Radio Communications, Myth or Truth?

Hi Everybody, Frank here.

I recently received an interesting email from a gentleman that asked a question that I receive on a regular basis. How do I stay in touch with my family if we need to use radios for communication? Below is this gentleman’s question, please read it, and we will address the issues he brought up. We’ll try to get rid of the myths, and focus on the truth about radio communication.



I hope all is well with you and the misses, I haven’t e-mailed you in a while but once again I need some advice.

I need a good reliable in a grid down situation radio to communicate with 2 of my kids until they can be picked up or make their way to our safe location. The farthest one is 50 miles away, what would you suggest as the best way to communicate with them??? UHF, VHF, SW, CB Modified with “Dark Channels” ???
Thanks again and God Bless You All

[Name omitted]


Like I said earlier, these questions comes up on a regular basis. But in this particular scenario, it is a grid down situation. Grid down is a cute term that is thrown around loosely, but when you get down to it, grid down means no electricity, the power grid is not working. Therefore, cell phones and cell phone towers are not going to be operable. Even if there was a situation where a cell phone tower had power, it would be jammed to the point to where there were no transmissions. This also applies to land line telephones. When the power goes down, both of these forms of communication will only work in extremely isolated cases, if they work at all. There are multiple reasons for this scenario to happen, but the focus of this article is going to be that the power is off, what caused it is not on the agenda.

Let’s eliminate some radios and some systems. Some folks have this illusion that any ham radio will broadcast and receive all around the world. That is just not the case. You have two basic types of ham radio. You have the type that bounces the signal off of the atmosphere, and it comes down

some place a long ways away. This is not what we’re looking at here. In this case the parameter is 50 miles. But this type of ham radio is normally referred to as HF, high frequency, and it requires an amateur General license to operate on these frequencies. If the power is down, most of these radios aren’t going to work either, except for the few ham operators that have back up power. There is an exception to this rule. On the 40 and 80 meter frequencies, there is an antenna system called NVIS, near vertical incidence skywave. This basically sends the radio signal almost straight up, bouncing off the atmosphere and coming down to earth, within about a 200 mile radius, give or take. This will work, but you have to have a source of power, an amateur General license, a special type of antenna, and this applies for both the sending and receiving stations. This will not work, assuming his children are going to be mobile. Let me preface something here, there are exceptions to every rule. Remember that.

Now, things that will not work. If you have your ham radio license at the Technician level, which is the entry level license for ham radio, then you can use VHF & UHF radios. They come in handheld, mobile and base. The handhelds have their own power supply via battery. Most of the mobiles are in vehicles, so you have a power supply. And most base units are just mobile units with a home power supply. These type radios have a much shorter antenna, 18 inches to 16 feet. Some of the handhelds might be 2 inches. Follow me. These type radios will not bounce off the atmosphere, they are strictly line of sight communications. Now in the ham community, they use a gizmo called a repeater. A repeater is normally on a high spot, on top of a hill, on top of a tall building. If you are in line of sight with your radio, you can talk to the repeater and it will rebroadcast your transmission to anyone that is in line of sight. Sometimes you can cover a fairly large area with this. Remember this is a grid down situation. Is that repeater going to have power? Some might have a propane generator that starts automatically when the power goes off, most won’t. So, if you have your Technician ham license, then you can use a repeater, if it’s working, and you are within line of sight. I wouldn’t bank on that being the case, though. 

Will these VHF/UHF radios transmit 50 miles without a repeater? Sure they will. But, remember, they’re line of sight. If you live on top of a hill, wonderful. If you have a base station with a 40 foot tower and your VHF/UHF antenna is on top of it, then you might have a chance. It just depends on where the transmitting and receiving radios are located. Remember, line of sight. Example. I have a buddy that lives about 40 miles from me. We are both ham radio operators. He can sit on his deck with his handheld radio and he and I can talk line of sight. But, I have a 40 foot tower and he lives on the side of a good sized hill facing towards me. It will work. But, when my buddy drives down his hill, we lose the ability to communicate.

Another example. I have another ham friend that lives down the road 5 miles. I still have my 40 foot tower, and he and I have difficulty communicating unless he is standing in the right place in his house. There is no perfect way to communicate.

Non-ham radio frequencies. GMRS, FRS, MURS. These are all legal frequencies for non-hams to broadcast on. Remember, this is a grid down situation. This would easily fall under the category of an emergency, and according to the FCC, any person can use any radio in an emergency, when no other means of communication is available. You need to remember that. If you drive up on an automobile accident involving a police car, can you use that police radio to call in for emergency help? Absolutely. It’s just a microphone and a radio. Just push the button, talk and use common language. Don’t be afraid.

Okay. Grid down. MURS frequencies are in the same ballpark range as ham radio VHF frequencies. Let me introduce the commercial radio here. Ham radios are only designed to operate on ham radio frequencies. Commercial radios are designed to operate on anything from police departments, fire departments, search and rescue, commercial businesses like Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club with proper licensing, and they can also be used on the ham frequencies, legally, if you have a ham license. These radios will also broadcast on the GMRS, FRS frequencies, which are UHF. They will also work fine on MURS which is VHF. All of these radios are line of sight

communications. The rules of physics mentioned earlier in ham radio about line of sight apply to these also. Most GMRS radios are handheld, and you can buy them at any sporting goods store, Wal-Mart and a gazillion other places online. They make fantastic claims about distance. This is under perfect conditions, from hilltop to hilltop. They are all the same radios, with the same frequencies, and for the most part, the same power output. They do have some different features, but overall, outside of the features, they have the same operating conditions. These are excellent radios, but they have limitations, as do all radios. Kind of like people, we all have limitations.

The commercial radio mentioned above will cost you about $40.00 and up. $40.00 radios work just fine. I’m going to provide you a link that explains these $40.00 radios in detail. These are fine little radios. They will broadcast on ham frequencies legally, and they will broadcast on police and fire frequencies. If you really want to prove to your buddies how low your IQ is, then broadcast on these police and fire frequencies. Drunk and stupid is not cute. Don’t broadcast on police and fire frequencies. As mentioned above, these radios can also be used to broadcast on MURS and GMRS frequencies. These come in handheld, but you can also pay more and get a commercial mobile radio. This gives you more power and the ability to hook to an external antenna, either on your vehicle or a 40 foot tower at your house. If your receiving station has a handheld and they are within line of sight of wherever you are, then you will have communications. Remember the examples above. If you’re on the side of a hill, great. If you live in a highrise apartment, heaven forbid, and your apartment is facing the direction you want to transmit, then stand near a window with your antenna facing the window. What that means is, don’t have your handheld and be talking on it, with your head between the antenna and the window. Hold your radio straight up and down, the higher the better.

In some of my previous articles I have discussed how to set up home base stations, and mobile stations, antennas, power supplies, and general radio information. To answer the question. Can I talk to my kids 50 miles away? Yes, you can. But your conditions have to be favorable, and your equipment needs to be appropriate. Line of sight. A mobile station in a vehicle with an external antenna works much better than a handheld. A home base station with a 40 foot tower works much better than a mobile. But it’s got to be line of sight. I know from experience that you can transmit and receive 40 miles on the MURS frequencies using two handheld radios, one on the side of a hill and the other connected to an antenna 40 feet in the air. I hope this answers your question.

The question about CB radios. A CB radio under perfect conditions can do 50 miles. It is a line of sight communication device, but the chances of this are happening are slim. CB is an 11 meter radio. It is between the 10 and 12 meter ham frequencies. Under proper atmospheric conditions it will operate just like any ham radio. The right radio, and the right antenna, and you can talk to countries around the world, because it bounces off of the atmosphere. With the right antenna, you can talk to your buddy down the road. But the chances of communicating 50 miles consistently are slim to none. In this case, forget about CB. I have a CB radio and I talk and listen to places all around the United States. But I seldom talk to anybody in my immediate area. I like CB, it has a place in the radio communication world. For this purpose, scratch CB from your list. Those dark channels you made reference to, those are called free banding. They’re on the outside of the upper and lower ends of the CB frequencies. You’ll need a modified CB radio, or a 10 meter export radio. You can also find that topic discussed in some previous articles.

Most of the things we’ve discussed here today, are illegal to use except in an emergency situation. Do people use these type radios and frequencies everyday illegally? Yes, they do. If you choose to do this, it is your choice. But, in an emergency situation, it is not illegal.

I have provided several links throughout this article that includes some handy information. Whatever you decide to do, you need to practice to make sure your set up meets your needs. Most people don’t care what you do on a radio, as long as you don’t interfere with anybody else. Don’t get a commercial radio and play on the police and fire channels. Don’t put an antenna inside your house and broadcast power. Think about it. Many handheld radios transmit on five watts. This is not going to fry your brain. My VHF/UHF radios operate on 5, 20, and 50 watts. I would never operate 50 watts with an antenna inside my house. But I will 5 watts. Police cars and ham radio operators, have antennas on top of their cars, and they can operate with 50 watts. But don’t stand outside your car with your microphone in your hand, and operate on 50 watts with your head two feet from your antenna. That pain you feel in your head, will be your brain frying. Maybe a slight exaggeration there, but don’t do it. Always be safe, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t do it.

To the man that sent the email up above with the great questions, I hope this was helpful.

We’ll talk more later. 73s, Frank

18 thoughts on “Radio Communications, Myth or Truth?

  1. Hello. I do live in hilly country with a couple of small mountains. There are a couple of UHF repeaters in the area, I have them in my scanner and I go for days and never hear anybody on either one of them. We have very, very little UHF traffic in this area. Most of the UHF in this area is GMRS, little kids playing with their duck calls. Thanks for reading and thanks for the recommendation.Frank

  2. Some thoughts from a comm technician- in hilly or inner city terrain UHF is better. It will find its way around things. 50 miles is a stretch for a mobile (40watts) but if you both can get on a hill, it may work. For non ham guys, get friendly with your local two-way radio shop if there is one. I am on twoUHF repeaters and can talk 70 plus miles in two different directions, and its relatively private.

  3. I have never used 6 meter. No particular reason why. It depends on what you want to do. Some guys run beams, which there is not one beam that will cover all of the frequencies. My recommendation would be a dipole type antenna, if you have the space. Here is a link to a location that will assist you. are many ham operators that use this type of antenna for contesting and general everyday use. Take a look at the DX-LB+. Again, I'm sorry, I can't help you on 6 meters.Are you aware that Yaesu is coming out with a new radio soon? might be worth looking at. Good luckFrank

  4. Frank, I think I have decided on the Yaesu 450D (I got on the Chat line with Gigaparts and they flat out told me that transmission on CB bands by a ham radio was illegal, I replied that I already knew that. They danced all around the question so I let it slide. I think at some time I will order the rig from them with the mod, and just see what I get). I have lots to learn and I am very thankful for all your help and guidance. One more question for now, or should I say until I get my license. Is there one antenna that will cover all the frequencies that this radio will do or, I have to run different antennas for the different bands ? Thanks for all your help.

  5. As you are aware, Frank and Fern are pseudonyms for our real names. For us to communicate via radio we would need to exchange call signs, and it's easy, because it is public knowledge to look up someone's call sign. I wish you the best on pursuit of your license.73, Frank

  6. Frank, Once again many thanks. It is my plan to get my license and abide by the FCC Regulations, unless my family's safety is at risk, then all bets are off. Maybe once I am up and running I could contact you on the radio, if I knew how to look you up ??? God Bless

  7. O.C. It's good that a group uses the same type of equipment. People have tried different things, used different pieces of equipment, they know what works and what the issues are.A different way to look at it though. I took a radio class a couple of years ago. The main teacher was one of the type that believed that what he used was the only equipment that anyone should use. He openly criticized the students for trying new things with different pieces of equipment. And if it came from China, he hated it. I guess there is always going to be those types around. I avoid people like him and he may read this. I am somewhat the opposite of him, though. I have a very lose affiliation with a search and rescue group, and it's good when everybody uses the same type of equipment. I hope you find something that works well for you. Fern really liked your comment about the penny and the dollar. Thank you for reading.Frank

  8. Hello and thank you for the kind words. I called GigaParts once and asked the question, \”When the MARS modification is done, is the radio open the entire bandwidth?\” And they would not answer my question. I also sent them emails with the same question and got the same response. I presume the lack of response has to do with some type of legal question. I have not ordered any equipment from GigaParts, therefore, I cannot reference an opinion, yea or nay.I bought a used 718 that had been modified to operate on 60 meters, which is perfectly legal since the radio does not come from the factory capable of transmitting on 60 meters. I also discovered that with this modification, it would transmit on the CB frequencies. For that fact, anywhere the radio had the ability to receive. I have a CB radio in my \”shack\” and I enjoy CB. But my CB radio is 100% unmodified legal. The reason being, if you lose your ham license for any reason, you will not ever get it back.That being said, with your HF radio, modified or unmodified, you can still listen to any frequencies within the radio's capabilities. Which includes all the shortwave frequencies, plus CB frequencies, and the free banding frequencies just outside of the CB range. Do CB operators occasionally use illegal radios? Every 10 meter/Export radio used on CB frequencies is illegal. Do CB operators modify ham radios to use on CB frequencies? Sure they do. But. If you have a ham radio license, and for whatever or however, you get caught using illegal equipment, you can lose your ham license forever. Do ham radio operators use illegal radios everyday? Yes. It's your call.Thank you for the questions. It causes me to think a little deeper.Frank

  9. Frank, I want to thank you, you are an encyclopedia of knowledge.When you discuss that Gigaparts will \”open up\” the radio, in particular the 450, you mention it will open up the MAR's Freq, will it also be open to CB frequences? I see you mentioned this but it was under the 718 discussion….. Have you personal experience with GigaParts???I have a lot to learn and I thank you very much for your help! As always, God Bless.

  10. No, I do not run, and I do not recommend an amplifier. I have included a link that will answer a number of your questions. But some simple food for thought. Most guys that are serious contesters run extra power. They seem to feel that it helps them punch through the pack. Ok, things to consider. There's in an old saying, trash in, trash out. What this means in relationship to radio, if you put a poor signal into your radio, and amplify it, then you're just making a poor signal louder. What produces a poor signal? Let's start with you. Do you articulate and enunciate properly? Is your volume appropriate? Is there background noise in the room? Example: TV, children screaming, etc. Are you close enough to your microphone? Are too close to your microphone? You get my drift here. We haven't even gotten to the microphone yet, or the radio or the amplifier. Remember, trash in, trash out.Do you have a good microphone? Is the cord frayed anywhere? Is the connection tight? Now we're actually to the radio. Is your microphone gain too high or low? Which affects your modulation. Is your radio working right? And everything associated with your radio until your signal comes out of the antenna. If you run more power, you will probably need to change your coax cable. You might need to change your antenna. How is the antenna set in relationship to external factors? Like power lines, transformers. Before you consider running an amplifier, remember, trash in, trash out.Amplifiers also use quite a bit of power. Most of my radio posts deal with survival radio, grid down type emergency situations. But if you do want to run power, then you might want to consider different radios than we mentioned before. There are ham operators that never run power, that have made every contact that everyone else has made. Don't put the cart before the horse. But if you want to seriously contest, then set up your system to do so from the beginning. Okee-dokee?The links I included earlier, mark those pages and put them in a folder. The link I've included below, mark it also. It has more information than you will ever consume. Wikipedia is an excellent source of information most of the time. Do I think you need an amplifier? Only you can answer that question. Do I need an amplifier? No, because when the grid goes down, I will be turning my power down low, and I will still be able to reach signals and stations all around the globe.Regards,Frank

  11. Hi. Thoughts? Yes, I have plenty. Thank you for your kind thoughts for my wife. She is doing much better.Below are included some links to eHam, which is a handy site to learn how to use. Both radios from Universal Radio, and one about the 450 from GigaParts. The last link is to CB Magazine, I just thought you might enjoy it.FT-450D has 6 meter, FM, a built in tuner and a couple of filters. IC-718 does not have any of these. You'll have to add an automatic tuner. It comes with a slot to add a filter. Both are good solid radios.The only experience I have is with the 718. Both are considered entry level, and some people use both of these radios through their entire radio career. I cannot speak for the 450, but the 718 is known as a solid performer. Read all of the eHam reviews. It may take you a while, but I do this for any piece of equipment that I purchase. And always remember that occasionally, someone will give a radio an extremely poor review when they want the radio to do something that it was never designed to do. You'll read some of them. I have learned a lot from reading the reviews.The reason I sent the link to GigaParts, is they will open up a radio to operate on the MARS frequencies, which means that the radio will broadcast outside of the ham bands. Both radios will receive out of the ham bands from the factory. It is not illegal to open up a radio that will allow it to transmit out of the ham radio frequencies. It's just illegal to transmit out of the ham frequencies. Do a little research and you'll see what I'm talking about.Example. You can transmit and receive on 60 meters. The ICOM 718 is not designed for 60 meter. The only way to utilize this frequency is to open up the radio, which means it will transmit on non-ham frequencies. This is kind of hard to explain. Your HF radio is also an excellent shortwave radio.You will need your General license to use either one of these radios, except on a portion of the 10 meter band that can be used with a Technician license. If you can pass your Technician, then your General is just about as easy. It's just more information. Take care.Frank

  12. Frank, First off I hope the misses is recovering well! Yes the article was very helpful. Here's another question: Getting my HAM License and looking at choosing a radio, I have narrowed it down to: ICOM IC-718 or YAESU FT450D. Your thoughts?

  13. Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Frank. My brother and several people in my ham radio group have yaesus. The used market seems to be steady on them which keeps the prices up. I know many people like you describe. Running past dollars to pick up pennies.

  14. O.C. Two trains of thought here. Some guys buy all used, they just seem to think they're getting a better deal. They may save a dollar or two, but that's just the way they are in life. I've actually seen people pay more for a used item. I have also seen people buy used and get burned. A buddy of mine bought a used radio from another neighbor, and it never has worked quite right.In my case, as life in general, I always buy new. I research the internet and get the best deal I can, from a known dealer. Maybe I just don't have the savvy to buy used. But this is the way I am in life. Every five or six years I buy a new vehicle. I normally buy the bottom of the line or very close to it. All of the equipment on the vehicle is the same as opposed to the top of the line, except for the add-on accessories. I do the same with radios. I want things to work, but uncomplicated. And if they don't work, I have a warranty. Get this one. I know a guy that will drive from southeast Oklahoma to Dayton, Ohio to buy coax cable that he could buy locally cheaper. But he proudly announces he does this because he doesn't want to pay the ridiculous $20.00 shipping. He announces to the whole world, that by golly, he saved $20.00. There are different people in all walks of life. I've never been one to spend $100.00 on gasoline so I could save $20.00 on shipping. It's your call. I buy new. Others I know, only buy used. A different way of looking at it, there are some older items that are not manufactured any longer. If you want one of these, you will obviously have to buy used. I still buy new. Thanks for the question.Frank

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