Communications and GPS
Telstra’s 3G, 4G (and shortly 5G) services increasingly provide coverage for the more populated areas of Australia, and its major highways, but less so even along major dirt highways. The services also carry email and Internet traffic on mobiles, smart phones and iPads/tablets. Laptop computers and iPads/tablets connect via a USB or Wi-Fi modem or built in SIM card.
In areas with good signal strength many smart phones act also as ‘Wi-Fi hotspots’ enabling you to connect other devices to the internet.
Whilst older modems and phone technologies may still cope, the latest development are now so great that it makes every to upgrade to 4G or 5G.
These services do still have limited coverage, but that can be improved by using an external antenna. If travelling extensively in outback areas, a satellite telephone (see below) is virtually essential.
5G mobile – pic: Telstra
The still used HF (High Frequency) radio system radiates transmissions to the ionosphere (a mirror-like layer above the earth). This layer reflects signals to blanket an area some distance from where they originated. The so-called ‘skip distance’ varies with the frequency used, sunspot activity, whether it is day or night, and a great deal more, except perhaps one’s star sign.
Despite HF radios having up to 600 channels, traffic congestion is increasing. It is often necessary to try several channels before finding one that is clear when (and to where) you want it. Changing channels may require adjusting the antenna.
For optimum range an antenna such as this is essential. Pic: source unknown.
Services that interconnect HF radios and the public telephone network are available via private services. Emergency calls to the Royal Flying Doctor service are still available via a number of dedicated channels.
HF radio can handle limited speed data transfer, but only to another similarly data equipped HF receiver.
HF radio has a loyal following, with useful services for travellers. But for most people planning to travel in isolated areas satellite telephones are a more practical choice. They are relatively affordable and can be rented for short term use.
Satellite telephones are ideal for outback travelling in Australia. Across much of the interior they are often the only method of such communication.
Their major limitation is that their typical speed of 2400-9600 bits/second limits their use to voice and plain text emails.
Satellite handsets resemble cell-phones (but are thicker and have a substantial antenna). They work in much the same way, except that some services require users to include full country and area codes even for local calls.
All require a more or less unobstructed line of sight to the satellite – so they rarely work well (or at all) inside buildings, or if the location of the satellite is blocked or partially obscured.
There are several and different satellite services, of which some have only limited coverage.
Iridium satellite phone. Pic: Iridium.
Iridium is a global network. It has 66 satellites revolving the earth. Calls are passed from satellite to satellite to an earth station in the USA that routes them to the global telephone network. Calls close to the equator – such as Cape York are prone to interruptions as the satellites are spaced further apart. Data speed is 2.4 Kbp/s but compression provides an apparent 10 Kbp for some uses.
Globalstar is similar except that rather than calls being passed between satellites, they are fed (in Australia) to gateways in Mt Isa, Dubbo and Meekatharra. As a result service can be spasmodic in areas north of a line from Broome to Townsville. Data speed is an optional 38.4 Kbp/s. Voice quality is very good.
Thuyara uses two geostationary satellites that service 140 countries. Using it in Australia requires a clear view WNW to North and 25º to 50º above the virtual horizon. It has excellent Australian coverage across plus most of the globe – but not the Americas, parts of Africa – and New Zealand. Data speed is up to 60 Kbp/s. Voice quality is said to be variable.
Inmarsat uses geostationary satellites. Coverage is global except for polar regions. Data speed is a compressed 20 kbp/s (a raw 2.4 kpb/s)
There are various service providers, e.g. Testra, Optus and Vodaphone in Australia. There is usually a fixed monthly fee that is comparable to normal mobile phones, but call charges are substantially higher. Vodaphone first checks for a Next G signal and if that is not obtainable, only then switches to the more costly satellite operation.
Webmail is an effective way for travellers to keep in touch. It can be accessed via publicly available computers in (some) libraries, tourist information centres, Internet centres and cafes.
You can also send and receive email using your own computer via fixed telephones or Next G, and similar systems. It can also be done via satellite telephone, but is slow and very costly.
Telstra’s Message Bank service enables you to recover messages via your remote-accessed home number, a mobile number or, if without a permanent, via a specifically allocated number.
Global Positioning System
Generally known as GPS, this system is invaluable in big towns and cities. It the outback however it can sometimes mislead. Remote tracks, initially marked correctly on maps can later be re-routed. One section of the little used Talavera track (northern WA) is 30 km north of where it is shown, even on some recent maps.
If relying on GPS indicated positions that differ from that shown on the map, there is a risk of seeking a now non-existent track (indicated on that map) whilst safely on the current track – the route of which has been moved.
The above caused us an uncomfortable few hours in 2008 but as with many experienced outback travellers, we were also using traditional ways of navigation. As the compass indicated we were heading in more or less the right direction, we (correctly) stayed on the track we were on.
Another trap is of fuel exploration companies making temporary new-looking (but unmarked) tracks off the main track. These can be mistaken for the correct track.
If using GPS, check constantly that it accords with the map position. Problems can arise on rarely used tracks, but also in the larger state forests, where new unmarked tracks may be made for logging access.
CB radio is still very much in use. It was originally 40 channels (now 80 channels) and operates at both 27 MHz and 477 MHz. The range depends mainly on the nature of the terrain. It may vary from line of sight to 50 km or more.
The 477 MHz UHF CB provides higher quality transmission – where available, UHF repeaters extend range to 300 km or more. Outback stations use this extensively. There are also pocket-sized UHF transceivers that provide around three kilometres. Caravanners use them to advise their partners when reversing into tight places etc. via a pair of transceivers, or one used in conjunction with the vehicle’s own CB.
In-car CB radios are normally muted between signals. It is easy to forget they are on when you leave the vehicle. This can result in a flat starter battery (readily recharged if you have solar modules). Avoid this by wiring the CB radio via the ignition switch.
CB channel usage
Channels 5 & 35 (UHF) are reserved for emergency use only.
Channel 10 is for 4WD drivers, convoys, clubs and national parks.
Channel 18 is for RV use, including camper trailers, caravans etc.
Channel 29 is now the Pacific Highway and Bruce Highway road channel.
Channel 40 is for highways in general (it the truck drivers’ preferred channel). See: uhfcb.com.au for changes, particularly regarding usage of channels 41-80.
Typical smartphone installed on a dashboard. Pic: Laurie Hoffman.
Telstra mobile phone coverage map:
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Telstra Mobile Broadband devices (contract and pre-paid):
Why use the NextG network: