Ham Radio, UHF, VHF, Cell Phones, and Emergency Dispatch Frequencies. Why the FCC Allocates Frequencies and Why We Need To Stick To Them.
This article is going to teach the basics of radio frequencies! Not just for off roaders, but for everyone and everything that uses wireless devices. Hopefully you will make it to the end and learn why it is important to stick to the frequencies and channels that the FCC has allocated for us off road and back woods adventurists. If you want to learn more about the specific frequencies for us, check out our write up on Race Radios vs Ham Radios. Be sure to check out our Online Ham Radio Class if you decide that you want to get your ham radio license and open up your world of adventure communications!
A License Is Just “The Man” Holding Me Back!
A lot of off roaders don’t like the fact that we need to get a license in order to use ham radios or GMRS radios. The FCC isn’t setting up these license restrictions in order to be restrictive on off roaders and citizens. They are doing it so that our society can continue to function wirelessly. And here is why…
Everything that communicates wirelessly is using a radio frequency of some sort… WiFi routers, drone remote controls, cell phones, your car stereo, TV stations, police/fire/medical/emergency responders. Literally everything is sharing the airwaves. And the way that everyone gets along and doesn’t transmit over each other (so that our cell phones work, and emergency responders can do their jobs), is the FCC has allocated frequency ranges to be used by different services (a service is just what a range of frequencies is intended to be used for).
General Use Public Radio Services
- CB – Citizens Band, operates on 40 channels in the 27 Mhz frequencies, No license required. Capped at 4 watts of power.
- MURS – Multiple Use Radio Service, Operates on 5 channels around 152 Mhz, No License required, capped at 2 watts of power
- FRS – Family Radio Service, Operates on 15 channels around 462 Mhz at 2 watts, and 7 channels around 467 Mhz at half a watt, No License required.
- GMRS – General Mobile Radio Services, Operates on 22 channels around 462 and 467 Mhz, capped at 5 watts, half a watt, and 50 watts depending on the channel, License Required
- Ham Radio – Amateur Radio Service, Operates all over the place, capped at 1500 watts, License Required.
- PLMR – Private Land Mobile Radio (Commercial Frequencies), Operates near MURS and FRS. A Commercial license is required to transmit not only on that frequency, but also in that geographical region! This is what “Race Radios” operate on.
In the united states, there are 3 services that can be used by the general public, without a license, with handheld radios… they are CB (Citezens Band – AM mode, HF), MURS (Multiple Use Radio Service – FM Mode, VHF), FRS (Family Radio Service – FM mode, UHF). In order to use these services, you must stay within a specified set of channelized frequencies, and stay within a certain power level specific to each service.
The reason the FCC has done this is not to say “F you, we don’t want anyone just doing whatever they want”, they have set up these rules because those frequency areas are packed very tightly with different services because it is the “butter zone” of radio waves that work REALLY well in urban environments. So, people that need to use those frequencies for their jobs (search and rescue, emergency responders, commercial, medical, etc) need to use parts of those frequency ranges in order to keep our society safe.
But, they also want some of that chunk available for citizens to use and get creative with on their own. So, we get our sections to play around without a license, but we need to make sure we don’t overlap on the other frequencies nearby.
To get a good idea idea of how impacted the frequencies are… check out this USA Radio Frequency Allocation Chart. The space that works great for urban communications is 100 Mhz to 1Ghz… check out just how many services are there. Someone once told me that they were using 167.770 for an offroad communication between him and his buddies. They were using it because it had a lot of 7s in it and thought it would be easy to remember. Unfortunately, that is a PLMR frequency, and the FCC will slap a huge fine on you if you don’t have the correct license. Not to mention you could be using a nearby campground’s frequency, or nearby logging company.
GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service – FM mode, UHF) is the same channels as FRS, but you get access to a few more repeaters and power. A license is required in order to use a GMRS radio. The license is 70$ with the FCC and can be shared with blood relatives (family). The license enables you to transmit up to 50watts on 8 preset GMRS channels. Not only do you need to have a GMRS license, but you can only use FCC Part 95 granted GMRS radios in order to transmit on the GMRS frequencies. So, a GMRS licensed Ham operator, is not allowed to use a ham radio operating within the legal limits (power and frequency) of the GMRS channels, they must use a GMRS licensed radio as well. I can think of 3 manufacturers/distributors off the top of my head that are breaking this law right now…
Thanks to the popularity of King of the Hammers, Ultra 4 Racing, and Rugged Radios, many people have started purchasing “Race Radios”. Race Radios is not a term or service that has been designated by the FCC (such as GMRS or FRS). Race Radios are radios sold by Rugged Radios, as well as PCI Radios. These radios come pre-programmed with the race frequencies that the race teams and Ultra 4 use during race events. The problem with these frequencies, is that they are ALL commercial frequencies that the teams and Ultra 4 have purchased for their explicit use wherever they are racing that week. Because commercial frequencies are licensed based on geographical location, BFGPITS might be legal for BFG to use down in Johnson Valley, but it could be illegal to use outside of Johnson Valley. That particular frequency could be owned by a taxi company, tow company, campground, logging company, etc, anywhere else in the country. If you do decide to spend your money on a Race Radio, please make sure you re-program it before you ever transmit on it. That will save you a possible $10,000.00 fine from the FCC, and the embarrassment of taking up a business’ means of communicating in the field. For more information, check out our article on Race Radios!
I wanted to bring all of this up because it is important for off roaders to stick to what the FCC has set in place so that you understand how radio frequencies work, and why it is important to stay within your allocated bands. VHF and UHF are awesome frequencies for off roaders to use… but unfortunately, they are awesome frequencies for us to use. So, they also need to be used by other people who’s job of keeping our society running is far more important than my recreation. As long as we stay within our allocated spaces, then everyone wins!
The FCC is Starting To Crack Down In NorCal
The Official Observers (OOs) in NorCal (The Radio Police for the FCC) have been getting a lot of complaints in the past year from commercial entities, medical dispatches, and ham entitees about “CB type talk” coming from the sierras on their frequencies and interrupting their businesses, emergency dispatches, and ham repeaters. The NorCal OOs are working on tracking all of them down and are gearing up for a series of stings with the FCC come 2018. They are usually pretty good at tracking down “rogue transmissions”, and have nailed some off roaders back in 2015 and 2016 in the Rubicon area who weren’t aware of what they were doing.
Unfortunately, a lot of off roaders are getting a certain rugged type of radios, and BaoFeng UV5R radios because they work awesome for us on our adventures. They are then realizing that the radios can actually transmit and work on a huge range of frequencies, not just the frequencies that the radios come pre programmed with. Then they start using whatever frequency they feel like, not realizing that they are then interrupting other services.
This is why there is a license requirement on ham radios and GMRS radios… so that people learn about these things before getting themselves into trouble because of pure ignorance. It’s not an intentional bad thing… it’s just a lack of education on the user’s part.
Check out our article on GMURS, MURS, FRS, and Ham Frequency Allocations to learn more about each of those services. That way you can make sure you are sticking to the allocations that you should be in, and not interrupting nearby important services. Other than saving you a nice fine from the FCC, it’s just the responsible thing to do.
I hope this helps, and everyone can learn a little about radio frequencies and the importance of why the FCC has license restrictions on these things… again, it is not because the FCC wants to limit who is using these frequencies, it is simply because they want to make sure that the frequencies are being used responsibly. This way users are not interrupting other services that help our society continue functioning safely.
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