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?