Radio Hyperactive

So you think it's legal to yak on that walkie-talkie? Check the owner's manual, bub.

Jan 4, 2004
Outside Magazine
walkie-talkie, GMRS two-way radios

   Photo: Illustration by Istvan Banyai

"YOU BLOCK MY WORLD!" That's what legions of enraged radioheads are saying to the lawbreakers they call "pirates": people who use high-powered two-way radios without a license, jamming the multi-thousand-dollar networks that the hobbyists built at their own expense.

Their gripes are aimed, in part, at the multitude of skiers, hikers, and other sporty types who have been snapping up hybrid FRS/GMRS two-way radios (short for Family Radio Service and General Mobile Radio Service, the government-designated channels the walkie-talkies use). Unlike cell phones, the $25-and-up gadgets work well in the wilderness, making them perfect for outdoor coordinating. And that's perfectly legal, if you stick to the sub-one-mile-range FRS channels on your dial. But it's illegal to use the powerful GMRS channels, which can range five miles or more, unless you pay $75 for a Federal Communications Commission license. Violators can be fined up to $10,000 a day.

Still, people aren't worried about getting busted-which is why hobbyists are miffed. With more than 12.2 million FRS/GMRS units being sold annually, only about 39,000 buyers have ponied up. The FCC—currently overwhelmed with homeland-security issues—doesn't have the time to prosecute jaywalkie-talkers. And as radiophiles see it, the agency isn't aggressively cracking down on commercial perps, who illegally use the radios to run businesses. "The victim in this sham is the GMRS licensee," says Doug Smith, editor of the Web-based Popular Wireless magazine. Many fear the GMRS band has already gone the way of the CB—hopelessly clogged with chatter. At stake are the networks of repeater stations GMRSers have built around the nation, boosting range to hundreds of square miles. In frustration, some users hunt down commercial perps with Doppler devices, then "out" them on the air. "This is a powerful technology," Smith explains. "It should be respected."

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