Outback Communication Requirements Explained

Communications Equipment Review
Communications equipment is especially handy whilst travelling and often essential. It is considered necessary that each vehicle venturing into the outback should be equipped with a UHF radio combined with one emergency long-distance voice communication device as an absolute minimum. This article discusses communications devices such as a UHF and HF radios, satellite equipment and EPIRB technologies and their usefulness to the recreational traveller in Australia.
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Article By: ExplorOz Team (June 2008)
Latest Feedback: 11 Aug 2014

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Go to top Why Communicate?

Travelling the outback can bring about all sorts of unexpected circumstances. Ensuring you can communicate from your vehicle to other vehicles in close proximity is essential for safety reasons (eg. warn oncoming vehicles when visibility is impaired), can aid in navigation (convoy procedures), and call to nearby travellers for help. However, you can't always rely on other people being nearby. All travellers should anticipate the need for long-distance communication in the event of an emergency and should choose a device most suited to their needs.

Contact with family and friends although important, should be considered secondary to your requirement to be able to coordinate a speedy emergency rescue. Note - in past times, travellers were requested by police to log their itinerary at each start and end point of a journey through remote country. Today things have changed and the police would prefer that travellers were self-sufficient with modern communications equipment and used a point of contact with a family member, close friend or a network rather than use up valuable police resources.

Go to top CB UHF Radio

UHF Radios have become the more popular choice of CB, mainly due to their considerable price drop over the past decade and with repeater locations constantly growing throughout Australia, UHF CB users are gaining more coverage. 27MHz CBs used to be very popular, however with the advantages of UHF Radios and other communications devices such as HF radio, satellite phone and mobile phones, this is starting to diminish.

UHF radios provide FM quality, short range, line of sight communications and are excellent for convoys. In general, a UHF radio is not of much use in an emergency unless someone happens to be in range of your location - usually much less than 50km. Handheld units are useful because you can walk to higher ground and greatly extend the range if the vehicle is in a valley, or the battery is flat. Owning a pair of handhelds is also useful for bushwalking or in just about any situation you can imagine. In areas where repeaters are installed communication up to many hundreds of kilometres is possible. They are popular in pastoral country with stations operating on public & private repeaters.

Most, if not all modern UHF CBs can scan all channels and lock in on a channel when a signal is heard. This overcomes the problem of not knowing which channel the repeater or the homestead is operating on. We suggest you scan all channels when travelling in unknown regions to pick up all transmissions.

To transmit on a UHF Repeater, you need to select an appropriate channel based on your proximity to a repeater station. Modern units usually work this out automatically.

These days there is only a very loosely applied code of speech and you can basically talk normally without any formalities or code words. Some people still use "Roger" or "Copy" to confirm they have received the message. "Over" is still in general travel use to indicate the end of transmission, but not by regular users that know one-another well such as between station operators or when reception is very clear for both parties. It is however very impolite to play music, swear or use a channel already in use by another party.
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See our UHF Radio article for detailed information on what to look for when buying, how to use it, Channel allocation, aerials and installation tips.

Go to top HF Radio

A Barrett HF radio
The existence of an ionosphere surrounding our earth allows the use of High Frequency (HF) radio as a means of communication over long distances. All that is required is an HF transceiver and access to a set of frequencies. The frequency limits of HF communication is 3 MHz - 30 MHz. The right to transmit on these frequencies is governed by the Australian Communications Authority.For any given distance and time, there will be a certain range of HF frequencies that are most likely to provide successful communications; frequencies outside that range will work poorly or not at all.

Various groups (service providers) own the right of usage to a set a frequencies and you need to decide which one provides the coverage (and other services) that suit your needs.You can generally expect higher frequencies to be better at reaching out further than lower frequencies and longer ranges are usually found at night. Lower frequencies are also more suitable at night time, while higher frequencies are more suitable during daylight hours.

The Australian National 4WD Radio Network Inc logo

VKS-737

For 4WD travellers, the Australian 4WD Network (VKS-737) is probably the most popular HF service network and provides an extensive network coverage with 10 base stations around the country operating across 7 frequencies. This non-profit organisation has been serving outback travellers since 1993 and membership fees cover operating costs. You must be a member of the network to transmit on these frequencies although anyone can listen in. Members however, have access to a range of additional features such as vehicle to vehicle communication (selcall), access to the RFDS frequencies, and a basic messaging service.

Members are allocated a sellcall number and can call any branch of the network direct via HF radio. Messages can be left for other members; contact can be made between members by direct sellcalling; and the network broadcasts scheduled weather and road conditions Australia-wide daily.

Click to visit the Australian National 4WD Radio Network Inc website.
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For non-members, a licence to use the RFDS frequencies is required from the Australian Communications Authority.

Telephone Calls from HF Radio

Another use of the HF radio is a direct dial service, where the HF radio is used to access the Australian LAN for regular voice calls. This service is available from the VKS-737 network. You will need to subscribe to a network that provides the direct dialling facilities. Many travellers enjoy the benefits of both types of services and take out subscriptions with each.

We have been using HF Radio Telephone networks since 1998 and have seen a massive improvement to these services in ease of use, functionality and low costs. Most services include a free emergency selcall direct to Police and RFDS and also offer a flat call rate to all phone lines including mobile (unlike the expense of Satellite Phone systems). Some services also offer free vehicle position logging (taken verbally as a message from you to the operator as it is with the VKS737 network).

There is actually no incoming voice call service, when you use an HF Radio Telephone service however a Message Service provides a facility where family, friends or work associates can simply phone the base operators on a regular phone line and give the operator the message which will then be passed on to the radio.

There are currently a few services throughout Australia that can provide the telephone service from your HF radio. The ExplorOz Team have used the Telstra RDD service (that is no longer available), RadioData, and in more recent years we've used RadTel. Services and charges are quite different so shop around to find the service that best suits you.

More information on these types of radios are available in our HF Radio article.
You'll also find the following book invaluable!

Go to top Mobile Phone

Mobile phone
Ever since the advent of the mobile phone, networks, services, and hardware has changed dramatically and in Australia today there are more than 16 million mobile phone subscribers. As smart as these phones may seem in everyday use for most people, their use in an emergency is limited to the range of the network service. It may surprise you to know that mobile phone coverage is very limited in the outback, even in towns that are populated. Generally, once you pass 10km from the town outskirts, network services may cease and that’s only if that town had mobile services in the first place. Towns such as Birdsville and Innamincka on the edge of the very popular Simpson Desert tracks do not offer mobile phone coverage for any of the networks at all, but they do provide public phone boxes. Mobile phone networks for broader than metropolitan coverage include NextG, GSM, 3G, 3GSM.

Go to top Satphone

A Satphone
Probably the largest area of satellite usage is the telephone market. The uptake of satellite phones in the tourism sector, is growing with hand-held satellite phones easy to use, easy to obtain, and they provide a reliable, private, communication service to users. SatPhones are also now available with dual modes enabling CDMA/Satellite or GSM/Satellite, allowing you to carry one handheld phone device and selecting the most appropriate network for your needs.

Satphones can be either purchased outright for less than the cost of purchasing and fitting an HF radio and antenna to your vehicle, or hired. Various plans are available to suit your needs.

Don't forget however, that if you are going to rely on a satellite phone as your only method of emergency communication, you will need to take a list of emergency contact numbers. Note - just like a mobile phone, a satphone will enable you to direct dial Police or Ambulance by dialing 112, even without a SIM card in the phone.

More information on these types of radios are available in our Satellite Phone article.

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Go to top Satellite Tracker Messengers

Satellite Tracker/Messengers enable users to send a distress signal and GPS location to either authorities or designated emergency contacts, and offer optional online tracking services. They can now also be used as communication devices, with units offering the capability to send (and in some cases receive) text messages and emails via the satellite network. The customisation of these messages depends upon the device you are using, and charges will either be included in the device plan or purchased as a pre-paid bundle.

SPOT 2 Satellite Messenger

SPOT 2

The SPOT 2 allows for predefined messages to be sent via text message/email to pre-programmed contact groups. This device is stand alone (does not link to other devices), and therefore is a simple and economical option if you only wish to have a basic level of communication with your contacts. The SPOT 2 is a "send only" device (messages cannot be received). The SPOT 2 also has an emergency SOS button which relays to the AMSA - government organisation responsible for all emergency beacon activations (EG EPIRB / PLB).

SPOT Connect

SPOT Connect

The SPOT Connect enables you to connect to an iPhone via Bluetooth and send either pre-determined or "type and send" messages to contact groups (several different contact groups can be set-up eg. Work, Friends, Family). You can also use its Check-in/OK button to send position updates to your chosen social media site (Facebook or Twitter). The SPOT Connect is a "send only" device (messages cannot be received). If the device is not able to connect to an iPhone, you will still have access an emergency SOS button (as with the SPOT 2).

Yellowbrick v3 Tracker/Messenger

Yellowbrick

The Yellowbrick v3 Tracker/Messenger is another stand-alone device which offers the capability to send pre-progammed messages without the need for a linked phone/tablet. Additionally, you can also receive and read replies on the Yellowbrick's screen. The Yellowbrick can also connect to a smartphone or tablet device (Apple and Android) to create "type and send" messages or update social media sites. The Yellowbrick does not have an emergency services SOS, however emergency contacts can be added to the device if needed.

inReach Satellite Communicator

inReach Satellite Communicator

The Delorme inReach Satellite Communicator has the ability to deliver 2 way messaging and once paired with a compatible iPhone or Android Smartphone or tablet, becomes a 2 way communication device which can be utilised anywhere on earth. Using the Iridium satellite network it offers complete global coverage.

Go to top Other Satellite Devices

Satellite dish mounted at the front of a caravan
Satellite technology really enables us to "communicate" beyond the bounds of transmitting and receiving just voice data. Satellites transmit video, data and audio content so more satellite receiving devices are being developed all the time to deliver things such as broadband by satellite, high speed internet, satellite TV, video conferencing, multicasting, voice over internet protocol, and mobile broadband in both business and recreation. Mobile broadband is already achievable wherever you can drive a 4WD - essentially, you can now have any broadband related services at your fingertips simply by installing a small satellite receiver to your vehicle.

One of the major drivers of satellite technology is its' inherent strength as a broadcast medium. Safety alerts, regional information and other targetted messages could well be sent direct to drivers in their vehicles around the country via satellite multicasting. We can certainly expect to gain access to more reliable information when on the road through new services provided by either government or private services using multicasting in the future.

Go to top Important Note on EPIRBs

The internationally owned satellites that monitored the 121.5 MHz distress beacons have now been switched off and therefore, it is absolutely crucial that you upgrade to a digital 406 MHz distress beacon immediately - if you have not done so already.

406 MHz distress beacons save lives. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) that coordinates all aviation and maritime search and rescue across Australia’s 53 million square kilometre search and rescue region, no longer has the ability to detect an analogue 121.5 MHz distress beacon via satellite.

406 MHz beacons must be registered with AMSA. Registration is free and can be done on-line at the AMSA web site. When upgrading to a 406 MHz distress beacon it is essential that old analogue models are appropriately disabled and disposed of responsibly so that they do not trigger false alarms. More advice about distress beacons is available from the AMSA web site: www.amsa.gov.au/beacons or by calling 1800 406 406.
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Use of a 121.5 beacon is now illegal.
Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA)

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Go to top Tags

Sat Nav, Spot 2, Spot Connect, Inreach, Satellite Communicator, Yellow Brick, Satellite Phone, Vms Uhf Radio, Vr-1200, Vr-1500, Tips For Outback Communications