Staying Connected: Options for Field Communication
May 18, 2017
In November of 1855 David Livingstone landed with his native guides on a forested island in the middle of the Zambezi River. Amidst a continuous thunder of noise so loud that shouted speech was unintelligible, he crossed the island and stepped gingerly to the edge of a precipice, to see stretching away a half mile to each side the largest sheet of falling water on earth. He named the falls after his queen, Victoria.
She would not learn of the falls or the dedication for over a year, after Livingstone had made his way to the coast, then sailed the long passage home via the Cape of Good Hope.
A century and a half later, I stood in the same spot Livingstone had, with my heart in my throat as his must have been. Unlike Livingstone, that evening I used a satellite telephone to call my wife from a camp on the river and tell her all about it. She could clearly hear lions roaring in the background, as sounds from Africa bounced through space to Arizona at the speed of light.
Since Guglielmo Marconi figured out how to bend electromagnetic radiation to his will in 1895, wireless technology has advanced — sometimes rapidly, as in war, sometimes in fits and starts — to the point that options for field communication now range from that satellite phone down to two-way handheld radios available for less than twenty bucks each. So once you and your buddies are away from cell towers and beyond shouting distance, what are the best options?
The radio spectrum is a confusing universe of numbers, but an understanding of the basics is vital to understanding the capabilities of the communication system you're using.
Radio frequency is measured in Hertz, defined simply by how many waves (peak to trough to peak) pass a given point in one second (at the speed of light, another section of the electromagnetic spectrum). In the tiny section of the spectrum relevant to us, one kilohertz (kHz) indicates one thousand waves, or cycles, per second. One megahertz (MHz) indicates one million cycles per second, one gigahertz (GHz) equals one billion cycles per second. The bigger the number, the higher the frequency.
Frequency is inversely related to wavelength, the other commonly used measure of where you are on the spectrum. For example, the two-meter band refers broadly to wavelengths close to two meters in length. It's easy to see that the longer the wavelength, the fewer of them pass that given point in one second — so as wavelength goes up, frequency goes down. The common designations for radio bands used for two-way communication include:
HF (high frequency): 3 — 30 MHz; 10 — 100 meters
VHF (very high frequency): 30 — 300 MHz; 1 — 10 meters
UHF (ultrahigh frequency): 300 MHz — 3 GHz; 10cm — 1 meter
The effective transmission range of a particular radio depends on several, frequently codependent factors: wavelength; transmitting power (in watts); type and length of antenna; atmospheric conditions; and local interference, such as hills, trees, and buildings. VHF and UHF bands are limited to line-of-sight operation, while HF wavelengths have the ability to bounce off the ionosphere. Shortwave operators use this feature, called propagation, to talk to fellow ham operators on the other side of the globe, but the phenomenon can cause garbling. Clarity is affected by how the radio transmits its signals — amplitude modulation (AM), for example, is generally not as clear as frequency modulation (FM).
Note that the advertised ranges of many radios stretch credibility farther than the distance of likely intelligible communication. Even if you're standing on a mountaintop talking to someone on another mountaintop, don't expect to match those claims of "30-mile range!" in a $20 radio.
Vice President Lyndon Johnson made history's first satellite telephone call in 1962, but it wasn't until the Iridium network was launched in the late 1990s that satellite telephones became commercially viable. A satphone does just what its name suggests: Calls are routed through a satellite to ground-based receiver stations then forwarded to whatever cell or landline is being dialed (or they are bounced back via satellite to another satphone). There are two approaches to relaying information via satellite:
'¢ Low Earth Orbit (LEO) systems, used by Iridium and Globalstar, rely on satellites orbiting at around 16,700 mph and heights of 480 to 800 miles (the International Space Station orbits at 250 miles). Because of the speed of orbit, each satellite is only within range of a ground-based caller for about 15 minutes, so a dense constellation of satellites — 44 for Globalstar, 66 for Iridium — is necessary to ensure uninterrupted service. The advantage is very short time lag on calls and total pole-to-pole coverage for the Iridium network.
'¢ Geostationary systems — used by Inmarsat and Thuraya, among others — employ satellites in geosynchronous orbit. While they are in fact orbiting, their great height (22,200 miles) and speed combine to keep them "stationary" above a single equatorial point on the planet. Thus, fewer satellites are needed — although neither company offers global coverage; usage is limited to about 65 degrees north and south of the equator. Bandwidth, however, is higher than with LEO satellites, so faster data speeds are possible. Perhaps the biggest downside is the noticeable time lag for voice communication.
While satphones offer perhaps the ultimate in two-way communication, airtime can be fiendishly expensive, and your phone needs a clear (outdoor) line of sight to those satellites — all those scenes you've watched in movies notwithstanding.
Options for Two-Way Radio
Think walkie-talkie and you'll pretty much nail the idea behind FRS/GMRS. The Family Radio Service was authorized by the FCC in 1996 to provide low-cost, short-range, two-way radio capability. Operating in the UHF range (462 — 467 MHz) and using FM transmission with a power output of up to 1/2 watt, FRS offers good line-of-sight communication up to about a half-mile, although the mandated fixed antenna makes the devices poor for communicating between vehicles.
Most FRS radios sold in the United States have 22 channels. However, only channels 1 through 14 are available for the low-power, no-license-needed FRS service. Channels 15 through 22 are reserved for the GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) frequencies. Channels 1 through 7 are shared by both. GMRS allows higher-power transmission — theoretically up to 50 watts, although most consumer handhelds top out at 1 watt — and requires a license that costs $90 for five years, although no test is needed.
The popularity of FRS service means that in certain areas those 14 channels will be crowded, so many radios offer additional "privacy codes" within each channel, referred to as PL (Private Line), or the more technical CTCSS (Continuous Tone Coded Squelch System). PL codes employ the squelch function to filter out nearby conversations. Keep in mind, though, that you don't actually get "privacy" — anyone who doesn't have his PL activated will be able to hear everything you say. If you see FRS/GMRS radios advertised with more than 22 channels, it is a disingenuous reference to these privacy codes.
Given twice the allowable transmitting power in the same handheld unit, it's smart to spring for the GMRS license. Since decent radios start at around $25, FRS/GMRS represents an affordable way for friends to stay in touch when staging out of a base camp. Just don't expect too much of it. A pair of Motorola MH230R radios ($48 for both) provided passable reception up to about a mile apart on a one-watt GMRS channel when a perfect line of sight was possible, but trees or hills and FRS wattage cut that by three quarters or more. Almost back to shouting distance.
2-Meter Yaesu FT8800R/E
With all due respect to Burt Reynolds, a Citizen's Band (CB) radio is a poor choice for anything but trucker-to-trucker chat. CB's HF wavelength (11 meters) and low operating power (4 watts) results in short range and lots of interference. For communicating between vehicles (or between hikers with handheld units), a 2-meter radio is far, far superior. Yes, a license is required, for which you must pass a written $15 35-question exam, but online sample tests will soon have you qualified (on a day that will live in infamy, my wife, Roseann, got a perfect score on her test while I missed one). License in hand, you'll be able to exploit the versatile capabilities of this VHF (144 — 146 MHz) technology — along with UHF and even some HF frequencies.
A vehicle-mounted 2-meter radio can produce up to 75 watts of transmitting power and can be legally boosted to 1,500 watts. Handhelds no larger than an FRS/GMRS unit can go up to 10 watts. On the Yaesu FT8800R/E in our Tacoma, I've achieved 10-mile-plus ranges in vehicle-to-vehicle conversations over clear terrain and a mile or more in forested, mountainous country. Using one of the thousands of tower-mounted repeaters installed across the U.S., it's possible to extend this range thousands of miles, making the 2-meter radio ideal for emergency communications in remote areas. Many 2-meter radios (such as our Yaesu) are dual-band, also receiving and transmitting in the 70cm (440 MHz) range.
Part of a good 2-meter system is a good antenna. Ideally, an antenna should be the same length as the wavelength it's receiving and sending on, but a two-meter-long antenna can be a little awkward, thus the ubiquity of "half-wave" and "quarter-wave" antennas. A high-quality half-wave antenna is a good choice for most vehicle installations, and it should be mounted as high as possible.
Iridium 9575 Extreme
The original Iridium 9500 gained a sterling reputation. (I still run into battered but working examples in Africa.) The 9505 and, now, the 9575 built on that with further ruggedizing and weatherproofing. Other satphones are cheaper, but in my experience, none match the 9575's clarity, ease of use, or lag-free conversation — not to mention its unique pole-to-pole capability. Responding to market demands, the 9575 includes an SOS button that can be configured with a contact number of your choice, plus SpotCast weather service, which furnishes current weather forecasts based on your position. You even have a choice of ringtones.
Amazingly, the body of the 9575 Extreme is slightly smaller in height and width (but thicker) than an iPhone 6s, and weight is just nine ounces. Of course, with the antenna extended, it grows considerably.
Talk time is up to 3.5 hours, which should satisfy anyone short of your teenage daughter, who instead would probably use the phone's enhanced SMS service, or the OneMail app, which allows instant access to your incoming email headers so you can decide which ones to download. Options include the Sidekick, which turns the phone into a wireless router.
While satphone airtime can still be expensive, if you're a frequent traveler (and talker), there are plans that will take it down lower than many cell phone companies' roaming charges. And OCENS, among other companies, offers 9575 rental for those once-in-a-lifetime expeditions.
The Text Anywhere couldn't be more unimpressive in appearance. It's a flattened 4x4x1.5-inch cube with a charge port, a power button, and a status LED. That's it. But once its account is activated, it turns into a magic box. Set the cube outdoors next to your Wi-Fi-enabled smartphone, tablet, or laptop; find the device's icon on your screen — it pops up automatically; and start sending and receiving email or text messages from anywhere on the planet through the Iridium system.
I didn't believe the company's hype the first time around, so I alerted a friend in England before firing up the box and finding the menu on my Mac Air. Less than five minutes later, I had an email (up to 160 characters) typed and sent. And five minutes later came the reply, bounced off one of Iridium's 66 satellites and routed through ROM Communications's headquarters. Magic.
The Text Anywhere subscription plan is as simple as the device itself. There is a $35 activation fee. After that, $29.99 per month gets you up to 100 incoming or outgoing texts or emails; if you exceed that, there is a reasonable 27-cent charge for each message. You can idle the device for $5 per month between trips or turn it off altogether and pay the $35 activation again when you need it.
Powered by either an external 12V source or four AA batteries, the Text Anywhere has no peer for ease of setup and use in a globally capable messaging device.
DeLorme inReach Explorer
If you prefer your global messaging capability in one device and would also like to have SOS, GPS, tracking, and preset "OK" functions available, the inReach Explorer has it all for less than the price of the text/email-only Text Anywhere. Like the Text Anywhere, the inReach uses the Iridium system for pole-to-pole coverage and allows 160-character transmissions. A phone-like touch screen enables typing, or you can pair the device with a phone, tablet, or laptop.
In contrast to one-way distress-signaling devices, the inReach will allow you to, first, confirm your SOS was received and, second, allow two-way communication with the company's 24/7 emergency center, which could be of incalculable value if situational details are needed and of great psychological value even if they aren't. In day-to-day use, you can automatically update family or friends with your location and provide details when you desire.
Given its stand-alone ability and multitude of features, it's no surprise that the inReach lacks the intuitive ease of the Text Anywhere. Cursor buttons plus the touch screen activate and control the multitude
of functions and options. Separate apps enable downloading of free mapping software.
The inReach subscription offers two different plans including an annual 12-month contract or the Freedom Plan which requires only a 30-day commitment and allows you to suspend your service when you don't need it. Offering different tiers depending on how many texts you would like to be able to send, the Annual plan ranges from $12 — $80 a year, while the Freedom Plan ranges from $15 — $100 a month. Initial activation fees for both plans are required.
Unlike the Text Anywhere, the inReach Explorer operates solely from a built-in power supply, so you must have USB charging facilities available to keep it powered in remote areas.
How many times have you left a vehicle at a trailhead to hunt or fish and experienced a tiny twinge of relief as it came back into view at the end of the day? I know someone who experienced a massive panic attack at the end of the day, when he found his truck and camper stolen.
The SPOT Trace satellite tracker was designed to help. About the size of a GoPro, the Trace attaches to your vehicle and when activated will send you a text message and/or email with GPS coordinates if the vehicle is moved. Depending on the service plan (annual or monthly), tracking updates can be sent as frequently as every two and a half minutes or as infrequently as every hour — still sufficient for law enforcement (or you, probably not recommended) to run down the perp using Google Earth.
The instructions say the Trace can be mounted beneath fabric, glass, or fiberglass, but obviously, it needs a direct a line of sight to the sky and the Globalstar and GPS satellites through which it communicates. So concealment must be balanced with performance. On a pickup carrying a camper it's unlikely a thief would notice it affixed on the roof; mounting on a motorcycle would be much more problematic. Still, it's one more tool in your arsenal to, if not deter thieves, give you a better — and much quicker — chance of getting a vehicle back when your phone beeps an incoming text from SPOT.
Just don't forget and leave your phone in your truck.
You and four friends are camped on the Canadian tundra, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle and you need a Wi-Fi hotspot so two of you can call home while the others check email? No problem. Just deploy your Iridium GO!, an absurdly small, 4.5x3.25x1.25-inch box with a swiveling stub antenna. Flip up that antenna and the device connects through the Iridium system to provide a voice and data hotspot with a 100-foot radius. If you're lucky enough to be in a cabin, an optional external antenna will maintain your connectivity while you sit by the fire.
In addition to voice and data, the GO! is compatible with OCEN's GRIB Explorer Plus app for the iPad, which will allow you to download full-color, exhaustively detailed weather and ocean-state maps. Since the GO! works with the Iridium system, you'll have global capability; however, data speeds are limited to 2.4 kilobytes per second — those 20Mb RAW files will take some time to upload.
The GO! (a pox on these spurious product-name punctuation marks!) is ruggedized to MIL-STD 810F and IP65 standards, so you'd have a difficult time damaging it unless that polar bear coming across the tundra gets hold of it. It's powered by a USB-chargeable battery, and spare batteries are available.
Hughes 9202 BGAN
BGAN (say "beegan") stands for Broadband Global Area Network. The Hughes 9202 is the do-it-all F-35 Lightning of satellite communication devices, capable of providing voice transmission simultaneously with data uploads at 464 kbps, using the Inmarsat geostationary system. The device connects via a laptop-sized antenna, which must be oriented to the polar location of the appropriate satellite, using a signal-strength scale that pops up on your computer.
It's more intuitive than it sounds, as Roseann and I discovered under duress in Mexico a few years ago, when we had to coordinate search and rescue efforts for three missing fishermen with an unfamiliar unit right out of the box. Within minutes we had the antenna oriented with Roseann's Powerbook, the suggested minimum signal strength of 50 achieved, and were using the handset to connect with a marina down the coast, as well as with friends in Tucson, shortening the time the Coast Guard and a helicopter arrived on scene by hours.
The voice and Internet kit from OCENS is packed in a Pelican case and includes the antenna and terminal, handset, a lithium-ion battery pack, and a 20-watt solar panel for complete independence. If you need or want the ultimate in satellite communication technology for sub-polar regions, this is it.
What would Livingstone have thought?