Handheld “talkies” offer privacy, conference calls, voice-operated transmission, and up to 35-mile connections.
By Jim Brightly, F358406
We’ve all seen FMCA members carrying handheld Family Radio Service (FRS) two-way radios at international conventions and other events. They’re as ubiquitous as cell phones but are more convenient, because users don’t have to dial a phone number to talk with others and there’s no need to worry about using up cell phone minutes.
The FRS frequencies were designated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the mid-1990s. When the first models came out, they were offered in two sizes with two advertised ranges. The smaller, lighter “talkies” were sold with “up to two-mile range, depending on conditions and terrain.” The slightly larger, heavier models offered “up to five-mile range.”
I can still remember testing the limits of these new radios. At the time, having used citizens-band (CB) radios for about 30 years “” when they offered only 23 channels and were made with vacuum tubes “” and becoming accustomed to the varying ranges of off-the-shelf CBs, I was quite excited about small handheld radios that promised ranges of up to five miles.
I was working for another magazine at the time, and another editor and I grabbed the four radios we’d been sent for testing (a pair of each size), jumped in a motorhome and pickup truck, and drove to the flat strawberry fields of Camarillo, California. We knew from vehicle testing that the backcountry farm roads could give us up to five miles without being hindered by hills, buildings, or traffic. Using the motorhome as the base station, one of us drove the pickup two miles straight down the road for the first test.
The smaller units worked fine at their two-mile limit as long as both of us were standing outside without the metal of the vehicles between us. We discovered through trial and error that as soon as we climbed into the vehicles, the effective range of the smaller units was cut down to one mile. Subsequent tests proved that the same happened with longer-range models whose reception was cut to about two to three miles when used inside the vehicles. This also proved that the one-mile-range radios wouldn’t be very effective for caravaners with more than two motorhomes in their party; however, the five-mile-range models would be ideal. And they could be carried conveniently in a shirt pocket for instant access.
Since FRS radios have undergone much improvement during the past 15 years, current models offer up to 35-mile ranges and voice-operated transmission (VOX) capabilities. Let me say up front that not all manufacturers or all their models offer 35-mile range radios. And even radios with such lengthy advertised ranges will rarely transmit and receive at that distance, because of obstructions that weaken or block the signal. Some models have other features and offer shorter ranges; however, all manufacturers offer models with much longer ranges than the original two-mile and five-mile distances.
Since I live in Arizona and the desert is not as flat as many people think, there is no adequate clear, unobstructed line of sight to test a radio that boasts up to a 35-mile range. I’ve only been able to test the radios across the Colorado River valley between Arizona and Nevada.
My wife, Saraine, and I live on a hill overlooking Laughlin, Nevada, and our backyard has a direct unobstructed line of sight to the point where the highway to Las Vegas disappears into the hills. Since our Jeep has GPS, I was able to determine both the road mileage (11.4 miles) and the direct straight-line distance (8.0 miles) between the house and that point. With Saraine sitting in the backyard and me across the valley on the highway, I tested the effectiveness of each radio from inside and outside the vehicle. It may not have been a perfect situation, but I believe it provided a good test for the radios meant to be used between vehicles. The transmission from all five radios was understandable over the distance involved, and I doubt that anyone will be traveling in caravans that are longer than eight miles long from nose to tail. The Cobra CXR925, the Motorola MJ27OR, and the Uniden GMR2889-2CK all provided clear transmissions on both ends of the conversation from inside and outside the vehicle. The Garmin Rino 530HCx appeared to be broken up for some reason. I also test a new type of two-way radio (see sidebar), the TriSquare TSX 300-2VP, and it produced some static.
I tested only handheld radios with VOX capability. I decided that VOX capability would be useful to motorhomers driving on the highway in a caravan, as they would be able to converse without dialing or pushing buttons. Just talk and ye shall be heard. However, remember that these radios utilize what is called simplex transmission, which means a signal cannot be received on a radio that is transmitting. (We’ve all seen the World War II radio guys saying “over” after every transmission “” it lets the people at the other end(s) know they are through talking.) Regardless of whether you’re using VOX or pushing a button to talk, you must be courteous and wait for the other person to finish before you start talking. Duplex transmission is now used in speakerphones so that both sides of the conversation can be heard by both sides simultaneously.
VOX, in my opinion, is much easier to use when you’re trying to back into a campsite with directions from a spouse or partner, when hooking up the towed vehicle, or for those rare occasions when you have to drive the motorhome and the towed vehicle separately. Voice-actuated transmissions allow two or more people to converse easily and normally, as they would face-to-face, without having to hold a radio up to their lips or push a button to transmit. Just turn on the radio, put it in your pocket, and talk. Cool, huh?
The accompanying radio comparison chart lists only those models I tested (one pair from each company). Visit the companies’ Web sites to see what other models they offer, most of which will have less range than the test models and are less expensive. The prices of all the radios listed in the chart are for a pair of radios, except for the Garmin unit; the manufacturer’s suggested retail price provided is for one Rino 530HCx. However, the Rino is the only unit that also includes an integrated GPS receiver, which can provide you with your coordinates and the coordinates of your companions.
What is FRS/GMRS?
FRS is one of the Citizens Band Radio Services. According to the FCC, it is utilized by family, friends, and associates to communicate within a neighborhood and while on group outings. You cannot make a telephone call with an FRS unit. You may use your FRS unit for business-related communications.
General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) is a land-mobile radio service available for short-distance two-way communications. According to the FCC, it may be used by an individual for two-way voice communication service to facilitate the activities of the individual’s immediate family members (adults, spouses, children, parents, grandparents, etc.).
Several manufacturers have received approval to market radios that are certified for use in both FRS and GMRS. Channels 1 through 7 are shared by the two services; channels 8 through 14 are FRS only; channels 15 through 22 are GMRS only. Other manufacturers have received approval of their radios under the GMRS rules but market them as FRS/GMRS radios on the basis that some channels are authorized for use on both services, and a user of the radio may communicate with stations in the other service. The manual that comes with the radio, or the label placed on it by the manufacturer, should indicate the service for which the unit is certified. If you cannot determine for what service the unit may be used, contact the manufacturer.
FRS and GMRS radios have some advantages over cell phones and CB radios. There are no charges for airtime, no monthly contracts, and no per-call charge as you would have with a cell phone. And users will find that there is less static and interference than when communicating with CB radios. In addition, they are lighter and more compact than CBs and are easy to operate.
License documents are neither needed nor issued to use FRS radios. You are provided authority to operate an FRS unit in places where the FCC regulates radio communications as long as you use only an unmodified FCC-certified FRS unit. An FCC-certified FRS unit has an identifying label placed on it by the manufacturer. There is no age or citizenship requirement. In truth, if you use these radios in the GMRS mode (channels 1 through 7 and channels 15 through 22), a license is required. However, it’s a “no-test” license (must be 18 years old and submit an $85 fee). You may operate your FRS unit within the territorial limits of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia. You also may operate your FRS unit on or over any other area of the world, except within the territorial limits of areas where radio communications are regulated by another agency of the United States or within the territorial limits of any foreign government.
FRS radios have a maximum power of 500 milliwatts effective radiated power and have integrated antennas. GMRS radios generally transmit at higher power levels “” 1 to 5 watts is typical “” and may have detachable antennas.
I also need to say something about privacy codes. Each of these models offers a number of privacy codes, which when multiplied by the number of channels offered by that model results in the number of “private” conversations available when using that model. These codes offer no protection from eavesdropping and are only intended to help share busy channels. Other radios with the same channels and privacy codes can be added to the conversational mix. These radios can use subaudible tone squelch codes “” privacy codes “” to filter out unwanted chatter from other users on the same frequency. The codes do nothing to prevent desired transmissions from being covered up by stronger signals having a different code.
Author’s note: For more information about FCC rules and regulations regarding FRS and GMRS use, visit http://wireless.fcc.gov/services.
TriSquare eXRS Radios
TrSquare has taken two-way radio technology in a different direction with its eXtreme Radio Service (eXRS) series of radios.
The TriSquare eXRS (TSX100 and TSX300 models) is a new digital service that operates in the 900 MHz band and reportedly offers several advantages not found in standard FRS/GMRS radios.
According to TriSquare documentation, “eXRS radios offer from 1,000 to 10 billion channels depending on the model. Privacy is gained by the use of Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS) technology and the nearly impossible odds of choosing a channel that is in use by another eXRS radio that is in range. Because of frequency hopping technology, scanners cannot track your conversation. Crowded channels are a thing of the past.”
The TriSquare eXRS TSX300 radio uses a 10-digit channel code (TriSquare suggests using your home or cell phone number, because it’s easy to remember, although 100 group channels can be entered and titled) to determine a specific user group. Several radios can then be “cloned” to use the same channel-hopping frequencies. The “cloning” is accomplished by holding the radios next to each other (no cloning cable to lose). The TSX100 utilizes three-digit group channel codes. Both radios also include a phone book/contact list.
The eXRS TSX300 model offers two-way text messages of up to 80 characters, with four custom messages stored for instant or repeat sending. A specific signal alerts the user when a text message arrives. This model also includes caller ID, call waiting with notification, and 10 NOAA weather channels. The TSX300 can be used to talk with a group or an individual.
The range of the eXRS radios is the same as standard FRS/GMRS radios and is limited by the number of obstructions that can interfere with the transmission. TriSquare makes no claims about the range of its radios but does include this statement: “All good quality UHF radios are capable of operating over hundreds of miles under optimal conditions, but range on Earth is limited to much less by the physical environment and conditions of use. The conditions dictate that usable range is equivalent for all of these two-way radios and typically varies from a few thousand feet to several miles.”
“” JIM BRIGHTLY
Family Radio Communications “” PDF includes images, radio comparison chart, and FRS/GMRS frequencies chart.