An important part of the great outdoors

An important part of the great outdoors

Cellphones have become a part of everyday life. From the early days of the technology when we were excited about games such as “Snake and Tetris”, to highly sophisticated devices that include numerous features. Let’s look at a few used when travelling other than the phone.

  • The camera
  • Navigation Apps
  • Mail Apps
  • Social media Apps- we want to tell people what we are up to.
  • Mail Apps
  • Note-taking Apps
  • Apps to refine and tune photos
  • Torch Apps
  • Compass Apps
  • Music Apps

Given the multiple usages of these few apps, one can see how important a phone has become as a part of everyday life. It has also become a bit of a pain when people can not be separated from their phones when they want to have a meal and some good conversation.

The 5 bars on your screen indicate signal strength, we are often dismayed when we have no signal and can no longer use certain features. The more bars you have the faster the phone functions. After chatting to a technician who was installing cell antennas I got a better understanding of the situation. Simply ( and I had to listen carefully ), your phone communicates with the antenna via radio waves which transmit photos, text, or your voice as well as certain Apps such as the navigation functions. The radio waves operate in specific frequencies dependent on the frequency band. Most smartphones operate at 5G or LTE.

So whilst “line of sight” between the handset and the antenna generally gives a full signal I was amazed to find that there are numerous factors that can affect the signal strength even the earth’s curvature comes into play. Operators are capped with the number of antennae and they should be located so as not to interfere with each other. Frequencies are also regulated. In rural areas signals are more powerful. Without obstruction, you may pick up a signal from a tower over 45 Km away. But the signal will be weaker the further you are away from the tower. Then he lost me as the talk became very technical around the bouncing of radio waves atmospheric temperature and its effect on humidity levels and atmospheric conditions.

But to put it in a nutshell I was amazed to find the effect that nature can have on signal strength even a simple temperature inversion can play havoc with a frequency.

Water has a tremendous influence, the frequencies do not travel well where large bodies of water exist, water conducts electricity and can reflect radio waves, absorb their energy and turn them.

On the other hand, snow crystals are less dense than water so they affect the frequency less, however, heavy snow may still refract radio frequencies. Hail is once again not as dense as water so even a heavy layer of hail will not affect the signal. Lightning in a typical thunderstorm does cause electrical interference and can damage ( knock out ) an antenna due to its sheer height.

I asked about wind and found that it does not affect radio frequencies but can be associated with damage to an antenna, or power lines especially if associated with hail, lightning and a thunderstorm. 

Trees in forested areas also affect signal strength, they block “line of sight” and the mass of leaves and compostable material on the ground contains water. In seasonal forests, you may get better reception in winter than in summer.

Then the most common limiting factor is physical obstructions that interfere with the “line of sight”.In Rural areas, these will be mountains, hills and even dunes, in urban areas large buildings block signals mainly due to the metal used in their construction which blocks radio frequencies.

So what does this all mean? Well it could be important in the event of an accident or injury, knowing about the line of sight might mean climbing a hill but it could bring help!

If adventuring out it’s also worth checking with the places where you will be staying as to the signal strength. Generally, I have found reception good in most parts of South Africa other than isolated mountainous areas. And lastly, if you lose signal toggle between “airplane” mode and normal mode, it’s like a soft reboot but often gets you back to a bar or two of signal. Happy travels.

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