New FCC Regulations on FRS and GMRS Radios
The FCC have changed some of the rules associated with our use of the FRS and GMRS radio bands. This was primarily to resolve the overlap of GMRS and FRS frequencies, and while the ‘solution’ they’ve adopted is a bit clumsy, it also allows FRS radios to have greater power, which is a good thing.
There are some implications for preppers in the changes – and while it seems the changes are generally good, you’re probably already old enough to realize that the government is seldom here to help us. So read on, then maybe accelerate some of your Comms preparing.
Note that this article, published in November 2017, updates our earlier articles about FRS and GMRS, including an earlier article explaining the formerly confusing mix of frequencies for FRS and GMRS services. You should still read these earlier articles because they contain a lot of general information too, but the specific details of frequencies are now in this new article.
Oh – and the formerly confusing mix of frequencies? While it is somewhat simplified for FRS, it is at least as complicated for GMRS as before. But it is definitely different, so be sure to check out our new table of updated FRS/GMRS frequencies and their associated power levels and restrictions.
The Key Changes Explained
Formerly FRS radios were limited to a maximum power of 0.5W. Now they can go up to 2W on most (but not all) channels. A four-fold increase in transmission power would typically represent about a doubling in transmit range, although that’s a very approximate statement. If you are already managing to broadcast at maximum line-of-site (eg, over water) then more power won’t get you further. And if you’re currently blocked by buildings and other obstructions, more power won’t cause those obstructions to magically disappear. (We have several articles on radio range – what affects it, and how to maximize it, in our general section on Communications.)
The new rules also strengthen the earlier weak prohibition on voice scrambling devices, but there will be an 18 month transition period where it will still be legal to buy or import radios capable of offering this feature, and probably will not be a future prohibition on using them (in these frequency bands – amateurs have not been allowed to use voice scrambling, ever).
A disappointing non-change was the widely anticipated removal of licensing requirements for the potentially more powerful GMRS radios. On the positive side, the licensing costs have reduced and the FCC is now going to issue ten-year rather than five-year licenses.
In addition, the FCC has formalized the differences between FRS and GMRS radios, and will prohibit the current practice of selling dual purpose FRS and GMRS radios, to make it harder for people to ‘accidentally’ use GMRS frequencies and power levels without a GMRS license. This, and the more powerful FRS radios now permitted, seems to be a solution of general benefit. But there’s a sting in that tail.
More significant is the FCC’s ruling that in 18 months, they will ban the import or sale of radios that can be used on the FRS frequencies as well as on other frequencies. We’re not exactly sure what this means, because their explanatory discussion of what they intend seems to be slightly different to the specific wording of the new regulations they have published. For sure, it means that ‘ordinary’ and ‘civilian’ type radios primarily designed for GMRS or for Marine services or for business service can no longer also have FRS frequencies in them.
But what about ‘ham’ radios? Typically, ham radios are designed so they can only transmit on officially permitted ham frequencies – this simplifies the design and construction of the radios, so for cost saving reasons as much as anything else, ham radio manufacturers have tended to only sell radios that generally conform to the permitted ham frequencies. But some of the newer radios, using a different type of internal design (software defined radio) can operate on a broad range of frequencies. In particular, the Baofeng UV-5R and F8HP family of radios work over a very broad range of frequencies, including ham frequencies, commercial and marine frequencies, government frequencies, and both the FRS and GMRS bands. This gives them a huge amount of versatility, and in a SHTF scenario, means you can communicate with many different groups of people and their radios. Add to that an extraordinarily low price and a good range of accessories, and most preppers include a collection of Baofeng radios in their essential supplies. For this reason, we’ve written in some detail about these radios – you can see articles about Baofeng radios and related topics here.
Will the FCC now require that Baofeng radios have a frequency block on the FRS and GMRS bands? While the radios have never been officially approved to operate on those frequencies, until now they have legally been sold including those frequencies, and the radios can generally operate in compliance with the standards imposed on radios working in those two services. Conceivably a prepper might now need to have three radios where previously one was sufficient – an FRS radio, a separate higher powered GMRS radio, and an ‘everything else’ radio (ie the Baofeng).
There are two important aspects to this. The first is that you have until early 2019 before it becomes illegal to import or buy multi-purpose radios, and the second is that any radios you already own or acquire within those 18 months remain legal. On the other hand, if it will become illegal, manufacturers will probably discontinue such radios well in advance, so as not to end up with useless stock. So our suggestion is that you might want to think about adding another one or two (or three or four) Baofeng radios to your inventory while they are still available in their open unrestricted form.
This means that radios such as the Baofeng multi-purpose radios would no longer be available for sale, although any you already have remain ‘grandfathered’ in as legal.
For the last decade or so, the FCC has basically turned a blind eye to activities on the FRS and GMRS bands. The confusion of FRS and GMRS frequencies, combined with radio manufacturers selling combined radios that work on both bands, and at very low retail prices such that anyone and everyone would buy them as ‘toys’ to play with made for a messy situation and the FCC wisely realized there was no way they could prosecute hundreds of thousands of people who bought $25 radios at Wal-Mart and never bothered to read all the fine print about how they could be used and the need to get a FCC license.
But now the FCC has acted to clear up the overlap of FRS and GMRS radios, and has also doubled down on its decision to continue to require licenses to operate on GMRS frequencies, we’d not be astonished to note an uptick in FCC enforcement. And that’s not necessarily a trivial laughing matter to ignore. They can – and sometimes do – levy penalties of up to $20,000 per each and every unauthorized broadcast (here’s a particularly severe case where a guy who did some stupid things on police frequencies, nine times, ended up with a $404,166 fine!).
This is probably the least of your worries in a TEOTWAWKI situation, but until such unhappy time as it comes about, you probably should be reasonably careful to comply with FCC requirements, especially when involved in transmissions to and from your home or retreat. Your chances of being pulled while operating without a license in your car are minimal, unless you are broadcasting personally identifying information, but if you are at a fixed location, or transmitting to someone else at a fixed location, you’d be surprised at how quickly and accurately your location can be plotted.
We as preppers always have to straddle an uneasy divide. We have no wish to break the law, either before or after some major event and societal collapse, because that needlessly draws attention to ourselves, creates a vulnerability, and accelerates still further the decay of the civil society we are all keen to preserve and benefit from.
But in a potentially lawless future where there’s no longer any prize for being a ‘nice guy’ and possibly no longer any penalty for being a bad guy, we need to make full use of all appropriate tools possible to optimize our survival.
Radios are a case in point. The complex morass of rules created by and enforced by the FCC make sense in normal times, and it behooves us to operation our radio comms in compliance with them. The new changes to the FRS and GMRS services are relevant and important to us.
We again recommend you should become a licensed ham operator, as well as having unlicensed FRS radios and possibly licensed (as in simply pay a fee, not sit an exam) GMRS radios too. This article explains the benefits of having a ham license, and the two articles starting from here help you to easily and quickly learn the material and pass the ham license exam.
Here is the official FCC ruling on the changes they have made, including (at the end) a complete reprint of the affected sections of their regulations.