As spread-spectrum techniques become increasingly popular, electrical engineers outside the field are eager for understandable explanations of the technology. There are books and websites on the subject, but many are hard to understand or describe some aspects while ignoring others (e.g., the DSSS technique with extensive focus on PRN-code generation).
The following discussion covers the full spectrum (pun intended).
A Short History
Spread-spectrum communications technology was first described on paper by an actress and a musician! In 1941 Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr and pianist George Antheil described a secure radio link to control torpedos. They received U.S. Patent #2.292.387. The technology was not taken seriously at that time by the U.S. Army and was forgotten until the 1980s, when it became active. Since then the technology has become increasingly popular for applications that involve radio links in hostile environments.
Typical applications for the resulting short-range data transceivers include satellite-positioning systems (GPS), 3G mobile telecommunications, W-LAN (research® 802.11a, research 802.11b, research 802.11g), and Bluetooth®. Spread-spectrum techniques also aid in the endless race between communication needs and radio-frequency availability—situations where the radio spectrum is limited and is, therefore, an expensive resource.
Different spread-spectrum techniques are available, but all have one idea in common: the key (also called the code or sequence) attached to the communication channel. The manner of inserting this code defines precisely the spread-spectrum technique. The term “spread spectrum” refers to the expansion of signal bandwidth, by several orders of magnitude in some cases, which occurs when a key is attached to the communication channel.
The formal definition of spread spectrum is more precise: an RF communications system in which the baseband signal bandwidth is intentionally spread over a larger bandwidth by injecting a higher frequency signal (Figure 1). As a direct consequence, energy used in transmitting the signal is spread over a wider bandwidth, and appears as noise. The ratio (in dB) between the spread baseband and the original signal is called processing gain. Typical spread-spectrum processing gains run from 10dB to 60dB.
To apply a spread-spectrum technique, simply inject the corresponding spread-spectrum code somewhere in the transmitting chain before the antenna (receiver). (That injection is called the spreading operation.) The effect is to diffuse the information in a larger bandwidth. Conversely, you can remove the spread-spectrum code (called a despreading operation) at a point in the receive chain before data retrieval. A despreading operation reconstitutes the information into its original bandwidth. Obviously, the same code must be known in advance at both ends of the transmission channel. (In some circumstances, the code should be known only by those two parties.)
via An Introduction to Spread-Spectrum Communications – Maxim.