Television and radio stations have come to rely heavily on the cellular network for communications. Radio reporters routinely provide live reports via mobile phones, as well as send audio files back to their stations. Television crews spend lots of time on the phone with the assignment desk, texting, emailing scripts and even video clips. But what happens when the cellular network goes down?
Communications options may be very limited, especially in remote areas. The days of carrying a pocketful of dimes for pay phones are gone and one-way pagers are passe and limited in functionality but your station needs to be prepared for emergencies. Here are some alternatives:
UHF radios: Veteran reporters probably remember the days when every news car came equipped with a two-way radio, usually a professional-grade UHF system that communicated on a single frequency with other news vehicles and a base unit at the station. Those systems still work. The radios are rugged and reliable and can work over long distances, although it can be expensive to outfit a fleet of vehicles. Another advantage is that individual users, such as reporters, photographers and assignment editors, do not need FCC licenses to operate the radios, however the station does need to purchase a license to use the frequency. Your local UHF radio dealer will have more details about the requirements.
Other two-way radio systems: Alternatives to a professional-grade system are available but each has disadvantages. Amateur (ham) radio is an excellent means of handling emergency communications over longer distances but each operator must take a test and obtain an FCC license, which may be impractical. The General Mobile Radio Service (GRMS) does not have a test but requires users to have an FCC license, and the operating range of the radios is only 20-30 miles; less in uneven terrain. Other two-way radio options do not require licenses but have limited power and range, including the Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS) which has about a 10-mile range, the Family Radio Services (FRS) which has a 2-mile range, and the old 1970's standby Citizen's Band (CB) radios, which also have about a 2-mile range, although it can be longer in good weather conditions. Another big disadvantage of non-licensed radios are that anyone can use them, and crowded channels can make clear communication difficult.
Land-line telephones: They've been in place for many years and work reliably, even during power outages. However, you would need to find a nearby business or resident willing to let you use their phone, which is not always easy.
Two-way pagers: In some areas, two-way paging service is available, allowing users to not only receive but send back text messages. Depending upon your carrier, they may use different towers than your cellular network and often reach further than cell signals in remote areas. They could prove invaluable in a situation where calls are impossible.
Are emergency communications part of your station's disaster plan? What alternatives to cellular phones do you use? Let us know in the comments below.