“We’re from the government and we’re here to help.” Could those be the scariest nine words in the English language? While of course that’s not always so, the quip struck a chord when spoken some years ago by one of our former presidents.
Consider the Federal Communications Commission (disregard “net neutrality” for a moment) and the 2-way “FRS/GMRS” radios that are as common as shoelaces for everyone from restaurant workers to SHTF preppers.
As of late, with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) one has to wonder if they’re intent on scaring us with those dreaded nine words. Announced this past May, beyond all the recent controversy about net neutrality, they have changed the rules for FRS/GMRS radios, and while most of what they’re doing with radios is in my view either neutral or even beneficial, the details are confusing and a few things might be detrimental.
Luckily we’ve got the preppers to help make sense of it all. They logically figure that when the stuff does hit the fan, handheld radio communication will be key. Among those still living, anyway. Same thing for avalanches and general backcountry safety; radios are useful, perhaps even as important as your avalanche transceiver.
I hopped to the FCC first and got the helpful offical word, then bopped over to prepper site CodeGreen to get the expert interpretation. (I’ll admit to getting sidetracked by an article describing how close one can be to a nuclear bomb blast and still survive, but I refocused and got it done.)
If you don’t care to read this entire “geek download,” main takeaways from this post and the world of 2-way consumer type “blister pack” two-way radios is that the former FRS/GMRS type of radio will someday exist as two different types. Newer specific FRS designated radios will have less optional transmit power than current FRS/GMRS units. Higher power specific “GMRS” handheld units may not be all that different than what’s presently available as “FRS/GMRS” but will probably be what you want. Meanwhile, our favorite of these types of radios remains the BCA Link.
Explication: Don’t let all the “FRS” “GMRS” chatter drive you insane. The acronyms simply refer to radio frequencies (channels) that are regulated by the FCC. FRS frequencies are limited to lower power and don’t require a license, GMRS allows for higher power and technically requires a license, but up till now that’s generally not been commonly adhered to nor meaningfully enforced. Most of the inexpensive “blister pack talkabout” radios sold these days include frequencies that are both FRS and GMRS. But again, that looks poised to change.
You might have noticed that radios touted as “FRS/GMRS” include in their fine print that you need a GMRS license to operate all but channels 8 through 14. This was a ludicrous situation as people who bought these radios rarely purchased a license.
Thus, to “help” reduce ludiocrity, FCC’s new regulations mandate the specific “FRS” radios will not require a license, but as mentioned above will unfortunately drop transmit power for what could formerly be much higher power channels (when they were “FRS/GMRS” radios). Their remedy to this is they’ll still allow for “GMRS” radios to be sold (with similar channels only higher power), but these will indeed require a license and perhaps that license might be more aggressively enforced, though we doubt it.
Incidenally, regarding confusion, note some current FRS/GMRS radios, e.g., Midland X-tra Talk, are sold with “50 channels.” Those actually provide the standard 22 frequencies with the extra 28 channels being preset combinations of the standard frequencies with privacy codes.
So here it all is restated in a few elevator spiels
– In my read of this there will eventually be no “FRS/GMRS” radios. BUT, makers will provide what will be called “FRS radios” that will use 22 frequencies, as before, only limited to lower power settings. Separate radios with GMRS power settings will presumably be available from many brands, and will probably be the wise purchase, along with a license (good for years, covers whole family). From a lot of experience, for “real” backcountry use we recommend obtaining radios that allow the full 5 watts where legal (see chart below), and using them at full power for all but the most casual close proximity chatting. Higher power does deplete batteries, that’s easily mitigated by learning and practicing good radio protocols such as short transmissions and beginning each day with full batteries.
– FRS/GMRS radios you presently own will function as before, will function in conjunction with newer models, and are grandfathered. If you’ve found these prior radios to work fine for your needs, there may be a firesale situation in coming months as the new regs come closer and companies have to unload mislabeled or otherwise misconfigured units, but that’s a wild guess. What is more, existing “FRS/GMRS” radios such as the Midland X-tra Talk do have better/higher power options (maximum 5 watts) than possible new “FRS” models (maximum 2 watts) that conform to the new regs.
(Reality check: the entire culture of FRS 2-way radios is based on the 1-22 channel numbering scheme that’s become an informal standard — and the power most such radios provide is so low it’s immaterial to any regulatory scheme when it is bumped up or down, using .5 watts, 2 watts or 5 watts. Where this does matter is GMRS is allowed to go to 50 watts, though you won’t see that in the inexpensive blister pack type radios. As an aside, out of curiosity I evaluated one of the in-vehical “mobile” GMRS radios. Midland makes some nice models. These units keep the standard 22 channel scheme going but simply eliminating channels 8-14, so when you step through the channels the unit skips from 7 to 15, for a total of 15 channels. My guess is they have to eliminate the FRS channels as those are only allowed in radios without removable antennas, and all the mobile units by default have a cabled antenna with a user operable connector. This is a pity, as a mobile radio with all 22 channels and better antenna would be quite nice.)
– Over past years the GMRS channels/frequencies could be programmed into various high performance handsets. When used as GMRS this sort of radio appears to be legal or at worst in a grey area of the regulations. Thus, if you choose to transmit on the GMRS frequencies using a programmable handset, at legal power limits, simply buy a license (and take care with your power output so as not to be impolite to other users you might “step on”). This is an excellent solution — with one challenge. With GMRS frequencies programmed, you still need the privacy codes, and it’s impossible to program all possible combinations. Only solutions for that: Program a few standardized channel/privacy combos (such as those used by the BCA BC Link radio), then keep a cheat sheet of all and memorize the radio keypad commands for setting a privacy code.
– While present options in FRS/GMRS radios have a poor reputation among radio hobbyists, good quality units have always been available. For example, the waterproof Motorola sets linked within this blog post are a bit pricey, but we’ve tested them for years and deemed them dependable. Likewise, the Midland GXT series radios to the right are excellent. Both the Motorola and the Midland include the 5 watt higher power option that will not be available in newer “FRS only” models we expect to eventually see. Reminder: We can’t help but recommend the BCA BC Link as the best option for a backcountry skiing radio (in new upgraded version out this fall) as it includes the waterproof shoulder mic/controller, perfect for radio use in inclement weather).
– Lastly, and this is important: Verbiage in the FCC’s new rules says something that could be interpreted to mean they’ll ban the importation of radios such as HAM handsets and in-vehicle mobiles (e.g., the Baofeng linked above) that can be programmed to a variety of frequencies (channels). This is a HUGE and scary proposition, as everyone from guide services to hobbyists have come to depend on the programmable radios making life much simpler, safer and more fun. We’ll see where that one goes (perhaps a non issue), but be aware you may want to purchase a few extra dual band programmable Baofeng units before they possibly become unavailable towards 2019. Likewise, I’ll state again that the current “blister pack” radios labeled “FRS/GMRS” often provide 5 watts of power for most channels, that will drop to a max of 2 watts with the new rules when you purchase an “FRS” radio. Thus, some of the current FRS/GMRS units could be very good values compared to what will be available in the future.
Considering all the above, as well as controversy regarding net neutrality, keep listening for someone chanting “we are from the government and we’re here to help,” and be ready fend off the commissars of confusion.
This website has a succinct explanation.
Midland’s explication of the new rules.
|Channel (informal standard)||Frequency||New max power standard for FRS||Old allowed max power for combo FRS/GMRS radios, will remain available as GMRS|
|01||462.5625||2 W||5 W|
|02||462.5875||2 W||5 W|
|03||462.6125||2 W||5 W|
|04||462.6375||2 W||5 W|
|05||462.6625||2 W||5 W|
|06||462.6875||2 W||5 W|
|07||462.7125||2 W||5 W|
|08||467.5625||no change, 0.5 W||same, low power in any radio|
|09||467.5875||no change, 0.5 W||same, low power in any radio|
|10||467.6125||no change, 0.5 W||same, low power in any radio|
|11||467.6375||no change, 0.5 W||same, low power in any radio|
|12||467.6625||no change, 0.5 W||same, low power in any radio|
|13||467.6875||no change, 0.5 W||same, low power in any radio|
|14||467.7125||no change, 0.5 W||same, low power in any radio|
|15||462.5500||2 W||5 W|
|16||462.5750||2 W||5 W|
|17||462.6000||2 W||5 W|
|18||462.6250||2 W||5 W|
|19||462.6500||2 W||5 W|
|20||462.6750||2 W||5 W|
|21||462.7000||2 W||5 W|
|22||462.7250||2 W||5 W|
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.