Mobile Communication in the Bush

Mobile Phones, Satellite Phones, UHF CB Radios and HF Radio are all viable communication methods and can be used within Australia with varying degrees of performance versus cost.

When touring Australia people normally want to maintain some type of voice contact with family and friends. Others need unlimited internet access to perform their jobs or run a business while others rely on the safety factor of reliable communication because of isolation or remoteness.

Any type of communication service comes at a cost. Generally services are cheaper and more reliable in the more densely populated regions, towns and cities around the country. Remote communities and stations, who have a genuine reliance on reasonable outside communications, often have to settle for less than stellar performance and inflated costs.

This article aims to provide an overview of the more common communication options available.

Mobile Phones
range of handsets

Most of us have become used to the idea of having a cell phone and using it almost as an extension of our personality. Many people would never consider leaving the house without their phone and use it to maintain contact with their kids, organize work, check email, follow sport scores and a host of other uses.

Regardless of what the major phone service providers advertise and the claims that their service covers 98% of Australia it is a fact that mobile phone coverage alone, will not be enough if you want to maintain total communication throughout Australia.

Again, coverage is good around the population centres and diminishes as the number of potential paying customers dwindles.

Telstra offers the best all around coverage because it has the largest infrastructure and has something of a public responsibility as a large corporation once wholly owned by the Australian Government. Of course like most of Telstra’s other business, Telstra’s service tends to be more expensive than the competition. Optus, Virgin, 3, Dodo, Vodaphone and a host of others all provide alternate and usually cheaper services than Telstra but Telstra still provides the most wide-ranging service.

Lack of reception in the built up areas of Australia is not an issue and virtually any service will operate fine in these areas but when you begin to travel further afield the story changes. Expect to receive a signal from Telstra in virtually all towns. Most of the larger towns with populations of 10,000 people or so will generally host the complete range of Telstra's competition.

Many of the smaller and more remote towns will only have a Telstra signal, especially as you travel north. Virtually all towns will have a pay phone service.

Depending on the model of phone expect a cell phone signal for about a 30km radius of the town site. Unless towns are close together and broadcast areas overlap you are pretty well without a mobile phone outside this range. Mobile phone coverage is also affected by the natural terrain and hills and mountain ranges can all affect the ability to transmit and receive signal.

Satellite Phones

‘Sat’ phones are gaining ground in the communications race and becoming cheaper. There are a few different types of satellite phone but we’ll deal with the conventional type of phone that looks and behaves like a regular mobile phone.

The Australian government is currently offering a subsidy scheme for eligible users that can reduce the purchase price of a new unit anywhere from 50% – 85%.

The satellite solution works like any other phone service. You have a regular telephone number and you pick up the unit and dial any number, anywhere in the world and talk as normal. Some ‘free’ 1800 or 1300 numbers and possibly the 000 emergency service may not function on all satellite service providers.

Instead of transmitting calls via radio waves, satellite technology ‘bounces’ signals backwards and forwards between earth and an orbiting satellite, much like PAY satellite television.

Expect the initial purchase price to be more than a regular cell phone, around the $1500 - $2000 mark and calls to cost a little more. You need a service provider such as Iridium, Optus, Inmarsat, Pivotel or Telstra which will usually incur a monthly access fee. Competition is not as fierce as the normal domestic phone market but it is possible to shop around for the best deal and balance between incoming and outgoing calls.

Some satellite phone models incorporate a regular cell phone into the satellite technology and the unit can be switched between each mode, eliminating the need to carry a unit for both. Short term rental is also a possibility if the need for this type of phone is only temporary.

In theory, a satellite phone is able to provide coverage anywhere in Australia and with prices falling and subsidies available, this type of communication may be the answer for people looking to maintain a 'constant' communications link.

UHF CB Radio

This style of radio is popular with the majority of land based radio users and offers a viable method of communication with pastoralists, trucks, mining vehicles and any user with radio equipment capable of receiving and transmitting the 476.425Mhz to 477.400Mhz signal. Apart from the initial purchase price UHF radio has no ongoing costs to use and requires no license to own. It is often utilized by the ‘Grey Nomads’ - the retired caravan brigade touring constantly across Australia from camping spot to camping and caravan park to caravan park. Names and operating frequencies are often advertised on the rear of a caravan for instance - ‘Skippy & Ruby – Channel 27’. This acts as a means of communication for an overtaking truckie or as an invite from like minded souls to chat about anything.

UHF Radio has a limited range of around 5km to 20km and good reception is heavily dependant on terrain. Hilly or densely vegetated areas can reduce transmission considerably. Using this type of radio on a high hill or tower can increase its range by 4 or 5 times.

Australia is fairly well endorsed with UHF ‘Repeaters’ which are towers usually located on top of hills and owned by pastoralists, farmers, mining companies etc. Repeaters act as re-transmission stations and can greatly extend the range of UHF radio but there is no formula for repeater location and availability cannot be assured from one region to the next.

UHF radio should be viewed as an aid to communication within a locale and not as link to the rest of the world.

Available as either a mobile phone styled, handheld unit or with the typical look of a CB radio, complete with handpiece and aerial these radios are reasonably cheap and effective.

There are a set of rules and guidelines for UHF use and a user etiquette that should be learned and followed if you want to get the most from it.

HF Radio

High Frequency radio looks and acts similarly to UHF radio with a few more accessories and functions and a few more costs. Fax, email and GPS tracking are all possible with HF and this more powerful format means communication is possible over thousands of kilometres rather than the few kilometres available with UHF.

HF Radio is the primary source of communication for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, The School of The Air (national school system conducted over the airwaves for remote students) and various registered and licensed organizations. Of interest to remote travellers may be the 'Australian National 4WD Radio Network'.

It is also possible to make telephone calls with the radio unit once you have subscribed to a direct dial service, however calls are still conducted over the air waves and are open for anyone with a receiving unit to hear. Radio stations like the BBC also broadcast on frequencies that can be tuned and listened to via HF radio.

HF Radio has a history of use as an emergency and communication service covering all of Australia.

To use this network requires an operating license and a paid membership to an organisation utilising this method of communication. New radio units are expensive compared to UHF radio and incur additional costs for memberships, licensing and programming frequencies. Add on services like GPS and email occur additional charges.

High Frequency radio is a serious means of transmitting and receiving information and is heavily regulated and controlled. If you are looking for a medium to chat and socialize on you would be well advised to look elsewhere.

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