Ingenious mobile HotSpot technology connecting remote NT

An award-winning Aboriginal organisation has manufactured and installed 40 Mobile Phone HotSpots in remote NT, improving Indigenous people's access to services.

The highly innovative not-for-profit Aboriginal organisation Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT) Limited has manufactured and installed 40 Mobile Phone HotSpots in regional and remote NT, giving Indigenous people in remote areas access to better services.

Since 2015, CAT has installed its HotSpots throughout the NT, in short range remote locations where there is no or little mobile coverage, including in Aboriginal communities, tourism locations, and at overnight roadside stops.

Senior Research & Projects Officer at CAT Andrew Crouch said that the nearly maintenance-free, low-cost HotSpots, or mobile signal amplifiers, have been embraced by residents and tourists.

“Even in the bush, only a small percentage of people are equipped with satellite phones, and external antenna car kits for mobiles are also relatively uncommon,” Mr Crouch said. 

“Most people rely on hand-held mobile phones and remote Australia has very patchy coverage, often with gaps of up to 200km, or two hours’ driving, between mobile towers.

“New full-scale mobile towers are expensive, as $800,000 would be a typical capital cost, and the returns for further penetration by mobile providers in remote areas are not attractive, so there is clearly a need for low-cost solutions, such as the HotSpots.” 

The unique HotSpots use unpowered passive parabolic ‘dish’ antenna technology with no moving parts to focus and amplify the received and transmitted signal strength at the user end, thus extending coverage well beyond the existing locations where hand-held mobile use would otherwise be impossible.

The ’dish’ is mounted some metres above the ground, pointing at the nearest or most suitable tower, and are insensitive to frequency, which makes it suitable for 3G, 4G or 4GX networks.

Engineers Australia, Northern General Manager Mark Monaghan said that the low-cost HotSpot solution demonstrates the unique strengths of Alice Springs based CAT Limited, particularly the organisation’s ability to provide pragmatic tailored engineering solutions.

“CAT is to be commended again for their ability to operate so effectively and efficiently at the nexus of people, location and innovation,” Mr Monaghan said.

“The HotSpots connect communities, while also providing critical points of contact in emergencies, such as vehicle accidents, bushfires and health crises.

“The ingenuity and longevity of the HotSpot are the key strengths of this popular technology, as they are virtually maintenance-free, with a robust design and zero electronics.

“Last year, CAT was the joint winner of the Australian Engineering Excellence Award, Northern in the Environment category for the Manymak Energy Efficiency Project, and we look forward to seeing what future engineering solutions they provide for our Aboriginal communities.”

Mr Crouch said that a new prototype was recently installed in Alice Springs, which produces a better signal and reduces coverage gaps.

“For the enhanced Hotspot, we have introduced a second passive element – an electrical mirror at increased height above the dish, which reflects a stronger signal down to the dish at user height,” he said.

“We have installed a prototype in Alice Springs, and are just waiting on the necessary regulatory approvals to be able to install the first customer facility in the tourist area out in the West MacDonnell Range in Central Australia.”

CAT is currently working with potential customers to develop markets and applications for the HotSpot in other Australian states.

Image: Prototype of the enhanced HotSpot installed at the CAT Limited site in Alice Springs (left), adjacent to an original version.