How to stay connected while travelling Australia - Caravan World Australia

How to stay connected while travelling Australia

Written by: Ian Bellert; Photographer: Ian Bellert and supplied

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Being on the road doesn't mean you have to be out of touch. Ian Bellert has a look at the options for keeping you in contact with family, friends and other travellers. 

When exploring Australia our travels lead us far any wide, from popular national parks and caravan parks to various remote locations in the outback where you're far outside mobile phone reception. Having a way to contact friends, family and emergency services is an absolute must, no matter if you are heading on a short remote camping trip or a Big Lap of Australia. So here are some top tips and different methods to keep in touch while exploring the wide open road. 

Mobile phones

The mobile phone has entered our lives and is irreplaceable as a communications tool, as long as you’re in an area that has mobile reception. Looking at the coverage provided by Australia's two main carriers, Telstra and Optus, the coastal fringe has mobile coverage. As the population diminishes, so does your mobile coverage. Once you get into rural, regional or remote areas, your mobile phone becomes less and less reliable as a communications tool. We have found that Telstra has a wider network than Optus, covering more than 1 million square kilometres than its next nearest competitor.

Mobile coverage in regional areas is by no means blanket coverage. Be aware that your travels will be interspersed with large areas of no mobile coverage. A handy hint is when you are out of range, turn the phone to flight mode to save battery life. Mobiles tend to ‘ping’ to see if there’s coverage and drain the battery. Simply turn off flight mode once you get close to town. 

Boosting your mobile phone coverage

In May 2018, Telstra introduced the Telstra GO Mobile Smart Signal Vehicle Repeater. This device “gives you greater range, clearer mobile calls and better data connection in a moving vehicle”. Once installed the unit acts as a network coverage extension device. Telstra GO Repeaters need a low-level network signal before amplifying the mobile signal to your vehicle (or caravan) via an antenna. It still needs a mobile signal to work, and it is recommended that a professional does the installation. There are a range of other similar products on the market. The cost is around $1000 plus installation. The benefits are extended range for your mobile signal. Is it worth it? There are so many variables affecting signal (terrain, distance, signal availability) that Caravan World would advise you to undertake extensive research to make sure you get value out of a signal booster. 

Car to car communications

A UHF radio is essential for any tourer. It provides instant communications with other travellers, truckies and others who are on your channel. A 2W handheld unit is the bare essential. You’ll get a couple of kms range, good clear communication and they are very handy as you can use them outside your vehicle. You recharge them and can get hours of chat off one charge. The best set up is 5W UHF installed in your vehicle with a matched aerial to produce range. On the open road you can get coverage of 10–15km from such a setup. 

Why is the UHF a great communications tool?

If you have a handheld and an in-car UHF, you can help guide the driver manoeuvring a caravan in tight parks or places too. Make you have your commands down pat to avoid confusion … “oops, I meant the other right hand down!” 

If you’re in a convoy, banter on the trip is always good fun. A UHF is great for local updates be it from other travellers or road users. Asking what the road is like ahead gives you a chance to plan accordingly. Truckies are working so may not want to engage in banter on the two-way but will generally alert you to any hazards, if you ask nicely. 

If you are intending on overtaking, it is wise to let the vehicle ahead of you know that you are looking to overtake them. A quick call up to the vehicle ahead to check it’s safe to pass is a good option for all. On the open road channel 40 is the main comms channel for truckies. Avoid channels 5 and 35 as they are dedicated for emergency services. For caravanners channel 18 is the go-to channel. 

As a near field communications tool, they are super effective and should be one of the first things in your communication set up. Remember everyone on the channel can hear your conversation.

HF radio? Where are U?

HF radio operates by bouncing certain frequencies to the ionosphere in the earth’s atmosphere. The radio waves bounce back to the ground and are picked up by a tuned-in transceiver. Using ionospheric propagation allows radio waves to travel huge distances and is good for long-range communications. A HF signal can overcome geographic barriers such as mountains, valleys or forested areas. The Royal Flying Doctor Service uses the VKS737 HF radio network. The VKS737 network is managed by committee members, administration staff and volunteer message coordinators and base station operators. The VKS website is a very handy resource. For caravanners, the requirements needed are a HF transmitter and receiver, aerial and a licence ($144 per year) to access the network. Run by a dedicated volunteer network who are brilliant at what they do, the HF radio network is also used globally particularly in a humanitarian crisis. 

You can access the VKS network via sat phone, called non-HF access. You need a subscription and all calls are charged at your sat phone networks rate. A call will be received by an operator, who will then try to assist you. Generally, you will have an agreed call back time so there’s less time that you are on the line, therefore reducing your cost. The most useful option is if you have had a breakdown or need assistance. Be sure you have your details, GPS coordinates and the exact details of your requirements prior to making the call. 

If it's a medical emergency, you can dial 000 directly from your sat phone (a recent change). If you call VKS with a medical emergency they will patch your through to 000. It is a better option to dial 000 directly. Unless you are going very deep into remote country off the beaten track, the HF radio is not ideal for caravanners, but it is an essential communication tool across the vastness of Australia. 

Satellite phones 

Satellite phones are a very useful communications tool which accesses either the Iridium or Inmarsat satellite networks. Think of it as your mobile phone on steroids. You can get connection virtually anywhere, though wooded areas can block satellite signals. You dial in who you want to speak to and start talking. Due to the nature of using satellites to connect, your voice can be a little blurred. The peace of mind does come at considerable cost. With satellite phones available as an outright purchase on data led plans or rental for short periods, they are your ultimate communications back stop on the road. 

(Image SatPhone Shop)

Owning a satellite phone can look like this. You need a handset and a plan. Telstra’s basic plan is $55 per month, with pay as you go calls and texts. The call rate is $1.50 to numbers within Australia and 55c per SMS. Then you need to consider the handset cost which, for a basic Iridium 9555 device, repayments are $83.13 per month with a minimum cost of $1994 over 24 months. 

If you want peace of mind on your travels, renting a satellite phone is a great option without ongoing costs of a plan or paying off a handset. Looking at the SatPhone Shop, there are options for a standard or a rugged handset. Rental terms start with a minimum three-day rental at $18 per day. If you require a sat phone for an extended period, the sliding day rate reduces to $8 per day for 90+ days of hire. Your calls are charged on top of this daily rental fee. Rates to a standard mobile, voicemail, landline or DATA call will be $3 per minute (charged in 20 second increments). Calls to a satellite service outside of Iridium will be charged at $15 per minute. If you do your research, there may be cheaper options out there. Be mindful of the rates and how they are charged. 

Renting is one of the easiest ways to get your hands on a sat phone as well.  A complete kit is sent, including a robust carry case, chargers for both car and wall, manuals and cables. Once you have finished, you simply return the kit via the included post satchel. 

When storing your sat phone in your car, it's a good idea to keep it with your first aid kit so that both can be easily accessed in the case of an emergency. 

Other communication options — satellite communicators

Iridium GO! This little useful tool allows you to plug into the satellite network. The Iridium GO! is a satellite wi-fi hotspot that allows users to utilise satellite voice and data communications. Download the app to your mobile or tablet and you’re connected. They are expensive with an outright purchase of around $2445 plus data costs. You can rent them, and they are marginally cheaper on the day rate compared to sat-phone rental. The ability to plug in your tablet is a handy option. With data rates the same as a sat phone, you need to weigh up how you will use the Iridium GO! and make sure your data usage is limited.

There is a relatively new product class in the outback communications toolbox. These devices are GPS trackers with limited but essential communication functions. The Garmin inReach Mini2 and the ZOLEO Satellite Communicator. These devices connect with satellite networks and allow for ‘check-in’ texts to be sent. A check-in text message is a pre-worded text which includes GPS locations. In an emergency the SOS function sends an alert and GPS coordinates to a 24/7 emergency response coordination partner. You will need an active satellite subscription and a device. Indicative costs for plans start at $32 per month (for the ZOLEO). These are great options for very basic communications to loved ones. They are small and a great option to pop in your backpack if you are hiking/walking deep into the Australian bush. 

(Image Josh Hanger)

Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) have been around in the military since the 1950s. Once activated a coded distress signal is sent, which can be picked up by emergency authorities, planes and satellites. The signal is relayed to a Rescue Coordination Centre, where a rescue response is commenced. An EPIRB is for emergency use only. If activated, a full-scale rescue operation is instigated. Expect to pay $300–$400 for a unit.

Starlink

SpaceX started launching Starlink satellites in 2019. Starlink consists of more than 6000 small satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) as of May 2024, which communicate with designated ground transceivers. According to Wikipedia’s Starlink page, nearly 12,000 satellites are planned to be deployed, with a possible later extension to 34,000. You can choose to have a permanent Starlink device installed on your vehicle or a portable set up for camp. 

(Image Allison Watt)

With an easy setup and break-down, portable Starlink delivers high-speed, low-latency internet access within minutes, and packs up quickly. There are regional and global plans available with Australia covered by the Starlink network. Connecting to the Starlink network involves downloading the Starlink app and placing your Starlink where it has a clear view of the sky and plugging it in. Plans can be paused when not in use with billing in monthly increments. The portable Starlink option requires hardware purchase ($924 — on sale at time of writing reducing the hardware cost to $599) and the monthly plan at $174 per month. The mobile on vehicle hardware costs starting at $399 per month with a one-time hardware fee of $3740. Installation on your vehicle is an additional cost. There are support networks such as the Starlink Users Facebook Group which provide information regarding use, coverage and problem solving. 

Usability depends on access to open sky as the devices need to access the Starlink satellite network. Caravan World Editor At Large John Ford is currently using Starlink on a remote region trip. John has found the Starlink system to be reliable but has experienced drop-outs, depending on satellite coverage. But he says the system is a revolution in remote communication and internet access. 

(Image John Ford)

“It’s reliable most of the time, but the phone link drops out occasionally and upload speeds can be quite slow,” John said. “It’s important to have an uninterrupted view of the sky and that’s not always possible. If you camp in a wooded area, you may not be able to get a good signal, so you have to balance shade and internet access.

“You also need to be careful with power as the 240V needed has to go through an inverter and it can chew through available battery capacity. We have a 100Ah REDARC lithium battery in the LandCruiser for backup when the caravan power is drained.”

Connecting to family and friends while you travel has many options. We’d recommend a UHF for car-to-car communications and a satellite phone as a good option. A lot depends on how you want to communicate. Cost for your chosen method of communications should be investigated thoroughly as satellite data costs are substantial. 

Further information

Mobile Phone Coverage 

Boosting Mobile coverage

UHF 

Satellite Phones 

Satellite Communicators

Emergency PLB

Internet access

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