As someone who spends a lot of time away from home, I've always been interested in keeping in touch with my family (sometimes they're not travelling with me). Today there are lots of options. I've explored most of them over the years, so here's an overview:
Mobile phones have been around for a while now, and when you're in range they're supremely convenient. Here in Australia it usually costs the same to call from one side of the continent to the other as to call next door, and the only issue has been whether you can get reception. Most country towns have cell towers, and major highways have coverage. But if you're off the beaten track they're of limited value.
Being able to call home every now and then to let them know you're OK is good for the people at both ends of the call.
But when travelling overseas this can get very expensive, as international roaming rates can be a bit nasty. SMS messages become more useful then, as it usually costs nothing extra for the people at home to send you a message (and nothing for you to receive it) and only a "slight" (e.g. 100%!) markup on the cost for you to send a message home. It's sometimes surprising how much value you can get out of 160 characters (but then many people have been getting used to the 140 characters of Twitter). Where possible I do use local SIMs (or special "roaming SIMs": I have one from RoamingSIM) to cut the costs, but even then you need to be careful: it'll probably cost a lot more than the normal calling rates you're used to at home.
Internet and Email
If you have internet access you can email, either from your laptop or today it's just as easy to do it from a smartphone. But you do need internet access! It was only 5 years ago I stopped using a dialup modem while travelling around Australia, as WiFi became more accessible. Then for a few years when on road trips it wasn't unusual for me to find the nearest WiFi-enabled McDonalds and from my laptop send and receive emails (and download recent podcasts, etc) before moving on. It was both faster and cheaper than using a modem.
Incidentally, I rarely pay for WiFi access. Either I find a free hotspot, or if I'm in Australia I instead simply use my iPhone's 3G/GPRS data (either stand-alone, or tethered to my laptop). Today my phone plan has a 2 GB/month allowance: plenty for me when away from home. Unfortunately the international data roaming charges are ridiculous, so by default I turn this off while overseas. Travelling overseas is pretty much the only time I've paid for WiFi access, and even that's rare: free access is becoming almost ubiquitous in many places.
If you've got WiFi it's just as easy to stay in touch from the other side of the globe as from the next state, and you're not limited to just email. Right now I'm keeping in touch with my wife and her sister who are travelling through Cambodia and Laos for several weeks while I'm at home in Australia, and we've been using a combination of SMS and Skype to communicate. SMS to attract the other's attention, and Skype to either talk or to text-chat (when the network's too congested for voice) for free. And they're just travelling with their iPhones. It's great to see and hear it all come together while hearing my wife's voice clearly, with her sitting in a Laotian cafe using the free WiFi, and I'm either at home at my desk or out and about using Skype over 3G. We used Skype in a similar way in 2009 while I was Artist in Residence aboard a Hurtigruten ship on the Norwegian coast for over a month, although often the satellite internet link on the ship wasn't up to the job of handling voice traffic.
When you're away from the networks...
But again, all of that needs some telecommunications infrastructure. There are many times I'm away from mobile phone or WiFi access, which by default means no voice calls, no SMS, and no email. But there are options available to fill the void.
I wrote about this in 2008, when I started using the first version of the SPOT Messenger. This device requires an annual subscription of a bit over $100, but uses an internal GPSr and the Globalstar satellite network to send messages and your location. After configuring your device via their website, the "OK" button sends a map URL and a customised (but static) text message to your specified list of email contacts. For a some time I've used this to send "I'm OK, and this is where I am" messages home, and these messages also update this website's Where's David? map.
The device also has a "HELP" button to send a different text message to a (possibly different) list of email addresses, and a "911" or "SOS" button to send emergency services to your location. I keep the SPOT in my camera bag so that even if I'm out of mobile phone reception and down a bush track by myself I have some chance of getting help in an emergency. I do try to send an OK message at least once a day too. This has provided a lot of peace of mind for my family. It's also configured to automatically add points to the "Where is David?" map on this website.
The original SPOT messenger has been replaced by a slightly smaller version, and now in 2011 SPOT are introducing the SPOT Connect, which uses Bluetooth to connect to your smartphone and allow you to send short (40-character) text messages typed in via a phone app and sent via the Globalstar network. This is a big advance on the basic SPOT functionality, although it is still one-way communication. There's no way for the people at home to send you a reply.
While you don't always want to be able to receive messages (after all, for many of us that is part of the allure of the remote outdoors experience!) there are times it's good to be able to have 2-way communication with your loved ones at home (e.g. when on very long trips).
The SPOT has been a great device for me, but only if I''m travelling somewhere that it covers. Despite being billed as a "worldwide" device, it doesn't cover ALL of the world. It sends simplex messages via the Globalstar satellite network:
These allow us to have voice communications with home, and some provide SMS messaging. But each satellite network has its own pros and cons.
- The Globalstar network supports voice calls, but the duplex coverage area is even smaller than for the simplex coverage used by SPOT. I've used a rented Globalstar phone in the middle of the Simpson Desert: where there's coverage they definitely work well, and that handset was also a GSM phone for cheaper calls when we were near a phone network (although that's not much of a selling point these days, as almost everyone has a GSM-capable phone anyway).
- Thuraya is another network with cheaper handsets but smaller coverage areas.
- Inmarsat even provides high-speed data connections across most of the globe (except the poles) but requires you to point the antenna at the appropriate geostationary satellite position.
- Iridium is the only network with truly global coverage. Iridium ran into very public financial problems early on and some people assume the network disappeared, but it's still very much active and being maintained. Iridium does provide data connections, but only at 2.4 kilobits/sec (plus compression) and charged per-minute as a phone call.
On our November 2010 South Georgia/Antarctica expedition I used a friend's Iridium phone for a few phone calls to home (this was during a challenging time with a family friend having cancer) and being able to talk to my family every day or two was great. I've recently acquired an Iridium handset and a pre-paid SIM, which for my projected use was the most cost-effective solution. It will allow me to call home with voice calls (cheaper than the family calling me) and to send and receive SMS messages from anywhere on the globe (although a few governments don't like you to use satellite phones within their territories, they're not on my destination list at the moment). I'll even now be able to keep the Where's David? map updated when we're in Antarctica out of SPOT coverage (via an SMS gateway that allows me to send GPS coordinates as well as short blog posts).
However it is a relatively bulky device, and might not go everywhere with me in my camera bag.
Telecommunications isn't just useful for talking to your home base: it has uses in communicating with other travellers. Away from phone networks, "walkie-talkies" are still useful today.
While on expeditions in the Australian outdoors, licence-free UHF CB radios allow us to stay in touch between 4WD vehicles or if we split up on foot. Various repeaters are situated around the country for long-distance calling, and the distress channel is monitored in many locations. The radios can be up to 5W in power (even small handheld units) although I've found 0.5W units to work well over a few kilometres. I often have one clipped to my jacket when working in the outback.
The UHF CB band is split into 40 channels, although some of them are reserved for special purposes. Note that in 2011 Australia and New Zealand are both moving to an 80-channel arrangement, which will cause the introduction of new radios (keep that in mind if you see bargain-basement sales of 40-channel radios).
However these UHF CB frequencies can only be used in Australia and New Zealand. In other locations other solutions are required (and other countries' radios can't be used in Australia). Check with the relevant governments for details!
For example in Europe and much of Africa the UHF PMR446 licence-free radios (0.5W max, 8 channels) are available, and in North America there seems to be a lot of confusion between the 14 licence-free UHF FRS channels and the 8 extra GMRS channels (which in the US require a licence, but not in Canada). Other systems are used around the world, but the Australian system is very convenient, with lots of available channels and with much higher power allowed than some other licence-free bands (useful in the outback).
On safari in Africa we sometimes use PMR446 radios to chat to other vehicles in our group, but even there it's sometimes easier just to call someone's mobile phone: GSM coverage keeps expanding the world over!
Today there are lots of communication options available (both to stay in touch with family/friends and for emergency situations). If you're heading out into the outdoors by yourself, think about the options! And even if you're looking for "alone-time", in many situations it's great to have emergency response plans in place.