Wednesday, October 22, 2014

VERY BASIC communications advice

I spent a fair amount of time deciding what I wanted to do for personal communications. First, I considered what I want to accomplish.

I'm not greatly interested in communicating with the big world. I just want to keep in contact with my close group,family and friends and CB radio or the GMRS/FRS bubble pack radios meet my goals just fine for little expense.

But, in doing all this research, I read many posts and articles advocating an amateur (Ham) radio license and some radios to go with it so I started reading up on that. There is no longer a requirement for morse code to get your basic (technician) ham license, there is just a written test covering FCC rules and some basic radio and electronics information; most of which I have learned in 16 years of working on computers. I took the test and got my license.

Most ham radios are semi-expensive but I could afford an HT (handi-talkie) made in China that uses the VHF and UHF frequency bands. I bought the Bao-Feng UV-5R, got a better antenna for it, a battery replacement that plugs into my cigarette lighter and a magnetic antenna for the car; all for about $100 and kind of spread out these purchases over a month or so. There are several models of these. I have two UV-5Rs with better antennas, extra batteries, external mic and cigarette lighter battery. I would also recommend the programming cable as the keyboard programming is kind of a pain.
(http://baofengtech.com/compare)

On the 2 meter band (Very High Frequency or VHF), 144MHZ-150MHZ (give or take) the local Ham clubs have repeaters set up. These are non-government,privately owned and maintained. They link together giving me reliable communications from Great Falls to Billings to Vegas and Tucson, all with my little 4Watt HT! I was thrilled.

In addition, High Frequency (HF) radios and antennas are available which will provide good long range communications through what we CBers call "Skip"; bouncing the signal off the ionosphere. Those are a little more expensive but I'm saving my nickels to get one soon.

So, I now have a good SSB capable CB radio in the house and all vehicles, another UV-5R that I can set up in a car with a magnetic antenna or I can put the long "rubber ducky" antenna on it and carry it anywhere. I also splurged on Ebay and got a VHF mobile radio for my main vehicle.
When I'm at home, I just connect another magnetic antenna (I live in a metal trailer house) to a UV-5R and have a serviceable base.

Here's a rundown on basic radios available to us.

CB: Citizens Band: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizens_band_radio): No license required. We all remember these. CB was a big deal in the 70s but cell phones have made them less popular although most truck drivers still have and use them and there is a big hobby group who try to "skip" signals for distance (DX) contacts, mostly on the SSB channels. CB is good for between 5 and 15 miles and you can have mobiles in your car, walkie talkies in your hand and base stations in your house. They are easy to find but on the expensive side. A CB with SSB channels will run over $200 plus getting a decent antenna. The system in my house cost me about $350 and I was buying on Ebay. SSB radios aren't as easy to come by locally but they are worth it.

MURS: Multiple Use Radio Service (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multi-Use_Radio_Service): No license required. Maximum legal transmit at 1watt. Five frequencies available. Iine of sight signal. This is a pretty good way to keep in local/close contact. A legal MURS radio will give you about one-two miles of communication range with a compact HT type radio but there are only five frequencies to choose from and I'm not sure where to buy the radios.

FRS: Family radio service (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_Radio_Service):
No license required. These are the bubble pack radios you can buy at sporting goods stores, Walmart, Amazon and so on. The radios that have a stubby little antenna and 14 channels are FRS radios. Legal transmit is .5 Watts (500 milliwatts), giving you about the same range; maybe a little less, as the MURS but these radios are easy to find and fairly inexpensive.

GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Mobile_Radio_Service): Need a family license that requires no test but does require $85 for the FCC. These are also the bubble pack radios you find all over. If you find one that says it has two power ranges and/or has 28+ channels, this is a combination of FRS and GMRS in one handheld. GMRS has a lot of capabilities over FRS but GMRS requires a license. Licensed GMRS users can use up to 50 watts of transmit power, repeaters and radios with better antenna. If you check the fine print on the package of the little handi-talkie radios you just got from Amazon, it will tell you that you can't transmit on the GMRS channels without a license but I think the FCC is going to be kind of overwhelmed soon and I'd be surprised if the licensing thing lasts much longer.

The Baofeng radios are all programmable for MURS, FRS, GMRS and Ham frequencies. Certainly they provide much more transmit power than is legal for FRS and can for MURS. Also, they are not really type accepted by the FCC for those frequencies. They are only legal for licensed Amateur radio users to use on the approved Ham radio frequencies on the 2 meter and 70cm bands; VHF and UHF.

One of these little radios can be programmed to use everything listed here except CB if you want. It just isn't legal.

In addition, they can be set up as police scanners as you can program in the police frequencies. I strongly suggest, if you are going to do this,that you get the CHIRP software and a programming cable so you can tell the radio NOT to transmit on the police/fire/public service frequencies as it would be easy to accidentally do so when you are listening and I can guarantee a visit from the FCC if that kind of thing happens!

So, you can buy a nice little walkie talkie for around $40 which can be programmed to work with other radios you may have already gotten, can listen to Public Service agencies and can be used on ham radio frequencies, basically any VHF/UHF frequency, and will provide decent transmit power and communication range for almost any scenario.

After going down this road myself, I will say that I recommend getting your Amateur Radio license, joining a local Ham Radio club and learning more about this hobby. As I said at the beginning, I figured that CB and GMRS would meet my goals but I found that there is a lot more about radios and communication that I want to learn and be involved in.

When I was hiking in the mountains of Montana last summer I was often in areas where I had no cell coverage. Face it, in Montana, I'm often in my car on the freeway without cell phone coverage! But, now that I can use the VHF repeaters that are available almost anywhere, I am almost never without reliable communication. That can literally be a lifesaver if you travel much and the knowledge you gain in using these radios might serve you and your group very well in an SHTF situation.

1 comment:

Tim Ravndal said...

We have several folks across Montana that are geared into the communication side of being prepared in the event of a disaster. We have a store in Eureka that can provide most any radio that is available on the market.

Be prepared!