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Radio for the Family-Minded Communicator (TM)

This Frequently Asked Question list is a work in progress. Feel free to contribute to it. Send your FAQ item to [email protected] I encourage you to read the Family Radio Service FAQ, the controversial history behind the creation of the Family Radio Service, and the Family Radio Service Federal Communications Rules and Regulations posted at the Personal Radio Steering Group web site. PRSG also as the FCC rules for the General Mobile Radio Service and a GMRS FAQ that is considerably more detailed than this one. Please note that I do not provide a license application service. I refer email sent to me on the subject to this page and the PRSG web site.

Who are you and why did you create this magazine?

Radio communication is a hobby (amateur radio, SWL, scanning) and has been an occupation (police communications). Using this page I share my enthusiasm for two-way radio, as well as my own experience using use GMRS. The Personal Radio Steering Group was also on the web when I created this page (ca 1999). PRSG had been so helpful to me in obtaining my GMRS license that I wanted to put something on the site referring others to the PRSG BBS available then. As time went on this site became the most popular GMRS desitination on teh Internet. The site has been recognized by hobby electronics publications as the place to go for GMRS information. My family uses GMRS portable radios to stay in touch when we vacation, hike, bike and walk, or travel to the store. The convenience of two-way radio communication is hard to beat. There was also very little information about equipment available to new GMRS licensees. It just seemed the logical thing to do.

Why would I want to buy GMRS or FRS radios? What good are they?

Any time you need directed communication between individuals in a group and you no more than a few miles apart you can take advantage of GMRS and FRS. Using a cellular or cellular walkie-talkie phone can be expensive and you might be paying for pager frills you really don't really need. Stop and think whether your family communication is really facilitated with your cell phone or your pager. Can you afford to equip everyone in the family with a cellular phone just to keep track of them on a family outing? Hint: Are there situations where a two-way radio would benefit you more?

The convenience and simplicity of two-way push-to-talk communication demonstrates how complicated a cellular phone really is. When you are in radio range of your partner you can use two-way radio communication rather than a telephone system. There is nothing in the way except the distance between you and the other radio in your family or group. There is no cell site, no telephone operator and no roaming charges. Two-way radio communication is practical and fun. The new FRS radios are TRULY very practical. As a matter of fact, I believe these radios to be the first truly practical short range voice communication devices made available to the general public. You don't have the noise and skip of the CB band and you can communicate within a reasonable distance. (Provided youa re also willing to share the FRS frequenices with many others in urban areas.)

How do the FRS radios/walkie-talkies compare to CB radios? Which would be better for house-to-house communication, say, 1-2 miles? CB or FRS? Which is better for backup communication while driving on the road (assuming cell phone is dead) CB or FRS?

CB radio is on shortwave frequencies around 26-27 MHz. These radio waves propagate differently. You can find yourself talking to someone in another country on the CB band. The skip, as it is called, can occasionally render CB channels useless for communication beyond five miles or so. (That's one big reason CB went to SSB.) The CB band also became a polluted wasteland of nonsense, silliness, and foul language. It quickly became a hobby band when that was not the original intent. FRS on the other hand will NOT skip. FRS is limited to local communication and it tends to be quite reliable depending on the terrain and surrounding obstructions. UHF radio waves at 462 MHz behave a bit differently. You can now have the same benefit police and business has always had using a UHF radio. The quality of communication is terrific. Your family will enjoy using these devices!

The most important point about UHF radios is that ANTENNA HEIGHT is more important than the output power of the device. So if you can see the house you want to talk to then there is a very good chance FRS radios will work quite nicely in your application. As an example, I can talk to the grounds keeper at the local golf course over two miles away from inside my house. The grounds keeper can see my home from the hill he is on overlooking my town. Using a Family Radio hand held radio I can also speak to someone on the 3800 foot peak some 14 miles away.

If you are talking within a mile or less of another vehicle and all you want to do is talk to that vehicle, FRS is superb. CB will improve distance locally but then you have to cope with skip, AND you must have an outside antenna to get reliable distance. If you want access to emergency services get a cellular phone. Not many people monitor channel 9 any longer and no one listens to any FRS channel for emergency calls. The great thing about FRS is that it is the first really good utility two-way radio for families ever. It beats carrying big CB radio portable radios and it is far more reliable than the older low power CB or 49 MHz walkie talkies. FRS radios are not really toys. The radios are quite good and there are few poorly made FRS radios on the market. The radios are truly superb if you are trying to remain in contact with a person with whom you might become separated.

A little history. Where did GMRS come from?

GMRS spectrum was once the old Class A Citizens Radio Service. There are folks still using GMRS that have been using this radio spectrum for many years.

A license? Why do I have to license a GMRS portable radio? Who's going to care?

The proliferation of portable VHF and UHF radios in the marketplace has introduced more and more people to two-way radio communication. Most folks are savvy enough to know that cellular phones are hand-held radios too. When a retailer tells a prospective purchaser that a license to operate the radio is required the customer looks awfully puzzled. Here you are reading the FAQ and wondering the same thing. How come there are so many hurdles to gain access to the radio spectrum? And how come some radios using the same channels don't have to be licensed?

These are all good points. What is licensing all about? Why is it done and why should you care? Licensing serves several purposes:

  • Licensing creates an artificial barrier to spectrum access. Only those who really need the radio apply for the license. The modern fallacy with this argument is of course the proliferation of unlicensed business band and GMRS radio systems already on the air. Everyone has figured out there is no spectrum enforcement anyway.
  • Licensing creates public records of licensees and their radio stations so others seeking spectrum access can coordinate their use of the spectrum. The FCC also has records of every system for enforcement purposes. An operator of a malfunctioning radio, one that is causing interference on other channels, can be identified and advised of the malfunction much more easily.
  • Licensing is a way of making sure the applicant has selected the right radio service for the right purpose. The radio spectrum is carved out to serve many specific interests and technical needs.
  • In some cases, as in the Amateur Radio Service, licensing includes operator licensing to insure the person operating the radio meets a certain standard of technical proficiency and has the required knowledge.
  • When people go to the trouble to license their radio system and obtain an authorized call sign they tend to take responsibility for their actions more seriously. I say tend because this is not always the case, particularly in the Business Radio Service.
  • A lack of licensing, and ignorance of rules and proper operating practice tends to facilitate the growth of chaos. No one is served by limited spectrum space unless they have some idea how to use the radio and understand that they are responsible for their actions. Even in some services where a license is NOT required you can still face serious consequences for improper use of a radio ( base, mobile, or hand-held.) If you misuse a radio in the Marine Radio Service you could face Federal penalties when you are identified and located by the Coast Guard. Radio station licensing goes back many years even before the FCC was created. At the dawn of radio so much interference was generated between broadcasters that the Federal Radio Commission was created to license and channelize broadcasters. The trick with licensing today is to make it easy enough so that the average citizen who needs GMRS can understand the necessity for licensing and yet still be able to complete the application. That's where the many REACT organizations and the Personal Radio Steering Group come in.

The FCC decides who or what should be licensed and for what reasons. Licensing requirements for many services are changing. FRS was certainly a big change. Suddenly anyone could buy a low power radio and use license free the same frequencies GMRS users use with a license. Why? The FRS radios are considerably less powerful and in the FCC's mind less likely to cause interference to licensed communications. As the power goes up the responsibility for and consequences of improper operation of a radio system increase. Licensing is a necessity.

What type of communication can my family have on GMRS?

GMRS, as I understand it, was intended to facilitate the personal business of the licensee and his/her immediate family. It was never intended to be a hobby radio service where essentially frivolous communication dominates. GMRS is intended for purposeful directed communication. Now I agree that what one family might find frivolous anther might find useful and necessary. Thank goodness there are no content police. The idea was that you wouldn't be sitting by your radio calling any station for a casual conversation. You would instead be calling your spouse or your children regarding errands or your family business etc. This deliberate and purposeful theme is however going to be difficult to support in the unlicensed FRS which could turn into a free-for-all CB service. The GMRS rules make the service a mobile-to-mobile and base-to-mobile service. The rules tend to restrict the content of communication by characterizing the service in a different way. Keep this in mind before you decide to license.

GMRS is a radio service where you CAN discuss your personal business. Your own commercial and/or family activity can be conducted on GMRS. Such use of the Amateur Radio Service is forbidden.

Some typical GMRS situations:

  • Not everyone wants a two-way radio for hobby purposes. Communication for these folks might not be allowed in other services.
  • A husband and wife who are hams may want to discuss family business and chores. The nature of personal communication may not permit some of these conversations to take place in the Amateur Radio Service. GMRS is an excellent choice.
  • A husband and wife have a small business and one or both of them are on the road frequently.
  • A family requires a way to stay in touch with the home when they are traveling around town. It could be a good way for a single parent to stay in touch with kids at home.
  • You could be a busy person that gets lots of calls but you don't want to carry a pager or carry a cellular phone. There is a family member at home that can call you by radio to give you messages. For whatever reason you find your family members more responsible as message takers.

There are also some odd uses of GMRS that are not generally appreciated. Some licensees created their repeaters specifically as a hobby repeater to avoid getting amateur licenses. Some created their repeaters as a way of disseminating information through paging. The FCC has not watched GMRS very closely and you will also hear a variety of bootlegging business users in many metropolitan areas.

What is a radio repeater?

The General Mobile Radio Service has eight repeater frequency pairs. A radio repeater uses one of these pairs of frequencies to receive and simulcast a radio transmission it receives on the repeater input frequency. Repeaters are usually placed on hilltops, mountains, towers, or tall buildings. When the repeater receives a signal from a hand-held or mobile radio that signal is rebroadcast on the repeater output frequency. The repeater can broadcast over a much wider geographical area than a hand held or mobile radio. Most GMRS users will not own a repeater of their own. They will most likely share a repeater system with others. When you use the repeater you make it possible to communicate with your family over a much wider area.

Typical Radio Uses that are not Compatible with GMRS.

  • Corporate communication with employees. Small or large businesses with employees should license radio systems in the Business Radio Service. There are businesses using GMRS channels that have been grandfathered on channels they occupied when business licensees were allowed to license in GMRS. The FCC grants no NEW licenses to businesses or any entities other than individual persons. In some areas, there are non-personal licensees who were 'grandfathered' in when the eligibility rules were changed in 1989.
  • Hobby communication. This type of communication is better suited for the Amateur Radio Service or the Citizens Radio Service. In other words, operating your radio should not be a hobby. You should be using a GMRS radio to communicate with family members and friends. If you discuss hobbies in your personal communication that's another thing.
  • Please also note that many specific industries have their own radio service: Forestry, Motion Picture, Taxi, Towing/Motor Club, marine, Aircraft, Oil, Conservation, and Government to name a few. A call to the FCC or a visit to your local commercial two-way radio retailer should help you get into the radio service where your communication belongs.

There are no content police in GMRS, however the owner of a repeater that you intend to share CAN and often WILL tell you what kind of communication is permissible on their radio system. Your simplex communication can be anything between your family operating under your license and your friends operating under their license and should be of no concern to anyone else. Aside from observing courtesy on crowded radio channels your personal communication is your own concern.

What is a bootlegger?

The popularity of two way radio communication on GMRS has brought with it the radio bootlegger. These people are morons. Morons without scruples or call signs. These people are unlicensed and do whatever they want whenever they want. Because these people abuse the service many GMRS repeaters have to be shut down to prevent unauthorized operation or to prevent interference. So whenever you hear Ray with his modified VX-1 interfere with a repeater transmission recognize him for what he is - a moron. Don't speak with him, don't acknowledge his presence. Listen on the repeater input to see if you hear his input signal. If you develop information on the identify of a bootlegger inform the local FCC field office.

A few things to keep in mind about GMRS and FRS.

  1. Setting up a high power (50 watt) GMRS base station and/or the capability to use a radio repeater has an initial expense that is higher than cellular. There is also an FCC license form that you must complete (See the Personal Radio Steering Group website for more information.) and a $70 license fee to submit. The license fee is submitted using an FCC Form used to ferret out scofflaws who owe the government money. Subsequent modifications to your license also have a fee, currently $45. A license renewal is required every five years. Thanks to the Personal Radio Steering Group, licensing is a bit easier, but getting a GMRS system up and running, even a modest one, takes time and planning. Your license will take from six to eight weeks to return from the FCC and unless you only use portable radios you have to assemble your system and maintain it. Under some specific circumstances you can operate your radio station before your license arrives.
  2. GMRS licensees can use radios with higher power output and external roof-top and car-top mobile antennas on all GMRS frequencies. Because of this major advantage, GMRS licensees communicate at greater distances than the unlicensed users of the Family Radio Service. On channels shared with the FRS, GMRS can operate a small base station giving much greater range. The major factor that determines the potential distance or range of communication on these frequencies is the elevation of the antenna. Another factor is the type of terrain and the types of objects between you and the intended receiver of your transmission.
  3. GMRS equipment is more expensive than Family Radio Service Equipment.
  4. Not every family communication situation requires higher power and external antennas or even a telephone.
  5. UHF communication tends to be reliable over the range of the radios in both services. Weaker signals from a greater distance generally do not interfere with reception of radios closer to your receiver. The strongest transmitter "captures" your receiver and that is what you hear.
  6. The Family Radio Service shares seven low power GMRS channels. GMRS users are allowed 5 watts ERP on these channels and FRS only one-half watt. Do not expect to communicate at significant distances using an FRS radio. You might achieve one mile in open terrain. Expect to share the FRS with licensed users of the channels communicating over greater distances. Those GMRS users may not be able to hear you!
  7. Only persons in your IMMEDIATE family can operate your GMRS equipment. This rule was changed after 2/12/99. Now all members of your immediate family wherever they live may use your radios under your license. This rule change has a significant positive impact. If you travel with a family group more people have access to the radios. FRS does not have this restriction. If you go some place with a group (whomever they are), only FRS can be used. On the other hand, if other individuals with whom you communicate regularly, are also licensed in GMRS, there is no restriction since all licensees in this service can communicate with each other.
  8. A GMRS base station can now talk house to house or base to base (meaning one GMRS base station to another). originally only mobile to mobile, base to mobile, and mobile to base communication was allowed by FCC rules.
  9. The GMRS and FRS frequencies are, at the moment, relatively quiet and free of the silliness that has always been part of the 27 MHz CB band. Your GMRS and FRS communication won't be interfered with by a CB'er in another part of the world. GMRS and FRS radios communicate farther and more efficiently than the kiddie-talkies on the 49 MHz band.
  10. Certain types of business use may be incompatible with FRS. Business cannot license in GMRS but business users can use unlicensed FRS portable radios on the GMRS Interstitial radio channels authorized for FRS. A business has no more priority to the use of an FRS channel than does a child passing on a bicycle talking to his mother. Potential business users may want to use a scanner and monitor these frequencies BEFORE making a big investment in a number of radios. It is NOT uncommon to hear a business user try to warn others off of their "band," their "channel," or their "private frequency." My suggestion is that if you can, change channels to avoid the jerks or ignore them completely. They shouldn't have selected FRS for this type of communication if they didn't want to hear kids and families on the radios. Businesses using FRS selected the cheap option. They got what they paid for and they paid for what they got.

What are some typical uses of GMRS and FRS?

FRS: Family communication while camping, taking trips to the beach, hiking, walking, jogging, parks, amusement spots, skiing, biking, mobile caravans etc. Any trip where two or more people need to stay in touch for safety or convenience. (A radio should NEVER substitute for the buddy system when in the wilderness, on the water, or biking on the open road; however, a radio can keep you in touch with a base camp. Always use good judgement. Survival means you always rely on your brains and not the radio. ) The less powerful FRS units are perfect for communication in a campground or wherever very close proximity communication is desired. In the event a person who carries one of these radios becomes lost, some scheme for using the radio as a locating device can be devised. As an example: Every fifteen minutes turn the radio on and make a two minute distress call. Agree on a channel to use. Since most public safety patrols and even other families use these radios there may be a better chance that a lost person is found faster. Agree that when you are out of range you wait until you are. This way family members stay close!

GMRS users in this application can communicate over greater distances. Forests and buildings have a tendency to absorb and reflect radio waves in mysterious ways so if you need serious long distance communication for extreme sports, as an example, consider licensing some two to five watt hand-held portable radios. You might even want to contact the ski patrol of your favorite resort to see if they have persons on staff that have GMRS licenses. The activity in which you participate will dictate the communication device you use. In maritime or sailing activities, for example, it may make more sense to have a marine portable radio on your belt. In very extreme sports it might make sense to carry a locator device that communicates with a satellite! You get the picture.

FRS & GMRS: A family member can use either to stay in touch with home base when walking, biking, or visiting a friend. The only hassle with this is keeping track of battery use. We have to do that with cellular phones as well. Some of the older GMRS portables that Radio Shack sold (PRS-101) had terrible battery life. They were also bulky. Giving a kid one of these radios with a spare battery is ridiculous. A small FRS radio with some 20 hours of expected battery life is practical. (You begin to see that practical is really the buzz word.) Now on the other hand, an adult can carry a larger radio with a fanny pack that contains a spare battery.

In my own neighborhood, my wife carries a GMRS portable with her as she walks. We can speak portable to portable or base to portable wherever she is in the subdivision. An FRS radio would accomplish the same thing over a shorter working distance.

FRS & GMRS: FRS and GMRS in some cases would serve a Neighborhood Watch group quite well. Using FRS radios neighbors can agree to monitor and watch out for each other. Talk to friends on walks. Stay in touch with the elderly or infirm. Homes associations can use the radios to coordinate activities. In times of disaster a coordinated team can use the radios to report back to a control point where there is a cellular phone.

FRS & GMRS:Some claim that children are at risk when carrying these radios. The likelihood of your child coming in contact with a child molester is probably as remote as being struck by lightning. You and your children are going to hear and potentially communicate with other people. Some people you hear will be polite, others may tease, others may be rude, others may simply change channels. Children simply need to learn how to be just as careful on the radio as they are in public. Just tell kids not to talk to strangers. use your own brains and refuse to talk to people who don't observe good operating practices in communicating with others. Don't be frightened to use FRS because of alarmist view points. Plain old every day common sense and caution will prevail every time. Just remember the channel you and your child operate on is NOT your own. You don't have exclusive rights to it and you are being heard probably two miles in every direction.

GMRS:Using GMRS you can stay in touch with your family over greater distances. Using higher power simplex or repeater operation you have the ability to go over a fairly wide area in square miles. You can put 50 watt mobile units in automobiles and carry higher power portables.

FRS: Homes associations can start a neighborhood FRS radio network. You could encourage neighbors to keep one of these radios with extra batteries in their home disaster kit. Elderly that live in the neighborhood could check in with friends close by. When the phones and electricity go dead due to natural or man made calamity, you have some way to communicate with others that expect to hear you and come to your aid. Even a cell phone cannot be expected to offer much security in this kind of situation. (Cell phones are like pay phones in that these devices will begin working before residential telephones will after a major disaster.) A simple two-way radio will keep your neighborhood together until external communication is restored. You might hold monthly radio drills with the neighbors who own these radios so everyone is always familiar with the use of the network. Get your local ham radio operator involved so all messages destined for the outside world can be routed through him or her as needed. Sort of a Neighborhood Radio Network. Provide the local police and fire department with the UHF FRS frequency your neighborhood uses. That way the police officers can insert it in their scanners.

What should I look for in an FRS radio?

Size the radio up. Hold it in your hand. Does it feel sturdy enough for your intended use? If it feels like cheap plastic it probably is. The last thing you want is for your radio to smash into pieces on a camping trip. How many channels does it have? FRS offers 14 channels. Some of these radios come with one channel and some with only seven channels. The seven channel radios can be half as much in cost and for most people be completely adequate. The sturdy single channel radios made by a major commercial manufacturer are good for business use. Other cheaper models with one channel are just toys. The one and seven channel radios generally have the GMRS interstitial frequencies and not the FRS only channels. Consider a 14 channel unit if you plan to use your radio in a large urban environment where GMRS is already popular. Channels seven through fourteen are FRS only. You might have less interference there. Ask the sales clerk about the bells and whistles (features). Determine if those features will be of use to you. One common feature is Digital Controlled Squelch. DCS allows you to prevent your radio from receiving signals other than those sharing the same squelch code. Determine what kind of accessories are available. Ask about the battery life. Give the sales clerk an idea how you will be using the radio and let him or her show you what fits your application. The better FRS units are selling now from $119 to $149.

How about battery life? (Carry spares!)

Battery life is a real issue. Most half watt FRS radios are quite tiny, but not so the power requirements. In the Cherokee FRS465 you can use up a set of batteries in 24 hours if you leave the radio on or transmit for long periods. The bells and whistles on these radios eat up the juice as it were. This radio, while one of the best, uses up AAA (yes AAA) VERY quickly. The MAH (milliampere-hour) rating of AAA batteries is low and of AAA nicads even lower. Radios with AA batteries operate a bit longer. You will either be buying batteries frequently or investing in multiple rechargeable battery packs and a suitable charger.

Bells and Whistles in FRS Radios

FRS radios in the mid to high price range tend to be feature rich. The good news is you get to choose from a number of radios each with unique capabilities. The bad news is you have to decide what features are most important to you. In addition to this FAQ I encourage you to ask questions in the FRS forum at this website and the alt.radio.family newsgroup.

The basic functions each radio should have are:

  • A reasonable loud and crisp audio output.
  • A power switch that cannot be accidentally turned off or on.
  • Push button or switch capability to defeat DCS or CTCSS
  • A channel selector and easy to read channel dial or read out.
  • Reasonably rugged for your intended use.
  • Easy to replace batteries.
  • An owners manual.
  • A DC jack to use the radio on an AC adaptor.
  • Enough power for your intended use. Don't buy the 100 milliwatt units if you need distance!
  • All 14 FRS channels.

Cool but bells and whistles that are nice to have.

  • Rechargeable battery packs and drop in charger. Consider buying three packs.
  • Leather protective case.
  • Carry strap.
  • Belt clip or some style of carry case you can attach to yourself. Some belt clips are terrible. Try the clip and determine for yourself if the radio is bound to fall off.
  • A lock feature that prevents others from changing settings.
  • Battery sleep/save feature that improves battery life when the radio is left on for long periods.
  • Continuous Tone Coded Squelch.
  • Very rugged rubberized case.

Really cool but not necessary features.

  • Scanning function. Comes in handy at campgrounds or when traveling.
  • Dual Watch function. Monitors for activity by alternating between two channels instead monitoring only one. Cool if your function uses two channels.
  • Power adjustment to preserve battery life.
  • An external microphone.
  • Chest pack. Hikers, bikers, and skiers will LOVE this kind of radio carrying case.

There are some manufacturer specific goodies that you might like.

  • Motorola processes audio in their radios and claims that processed audio improves the limited range of the radios. To enjoy this feature you need a pair of these radios.
  • Kenwood offers scrambling if you want a little more privacy in your communication. Any other Kenwood can decode your transmissions.
  • Cherokee offers the ability to use CTCSS on your receiver and your transmitter.
  • Radio Shack makes an inexpensive radio that opens like a flip-phone. This is a "self consciousness" feature. Everyone will think you are using a cell phone. They also make a low power "toy" model which is great for children.

Some FRS manufacturers:

  • Motorola,
  • Yaesu
  • Cherokee
  • Midland
  • Alinco
  • Kenwood
  • Uniden
  • Radio Shack
  • Icom
  • Whistler
  • Maxon

How far will Family Radio Service radios transmit?

Visit The Gadget Page for a terrific graphical representation. I couldn't say it better myself in words! The webmaster at this site uses FRS radios for camping and includes the radios as a feature of his Camping Trailer Website.

Are mobile units permitted in the Family Radio Service?

You can operate your hand-held radio in your car. The only limitation is that it cannot be connected to an external antenna. FRS is a hand-held radio service. So yes, you can drive around talking on your radio. This is one of the most popular modes of operation actually! A car caravan can stay in touch over a reasonable distance. Much better than the old 49MHz radios and with a lot less interference than CB.

Do I really need a license?

GMRS: You need a license if you want to use GMRS radios and GMRS frequencies.

FRS: You do NOT need a license to operate radios in the Family Radio Service. Using GMRS frequencies or power levels and external antennas without a license subjects you to large fines and potential criminal prosecution. You never want to modify an FRS radio to accept a different antenna than the one that came attached to the radio or to raise the power level of the radio.

Can I use GMRS or FRS while hunting?

GMRS &FRS: You need to verify whether two way radios can be used during hunting with your local/state department of fish and game. The use of radios in some states is either illegal or subject to regulation. Consult the following link at Jesse's Hunting Page for information about some states.

Can other people hear me?

GMRS & FRS: Yes. GMRS and FRS frequencies are located in the 462 and 467 MHz bands of the UHF spectrum. These bands are popular with scanner listeners who listen to police around 460 MHz, medical above 470 MHz, and business communications systems at various spots in the 450 to 512 MHz. range. FRS units are very low power devices. The likelihood of being heard over a wide area is not great unless you are in a house at a very high elevation. A good rule of thumb is just to never discuss things you wouldn't want your neighbor to hear. Don't worry about it.

It has been my observation that most new FRS users are choosing to use Continuous Tone Coded Squelch. This means that you won't hear anyone else calling you unless they too use the same squelch code. Coded squelch is useful if you are in a busy area, but I suggest you not use it when traveling. By the way, just because you have a coded squelch does not mean you can transmit without listening. You should disable the coded squelch before making a call to make sure you are not interfering with another station.

Are FRS radios a walkie-talkie?

FRS: Yes. I guess you would have to classify them as slightly better than a child's walkie-talkie. You could also call them HT's for handie-talkies or hand-held radios. Whatever suits you.

What makes the Family Radio Service radios so much better than other walkie talkies?

FRS: The radios use radio spectrum that is more efficient for the intended use AND the radios have a significant power level. One half watt may not seem like much; however, under ideal conditions your signal will go a long way compared to the old 27Mhz 100 milliwatt radios and the 25 milliwatt radios used on 49MHz. An FRS radio is very much like the hand held radio a policeman uses with similar power output and in the same UHF frequency range.

Can an FRS unit be a base station?

FRS: No. The ONLY base stations allowed in GMRS interstitial channels are the Small Base Stations (FCC Station Class FBA) of the General Mobile Radio Service. These FBA stations are allowed on FRS channels 1-7. The FCC rules are very specific about attaching external antennas to these radios. You are not permitted to do it. You may hear rumors that base stations (classified as FRB) are OK, but that is JUST a rumor, or perhaps something that was once considered in an FCC rule making. Read the FCC rules for the Family Radio Service.

Can other people hear me when I use DCS or CTCSS?

GMRS &FRS: Yes. DCS and CTCSS only limits what you can hear to minimize interference or the annoyance of listening to communication not directed to you. In order to be secure, you could invest in the Kenwood FRS radio that actually scrambles your voice transmission. Scrambling can reduce the range of an already challenged device and another Kenwood could hear and understand your transmissions. What you need in a radio is a personal choice. If you are paranoid about being heard you should consider stopping at a pay phone.

Calling other FRS users.

FRS: There really is no prescribed way to call another FRS user. Whatever you decide to pick as an identifier will be what other people use to call you. People are not using CB handles. I like that. Most conversations you hear use identification describing the nature of the activity, "Base Camp," "Camp ground," or you hear first names "John you there." Some users give themselves arbitrarily assigned numbers or letters. The GMRS stations in FRS are using their FCC assigned call sign as prescribed by law. These call signs are made of three letters and four numbers, e.g. KAF9830. FRS culture is new so there isn't a standard. In general you call another station and identify yourself. "Eileen this Doug, do you hear me?" Establishing communication with other families in a campground or other vacation activity can be fun. If someone else calls you say hello! In most cases, people are surprised to hear anyone else much less hear someone call them!. Unlike other radio services, like HF CB or Amateur Radio, some FRS users get indignant if anyone has the nerve to call or interrupt. It is actually kind of funny. People don't realize that two way radio is not cellular and that anyone can hear or talk to them given the distance and tones are compatible. As FRS users get more sophisticated a system of identification will probably develop and people won't mind other users on the same frequency.

The manufacturer says my FRS radio has hundreds of channels! What gives?

FRS radios have 14 channels. The manufacturer has given you, in most cases, 38 possible CTCSS tones to use in receiver and transmitter of your FRS hand-held radio. Thirty eight codes times 14 channels means you can have 532 different channel configurations. Referring to these channel configuration options as "channels" is deliberately misleading. Marketing managers hype numbers BECAUSE numbers mean something to average consumers. We perpetuate this business behavior by reacting positively to it, but that is another FAQ on another web page ;-). The reality is you have only fourteen channels on FRS and some FRS radios have ONLY seven channels! You can however configure different CTCSS tones for each of the seven or fourteen channels. In addition, ANYONE with CTCSS disabled can still hear your radio transmissions on their radio! Every scanner listener close enough to hear you can hear you regardless of the CTCSS tone you use. There is NO security or communication privacy on FRS. (Scrambled radios are another subject.) Others can also figure out which of the 38 tones you use and still talk to you. When you use CTCSS you are essentially preventing yourself from hearing anyone else also using the same frequency. Always ask the salesman what is hype and what isn't. Read and understand the label. Any vendor hyping numbers ought to be ready to explain what those numbers really mean. You can certainly ask in the Forum.

There is no expectation of privacy when you use the Family Radio Service.

FRS: Anyone with another FRS radio or a UHF scanner can hear you speak on your radio. Anyone standing next to you can hear your radio and hear you talk into it. These radios are NOT cellular phones. FRS radios are hand-held short distance communications devices that transmit on frequencies anyone with a scanner can receive.

Don't believe everything you read.

FRS: This newspaper article refers to some hocus pocus that probably points more toward the poor knowledge and experience of the writer than to any cool new enhancement of the Family Radio Service. The writer tells you that FRS radios are not walkie talkies and then proceeds to say, "Motorola and Radio Shack will also be offering models with the ability to further divide the FRS spectrum into ``sub-channels,'' reducing the likelihood of someone else monitoring a conversation. For more information, call Radio Shack at (800) 843-7422 or Motorola at (800) 448-6686." This is poppycock, hogwash, incorrect, confuse-think. I suspect the author is referring to tone coded squelch. Tone coded squelch DOES NOT prevent your transmission from being heard by anyone else.

You frequently suggest that FRS users should not use CTCSS. How come?

FRS: It depends on the situation. Anytime you require a radio to decode something in order to filter communication you run the risk of limiting the potential distance you can communicate. Unless you check the frequency first you could interfere with others when you transmit. You might also miss a transmission directed to you if the other party does not have your CTCSS tone. I can think of a bunch of what-ifs on this last one. I just think until you get very familiar with the way UHF radios work, it might behoove you to operate without CTCSS. My personal opinion is that it should always be disabled when carried in wilderness areas. The real purpose of CTCSS is to restrict what you hear in urban areas where there are lots of radio users. It should prevent you from being annoyed but it should not prevent you from being the safest you can be.

Can I have a technician modify my single channel FRS radio for another channel and higher power?

You might want to consult the FCC Rules and Regulations just to be sure. I think the answer is no. The unit you have, albeit challenged, was "type accepted" in that form. Modifying the radio would void the type acceptance. Voiding the type acceptance means you can no longer use it legally in the FRS. Get a more full featured radio and sell the single channel unit.

The FRS radio antennas are built into the radio and don't come off. How come?

FRS: The radios were designed and manufactured this way because of Federal Communications Commission Rules and Regulations. The FRS is supposed to be a low power, short distance, family communication service. If you want more power and flexibility go with GMRS instead. By preventing you from modifying the antenna of an FRS radio the FCC is making sure users comply with the intended purpose of the radio service.

What about using so-called passive or inductively coupled antennas in vehicles?

FRS: This is a scam. You cannot expect to get additional range using this method. This type of product first appeared as a way to increase the range of cell phones used in vehicles. Remember that you have to DOUBLE the power of a radio to go 1.4 times as far. (Inverse square ratio.) By raising the antenna or getting the antenna as in the clear as possible you can increase range a lot more efficiently. If you need to talk, stop and stand outside the vehicle.

Is there an emergency FRS or Traveler's Advisory channel?

FRS: No. You may want to establish some rules within your group that everyone meet on a specific channel at specific time while the group is out. One person checks everyone in and remains on the check in frequency until everyone does. The most frequently used channel in some areas is Channel 1. If everyone monitored channel 1 you might hear someone calling, but don't count on it.

What does simplex mean?

GMRS & FRS: Simplex is also known by some GMRS licensees as talk-around. When two or more two-way radios exchange communication on the same frequency they are said to be operating simplex. When two GMRS users are operating simplex on a repeater output channel they are said to be operating on talk-around. Really the same thing. FRS radios always operate simplex.

Can I modify my FRS portable to transmit on GMRS channels?

GMRS: No. Radios in FRS and GMRS must be "type accepted" by the FCC. These are not hobby bands. This means you cannot modify or construct a radio from scratch.

Do you have special radio modifications available on your website?


Do police monitor FRS or GMRS?

There is no sure answer to this, but you can be sure they probably have the capability. Many police officers are technically very savvy when it comes to communication and radios. Their survival on the street depends to some extent on their understanding of their own radio system. Giving police frequency information could however be handy in the event a lost person has a radio. Search and rescue volunteers that carry scanners then have one more tool with which to find a lost person. It is conceivable such a signal could be heard from the air as well. Carry a list of the radio frequencies in the FRS radio you have. Share the frequency list with the police or rescue personnel. Give them the last known frequency used by the lost person, as well as your group's agreed upon emergency calling frequency. (TIP: Cut out the frequency list on the main page and print your CTCSS code on it. Stick the list in your wallet or purse.)

Update! A recent post 5/98 in the alt.radio.family newsgroup indicated that a police department and at least one National park were considering having officers carry FRS radios in their cars. FRS is becoming so popular with vacationers that the police feel it might be a positive way to work the crowds.

A suggested FRS and GMRS Interstitial Calling Frequency

I am going to suggest in this FAQ that everyone everywhere adopt GMRS Interstitial Channel 1 (462.5625) as an FRS calling frequency. Whenever you lose communication on another channel move back to channel one and call your station again. Wait to be called by stations on FRS Channel 1. Monitor Channel One for calls and move off to another channel for conversations. This is a technique Amateur Radio Operators use on 146.52 MHz. Hams in wilderness areas also listen on the 146.52 channel continuously or at least on every hour at the top of the hour. This is known as the Wilderness Protocol. The likelihood of helping in an emergency is greater. I would also encourage police, parks, amusement parks, etc. to have this frequency in their scanners. I hesitate to call the channel anything more than a calling frequency since it does not need to be specifically set aside for this purpose. Listening on 462.675 would be helpful as well.

Now let's get real for a minute. You SHOULD NOT expect that an FRS radio can get you assistance out in the middle of nowhere or on a freeway. FRS was intended for family communication and not as an emergency calling service. To get emergency service you should consider a cellular phone, GMRS repeater system, or other long distance communication service. FRS or simplex GMRS will not get you help avoid road hazards or save yourself from tragic circumstances.

GMRS users have a specific channel that all licensees can use for emergency calling, 462.675/467.675 MHz. There are REACT organizations that monitor this frequency in some urban areas. Unfortunately, most 462.675 communication is expected to be repeater communication and not simplex communication. A person using a repeater that is out of range of a person calling for help on simplex can actually prevent rescue and not know it. As an example, I have tried to call in traffic accidents from the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge near San Francisco, CA. I have called for any station monitoring 462.675. While I could hear a repeater in the background, it was obvious that my two watt portable was not being heard. A casual conversation between two repeater users, located out of range of my simplex portable, made my attempts at communication fruitless. This is why GMRS users need to plan ahead. In order to take advantage of 462.675 you really need a radio capable of repeater operation. You also need permission from the repeater owners along your intended route to use their radio systems. No repeater owner is obligated to share his system with you even on 462.675 and not all do! Never plan on simplex communication helping you when you need it. In some cases, another radio service, or even a cell phone makes more sense.

Unless people know where you are going and what frequency you will use in an emergency, you could be calling (on any channel) from a weak portable until you are blue in the face. Most GMRS and FRS portables carried in the wilderness are no where near monitoring stations and even if these radios were, there is no guarantee a simplex communication would be heard.

As of May 1998 FRS/GMRS 1 is emerging as a channel with lots of activity. The major reason is that Radio Shack is selling inexpensive single channel FRS radios on the frequency. You can identify the Radio Shack radio user by the tell-tale phone bell they often broadcast before making contact.

Can I connect my phone line to my GMRS or FRS radio?

No. This is against FCC rules.

Can my FRS radio talk to a GMRS radio?

Certainly. The GMRS user is required to give a radio call sign at specific intervals. This should be the only difference in the the communication. There are some circumstances where you may not get an answer to your call. GMRS and FRS radios have Digital Controlled Squelch or Continuous Tone Coded Squelch. If you are not transmitting the squelch code used by the other radio the person at that radio cannot hear you. They would first have to disable the squelch control. Unless you are plagued with interference I would suggest you not use DCS or CTCS on FRS radios.

The frequency deviation of GMRS radios is much greater than the 2.5KHz deviation permitted in FRS. You could call this voice bandwidth. Some FRS receivers may chop up some of the audio and sound slightly distorted when listening to a GMRS station. The effect is really negligeable. Don't concern yourself with it.

What else am I likely to hear on GMRS, and FRS?

The GMRS frequencies still have some business communication systems that were grandfathered in when GMRS became strictly a personal radio service back in 1989. These business users are only allowed to use their radios in the course of business. Business users often fail to identify their stations so it is very difficult to determine who the users are or even if the user does indeed have a license. On the GMRS interstitial channels that are shared with FRS you may hear quite a few types of activities listening on a scanner with a good receiver and an antenna. There is a major retailer near me that uses Channel 1 for internal shopper security. They really should be on a low power business itinerant frequency like 154.60. I think after the Christmas season, such inappropriate use will be difficult to continue. Share what you hear on these channels in the GMRS FRS Forum.

Are there business uses of GMRS Interstitial Channels?

The FCC fully expects business use of FRS. This means that families who use this service will also have to share it with commercial users. You might wonder about the wisdom of this decision. In my area, a major national retail chain is already using unlicensed FRS radios on Interstitial 1 for store security. My wife and I have already been the butt of nasty comments from store personnel who hear us using our radios in our neighborhood. I'm a licensed GMRS user! If you are a licensed user of GMRS and/or you use FRS, you have every right to use the radio as much as anyone else. Etiquette is certainly something to think about. It is however, ridiculous that store security personnel are using Family Radio Service channels. Having worked in police communications for 12 years, I think this kind of use puts these guards at great personal risk. If you were chasing a suspect down the street and needed reliable communication would you want to share the channel with a family rolling by on bicycles?

A store that uses these radios for store security personnel is going to have a tough time when a family shows up at the mall equipped with radios! Don't expect the family to shut down their radio operations to suit the store. There is a tremendous potential here for a serious misunderstanding. A misinformed store security officer could well decide to detain an FRS user if he thinks the use of an FRS radio is illegal on the "store's" radio frequency. Even worse, a police officer might affect an arrest on someone with an FRS radio charging possession of a burglary tool. Let's also hope a real burglar that actually rips off the store does not use an FRS radio to jam the communications of security personnel chasing him! Maybe the worry is unfounded, but I still remember stories of local transportation police detaining licensed amateur radio operators carrying commercial hand held radios back in the 70's thinking the hams had illegal possession of police radios. Evaluate whether use of the FRS is in the best interest of your business. Educate your people about what to expect. Study the limitations, advantages and disadvantages carefully.

There is a growing tendency for government agencies to use FRS. The appeal is the low cost of the radios. Some FRS units are now only $49.99. If these radios break the agencies buy a new one. Why not furnish a city crew or a parks department with FRS Radios! I see problems with this. Government agencies have radio spectrum assigned to them for specific purposes. (One of the reasons for licensing in the first place!) This includes public works, public safety, medical, military, and special law enforcement. Government agencies should be using the spectrum already allocated to them and should not be cluttering up radio spectrum available to the general public for family communication. Public employees and their unions should refuse to use FRS radios. FRS radios cannot reach the agency dispatchers. Any government employee whose safety is at risk or who works in public areas should INSIST on having a high quality two-way hand-held radio on their belt and not a disposable FRS unit. The safety of the government employee is more important than the cost of the radio! If you think I'm exaggerating read this newspaper person's own experience with FRS and then tell me you want to carry a Family Radio while you are working alone in a City park.

But the instructions in my radio manual say this band is for non-commercial use?

The folks who wrote your manual have not followed the FCC decisions about the FRS or they have never heard of PRSG. You will probably hear businesses using the frequencies. They have every right to be there. Whether FRS was a good choice for that business remains to be seen.

Some typical business and government uses you might hear are listed below. Note that each one of these is actually better suited to another radio service besides FRS :

  • Schools: playground supervisors, school communication with faculty, athletic event coordination
  • Security: shopping malls and retails stores
  • Service: hotel, motel, janitorial
  • Real Estate: between agents and offices at a new housing development
  • Government: Parks departments and public works
  • Construction: short range coordination of crews on the job site.
  • Retail stores
  • Convalescent homes

If you are using your FRS radios and come across one of these users and they insist you are on their "private frequency" you can do one of a couple of things. If you are passing by just ignore them. if you are remaining in the area switch to a different channel. If you are remaining in the area and cannot switch channels politely explain you are using a channel in the Family Radio Service and that you will do your best not interfere with their communication. A polite cooperative tone to your communication would probably be best.

Are GMRS Radios Job Site Radios?

Some advertisers have taken to describing GMRS radios as "job site radios." They do this to move product and inventory. The end result is that thousands of unlicensed business users are now pirates on the GMRS channels. If you are business looking for portable radios you are NOT eligible to use GMRS frequencies regardless of what your radio shop tells you. Models of GMRS radios that are typically sold to the inexperienced or inattentive consumer for business use are the Motorola TalkAboutDistance Plus and the Kenwood Freetalk. Both of these radios are GMRS portables and CANNOT be operated by business users. You may buy these and then someday find yourself discussing GMRS piracy with a GMRS licensee or the FCC.

Are there GMRS/FRS Hybrid Radios?

We would like to believe no; however the two-way radio industry and the FCC have created hybrids! Manufacturers claim that their GMRS radios are also FRS radios with the blessing of the FCC. Without any public input the FCC permitted the new 22 channel GMRS/FRS hybrids to be made and sold. Shortly after these radios hit the market the levels of interference (intentional and unintentional) increased exponentially. We at the magazine believe the FCC made a decisin that will change GMRS forever - for the worse. The decision has opened the door to many other potential abuses, particularly unlicensed data transmissions by GPS devices.

Who created the FRS?

The Federal Communications Commission created FRS

May I use my FRS radios in Canada, Mexico, the UK or any other country?

As of April 2, 2000 Canada has approved a similar FRS service on the same frequencies used in the United States. You may indeed use your American FRS radio in Canada.

No! Read the FRS rules! Use of radio frequencies in one country can be very different in another. Canada does not have an equivalent family radio service. Use of these radios in Canada could attract the attention of Canadian law enforcement. There is active frequency coordination between the U.S. and Canada to make sure a radio service in one country does not interfere with the radio service of another near particularly at the border. Some GMRS licensees are restricted from using their two-way radios within a certain distance of the Canadian border. U.S. citizens must respect the sovereign right of another country to regulate radio communication in their domain. When you go to Canada put your FRS portables away. Do not use them. This also goes for Mexico or any other place in the world where the FCC is not the regulatory agency for radio communication. The rules say that if the FCC regulates radio communication where you intend to operate then operation of the radio is legal. You assume great personal risk operating radio transmitting devices in another country without permission. Does the word prison mean anything to you? ;-)

Now there have been exceptions. We have had reports that persons have indeed obtained permission to use U.S, FRS radios in South America. Disney Cruise Lines sells FRS radios on their boats and U.S. tourists use the radios in the Bahamas. You need to be the one making the decision. Are you willing to take a chance?

Who is the recognized GMRS spokesperson or special interest group?

In the 70's, 80's, and 90's that was the Personal Radio Steering Group. Visit their web site for up to date GMRS information. PRSG has been in existence for over ten years. This organization has fought to retain the GMRS frequencies for the intended purpose of the service -- personal communication. PRSG provides potential GMRS licensees with mountains of useful information including sample license applications. You can ask PRSG questions in the BBS located at this website.

GMRS Web Magazine has also been an advocate of the service since 1999, promoting lawful use and appropriate use of the service. We are the largest GMRS community on the Internet.

Last updated March 12, 2005

PopularWireless Magazine / [email protected]

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