Normally, signals in the microwave frequency range travel in straight lines, and so are limited to line of sight applications, in which the receiver can be 'seen' by the transmitter. Communication distances are limited by the visual horizon to around 30–40 miles (48–64 km). Troposcatter allows microwave communication beyond the horizon. It was developed in the 1950s and used for military communications until communications satellites largely replaced it in the 1970s.
Because the troposphere is turbulent and has a high proportion of moisture the tropospheric scatter radio signals are refracted and consequently only a tiny proportion of the radio energy is collected by the receiving antennas. Frequencies of transmission around 2 GHz are best suited for tropospheric scatter systems as at this frequency the wavelength of the signal interacts well with the moist, turbulent areas of the troposphere, improving signal to noise ratios.
Historically, high gain dish or billboard antennas were required for tropospheric scatter systems as the propagation losses are very high; only about one billion-billionth (1 x 10−12) of the transmit power is available at the receiver. Paths were established at distances over 1,000 km. They required antennas ranging from 9 meters to 36 meters and amplifiers ranging from 1 kW to 50 kW. These were analogue systems which were capable of transmitting a few voice channels.
Troposcatter systems have evolved over the years. With communication satellites used for long-distance communication links, current troposcatter systems are employed over shorter distances than previous systems, use smaller antennas and amplifiers, and have much higher bandwidth capabilities. Typical distances are between 50 km and 250 km, though greater distances can be achieved depending on the climate, terrain, and data rate required. Typical antenna sizes range from 1.2 meters to 12 meters while typical amplifier sizes range from 10W to 2 kW. Data rates over 20Mbit/s can be achieved with today's technology.
Tropospheric scatter is a fairly secure method of propagation as dish alignment is critical, making it extremely difficult to intercept the signals, especially if transmitted across open water, making them highly attractive to military users. Military systems have tended to be ‘thin-line’ tropo – so called because only a narrow bandwidth ‘information’ channel was carried on the tropo system; generally up to 32 analogue (4 kHz bandwidth) channels. Modern military systems are "Wideband" as they operate 4-16 Mbit/s digital data channels.