It is important to match the polarization of the RF antenna to that of the incoming signal. In this way the maximum signal is obtained. If the RF antenna polarization does not match that of the signal there is a corresponding decrease in the level of the signal. It is reduced by a factor of cosine of the angle between the polarisation of the RF antenna and the signal.
Accordingly the polarisation of the antennas located in free space is very important, and obviously they should be in exactly the same plane to provide the optimum signal. If they were at right angles to one another (i.e.. Cross-polarised) then in theory no signal would be received.
For terrestrial radio communications applications it is found that once a signal has been transmitted then its polarisation will remain broadly the same. However reflections from objects in the path can change the polarisation. As the received signal is the sum of the direct signal plus a number of reflected signals the overall polarisation of the signal can change slightly although it remains broadly the same.
Vertical and horizontal are the simplest forms of antenna polarization and they both fall into a category known as linear polarisation. However it is also possible to use circular polarisation. This has a number of benefits for areas such as satellite applications where it helps overcome the effects of propagation anomalies, ground reflections and the effects of the spin that occur on many satellites. Circular polarisation is a little more difficult to visualise than linear polarisation. However it can be imagined by visualising a signal propagating from an RF antenna that is rotating. The tip of the electric field vector will then be seen to trace out a helix or corkscrew as it travels away from the antenna. Circular polarisation can be seen to be either right or left handed dependent upon the direction of rotation as seen from the transmitter.
Another form of polarisation is known as elliptical polarisation. It occurs when there is a mix of linear and circular polarisation. This can be visualised as before by the tip of the electric field vector tracing out an elliptically shaped corkscrew.
However it is possible for linearly polarised antennas to receive circularly polarised signals and vice versa. The strength will be equal whether the linearly polarised antenna is mounted vertically, horizontally or in any other plane but directed towards the arriving signal. There will be some degradation because the signal level will be 3 dB less than if a circularly polarised antenna of the same sense was used. The same situation exists when a circularly polarised antenna receives a linearly polarised signal.
Different types of polarisation are used in different applications to enable their advantages to be used. Linear polarization is by far the most widely used for most radio communications applications. Vertical polarisation is often used for mobile radio communications. This is because many vertically polarized antenna designs have an omni-directional radiation pattern and it means that the antennas do not have to be re-orientated as positions as always happens for mobile radio communications as the vehicle moves. For other radio communications applications the polarisation is often determined by the RF antenna considerations. Some large multi-element antenna arrays can be mounted in a horizontal plane more easily than in the vertical plane. This is because the RF antenna elements are at right angles to the vertical tower of pole on which they are mounted and therefore by using an antenna with horizontal elements there is less physical and electrical interference between the two. This determines the standard polarisation in many cases.
In some applications there are performance differences between horizontal and vertical polarization. For example medium wave broadcast stations generally use vertical polarisation because ground wave propagation over the earth is considerably better using vertical polarization, whereas horizontal polarization shows a marginal improvement for long distance communications using the ionosphere. Circular polarisation is sometimes used for satellite radio communications as there are some advantages in terms of propagation and in overcoming the fading caused if the satellite is changing its orientation.