Options, focusing primarily on Two-Way Radios
(with particular emphasis on options available in the United States and Canada)
Kevin Anderson, K9IUA, Dubuque, Iowa Version 1.0.3, Last Updated 12 October 2009
A topic that periodically comes up on the various RunningOnEmpty “Peak Oil” groups is that of wireless communication for use now and later when TSHTF. How will people stay in contact within the neighborhood, town, city, or across the country? And what can be used when cellular (mobile) telephone breaks down or is overloaded during an emergency? One answer is by using wireless two-way radios.
This document attempts to summarize the various wireless two-way radio communication options available today, which hopefully can be utilized tomorrow. The options listed focus primarily on those available in the United States, with some reference to North America (Canada and Mexico) and elsewhere. The discussion will be divided into the two major categories of license-free and licensed radio service. All radio services are regulated to some degree by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) in the United States or by its equivalent authority in other countries (such as Industry Canada in Canada and OFCOM in the UK).
Why Two-Way Radios?: The primary reason to use two-way wireless radios is that they don't rely on other infrastructure, both wired (e.g., Internet, telephone) and wireless (e.g., cell phones). Another very good reason is that permit both person-to-person and one-to-many communications. A third and fourth reason is that they are relatively light and portable, and don't necessarily cost a bunch to purchase (at least compared to computers). A fifth reason is that they don't require a monthly service fee to remain active like telephone and Internet subscriptions require. And a sixth reason is that they can be operated in most cases when the lights and electric mains are out.
But two-way radios are not without problems. They do require electricity to operate, whether by batteries or mains. Some radios can only operate by plugging into the electric grid, which means they are unusable when the power is out. Those that operate by battery do require one to have a sufficient supply of batteries on hand, and when they run out, you are also done operating the radio. A major problem is that they do represent technology, and rather sophisticated technology at that with respect to manufacturing. Only one of the radio services described here permit the owner/user to modify and build their own equipment; most are dependent on outside manufacturers to produce the radios. When those manufacturers disappear, so will the radios once they break. And most are using modern surface mounted parts and specialized integrated circuits, neither of which may be readily available to the average homebrewer or DIYer.
Regardless of these various pros and cons, it is still worth knowing about two-way radios as a communication alternative. I hope this document helps you to understand your options.
Disclaimers: This document, initially created by Kevin Anderson (Dubuque, Iowa), is for information only and is by no means intended as an authoritative document or intended to be necessarily complete or conclusive. Views and interpretations expressed are those of the author, and not intended to be authoritative. Responsibility for proper research and operation (licensing, observance of rules, etc.) of a radio service lies solely in the hands of each person who might utilize a radio service; and cannot be extended to the author of this document for liability. In the United States, anyone who uses a radio service must consult, be familiar with, and abide by the rules for each radio service as published by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC); in other countries, one must consult and follow the regulations of their respective communication authority. The author of this document expresses his desire that all people who utilize two-way radio for communication will be civil, be respective of others who share the use of the airways, and abide by all rules and regulations that may apply. The author in no way desires to promote or construe any support for the unlawful use of the airways, regardless of how civil and legislative control may appear to be functioning now and in the future.
Important Note Regarding Privacy of Radio Communication: It is important for all users of two-way radio services to realize that, for the most, anything you say over the air can be heard by others. In other words, there are truly no “private” conversations with the two-way radio services described here. Unlike cellular (mobile) telephone, or the various wired services (such as the public telephone switched system or the various Internet options, including VoIP), which can utilize encryption and other means to provide a sense of privacy, the radio services described here do not do so. Every user must be mindful of what they say and hear while using two-way radio, including the use of profanity and the sharing of confidential information. U.S. regulations also prohibit the use of ciphers and codes designed to deliberately hide the meaning of a message, although encoding methods (such as digitization using publicly defined methods) are permitted in some of the radio services; other countries will likely have similar rules. So, the short statement is to know that all use of the radios services described here should be considered “public” communication, as you have no idea who will be listening at any point in time. Don’t say what can’t or shouldn’t be heard.
License-Free Radio Services
The two-way radio services described here do not require a license from the FCC (or equivalent authority) to be used. Not all of these services are available outside the United States. They all require, however, that only Type-Accepted radios and communications devices recognized by the FCC (or comparable authority in one’s country) be utilized in each respective radio service, and usually denies the operator the ability to build or modify their own radios. Some of these radio services permit only radios that are self-contained (i.e., antenna included in the device itself), whereas some permit external antennas. All of these services have strict power limitations for the strength of signal transmitted, and all would be considered low-powered in comparison to the various licensed radio services.
Citizen Band (“CB”) Radio
Citizen Band radio, better known as “CB” radio, is the oldest of the license-free personal radio services. Many countries have something similar, although they may be defined to use FM (frequency modulation) transmissions instead of the AM (amplitude modulation) and SSB (single side band, a form of AM) transmissions used in the U.S. In Canada, CB radio is known as GRS, or General Radio Service, and is virtually identical to the U.S. service (and I believe U.S. and Canadian operators can talk to each other along the border). CB Radio gained popularity, and notoriety, for its use by over-the-road truckers in convoys and avoiding state troopers. Previously a licensed service in the U.S. (including the author having a license and assigned callsign in the early- to mid-1970s), licensing became unnecessary in the 1980s and regulation of the service changed to that of “regulation by rule.”
The CB radio service as discussed here is specifically referring to that service in the 26-27 Mhz frequency range and handled through 40 discrete channels, the U.S. implementation that was adopted by Canada and a few other countries. (Other countries, such as the UK, have an equivalent public or citizen’s equivalent, but implemented instead at higher UHF frequencies, which is not the same as what we are talking about here.) In the U.S., the FCC regulates CB radio by the rules published in 47 CFR 95 Subpart D. They are basically as follows: Signal modulation as either AM or SSB, limited to 4 watts output AM or 12-watts output SSB from the transmitter, using only FCC type-accepted equipment, with external antennas permitted that are no more than 20 feet taller than a structure or more than 60 feet overall above the ground, and a strict prohibition on linear amplifiers. Rules also permit the use of a pseudonym for your name, and the use of 10-Codes as operating aids (e.g., 10-4 for “roger”). Both hand-held radios, mobile mounted radios, and table-top base stations are permitted.
General range for a typical short stub antenna on a hand-held transmitter or a single mobile whip antenna on a car will be from less than one mile to a mile or so for the hand-held to about 5 miles for the car mobile radio. Communications using SSB typically reach out a little longer than those in AM due to the higher peak-to-peak output power and narrower signal bandwidth. Roof mounted antennas will extend the range out further, both because the antenna used will be electrically and physically larger in size, which in turn uses more of the transmitters output to put out a stronger signal. The CB radio service in the U.S. even permits the use of “beam” (directional) antennas, which extend the signals even further, typically past several communities, if both parties in the conversation are using similar types of antennas. One neat thing about CB radio in the 27 Mhz frequency range is that radio signals are subject to potential long-distance communication, cross-country and over multiple states, during times of ionospheric skip, although by regulation you are prohibited in the U.S. from communicating with other radio stations more than 250 km (150 miles) away.
A major advantage of CB radio, besides the potential community-wide distances and inter-community communications that are possible, especially with rooftop, outdoor antennas, is the widespread availability of equipment. Even the oldest of U.S. CB equipment can still be used (although 23-channel radios are technically not up-to-date) as long as it was designed and type-accepted for CB use, hasn’t been modified, is not connected to a linear amplifier, and is within specs for output power and modulation. That means there is lots of equipment around, with new equipment also available. And fortunately with the die-down of popularity from its earlier years, the channels are not as crowded as they were at one time. Negatives about using CB radios include the cost in batteries for handheld equipment (due to the higher output powers and use of AM transmission) and the somewhat largish antennas needed for any amount of distance.
Family Radio Service (FRS)
FRS has definitely caught on as the more common personal radio services today, next to that of cell phone use. In the U.S., all the major department and discount stores, plus mail-order distributors such as Amazon, seem to sell pairs of FRS radios for use by families to keep in touch while at the park, camping, hunting, while shopping at the mall or at the fairgrounds, or by children playing in the neighborhood. Relatively cheap, with some models including extra features such as rechargeable batteries and reception of NOAA weather radio, they provide a cost-effective means for local communication (up to a few blocks in most urban situations, or possibly a mile or more over open water or truly flat terrain without vegetation). Many countries are now adopting similar forms of FRS communication, although the equipment is not entirely identical to that used in the U.S. and should only be used within the country of intended use.
FRS radios are limited to hand-held self-contained transceivers with an attached short antenna that cannot be removed, and that generate no more than ½ watt (500 milliwatts) of output. Transmissions are frequency modulated (FM) signals in the UHF, 462 and 467 Mhz frequency bands, and divided among 14 individual narrow channels. All fourteen channels are shared and open for use, and may be used to communicate with other FRS radios and also GMRS radios (see below).
One of the “features” of FRS radios that manufacturers and resellers like to tout is the so-called “privacy” codes that supposedly provide more than the specified 14 frequency channels. Don’t be mislead by this advertising – these are neither privacy codes nor do they increase the number of channels. These “privacy” codes really represent a selective calling feature that keeps the receiver squelched (muted) unless a transmission is received with a specific sub-audible selective code sent along with the signal. In other words, you only hear those you want to hear (sharing the same frequency and specific selective calling code), and not everyone who may actually be using that frequency. Your actual transmission is still in the clear, able to be heard by anyone who has their receiver unsquelched (open the mute). And you are still limited to using, and sharing, just one of the 14 channels at any point in time.
Another “feature” of many of the FRS radios being sold today in the U.S. is that they are labeled as FRS/GMRS radios, which means they are type-accepted to operate in both the FRS and GMRS radio services in the U.S. (See below for the GMRS, which is a licensed radio service.) FRS/GMRS radios have more channels, 22 instead of 14, because they can transmit on both the 14 FRS channels and on 8 GMRS frequency channels. While operating on the GMRS channels, which requires a license, these radios are also potentially capable of transmitting at more than the ½ watt of the FRS service. The radios, as they were designed, operate primarily within the GMRS radio, but also be able to communicate at the lower powered ½ watt of the FRS for inter-service communication. Operators of these radios, if they are not licensed in the GMRS, must make sure they only operate on channels 1 through 14, and only with a power setting of ½ watt or less; unfortunately the radio won’t necessary prevent this potential for abuse. While a good idea, unfortunately I see these FRS/GMRS radios as ripe for abuse and misuse, which in turn could put at risk in the availability of the FRS for public use.
Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS, United States Only)
A newer personal radio service that is starting to gain popularity in the U.S., especially now that equipment is becoming available at commodity prices, is the Multi-Use Radio Service, or MURS. This is a U.S. only personal radio service, with no other country having an equivalent that I am aware of. MURS comes out of a 2003 “refarming” of five specific VHF frequencies that previously were allocated to the business/industrial band (known then as the “color dot” frequencies, based on how each frequency was identified by a specific color). These five channels, in the 151 and 154 Mhz bands, are now available for both personal and business communications on a shared basis. Both voice and limited data communications are possible, using narrow-band FM signals of no more than 2 watts in output power, using only type accepted equipment designed for MURS that was designed since 2000. (By “limited data communications,” what is typical is the sending of a brief coded digital signal to unlock a gate, open a remote garage door, turn on or off a switch or pump, etc., and not data communications such as computer networking.) Both radio mounted and external antennas are possible, which means local communications of several blocks to a few miles might be possible depending on local terrain, vegetation, buildings, and type of antenna used. I have not yet tried MURS, but it seems like an interesting cross between several radio services and offers great potential for neighborhood and small-community based personal radio services. Radios that are currently being manufactured and sold include various handheld transceivers (some with paging capability, NOAA weather radio, etc.), “intercom” radios that might be used by a receptionist or someone at a desk or next to a phone, public safety “call boxes” of the type seen on college campuses or in public places, paging “alert” buttons, and receivers connected to public address speakers for making announcements. All of these suggest some creative uses of a network of these radios.
Miscellaneous Part 15 Devices (U.S. only; other countries may have similar by a different name)
“Part 15” refers here to a set of FCC regulations in the U.S. that govern the miscellaneous very low power devices that emit radio signals under an unlicensed basis and may be either intentional or unintentional emitters of radio frequency signals. Included here are all manner of devices, including so-called baby monitors, cordless telephones that might have an intercom capability, computer devices such as wireless access points that might be setup in an ad-hoc network running a flavor of VoIP, and newer emerging systems such as the eXRS 900-Mhz digitally encoded, frequency hopping spread spectrum radios being promoted by a few radio manufacturers. Most will be very low-power, using VHF or UHF frequencies (typically 47-49 Mhz, 900 Mhz, and 2.4 Ghz, with more recently stuff around 5 Ghz) , and not intended to be a radio service per se, but can function that way by creative people in a local area. This section also encompasses micro-powered unlicensed broadcasts in the AM and FM radio bands, including intentional very low power radio “stations” and one-way in-car transmitters for devices such as XM/Sirius satellite radio receivers, MP3 players, or hands-free mobile phones. Bluetooth is also a Part 15 form of communication.
The most important aspect of Part 15 devices that must be remembered is that these devices cannot interfere with any other licensed or unlicensed radio service recognized by the FCC, and warrant no protection from (and must accept all) interference from these other radio services recognized by the FCC.
Licensed Radio Services
The two-way radio services described in this section all require licensing of some sort for the operators from an appropriate government authority (FCC in the case of the U.S.). This licensing process usually involves the payment of one or more fees, with the license extended over a multi-year, but limited, period of time (typically 5 or 10 years), with renewal require at the end of a licensed period in order to continue. Some of these radio services require one or more tests to be successfully passed to acquire the license in the first place. The operator(s) in each radio service is typically given a callsign identifier to be used with each communication according to the rules in each radio service. In return for all these regulations, the operators in these licensed radio services are typically given more privileges as compared to the license-free services, such as more output power and/or ability to modify or build one’s own equipment. Being these are licensed radio services, there is also more obvious monitoring of users on these services by the FCC and others in authority to make sure that proper operations and adherence to all rules and regulations are observed.
This discussion is further broken down between the more common licensed radio services and those less frequently used by private citizens because of their more specific intended use and audience.
Licensed Services that are available to most for personal/private use:
General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS)
According the FCC, the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) is “a land-mobile radio service available for short-distance two-way communications to facilitate the activities of an adult individual and his or her immediate family members, including a spouse, children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, and in-laws.” GMRS is a U.S.-only licensed service, although I believe that Canada is in the process of developing such a radio service that is similar in scope. Operators within an immediate family share the same license, and identify their transmissions with the same assigned callsign. GMRS operators with different licenses may also communicate with each other, typically as mobile-to-mobile communications, as long as each is separately licensed and identify themselves by their assigned callsign. Licenses are good for five years, and require a fee to be paid to receive the license or get a renewal. GMRS permits both hand-held and mounted transceivers, including external antennas on structures or on a car. GMRS transceivers of the hand-held variety typically output signals from 1-5 watts, with power up to 50 watts permitted. GMRS does permit repeaters, with is a combination receiver and higher-powered transmitter (up to 50 watts) that receives the weaker signals from the lower-powered hand-held and mobile transmitter and retransmits it on an adjacent GMRS frequency pair at the higher power, extending the effective range of a signal. GMRS radios use narrow-band FM signals on 23 possible frequency channels in the 462 and 467 Mhz bands. Seven of the GMRS channels overlap with the lower-powered FRS service, permitting inter-service radio communication. [See the discussion above, in the section on FRS, regarding FRS/GMRS dual-service radios being sold to the public.]
GMRS equipment is definitely more expensive, especially if one is using more than just the FRS/GMRS dual-service radio. GMRS is also a licensed service, which applies to all users. In return, users are permitted to operate with higher powers, which definitely extend the range of communication. GMRS remains, however, primarily a “local” radio service (where in this case “local” could mean 5 to 20 miles if outdoor antennas mounted on top of structures and/or repeaters are used along with the hand-held and car mobile radios). Being that UHF frequencies are used, they are “line of sight” with some ability to penetrate into buildings.
Amateur Radio Service (aka Ham Radio)
The grand-daddy, and by far most flexible and powerful, of radio services available for personal communications is the Amateur Radio Service, often known by its common name of “ham radio.” Almost all countries in the world have an implementation of amateur radio, authorized by international treaties and national regulations, with its operators permitted to talk with other. Amateur is a licensed service, with most countries, also by treaty, requiring would-be operators to pass one or more tests of technical knowledge, regulation, and operating procedures. In return for showing one’s ability through testing, ham radio operators are permitted in most countries to build and modify their own equipment, including designing equipment from the ground up, and operate at much higher powers. (For instance, in the U.S., amateur radio operators can generate signals up to 1,500 watts in PEP (peak-to-peak) power, which directional gain antennas can further enhance to put out yet a higher effective power.) Amateur radio also operates on a wide range of frequencies, from HF (high frequency) in the so-called “shortwave” band up through the VHF and UHF frequencies to SHF (super high frequency) and beyond.
Most amateur radio activity hovers around two forms: local communications using VHF and UHF frequency ranges similar to that of the other radio services (FRS, GMRS, MURS) described in this document, and global communications using the HF frequencies. In this regard, amateur radio is also similar to the marine radio service described below, and is comparable in age and technology used. Amateur radio operators are also active in ham radio clubs of various types, focusing on types of operation or serving a local area. Often times the local club will also provide and maintain a 2 meter or 440 Mhz repeater to help boost the hams using hand-held and car mobile VHF and UHF receivers. Most amateur radio transmissions are in voice, using variously FM, AM, or SSB modulations depending on the frequency in use, but also includes multiple forms of data or digital communications such as good-ole Morse code, computer data, images and pictures, telemetry and GPS locational information, and so on. Amateur radio operators also built what was the early version of today’s wireless computer networks. The possibilities are endless, with both practical communications and experimentation taking place, include fun things like local and international contests and also just the sheer joy of talking over wireless to someone hundreds of miles away or in another continent. Amateur radio operators are also very active in public service and public safety, and often serve as back-up communication during times of disaster and in support to other public safety entities.
Key points to remember about amateur radio, if you want to consider this option: all transmissions are by licensed operators only (with the license granted to an individual, and not to a family as in the GMRS); most licenses requires tests to be passed; all transmissions must be properly identified by callsigns (which are known internationally through databases, so no one is anonymous) and “free and clear” of any attempt to hide or cipher meaning. Operators must make sure that all their equipment meets the regulations and spectral requirements of their country’s rules, as there is no equivalent to “type accepted” equipment in the amateur radio service.
In the United States, amateur radio operators are currently licensed to one of three possible categories of license. These licenses are hierarchical, in that each level adds additional privileges to the holder of the license, with each type of license requiring its own written test to pass. The three license levels in the U.S. are known as the Technician, General, and Amateur Extra (or just “Extra”). A ham radio operator in the U.S. currently must pass the test for a Technician (known as the Element 2 exam) to be licensed as a Technician, pass both the tests for Technician and General (Element 3 exam) to be licensed as General, and similarly pass all three tests for Technician, General, and Extra (Element 4 exam) to be licensed as Extra. Being licensed as a Technician grants the least privileges, with Extra granting the full set of privileges provided by the FCC in the U.S. for the amateur radio service; operators licensed as General get a mix of privilege in between the highest and lowest levels.
According to the ARRL, the national organization of amateur radio operators in the U.S., the three license categories are described thusly (http://www.arrl.org/FandES/ead/classes.html),
Technician Class License. You can get an entry level Amateur Radio Technician license by passing a 35-question multiple-choice examination. No Morse code test is required. The exam covers basic regulations, operating practices, and electronics theory, with a focus on VHF and UHF applications.
Technician Class operators are authorized to use all amateur VHF and UHF frequencies (all frequencies above 50 MHz). Technicians also may operate on the 80, 40, and 15 meter HF bands using Morse code, and on the 10 meter band using Morse code, voice, and digital modes. No Morse code test is required.
General Class License. The General Class license offers a giant step up in operating privileges. The high-power HF privileges granted to General licensees allow for cross-country and worldwide communication.
Technicians may upgrade to General by passing a 35-question multiple-choice examination. The written exam covers intermediate regulations, operating practices, and electronics theory, with a focus on HF applications. You must successfully pass the Technician exam to be eligible to sit for the General class exam. No Morse code test is required.
In addition to the Technician privileges, General Class operators are authorized to operate on any frequency in the 160, 30, 17, 12, and 10 meter bands. They may also use significant segments of the 80, 40, 20, and 15 meter bands.
Amateur Extra Class License. The HF bands can be awfully crowded, particularly at the top of the solar cycle. Once you earn HF privileges, you may quickly yearn for more room. The Extra Class license is the answer. Extra Class licensees are authorized to operate on all frequencies allocated to the Amateur Service.
General licensees may upgrade to Extra Class by passing a 50-question multiple-choice examination. No Morse code test is required. In addition to some of the more obscure regulations, the test covers specialized operating practices, advanced electronics theory, and radio equipment design.
More detailed information about the privileges of each license class and requirements for licensing can be found at www.arrl.org/arrlvec/license-requirements.html.
Other countries have similar licensing requirements. The most common being a two-level licensing system adopted by the CEPT (a European telecommunications agency) that separates VHF-only licensed operations (variously called a Class B or similar basic license) from VHF/HF full operations (known as a Class A or similar license). Many countries also permit the ability for licensed amateur radio operators to operate from a different country by either a treaty arrangement that grants local operating authority based on their home-country license, or by issuance of an actual license from their country. International treaty arrangements also permit the exchange of “third-party messages” (i.e., a message from or intended for another individual who is not one of the two licensed operators currently communicating) between many (but not all) of the world’s countries.
Amateur radio is clearly the most expansive and permissive of the radio services described in this document. Equipment for amateur radio varies in cost from very inexpensive simple radios that can be used for local FM voice person-to-person communication or worldwide communication using Morse Code that a person builds from a kit, up to commercially manufactured radios for ham radio that are the most sophisticated around and costing $10,000 or more. Amateur radio in many countries also permits the use of linear amplifiers and very extensive outdoor antenna arrays that themselves cost many thousands of dollars for those times when one knows a radio contact must get through to the other side of the world. The key for most worldwide communication is in the design of the antenna, not the cost of the radio, where the antenna can be as simple as a wire dipole up 30 feet from the ground and strung between two tress, but oriented just right and of just the right length to maximize performance on a particular shortwave frequency. In this regard, amateur radio is a technical radio service, not just a simple plug-and-operate service, which won’t suit all potential users.
Licensed Services intended for specific user groups, and typically not used for other general communication:
Marine Radio Service
Most every country in the world has some form of a maritime radio service, especially if they have navigable waterways such as canals, major rivers, and lakes, as well as sea-going vessels. The marine radio service is also one of the oldest radio services, and has existed in some form (regulated or not) for a century. Many of the early two-way radio developments, dating all the way back to Marconi, were driven by needs of maritime users, and has a long tradition of public safety use, dating back to the first users of “SOS” and “Mayday”.
Marine radio use is in two major forms – VHF frequencies for communication of a short-distance nature and in places like harbors, aboard ship, and along inland waterways, and HF (or shortwave) frequencies for sea-going vessels and other long-distance communication. All are strictly licensed and regulated by both international treaties and national laws. A variety of license categories exist to divide users into various groups based on technical expertise and form of use, and many require license exams that must be passed.
Of particular interest in this discussion, at least in the U.S., is the availability of an unlicensed portion of this service while on boats using low-power VHF radios. If you are on a boat not regulated by the U.S. Coast Guard for commercially carrying passengers, then you usually don’t need a license to operate one of these radios. The marine VHF frequencies (156 – 162 Mhz) are short-distance line-of-sight communications. The frequency range is divided into fixed channels, with certain channels set aside for specific uses. Several channels however can be used for boat-to-boat, within boat, and some limited boat-to-shore communications of a marine or public-safety nature. Both hand-held and mounted radios are accepted for this type of operation by the FCC. All radios used in this service must be type-accepted by the FCC for the marine radio service. If this fits your situation, then this is an option for you.
Various Business and Industrial Radio Services
In the United States, there is a plethora of radio services and frequency bands set aside in the VHF and UHF frequency bands for business, commercial enterprises, and industrial users for use in carrying out their business functions. These encompass all manner of business and commercial users, and grew out of radio communications first used by trucking firms and taxi companies. All users of these radio services are licensed, and limit the nature of communication to specific groups of users that fall under a given license. For instance, an individual business is licensed to one or a few specific frequencies, and that business normally does not communicate with license holders of another business. The business and industrial users are one of the major radio services, where we are seeing a widespread shift from previous “analog” (typically FM-based) transmissions to that of the newer “digital” encoding methods, which also permits the mixing of both voice-based and digital-based messages to be sent over the same system. Repeaters, which extend the reach of hand-held transceivers, are also in widespread use by companies and businesses that cover a broader territory. Equipment for use in these radio services, however, are very expensive, particularly the newer digital-based radios, and must always be type-accepted for this type of radio service.
C. Other Radio Resources of Note:
While the following radio systems are not two-way radio systems, they do represent important radio sources that should be part of any viable wireless radio-based communication system.
NOAA Weather Radio and WeatherRadio Canada
Both the United States and Canada have an extensive network of VHF 162 Mhz radio transmitters that broadcast continuous weather information. More important, these weather radio transmitters serve as major distribution components in national “all-hazards” radio networks. These function as part of a comprehensive local, regional, state/provincial system, which in the U.S. is known as the Emergency Alert System. Weather radios should be used in all two-way radio systems at key points in your communication network to help make sure you and your neighbors have the latest weather and disaster information.
AM (Medium Wave) and FM Broadcast Radio
Don't discount good old broadcast radio for news and information. Most AM and FM broadcast stations have a role in disseminating information as part of the national Emergency Alert Systems. Every state has a series of radio stations defined as key or primary relay stations when the EAS is activated, with all the others serving strictly as receiving stations. It would be good for you to learn of these stations through your respective state emergency response plan. It is also good for you to listen enough at night to learn of the AM (medium wave) stations that come in from long distance, particularly the so-called “clear channel” 50,000-watt major network stations in the lower half of the dial, as they will represent a potential source of information and news from outside your immediate area. For instance, I've been consistently listening every evening after the sun sets for the past year to CBC Radio 1 as broadcast from CBW, 990 khz, Winnipeg, Manitoba, a distance of about 600 miles.
International Shortwave Broadcast Radio
And don't forget the value of having at least one decent shortwave receiver in your communication network. While the number of international broadcasts in English and directed to audiences in North America has significantly declined, international broadcasters do still exist. The major international broadcasters, particularly the U.K. BBC and the U.S. VOA (Voice of America), will probably find a way to remain on the air into the future, and possibly some of the others from countries such as China, Russia, and maybe Australia (all of which have large domestic areas to be served, often best by shortwave radio instead of local radio). If the major domestic radio networks break down in the future, such as from the loss of digital networks and/or satellites, it may once again fall to shortwave broadcasters to bridge the distance to still get national and international news. I just hope when the time comes that the major shortwave broadcasting facilities will not have been all dismantled before they are once again called upon to fill in during a major disaster or loss of today's major technological networks.
Not the End-All...
While the purpose of the document is to educate and promote the use of two-way radios for people facing tomorrow's world after Peak Oil for preparedness and safety, the author recognizes that two-way radio is not the end-all solution or panacea for all communication needs. To me, the best prepared person or community is one who has recognized the possibility, even the likelihood, of no technologically-based communication at all. Eventually, despite all science fiction fantasies to the contrary, I predict a world were communication will once again be by spoken work, person-to-person and face-to-face, and hopefully still by written letters in some form of postal service. Radio-based communication will be absent, due both to a lack of electricity and no production of needed parts. Hopefully that day will be later, rather than sooner, and not brought about by some extreme event or collapse of society. But one should be prepared for that day nonetheless.
A Note about External Antennas, Home Owner Associations (HOAs), and Safety
Several of the radio services described in this document permit (and may possibly even depend) on the use of external antennas to be effective. Most of the time these may be short whip antennas attached to a vehicle or boat by some type of car-top magnetic mount or bolt-mounted directly to the hull. But many times one will want to mount an antenna on the roof of a structure or to a adjacent tower or pole. Home or condo owners or renters who are part of a newer housing subdivision, particularly those who pay membership fees to an association, will want to check their deed or rental agreement to see if external antennas are even permitted before you embark on such a project.
An unfortunate trend (at least from the perspective of two-way radio users) for several decades now is the existence of home owner associations (HOAs) and other planned housing subdivisions that have codes, covenants, and deed restrictions (CCRs) attached to the property. These are legally binding documents that control the nature of living in the subdivision, and almost always limit the modifications one can make to a house or how one can utilized their outdoor space. Peak-oil followers and other people concerned about living in the future have many times already run into these restrictions when they tried to have an outdoor vegetable garden or put up clothes line to dry laundry. The same restrictions also apply to outdoor antennas of the type used in two-way radio, which most HOAs and deed restrictions prohibit outright. While the U.S. Federal government does provide some protection by overriding local regulations to permit small antennas or dishes for the reception of over-the-air television, the same protection is not provided to other types of antennas. Many municipalities also have regulations that often limit the height of a tower put up in a residential area. While many states are developing laws that override these restrictions for two-way radios, the likelihood of outright nationwide permission is unlikely to happen. All I can say is that all home owners should check their deed and rental agreements, as it is very hard, in most cases, to get overrides on these restrictions. After all, you signed the contract that said you would abide by these arrangements. Ultimately you may need to avoid altogether the living and purchasing of property in these types of areas; fortunately the tendency, I would hope, for most people aware now of peak oil and the changes coming is to avoid these areas anyway. But I nonetheless need to give you these cautions and warnings.
Finally, a safety caution regarding external antennas – two-way radio equipment, antennas, and electrical power lines do not mix. Practice safety at all times and do not go near any power lines with antennas (even making sure that they cannot fall over or blow onto a power line). A good suggestion is to have a second person nearby at all times when you are repairing radios with high voltage power supplies or while working on external antennas who can call for emergency services should you get injured or in trouble while working on an antenna. That person, however, should not touch you if you are still in contact with a power line, and should instead seek qualified emergency personnel who are trained for such rescues. Be safe, not sorry.
Links for More Information
The primary source for authoritative information on the rules and regulations for personal radio communication services in the United States is the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau of the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) --
Bureau home page:
Description of the Personal Radio Services:
Part 95, covering the rules and regulations for Personal Radio Services
Regarding Amateur Radio in the United States --
FCC description of the Amateur Radio Service:
Part 97, covering rules and regulations for Amateur Radio:
Home page for the ARRL (American Radio Relay League), the national organization:
Regarding Amateur Radio and other services in Canada --
RAC, Radio Amateurs of Canada, their national organization:
Industry Canada's webpage on Amateur Radio, with links to other radio services:
A PDF document put out by Industry Canada describe the General Radio Service:
And a web page developed by a club that provides an overview of radio services and frequency usage in Canada:
Information on the NOAA Weather Radio network:
Information on WeatherRadio Canada:
One particular online and catalog-based distributor of the various radios described in this document, to provide a sample of what is available and their relative costs:
A sample online vendor radios for the MURS radio service: