Everything But The Ham 2024.

      8 Comments on Everything But The Ham 2024.

It’s about ham-less radio.

I’m going to assume that everyone who reads this blog is either a ham or at least vaguely interested in becoming one. With that kind of a demographic, why should I even entertain the idea of covering unlicensed radio options? Well, it’s all about having choices and possibilities. Furthermore, there are some pretty good reasons why even licensed hams might want to consider other services.

Off Grid Ham has addressed this subject before. Due to the growing popularity of unlicensed radio services, we’re revisiting the topic again.

The king of communications. unlicensed radio options.

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 90% of the entire pyramid. Without ham radio, your choices are very limited, but they’re not zero. What about that other ten 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.

One clarification: Although we are collectively identifying these services as “unlicensed,” some of them do indeed require a license. In all cases, there is no test or special actions required; the license is just a perfunctory administrative matter.

Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS).

MURS is an unlicensed service operating on five channels in the VHF band around 151 mHz.. 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.

unlicensed radio communications


There’s one more hangup: MURS used to be part of the VHF business band. The government grandfathered in commercial business licensees assigned to MURS frequencies, meaning, they can still use the band even though their equipment may far exceed MURS technical protocols. 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 (usually) 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 $35 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. As an added bonus, one family may share a single GMRS license.  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 options. 

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 poorly made.

Family Radio Service (FRS). Unlicensed radio options

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 limits users to two watts on channels 1-7 and 15-22. Channels 8-14 are limited to 0.5 watts. Why? I have no idea. The FCC used to cap FRS power at 0.5 watts across all 22 channels; they upgraded the service to 2-watts  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 or access repeaters.

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. The fad fizzed out in the 1980s and CB became a derelict “junk band”. Today, CB seems to be going through something of a rebirth. After decades of neglect and disuse, CB-related websites and social media pages indicate that it is finding new life and popularity. Equipment is available for anyone who wants to use it. It’s the oldest and most well known of non-ham communications modes.

unlicensed radio options

Used CB radios such as this vintage Radio Shack unit are super inexpensive! PUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGE.

CB radio is 40 AM and FM channels in the 26-27 mHz neighborhood. FM capability is a fairly recent addition; the FCC approved the use of FM in 2021. A license is not required. Power output is limited to 4 watts AM/FM and 12 watts SSB. There are no antenna restrictions. CB radio is prone to noise and interference in the AM mode, and the antennas will be larger than those used for MURS or GMRS/FRS. You can find clean, working used AM only radios for as little as $5.00. New CBs in the traditional AM mode are also inexpensive; FM capability will cost more. 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 non-compliance of 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 options.

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 $25.00 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. It is possible to communicate hundreds and even thousands of miles on SSB and AM CB, but it’s very unreliable.

FRS is the weakest of the bunch due to the antenna restrictions. As a general guide, simplex communication between any type of handheld radio 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.

Another consideration is that data modes are not legal for use on unlicensed services. Many operators use data modes on the ham bands almost exclusively. If you incorporate non-licensed communications, data modes are off the table.

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 supply  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 strange guy with all the mysterious antennas and electronics. I’ll be the resourceful neighbor who set everyone up with an effective 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.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Off Grid Ham on April 4, 2020. It is being re-released here with edits and updates. 

8 thoughts on “Everything But The Ham 2024.

  1. Jed

    I saw the picture of your Radio Shack radio and was amazed. I have the TRC-458 and works as good today as it did in 1979 when I bought it.

  2. randall krippner

    I agree completely, Chris. Having some kind of small, easily carried, easy to use unlicensed radio communications equipment is a good idea. I have a CB kicking around the basement somewhere, but I’d go with FMRS or GMRS these days.

    I haven’t seen a CB radio turn up at a garage sale in years now. For a while there the darned things were popping up for sale everywhere. Still they’re out there and if you can pick one up cheap in working condition it’s a good idea to have one aound, along with a suitable antenna. CB would not be my preferred method of communications, but heck, any kind of communications is better than none.

    1. Chris Warren Post author

      GMRS is probably the best option, although decent radios can be pricey.

      With the addition of FM mode CB, it may become more appealing. Used CBs are not as ubiquitous as they used to be, but new units are inexpensive.

  3. Danie

    And of course now also LoRa based radio such as Meshtastic – I’ve seen a big uptake in this recently, often primarily by licensed hams themselves.

  4. Rick Eissinger

    Good recap -thanks for posting. Still remember my CB lic – KLB0410! As Danie mentioned Meshtastic might be worth a mention. Some of us have been trying to get it going with local hams but not much general interest yet in my area.

    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Hi Rick, I am having one of those “what were you thinking?!” moments. I should have mentioned meshtastic but somehow my mind was elsewhere. Thanks for sharing.


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