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Jul 072013
A great value versatile radio that gives you access to many additional frequencies.

A great value versatile radio that gives you access to many additional frequencies.

You almost certainly know that the FCC has very stringent restrictions and requirements about what frequencies you can transmit on, and severe penalties it imposes on people who fail to observe these limitations.  But did you know that the FCC waives all such restrictions in emergencies?

If you find yourself in a true emergency situation – such as we prepare for – then if you’re a licensed ham operator, you can use pretty much any frequencies at all in order to conduct emergency communications.

The FCC Regulations in Subpart E of Part 97 relate to the use of amateur radio equipment provide special dispensation in emergencies :

§ 97.403   Safety of life and protection of property.

No provision of these rules prevents the use by an amateur station of any means of radiocommunication at its disposal to provide essential communication needs in connection with the immediate safety of human life and immediate protection of property when normal communication systems are not available.

§ 97.405   Station in distress.

(a) No provision of these rules prevents the use by an amateur station in distress of any means at its disposal to attract attention, make known its condition and location, and obtain assistance.

(b) No provision of these rules prevents the use by a station, in the exceptional circumstances described in paragraph (a) of this section, of any means of radiocommunications at its disposal to assist a station in distress.

In other words, at least as it applies to already licensed ham operators, if there’s an emergency, you can communicate on any frequency, in any form, if you have the capabilities and equipment to do so.

Note there is no similar dispensation for GMRS/MURS/FRS/CB radio users, and it is largely absent from regular ‘radio telephone’ type commercial radio operators also.  This provision to communicate in any manner and means extends only to licensed ham radio operators, in part because they are more likely to have flexible equipment at hand and the knowledge about how to use it in a non-standard manner, and in part because ham operators have traditionally been called on to provide emergency communication services.

So if you are a ham operator, your communications flexibility becomes very much greater WTSHTF.  We suggest you plan for this and use it accordingly.

Going Off-Band to Avoid Congestion

Most of the short-range ham frequencies are fairly uncongested most of the time, because most hams seldom use their radios, and because the short-range nature of VHF/UHF communications mean multiple people can be using the same frequency, as long as there is sufficient distance between them so they don’t interfere with each other (the same concept as how cell phones work).  But this is likely to change in an emergency, particularly when cell phones stop working, and it is reasonable to expect anywhere from a ten-fold to a one-hundred fold increase in radio traffic by ham operators.

Ham frequencies that have longer ranges are and will be even more congested, due to a single user on one frequency potentially blocking out all other users on that frequency across the country, maybe even across the globe.  There will of course be requirements for longer range communications in a Level 2/3 situation as well as short-range tactical communications, and we’ll discuss the best way to handle these needs in a subsequent article.

The massive increase in the number of hams suddenly wanting to use their radios will make for very busy/congested airwaves, and just like a busy freeway ends up carrying fewer cars because the traffic starts to slow down, making the situation worse; the congestion on the radio waves will make things very difficult, with lots of people transmitting over the top of other people, causing for repeated retransmissions, adding still further to the congestion and hassle.

On the other hand, some of the other frequencies currently allocated to other types of services will free up, and may have never been used much to start with, and/or might have been in use by devices with only a very limited range, and in places far enough from you as to allow you to ‘share’ the same frequency without interference.  For example, the mall security at the shopping mall on the other side of the metroplex might have some frequencies allocated to it, but if you’re more than a few miles away from the mall, you could use those frequencies without any problems from the low-powered hand-held sets in use at the mall.

Overall, the entire radio spectrum ‘from DC to daylight’ is more or less fully allocated, but that’s not to say that some parts of the spectrum won’t be more available than others in an emergency.  Here’s an interesting chart which shows, as of August 2011, how the total radio spectrum has been allocated (this is the most recent chart currently available, as of July 2013), and here’s a slightly more detailed table showing the same data plus some additional information about uses, too.

But what does it mean when you see a block of frequencies allocated to, eg, ‘Mobile’?  That’s a very general term that could mean just about any sort of commercial use.

There’s another useful way of getting a feeling for what frequencies are being used for in your area, and that’s to go to a site such as, and click through to your state and your county, and then you’ll see lists of frequency allocations.  There are also scanner guide books that list frequencies and who has been assigned them in even greater detail.

The Official Ham Frequencies

For the purpose of short-range tactical communications (ie basically line of sight) you will want to use VHF or UHF equipment.  HF equipment has longer range and requires larger antennas, and anything with higher than UHF frequencies is too specialized for most general purposes and the equipment needed not so freely available or affordable.

In other words, you want equipment that operates from about 50 MHz up to about 1000 MHz.  Within this range, the most common ham bands are :

  • 6 Meters ie 50.0 – 54.0 MHz (VHF)
  • 2 Meters ie 144.0 – 148.0 MHz (VHF)
  • 1.25 Meters ie 219.0 – 220.0 MHz and 222.0 – 225.0 MHz (VHF)
  • 70 Centimeters ie 420.0 – 450.0 MHz (UHF)
  • 33 Centimeters ie 902.0 – 928.0 MHz (UHF)

The most commonly used frequencies (ie the frequencies with the most readily available and affordable equipment) are the 2 meter and 70 cm bands.

Some inexpensive ham equipment covers not just the official 2 meter band, but a broader range (typically about 140 – 170 MHz), and some of the equipment for the 70cm band goes much wider too (from about 400 – 500 MHz).

Choosing the Best Alternate Frequencies

There are two simple things to consider when choosing the best alternate frequencies.  The first is to choose frequencies which truly are empty and unlikely to be monitored.  The second is to match the frequencies to your equipment capabilities of course.

Depending on where you’re located, a useful block of frequencies to consider using would be the maritime frequencies.  Here’s a list of the VHF maritime frequencies.  If you’re more than ten miles or so from the water or a navigable river, then these frequencies are probably sitting empty.  However, we’d recommend you don’t use the Chanel 16 or 70 emergency channels.

If you’re not close to any railroad, then their frequencies are probably massively unused too.  Here’s a list.

On the other hand, marine radios are not uncommon, and many people like to listen to train frequencies if they think there will be trains in their area.

Generally, the ‘best’ frequencies will be ones very close to ham bands for which you already have suitable antennas for.

If you are going to a non amateur assigned frequency, you should listen very carefully to make sure the channel is truly free and that you’re not interfering with someone else’s legitimate use/need for the frequency that has been assigned to them.

One more possibility is to use non-standard frequencies.  If you’re looking at a part of the radio frequency spectrum that normally has 25 kHz spacing between frequencies, why not use a frequency that is halfway between two standard frequencies, and if you switch to narrow FM, you’d be able to carry on your communications on that intermediate frequency and possibly not even be detected by, be interfered by, or in turn interfere with, people using the regular frequencies.

There’s no way of knowing, in advance, what frequencies other hams mightn’t ‘take over’ and claim as their own as well, so you’ll have to hunt around the dial until you find a relatively unused chunk of spectrum that you can use.

Make Sure You Have Flexible Equipment

So, in theory, in a genuine emergency situation, you are free to use any frequencies and any power levels you wish.  That’s great, but what if your radio gear only works on the exact ham bands and nowhere else?  There’s a very good chance that might be the case.

It is common for amateur radio gear to be capable of receiving over a broad range of frequencies, but to be very tightly restricted to only being able to transmit on official FCC approved amateur frequencies.

However, there are some exceptions to this – for example, the AnyTone AT-5888UV (pictured at the start of this article) is a very nice VHF/UHF mobile radio (and suspiciously very similar to much more expensive Yaesu radios…..) that is capable of transmitting not just in the narrowly defined 2m and 70cm bands, but more broadly over a range from 136 – 174 MHz and from 400 – 490 MHz.  Amazon sells it for under $300.

The lovely little Baofeng UV-5R handheld radios have a similar capacity, transmitting from 136 – 174MHz and 400 – 480 MHz (or possibly even to 520 MHz).  Amazon sell them for under $40 each.

Make Sure You Have Appropriate Antennas

Your antenna is probably ‘tuned’ for a narrow band of frequencies.  It will most efficiently transmit and receive at a particular frequency, which is usually in the middle of its designed frequency band, and will work successively less well the further away from that particular frequency you are working on.

If you are going to be working in non-official frequencies, and if the non-official frequencies are more than a few percent away from the official frequency band the antenna was designed for, you might want to consider modifying the antenna to retune it for best performance at the new frequency band.

Modifying an antenna most simplistically means making it longer if your frequency is getting lower, and making it shorter if your frequency is getting higher.  You would use a SWR meter to help find the sweet spot where the SWR is lowest (see our article about installing and tuning antennas for more information on how to do this).


It is likely that the official ham bands will be very congested WTSHTF.  Fortunately, it is lawful for licensed ham operators to use any other frequencies they can in valid emergency situations.

Accordingly you should buy radio equipment that is capable of transmitting and receiving outside of the ham bands, and you should research the other frequencies to find little used frequencies that you could switch to for emergency communications in a future scenario.

Make sure you have antennas optimized for these frequencies.

May 192013
The increasing sophistication of electronics obscures their increasing vulnerability to a hacker attack.

The increasing sophistication of electronics obscures their increasing vulnerability to a hacker attack.

Many of the risks and vulnerabilities we have to consider are things that have not yet happened and which we hope might never happen.  Nuclear war, for example.  Or alternatively they are things that happen so rarely as to give us hope they might not recur during our lifetime – a massive asteroid strike, Yellowstone erupting, those sorts of things.

Very few things we consider are things which are actively happening at present, although perhaps that is definitional and a matter of degree.  Maybe it is fairer to acknowledge that some pathways to disaster are already prepared, and we’re potentially heading down them currently.

For example, the risk of economic collapse is never far from the surface (particularly at present), and some type of medical problem – whether a super-flu bug or the consequences of super-antibiotic resistant bacteria – seems to be another type of risk that is of increasingly likelihood.

Furthermore, society’s evolution into an increasingly complex and interlocking structure of chained dependencies makes us ever more vulnerable in the event of any of these events occurring.

But most of these issues are topics for another time.  Today, let’s focus on something that is very much ignored and overlooked by most of the mainstream media – the fact that we, in the west, are already locked in a deadly war that threatens our civilization as gravely as any of these other issues.  We’re not talking about the global struggle against Muslim extremism.  We’re talking about a battle with an enemy we can’t even identify.  We don’t know who they are, and we don’t know where they are.  We don’t even know if they are one (or many) organized groups, or just a random series of unrelated attacks by individuals.

We’re talking about the battle for our ‘cyberspace’.  We don’t just mean what happens if your computer gets infected with a virus, although that’s for sure a bit of collateral damage of sorts.  We mean the major battles that are raging beneath the chaotic surface of the internet, battles which usually go unnoticed and regrettably go unreported.

Here’s a case in point :  This article in, of all unlikely places, a small regional newspaper/website in Montana, talks about a coordinated cyber-attack against the US earlier this month, known as OpUSA.  Apparently it even had some moderate success, including taking down the ISP used by the reporter and more than a million other people (CenturyLink) for a couple of days.

As the reporter concludes,

virtually our entire world economy is now dependent in some way on the Internet, and if it is subverted by malignant forces, then heaven help us.

The only correction we’d suggest is to remove the word ‘if’.

You’d like another example?  This time lets turn to a series of articles in the respected MIT Technology Review.  Their headlines tell the stories, almost without needing to read the full articles.  Protecting Power Grids from Hackers is a Huge Challenge is the headline in one.  An earlier story on that theme is headlined Old-Fashioned Control Systems Make US Power Gris, Water Plants a Hacking Target.

Showing that such activity is not just theoretical is this article :  Honeypots Lure Industrial Hackers Into the Open.  That is an interesting article because it moves beyond the large theoretical element in the first two articles and points instead to a researcher who put up some dummy industrial control systems and found them immediately attacked and successfully penetrated by unknown hackers from no-one knows where.

The war is as much global as it is confined to the US.  Here’s an interesting article about how earlier this year a person, as a hobby, collected data on some 310 million different devices connected to the internet.

His findings?  The article discreetly says that many of the responses he received came from devices revealing vulnerabilities that would allow them to be readily taken over.

We should note that it isn’t just poorly configured computers that are at risk of takeover.  The article mention government level computer takeovers (‘Red October’), as well as government sponsored intrusions (‘FinFisher’).

We ourselves have recent and personal experience with supposedly secure computers being taken over by we don’t know who, but at a level sufficiently severe to cause the FBI to contact us on their own volition and offer their help.  Unfortunately, the bottom line appraisal of the situation by their experts is that nothing is 100% secure and a determined hacker will find a way in to just about anything.

There’s another dimension to this problem as well.  In addition to the hacker attacks from shadowy individuals and organizations, might the key equipment that connects the essential backbone of the internet together contain deliberately engineered vulnerabilities hidden within them by government sponsored organizations?  This worry is at the heart of the reluctance of many western governments, who are resisting the temptation of very low-priced internet routers and switchers offered for sale at low prices by the shadowy Chinese company, Huawei.

This is a vulnerability that is already surrounding us.  Do you have a Lenovo computer, for example (Lenovo is a Chinese company that bought the IBM laptop business a decade or more ago)?  Even if you have an American brand computer such as Dell or HP, where was it made and, more to the point, where were its components made?

Modern integrated circuits have as many as a billion or more transistors plus countless other resistors and capacitors.  Who’s to know what might not be hidden in all of that?

Similar concerns have attached to allowing Huawei to supply equipment for wireless communication services.  Let’s extrapolate a bit :  Here’s an interesting – and totally speculative – thought.  The amazing value new handheld transceiver radios that companies such as Baofeng and TYT are now flooding the US market with – who’s to know if they don’t have some type of remotely activated functions hidden inside them, too?

Some high-end two-way radios have a ‘Stun/Kill’ function which allows the radio to be ‘put to sleep’ via a remote command (ie, to be ‘stunned’) and also to be de-activated totally (ie to be ‘killed’).  This is useful in a law-enforcement/security environment – if a radio is lost or stolen, you can remotely destroy it so as to protect the security of your radio communications.

How do we know there isn’t an undocumented function buried within these radios that could result in them all suddenly being de-activated upon receiving a special command signal?

The same is true of much of the electronics in most other things we surround ourselves with.  Some risks are minimal and benign – it would be unfortunate if our television set destroyed itself after getting a special coded signal in a regular tv transmission.  It would be more inconvenient if the new generation of internet connected refrigerators all failed.  If the engine control computers in our vehicles also failed, then things start to move beyond inconvenient, and once we see the control systems for water, sewage, power, buildings, computerized manufacturing, and all the other things that are now computerized (the elevator in your apartment building or office) stop working, then we’re into the middle of a massive disaster.


The fact of the growing number of electronic type risks we are surrounding ourselves with is beyond question, and indeed, our governments themselves are sufficiently concerned as to sometimes refuse to buy lower priced equipment that, on the face of it, seems as good as or better than higher priced equipment.

The reality of the risks is underscored by the ongoing active probing attacks on our infrastructure every day.  Some of this may be individuals having fun, some of it is uncoordinated, but some of it for sure seems to be sponsored by state level organizations.

When the time comes for such forces to decide to mount an all-out attack on our computerized infrastructure, it could literally all be over in less than 15 minutes.  Almost before we realized we were under attack, sleeping ‘worm’ infections in control systems could be activated and the systems they control destroyed or disabled.  Power generators and most other machinery could be destroyed due to being deliberately run too hot or too fast, nuclear power stations could be at risk of meltdowns and major radioactive releases, our grid could be in melt-down, and every computer controlled device, from industrial processes to the pumps at gas stations and the cash registers in our stores would all be disabled.

And then, for the coup-de-grace, the internet as a whole would come crashing down, with the backbone routers and switches all failing.  The same would happen to wireless services and even to ham radio type gear too.

Life as we know it would come to an end in less time than it takes to read this summary.

Note, near the end of this article, the observation

It would be possible to adapt to an outage of one or two days with minimal long-term impact on GDP, according to Healy, thanks to backup generators and other measures. “Once you get more than about 10 days, then about 80 percent of economic activity ceases,” he said.

That’s an interesting observation.  We have less than ten days from a major failure before our economy collapses, long-term, down to one fifth its present level.  How would you manage with one fifth the food you currently eat?  One fifth the water?  One fifth the electricity and gas?

Remember that it can take two to three years to get a replacement major power transformer.  Indeed, with a widespread nationwide attack, almost nothing could be repaired and restored to normal operation in ten days.  It is almost a certainty that after a massive electronic attack, our society’s underpinnings would be down for not ten days but more likely ten weeks or ten months, maybe even ten years, and it could take ten decades for a recovery process to be complete.

In an earlier article, we quoted Los Angeles officials as saying people should prepare for a fourteen day period being ‘on their own’.  The only thing wrong with that advice is the assumption that, on day 15, it will all magically be okay again.  With a major national disaster, the only thing that will happen on day 15 is even greater misery than on day 14, and a growing realization that help will not be magically coming.

Which is, of course, why we are actively preparing for our own self-sufficiency.

May 012013
AM radio stations require very large antennas.

AM radio stations require very large antennas.

We received an interesting email from reader Phil today, and on the basis of ‘If one person asks a question, probably a thousand others are wondering the same thing’ we thought we’d quote his email and our replies and share it with all.

Not to rain unduly on Phil’s parade, because the questions he asks are sensible and his hoped for answers seem to be intuitive and easy, but unfortunately, that is not the case in the real world.  These things are all more complicated than they seem.

We show Phil’s questions in italics and our responses in normal type.

1. Citizen’s Band Extended Area Communications

Go to Google and type: “CB Channel 6 illegal power” (or just click the link).

According to these results-pages, CB channel 6 (27.025 mhz AM) is commonly used by certain CB broadcasters using illegal amplifiers and transmission-power levels.  I’ve heard these guys myself.  The broadcasters claim to live in Jamaica, Barbados, Tijuana and Hawaii. Sometimes they have conversations with each other.  They can broadcast Continentally.

Here is an idea—In darker times, these CB owners could broadcast news and information across the entire North American continent. Such a broadcaster would need the equipment already in place before darkness fell, and they would need the willingness to break any laws restricting free press broadcasts of truth.  These guys already have all of that.  Has anyone contacted them and attempted to recruit them? How hard would it be for patriots to acquire, secure, and set up the same equipment?  A patriot in a downtown big-city apartment probably couldn’t do it, but there are plenty of patriots in the rural areas and Redoubt who might be able to.

Could you write an article about setting up and running such an amplified CB transmitter?  It’s not illegal to tell people where to buy the equipment and how to set up everything.  It’s illegal to key the microphone once everything is connected and running—but on the day when these stations will start broadcasting, we *won’t care* about Big Brother’s laws anymore.

In the absence of a free press, word about a news broadcaster on the CB will spread like wildfire and people will start digging up those old CB radios out of their garages and attics.

The long distance CB broadcasts you hear are produced by what is called ‘skip’ propagation.  Although an essential part of radio communications at some frequencies, it is unreliable and random at CB frequencies.

Skip is an atmospheric phenomenon, and is not a function of the power of the transmitter.  Sure, more power is usually a good thing, but skip is totally dependent on when the atmospheric conditions are in place to allow the radio waves to bounce back down to the ground again rather than just being absorbed or shooting into space, never to be heard from again.

By reaching into the dregs of distant memory, I vaguely recall working skip on 2W, too many decades ago, myself.  Skip doesn’t need high power, just good fortune with the atmospheric conditions – google ‘CB skip‘ for lots of info.

And therein lies one of the problems with skip.  The likelihood of a skip ‘window’ for CB frequencies opening up is difficult to predict, and ultimately is linked in with sunspot activity (which goes through an 11 year cycle), and in the US seems to be seasonally better from late spring through early summer than at other times of year (and that’s a very short season, isn’t it).

CB skip is patchy – it doesn’t blanket an area consistently, but comes and goes depending on which bounce angles will cause the radio waves to be refracted back from the ionosphere, and there will be dead zones – for example, you might have direct communications with someone a few miles away, then nothing for 100 or even 1000 miles, then a skip zone, then again nothing (then maybe a second skip zone).

CB skip (and indeed much of the rest of CB too!) is also a bit chaotic.  Again, reaching into the dregs of memory, as I vaguely recall, there would be dozens of signals all piling on top of each other, and no type of organization or orderly sequencing of who was to speak next.  Indeed, the ‘free for all’ nature of CB radio in general and the congested channels and the idiots who delighted in blocking channels or sending extended offensive or nonsense transmissions was a significant part of why CB radio ceased to be a popular thing back in the late 1970s.

One more thing – although this is widely ignored, the FCC says it is illegal to work skip with a CB radio, because CB is designed for only local communications.

Because skip for CB purposes is unreliable and unpredictable, and because CB radio in general lacks quality control and reliability, it would not be a good base for any sort of emergency or essential communication.

Lastly, I’m not sure how many people have CB radios in an attic or basement, and even if they did, do they still have an antenna?  Will the radio still work (electrolytic capacitors in particular have a finite life of 20 – 30 years)?

2.  AM and Shortwave Radio

How hard is it to set up and maintain a shortwave station?  Lots of shortwave stations are run by cash-strapped religious organizations, poor third world governments, and communist nations like Cuba that have strangled economies—yet they have shortwave stations.  How do patriots put one of these stations together and get them broadcasting in a crisis?

I saw the movie “2012” recently.  Woody Harrelson played a conspiracy-theorist shortwave broadcaster in the show.  He died while broadcasting from his backpack as Yellowstone exploded around him.  Is that backpack for real or is it fiction?

Can a patriot broadcast news and events on shortwave using equipment that be stuffed inside a large backpack with a couple of antennas?  Such a setup would be perfect to broadcast news, events, instructions, and coded messages from a mobile broadcaster that might never be tracked down and captured by enemy forces during darker times.  Could you write an article about setting up a shortwave station and/or one of these broadcasting backpacks, and how to avoid capture while using it? Rather than a backpack, maybe put everything in a car?

Most cities and even large tracts of rural areas already have local AM radio talk show hosts breathing fire into their microphones each day.  Has anyone tried to recruit these guys?  The radio stations are already in place and operational, and nearly every house and car already have an AM radio somewhere inside them.  The bad guys might capture the stations in the cities, but there are hundreds of stations in the rural areas that would be out of reach.  Plus, the owners and operators of those super-power CB stations could donate their amplifiers to the rural AM stations so that people across the nation could be reached.

Even broadcasting inspirational, patriotic, or uplifting sermons and masses would be valuable during dark times.

Let’s look at your second comment in two parts.  First, the ability to broadcast AM transmissions from a backpack.

AM Broadcasting

Unfortunately, the backpack radio concept (or even car radio concept) suffers from two very big problems.

The first problem is power.  Broadcast stations transmit using many thousands of watts of power, sometimes 50kW or more.  A heavy (ie approx. 50lb) golf cart type battery would support a 10kW transmitter for maybe five minutes of operation (or a 1kW transmitter for about an hour, if you prefer).  You can’t carry enough power in your backpack to run a transmitter for any appreciable length of time.

In a car, maybe you could get a super-sized alternator that might put out 300 amps, and that would give you 4kW of power, probably enabling you to run perhaps a 2kW transmitter.  Or it would be easy enough to load a 10kW or thereabouts generator into the back of a pickup and then you could power a 5kW transmitter – that is starting to become workable.  So this part of the concept could be feasible for a larger vehicle, but not for a car and definitely not for a backpack.

The second problem is antenna size.  You need an enormous antenna to transmit on an AM broadcast frequency.  An AM radio signal requires, well, lots of possibilities, but let’s just say ideally a 500 ft antenna.  Shorter antennas will work, but need more power.  You’re not going to have that sort of antenna stuffed in your backpack, either, or mounted on your vehicle roof (the weight of the antenna would be too much for the roof, the whole vehicle might topple over, and so on).

There would be one interesting possibility.  You could attach an antenna wire to a hydrogen filled balloon and have the balloon lift the antenna wire up the 500 ft or whatever it was.  If you used perhaps 18 AWG wire, 500 ft would only weigh about 3 pounds, so that is a possibility with a big enough a balloon, but you’d not want there to be much wind, so it would be weather limited.

This type of setup could work and from a suitable location would give you reasonable regional (but not national) coverage.  A problem is that it is not legal, and getting an FCC permit would be close to impossible.

As for co-opting existing AM stations (and it isn’t the hosts as much as the station owners who would have to sign off on the deal), a couple of thoughts.

First, it is reasonable to assume that in any sort of regional or national emergency, all broadcasting outlets will be doing whatever they can to reasonably add value and assist with the situation already, and will be answerable to FEMA and Presidential command notices.

Second, depending on the nature of the emergency, will regular AM broadcast stations be able to transmit?  To transmit they need power in their studio, an intact communication link to the transmitter, power for the transmitter, and then the antenna tower still standing.  If any one of those four things fail, there’s a problem.

Smaller regional stations are – well, smaller and regional, and perhaps less likely to be fully disaster resilient.

Oh – the ‘super-power CB amplifiers’ that you are suggesting could help out?  They probably would not work on broadcast radio frequencies (AM radio is from 0.5MHz – 1.7MHz, CB is around 27 MHz, and their ‘super power’ is typically less than 1kW.  That’s comparatively super when you think the maximum permitted power on CB is 4W, but when you compare it to a radio station that normally transmits at 10kW or even 100kW, it isn’t quite so super.

Shortwave Broadcasting

Now for the second part of your suggestion.

Shortwave broadcasting is great, because it truly can circle the globe.  Indeed, sometimes it does do exactly that (‘long path propagation’) where you can get a better signal from a transmitter by pointing your antenna in the opposite direction and getting the signal ‘the long way round’ the world.

Shortwave broadcasting need not be unduly expensive (the biggest cost is the cost of employing staff and developing programming) and even the poorest countries seem able to lavishly spend on their elected or unelected leaders, etc.  It is also more practical, requiring shorter antennas and allowing for less transmitter power, too (we know hams who have successfully spoken to other hams, many thousands of miles away, using only 10 or 20 watts of power using directional sending and receiving antennas, but national shortwave radio stations are generally very much more powerful).

How would patriots put a shortwave radio station together?  That’s the comparatively easy part of the equation; the harder part is how would other patriots receive the station’s broadcasts?  How would they know what frequency to listen on?  Would they have a suitable shortwave radio and antenna?

There just aren’t all that many people with shortwave radios out there, and even fewer with good ones capable of picking up weak distant signals.  For those who are out there, how would they know which frequency to listen on and when to listen on it?

Even the comparatively easy part is not all that easy either.  The FCC forbids ham/amateur radio operators from ‘broadcasting’.  We hams are only allowed to have direct person to person type communications, we are not allowed to broadcast content to many people.

A General Comment About Obeying FCC Regulations

You’ll see we’ve used the FCC restrictions as one (of usually several) reasons why neither CB, AM, or shortwave broadcasting would be practical.  Okay, so for sure, in a major collapse of society, an FCC regulation will be the least of anyone’s worries (including those of FCC staffers!), but prior to that time, how can you set up, test, and get fully operational a system that contravenes FCC regulations?

And after that time, when things hopefully return to normal, do you want FCC officials knocking on your door, handing out $10,000 fines and possibly imprisonment terms (the FCC can be very severe in enforcing its regulations)?

One more thing – radio communications are considered as a strategic and military resource, and as a key part of any emergency response coordination.  One of the first controls put in place in World War 2 was a blanket ban on ham radio throughout the US, for fear that enemy spies would sneak transmissions unnoticed into the general cacophony of other transmissions.

So even during an emergency, it is possible that some remaining shreds of federal, state, county and local government might be focused on policing the airwaves, and the last thing you want to do is to call attention to yourself any which way in such situations.

We consistently urge people to plan their prepping based on compliance with as many – and hopefully all – currently in place laws, regulations, and other requirements and constraints as is possible.

Failure to do so exposes you to liability before, during and after any emergency situation, and we’ve seen way too many examples of enforcement agencies of all types choosing to blindly enforce the extreme letter of the law, no matter what common sense and fairness might suggest to the contrary.

3.  Personal Messages

How about a communications network of individual operators comprised of volunteer ham and CB users?

The network would be like an underground railroad for personal messages. It could be organized like a Neighborhood Watch phone tree—except that it’s state wide. It might take two weeks to get message from California to Maine, but at least a system would be in place. Such a network could help reunite families, spread news and coded messages, and return freedom fighters who were separated during missions and are presumed to be dead or captured.

If a nightmare ever happens to the United States, these ideas could have an alternative media and communications network already in place and ready to go into operation immediately.

This is a moderately good idea, and is sort of in place at present.

Indeed, the oldest ham organization in the country (if not the world), is the ARRL – those letters stand for the American Radio Relay League.  The concept of using a network of ham operators to relay messages from somewhere to somewhere else was one of the originating purposes of ham radio.

It was a viable and valuable service back when not everyone had land-line telephones (and no-one had cell phones), and when long distance calling was many dollars a minute.  But nowadays it has largely died out, due to the ubiquity of cell phones.  In normal times, no-one needs to relay a message because they can do it directly.  There used to be a time when ham clubs would have booths at county fairs, offering to relay messages to friends and relatives in other parts of the country or world, and there was a certain amount of ‘gee whizz, isn’t that amazing’ to the concept, both for the people at the fair and the people who subsequently received the brief telegraphic type messages.

But these days, people at the fair are realtime sending text, pictures, tweets, updating Facebook, and so on.  A ham radio relay service seems slow, clumsy, limited in scope, and every way ‘old fashioned’.  Ham radio as a whole is in a strange sort of no-man’s land at present; a lot of people who a decade or two ago would have been hams are now enjoying all sorts of other internet based communication concepts instead.

This might be changing – new low-priced radios like the Baofeng UV-5R might be creating a resurgence of interest on the VHF and UHF frequencies (but these are essentially local rather than long distance services), and new interfaces between the internet and radios are allowing for hybrid half-internet and half-wireless type communications too, although of course in an emergency, the dependence on the internet would probably see such activities fail.

For wireless-only long-range work and relaying, you still need expensive HF radios and large-sized antennas, and you need a more difficult to obtain General ham license rather than the easy to pass Technician license.

There are two more issues about using a relay of ham operators to send messages across the country.  The first is that this would be a very limited service – how many messages a day could be sent across the country?  We don’t know, but we’ll guess maybe 10,000 maximum, and probably many fewer (depends on the number of hams participating).  That’s not a lot in a country of 300+ million people.

The second is the ‘last mile’ challenge.  How does the originator of a message first get it to a ham operator who will then wirelessly transmit it on to the next ham and so on across the country?  And, at the other end, how does the last ham in the chain get the message to its intended recipient?  Clearly, the phone would not be working or else there’d be no need for the radio relay.  And probably cars would be not working either due to gas shortages.

Some Closing Thoughts

There are some existing organizations that coordinate ham radio operators into emergency response plans.  The leading two are the ARES program coordinated by the ARRL and the RACES program coordinated by FEMA (and, more generally, their CERT program).

In addition, there is a prepper type radio network of sorts, Radio Free Redoubt.

So there are some services and coordinating groups who are already working to provide some types of emergency radio services.

Now – may we offer a gentle observation?  Your suggestions are interesting and creative, but they all embody the concept of someone else doing these things, for you and for others.  Why not become part of the solution, rather than remain part of the problem!

Become a ham operator yourself, and then get some HF radio gear so you can send and receive across the country and world.

Encourage your friends and family, wherever they are, to do the same, so that you don’t need to rely on ‘last mile’ relay challenges, but can instead directly contact the people you wish to remain in contact with.

We have a page telling more about ham radio and why you should become a ham, and a two-part article that helps you to pass the ham tests.  If I can manage to pass all three ham tests (and getting either all correct or only one wrong in each test), then for sure you can too!

Apr 192013
The Baofeng UV-5R series of radios - our recommended best choice.

The Baofeng UV-5R series of radios – our recommended best choice.

Update :  This article is still very useful in terms of appreciating the issues surrounding how to make a choice of two-way radio.  But the recommended choice in this article – the Baofeng UV-5R – has now been sort of superseded by a new model, the Baofeng F8HP.  Click the link for an explanation of the differences.

There are dozens – maybe hundreds – of radios being sold for use on the FRS and GMRS bands.  Clearly some are better than others – and not so clearly, most are not very good at all.  Which are the better and possibly best of the many radio choices?

Before answering the question, may we ‘cheat’ a bit and redefine the question from ‘the best radio for FRS/GMRS’ and instead look at it from surely the better and broader perspective – the best radio for short-range wireless communications.  The ugly truth is that all FRS radios are deliberately designed to be next to useless, and most consumer rather than professional grade GMRS radios are only slightly better.

So, can we look at the broader topic of short-range radios, but we’ll keep the GMRS/FRS requirement in mind.

By short-range we mean ‘tactical’ ranges based more or less on lines of sight – ie the ability to communicate reliably, probably up to a mile and definitely less than ten miles.  In other words, you want to be able to communicate from anywhere on or immediately adjacent to your retreat property to anywhere else on or close to it.

Of course the range of any radio depends massively on the terrain, so it is difficult to generalize and part of what you need to do once you’ve purchased radios is to then ‘map out’ your retreat and adjacent areas, testing communications to see if there are dead areas anywhere, ending up with some coverage maps, sort of like the wireless companies publish.

As you probably know, there are other radios capable of much longer distance transmissions – even circling the globe, and even bouncing signals not just off overhead satellites but even bouncing signals off the moon too.  But these generally are quite a lot different to the concept we’re considering here – short-range radios, possibly/probably hand-held.  (If you ask us nicely enough, we might write separately about longer range radios.  🙂 )

If you have real problems with short-range radio coverage, you can consider an option to substantially extend the range by adding a repeater, and we’ll explain about repeaters in a subsequent article.  The radio we are recommending is ‘repeater capable’, and the GMRS service allows for repeater type operation.

So, what’s the best radio?  That’s of course like asking how long is a piece of string, because any choice involves compromises between cost and features and portability and many other things (see our two-part Buyer’s Guide to FRS/GMRS Radios for more information on these issues).

The radio we are recommending is a low-cost/high-value radio.  It isn’t the best performing and doesn’t have the most features, but it is unbeatable from a value point of view.

Now, before introducing you to the radio, some more introductory comments.

Using Ham Radios for FRS/GMRS – Legal, Illegal, or a Grey Area?

Okay, so remember our comment in our article ‘A Prepper’s Introduction to Walkie-Talkie Radios‘ – the part where we said ‘always follow the law’?

We meant that when we said it, and we still mean it now.  But…..  It seems that perhaps the policing body, the FCC, doesn’t really care all that much, any more, about what happens on the FRS and GMRS frequencies, and as long as you don’t do anything too egregious, they may be content to ignore you.

This is almost definitely true of the diminished need to get an $85 five-year license to operate on GMRS frequencies, and may also be true of the requirement to only use formally approved radios on the FRS and GMRS bands, or so this message in a Yahoo Group seems to hint at.  We asked the message writer for clarification and he wrote back to us simply affirming that the Baofeng radios are okay to use on GMRS frequencies without showing any proof of his assertion, so make of that claim as you will (hint – a lot of nonsense is put forward as fact in many of these forums).

We subsequently spoke to an official spokesperson at the FCC, but she first asked to only speak ‘off the record’, which we of course happily agreed to, and hoped that meant she would then speak frankly.  Unfortunately she then proceeded to do nothing other than robotically repeat the official FCC regulations without giving any hint at all as to the real-world application of these regulations.  However, she did disagree with the claim in the preceding paragraph that a radio that is not licensed for GMRS frequencies (Part 95 of their regulations) could be used on those frequencies if it was licensed to be used under similar frequencies by the FCC under either Part 90 (commercial land mobile use) or Part 97 (Ham radio operator) requirements.

Maybe the most that can be said is that if you are using a unit that conforms to FCC specifications for the GMRS service, and if you use it appropriately without causing interference or problems to other users leading to complaints to the FCC, and without going overboard on transmit power, then perhaps – just possibly perhaps – no-one’s going to come knocking at your door.

After all, if the radio conforms to FCC requirements, how would anyone even know that you were using a non-approved radio?  It is only when you’re using a radio that doesn’t conform to their requirements (too broad a bandwidth, poor frequency control, too much power, etc) that you’re raising red flags in the broader radio using community (which does a fair amount of self-policing and reporting to the FCC about unlawful use) and possibly causing someone to complain to the FCC about you.

If you do choose to use a ham radio on these ‘Part 95’ regulated bands (there are four Part 95 bands – CB, MURS, FRS and GMRS, and all are close to ham bands, with appropriate ham radios usually being capable of working on the nearby Part 95 band as well), then some advice.

  • To avoid drawing attention to yourself, don’t use ‘high power’ on MURS frequencies.  MURS service is limited to a maximum of 2W transmitter power, although it does allow for external antennas.
  • Don’t transmit on the FRS channels at all.  They are limited to 0.5W of power and don’t allow external antennas – if you suddenly started transmitting on the FRS band with a 5 or 50W transmitter and a super external antenna, you’d be very obviously contravening the regulations and inviting someone to file a complaint with the FCC.  The FCC might not voluntarily hunt down offenders on its own initiative, but it will respond to complaints.
  • GMRS service allows for external antennas, repeaters, and up to 50W of transmitter power.  You can probably use reasonably powerful ham radios and with high quality antennas on the GMRS frequencies and no-one will be any the wiser.

So, to answer the question we posed at the start of this section, in theory using unlicensed equipment on the GMRS or MURS bands is illegal, but if your transmissions conform to the other requirements of the band you are transmitting on, you’re probably happily in a grey area of non-enforcement – a bit like if you drive just a few mph over the speed limit on the open road.

All these worries would of course evaporate if you obtained a Ham radio operator’s license.

So with all this as lengthy preamble, may we introduce :

The Baofeng UV-5R – the Very Best Radio for FRS/GMRS (and MURS) Use

The lovely Baofeng UV-5R series of radios have just about every feature one could hope for in a mid-grade portable radio transceiver, and at a bargain price (typically around $40 each).  They are not the best performing radios out there, but they are definitely the best value and have all the capabilities and options you are likely to need.

They are also dual band, which means you could theoretically use them on both the MURS and GMRS bands.

On the other hand, strictly speaking, although they are FCC certified for both Part 90 and 97 use, these radios are not certified for Part 95 use (ie on the GMRS, FRS and MURS bands).

If there’s any way to discreetly use these radios without arousing the ire of the FCC (see the preceding section), then it would be great to be able to do so, and they are probably your very best choice of radio in terms of value and cost/performance compromise.

Ideally, you should get a Technician level Ham license (see our article about getting your Ham license and our subsequent article about the easiest way to pass the Technician Ham License test) and then you can use the Baofeng units totally legally on the 70cm (similar to GMRS) and 2m (similar to MURS) Ham bands they support.

Note – there are many different models in the UV-5R series.  Some are described as ‘new for 2013’ or ‘improved’ or whatever else.  They are all identical.  The only difference is the model number (eg UV-5RE, UV-5RA, UV-5R+, and so on) and the external case design.  This is the same as how some companies will make products for Costco with a different model number to the same product which is made for Walmart, and the same product with a different model number for other stores, too.

Buy the cheapest UV-5R radios you can find – often they are on Amazon for under $35 and with free shipping, even though on the same page of listings you might see some ‘chancers’ trying to sell ‘improved’ units (which are identical) for $20 or more extra.

Oh – you’ll also see different models get different review ratings on Amazon too.  But, trust us with this.  ALL the UV-5R units are identical.  What’s that – you don’t trust us?  That’s okay, you can prove it for yourself.  Simply see the official FCC approval numbers.  They are the same on the different models.  Every different radio model with a change in its electronics needs a different approval number – the fact that all the UV-5Rs (even the F-22 models) have the same approval number seems clear proof to us that the radio is identical.

It is that whole marketing thing with radios again – as we asked before, why is it that radio marketing keeps getting so terribly close to downright dishonesty?

Like many other Chinese products, their manuals are not very well written.  However, there is a huge community of enthusiastic users of these radios, and a couple of people have written their own very much better manual, which you can see here.  We’ll be publishing a separate article shortly full of tips about how to best use your Baofeng radio.

Oh, there are lots more Ham radio transceivers that are designed ostensibly for the Ham 440-450MHz (70cm) band that will also work on the GMRS 462-467MHz band too, but none of the other radios cost less than $100, and only when you start getting into the $200+ and $300+ units do you start to get units that are noticeably better than the lovely UV-5R units.  Just for comparison purposes, here’s the probable ultimate in such radios – the Yaesu VX-8DR – where you’ll be politely asked to pay $500 per unit rather than under $50.

Summary – and More Information

We recommend the Baofeng UV-5R radio series as being the best value radio for most prepper’s local radio communication needs.  Ideally, we urge you to get a Ham license and use it on ham radio bands rather than on GMRS and MURS, but it does seem that the FCC is being reasonably permissive about the use of such radios on the GMRS band in particular.

The UV-5R radio, while good ‘out-of-the-box’, will work much better if you add some extra accessories to it.  That will be the subject of our next article (please click on to read it).

Update :  As we said that the top, there’s now a new model Baofeng – the F8HP.  It offers greater power, a better antenna, and longer battery life, but it costs twice as much (although that still means a cost below $65).  Click the link to read our article about this new radio, then decide whether you want the UV-5R or F8HP.

Apr 172013
There are very many different sizes and styles of car antennas.  All give much better performance than the short antenna on the radio itself.

There are very many different sizes and styles of car antennas. All give much better performance than the short antenna on the radio itself.

This is the first part of a two-part article – please also read part two – Installing an Antenna  – for helpful further information on how to connect your antenna to your radio and how to ‘tune’ your antenna for best performance.

Perhaps the easiest improvement you can make to a two-way radio is also one of the least expensive and definitely the one that will have the greatest impact on both your radio’s transmitting and receiving range.  This is the replacement of the antenna.

Although the concept of swapping one antenna for another sounds easy and simple, there are some issues and challenges associated with it.  But – keep reading – we’ll help make the challenges easy and issues easily resolved.

This article is designed for people using either Ham type VHF/UHF radios, or alternatively, MURS/GMRS radios.  Much of what we say applies to CB radios too, except that their antennas are ideally very much larger (five times larger than 2m/GMRS and 15 times larger than 70cm/MURS).

Note that FRS radios are not allowed to have external antennas, and if you have an HF or other less common Ham radio, then with your General or Extra license, you probably already know most of these things!

If you have a base station or mobile two-way radio, it almost certainly does not have an antenna provided with it, and so you can skip the next section (but not the other sections).  If you have a portable type walkie-talkie, then there’s a big question you first need to answer.

Can Your Radio Accept an External Antenna?

Okay, so the first consideration is whether or not your radio is even capable of accepting an external antenna.  Hopefully, you used our two-part article ‘How to Choose the Best Walkie-Talkie‘ to help you select your Handheld Transceiver (HT) and one of the very first things we recommend in that article series is to get an HT that has a removable/replaceable antenna.

If your radio has a fixed antenna, then you’re dead in the water and you need to start off by getting a better radio.  Fortunately, that’s not a major investment these days – about $40 or so will get you a Baofeng UV-5R at Amazon and that’s more than good enough for most ordinary purposes (if you want an appreciably better radio, you’d need to almost add another zero to the cost of the UV-5R series).

Measuring and Comparing Antenna Gain/Efficiency

Antennas can have their efficiency measured, so as to give you an understanding of how ‘good’ they are.  This is often referred to as the antenna’s gain.

This measurement is in decibels, and is either measured in dBi or dBd units.  What is the difference?  To convert from dBi to dBd you subtract 2.15 from the dBi rating to get the equivalent dBd rating.  For example, an antenna with a rating of 4dBi is the same as one with a rating of 1.85dBd.

(In case you wondered, the ‘i’ means it is a measurement relative to an isotropic antenna, and the ‘d’ means it is a measurement relative to a dipole antenna, and dipoles have a 2.15dB gain compared to an isotropic antenna).

Sometimes you’ll see an antenna that is described as having a certain dB gain, but the specification doesn’t indicate if it is in dBi units or dBd units.  If the rating isn’t specified, you can safely assume it to be on the least favorable scale, ie, dBi.

Choosing an External Antenna

There are three main families of external antennas.  There are short antennas designed to be used with handheld transceivers, larger mobile antennas suitable for mounting on a vehicle (either permanently or temporarily) and even larger antennas again for use with a fixed base station at your dwelling or retreat or office.

Slightly different issues apply to choosing a fixed antenna for a base station – you can consider issues such as directionality of your antenna as well as antenna style and, most of all, antenna location (and coax cable run length) and those issues are beyond the scope of this article.

Certainly, no matter what type of radio you have, you should have the best possible antennas at your main fixed bases, and these are issues we will consider separately.  But for this article, we are focused on antennas that radiate more or less evenly in a full 360° circle around them, albeit ideally in a flat pattern rather than wasting signal sent directly up into the sky or down into the earth.

Portable Antennas

The standard antenna your radio comes with – typically called a ‘rubber ducky’ – is not a very efficient antenna.  It was designed to be short and convenient (and hopefully moderately sturdy too).  But it was not designed for best performance.

Fortunately, there are many other after-market antennas out there that give massively better performance.  As we reported in our article on How to Maximize the Range of your Radio, swapping from the standard antenna to an after-market antenna improved the signal strength radiated by a small portable radio about eight-fold.  That’s a huge improvement in signal strength, for probably a less than $20 cost.

If the antennas you are selecting from quote their gain figure, then use that to help you evaluate the best antenna for your portable.  Otherwise, a generally rule of thumb can be that the bigger the antenna the better (but make sure it is designed for the frequency bands you are wishing to use).

And with antennas being such low-cost items, there’s no harm in buying two or three and then experimenting with them to see which works the best.  You could even probably sell the ones you didn’t want on eBay or Craigslist for close to what you paid for them.

Mobile Antennas

Having a separate antenna for a radio being used as a mobile (ie in a vehicle rather than handheld ) provides two major benefits.

The first benefit is that an antenna mounted on the outside of your vehicle is better than an antenna inside your vehicle.  Not only is it slightly higher up and free from the partial shielding, obstructions, and absorbent materials inside the vehicle, but it may also have a better ground connection (using your entire vehicle as part of its overall antenna configuration) than is the case for a portable antenna on the radio itself.

The second benefit is that it can be larger and therefore more efficient.

It is common to note that many mobile antennas are coiled in the middle.  There is one downside to such a design – the coil seems to act as a wind trap/musical instrument when driving down the road and particularly if your antenna is on your vehicle roof, you’ll get very much more wind noise inside the vehicle than you would with a different design of antenna.

If you find yourself unable to get an alternate style of antenna, then you can modify your coiled antenna either by placing something around the outside of the coil or something on the inside of the coil – in both cases, to make it a solid object that doesn’t make as much of a whistling noise in the wind.

Unfortunately though if you do this, you will increase the antenna’s wind resistance and may cause it to bend over more when driving down the road at freeway speeds, and the movement from vertical to angled will reduce the antenna’s functionality.  Better to either accept the wind noise or to choose an antenna that doesn’t have the center coil in it.

The best location for an external antenna is in the center of the vehicle’s roof.  Sometimes this is not practical, but it should be your first choice whenever possible.

Dual vs Single Band Antennas

You will probably have a multi-band radio – possibly with two, maybe even three ‘main’ VHF/UHF bands that you wish to communicate on.

It seems that the 2m band is the most popular ham band, closely followed by the 70cm band, although this seems to vary somewhat from region to region.

The 1.25m band is a very distant third – depending on your perspective you might see value in concentrating on popular bands or unpopular bands.  If you are hoping to use existing repeaters out there, you should focus most on 2m and 70cm bands, but if you want to use a band which probably has fewer other people sharing with you, then the 1.25m band may be a better choice.

One last comment about band choice.  The 70cm band has a very broad range of frequencies (from 420 – 450 MHz), with a 3.5% spread above and below the central point of the band.  The 2m band has only a 1.4% spread, and the 1.25m a 0.7% spread.  This has some implications with antenna design – it is harder to get an antenna that works well all the way from 420 – 450 MHz than it is to get one which works well from 222 – 225 MHz.  This is explained in the second part of this series, and we tell you how to turn this challenge into an advantage.

Back to antenna issues, you can get a single antenna that is designed to work on both 2m and 70cm, and you can even get tri-band antennas that will work reasonably well on 1.25m too.

This is normally the most convenient approach to adopt.  But in your home/base station environment, you might want to have separate antennas for each band, and possibly even in a mobile environment too.  Indeed, as well as having separate antennas, there is a lot of good sense in having separate radios for each band too – it can make monitoring and working on multiple frequencies much easier.

On the other hand, if you’re not wanting to use existing repeaters, do you really need the extra flexibility – and extra hassle too – of having multiple bands?  Why not then just concentrate on a few specific channels in only one band?

If you know you’ll only be using a radio in one band, get an antenna optimized for that band.  But if you want extra flexibility, then consider dual/tri band radios and dual/tri band antennas.

Directional Antennas

For portable and mobile use, you seldom want a directional antenna, because you have no idea what direction you’ll be facing or where you’ll be communicating to.  Instead, you want an antenna that radiates equally in all directions, 360° all around itself, but hopefully in a flat plane so the signal goes ‘straight out’ – ie perpendicular to the antenna mast itself, which you should generally hold as close to exactly vertical as conveniently possible.

There is one exception to this.  If you are only semi-mobile, and will be stationary at a particular location for a period of time, and if the person(s) you wish to communicate with are also at a known location, and if the reception is poor with normal omnidirectional antennas, perhaps you’d want to use a directional antenna in these cases.

Directional antennas are much larger than regular antennas.  The 70cm band is probably the most practical for directional antennas, because they can be much smaller and lighter than similarly directional antennas for the other two frequency bands (1.25m and 2m).

If you are establishing a fixed ‘base station’ you might then consider a directional antenna if you knew that you’d always be wanting to communicate with people in one direction and almost never in other directions.

There are many different types of directional antennas, with many different patterns of directionality, ranging from very tightly focused in one direction only, to broadly focused on perhaps about 270° which a relatively ‘blind spot’ for the other 90° (a cardioid pattern), to ones with a focus both front and back but not one the sides (a figure 8 type pattern).

Even only a moderately directional antenna might give you five times more power in its main directional focus – and note that this focus applies not only for sending power out primarily in that direction, but also to receiving weaker signals more readily from that direction, too.

The design and use of directional antennas is a fascinating subject but beyond the scope of this article.  If you can see a situation where a directional antenna would be beneficial, you should definitely consider it further.

Read More in Part 2

This is the first part of a two-part article – please now read part two – Installing an Antenna  – for helpful further information on how to connect your antenna to your radio and how to ‘tune’ your antenna for best performance.

Apr 152013
Cell phone service can be disrupted either deliberately or unexpectedly.  You can't rely on it working when you most need it.

Cell phone service can be disrupted either deliberately or unexpectedly. You can’t rely on it working when you most need it.

Just hours ago, two bombs were detonated close to the finish line of the Boston marathon.  At least one more has been found, unexploded.  The count of killed and wounded is still progressing.

The situation is now being featured in non-stop wall-to-wall coverage by all the networks, and one of the actual explosions was caught live on video and is being endlessly looped over and over again, with more video footage appearing all the time – an interesting example of how almost nothing these days escapes video recording.

But, from our perspective, the really significant thing about this tragedy is what the authorities immediately did in response.  It seems that at a federal level, a decision was made to shut down cell phone service across a wide part of central Boston.

This was initially reported as ‘people were finding it difficult to get a cell phone signal due to everyone trying to use their phones at once’ but subsequently the reality became apparent – nameless authorities had instructed the wireless companies to block cell phone service from regular people with regular cell phones (security and first responder groups are sometimes equipped with phones that have special service designators that will continue to function when normal phone service is blocked).

Interestingly, while a nameless official in DC said that cell phone service had been shut down, Verizon and Sprint both denied that claim, saying instead that the only call-blocking was due to increased traffic.  Details on this link but note the text has changed a couple of times already, who only knows what it will say when you click on it!

Perhaps it doesn’t even matter as to how it is that cell phone service was disrupted.  The bottom line is that for many people, they were unable to call in or out of the affected area for an extended time period.

There are several reasons why the authorities would block phone service.  The first and most obvious is due to concerns that there may be other bombs out there with cell phone (or pager, if such things still exist) controlled detonators; by turning off the cell phone coverage, they prevent such bombs from being remotely triggered.

The other reason is to prevent an attacking group of terrorists from coordinating their ongoing plan of attack (and making good their escape).  Maybe other bombs are to be detonated by suicide bombers, or a timer to be initiated by a bomber who then endeavors to escape.  If such people don’t get their activation instructions by text message or cell phone call, they hopefully won’t set their bombs off by themselves.

Both these types of considerations are perfectly valid and make good sense.  We understand and agree with the blocking of cell phone service in such cases.

But.  Imagine if you were in the affected area; or, alternatively, if a loved one was in the affected area.  You’d want to urgently establish contact either to advise of your situation (if you were in the area) or to check (if calling to someone in the area) and finding cell phone service unavailable would be a major disruption.  These days, with few or no pay phones, we have become increasingly reliant on our cell phones, and seldom pause to question our assumption that they are ideal emergency communication tools for us.

The reality is that cell phone service is vulnerable to a number of potential problems that could interrupt their ability to provide reliable service in an emergency.  Clearly the Boston Bombing shows one such vulnerability – a decision by the authorities to block all calls in or out of a region.  And while on this occasion it was due to an apparent terrorist bombing, the increasing use of the internet by violent protesters to coordinate their protesting means that in other civil disorder events, there is an increasing temptation by the authorities to switch off cell phone service so as to disrupt the actions of the group the authorities are trying to put down.

Other types of emergencies may cause other vulnerabilities to be exposed as well.  A regional power outage will see cell phone towers dying as their emergency batteries, of varying capacity and run-time capability, run out of charge.  An earthquake might physically disrupt service by toppling towers and breaking cables.  An EMP attack would simply destroy the electronics in the towers (and possibly in your cell phone too).

An Emergency Communications Alternative

Fortunately, there is an alternative means of communication that is much more resilient and less likely to suffer outages from any of the preceding vulnerabilities.  Good old-fashioned wireless radio – portable and car/mobile mounted walk-talkies.

In an event such as the Boston Bombing, normal radio service would be expected to continue unabated.  While walkie-talkies have very little range in a downtown situation, their range can be massively extended by any nearby repeaters, and most towns and cities of medium or larger size (and many smaller population centers too) have one or many repeaters that you could use to bounce your signal on from where you are to where you wish it to be received.

To help you understand the prevalence of repeaters, have a look at this website (and others like it, some provide better coverage for some areas than others) and click-through to your state and county to see how many repeaters are in your area.  Or do some searching to find the local repeater frequency coordinator for your area – we went and checked the service for Boston and found 26 repeaters within ten miles of Boston, twelve of which were within five miles (on either the 2m, 1.25m or 70cm bands).

We suggest you Get a Technician class Ham License (click the link to see how easy this can be) and then always carry a small walkie-talkie radio with you.  A Baofeng UV-5R would be an excellent choice, costing less than $50.

We recommend disassembling it into three parts – the antenna, the battery and the radio itself.  We’d pack the radio in a lightly vacuum sealed nylon barrier bag – just enough vacuum to cause the bag to drape moderately around the radio, but not too much as to risk puncturing the bag on sharp edges of the radio, or to potentially harm internal radio components such as electrolytic capacitors.

Next, we’d wrap several layers of aluminum foil around the packed radio (to act as a Faraday cage in the event of an EMP attack) and then place that in a protective outer plastic bag (so as not to break the aluminum foil).

Oh – we’d also have in the radio’s pack a sheet of paper showing all the relevant frequencies for repeaters and the channel numbers we’d programmed them in to the radio, plus our group’s cascading series of contact frequencies, so that when you open up the radio pack, you not only have the radio itself, but all you need to know about the frequencies to use.  We’d probably include a copy of the radio’s instruction manual too for good measure.

You keep the battery separate so as to conveniently recharge it every few months as it self-discharges.  You keep the antenna separate for two reasons – to make the unit more compact to carry, and to stop the antenna increasing the radio’s vulnerability to EMP attack (yes, even with the radio off and battery removed, and even inside a Faraday cage, some vulnerability remains).

If you needed to use the radio, it would only take a minute to remove the radio from its protective package, screw in the antenna, and click the battery in to place, and then you’d have a working radio, suitable to use contacting other members of your extended family and retreat group (who also should have radios too of course).

In a more serious event where the repeaters might be compromised and also cease functioning, it should be part of your plan to exit the city area as best you can, and to monitor/call other group members at designated times – maybe for five minutes, once every 30 minutes, commencing at 10 and 40 minutes past each hour – until such time as you make contact with each other, either by radio or by meeting up at an agreed assembly point.


A resilient communications strategy that will ensure the members of your group can reliably keep in contact with each other and coordinate their actions and movements is an essential part of surviving both the immediate effects of an unexpected event and the ongoing problems that may ensue.

For information on how to plan your communications prepping, please read through our ongoing series on Communications in general, and in particular those articles that relate to wireless/walkie-talkie communications.

While cell phones are generally better than two-way radios for most ordinary communication requirements, they are also much more reliant on everything outside of our control continuing to work as it normally does, and as preppers, that’s an assumption we can’t comfortably accept.

Mar 272013
FRS/GMRS portable radios come in all shapes and sizes.

FRS/GMRS portable radios come in all shapes and sizes.

If you collect any random group of radio owners together and asked them what they would most like to improve on their radios, the chances are most of them would emphatically say ‘more range’.

Now, when we talk about greater range, it is important to realize there are two parts to a radio’s range.  The first part is how far away its transmission can be heard, the second part is from how far away it can receive transmissions from other radios.

There is usually little point in improving one part of a radio transceiver’s range without improving the other part as well.  What is the point of being able to transmit further than you can receive (or vice versa)?  The whole idea of a two-way radio transceiver is that you can communicate bi-directionally, both to and from some other person.

On the other hand, if you made some tweak to your receiving circuit so you could now hear stations twice as far away, and if they were to do the same thing to their receiving circuits too, then that would balance out and you’d both be able to send and receive to each other again.

So if you are seeking to optimize conditions among your own group’s radios, making an ‘unbalanced’ improvement to your radios is okay if you make the change to all the radios.  And of course, always, any better performing feature is to be preferred to an under-performing feature.

Number 1 Priority :  Antenna

The most important thing you can do to improve your radio’s range – both for transmitting and receiving – is to improve its antenna.  For some strange reason (mainly cost, secondarily size) the standard default antenna that most radios come with is very disappointing and does not perform as well as an antenna is theoretically capable of doing.

A ‘good’ antenna may be a bit larger than the standard default the radio comes with (the ideal length for an ‘on radio’ FRS/GMRS antenna is about six inches) but that’s not a huge increase in size so is almost an essential ‘must do’ upgrade.

A poster on a Yahoo group about the Baofeng UV-5R transceivers gave a great example of the impact the antenna can have on the radio.  He measured the strength of transmitted signal from a UV-5Rwith its standard antenna, and with two different after-market antennas instead.

The standard antenna gave a signal strength of -19 dBm.  The first of the two after market antennas gave a strength of -12 dBm and the second one came in at -10 dBm (lower numbers are better).

Now for the amazing thing.  These are logarithmic measurements, so a 9dBm change is about the same as an 8.5-fold increase in transmitting power AND receiver sensitivity.  Oh – the cost of this amazing antenna that converted the radio from an average performer to a super-performer (the Nagoya NA-701)?  Less than $10 on Amazon!

Now if you have a FRS radio, you probably can’t replace the factory antenna, because it almost certainly comes with a fixed ‘hard wired’ antenna.  The same is true of most but not all GMRS radios (especially the low-priced ‘blister pack’ consumer units).  The importance of a good antenna can not be overstated, and so you should make this a part of your buying evaluation of radios – do they have removable antennas or not.

A good antenna is by far the best thing you can do to improve your radio’s performance.  It will give you a balanced improvement in both transmitting and receiving capabilities, and will give you the equivalent of a hugely overpowered transmitter, without breaking the law/restrictions on transmitter power, and without using up your batteries more quickly (which would happen if the transmitter was consuming power at a much greater rate).

If you have a radio to be used in your car or at your home/retreat/wherever, you have more options for antennas without needing to be quite so concerned about antenna size/weight/portability.  In particular, there’s another amazing transformation you can do for a fixed ‘base’ station, and that is to mount your antenna outside the building, and as high up as possible.

Getting your antenna up higher not only gives a clearer line of sight to nearby radios, but also extends the line of sight distance for further away ones.  At typical heights when your radio is being held to your head, the horizon is only 3 miles away (and if the other radio you are communicating with is also, say, 5.5 ft above ground level, then the total distance between you should be under 6 miles for line of sight conditions).  But if your antenna is 20 ft up, you’ve almost doubled the distance to the horizon, and you could now be almost 9 miles away from the tower antenna.

If your communications will always be in one general direction, you can also consider choosing a directional antenna to focus your transmitting power (and your receiving sensitivity too of course) in only one part of the hemisphere that otherwise radiates out from your antenna.  Even if that is not the case, there can be advantages to having both a general antenna and also a very directionally focused one, and if you need to, switch from the general to the directional antenna and point it where the other radio you want to communicate with is, and that will surely give you another doubling or quadrupling of equivalent transmitter power and receiver sensitivity.

Note :  Please also see our two-part article on how to choose and install an external antenna for more information about improving your radio’s antenna.

Number 2 Priority :  Power and Voltage

If you have a portable unit, maybe it is designed to operate with a rechargeable battery pack that it is provided with.  If so, well and good.  But maybe it is designed to work with standard AA or AAA type batteries, or perhaps even a 9V battery.

If that is the case, there is a temptation to replace the standard single-use batteries with rechargeable Ni-MH batteries.  Normally, this is a great thing to do, but rechargeable batteries (both Ni-Cd and Ni-MH) are 1.2V per battery, whereas standard single-use batteries are 1.5V.  Rechargeable batteries have 20% less voltage.

How important is this?

Your radio’s receiver will work pretty much the same with either voltage.  But your radio’s transmitting power is probably proportional to the square of the battery voltage.  In theory this is true, but maybe the radio has a voltage limiting circuit inside it and cuts down the voltage from the standard batteries and runs at full power with rechargeables.

Assuming no voltage limiting circuitry, then with the rechargeable batteries, your radio might be only developing 64% of the power it would with the standard batteries.  That’s an appreciable power reduction – not as significant as with an antenna change, for sure, but still an appreciable one, and if you’re in an area of marginal coverage, it might make all the difference between getting a signal out or not.

What to do in such cases?  Either use single-use batteries, or have an external power pack with sufficient rechargeable batteries to equate to or slightly exceed the standard battery voltage and a wire running in to the radio from the external power pack.

Oh – in addition, if you’re in a marginal coverage area, make sure your batteries are reasonably fully charged.  That could help, too.

Number 3 Priority :  Hold Your Radio High, Don’t Shield It

We suggest you get an external microphone/speaker or earpiece/microphone for your radio, so that when you are transmitting, or struggling to receive a weak signal, you can hold your radio not at your mouth but high above your head.

Not only does this give your signal a bit more clearance, but it prevents your body from soaking up some/much of the signal.

If this is not practical, at the very least, and as best you know where the other people you wish to talk with are, don’t put your body between the radio and the direction you want to transmit/receive.  That can sometimes make a small bit of difference too.

Number 4 Priority :  Move Your Position

If there’s a big barn immediately next to you and blocking your line of sight to the other radio you are trying to communicate with, then (if the signal is poor) move so that the barn is no longer blocking you.

If you’re in a small dip in the land, climb out of it and onto the highest ground you can find.

While radio waves will go through objects to some extent, as a general rule of thumb, the more clearly you can see the other person you want to communicate with, the more clearly your radio signal will reach him, and the more obstructions between you, the lower the signal quality will be.

Other Comments

The preceding items are about all you can do once you’ve bought your radio(s).

But you need to consider performance issues when first buying your radios to start with.  We’ll be writing about this separately and soon.

In general, we suggest the most important part of your radio to optimize is its receiving ability.  Think in real life – which super-power would you prefer :  Super-hearing or a super-loud voice?  Most people would choose super-hearing, and you should too.

Your objective is not to be heard by everyone, everywhere, within an extraordinary radius of your radio.  Rather, you want to be able to hear everyone – friend, foe, and neutral stranger – and communicate primarily with those you need to communicate with and ideally without being overheard by any more people than you absolutely can’t avoid.

The less transmitting power you need and use, the better.  That keeps your transmissions closer to ‘below the radar’ of other people who might be out there, and saves the batteries in your radio.

For More Information

This is part of a growing series of articles we are publishing on GMRS and related types of walkie-talkie radios.  You can see everything to do with all sorts of communications here (both wireless and wired).