Camper Trailers Tech Tips

Outback Communications





Outback Communications

    If you ever travel out in the back of the boonies then communications are no doubt something you will want to consider. Many people travel away from the main spread of population to specifically make themselves uncontactable, but with the unpopulated parts of Australia being inherently dangerous often people forget their might be a time when they need to contact someone else, and might need to make that contact urgently. Outback communications are something that are essentially expensive, but how much emphasis does one place on a human life (or multiple lives). Think also about the fact it may not be your life or one of your families you save, it may be the life of someone less prepared than yourself.

    In today's world complex world there are usually two main options to consider, New or Used. If your considering buying any piece of equipment that has been used before it would be highly recommended to have it checked over by a qualified technician well before you plan to go away to ensure the equipment works properly.

    Unfortunately the options of what type of communications equipment to buy is large and some people might want to consider more than one option. Often the decision on what type of equipment to buy will rest with where you are planning on travelling to. Hopefully the information contained below will help to make your decision a little easier. An important point to remember is just because you own the equipment there is no excuse for not learning how to use the equipment. Don't limit this knowledge to one person either. Share it round since it may be the case that the only person who knows how to use the equipment isn't in a position to use it. One of the biggest problems I have found in the years I have been working in the communications industry is the customers lack of understanding of system limitations of their communications devices.


27MHz & UHF CB

    The first devices on the list are those little Little 1/2 Watt or 1 Watt handhelds that every man and his dog seem to sell. I equate these handhelds to the old walkie talkies kids used to get for Christmas. That's about as well as they work as well. These types of devices are great for the kids when wandering around the campsite, or for directing someone in a car down a difficult track, but that's about where the usefulness of these devices ends. Sometimes depending on the frequency band of the handheld, they may also be compatible with a UHF CB in a car, but do your research as there are two main bands these handhelds operate in.

    Expect to pay anywhere between about $30 and $120 for a pair of these handhelds.

    The next communications device, and probably the most popular in the world of travelling is the CB or Citizens Band radio. These radios come in two bands AM in the 27 MHz spectrum or UHF in the 477 MHz spectrum. AM CB's were the original CB devices in Australia and there are still a few in use out there, but UHF is the new standard that appears to have taken off. UHF CB radios are a lot quieter and user friendly providing a level of ease that almost anyone travelling with you can simply pick a CB up and use it. CB radios have a slightly higher power level of 5 watts and as a result with a good installation in the car and a decent antenna tend to travel a bit further. UHF CB's also have the ability to speak further with the aid of a repeater, however these repeaters can sometimes be few and far between and shouldn't be relied on. The AM or UHF CB is an excellent radio for use when travelling with a club or in a convoy and will normally work over a distance of a couple of KM's, more in ideal conditions.

    CB's are also available in 4 or 5 watt handheld models but your mileage will be dramatically reduced on what you would get from an in vehicle radio installation.

    AM CB expect to pay anything between $10 for a second hand unit on eBay to around $200 for a new unit (plus antennas and mounting equipment).

    UHF CB expect to pay anything between around $50 for a second hand unit to over $500 for a new unit with all the bells and whistles (plus antenna and mounting equipment).


Mobile Phones

    These have to be the most used radio communications device anywhere in the world. Almost everyone knows how to use a mobile phone and most of us own at least one. Mobile phones are great because they cover around 92% of the population. Unfortunately for those of us who like to get away about 90% of our population tends to live in populated areas around the Coast, which equates to bugger all service most of the time when we are in the bush. There are two main types of mobile phone services in Australia GSM (Digital) and CDMA which is also digital, but operates differently to GSM digital. Mobile phones are a fantastic communications device as they offer direct dialling to almost anywhere in the world when they are in service. When they drop out of service from your own provider and are required to attempt to contact emergency services they will look for a service from any provider they can find.

    GSM phones are great for a distance of up to 32 KM's (sometimes less) from a cellular base site.

   CDMA phones have been known to work up to 250 KM's in ideal conditions but they still rely on a cellular base station to make a contact to the rest of the world. Telstra is now the only provider of a CDMA service in Australia and plans to abandon it sometime in 2008 when it will be replaced with a new service.

    Mobile phone prices vary from free to well over $1000 depending on what options and plans you take out with a service provider. Service provider coverage footprints also differ from one another, but on the whole they pretty much all cover the same areas.

    Range on any mobile phone will also depend on the accessories used such as in car kits with high gain antennas, or base station mobile phones with fixed directional antennas.


Satellite phones

    The world of Satellite phones is another complex world with many options available. Australia has a number of Satellite phone services with offerings from Globalstar, Iridium, Inmarsat and Optus. Each service differs in the types of equipment they offer which can include large installed equipment laptop style equipment and handheld equipment.

    The also have differing operating costs, but they all provide similar services. All of the services offer varying degrees of voice, fax and data communications. All Satellite phone providers have blanket coverage of the entire Australian continent and beyond. Some of the service providers such as Optus have one stationary satellite sitting above the country where as Globalstar have a virtual spiders web of satellites that criss cross the skyline constantly to cover the entire footprint of the earth, although when you register with Globalstar you register for your phone to work in a specific area of the world (such as within the Australian footprint), rather than anywhere in the world at any time.

    Globalstar have been innovative in marketing satellite phones in Australia having dropped call prices to around the same price as a mobile phone call making their handsets much more economical for the everyday traveller. Some of the providers also offer handsets with the functionality to use the common GSM or CDMA network whilst within mobile phone range, and only moving over to Satellite services when the out of mobile phone service areas.

    All satellite systems rely on the phone being able to see the satellite. In the open desert this usually isn't a problem with nothing between the phone and the satellite so they usually work well. Some satellite providers have holes in the coverage footprint so this is important to know. One provider has no coverage around the corner country at the border of NSW, QLD, SA. Satellite phones all have differing levels of useability in cloud cover, smoke cover, dense foliage cover, deep in canyons or valleys. Because satellites are all line of site the basic theory is the less sky you can see horizon to horizon, the less coverage you have. The quality of the installation of any antenna is the direct problem of most satellite phone reception problems.

    Satellite phones range in price from around $300 for a second hand unit to many thousands of dollars for a new units with all the bells and whistles.


HF Radio

    Many people are scared of HF because they deem it too hard to operate. However with some of the newer models on the market such as Codans NGT nothing could be further from the truth. It is as easy as looking in a phone like directory and pushing the PTT button. The radio does the rest for you.

    With older HF units there is a little to know, but it is all simple knowledge that is provided with a new radio and is easily looked up when you need to use the radio. HF radios work basically anywhere. They can speak over a distance of 3 metres up to many thousands of KM's. HF radios work on a combination of a ground wave and a sky wave hence why different frequencies have differing results of different distances.

    HF radios can be used for talking like a conventional CB to friends, RFDS base stations, and to make telephone calls. A number of different networks are available for phone interconnect, or just use it for the RFDS for emergencies only. For RFDS you will need an outpost license, otherwise you will need to pay a membership fee to a network (or buy both).

    The result of most HF radio reception problems are bad installations. Simply put, people who think it can be installed like a conventional CB radio. Nothing could be further from the truth. HF needs to be installed properly, and needs to have specific things done to ensure the best transmission and reception ability. It is a bit of a complex art that shouldn't be left to the average auto electrician, or even to any old 4wd
fitment centre or two way radio store. Remember just because someone tells you they are an expert in the field doesn't mean they are.

    HF Radios in Australia come from four major players. Codan, Barrett, Q-Mac and Icom. Each have positives and negatives, but on the whole there isn't a heck of a lot of difference between them.

    HF Radios range from between $500 second hand to around $5000 new.



    EPIRBs are a radio transmitting device that when activated transmit to a signal to a satellite and to overpassing aircraft. In order to initially hit the satellite they need to be out in a clear open area to get a good signal and a position fix to the satellite. These devices work great out in the open arid land, but are a bit touch and go in places like narrow canyons where the view to the sky is limited.

    One problem associated with EPIRBs is they are a one way communications device meaning once you set it off you don't know how long it will be till the signal is received by a satellite, and you don't know how long it will be till someone will know, or be able to get to your position. There is also no way of passing specific details of your problem so you will need to wait till you can make contact with someone in order to explain your difficulty.

    EPIRB technology is currently undergoing a change with a phasing out of the old 121.5 MHz system to a new 406 MHz frequency. The new system has a registration system attached to it making it possible to identify the owner of the EPIRB and assisting in false activations. It is planned to completely do away with the old 121.5 MHz system in early 2009.

    EPIRBS are around $300 - $1000 new and have a battery life of approx 10 years.

    Remember with any trip into an area where you are away from civilisation it is important to regularly let someone know where you are and how you are travelling. Have regular check in times so that if you do go overdue a search party will have a smaller area to start looking for you.


Thanks to Brain for this information