Keep in contact: Guide to communications
No matter who you are or where you travel, you may run into trouble or need to contact fellow travellers. The right communication equipment can make all the difference.
COMMUNICATION. FOR RVERS, it’s about staying in contact with fellow travellers, keeping safe, getting help and being courteous to other road uses. It’s also about being part of a travelling community.
I spoke to Mark Kyle from radio equipment supplier Kyle Communications to get a better handle on what’s what when it comes to communications for caravanners.
With more than 20 years of experience behind him, Mark explained the first step is deciding why you need communications, or ‘comms’, as he puts it.
"There’s inter-vehicle comms and there’s comms for safety," he explained.
BAND ON THE RUN
According to Mark, there is one typical piece of equipment RVers should be using.
"The standard communication device is UHF CB," he said. "Anyone towing a caravan should have a UHF CB onboard, regardless of where they’re going."
This recommendation comes despite the fact UHF CB (ultra-high frequency citizen band) doesn’t like the large lumps and bumps of the countryside such as hills, making them more suited to short-range communications. Out in the open you’re likely to send and receive signals up to about 18km.
"That’s until you get up higher," Mark explained. "Height is might. When you’re 1000ft up on a hilltop you can talk around 70-80km."
You can also achieve greater coverage if a repeater station re-transmits the signals onto another channel.
Mark believes UHF CB radio is essential for travel because you are able to tell other road users if you are about to pull over or if the road ahead is clear.
David Harper from A-Trek, a camping gear rental company, agrees. However, he insists that while you don’t need any high level radio protocol or technical knowledge on UHF, you do need to understand the purpose of the different channels.
David explains that channel 18 is designated for holidaymakers travelling in convoy, channel 40 for truck drivers, and channels 5 and 35 must only be used for emergency communication.
According to Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) guidelines, radio users should make their initial contact on channel 11 before changing to another channel to continue their conversation.
COST OF QUALITY
When it comes to knowing what to buy, the rules for radio equipment are the same as when you buy anything else.
"You get what you pay for," Mark said.
That poses the question of whether to buy a cheaper handheld radio or a more substantial, in terms of size and cost, vehicle-mounted device.
Mark’s reply is succinct: "A handheld is a waste of time in a vehicle," he said. "You can use a handheld when you are trying to park your caravan and you’ve got someone outside steering you in.
"For in the vehicle, you should have an in-vehicle unit."
Mark said using a handheld radio in the vehicle meant having to buy an extra speaker mic, which then created the added problem of transmitting from inside.
"Then you really need an external antenna."
With that in mind, Mark recommends buying an inexpensive in-vehicle radio, such as a GME, with a decent 6db elevated-feed antenna for around $500.
More expensive models provide coverage as well as additional features, including GPS, emergency alarm, data and group or radio-to-radio communications.
These are first-class units, but the price rises accordingly to around $900 for a portable model.
"You have to look at where you are using the radio," Mark said. "If 99.9 per cent of the time it’s in the vehicle, then that’s where you put your money."
TO THE EDGE OF SPACE
A-Trek’s David Harper says, in terms of safety, an HF (high frequency) radio using frequencies between 1-30 MHz will provide communications over several thousands of kilometres, including the ability to contact the Royal Flying Doctor Service in the event of an emergency. But there is a downside.
"Radio users generally require an ACMA licence or need to be a member of a club with a licence. Then, they need a costly and powerful vehicle-mounted transceiver and antenna," David explained.
HF communications are inherently difficult. The user needs to understand the technical demands of the system, including how the system interacts with the earth’s ionosphere and the need to vary frequencies with the time of day, and even the seasons.
Mark also warned that HF communications was only suitable for communications greater than 200-300km.
Add those troubles to the fact an HF system might set you back up to $4000, and you’re soon looking for another option.
Alternatively, a satellite phone will cost between $750 and $1300 and provide fewer problems. Even when you add in a $22 SIM card and $70 for around 100 minutes of talk time over two years, you are still financially better off when compared to the cost of HF.
According to Mark, some providers allow you to make calls for around $0.77 per minute. However, buyers should beware that incoming calls can be extremely expensive, hitting the $20 per minute range. And some deals see customers paying exorbitant monthly fees, while others charge none. It’s worth noting, too, that some satphones will not dial 000 for emergencies.
"Anyone going into a remote area should really have a satellite phone, especially if you need to be in contact with relatives, friends or business. Or just for medical emergency," Mark said.
On the downside, satellite phones only work outdoors or hooked to an external antenna, which must be pointed skywards.
"When you get a tool you must know how to use it properly," Mark said. "With a satellite phone, there are only three things: antenna up, be outside, and work out whether or not you need to use an international dialling code."
But you must be aware whether your system uses an orbiting satellite or geo-stationary satellite system. Geo-stationary means you should find a signal easier and in more situations than with an orbiting satellite. However, there is a greater delay between talking and hearing a response.
"Before anyone takes a trip, they should have a plan. Part of that plan is to take account of potential problems, and you have to have a solution for those problems," Mark said.
WORDS David Gilchrist
Source: Caravan World Jun 2012