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MT® 2003

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FRS in Perspective

By Bob Grove W8JHD


            Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen many different Family Radio Service (FRS) handy-talkies released to the public. Indeed, they offer many features at an affordable price. Initially costing nearly $100 apiece when first announced, prices have plummeted as chain discount stores grasp the market. MT writer Jock Elliott provided an in-depth review of one set of Midland radios in our May issue.

            So what are the differences among the offerings? Why pay $69.95 when you can find a pair for half the price, or even less? Many features should be considered when selecting a radio, including the number of available channels.



            Most of the new releases are compact and lightweight, easily enclosed by an adult hand, and readily held by a child old enough to successfully operate one.



            All models operate from internal batteries. While most models use teensy AAA cells, a few models that accept more-rugged, longer-lasting AA cells.

            For short-term emergency use, keep the radios ready to go with alkalines; they store longer (up to three years) without substantially losing their charge, while rechargeables should be boosted at least once a month. And alkalines have higher current capacity than rechargeables, adding to operational lifetime between charges or replacement. For repetitive, long-term use, rechargeable batteries are the better choice, charging them overnight between daily applications.



            AC wall transformers plug into a DC jack on the HT, or into drop-in platforms that automatically contact metal elements on the radio. Some allow cigarette-lighter charger cords for mobile applications. All of these chargers work just fine; it’s a matter of choice and convenience.



            The Family Radio Service limits transmit power to no more than 500 milliwatts (1/2 watt). This isn’t much. Newer – and somewhat more costly – radios add several channels from the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS), allowing higher transmit power up to 2 watts on those additional frequencies. But with tiny batteries, high-power operation can eat up operational time in a hurry!



            There are 14 FRS and 8 GMRS channels in the 462/467 MHz bands allotted to the combined services.


Frequency        Service Power (watts)

462.5625         FRS/GMRS     2 or .5 selectable

462.5875         FRS/GMRS     2 or .5 selectable

462.6125         FRS/GMRS     2 or .5 selectable

462.6375         FRS/GMRS     2 or .5 selectable

462.6625         FRS/GMRS     2 or .5 selectable

462.6875         FRS/GMRS     2 or .5 selectable

462.7125         FRS/GMRS     2 or .5 selectable


467.5625         FRS     .5

467.5875         FRS     .5

467.6125         FRS     .5

467.6375         FRS     .5

467.6625         FRS     .5

467.6875         FRS     .5

467.7125         FRS     .5


462.5500         GMRS 2 or .5 selectable

462.5750         GMRS 2 or .5 selectable

462.6000         GMRS 2 or .5 selectable

462.6250         GMRS 2 or .5 selectable

462.6500         GMRS 2 or .5 selectable

462.6750         GMRS 2 or .5 selectable

462.7000         GMRS 2 or .5 selectable

462.7250         GMRS 2 or .5 selectable


            Combining the 22 channels with the 38 squelch tones, you have the potential for 836 different exclusivity settings for mixing groups of users without having to endure listening to other folks using your channel while you await a call. This is especially handy in large crowds as we attest to shortly, below.


Functions and features:

            As with cell phones, manufacturers seem compelled to offer operational capabilities that we never dreamed of – or needed! These include (in no particular order of value or desirability) vibrator alert, musical paging tones, voice activation (VOX), tone squelch (CTCSS), roger-beep tone (Thanks, CB!), back-lit display, keypad lock, high/low power selection, battery status indicator, volume and squelch level adjustment, squelch defeat (“Monitor”), call tone, channel scan, external speaker/mike jacks and more.



            Here’s the catch. While manufacturers tout ranges of up to several miles, this may be true on the moon, but in real-life situations and applications, line of sight is often obscured, and conditions are often (usually?) compromised. Trees, buildings, hills, cars, crowds, rain, humidity and other absorptive and reflective obstacles can radically reduce reliable range. It was this one claim – range – that prompted our field tests.



Let’s try them out


            With the Dayton Hamvention close at hand, we decided this would be an ideal place to test a set of FRS/GMRS HTs. Since Midland had been so cooperative in the past allowing us to review their equipment, we asked them for their recommendations for a good model for our use.

            Midland recommended the G-225 along with their optional rechargeable NiMH battery pack, and an optional AVP-2 drop-in desk charger. For our compact application, we did not elect to try their AVP-1 earphone/mike headset. Although the G-225 is equipped with a handy belt clip, it also fits easily into a shirt pocket.

            Under normal operating conditions, an alkaline battery set (900 mAH typical capacity) allows an operational standby time (on, but not receiving or transmitting) of up to 60 hours. When receiving a signal, the activation of the audio amplifier circuitry reduces that lifetime to about 12 hours, and when transmitting constantly (low power), you’re lucky to get an hour out of the unit. Rechargeable AAA cells reduce these lifetimes further since they don’t have the charge capacity of alkalines.

            Realistically, my wife, Judy, and I found that we could use the units sporadically all day long without any noticeable degradation in performance, and when we got back to the motel in the evening, we simply dropped them into the desktop charger and they would be ready for the next day’s encounter.


The flea market:

            With some 500 dealers in the Hara arena complex, and thousands of tailgaters in the 14-acre flea market, the Dayton Hamvention is quite a spectacle. Historically, as many as 30,000 hams have made the annual pilgrimage, and HTs of every description ionize the environment with their signals! Most use the popular 144-148 MHz two-meter band, but the use of FRS and GMRS is widespread, not only among the attendees, but the facility staff as well.

            A casual scan of the frequencies on our FRS/GMRS HTs revealed constant chatter on virtually all channels. Using our radios in normal mode would mean listening to communications of no interest to us, as well as depleting the battery charge lifetime. We switched to tone-encoded squelch.

            With the radios now quiet, we were ready to test their versatility. Judy remained in the car, far from the flea market, while I walked through the grounds. Throngs of people, parked vehicles, and about 0.2 of a mile separated us.

            Pressing the transmit button, I was able to talk to her, but both of our signals were weak; some drop-outs occurred as we talked, although by pressing the “Monitor” button (squelch defeat) I could understand her in the background hiss. We decided to switch to higher power. While the results weren’t dramatic, they did improve overall communications, eliminating the drop-outs.

            Inside the buildings, too, we experienced reliable, crisp communications when we drifted apart between buildings.

            More important, by using one of the 38 tone-encoded squelch settings, we didn’t have to listen to the continuous chatter from other co-channel users. This didn’t mean that occasional interference caused by someone else transmitting simultaneously while we were talking was gone, but listening fatigue was eliminated. Even if someone else had coincidentally chosen the same channel and squelch tone we had, we still had 37 more tones to choose from without even changing channels!


Another test:

            With another Dayton experience behind us, we returned home and back to work. Judy drove out of our driveway with one of the HTs as I remained in the house with the other. We live in dense woods, and the trees were in full leaf, a devastating combination for UHF communications, yet we were able to remain in contact for about a half mile at low power under those less-than-ideal conditions.


Side by side:

            The final test was performed comparing the Midland with an older Cherokee model. On the road, while a separation of nearly a mile was possible while maintaining communications car to-car, the Cherokee could be heard when the Midland couldn’t.

            The difference was undoubtedly the antenna. As seen in the accompanying photo, the Midland radio has a short stub antenna roughly an inch long, while the Cherokee has a full-length, quarter-wave, rubber duckie. And as any ham will tell you, the antenna is the most important accessory for a radio. In the FRS service, removable antennas are not allowed, so you’re stuck with what the factory provides.

            So, what’s the proper choice? The Midland G-225 is loaded with features, addressable by an on-screen menu. It is an excellent choice for crowded areas – large flea markets, stores, manufacturing plants, sports events, conventions – especially if it’s likely that other FRS radios are in use. Car caravanning is a common use for FRS, and here the Midland holds up well. The headset option is recommended where hands-free applications are important, such as traffic control or driving.

            But for maximum range applications, choose a radio with a long antenna; in the FRS, that’s about three inches. And what is that maximum range? Manufacturers make all sorts of claims, but realistically, plan on a mile or so on the road, a half mile in the woods, and maybe two miles boat to boat, or mountain peak to mountain peak, on a clear, dry day!





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