2 WAY COMMS, there is a lot underneath that rather simple title, a LOT. Lets first talk about the different ways to communicate via 2 way. What I am not going to address, Cell and Landline Phones. What I will address is centered around 2 way Radio Frequency (RF) communications, Fixed location and Mobile. So lets start with the basics and legalities 🙁 So there is this thing called radio wave spectrum and I wont get into that other than to say it is broken up into use intentions based on wave lengths and that is controlled by the Federal Communications Commission (FFC) yes the Federal Government, for the United States. In these frequency allotments fall use categories such as…
Amateur Radio (HAM)
General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS)
Family Radio Service (FRS)
Citizen Band (CB)
And there are more but they cover things we won’t concern ourselves with when it comes to voice Human to Human communications.
Lets first look at Citizen Band (CB), we have all heard about it there were even movies made in Hollywood around it but in the end its usefulness or some even say abuse has made it the least desirable way of personal communications. I give CB a thumbs down and will not even go any further with discussing it other than to note the frequency allocation is in the 27 MHz band.
Family Radio Service (FRS). Ya those bubble packed tiny little radios you see at the big box stores, no licenses required. The ones Mom and Dad buy for the kids to play with. It has a place but not for any serious comms and the output power restrictions placed on this service is such that effectiveness is best described as “the back yard”. Enough here, moving on.
General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). First off, use of this service does require you to pay (in the US anyway) the Federal Government to use this frequency allocation. Last I heard the cost for a licenses was $70 which can be obtained on-line. This service is a great option for someone needing short distance line-of-site comms, either simplex (unit to unit) or through a repeater, unit to repeater out to other units. This frequency band is in the 460 MHz. Distance depends on many factors including terrain, obstructions such as concrete, rocks, metal buildings and distance. If your looking at an advertisement for GMRS Radios take what they state as distance range and divide by 2 that way you wont be so disappointed. Now there are ways to make the most of this frequency. Re-purposing used commercial equipment. There are tons of it out there and some can be had already setup to use on the GMRS bands. If you can follow Technical instructions there is plenty of info on the web as well.
Amateur (Ham Radio). This covers a LOT of ground so I will keep it brief in hopes it will peak your interest enough to do some research on your own. What is Ham Radio? Its many things to different people that use this service. First and foremost it requires a License and don’t get caught using the frequency allocation with out it, Hams guard it with vigor as does the FCC.
The early beginnings of Ham Radio was and still is about pioneering technology. Many of the commercial offerings and Technology around communications came from the Ham community. I have met some very smart hams when it comes to electronics and what it can do.
Let me reflect what Ham radio is to me. I was first licensed in 2006, back when even the entry level was required to learn Morse Code, that was hard! I have since upgraded my license to General Class which allows me to use more of the allocation of frequencies. The entry requirements now do not require Morse Code which makes getting your license much easier. And this License is for YOU not your entire family unlike GMRS where the Licenses covers you and your immediate family for use of coordination between.
So back to my reflection of Ham radio. I have enjoyed the hobby off an on for all these years and since I am the curious type it has allowed me to experiment and learn and looking back I would do it all over again.
Okay so what is best for you? That’s for each individual to decide and hopefully by me scratching the surface here will start you on your own journey to answer that question.
I do get ask quit often, whats your recommendation, well first you have to tell me what you want to be able to do with it but I will throw out some scenarios…
“I own a piece of property and just want to be able to communicate to others across my property.”
Well that statement of “I own property” needs to be quantified, anything over say over a couple of hundred acres with more than only minor rolling hills will need some technical thought so I will assume its under that and reasonably open.
Your best entry into 2 way comms would be the GMRS service with handhelds and perhaps a vehicle mounted mobile unit. 4 watt handhelds and multiply channel capability. Watch what you buy as some won’t and some will allow programming through a connected computer and will take repeater programming settings including privacy tones. These types of features will allow you to expand your system.
“I live in the city and want to be able to communicate with my family as a back up to the cell service”
Tricky here due to the large amount of obstacles, buildings mostly and the increased possibility of radio traffic due to population density. This is definitely NOT a place for FRS, GMRS could still be of value. Ham radio would also be a good choice but again requires testing for a license as apposed to GMRS where you simply apply online for a license. In the city there is a much larger opportunity to utilize already in place repeaters. GMRS Repeaters are privately or club owned and may or may not be open to the public, may require prior permission or membership, some are free to join some are dues driven. Ham repeaters however are open to those that are a licensed Ham Radio operator.
In this scenario I would say start with GMRS and work on getting your Ham License. Again watching what equipment you buy so that it is compatible with any local repeaters.
A word on repeaters GMRS or Ham…
With Technology today many of these repeaters are interconnected via the web. This means that you can talk to one repeater and it may be inter-connected to multiply ones through-out a region or perhaps the entire US. A great place to start to better understand repeaters is myGMRS.com. We actually have two such repeaters listed there. I am able to remotely connect and disconnect them from different regions or nationwide at will. I also control who is allowed to use our repeaters as I own the equipment and as of now the use of GMRS repeater frequencies are not coordinated like they are on the Ham Radio side. This means you do not have to apply for the frequency in a specific area for GMRS, simply make the investment and put it on the air but, that may leave you in a “sort it out latter” situation if there is a unit already in place on the same frequency, its self-policing/coordination for now. Ham however, you must apply to an FCC volunteer frequency coordinator before putting up a repeater and I can tell you, most reasonably populated areas all are already taken.
Repeater Block Diagram (UHF) (With Internet Linking)
As you can see the diagram above shows linked into the internet and to a server at myGMRS.com. This linking allows connections to other repeaters through-out the US and can be controlled is several ways, link to hubs (which links to other repeaters that are linked to the same hub), link radio to radio, disconnect from all so many options.
In the end…
Start with GMRS, buy the License (note here, you are applying through the Federal Government so if you are sideways with them (IRS or otherwise) you will not get anywhere!
Research and purchase the hardware, don’t cheap-out here you will pay for it in the end!
And always remember there are rules, learn them and follow them.
And most importantly SOMEONE IS ALWAYS LISTENING! Your conversations are not private and many people have the hobby of monitoring anywhere anytime!