No signal? Alternatives to your mobile

Alex Maroya — Your Tech Coach
4 min readMay 7, 2020

Most of us can scarcely remember the world without mobile phones. Yet in Australia mobile coverage still only covers a few percent of the continent’s landmass, and is dependent on a complex interplay of phone towers and background infrastructure to keep working. Even in good times networks go down from time to time. In a time of serious man made or natural crisis who knows how reliable mobile will be. Lucky for you there’s a whole world of communications out there beyond the 4G/5G mobile network!

Satellite phones

If mobile is out of range or services fail, there’s a good chance satellite will still be working. With some limitations, satellite phones can cover almost all the earth’s surface, and interconnect with other networks through just a handful of ground stations. There are four providers offering satellite phone services to Australia: the Inmarsat and Thuraya geostationary networks and the lower orbiting (LEO) Iridium and Globalstar networks.

Of the two LEO services, Globalstar offers better data and cheaper rates for casual users, but handsets are currently hard to come by, while Iridium has more modern handsets and better coverage, but is expensive. The alternative geostationary satellite networks suit those needing very predictable coverage and higher data speeds. Handsets tend to be a bit bulkier but call costs are comparable. If you plan to use satellite services mainly in Australia you can generally get an Australian mobile number and local call routing from your provider to contain costs.

The latest Thuraya satphone uses Android OS and doubles as a regular mobile

In Australia, satellite services are available through Telstra (Iridium) and Optus (Thuraya) or via independent resellers such as Pivotel. Handsets typically come in between $800 and $2000, depending on features, however unlike terrestrial mobile the satellite handsets are generally network specific — i.e. you can’t switch networks and keep the same handset. For light users a good starting point would be a Thuraya XT Lite handset currently $839 with a monthly plan charge of $15 plus $1 per minute outgoing calls.

Citizens Band (CB) Radio

If you’ve ever used a walkie talkie, chances are you have already used the UHF CB radio band, the most common radiofrequency communications band in Australia (476–477 MHz). Anyone can use the UHF CB Band’s 80 channels at no charge, with channel arrangements specified in a “class licence” published by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. The working range of transmission varies greatly with equipment, from a few kilometres for low power handheld units, to up to 40 km for 5W vehicle units. UHF CB radios are readily available from outdoor and communications retailers and reasonable units start from about $200.

In-car CB radio is a great way to stay in touch especially in convoys

UHF CB is widely used by travellers, professional drivers and radio enthusiasts: it can get busy and so learning proper radio etiquette is important! For longer range communications, there is also an HF CB band at 27 MHz (in general, the lower the frequency the further the signal will carry) but this is little used nowadays. Regular outback travellers are, however, often members of an HF radio club such as the Australian HF Touring Club which has specific licensed frequencies for long range communications. HF radio equipment is usually larger than UHF and will generally be sold by a specialist communications or 4WD retailer. A good HF set will start at around $1000 and the signal can travel up to 3000 kilometres.

It should be noted that boats, planes, emergency services etc may use similar looking equipment to CB radios but these use differently licensed radiofrequency allocations. Listening to emergency services radio channels on a “scanner” used to be a popular pastime, but as these services are now usually encrypted it is much harder to do!

Bluetooth

At the other end of the distance spectrum, there are numerous apps like Bridgefy, Firechat and Air Chat (for Apple) that allow you to send chat messages — and sometimes files — using Bluetooth on a regular mobile over a range of 20m or so. This can be handy if, for example, there’s no network coverage, you want to keep your comms super private, or maybe you just want to avoid data charges! Some apps also have a “mesh” or repeater function where devices with the app installed can act as a man-in-the-middle and pass on communications over greater distances. Perhaps if civilisation collapses one day, the last keen mobile phone users will be left playing offline games and sending funny pictures to people in the next bivouac via Bluetooth.

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