We Know: All About Two-Way Radios

What is a two-way radio?
Two-way radios are radios that are capable of transmitting and receiving signals. These devices facilitate two-way communications across short distances of two to five miles. Two-way radios are also known as walkie-talkies. A two-way radio can also take the form of a device with a mobile and bases configuration. An example of such a device is the cell phone, which uses two frequencies to transmit and receive conversations.

What is the maximum distance a two-way radio operates?
Two-way radios operate by line of sight. This means that it is effective over a distance which you can spot by eyesight. Depending on the frequency, two-way radios have an effective range of between two to five miles.

Two-way radios are popular with outdoors enthusiasts.

What types of two-way radios exist?
There are two commonly used types of two-way radios. They are:

  • Family Radio Service (FRS)
    • These radios have between one to fourteen channels.
    • Maximum range span of two miles.
    • Limited range and power requirements (at 500 milliWatts, half that of the longer range two-way radios).
    • Created in 1996.
    • Costs considerably less than other two-way radios.
  • General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS)
    • These radios have between fifteen to twenty-two channels.
    • A license from the Federal Communications Commission is needed to operate a GMRS radio.
    • First started in 1940.
    • Used commercially.
    • Has broader range and higher power requirements than FRS radios (maximum range of five miles, with power output in the range of one to five Watts).

A hybrid between the two major types now exists. The FRS/GMRS hybrid radio provides the flexibility of additional channels with lower power requirements. The combo radio has a higher price tag than the FRS radio.

What are some features of two-way radios?
Two-way radios come in all shapes and sizes, and the price tag of a radio really depends on the features you want. Typical features include:
  • Channels
    The more channels you have, the higher the price tag, but the more flexibility and possibility of finding a clear channel for your party to communicate on. Consider buying a radio with at least ten channels.
  • Interference
    Buy a radio that uses the Continuous Tone Coded Squelch System (CTCSS), or privacy codes. This allows you and your parties to talk across airways without interruption or interference. Although these are known as privacy codes, another party using the same channel can access your conversation, so privacy is not guaranteed.
  • Power
    FRS has lower power requirements than the GMRS. FRS will therefore use less power and last a little longer than the GMRS.
  • Design
    Get a radio with the features that will best suit your needs.
  • Range
    FRS radios have shorter ranges than the GMRS counterparts.
  • Scanning
    Some radios have features that dissuade eavesdropping by unwanted parties. This feature is not foolproof.
  • VOX
    Some radios have voice-activated recording, in which voices activate broadcasts.
  • Compatibility
    Generally, radios of the same model will communicate best with one another. If you decide to purchase different radios, make sure that the radios are compatible with each other.
  • Calling and paging
    Some models come with vibrating modes to alert parties to potential broadcasts.

What are the advantages of using a two-way radio over a cell phone?
A two-way radio has coverage everywhere and does not depend on a signal from within a particular region to maintain operability. There are no service fees associated with broadcasts, minimal power requirements, and good sound with long range capabilities.

Where can I buy a two-way radio?
Two-way radios may be purchased from outdoors retailers such as REI or electronics retailers such as Radio Shack. Two-way radios are also available through online retail outlets.

What licenses will I need for the GMRS radio?
If you decide to use a GMRS radio, you'll have to apply for a license from the Federal Communications Commission. The forms you'll need to complete are Forms 605 and 159, available electronically at the FCC website.

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