Communicating on The Road (and off it)

By: AOT Staff Writer

For the average traveller wandering about this great sunburnt land of ours there is no need to be concerned about voices and volumes anymore as digital technology takes control of delivery the message exactly how you want. But before we go too techy lets just look at some basic options for communicating with your fellow travellers or service provider.

Two-way radio

First there is the popular two-way radio, now most commonly the UHF Radio running on the 477MHz band between vehicles on the move. This is popular with travellers as they are relatively cheap, easy to use, no ongoing subscriptions or licences required, and a reasonable range if set up correctly. Still short range in comparison to other systems, but 20-30km range is not difficult to achieve. The new digital era boasts almost 80 useable channels and there are lots of modes and settings with most radio brands that allows you to keep the ‘noise’ down and the conversations you want to hear much clearer.

Users familiar with the full functionality of their unit can increase the range of their device by using repeater stations dotted around the countryside. The unit instructions are best referred to at this point due to space limitations in this short blog. The modern day UHF has superseded the earlier 27MHz radios which some people still operate around the place, but they simply don’t have the benefits of modern technology we now see in new radios a quarter of the size with quadruple the performance and functions.

HF Radio

The other option is HF radio which is widely used more by remote area travellers or those who still have a soft touch for this version of communications after years of being in the loop. Often referred to as ‘The Flying Doctor Radio’, this system operates in the very low 3-30MHz frequency range and this gives it excellent long range operation with the signal bouncing off the ionosphere and back to earth in a kangaroo hopping style effect. Very Aussie if you like.

However many people find the system much too complicated to operate, requires significantly more installation work and costs more to own. However it is excellent if your travels of work demands better communication reliability in more remote operating environments.

Mobile Phones and Satellite phones

Mobiles phones and Satellite phones do have their place in travel, but each has their drawback. The modern smartphone has taken the consumer world by storm and it’s almost a basic necessity of modern life and social interaction. However due to lack of investment in infrastructure in outer lying regions of Australia they have limited use beyond major metropolitan areas.

The Satellite phone or attachment that makes a Satphone out of your smartphone suddenly makes instant telephony possible, but at considerable cost. This the drawback of this option, as call rates can be quite substantial. However if your work requires it then it’s a great tool to have in your kit. But for the average traveller, Satphone rates may seem a little high for the short term use required over the holiday periods. Although they shouldn’t be considered as an ’emergency communications’ type device, they do have functions that still allow you to send a message for help even if signal strength is unavailable. However it shouldn’t be considered as an emergency device by any means.

Emergency Beacons and Messenger

Emergency Beacons and Messenger service key role is to provide reliable communications services regardless of place or time, and should be a serious consideration for very remote region travel. With the devices and service available, there is no excuse for being broken down, injured or in dire circumstances with no form of communicating for assistance when you look at the options on offer. Travellers can subscribe to messenger devices that will track your movements, send simple messages and deliver aid to your position should the worst happen. Personal Locating Beacons, or PLBs, are more for extreme emergencies have limited functions beyond sending in the emergency services personnel upon activation, so it’s not something for general use, but great if you need it.

So with all these options what suits you best?

Well you really need to consider where it is you are travelling, how long for, your budget and confidence in operating any one or more of the systems available. The short description above of how each operates will then be your guide to choosing which services you employ. A good idea is to have more than one option to communicate with the wider world.

A UHF is still the best and simplest system to include in your vehicle set up. Almost all travellers have one, and if they don’t then they should. Be it a fixed installation version or portable model, there are many options and costs accordingly but all very affordable in comparison to the impact of not having one. I have encountered sole vehicles wandering across the 1100 dunes of the Simpson Desert with no UHF and I let them know upon meeting them at a dune crest what I thought of their poor decision. There is simply no excuse for such ignorance in those environments. It is dangerous for other travellers and their own health.

Amazing technology is now incorporated in these very compact units and this may work for you or just be add gizmo gimmicks that is of no interest to you. Regardless the cost is still very low, and if y want to learn all the features the instructions are there to read in those quiet times around the campfire. But don’t get too worried if you prefer to use your radio like your old school mobile phone – make and receive calls, that’s it. The UHF can do just this if that’s all you want and there is no need to be familiar with all the terminology.

Just make sure your use the very basics in public communications, manners, courtesy, and consideration of others when it comes to language. We don’t need to know you can read what some halfwit can scribble on the back of a public toilet door. Keep it clean and respectful and you will normally get a similar response.

With the UHF range the next most important decision aside from which model or brand unit is the aerial. This part is crucial but again can be chosen to suit individual requirements. The salesperson will want to tell you all about dBi’s or dBa’s and how much technical jargon they know, but avoid the temptation to fall for the ‘bigger is better’.

Imagine looking at a variety of funnels, one is short but very wide mouth funnel great for catching a wide spill of whatever. Then you may be holding a long, narrow funnel which is very focussed in direction, and a couple designed in between the two.

A 3dB aerial is the really wide funnel, great for short range and hilly country-sides which may be your preferred environment such as the Victorian High Country as an example. Then there is the long narrow funnel to suit a casual drive up the Stuart Highway through the red centre, which a 9dB or even 12dB aerial will suit best if you want extra long range. Most users select an aerial which is a compromise of these ends of the spectrum and choose a 4.5dB or 6dB aerial. Some kits will give you the option of changing aerials to suit the travels or places you encounter, which is a great idea.

But one of the key elements of communication device performance is installation integrity, especially fixed units. More issues, noise and ordinary range complaints are generated through poor installation that from the units themselves. Be it a UHF, HF or phone set up, poor cabling, poor connections or poor positioning of components will all impact on general performance of the device.

Loose strands of a coaxial cable will degrade or eliminate performance very quickly, so skill and care with installation is a must. Even the wrong bend radius of coaxial cable will deform the dielectric to a point where impedance losses are created, again degrading the potential performance of the system. If your own skills are not well honed then engage a professional and have it done correctly once. And don’t just choose the cheapest rate, because time saved on installation is often the result of rushing a job that needs to be done carefully.

There is so much more information in the communications field that it really needs a refer more blogs to cover the subject properly, but I hope this has given and insight to what to consider initially.

The key points are choosing the right type of system for your intended travels, select the best you can afford and engage a professional outlet to install it correctly. Then you can sit back and appreciate a much better quality of sound for a lot longer.

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