Most walkie talkie users understand the basic concept of how handheld 2-way radios work: signals are transmitted and received through dedicated channels or radios frequencies. But, it gets a bit confusing when you try to unravel what frequency walkie talkies use while people are exchanging messages.
For novices, and many veterans who have no time for the technical side of things, that confusion is understandable. After all, in getting to know the specifications of the best walkie talkie to buy for a road trip, camping, skiing or some special outing with friends and families, you’d come across some recurring themes like UHF, VHF, FRS, GMRS, and so on.
You also must have seen CTCSS and DCS codes which purport to aid private communication when using a walkie talkie. These codes make it possible to have thousands of channel or frequency combinations thereby giving you almost unlimited options of frequencies to choose from.
More on these codes later
The key to understanding what the frequency walkie talkies use is to know how frequencies or channels are allocated, what UHF and VHF do and their specific functions and how GMRS/FRS radios work.
Must Read: Best Walkie Talkie For Skiing
Understanding Radio Frequencies and Bandwidths
Typical handheld 2-way radios are designed to transmit and receive radio signals over a wide bandwidth of radio frequencies. For private citizens, these channels or frequencies have a limited number available for use.
Most of the frequencies are used by the police, military, government, licensed private entities, and other security agencies.
The frequencies opened to individuals vary from country to country. This information is important if you want to use the walkie talkie in a different country. You would need to find out from the authorities which frequencies are open to private citizens to avoid running foul of the law.
Walkie talkie frequencies are measured in Hertz and the two major bands are Very High Frequency (VHF) and the Ultra High Frequency (UHF).
Very High Frequency (VHF)
The VHF frequency bandwidth is found between 30 and 300 megahertz (1000 Hertz is equal to 1 megahertz or MHz).
In terms of bandwidth, VHF is longer than UHF and is ideal for long-range communication out in the open where there are no obstructions. For instance, a VHF walkie talkie would be best high up on the mountains and for ship cruises where there is no little or no obstruction.
Must Read: Best Walkie Talkie For Camping
Ultra High Frequency (UHF)
UHF has a shorter wavelength than VHF and are found between 300 MHz and 3OOO MHz.
Because UHF has the capacity to perpetrate or go around obstacles such as walls, buildings, and steel, they are more suitable for use in urban areas and inside buildings.
Generally, you need a UHF device if you want to use the radio both indoors and outdoors. They are a bit more expensive than VHF devices.
The Various two-way radio channels and allocations
By international conventions, the allocation of walkie talkie frequencies varies from one country to the next.
There are five main channels that are available in the US. These are:
- Citizens Band (CB)
- Family Radio service (FMR)
- General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS)
- Multiple Use Radio Service (MURS)
- Broadband Radio Service (BRS)
Private citizens are typically allocated the CB and FRS channels in the US. The GMRS and MURS channels are usually controlled by the government while businesses are allowed to operate on the BRS channel.
However, private citizens can be allowed to use restricted channels, such as the GMRS frequencies, if they get permission from the FCC.
Generally, most walkie talkies for private use come with both FRS and GMRS channels. Though it is illegal to communicate on the GMRS channels without the necessary permit, most people who have the hybrid FRS/GMRS don’t bother to get the permit to use the GMRS channels or frequencies on their two-way radios.
It could be because they are not aware of the law or they simply don’t care. Weak enforcement of the law means lots of people get away with using GMRS permits without a license.
Must Read: Walkie Talkies For Mountains
How Frequencies are assigned in FMR and GMRS 2-way radios
The best hybrid FRS/GMRS handheld two-way radios typically have 22 Channels or frequencies made up of:
- 7 frequencies that can be used by both GMRS and FRS devices. These shared channels run from 1-7
- 7 frequencies exclusive to only FRS devices. These frequencies are found between channels 8 – 14
- 8 exclusive GMRS frequencies found between channels 15 – 22.
As already stated, the use of GMRS frequencies requires an FCC license. The license gives you the right to communicate at up to 5 watts of power.
The hybrid walkie talkies typically do not need a license to operate it. According to the FCC though, if you want to transmit over the 7 shared GMRS/FMR frequencies, a license is also required if you are going to use more than 0.5 watts of power to transmit.
CTCSS and DCS codes
CTCSS and DCS stand for Continuous Tone Coded Squelch System and Digital Coded Squelch respectively. The major difference between the two is that DCS is the digital version of CTCSS.
They are privacy codes that sometimes come with different manes depending on the manufacturer. For instance, Motorola label their codes ‘Private Line (PL) while RCA refer to them as ‘ Quiet Channel’. Other names for them include ‘tone Squelch’ ‘privacy codes’ and ‘Interference Eliminator Codes.’
These codes make it possible for handheld 2-way radios to keep communication ‘quiet’ if the particular chosen code is not received when a message is broadcast.
Basically, privacy codes allow the device to ignore transmission from other parties even if they are on the same channel. To put it another way, the codes create sub-frequencies or channels giving you a private channel to communicate.
Because of the number of privacy codes in walkie talkies, hundreds of extra channel combinations are possible making it more likely to get a frequency that is unoccupied.
But privacy codes don’t really encrypt communication or give you exclusive access to some frequencies. That must be made clear.
If coincidentally, somebody tunes into the same channel or frequency with the same privacy code, they would be able to listen to the conversation.
In essence, privacy codes simply make it possible to communicate with minimal chance of a third party interfering. Look at it like going to an unoccupied room in a huge house to talk privately with somebody.
The frequencies available to any particular 2-way handheld radio depend on the type or model.
Consumer walkie talkies for private use have channels depending on whether they are FRS, or GMRS two-way radio or hybrid GMRS/FRS devices.
There are 22 Channels or frequencies allocated to all types of consumer radios. 7 are exclusive to FRS while 8 are exclusive to GMRS-only walkie talkies. There are a further 7 frequencies shared by both GMRS and FRS devices.
To get the best of both worlds, or to have access to all the frequencies, a hybrid device is the best option though you would need an operating license from the FCC to operate the GMRS frequencies.