Best commo options without a license?

Discussion in 'Survival Communications' started by Beano, Apr 12, 2013.

  1. Beano

    Beano Monkey

    I would like to know short suggestions from everyone on what they believe to be the best option for preparedness communications without requiring licensing. Things I am taking into account are:

    Portability; Range; Availability of power source; widest range of use

    If there is something I am missing, I would love to know that, as well. This is one area of my preps in which I am completely lacking.
  2. BTPost

    BTPost Stumpy Old Fart,Deadman Walking, Snow Monkey Moderator

  3. Does anyone know what brand of FRS/GMRS radios have the worst reputation, and which have the better (particularly the former)?

    Most know that the claimed range of those units are largely bullshit even under "ideal" conditions (because the only real ideal condition is on paper, while calculating the free-space loss), but I've heard some manufacturers are particularly crappy (whether it be bad sensitivity on the receivers, or whatever other design defect).

    I had some Motorola units a few years back (which got stolen from me.... :| ) that sucked real bad. I could barely even get 1/4 mile range on those things on a wide-open sod farm, so 36 miles my ass.....

    I'm thinking about getting another set just for the hell of it (because I bought some nifty ["tactical"] throat microphones that go with them that I never get to use), and am looking for brands to stay away from.
  4. DKR

    DKR Raconteur of the first stripe

    I wrote this as a guest blog post for a friend that runs another site related to prepping.​
    Communication and signaling

    Communication is more than a cell phone. In this segment, I cover communications planning, alternate means of communication and the 'how it works' of commonly available communication equipment. Specifically, MURS, GRMS, CB, FRS and Ham radio - all are discussed at length in the book. I even discuss crystal radios for fun and battery free listening.

    Why planning?

    Years ago, I lived in Las Vegas - and at the time that time (mid to late 80s) the gangs and their seemingly non-stop drug turf wars were making the area quite dangerous to just go out and about. We had driven down a major road late in the evening, and the tires began to make a crunching noise - I stopped and put out my searchlight.

    The road was covered with center-fire cartridges. Mostly 9mm, but with a sprinkling of 7.62x39 thrown in for good measure. It seemed odd, but at the time, I wrote it off as maybe someone had dropped a bucket of range pickings off the back of their pickup truck. As we drove on, we heard a mass of sirens approaching.

    The next day, I mentioned this odd occurrence to a bud of mine who worked for the local PD. He asked the place and time- then turned pale. We have driven down the street in the quiet spot between when the shooting stopped and the cops showed up from a 911 call. A few minutes earlier and we could have driven into the middle of a firefight.

    I had just purchased a new ICOM 2SAT handheld, a nice ham radio - and one with a wide-band receiver, I was able to receive NOAA weather broadcasts and participate in the Air Force MARS system as well.

    My wife was unhappy with the expense of the radio, and I have to say, in retrospect, she had a right to be unhappy. To her, it was just an expensive toy.

    After this 'near death' experience, I quickly found I could monitor the local police dispatch calls on my new radio . One day shortly after that, we were on our way to a local computer store to pick up a part when the scanner reported an armed robbery in progress - in the very store we were going to visit! We were in the parking lot of the strip mall - quickly pulling up to a big box store, we ran inside - stopping in the paint isle. When folks asked why we were crouching behind the cans of paint, we explained about the armed robbery going on next door.

    Having the radio - and the real time information it could provide, we were saved from walking into an armed robbery in progress. After that - we didn't go anywhere without the scanner. Period. As a bonus, I never take any static on the purchase of new rigs - if they include a scanner function - because now my wife sees a radio not as a toy, but a important information gathering tool.

    So what does all this have to do with this planning?

    I had never taken the time to assess my needs for communications and what, if anything, the comm equipment I did have, could provide me in the way of information in a disaster. I knew about the NOAA weather radio stations, but hadn't given it much thought past that.

    I see this planning effort as a two part process, how do I gather information of use to me and how do I communicate with the people I need to contact?

    So, it was time to reassess my needs and see what I could live with and without. Here's a look at what communication assets are out there for information gathering, and how those assets can assist you.

    Public communications.

    I define this as public commercial broadcast reception of AM/FM and NOAA broadcasts. These are a good source of information, but for the most part, rarely provide detailed information in real time.

    For traffic reports, weather and weather alerts, a Sony SRF-M37W Walkman sport radio more than meets this need. Easy on batteries, and headphone only, it is AM/FM/NOAA weather compatible and is without a doubt the best little receiver I have for this band set. It runs on a single AAA battery, the only radio I own that uses this battery.

    Planning issues - The plus on these sources is that they are wide area, generally high power (easy to receive) and also can provide an entertainment component.

    The minus is that the 'news' and reports are rarely in real time and for the most part the commercial radio stations just regurgitate whatever the local police and fire 'press releases' contain. Nobody has reporters anymore.

    Another down side is that of trust. Has the information released to the public been screened to prevent 'embarrassment' of a public official or action taken by a political entity? You have seen the many and recent instances of bad or erroneous information put out over these outlets - so can you trust them for good data in a disaster?

    You can decide if these outlets are good enough for you - they most certainly are a source your neighbors will be listening to in a disaster.

    Public Service communications.

    This isn't just the cops anymore. Police, fire and utilities - here the power, water and sewer utilities are owned by the Muni - and they may be in your area as well. All of these services can have a direct and immediate impact on my life and that of my family. By monitoring these comm channels, I can gather additional information not contained in public press releases. I'm also experienced enough to know these comms may be less than accurate as well. But, just the same, it is information I want.

    Planning issues - You will need a wide-band scanner to receive these communications, and in many areas, the local law enforcement has used Homeland Security grants to add encryption to their everyday communications. You can check any number of scanner sites on the web for frequencies and technical characteristics of the comms in your area that are of interest to you. Some of these comms may be on so-called trunked systems, using a digital (P-25) common air interface. While scanners are sold that can easily receive trunked P-25 (and other) digital comms, they are not inexpensive and have a steep learning curve.

    Radio Reference dot com is a good source of local public service communication systems.

    Specialty communications.

    All the wealth of other comms carried by radio is out there - air traffic control, railroad, private security, and on and on. While I don't normally monitor these, I do have a 'book', listing the frequency, owner and the technical specs should I think this is something I want to monitor.

    Planning issues - You may be overwhelmed by the sheer number of licensed radio users in your area. Sorting out what can be of use to you is also a bit troublesome. For example, is the chatter between taxi drivers of any worth to you - day to day?

    Here it may be worth your time to see if there is a scanner club or like organization in your area to check with. Ham radio clubs often (but not always) have members knowledgeable on the local communications 'scene'. It doesn't hurt to ask.

    Amateur radio.

    I have enough portable equipment to cover all of the bands and modes of interest to me. Again, while information on a disaster might be carried on the ham bands, I also realize that the information may still be suspect. To be sure, if I lived in tornado country, I would have the SKY WARN channels selected to monitor in any bad weather.

    Planning issues - Amateur radio operators are, by law, not allowed to encrypt or otherwise disguise their communications. A basic scanner will allow you to listen in on any comms that are on going. A side note is that ham radio is a dying hobby in many ways, due in part I believe, to inexpensive cell phone service. Just the same - if you have a scanner to listen to police/fire/ambulance calls, a little bit of work will provide a list of all the active ham radio repeaters in your area. The Radio Reference site mentioned earlier has a tab for ham radio.

    Communicating with others

    Talking with people requires several things. A transmitter, and any required license to use that transmitter. The person you wish to communicate with must have equipment that is compatible with yours. You must have an agreed upon frequency or channel where you will meet and you both should know how to operate the equipment both lawfully and in a technically competent manner. Wow - sounds like a lot, eh?

    This can be as simple as both of you agree to meet on a CB or FRS channel at a certain time. Looking at MURS, GRMS, CB, FRS and Ham radio shows:

    MURS - The FCC website pretty much says it all:

    The Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS) is in the 151 – 154 MHz spectrum range. The most common use of MURS spectrum is short-distance, two-way communications using small, portable hand-held devices that function similar to walkie-talkies.

    Similar services include General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) and Family Radio Service (FRS).


    The Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS) dates back to 2002 when the FCC changed the rules for five industrial/business frequencies known as the “color dot” frequencies.


    The Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS) is licensed by rule. This means an individual license is not required to operate a MURS device. You can operate a MURS device regardless of your age and for personal or business use so long as you are not a representative of a foreign government.

    If you are interested, the FCC service rules for the Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS) are located in 47 C.F.R. Part 95.


    There are five MURS channels and the channels are either 11.25 kHz or 20.00 kHz each.
    151.820 MHz (11.25 kHz)*meets new narrow band requirement
    151.880 MHz (11.25 kHz)*meets new narrow band requirement
    151.940 MHz (11.25 kHz)
    154.570 MHz (20.00 kHz)
    154.600 MHz (20.00 kHz)

    Operating a Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS) Device

    You can operate a MURS device in any place where the FCC regulates radio communications. A MURS device must be certified by the FCC. A certified MURS device has an identifying label placed on it by the manufacturer.

    None of the MURS channels are assigned for the exclusive use of any system. You must cooperate in the selection and use of the channels in order to make the most effective use of them and to reduce the possibility of interference.

    No MURS unit, under any condition of modulation, shall exceed 2 Watts transmitter power output.

    Unlike FRS, you are allowed an external antenna, which will extend your range considerably.

    So, MURS - No license, 2 watts, VHF, no-restrictions on and external antenna okay. For non-hams, likely your best bet for limited range VHF-FM communications. A wide range of commercial equipment is available. See my noted below on the new FCC rules.

    GRMS - The General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) is in the 462 - 467 MHz spectrum range. The most common use of GMRS spectrum is short-distance, two-way communications using small, portable hand-held devices that function similar to walkie-talkies. Bowing to reality, in 2010, the FCC proposed to remove the individual licensing requirement for GMRS and instead license GMRS “by rule” - meaning that an individual license would not be required to operate a GMRS device. This proposal is still pending. There are currently 23 GRMS frequencies or channels.

    Operating a General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) System

    A GMRS system consists of station operators, a mobile station (often comprised of several mobile units) and sometimes one or more land stations. A small base station is one that has an antenna no more than 20 feet above the ground or above the tree on which it is mounted and transmits with no more than 5 watts ERP.

    None of the GMRS channels are assigned for the exclusive use of any system. You must cooperate in the selection and use of the channels in order to make the most effective use of them and to reduce the possibility of interference.

    You can expect a communications range of five to twenty-five miles.

    GMRS - Maybe no license, 5 watts, 23 channels, UHF, limited external antenna okay. For non-hams, likely your best next best bet for limited range UHF-FM communications. Remember, today, a license is still required. A wide range of commercial equipment is available.

    An important note on GMRS and MURS. Radios manufactured after November 13, 2000 are not legal on MURS, unless it was a purpose built for MURS (Type Accepted). Why? In an effort to promote greater spectrum efficiency, the FCC is requiring all Public Safety and Industrial/Business licensees using 25 kHz VHF and UHF radios systems migrate to minimum 12.5 kHz efficiency by January 1, 2013.

    So here we are. A lot of older commercial radios are currently flooding the market - and at very attractive price points. Before you buy anything, ensure it meets with current FCC bandwidth rules.

    FRS - Family radio service. Mandated low power (0.6 watt) and no external antenna allowed relegate this to the 'toy' category. Also known as "kiddie-talkies", they may be of some limited use in and around a campground to keep track of family members.

    CB or Citizen Band. Operating at the top end of the HF spectrum (27 Mhz), this service has been around - well, almost forever. Limited by law to 4 watts on AM modulation and 12 watts on SSB, it offers a solid choice for low-population rural areas. External antennas have no restrictions, offering a low-cost way to extend the range of your 'system. While expensive, I would say that a SSB system is the only viable type of CB to own or operate and have any expectation of communication with others in your family/group.

    Amateur Radio.

    This is the preferred disaster communication system. Entry level licenses are simple, code-free and easy to obtain. In many areas, ham clubs offer free testing. Licenses are good for 10 years. You will have access to multiple bands and impressive power levels. With this also comes the responsibility to operate your equipment within the rules and in a technically competent manner.

    Visit the American Radio Relay League | ARRL - The national association for AMATEUR RADIO website for more detailed information - it is far more than can be covered in this short posting.

    What other things should I worry about?

    No matter what equipment you decide on for your use, consider the following.

    Battery type. All of my equipment runs from "AA" batteries and I have the adapters/cables to run from 12VDC auto systems as well. If you have a piece of equipment that has a NiCAd or NiMH battery pack, ensure you can run it from a secondary power source - most personal communication radio sets have a "AA" battery tray to replace the NiCad or NiMH battery - buy it when you purchase the radio, you won't be sorry.

    Antennas - Or, rather, antenna connectors. No matter what you end up buying, get adapters to allow use of both BNC and co-called UHF cable plugs.

    Have a plan! All the radio equipment in the world is of no real use if everyone in your family/party cannot operate the radio. Plan ahead, write down the plan and practice with the radios. Children as young as 8 years old are more than capable of operating complex equipment - if you take the time show/train them. My son got his ham license - back in the day with the code test, at age 9.

    I was looking at ham radio equipment and man, is it expensive!

    I guess this is how you define expensive. Quality gear will cost some real money. Don't expect that Big Box store bubble pack radio to give you much in the way of good service - they are low cost for a reason. Quality, but older VHF FM radios can be had at a very good price point if you just look a bit. If you are not a real gear head, enlist the help of someone who knows their stuff - just as you would for any purchase of used equipment - chainsaw or radio.

    Why do you say the FRS a no-go?

    Originally pushed by Radio Shack, they were aiming for a UHF, no-license rule to sell low-cost radios. There are so many restrictions, from power to antenna types that the range is abysmal and there are so many users that in many areas, the service is all but useless. You have better choices - take them.

    Is CB any good to stay in touch while we travel?"

    Yes. Yes, it is. Even though I have an Extra Class ham license, I carry and sometimes use a small CB set to stay in touch with others as we travel, very convenient. Listening to the truckers adds an element of entertainment not often enjoyed. I have a quality magnetic mount external antenna I leave in the rig.

    What can I do to keep my commications on the ham bands private?

    Nothing. Any attempt to disguise your communications - in any service - is expressly prohibited by law. The FCC has no sense of humor I would add, fines start at $10K, for each infraction. Bad idea.

    That said, you can reduce the number of folks listening into your communications and do so quite legally. ICOM sells a series of D-STAR radios that feature digital communications. What? The D-STAR stands for Digital Smart Technologies for Amateur Radio. It is an open-source standard digital communication protocol established by JARL. Since it is an open source standard, it is legal to use. I don't know of any scanner that has S-STAR capability, so your communications have a low probability of intercept as we used to say.

    For HF, the AOR corporation sells the ARD series of 'voice modems'; a vocoder that goes between your mike and the SSB radio - you need a pair of these to work. Without the proper equipment, your communications are unintelligible. Again, perfectly legal. Both of these modes are expensive, so it is no cheap fix. In my book "World of the Chërnyi - Going Home" I have the characters use other, legal, means to communicate and reduce their chance of intercept.

    One last thought related to secure or private communications. Unless you are prepared to invest in a frequency-hopping, direct-sequence, spread spectrum radio system, legal by the way for hams, you are not going to have 'secure' communications. And if you emit any electromagnetic radiation (EM), over a very wide range of frequencies, you can be tracked and your location pinpointed. Face it, if an EC-130 Compass Call is out looking for you, you've already lost.

    Stay within the law and be a good communicator.

    If you want a fun no-battery, non-EM emitter radio receiver, look back in time to the crystal radio set. When set up, they do not need batteries, can be made to cover shortwave broadcast frequencies and are completely inert - that is to say, they do not emit any radiation.

    Build your own or buy a kit. I once took a group of Cub Scouts out into the desert around Las Vegas and we found everything needed to build a radio in the junk that people had thoughtlessly dumped out in the desert.

    Kits can be found here - KITS

    The XS-402 The Little Wonder Crystal Radio Kit is one of the smallest crystal radio kets I've seen, just the thing for your BOB.

    Hopefully you now have a better idea of your options for communications.
  5. VisuTrac

    VisuTrac Ваша мать носит военные ботинки Site Supporter+++

    @BushcrafterAnthony take a look at the iDen Secure comms thread here

    Ranges depending on terrain/obstructions 1-20Km real life monkey experiences. Clear line of sight 20km (nearly 13miles) but with hills, valleys, trees 1-3kms (1/2 to 2 miles). I'd expect big city to be in the 1-3km range also.

    Oh by the way, these units can't be listened into by just anyone with store bought FRS/GMRS handi talkies. Check the thread and related threads for more info. These are the best bang for your buck.
  6. David Spero

    David Spero Monkey

    GMRS is the most capable of the open bands (the others being FRS, MURS and CB). It allows for the most power, separate antennas, and repeaters.

    In theory you need a license for GMRS. In reality, no-one bothers these days, and the FCC has given up enforcing its licensing requirement. It plans to abolish the licensing requirement one of these days.

    Hope this helps

    David S.
  7. BTPost

    BTPost Stumpy Old Fart,Deadman Walking, Snow Monkey Moderator

    Except for GMRS Repeaters.... Stick on of those up, UnLicensed, that is in an area with a Licensed System, and the local FCC Resident Agent will be knocking on your Door, Soon enough.... .......
  8. techsar

    techsar Monkey+++

    Good write-up, but a couple of items stood out.
    Depends on which aspects, but overall the hobby seems to be doing rather least around here.
    Not true, especially if you are close to an airport.
    Only legal if you stop it from transmitting until you listen to the new frequency to ensure you are not interfering.

    I realize it may seem to be knit-picking, but the Rules are very strict, especially if you get caught violating them...if there is ANY doubt, do due diligence and research beforehand.
    kellory likes this.
  9. BTPost

    BTPost Stumpy Old Fart,Deadman Walking, Snow Monkey Moderator

    Actually there is NO need to monitor in "frequency-hopping, direct-sequence, spread spectrum radio system" because as the Emission is Hopping it uses an Internally different aggregate Spreading Code, that changes with each transmission, and is sent to whatever receiver is in Range in the First Hop, which allows the Receiver to lock in, and make the Second Hop, to the correct Frequency, and all subsequent Hops, to the appropriate Frequency. Since each Unit uses a different aggregate Spreading Code, No two Units using the same 1-15 or 10 Digit, Primary Spreading Code, there will be NO Interference, except on the very First Hop, which rarely effects co-channel transmissions, due to time domain differences, in common First Hop Channel usage. The one rule Requirement for use of the 902 -928Mhz Ham usage for these Units, is that there is a Maximum Output Power Limit, of 10 Watts, which is NOT really a problem, for Hams as these units are limited to 1 Watt Rf Power.
    kellory and DKR like this.
  10. Wheelsucker

    Wheelsucker Out of Airspeed, Altitude & Ideas

    That there is some mo kinda answer. Thanks.
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