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The frequency spectrum of a typical radio signal from an AM or FM radio transmitter. The horizontal axis is frequency; the vertical axis is signal amplitude or power. It consists of a signal (C) at the carrier wave frequency fC, with the modulation contained in narrow frequency bands called sidebands (SB) just above and below the carrier.

In telecommunications, a carrier wave, carrier signal, or just carrier, is a waveform (usually sinusoidal) that is modulated (modified) with an input signal for the purpose of conveying information.[1] This carrier wave usually has a much higher frequency than the input signal does. The purpose of the carrier is usually either to transmit the information through space as an electromagnetic wave (as in radio communication), or to allow several carriers at different frequencies to share a common physical transmission medium by frequency division multiplexing (as in a cable television system, for example). The term originated in radio communication, where the carrier wave is the radio wave which carries the information (modulation) through the air from the transmitter to the receiver. The term is also used for an unmodulated emission in the absence of any modulating signal.[2]


The term carrier wave originated with radio. In a radio communication system, such as radio or television broadcasting, information is transmitted across space by radio waves. At the sending end, the information, in the form of a modulation signal, is applied to an electronic device called a transmitter. In the transmitter, an electronic oscillator generates a sinusoidal alternating current of radio frequency; this is the carrier wave. The information signal is used to modulate the carrier wave, altering some aspect of the carrier, to impress the information on the wave. The alternating current is amplified and applied to the transmitter's antenna, radiating radio waves which carry the information to the receiver's location. At the receiver, the radio waves strike the receiver's antenna, inducing a tiny oscillating current in it, which is applied to the receiver. In the receiver, the modulation signal is extracted from the modulated carrier wave, a process called demodulation.

Most radio systems in the 20th century used frequency modulation (FM) or amplitude modulation (AM) to add information to the carrier. The frequency spectrum of a modulated AM or FM signal from a radio transmitter is shown above. It consists of a strong component (C) at the carrier frequency   with the modulation contained in narrow sidebands (SB) above and below the carrier frequency. The frequency of a radio or television station is considered to be the carrier frequency. However the carrier itself is not useful in transmitting the information, so the energy in the carrier component is a waste of transmitter power. Therefore, in many modern modulation methods the carrier is not transmitted. For example, in single-sideband modulation (SSB), the carrier is suppressed (and in some forms of SSB, eliminated). The carrier must be reintroduced at the receiver by a beat frequency oscillator (BFO).

Carrierless modulation systemsEdit

Newer forms of radio communication (such as spread spectrum and ultra-wideband) do not use a conventional sinusoidal carrier wave, nor does OFDM (which is used in DSL and in the European standard for HDTV).

  • OFDM may be thought of as an array of symmetrical carrier waves. The rules governing carrier-wave propagation affect OFDM differently from 8VSB.
  • Some forms of spread spectrum transmission (and most forms of ultra-wideband) are mathematically defined as being devoid of carrier waves. Transmitter implementations typically produce residual carriers which may (or may not) be detectable or transmitted.

Carrier leakageEdit

Carrier leakage is interference caused by cross-talk or a DC offset. It is present as an unmodulated sine wave within the signal's bandwidth, whose amplitude is independent of the signal's amplitude. See frequency mixers, to read further about carrier leakage or local oscillator feedthrough.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Carrier wave with no modulation transports no information". University Of Texas. Archived from the original on 2008-04-14. Retrieved 2008-05-30. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)
  2. ^ Federal Standard 1037C and MIL-STD-188