A. Communications equipment
Even though familiar communications equipment (such as the internet and cellular phones) is often available in the field, you will still be faced with slightly uncommon devices at times, ones that range from the rustic and old-fashioned to the high-tech and sophisticated. You may not be challenged into communicating by pigeon post, but some old-fashioned devices such as radios might be tricky for first-time users and therefore require basic technical know-how. The same applies to the more advanced SATCOM (satellite communications).
This chapter will highlight the main types of communications equipment that you might encounter while on mission and take you through the basic steps needed to familiarise yourself with these devices.
We will first introduce you to VHF (very high frequency) and HF (high frequency) radios, before moving on to SATCOM. Finally, we will look at mobile phones and the internet from a security point of view.
Very high frequency (VHF) radio waves travel in straight lines. Just imagine for a moment that you are looking from your vehicle to your office in the distance through a set of binoculars. The radio waves from your set are following very much the same line of sight. If you can see your office, you will be able to communicate with it. If there is a forest or mountain in the way, you cannot see your office; likewise, the radio waves travelling in the line of sight cannot get through. Obstacles such as trees, forests, houses and pylons make it difficult for VHF radio waves to follow certain paths. Obstacles either absorb the waves completely or deflect them. If you want to improve communications, find your way to high ground and send your message from a point where there are no such obstacles in the way. Distance is naturally an important factor. As your VHF waves are broadcast outward from the antenna, they spread out like ripples of water on a pond after you drop a stone into it. The further away from you the signal travels, the weaker it becomes. Some sets are more powerful than others. You can experiment as you get to know your area and thereby understand the distance over which you can communicate.
High frequency (HF) radio is designed for longer-range communications and works by sending its signal skywards until it bounces off the electrically charged ionosphere and back to earth.
Unlike the VHF sets, from which you can obtain better results through correct use, the HF transmission and the clarity of your signal depend largely on a number of factors, most of which are usually out of your control.
For example, natural phenomena such as sunspots can have a marked effect on HF radio signals. The frequency assigned to you may work well at one time of the day and then be virtually useless at another. It may be better by day than by night, but again this is largely out of your control. Sometimes you will be told to use different frequencies at different times of the day to overcome these problems. If you have a mechanism on your HF set with which to tune your antenna, always do so. Ask how this should be done. When the antenna is not tuned, you cannot communicate, because the transmitter is disabled and reception is almost impossible.
How to use VHF and HF radio
The following is an overview of radio communications procedures that, when followed, will minimise radio time, make radio time more effective and reduce misinterpretation of radio messages.
Preparing your radio set for operation
- Ask the responsible unit in your mission for an introduction to the devices that are being used in your area of operation.
- Check the antenna and all cable connections, ensuring tight and proper connection of all components.
- Make sure that there is a power source and that it provides sufficient power. Ensure your radio set is properly connected to the power source.
- Connect the audio accessories and check the proper operation of function switches.
- Make sure you know which channels are being used for transmission.
- Turn on the radio by using the power button or turning the volume dial.
- Tune in to the correct channel and you are ready to go!
- In general, there are five parts to calling and communications that should always be followed:
- give the call sign of the station you are calling (this alerts the station that they are being called);
- then say “This is…”;
- then give your call sign;
- transmit your message;
- end your message with “over”; end the conversation with “out” (see also the Annex for radio procedures).
- Decide on a message before transmitting, ensuring it will be clear and brief. Stay off the air unless you are sure you can be of assistance
- Make sure no one else is speaking before transmitting.
- Remember to divide your message into sensible phrases, make pauses and maintain a natural rhythm in your speech.
- Avoid excessive calling and unofficial transmissions.
- Keep a distance of about 5 cm between the microphone and your lips and hold the face of the microphone almost at a right angle to your face. Shield your microphone from background noise.
- When ready to transmit, press the transmission button and wait a second before speaking. When you have finished transmitting, wait a moment before releasing the button.
- Remember, as long as you are pressing the transmission button, no one else is able to transmit from their radio.
- Use standard pronunciation, emphasise vowels, avoid extremes of high pitch, speak in a moderately strong voice and do not shout. Speak slowly, distinctly and clearly.
- Acknowledge receipt (“copy”, “received” or “acknowledged”). If you do not understand, ask for the message to be repeated (“say again”).
- Remember: think, press and speak – not the other way around.
Even when you think that you speak English properly, your accent and choice of words, in combination with background noise, may make it very difficult for others to understand you. In order to facilitate understanding, a phonetic alphabet has been developed which helps the recipient of the message to quickly understand what you mean. Therefore, when asked to spell a word, use the phonetic alphabet, which can be found in the Annex along with a list of procedure words.
2. Mobile phones
Nowadays, with GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), you can not only obtain broad international coverage for your mobile, but also access your email through your phone. Also, unlike communicating over a VHF radio network (where all your colleagues within range can hear what you are saying), using a mobile phone normally gives you the luxury of having a simple one-to-one conversation.
This might sound like the perfect communications deal. However, things are not always so bright and shiny in the field. Despite all its positive points, the use of mobile phones can present certain disadvantages:
- costs in some regions can be high, especially for international calls;
- coverage may be good in some areas, particularly in cities, but poor or non-existent in rural areas;
- you may have to purchase a new SIM card or phone for use in some countries if your system is not compatible with local networks.
In addition, there are a number of security-related aspects that you should take into account:
- Destroyed networks: in a disaster-hit or war-torn area, the mobile phone network may have been destroyed or damaged. In this case, mobile phone communications will be unavailable or at best unreliable.
- Jammed channels: in times of crisis, a mobile phone system can become overloaded with too many users and it may prove impossible to make calls.
- Political manoeuvring: given that the local authorities can control the mobile phone system, they just might decide to turn it off.
- Insecure conversations: local authorities can listen in to any phone conversation. As with all forms of telecommunication you are likely to use, mobile phone conversations should always be regarded as insecure.
- Theft: the phones themselves are attractive items for a thief.
- Hi-tech phone or spying device? The new and attractive selling points of mobile phones (e.g. camera and video features) could get you into trouble. The mere presence of these built-in features could cause your intentions to be misunderstood. Their presence could be deliberately used against you. Essentially, we are talking about potential spying gadgets.
3. Satellite communications (SATCOM)
SATCOM devices are simple to use. They work by bouncing signals off a satellite and back down to a ground receiver or relay station, which can then retransmit. The area on the ground where you can obtain good communications from your SATCOM is known as the ‘footprint’. Remember, just because a particular brand of SATCOM operated wonderfully on your last mission does not mean it will be ideal in another part of the world. The ‘footprint’ may be completely different. Take the advice of your communications experts when they are issuing your equipment. They know what will work and what you require. The most important feature of SATCOM is guaranteed long-range communication.
In spite of the positive aspects of using SATCOM, you should keep the following in mind:
- Not always the cheapest option: for short-range work, the VHF sets are still the most economical and useful option.
- Channel overload: with the increasing use of satellite phones in troubled regions, simultaneous communications can overload the capacity of the satellite channels. Therefore, satellite communications should not be considered as a self-sufficient network, but rather as a supplement to HF and VHF networks.
- Makes you traceable (when you least want it!): modern SATCOM sometimes incorporates an automatically transmitted GPS (Global Positioning System) signal. In other words, anyone monitoring your transmission will be able to establish your exact geographical position. Be aware that this capability could pose a security risk for you. The parties you deal with may accuse you of revealing details of their location. In areas where such sensitivities exist, the SATCOM might better be left back at your base.
- One transmitter, one receiver: remember, with SATCOM, only point-to-point communication is possible – you cannot transmit to a number of receivers simultaneously.
These days we all use the internet and other computer networks to communicate with friends and colleagues. We all know the advantages of the system, but it is extremely important to highlight the following dangers:
- Watch out for your information! As with all the systems mentioned above, the internet is not secure. See also Chapter 4 on personal communication.
- Watch out for your computer! Your computer is vulnerable to unscrupulous thieves who may steal it or even download vast amounts of information when you are not around. So make sure you lock your portable computer away in a room or desk when you are not using it. If you use a USB stick to back up your hard disk, give it the same security attention as the hard disk. Make sure to use strong passwords to secure your computer, hard drives and USB sticks.