A UHF CB radio is as essential to outback travel as a first-aid kit overflowing with bandages, antibiotics and wet wipes, as both can get you out of a real pickle when you need it most.
Getting stuck up to your axles is bad enough, but not having any form of communication with the real world when you’re outside the realm of phone reception can turn a bad situation into an absolute disaster.
There are many stories of unprepared tourists blowing tyres kilometres from civilisation and sitting roadside for hours – if not days – waiting for someone to drive past. A UHF radio is also an ideal tool for communication with other vehicles in your convoy – and no, not just for the banter.
We spoke to three experts in the UHF radio field – GME Australia, Icom, and Uniden – and also threw a few questions at RFI Australia, the Aussie crew who specialise in antennas to see what’s what.
Why is a UHF radio essential?
A UHF CB (Ultra High Frequency Citizen Band) radio affords punters the opportunity to explore vast expanses of remote country without fear or concern that, if mechanical failure or driver error should occur, they’ll be stuck rationing their last bottle of water and half a pack of Pringles.
“The vastness of the Australian landscape means that cellular coverage is limited in many areas. UHF CB radio is an open communication platform which allows people to communicate across considerable distances without the need for network coverage,” Tony Crooke, senior product manager at GME Australia, explained.
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“With more consumers taking part in activities to experience these remote areas, a UHF CB offers the advantage of being able to communicate to anyone in an area of five to 8km; in a high position this range can be increased dependent upon the terrain and environment,” Jason Shaw, product marketing manager at Icom, added.
The other main advantage is easy, accessible comms between vehicles travelling together in a convoy. Anyone who has driven in a convoy understands the benefit of having everyone on the same wavelength, especially between the lead vehicle and the tail-end Charlie.
Doing so can warn trailing vehicles of upcoming obstacles, roadside animals, difficult tracks and oncoming vehicles, and it can also be used to back someone in or navigate someone over a nasty obstacle.
“UHF Radios are an easy-to-use tool for vehicle-to-vehicle communication, particularly where mobile phone coverage is limited or unreliable due to the location, providing peace of mind for all parties,” Brad Hales, Uniden’s marketing communications manager, said.
What to look for
WHEN browsing the radio pages of an aftermarket catalogue, there are a few key things to look out for before punching in your credit card digits.
Icom’s Jason Shaw lists build quality, product support (after-sales/warranty), technical support and battery life as non-negotiables, while he highlights the importance of being aware of ‘output power’ – as “5W will transmit further than a 1W unit”. Icom’s range of UHF CB products have the technical build of a commercial-grade product without some of the added features that are required on an industrial site.
He also added that consumers must ensure the product is ACMA-approved (programmed with Australian channels and meets legal requirements) and is C-tick rated.
“The C-tick mark is intended for use on products that comply with EMC (electromagnetic compatibility) standards. The label indicates that the product complies with the applicable EMC standard and establishes a traceable link between a product and the supplier responsible for placing it on the Australian or New Zealand market,” Shaw explained.
Tony Crooke from GME reiterated the importance of output ratings, but added that noting the IP ratings of handheld units is critical. He also said to check out any special functions offered by each brand – for example, GME’s XRS Location Services.
“The innovative features in our UHF Radios include waterproof/dustproof models, instant replay functions to record your transmissions, dual speakers with smart microphone technology, colour LCD Screens, and smart keys,” Uniden’s Brad Hales added, “allowing you to toggle between features depending on the application you are using it for.”
It’s important to note that units are designed to be fit for purpose, which means they’ve been punished during testing countless times in the rough environments they’re bound to experience. This is why you should always buy from respected brands.
YOU’LL have peace of mind when purchasing kit from any of the aforementioned brands, but what if you want to save a few pennies by venturing into the dark web of online shopping (think: eBay)?
Well, it’s risky, and you won’t get the aftersales support of a trusted brand.
“The quality and legitimacy of the product is unknown. The warranty on these alternatives is often questionable as well,” Tony Crooke from GME said.
“As with most things, you get what you pay for. Choosing cheaper alternatives can compromise quality and performance when compared to more established brands,” Uniden’s Brad Hales added.
According to Icom’s Jason Shaw, there are myriad reasons why one should avoid settling on an ‘unknown’ brand from an ‘unknown’ supplier, including: no warranty or support from supplier; wrong specs and programming; missing and inactive features and accessories; unapproved power supplies; the possibility of a forged product; wrong electronic serial numbers; and no resale value.
Jason added that dodgy radios won’t have ACMA approval, which means they cannot legally be used in Australia.
It’s no different when purchasing an antenna, according to Ian Ferrett, RFI’s product manager: “When it comes to radios and antennas, purchase a known brand. We also recommend purchasing from a retail store or a communications specialist, as you are more likely to get better after-sales service/support.”
Fixed or Handheld?
VEHICLE-MOUNTED UHF CB radios benefit greatly from being wired up to a larger antenna (more on antennas later), which greatly increases range and use, as well as being connected to the vehicle’s power supply, rather than a battery pack.
“Fixed-mount radios are ideal for 4WD and long-distance touring when users will be communicating across significant distances, as they are able to be connected to large, high-gain antennas,” Tony Crooke said. “Fixed-mount radios do not rely on a battery pack; rather (they) draw power from the vehicle’s 12V battery system.”
Ian Ferrett added: “Fixed radios provide the best performance as they (a) connect to a high-gain antenna mounted on the outside of the vehicle, and (b) have access to 5W of power.”
The alternative is the handheld radio (that’s a walkie-talkie, kids), popular for on-foot expeditions and the like. The portable units are often lightweight and compact, but, as Crooke explained, require a battery pack to function, thus meaning run-time is somewhat limited. They also don’t have the range of a vehicle-mounted unit, due to the antenna.
“Portable/handheld radios have a very low-gain antenna and offer less power,” said Ian Ferrett. “However, handhelds are great out and around the vehicle for general communications and for guiding a vehicle down a difficult track.”
Jason Shaw from Icom explained to us that he often experiences confusion with punters who don’t understand that a mobile radio isn’t the same as a handheld radio.
“This is an area of great confusion to people new to radio terminology,” he said. “Usually people call us or speak to us at events and ask for a ‘radio to dash-mount in a car’. The conversation becomes more confusing when we say ‘a mobile radio for your car’. When people hear the term mobile radio they associate this with a handheld device that can be carried. However, a mobile radio is a unit which is vehicle-mounted.”
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CHOOSING an appropriate antenna depends entirely on the kind of off-road driving you’re inclined to do. For example, if squeezing through tight spaces on slippery rock surfaces is your idea of a Saturday afternoon, then it’s probably advisable to steer clear of long antennas. However, if open-road, long-distance touring is more your thing, then a short antenna should probably be avoided.
“In the antenna world, size generally relates to gain, and gain is one of the important factors in selecting an antenna. However in saying that, high-gains (long antennas) are not necessarily best for all 4WD situations,” Ian Ferrett from RFI said.
“In hilly terrain, a low-gain (short) antenna is best and a high-gain (long) antenna is best for desert/flat terrain. However, RFI recommends either (a) a medium-gain antenna 5 to 6.5dBi for most situations, or (b) an antenna in which the whip can be removed and you can interchange between a low-gain and medium-gain antenna.”
There are a handful of different types of antennas available – fixed-mount, magnetic-based, removable mount, on-glass mount and ground independent (ideal for bullbars, etc.) – which can all be affixed to different areas of a 4x4. Punters should also take note of an antenna’s dBi (decibel isotropic) figure, to ensure they get an antenna that best suits their requirements.
“All antennas have a dBi figure in their specifications; this relates to how much gain the antenna has,” Jason Shaw from Icom explained. “The simplest way to think of this is to imagine a car’s headlights. You’re driving along a flat, wide landscape, so a long, narrow light will help you see a greater distance ahead – which would be where a higher gain antenna would work the best as all the waves are pushed straight ahead and behind you for communicating.
“Now imagine the opposite situation and you’re driving up a hill with lots of rocks and trees; then you would use a wide-beam headlight to see all around the sides of the vehicle and terrain. If you used the same straight, narrow light beam you used on the flat terrain then, in this situation, it would point straight into the air and would not be a great benefit for you.”
IF you’re in the market for a UHF radio, then you’re guaranteed to hear the word ‘repeater’, but what exactly is it?
“A repeater extends the range of the radio’s coverage,” GME’s Tony Crooke said in layman’s terms. “It is a combination of a radio receiver and a radio transmitter that receives a signal and retransmits it, so that two-way radio signals can cover longer distances.”
Brad Hales from Unidebuyersn reiterated that point: “UHF Repeaters allow you to extend the range of the transmission by receiving and automatically rebroadcasting a transmission using an antenna located in a high location. In some situations, depending on the location of repeater stations, transmissions can be extended from 30 to 100 kilometres.”
They’re located up high, typically on top of towers or mountains.
Brad Hales explained the differences between Uniden’s 3dBi, 6dBi and 9dBi antennas.
3dBi: Has a wide pattern ideal for city driving, where there are a lot of buildings and obstacles. This style also suits heavily forested and hilly country.
6dBi: Is the most common due to its all-round performance and adaptability for multiple environments, including suburban areas and larger rural towns.
9dBi: Is designed for flatter terrain and can achieve the longest range possible. These are not ideal where tall obstacles such as trees, hills or buildings may interfere with the signal path.
Despite initial attempts by ACMA (Australian Communications and Media Authority) to make all punters upgrade their 40-channel equipment to 80-channel, consumer push-back swayed the rule-makers to permit the continued use of older-style 40-channel radios. This means 80-channel radios are the only options available from the shelf, but you can still use your 40-channel radio.
“All the latest Uniden UHF radios manufactured for the last few years use 80-channel radios,” Uniden’s Brad Hales said. “This is following changes with the ACMA with new radios being manufactured having 80 channels. However, in saying that, users with older 40-channel radios are still allowed to use their equipment.” Head to www.acma.gov.au for more information.
RFI Technology Solutions has been in the wireless comms market for more than 25 years, beginning as a manufacturer of antenna systems. Most of its antennas are designed and manufactured in Melbourne.
“RFI antennas are used by all emergency services… In designing our UHF CB range we utilise the same high-quality and performance technology,” explained Ian Ferrett. For more info, head to: www.rfiwireless.com.au/.
GME’s Australian-made products – antennas and UHF radios – are built to survive Australia’s harsh conditions.
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“Our products are made to high Australian standards,” said Tony Crooke.” Our radios are tested to withstand the harsh Australian environment. Our state-of-the-art manufacturing facility allows us to test our radios for an array of conditions…”
GME offers a five-year warranty for fixed-mount radios and a two-year for handhelds. See www.gme.net.au.
ICOM has been designing and manufacturing radios for all environments for more than 50 years, and invests in testing all products to ensure they are fit for Oz conditions.
“The Icom units have been engineered using experience with our commercial grade products. Our products cover every category from marine, air-band, amateur, IP and LTE,” Jason Shaw said. “They can be dropped, driven over, submerged and thrown about and still stand up to more.” See www.icom.net.au.
Uniden has also been in the game for more than 50 years, specialising its products for Australia and NZ.
“Uniden products are designed and engineered for harsh Australian and NZ conditions,” said Brad Hales. “We know the market thoroughly and build products to suit all applications whether it’s for a 4WD, hiking, farming and agriculture, mining and more.”
Uniden stocks a range of antennas and radios, including IPX7-rated 5W handhelds. See www.uniden.com.au.