A device that encodes a sender's message so that it becomes unintelligible to a receiver not equipped with a descrambling device.

In telecommunications, a scrambler is a device that transposes or inverts signals or otherwise encodes a message at the sender's side 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 an 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 unintelligible but to give the transmitted data useful engineering properties.

A scrambler replaces sequences (referred to as whitening 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

A scrambler (or randomizer) can be either:

  • An algorithm that converts an input string into a seemingly random output string of the same length (e.g., by pseudo-randomly selecting bits to invert), thus avoiding long sequences of bits of the same value; in this context, a randomizer is also referred to as a scrambler.
  • An analog or digital source of unpredictable (i.e., high entropy), unbiased, and usually independent (i.e., random) output bits. A "truly" random generator may be used to feed a (more practical) deterministic pseudo-random random number generator, which extends the random seed value.

There are two main reasons why scrambling is used:

  • To enable accurate timing recovery on receiver equipment without resorting to redundant line coding. It facilitates the work of a timing recovery circuit (see also Clock recovery), automatic gain control, and other adaptive circuits of the receiver (eliminating long sequences consisting of '0' or '1' only).
  • For energy dispersal on the carrier, reducing inter-carrier signal interference. 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 intermodulation (also known as cross-modulation) caused by non-linearities of the receiving tract).

Scramblers are essential components of physical layer system standards besides interleaved coding and modulation. They are usually defined based on linear feedback shift registers (LFSRs) due to their good statistical properties and ease of implementation in hardware.

It is common for physical layer standards bodies to refer to lower-layer (physical layer and link layer) encryption as scrambling as well.[1][2] This may well be because (traditional) mechanisms employed are based on feedback shift registers as well. Some standards for digital television, such as DVB-CA and MPE, refer to encryption at the link layer as scrambling.

Adapted from content published on
Last modified on May 4, 2021, 9:31 pm is a service provided by Codecide, a company located in Chicago, IL USA.