and draw a 25 km exclusion buffer around them (hey, someone might want to …). VOR stations can be queried from TAFL using the following criteria:

  • the licensee is Nav Canada, or similar,
  • the TX frequency is between 108–117.96 MHz,
  • the location  contains ‘VOR’.

This can be coded as:

FROM tafl
WHERE licensee LIKE 'NAV CANADA%' AND tx >= 108
AND tx <= 117.96 AND location LIKE '%VOR%';

which returns a list of 67 stations, from VYT80 on Mount Macintyre, YT to YYT St Johns, NL. We can use this, along with the UTM zone query above, to make beautiful, beautiful circles:

SELECT tafl.PK_ROWID, tafl.tx, tafl.location, tafl.callsign,
Transform (Buffer ( Transform ( tafl.geom, wgs84utm.epsgsrid ), 25000 )
, 4326 ) AS bgeom
FROM tafl, wgs84utm
tafl.licensee LIKE 'NAV CANADA%'
AND tafl.tx >= 108
AND tafl.tx < 117.96
AND tafl.location LIKE '%VOR%'
AND Within( tafl.geom, wgs84utm.geom );


ont-vor-buffer-geoYes, they look oval; don’t forget that geographic coordinates don’t maintain rectilinearity. Transformed to UTM, they look much more circular:


TAFL — as a proper geodatabase

Update, 2017: TAFL now seems to be completely dead, and Spectrum Management System has replaced it. None of the records appear to be open data, and the search environment seems — if this is actually possible — slower and less feature-filled than in 2013.

Update, 2013-08-13: Looks like most of the summary pages for these data sets have been pulled from data.gc.ca; they’re 404ing. The data, current at the beginning of this month, can still be found at these URLs:

I build wind farms. You knew that, right? One of the things you have to take into account in planning a wind farm is existing radio infrastructure: cell towers, microwave links, the (now-increasingly-rare) terrestrial television reception.

I’ve previously written on how to make the oddly blobby shape files to avoid microwave links.  But finding the locations of radio transmitters in Canada is tricky, despite there being two ways of doing it:

  1. Wrestle with the Spectrum Direct website, which can’t handle the large search radii needed for comprehensive wind farm design. At best, it spits out weird fixed-width text data, which takes some effort to parse.
  2. Download the Technical and Administrative Frequency Lists (TAFL; see update above for URLs), and try to parse those (layout, fields). Unless you’re really patient, or have mad OpenRefine skillz, this is going to be unrewarding, as the files occasionally drop format bombs like
    never do this, okay?
    Yes, you just saw conditional different fixed-width fields in a fixed-width text file. In my best Malcolm Tucker (caution, swearies) voice I exhort you to never do this.

So searching for links is far from obvious, and it’s not like wireless operators do anything conventional like register their links on the title of the properties they cross … so these databases are it, and we must work with them.

The good things is that TAFL is now Open Data, defined by a reasonable Open Government Licence, and available on the data.gc.ca website. Unfortunately, the official Industry Canada tool to process and query these files, is a little, uh, behind the times:tafl2dbfYes, it’s an MS-DOS exe. It spits out DBase III Files. It won’t run on Windows 7 or 8. It will run on DOSBox, but it’s rather slow, and fails on bigger files.

That’s why I wrote taflmunge. It currently does one thing properly, and another kinda-sorta:

  1. For all TAFL records fed to it, generates a SpatiaLite database containing these points and all their data; certainly all the fields that the old EXE produced. This process seems to work for all the data I’ve fed to it.
  2. Tries to calculate point-to-point links for microwave communications. This it does less well, but I can see where the SQL is going wrong, and will fix it soon.

taflmunge runs anywhere SpatiaLite does. I’ve tested it on Linux and Windows 7. It’s just a SQL script, so no additional glue language required. The database can be queried on anything that supports SQLite, but for real spatial cleverness, needs SpatiaLite loaded. Full instructions are in the taflmunge / README.md.

TAFL is clearly maintained by licensees, as the data can be a bit “vernacular”. Take, for example, a tower near me:


The tower is near the top of the image, but the database entries are spread out by several hundred meters. It’s the best we’ve got to work with.

Ultimately, I’d like to keep this maintained (the Open Data TAFL files are updated monthly), and host it in a nice WebGIS that would allow querying by location, frequency, call sign, operator, … But that’s for later. For now, I’ll stick with refining it locally, and I hope that someone will find it useful.