Posts Tagged ‘GMRS’
There are almost as many GMRS licenses as Techs…
At a recent local hamfest, my ARRL Section Manager, Malcolm W5XX, held the annual ARRL Forum. As Division Director David Norris K5UZ was giving his update on the recent Board of Directors meeting. W5XX commented that a club in North Georgia had begun reaching out to licensees of the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). Why? There are some 8,000 of them in surrounding counties! Give a statistician a number like that and it’s catnip to a cat.
I had heard of GMRS and the lighter-weight Family Radio Service (FRS) as additional radio frequencies to the famous Citizen’s Band (CB) that I used as a teen. But I didn’t really know much about it. So, I spent parts of a week doing some searching, reading, and, inevitably, database building. I saw the wisdom of the club in question reaching out to this audience. Let’s do a thought experiment to flesh this out.
GMRS licensees use radios up to 50 watts on mobile stations and 15 watts in fixed stations in the mid-400 mhz region. There are limitations on the type of one-way communications (no whistling which would rule out most anyone in amateur radio tuning up an amplifier, lol). But in general, there are parallels to GMRS operators to those holding a Technician license in the Amateur Radio Service with the latter having much greater frequency access, power usage, and other aspects of the radio arts.
After doing some reading, I checked the FCC ULS GMRS license data. There’s an interesting comparison: the ARRL February 2023 numbers show 386,122 Technicians while individual GMRS licenses total 336, 513 after APO addresses and one Canadian are removed. Organizations and some other groups can obtain GMRS licenses. Roughly, there are about as many individual GMRS licensees as there are Technicians, give or take 50,000. Ok, I thought, this is surprising but how do they operate? Are they communicating amongst themselves as ham operators do? How many GMRS repeaters are there? The surprises just kept on coming!
The popular site, RepeaterBook.com, does list some GMRS repeaters. But the mother ship is the myGMRS.com website. One has to have a GMRS license to register but there ‘s enough information available to the public to show just how organized parts of the GMRS community already is. I’ve taken a screenshot of the map display, nicely done with clustering repeaters until a certain zoom level is reached, showing the GMRS repeaters in the U.S. Note those in Puerto Rico: I had recommended that the ARRL assist in getting a permanent repeater on the westernmost mountains near Mayaguez after a devastating hurricane. Perhaps even an HF ALE type station directed at Florida or North Carolina. Looks like the GMRS community has done some work here, too.
The map below illustrates the set of repeater hubs and their links around the U.S. There are national and regional Nets held regularly. An audio stream can be monitored using the website for each hub, not unlike Hoseline for the Brandmeister DMR Network. Hmm. If ham radio were only this organized, so quickly.
After downloading the February 2023 GMRS data from the FCC ULS ftp site, I processed it and filtered out the overseas military licenses. These records were then georeferenced to street addresses, with some that did not have street addresses geocoded to zip codes and a few to city centroids. The map below illustrates this: the GMRS individual license IS a compelling market for amateur radio recruitment.
It’s easy to see that the North Georgia region is part of the Appalachian Mountain range that is covered with GMRS licensees But so is most of the region east of the Mississippi River, the West Coast and the mountainous areas of the Southwest. Here’s another view zoomed in to the ARRL Delta Division where I live. Licensees in GMRS tend to follow population centers but note the areas, like Nashville, where the topography gives more height-above-ground than others. Northwest Arkansas is another such location. Interesting patterns!
We know little to nothing about the age distribution of GMRS licensees as year of birth is not contained in the ULS database released to the public (only 18 or over). But it stands to reason that GMRS licensees are likely to have a broader age range of adoption. From perusing the names on the licenses — license holders can authorize other family members to use additional radios in this Service — there are gendered-naming patterns. More women in GMRS than ham radio? Possibly.
Some interactive maps of these data are now available over at FoxMikeHotel.com under the Maps tab.
An important note is that an unknown number of those holding GMRS licenses today also hold licenses in the Amateur Radio Service. The FRN is not contained in the GMRS data so it would take “fuzzy matching” with less than perfect results to examine this idea.
The ARRL has taken an interest in my proposed initiative to treat public libraries in the U.S. as “new served agencies” for recruitment strategies, according to Division Director David Norris K5UZ. See my two blog posts here and here. Should the GMRS licensees be viewed as another direct marketing opportunity by the ARRL?
I’ve taken the GMRS data and spatially joined the ARRL Division and Section fields to the license record using GIS. These files were then split into separate spreadsheets by Division with the Section as a separate field. I’ve put them on my public folder in Dropbox for all to retrieve should they desire. This would make it easy for a direct-mailing to GMRS licensees. In a cover letter identifying the contact info for their ARRL Section Manager, a brochure should be inserted describing the much greater options available by adding the Technician license through a VE exam. It works for some yield rates for other membership services. (Check today’s mail if you doubt this isn’t used frequently.)
It would not be inexpensive with USPS rates. But it would be directed at a market that is already known to have some interested in operating radios for communication. Perhaps it should begin with GMRS licensees in areas where there are existing repeater operations. This would be a good test case to see the yield from such a direct mailing.
What won’t work is to simply send the information “down stream,” expecting SMs to do all the heavy lifting. It simply won’t happen. The League already conducts a commercial mailing operation which is where this activity should be situated.
This would be a third recruiting rail for the ARRL, including the Teacher Institute (getting in schools), the pending (I’m told) Plant the Seed initiative for public libraries, and the direct mailing to known radio communication licensees in the GMRS arena. Recruit the Generals, anyone?
One Radio To Rule Them All (Ham, GMRS, FRS, MURS)?
From time to time, the question is raised about using radio equipment in multiple radio services. One common example is a licensed radio amateur that wants one radio to cover the Family Radio Service (FRS), General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS), and the 2m/70cm ham bands. Some people also want the Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS)…or maybe even marine VHF or aircraft VHF. The thinking goes that if one radio can transmit and receive on all these frequencies and that person is authorized to use those frequencies, then one radio can do it all.
This seems like a reasonable objective but the problem is that the FCC has a few rules and regulations that come into play. This leads to an important note: I am writing about the FCC rules and regs here…you may choose to ignore them but that’s on you.
Part 97: Amateur Radio Service
First, the good news. The Amateur Radio Service, governed by FCC Part 97, has very few restrictions on the type of equipment you can use. Heck, you can build a transceiver from parts and put it on the air. So the ham rules are not going to be a major limitation.
Part 95: FRS, GMRS and MURS
FRS, GMRS, and MURS radios are governed by FCC Part 95. Section 95.591 says this about FRS radios:
§ 95.591 Sales of FRS combination radios prohibited.
Effective September 30, 2019, no person shall sell or offer for sale hand-held portable radio equipment capable of operating under this subpart (FRS) and under any other licensed or licensed-by-rule radio services in this chapter (devices may be authorized under this subpart with part 15 unlicensed equipment authorizations).
Section 95.1761 says this about GMRS transmitters:
(c) No GMRS transmitter will be certified for use in the GMRS if it is equipped with a frequency capability not listed in § 95.1763, unless such transmitter is also certified for use in another radio service for which the frequency is authorized and for which certification is also required. No GMRS transmitter will be certified for use in the GMRS if it is equipped with the capabilities to operate in services that do not require equipment certification, such as the Amateur Radio Service. All frequency determining circuitry (including crystals) and programming controls in each GMRS transmitter must be internal to the transmitter and must not be accessible from the exterior of the transmitter operating panel or from the exterior of the transmitter enclosure.
(d) Effective December 27, 2017, the Commission will no longer issue a grant of equipment authorization for hand-held portable unit transmitter types under both this subpart (GMRS) and subpart B of this part (FRS).
Similarly, MURS radios have this restriction (Part 95.2761):
(c) A grant of equipment certification will not be issued for MURS transmitters capable of operating under both this subpart (MURS) and under any other subparts of this chapter (except part 15).
The FCC is saying (requiring) that FRS, GMRS and MURS radios must work on their designated frequencies and nothing else. At one time, it was legal to sell a combination FRS/GMRS radio but the FCC has specifically removed that option. Part 95.1761 seems to leave an opening for a GMRS radio that is also certified for use in another radio service, but that is a very thin opening and it specifically excludes the Amateur Radio Service.
Now, why would the FCC put these restrictions in the regulations? The answer is pretty simple: these radio services are intended to be used by everyday, non-technical folks. The radios need to be simple to use and not include the capability to wander off onto any old frequency. Hence, the rules lock down the frequencies that the radios can use.
(As a side note, this regulatory approach is good for amateur radio. Imagine if FRS radios had Channel 30 set up to transmit on 146.52 MHz, with a note in the manual that says “only use this channel if you have an amateur radio license.” We would have a crapton of unlicensed operating on 2 meters.)
Part 90: Private Land Mobile Radio Services
Part 90 regulates a broad range of land mobile radio, including public service, police/fire, search and rescue, forestry, utilities, and businesses. Licensing is very specific under Part 90. A radio license will specify a particular set of frequencies allowed, specific power levels and emission types, and even the allowed operating location of the radios.
Radios designed for Part 90 are usually programmed by a radio tech to operate only those specific frequencies that a licensee is authorized to use. This results in a relatively simple operating set up with the user just selecting from the preset channels on the radio. Part 90 radios normally cover a wide range of frequencies so that the manufacturer and the radio shop can sell one radio model to any licensed user.
In many cases, these Part 90 radios cover the adjacent amateur bands, such as 2m and 70cm. (For example, the Anytone AT-D878UV is Part 90 certified and covers 140-174 MHz and 400-480 MHz.) So this does open up the possibility of using a Part 90 radio under a Part 90 license and using it on the ham bands. A typical scenario is when a Search and Rescue member has a Part 90 radio set up to use the S&R frequency as well as the 2m/70cm amateur bands. The key to this is starting with a radio that is Part 90 certified and then programming it for the amateur band. Of course, you need to be authorized to use the Part 90 frequency and have an amateur radio license.
Getting Creative on Radio Configuration
A few years ago, Anytone Tech tried to market the TERMN-8R VHF/UHF radio as legal for the ham bands, GMRS, MURS and Part 90 use. An early review of this radio is here on the PD0AC blog. Basically, the radio had three distinct operating modes: GMRS, MURS, and Commercial/Normal. Initially, the FCC approved the radio but later took a closer look and canceled the authorization. The TERMN-8R is still available but without the three modes. It is marketed as a Part 90 radio that also does the amateur bands.
I recently became aware of the Anytone AT-779UV which is sold in the USA as a Part 95 GMRS radio. However, using the programming software, the radio can be configured to cover the 2m and 70cm amateur bands or a much broader range of frequencies (136-174 & 400-470 MHz). If you change the radio configuration to operate on the ham bands (or wider), the radio is no longer Part 95 certified. The configuration via software takes some knowledge and effort so it is not a mode that you can easily switch back and forth. It is really no different than other software-programmable radios.
Wrap It Up
So there you go, your dream of One Radio To Rule Them All (FRS, GMRS, MURS, and the 2m/70cm ham bands) is not going to happen. At least not legally. You can configure a radio to do this…but it will not meet FCC regulations. However, you can configure a Part 90 radio to operate legally on Part 90 frequencies and on the amateur bands.
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How About A Mic-Centric Mobile Transceiver?
Most automobiles don’t provide a lot of room for mounting ham radio transceivers. (Obviously, their design priorities are wrong!) Because of this, many ham transceivers have removable control panels that can be mounted on the dashboard and the main radio is installed somewhere else, such as under a seat.
Midland radio is doing some interesting things with micro-sized radios for the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). The MXT275 MicroMobile® Two-Way Radio puts all of the radio controls and the display in the handheld microphone.
This radio reminded me of an old Yaesu radio, the FT-8500, which had almost all of the controls crammed onto the microphone. (Someone named the microphone “Mr. Potatohead” which seems appropriate, but I did not name it.) This radio had the display on the radio body, which seems like a limitation. At any rate, this rig was not very popular. I do not know anyone that owned one.
So the FT-8500 was not a big hit but maybe it is time for another go at a microphone-centric transceiver. I am thinking a basic 2m/70 cm FM radio could use this approach to ease the mobile installation challenge.
Simplicity in Design
You may be thinking that a GMRS radio is fundamentally simpler than a typical VHF/UHF ham transceiver. This is true…a typical GMRS radio has 22 channels that might have options such as CTCSS tones and repeater offset. A typical ham transceiver has more frequencies, more features, and lots of settings required.
However, if you consider the typical FM transceiver setup and usage, most people set up the memories for the repeater and simplex channels they use, usually via programming software. After that, operating the radio is 99% just selecting the desired memory channel. This kind of usage lends itself to having a simpler set of controls that can be incorporated into the microphone. This approach will require a good understanding of user needs and some careful design work to create a radio that works well.
This type of radio design will probably not work for everyone. There will be hams that want every feature available all of the time. That’s just fine. However, the microphone-centric approach may be a good fit for installation in the “other car” that doesn’t get used quite so much. Or in the case where a family member objects to having a Real Radio cluttering up the dashboard.
Using this type of radio will be a lot like using a handheld transceiver, with the addition of a microphone cable, but no batteries or antenna cable drooping down. The Midland radio has the speaker in the radio unit but it may be better to put it in the microphone (with the option of plugging in an external speaker.)
I think this idea would well for some number of mobile radio installations. What do you think?
73 Bob K0NR
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GMRS: Basic Radio Communications
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.
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GMRS: The Other UHF Band
I’ve always had a liking for the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). It’s a licensed radio service but does not require a technical exam so it works great for basic personal communications. When our kids were young we made good use of GMRS communications. This was back in the Pre-Cellphone Era, shortly after the dinosaurs left the earth. I still have my GMRS license: KAF1068
GMRS uses frequencies in the general vicinity of 462 and 467 MHz. When the FCC created the Family Radio Service, they intermingled the FRS and GMRS channels, creating a real mess. See this page for a good explanation of how FRS and GMRS frequencies are arranged. Many of the low cost walkie-talkie radios sold in stores are combination FRS/GMRS radios.
I recently came across this really sweet little GMRS rig, the Midland MXT-100 Micro Mobile GMRS Radio. This thing is nice and small with an external mag-mount antenna for the roof of the car. It only has 5W of output power, which is not much more than a typical FRS/GMRS handheld radio but the external antenna should help a lot. (I’ve heard there are newer models on the way so stay tuned for that.)
I’ve encountered 4WD / Jeep clubs that use FRS radios for on the trail communications. This Midland radio would be a good upgrade for that kind of use, providing additional radio range. Some of these 4WD enthusiasts have gotten their ham ticket via our Technician license class. Ham radio provides a lot more capability but not everyone in their club is likely to get their ham license. GMRS is a great alternative…the other UHF band. It will work for other outdoor, community and club activities that involve “non radio” people.
FCC recently reduced the cost of the GMRS license to $65 for 5 years. I suspect that most people don’t bother with getting a license…but they should. For more detail on GMRS, see the FCC GMRS Page or for some good bedtime reading see the FCC Part 95 Rules.
73, Bob KØNR
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