Sunday, February 16, 2014

Remote Cabins: Cost of Communications Technologies

Some people move out to the boonies to avoid communications with humans! Others, like us, can live in a lovely, remote spot only because of such technologies for business, emergencies, information, and personal connections. Below is a list of equipment we have bought or built, with price points, organized from least to most sophisticated (and power dependent). Some worked beautifully from the start. Others required several iterations to get right.

If you are at the point of comparing and contrasting several different remote properties, two prudent considerations might be to assess which communications products and services will work in one location vs. another and how much power various options will draw.  For example, a position on this or that side of a mountain, or high or low in a valley, can influence reception.  Every telephone company we called said that we would be unable to receive phone service at our location. However, an antenna that my husband installed high on a 120 foot power tower (solar/wind) proved capable of receiving line of sight signals from a cell phone tower about 45 miles away.  


Hand cranked radio ($20)
(for incoming communications during power outages)
We bought a used, hand cranked radio on E-Bay to use during Houston, TX hurricanes and have kept it for many years since. What a cheap, small, useful purchase! This is a no brainer to keep at home or in your vehicle.

Walkie talkies ($79)
(for two way communication in line-of-sight, limited ranges)
We love our walkie talkies (about $79 at Sportsman's Warehouse).


Fully charged, the power lasts for about 8 hours (intermittent use, not constant talking). We wear them when we are several acres apart on the property (to report a moose or a phone call or an incoming visitor), or when my husband is returning from hunting/fishing, to announce that he will be starving or to fire up the BBQ. We have even taken the walkie talkies on trips abroad where they were a free, functional alternative to cell phones, for example to find each other on huge cruise ships or at crowded tourist sites..Just beware: TSA took away our walkie talkies in Paraguay and Brazil. So pack them in your checked baggage.

APRS.fi website (free)
(mobile tracking device)
This free website, established in Finland (hence the .fi) enables a person with a computer to track a mobile ham radio (see below) in a vehicle or carried by a camper/biker. It works beautifully on a road system because it links to an Internet mapping program which tracks the radio's call sign. For example, from my computer, I could see when my husband turned onto Spenard Road and when he stopped moving, once parked. In addition, we had a friend track us in our plane. So this may serve as a free alternative to such tracking devices as SPOT and SPIDER (which have a purchase price and annual fees). Our next test will be to see how well I can trace my husband's next snow machine trek.

Ham Radios ($100 +)
(for more information, visit www.eham.net)
(This section is the longest, because it requires more explanation)
My husband gained communications skills through his Civil Air Patrol squadron and ham radio training/volunteering, both of which he found very practical for remote living.

Overall, the ham radio gives us important local information we can't get elsewhere and peace of mind for communications when more power intensive communications won't work. For example, my husband mounted a VHF/UHF antenna on the back of his snow machine for clearer emergency transmissions in remote areas. In addition, from the station in the cabin, we can hear flying conditions reported by small airplanes in the vicinity, and I can hear my husband's airplane position reports once he is within about 30 miles of home.

Ham radio operators are distinguished by three different license levels. Each increasing one allows a broader range of transmissions, increasing rights on the air, and utilizes a larger, more expensive radio. Exam books (usually by Gordon West) can be bought on line, and free practice tests are available on line, too . The exam for each license costs about $15, and, at least in this part of Alaska, is administered in person by local ham radio volunteers.

The first level, called “Technician,” teaches the basics of operations and FCC rules and
Portable ham radio next to snow
machine antenna
regulations. It allows the operator to transmit over certain, limited bands, in a local region, usually line of sight. Often, “technicians” use the smallest, portable radios (one is called a “handy talky”) that cost about $100.

The second level, called “General,” teaches the same thing but on high frequency bands, with broader transmitting permissions, across the country. This radio is usually a permanent mount, in a vehicle, home, or office, and costs from about $150 – 800.

The third (final) level, called ”Extra,” gives unlimited access to all FCC designated amateur radio bands. If you are in the U.S. you can send and receive around the world. (Some other countries impose stricter limitations). This radio is a base station, not much different from those used at radio stations, and can cost anywhere from $1500 to $15,000. This license is very technical. My husband even learned how to make and repair radios from items around the house. (These skills remind me of movies in which the American POWs made radios from a rusty razor blade and a strip of copper wire.)

Phone Service
From bottom to top: Hughes Net satellite dish
for Internet, weather anemometer,  Yagi phone
antenna, 4 solar panels, SmoothTalker antenna,
wind turbine tail  
For phone service at the cabin, we tried several solutions before we found the right one.
First: We tried a SmoothTalker ($100). This device functions as an amplifier for your existing cell phone. It may work for other people in other locations, so it is a worthwhile initial effort, but perhaps our location is too remote and reception was unreliable. I ended up changing from a monthly cell phone bill to a $2/day plan, which I pay only on the days I use the phone, back on the road system (I think this would be a good payment plan for many older people whose children bought them cell phones for emergencies, but which they rarely use).

Second, we used a WiFi phone ($50). It transmits and receives calls free (www.skype.com), via satellite Internet. Most cell phones now include a default Skype phone so straight Skype phones, like the one we used (SMC Networks) are probably available for a song on E-Bay. We have had excellent connectivity via Skype in many places, including South America, but at our Alaska location, talking/listening delays and echos don't make it a desirable first choice.

Third and finally, our local phone company offers what is called “fixed wireless service
Telular bay station
which means that we can use a cheap, land line type phone in the house, wired, by cat 5 cable, to a fixed wireless bay station (manufactured by Telular) in the power shed, and from there, wirelessly, to the regional telephone provider. We pay about $50/mo, which is cheaper than the prior and inferior combination of cell phone plan and Smooth Talker. You know all those taxes at the bottom of your phone bill? One is for rural telephony. Since the 1930s, city people have been subsidizing phone service for rural people like me who are too far apart to justify telephone poles, wireless towers and other infrastructure. So thank you! Since our local phone provider wasn't going to fly out to our remote property to set up our system, they gave Bryan hundreds of dollars worth of equipment (such as a Yagi antenna) for him to install, himself. They even called up three days later to see how everything was working! What great customer service at MTA (Matanuska Telephone Association). What a fantastic contrast to horrible service at ATT.

Internet
Unlike rural telephony, the Internet grew so rapidly that it isn't subsidized, and thus, is more expensive in less competitive markets like ours. We pay about $89/mo (about $50/mo more than for superior service enjoyed in Houston, TX). Here, our low bandwidth doesn't support video downloads or streaming and has a daily limit for transmission size. In addition, Hughes Net charged us about $600 to install a satellite dish to receive Internet transmissions.

Conclusion

Of all industries, communications (along with medicine) has probably changed the most in the past 30 years.


Whether you live in an urban, suburban, or rural environment, there are many options for communications technologies. In my experience, loyal customers who don't ask questions are essentially punished by paying the most and getting the least. It can be worth hundreds or thousands of dollars a year to take a few hours to do some competitive research. Then call your current service providers to see if they will improve your service, slash your bill, or cut you loose to a competitor who can do both. We've had service providers cut our bill in half, just for asking. In addition, some “tried and true” methods, such as hand crank and ham radios and walkie talkies, offer functional peace of mind when weather, locations, power don't support the newer technologies.  

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Note: I am pleased to say that I am now a monthly columnist for Alaska Adventure Media publications. The column is titled, “Off the Grid.”

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