It’s about ham-less options.
I’m going to assume that everyone who reads this blog is either a currently licensed ham, or at least vaguely interested in becoming one. With that kind of a demographic, why should I even entertain the idea of covering non-ham radio communications? Well, it’s all about having options. Furthermore, there are some pretty good reasons why even licensed hams might want to consider other services. unlicensed radio communications
The king of communications. unlicensed radio communications
For non-commercial personal communications without reliance on a network or a grid, amateur radio isn’t just at the top of the pyramid, it’s about 95% of the entire pyramid. Without ham radio, your choices are very limited, but they’re not zero. What about that other five percent? Maybe you’re not a ham and don’t want to become one. Maybe you are a ham and want to expand your capabilities. What is out there? What is possible?
The good news is that there are several choices for non-ham communications. All of them are inexpensive and relatively easy to deploy. None of these options will allow you to communicate over long distances.
Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS).
MURS operates on five FM channels in the VHF band around 151 mHz. No license is required. Two watts is the maximum transmit power. The antenna cannot exceed 60 feet above ground or 20 feet above the structure on which it is mounted (whichever is higher). Non-voice communications such as motion sensors and security systems also use MURS. With only five channels, there is a possibility of competition for limited band space.
There’s one more hangup: MURS used to be part of the VHF business band. Commercial business licensees assigned to MURS frequencies were grandfathered in, meaning, they can still use the band even though their equipment may far exceed MURS technical requirements. Grandfathered business users have priority use over unlicensed MURS stations.
MURS-specific radios tend to be more expensive than those in other services. Many radios intended for licensed amateurs will operate on MURS frequencies. This is legal, but be sure to observe transmitter wattage restrictions as most amateur equipment by default exceeds two watts unless manually set to a lower power. unlicensed radio communications
General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS).
GMRS operates on thirty FM channels between 462 and 467 mHz. You will need a license in the USA; it costs $70 and is valid for ten years. GMRS shares 22 channels with the Family Radio Service (FRS). GMRS allows a maximum transmitter output of 50 watts, except for channels 8-14 where the limit is one-half (0.5) watt. Operators may use repeaters with GMRS if the input and output frequencies conform to established splits. Frequencies in between channels 1-7 may be used for simplex communications, but are limited to five watts. On interstitial frequencies between channels 8-14, simplex is also allowed but the transmit power limit is still 0.5 watts. unlicensed radio communications
True GMRS equipment can be costly. Be aware that manufacturers often market FRS radios as “GMRS radios”. This is technically true since the two services share frequencies, but read the fine print and know you are really buying. FRS radios are generally inexpensive and therefore poorly made.
Family Radio Service (FRS). unlicensed radio communications
FRS consists of 22 shared channels with GMRS. No license is required for FRS. It’s a little confusing. Why is a license needed for GMRS but not FRS when the two services share the same frequencies and are essentially the same thing anyway?
I can’t explain the rationale behind what the government does, but digging into the technical aspects of FRS gives some clues. The Family Radio Service is limited to two watts on channels 1-7 and 15-22. Channels 8-14 are limited to 0.5 watts. Why? I have no idea. FRS used to be capped at 0.5 watts across all 22 channels; the 2-watt upgrade was instituted in 2017. FRS radios may only use original equipment factory antennas permanently attached to the radio itself. It is illegal to modify or change the antenna. The use of repeaters is also prohibited.
So even though GMRS and FRS appear to be more or less the same thing, FRS has power and antenna restrictions that make it much less useful than GMRS.
Citizens’ Band Radio (CB).
For those of you not old enough to remember, CB radio was the social media of its day. The channels were buzzing with chatter day and night. Today, it’s a ghost of its former self, but the band is still there and equipment is available for anyone who wants to use it. It’s the oldest and most well known of non-ham communications modes.
CB radio is 40 AM channels in the 26-27 mHz neighborhood. A license is not required. Power output is limited to 4 watts AM and 12 watts SSB. There are no antenna restrictions. CB radio is prone to noise and interference, and the antennas will be larger than those used for MURS or GMRS/FRS. CB is very inexpensive. You can find clean, working used radios for as little as $5.00. New CBs are very cheap too. Handheld CB radios are a little harder to find, but they’re out there.
A lot of the activity on present day CB is illegal, but the FCC has for all practical purposes abandoned enforcement and will only go after the most over the top violators. It’s extremely rare for the FCC to bust anyone for an alleged violation of the citizen’s band rules. CB is also famous as a hangout spot for people whose operating styles are best described as very strange & annoying but not necessarily unlawful. Using ionospheric “skip” to work DX is also a no-no on CB (the legal maximum range is 160 miles). As you can guess, physics does not conform to man-made laws, so skip happens anyway and many CB operators take advantage of it.
What all this means to the person who wants to use CB for legitimate, legal purposes is that you’ll have to live with sharing the band with a lot of pirates and weirdos. In spite of all this, CB has a lot to offer as non-ham communication alternative.
The biggest drawback. unlicensed radio communications
Non-hams ask all the time: How far can I talk on (insert name of non-ham radio service)? Or, they express disappointment when the $20.00 pair of toy-like handheld FRS radios bought in the sporting goods department at Walmart won’t actually transmit a signal out 35 miles as the label on the package loudly claimed.
Except for 50 watt GMRS radios, you will not be able to communicate reliably more than at most a few miles on any of the services discussed in this article. That’s on the high end. It goes down from there. CB radio probably has the farthest reach after high powered GMRS. With CB, you’re looking at perhaps 3-5 miles under most conditions, maybe up to ten or twelve miles with base stations or SSB.
FRS is the weakest of the bunch due to the antenna restrictions. As a general guide, simplex communication between handheld radios is going to be a mile or less no matter what you’re using. You might do better under prime conditions, but don’t count on it. Bases and mobiles of course will have more range. If you need reliable communications over more than five miles, then you’ll need to invest in a robust GMRS or maybe a MURS system. You certainly won’t do it with handheld radios alone.
Do not even for a moment believe the range claims on radio equipment. The “35 mile” boast commonly seen on FRS radios is so oh-my-god outlandish, it should be illegal. I’ve tried FRS radios and have never been able to reach more than a couple of hundred yards with them.
Why should hams care?
If you’re already an established ham you’re probably asking yourself, Who cares? Why should I need any of this when I’ve got way more options as a amateur?
Well, a few things to chew on here. These alternatives are a good choice to keep in touch with non-ham friends and family. It’s not realistic to expect everyone to be a ham. If you are organizing a neighborhood watch, a prepper/survivalist group, or running a public event, having a few plug-and-play, no license required radios to pass out can come in very handy.
For SHTF purposes, keeping others on unlicensed services while you conduct your own business on the ham bands adds a layer of operational security. I have a stock of CB radios in storage, all tested and ready to go with simple dipole antennas. If disaster strikes, I’ll give them to my neighbors. I’ll be able to monitor their communications and respond as needed, but all my important comms will be on the ham bands where they aren’t listening. My strategy is to keep the neighborhood out of my personal loop while still remaining in theirs. They won’t see me as that guy with all the mysterious antennas and electronics who no one knows what he does with all that stuff. Instead, I’ll be the handy neighbor who set everyone up with a comms system. If you can use unlicensed services to help others, you’ll deflect attention from yourself.
Lastly, non-ham communications simply gives you more options. The unlicensed radio services collectively offer several megahertz of band space that would be off the table if you limited yourself only to ham frequencies. Even with the limitations, it has a place in your communications plan.
Very good summary of non-amateur radio alternatives. I’m really glad you wrote this. People need to know there are alternatives to ham radio, despite their drawbacks. My personal experience with FRS agrees with everything you said. They’re ok for fooling around, but for serious communications needs they’re not very good. Range is horrible, the radios themselves are often horribly made. Many of them are little more than toys. GMRS is better, but the equipment gets expensive. I agree that CB is probably the best alternative. Unless you can get ’em to take the technician’s license exam, in which case even the much joked about Chinese VHF/UHF handhelds like Baofeng are far superior. And often cheaper. I don’t know what prices are now but once I could buy Baofengs in bulk for about $25 each, including battery charger. We were giving them away as door prizes at our ARES meetings.
CBs can be picked up cheap, antennas are cheap or easy to make, they take no real technical skill to use, and under decent conditions you can get communications ranges in excess of several miles. I only have one, installed in my truck, but my neighbor has about a dozen on the shelf down in his shop.
Stay safe out there! I’m in a high risk category so I’ve been more or less hunkering down during this situation and spending a lot of time tinkering down in the shop.
Hi Randall, thanks again for your support! As I mentioned in my article, I’ve never been able to go more than a few hundred yards with FRS and even then I was just lucky. That was before they bumped the power up to 2 watts. My preferred non-ham communications method is CB. The equipment is super-cheap, super-easy to use, and gives respectable performance. MURS and GMRS are great too if you’re willing to spend the money on decent equipment.
Glad you covered this because in an emergency…..any and all means of communication should be used. When l lived overseas in rural areas with few HAMs, I advocated and created lessons on non-radio EmComm methods. These were presented at HamFest India 2013. The concern I had: in disasters, the first outside help arriving would be helicopters. With no radios in these villages, ground-to-air communication was limited to signal panels and hand-arm signals. So why not teach these to school kids? They get to use their classroom lessons applied to a real task that builds EmComm capacity and resilience for their village? Who knows, some of these students could become the next generation of EmComm operators.
Hi Greg, non-ham communications is not just for emergencies. Still, you make an excellent point that it’s better to learn a skill when times are good than to trip around learning as you go when times are bad.
Good day, I enjoyed your article and would like to add that there are many old business radios being pulled from taxi fleets that make great GMRS base stations. They can be found on eBay for $40 to $60 and are usually 25 watts and higher. Some examples: Kenwood TK-880, Kenwood TK-8180. I have four and they make great base or mobile stations. I keep on in the garage and another in the house.
Hi Kevin, I’m gad you are enjoying Off Grid Ham. You are exactly right…there are many clean, working used GMRS rigs on the market. All one has to do is dig around.