G’Day, Chris here again.
I’m under pressure here folks. Here I am writing about communications and radios and broadcast range, just as we’re about to launch our very own live Radio chat show on everything 4WD, Caravan and Camping. I better polish up the vocal chords.
Fortunately for the everyday person wandering about this great land, you don’t need to be too concerned about voices and volume and the like, digital technology is taking care of all that.
But before we get too deep into technology, let’s look at some basic on-land communication options and what may suit you best.
The UHF Radio operating at around 477Mhz is the most common form of inter-vehicle communications available.
Now with almost 80 useable channels, great range and clarity, they’re easy to use and require a minimal cost to own and operate. Plus there are lots of accessories to help set up to your individual preferences.
The UHF operation is more a ‘direct line-of-sight’ service, although repeaters do extend the range where available. This system superseded the older CB or citizen band radios of the past which operated at around 27Mhz which is rarely heard of these days.
HF systems are used widely by remote area travellers especially, and are still a favourite for some.
Often referred to as the ‘Flying Doctor Radio’ service, this system operates lower in the 3-30MHz range and has a long range due to its ability to ‘bounce’ off the ionosphere around the earth’s circumference rather than direct sight. However the systems are more complicated to use, cost more, and require fairly involved installation work to function well and easily.
Mobile phones and Satellite phones do have a role in outback travel.
Modern devices such as smartphones are a viable option now with accessories that can convert them into ‘satphones’ at ease. The development of mobile technology has been incredible over the last 20 years, and this makes them useful when travelling, more so for staying in touch ‘back home’ or for some ‘support and assist’ roles. I don’t include ‘emergencies’ in this role as they still not reliable enough in my view to earn that role. They are of no use for inter-vehicle comms unless you have a healthy bank balance attached to your ‘satphone’ account.
Emergency Beacons and Messenger Services.
The description says it all, and should be a serious consideration when travelling anywhere in the remote regions of Australia. There is no excuse anymore for being stuck, injured, or broken down anywhere in Oz without some form of communication that works in a way you can contact outside help when in trouble. It is only the decision of the traveller that places them in dire straits, and failing to take appropriate equipment for the intended travels is inexcusable given the access to information and services nowadays.
So what suits you best?
Well looking at the basic services above and how they operate should be your guide.
A UHF Radio is still the best and easiest system to use. Be it an installed unit or handheld, there are so many options and costs, and benefits to all travellers.
I have encountered people crossing the Simpson Desert with no radio at all, and I told them exactly what I thought of that decision. Stupid!
Not only are they potentially leaving themselves in danger, they cannot hear other traffic coming along and calling ahead, and cannot respond. Where meeting at the top of a dune can be rather detrimental to your vehicle progress, it is simply dangerous and ignorant of others safety to go in there without a UHF.
As for technology and how it may work for you, new units have a suite of features to let you individualize your system how you like. Plus they can now ‘detect’ a quite talker and ‘boost’ the transmission or receiver levels to make listening easier.
Of course none of that is of any use without a decent aerial.
You can have all the technology, features and settings you like, but only the aerial will make the best use of that to suit your travels.
Be careful not to get confused or overwhelmed by technical terms, especially from smooth talking electronics salespeople. It is a very deep field most only know what they read in the training manual. I have studied radar and antenna technology during my avionics career, and I only remember a small part of it now. The term ‘dBi’ gain is what you will hear used, and should be considered an easy reference point for comparing aerial performance.
The ‘dBi’ reference and aerial build style does change its characteristics however, and this is easily shown in the picture. A lower gain, say 3dBi, will provide short but ‘deep’ range performance which is great for hilly country, where-as high gain aerials in the 9-12 dBi range are great for highway travel with long but flat range. Most people are happy with a compromise in the 4.5-6 dBi range.
But the most important point in closing is installation integrity, more-so for fixed units, be it UHF, HF, or even your external phone aerial. All that equipment is useless if you have poor connections.
The coaxial cable linking your aerial to your radio is crucial for performance. Issues such as poor soldering, loose strands of the braided shield, broken shielding, damaged to the inner dielectric and similar problems can significantly affect radio performance, referred to as impedance loss. Even a very tight bend through a vehicle dash can distort the inner dielectric radius which causes impedance losses in the cable.
If your own skills are not well honed, use a professional service.
There is lots more information in the communications field that could make this short blog terribly long, but hopefully I have presented enough to help you think more about what is right for you and your travels. Perhaps with better comms equipment you will be able to listen to us having some fun with Australia On Track for more great info on everything 4WD and travelling.
Stay in touch and see you Outback