(9/1/15) You might remember the citizens band (CB) radio craze of the seventies. The craze was driven by movies such as Smokey and the Bandit. There were CB clubs and conventions throughout the country much like the amateur radio class. At the time, both required a license to operate.
Amateur radio still requires a license but the requirement to get one is much different. Depending on which class you go for limits you to operating on certain frequencies. Operating on the CB frequencies no longer requires a license, but you can still get in trouble for operating illegally, which we will discuss later.
Today the Family Radio Service (FRS) band has become popular. You can purchase a pair of FRS radios and chargers from $20 on up depending on what you want. I have collected several of these radios which people seem to be dumping onto thrift stores. They are of different brands, but because they operate on the same frequencies you can communicate between them.
One specification you might notice on the package is the promise of ranges from 21-miles to 35-miles, or so. What they do not explain is that those particular models are also equipped with General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) channels. Those operate at a higher power and that is why they print those ranges. The problem is that you will not get those promised ranges even operating on the GMRS channels without absolutely perfect conditions. Any obstruction or change in atmospheric condition will severely limit the range you will actually get.
Another thing that they do not tell you is that you are required to obtain a license from the Federal Communication Commission (FCC or Uncle Charley if you want to make them angry). There is some licensing requirement confusion on the Internet. Articles such as this one claim that the FCC has eliminated the license fee for GMRS. As with much that is on the Internet, I found this to be false at considerable cost to my wallet. My license actually cost me $90. The license, however, is good for five-years so long as I do not violate the laws governing this class of radio.
This may cause many to get into trouble by operating on these frequencies. It is equally hampered by the fact that I cannot find one single, simple list of licensing fees or requirements on the FCC web site. Human nature, being what it is, people will generally flock toward what they want (being no license) and run with it. A good rule of thumb is if you operate at an output power from about 4-watts on up, you probably need a license. And a check book.
Their article references an FCC proposal to eliminate the license requirement bound up in the legal mumbo-jumbo of this PDF. The problem is that proposal has not been approved. The article suggests people go to the FCC web site and flood it with comments to eliminate the license requirement. The problem with that is the licensing fees, in this case anyway, are not set by the FCC, but the Congress.
I am not one known to support or defend ANY government bureaucracy whether of national, State or county government origin. The ORIGINAL purpose of the FCC, however, might be considered Constitutionally based. Except that they do not have the right to suppress the Internet. While you may have the right to operate on a channel, you do not have the right to tie it up all day. You do not have the right to overstep my transmission. You MUST clear the channel for ANY emergency traffic. And your HAM radio cannot interpreter with my satellite television (which I do not have. This is just an example). Enforcement of the rules to prevent radio interference was the original purpose of the FCC. Like most bureaucracies, the FCC has gone way beyond its constitutional purpose.
For those who do not know, those channels that you dial into your GMRS/FRS or CB radio correspond to certain established frequencies. Like when you dial in your favorite FM (frequency modulation) station 92.9 in Flagstaff, you are tuning into a certain frequency. In this case 92.9 megahertz. If you program your radio so that it goes to 92.9 MHz when you press the “1” button, you are setting up a channel similar to the way GMRS/FRS and CB radios work. It should be noted that channel 1 on a CB and channel 1 on a GMRS/FRS radio are not the same frequency, so you cannot communicate between them.
As for the law, Title 47 of the United States Code parts 0-199 concern the operation of the FCC. The parts important to this article is Title 47 Subchapter D Part 95 for General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) and Family Radio Service (FRS) and Title 47 Subchapter D Part 96 for Citizen Band, or CB radio. Part 97 concerns Amateur or HAM radio.
While the CB license requirement has been eliminated—and the GMRS requirement may be—there are still stipulations. The main one is that you may not alter the radio to put out more power or add devices that will increase your output. This is the same for GMRS or FRS. I read one article that blasted the FCC for fining a man for operating a CB without a license even though a license has not been required for some thirty years. It turns out that is not what they fined the man for. What they fined him for is that he was broadcasting with a power amplifying device, called a linear amplifier, attached to the radio. That has always been illegal.
You also cannot modify the channels of either radio so that they broadcast at a different frequency. Some older CB radios had three channels and you could change the crystals (things that determined the frequency) to any CB frequencies; but ONLY those frequencies allotted for CB.
The FCC does allow you to use a pseudonym or “handle,” like Bandit or Snowman (although snowman may have an entirely different meaning today). You must, however, use a self-assigned call sign. Your call sign would begin with a “K,” followed by your initials and then your zip code. You are supposed to begin your transmission with that code and rebroadcast it every fifteen minutes. The same reason that television stations “Pause for station identification” every half-hour.
I went into a lot of detail on the various radio services that are open to the public in one way or another. The bottom line is to broadcast on CB or FRS does not require a license. Yet there are still things that you should be aware of. Some of the instructions you receive when you buy the radio gives you some of the specifics, but you should consult the FCC web site or the laws for more in depth information. If you purchased your radios at a swap meet or thrift store, it is very important that you are aware of the laws as you may not get the instruction booklet with it. Operating instructions are generally available online in PDF format. The operating instructions will tell you which channels on your radio are FRS and which are GMRS. If you do not have a license, you are limited to operating on channels 8 to 14 on your dual-purpose radio.
The one feature that you should look for on any of these radios is the weather frequencies. In a weather emergency the NOAA may still be broadcasting in your area.