Lately, I’ve been talking with people in search of basic radio communications for their friends or family. They end up talking to me because someone steered them to ham radio as a solution and I teach ham radio license classes. Of course, I am happy to pull them into the wonderful ham radio world but sometimes the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) might be a better way of meeting their needs.
I have a GMRS license and have written about it. See GMRS: The Other UHF Band. GMRS is a good fit for local communications, perhaps just using simplex or with repeaters, if available in your area. FCC regulations (Part 95) require you to have a license (and pay a fee) to use GMRS. Unlike ham radio, the license does not require you to pass an exam and the license is valid for you and your family members.
GMRS works well for family communication “around town” or some local area. Depending on the type of equipment used, simplex range of 10 or 15 miles is achievable, maybe more. The use of repeaters can extend this a lot further. You might even decide to put a GMRS repeater on the air, which is not too difficult of a project.
Another common use of GMRS is when a group is traveling down the highway in multiple vehicles. Yes, you might be able to just use your mobile phone to stay in touch but a two-way radio may be a better solution (especially when mobile phone coverage is poor or non-existent). Many off-road vehicle clubs have discovered GMRS and use it for communicating during trail rides.
GMRS is also a great tool for outdoor activities such as camping, hunting, hiking and skiing. It is a handy way of staying in touch with your tribe, while not depending on the mobile phone network.
GMRS Is Not FRS
GMRS often gets confused with the Family Radio Service (FRS). They both include the use of inexpensive, low-power handheld radios and they share many of the same frequencies. When the FCC authorized FRS, GMRS was already an established radio service and it squeezed FRS into the same band. FRS radios were limited to lower output power, so many manufacturers decided to offer combination FRS/GMRS radios, which operated at higher power levels. The user was supposed to obtain a GMRS license to use this type of radio but most people didn’t bother with it. (Most people probably didn’t even know of the requirement.) The FCC also specified 2.5 kHz (half deviation) FM for the FRS radios on the same channels as the existing 5 kHz deviation GMRS radios. Intermingling an unlicensed radio service with a licensed service was probably not a wise move. In general, the FCC regulations caused a lot of confusion between the two services.
In 2017, the FCC adopted a major revision to the GMRS rules to clean up some of the problems with the service. In particular, the regulations now prohibit the sale of combination FRS/GMRS radios. A great idea but a bit too late in the game.
The GMRS rules are pretty easy to understand, so take a look here: FCC Part 95 – Personal Radio Services
There are basic handheld transceivers for GMRS. They look and act a lot like the FRS radios that are widely available, but GMRS can provide more capability. An advanced handheld radio will have support for using repeaters (transmit offset) and higher power (up to 5 watts).
To dramatically improve the radio range, you can use GMRS mobile and base stations that can run even more power, up to 50 watts. More importantly, you can use external antennas on your vehicle or your house. These can make a huge difference in performance. (FRS is limited to handheld transceivers and the permanently-attached rubber duck antenna.)
For radio amateurs, this should all sound pretty familiar. GMRS looks and acts a lot like an FM transceiver on the 440 MHz (70 cm) band. It is a great alternative for local radio communications for people not interested in a technical hobby such as amateur radio.