So there is some discussion about FMRS vs. HAM vs. GMRS vs. CB. Each one has its advantages and disadvantages. CB is high frequency (HF), FRS and GMRS are Ultra High Frequency (UHF), while MURS is Very High Frequency (VHF). HAM can be all three. Let’s take a look:
No License Required
CB Radio: Citizen’s Band, 11 meter band (~27 mHz)
CB doesn’t require a license, nor is it very regulated. CB’s biggest advantage is also its biggest disadvantage: So many people have them that it’s easy to use them to contact people not in your group, but its also a disadvantage because so many people are both listening and talking over you. Just tune to channel 6 some time and listen to the yahoos talking over everyone with their illegal high powered sets. There are people there that are transmitting with thousands of watts of power. Another big disadvantage is that there are only 40 channels. Sure, you can try tricks like SSB, but if you are going to do all of that, there are better formats than CB. Police are known to routinely monitor CB radio, especially near major highways. I’m not much of a fan of CB. That may be a plus or a minus, depending on whether or not you want to talk to them. Radios run anywhere from $50 on up.
FRS: The Family Radio Service, 462-467 mHz
FRS is a channelized FM radio service that allows families to talk to each other. There are 22 channels dedicated to this service, with channels 8-14 (467 mHz) restricted to 500 milliwatts, and the rest (462 mHz) permitted up to 2 watts. All 22 channels are shared with the GMRS. No license is needed, but like CB, you are limited to certain channels, so traffic may become an issue. They can use tone coded squelch to cut down on congestion, but remember that people not using it can still hear everything you say. The radios must use permanently attached antennas, and this is done because the antennas themselves are designed to limit the range of the radios. Expect the range on these to be somewhere around three quarters of a mile in realistic conditions. Repeaters, phone patches, and the like are prohibited by law on FRS. Radios cost anywhere from $20 on up.
MURS: Multi Use Radio Service
MURS is a UHF service that uses 5 channels in the 151 and 154 mHz band. Up to 2 watts is permitted. No license is required, and there is very little traffic on these channels, but there are a wide variety of radio products that use MURS frequencies. MURS devices include wireless base station intercoms, handheld two-way radios, wireless dog training collars, wireless public address units, customer service callboxes, and wireless remote switches. That may or may not mean interference.
GMRS: General Mobile Radio Service
This service uses the same channels as FRS, plus an additional 8 channels, for a total of 30. Using these does require a license, but the only real requirement to get one is to be 18 years old, register, and pay a fee of $35. The license is good for 10 years. One license is good for your entire family. Anyone not in the family must get their own license. Transmissions must periodically include the station’s license callsign. If you are using a repeater, the repeater can be used to do that automatically. With the GMRS, you get the 8 extra channels, the ability to use repeaters, and better antennas. This means handheld units get a range of about 2 miles, vehicles about 5, and using a repeater with an antenna on top of your house can get you 20 miles or more of range. Those 8 extra channels are allowed up to 50 watts. Radios are about the same cost as FRS, $20 on up.
HAM radio: VHF, UHF, and HF
HAM radio does require a license, but it allows you a great deal of flexibility. The license isn’t too difficult. The easiest one to get is the technician license, and that requires a small fee and a relatively easy test on basic electronics. With that license, you are good to go on HF, VHF, and UHF. Since there are no channels, you literally have thousands of possible choices. This means that the frequencies will be largely unused and not congested.
Here is what I have done: The only choice from the above list that I don’t have is MURS, but I can program the Baofeng to transmit there, if I have to. In my shack, I have radios that cover GMRS, FRS, and CB, as well as HAM. I like to be as flexible as possible. There is a small antenna farm in my attic.
Each of the above has its own advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantage to a channelized system is that users will be compressed into a limited number of channels. They all have one major disadvantage: they are unencrypted. That means working out code phrases that aren’t obviously code phrases: “John has a long mustache. The chair is against the wall.” Asking someone how Frank is doing could mean something that is known only to the two of you.
The advantage to a non-licensed system is that your friends and neighbors can communicate with you without the need for them to have a license.
Different frequencies and power levels allow you to play physics to your advantage. VHF is easily refracted by vegetation but doesn’t penetrate buildings or rocks very well. UHF penetrates buildings better. A VHF transmission in the woods at low power is unlikely to be intercepted. UHF at low power is great for a block or two in the city, and beyond that is unlikely to be intercepted as well.
If I were to have just one, HAM is the way to go. After that, my second choice would be GMRS.