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What I Wish I Knew When I First Started With GMRS


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#1 VeritasVosLiberabit

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Posted 11 April 2020 - 07:48 PM

The more I learn about the FCC's General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS), the more I am fascinated by RF in general. It touches everyone's lives every second of every day, yet few people pay much attention. How cool is it that after 42 years and 14 billion miles away, the 22-Watt radio on Voyager 1 is still sending data back to earth every day (how important is that antenna?). So why aren't more people interested in GMRS or RF in general? There's no test to get a license like amateur (ham) radio. It's $70 for a 10-year license, and is really easy to get started. So here are some theories.

 

People don't know:

  • GMRS exists 
  • Why GMRS exists 
  • Why they'd want to use GMRS 
  • How to envision themselves participating in GMRS 
  • What it takes to get started with GMRS 
  • What it takes to continue and improve with GMRS
  • Technical information they should know about GMRS
  • Etiquette when transmitting (TX) on GMRS
  • What a GMRS "Net" is and why

Most people within the GMRS community are helpful once you're in, but the community is very inviting in a go-figure-it-out-yourself way, and no one has assembled everything you need to know about GMRS all in one place.

 

We GMRS people are putting the onus on outsiders to sift through thousands of painfully esoteric webpages with a winnowing fork, separating useful info from useless, poorly written, or incomplete info.

 

When I first heard about GMRS on a 4x4 trip, I arrived home and Googled around and settled on a Midland MXT-275 because it seemed perfect for mounting on my truck dashboard. At the time, I had no idea that Midland doesn't manufacture a GMRS radio capable of operating on split-tone repeaters (Dear Midland, I know you're reading this: why do you squander so much potential?). I didn't even know what "split tone" was or even what "tone" meant, or carrier or squelch or hundreds of other little things you all take for granted. Since then, I realized that if the big, bad manufacturers like Midland, Kenwood, Motorola, and iCom can't even invite the public to learn more and provide useful content for each stage of the customer journey—Awareness, Consideration, Purchase, and Loyalty—the 2-way radio industry has much deeper problems and aren't there to help guys like me.

 

As we get involved deeper into GMRS, there's little-to-no hand-holding going on at each level of knowledge. I ending up relying on the Ham community here and there and a guy who is basically a saint at a little radio shop in Phoenix, Arizona (hope Tim over at Procomm and the others at the nonprofit AZGMRS.org don't mind me giving them a shout-out).

 

Edit 4/14/2020: By the way, AZGMRS made this awesome list of FCC-approved GMRS radios that they recommend. If you live anywhere near Arizona and are reading this, now would be a great time to become a member. Their repeater network covers some 100 miles around Phoenix with more and more repeaters joining the network (check out their sweet coverage map).

 

But it's still frustrating.

 

I wish a GMRS expert—presumably a manufacturer—would just come out and say exactly what a total newbie needs at each stage of their involvement or level of need. Two-way radio manufacturers should stop wasting time trying to sell, and start marketing and branding, which means educating the public about the 5 W's (Who, What, Where, When, Why [+how, +how much]) without trying to sell to them.

 

Most new users don't know what they need because they don't know what's possible. For example, I wish I knew that manufacturers don't typically include the best antenna on their radios right out of the box. It took me over a year to realize that the best bang for the buck for a portable base antenna to include in my go bag is N9TAX's Slimjim and that Smiley Antenna makes the best bang for the buck antennas for hand-held radios (which by the way, everyone just assumes newbies are supposed to know that hand-held walkie-talkie radios are called "HT" for "Handy-talkie" and what a "QSO" is).

 

How would a newbie know that the cheap Nagoya 771 "upgrade" antenna for Baofengs that everyone talks about actually isn't the best bang for the buck for the GMRS frequency band of 462–467? How would a newbie know that antennas work best when tuned exactly to what they call a "center" frequency that accommodates 5 Megahertz in each direction (+5 and -5 Megahertz) at the expense of hearing other frequencies?

 

I learned the hard way that in order to properly install an NMO antenna mount on the roof of my truck, I would need a drill bit specifically made for drilling NMO antenna mount holes, and that yes, it is worth the money to do it right the first time.

 

I'm still in the middle of learning how a "quarter-wave" or "5/8 wave" antenna works, the difference between dB gain vs. dBi gain, mic gain, antenna gain, because again, everyone seems to just assume I already know what all this means. I still don't understand what antenna "tuning" means and why you have to "cut" an antenna to "tune" it. Can I make my own antenna right now in a pinch with a copper wire in my garage? Ok, show me! How do I measure it or test it? What is SWR? Can I measure it myself? What do I need in order to measure it? Is one SWR meter better than another for my level as a newbie? Is there something I should learn to make it worth buying the better meter that opens up a whole new world of capability? Is it worth learning all that?

 

This graphic did a great job beginning to explain what dBd gain means for those of us who know next to nothing about it, but now I need to go find out on my own and sift through a thousand webpages to find out if dBd is something new I need to know. Speaking of dB, I know that "dB" is a decibel, but is it the same as my stereo volume? Why do I see manufacturers saying that the microphone and cable have a dB rating? What is going on here? This is madness! We can Google things all day, but which info is true and correct and the most helpful?

 

I think that the entire industry is sitting on a Gold Mine of consumers sitting at home for weeks on end who would love to buy GMRS equipment and communicate via GMRS to friends, family, neighbors, and other GMRS users. Whoever provides the most useful, relevant, and engaging content that stops making assumptions about what people know or don't know will win.

 

STOP ASSUMING. START EDUCATING.


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#2 marcspaz

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Posted 11 April 2020 - 09:52 PM

I think the biggest problem is, there are too many opinions AND most new users don't even know "what" they want to do.  For the most part, many new radio users don't know what tech is the correct tech for any intended purpose.  Until they get in and find out something they like and figure out how it will suit their needs, we wouldn't even know what advice to give.

 

I have tried to help, though.  I actually have a published article I wrote about the pros and cons of each common service, what they could potentially used for, and just a really brief overview of the science behind it.  It was focused around off-road communications, but applies to everything.  I can always share it here, but I haven't due to potential bickering. 


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#3 BoxCar

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Posted 12 April 2020 - 12:33 PM

The conceptual idea is sound in that professionals do have the knowledge to design a system for a user or even a class of user however, we all know there are no real "cookie cutter" solutions. While it would be possible to specify some equipment from a single brand that would fit the three (or is it four) classes of user; mobile, base, repeater and possibly the fourth being handheld not every manufacturer of these radios build all the parts needed for a complete installation with the exception of handhelds. Lets look at a typical home or base station setup. First you need the transceiver and a DC power supply with it as very few are AC powered. Next you would need the coaxial cable feed to the antenna and its mount with the antenna being the final piece. Here is where the most customization takes place. You need to know the distance for you coax run and how you will mount your antenna. There is some help on the mounting of an external antenna as the FCC has ruled that building owners and associations cannot deny you the right to install your antenna however they may make and enforce rules about how it is placed.

 

The biggest issues any combo or kit recommender runs into are meeting customer expectations. While some expectations can be mitigated through different mixes of equipment, the biggest hurdle for the consumer will be the price of the kit and the performance of the equipment. Better equipment means a higher end price to the purchaser. That's why the homebrew solutions often work best. Being able to mix and match pieces provides the best path for any user. As different equipment becomes available the user can upgrade different parts of the install. A better transceiver may be able to use the DC power supply from the older unit along with the coax and antenna. The coax could be replaced with one having lower loss for the same distance or the antenna changed, each providing some improvements. There are just too many variables for a system designer to overcome.


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#4 VeritasVosLiberabit

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Posted 13 April 2020 - 10:39 AM

Aaaaaand speak of the devil...

 

Sunday's Wall Street Journal article, which affirms everything I'm saying!

 

‘Ready for Lunch? Over.’ Walkie-Talkies Make Comeback With Folks Stuck at Home. Coronavirus lockdowns give the World War II-era device new life
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#5 VeritasVosLiberabit

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Posted 13 April 2020 - 10:43 AM

I think the biggest problem is, there are too many opinions AND most new users don't even know "what" they want to do.  For the most part, many new radio users don't know what tech is the correct tech for any intended purpose.  Until they get in and find out something they like and figure out how it will suit their needs, we wouldn't even know what advice to give.

 

I have tried to help, though.  I actually have a published article I wrote about the pros and cons of each common service, what they could potentially used for, and just a really brief overview of the science behind it.  It was focused around off-road communications, but applies to everything.  I can always share it here, but I haven't due to potential bickering. 

 

I'd rather have your expertise and there's no need for bickering. If someone knows what is best for each application, stand up and say it. The rest of us need to know when to lead, and know when to follow. 


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#6 berkinet

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Posted 13 April 2020 - 11:38 AM

...If someone knows what is best for each application, stand up and say it. The rest of us need to know when to lead, and know when to follow.

And there is the problem. There is usually no clear answer as to what the best, or even at times, a good, decision is. There are far too many variables involved. It might be that one excellent solution requires someone with a service monitor to configure, or the ability (and courage) to climb a tower, or deep pockets, a machine shop, and so on. Some users here are computer gurus while others can’t even connect a cable between a radio and their computer. Etc, etc, etc.

I for one, have no interest in becoming a leader in this field. On the one hand, the more I know the more I realize what I don’t know. On the other hand, I am completely uninterested is accepting responsibility for someone who blindly trusts in whatever I might opine. At best, I am willing to be a guide or counselor or to someone else’s journey into self discovery.

YMMV. And that is a good thing.
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#7 VeritasVosLiberabit

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Posted 13 April 2020 - 12:13 PM

The conceptual idea is sound in that professionals do have the knowledge to design a system for a user or even a class of user however, we all know there are no real "cookie cutter" solutions. While it would be possible to specify some equipment from a single brand that would fit the three (or is it four) classes of user; mobile, base, repeater and possibly the fourth being handheld not every manufacturer of these radios build all the parts needed for a complete installation with the exception of handhelds. Lets look at a typical home or base station setup. First you need the transceiver and a DC power supply with it as very few are AC powered. Next you would need the coaxial cable feed to the antenna and its mount with the antenna being the final piece. Here is where the most customization takes place. You need to know the distance for you coax run and how you will mount your antenna. There is some help on the mounting of an external antenna as the FCC has ruled that building owners and associations cannot deny you the right to install your antenna however they may make and enforce rules about how it is placed.

 

The biggest issues any combo or kit recommender runs into are meeting customer expectations. While some expectations can be mitigated through different mixes of equipment, the biggest hurdle for the consumer will be the price of the kit and the performance of the equipment. Better equipment means a higher end price to the purchaser. That's why the homebrew solutions often work best. Being able to mix and match pieces provides the best path for any user. As different equipment becomes available the user can upgrade different parts of the install. A better transceiver may be able to use the DC power supply from the older unit along with the coax and antenna. The coax could be replaced with one having lower loss for the same distance or the antenna changed, each providing some improvements. There are just too many variables for a system designer to overcome.

 

Thank you! This is a huge step. You're actually outlining the whole shell of what's possible, defining the segments, and getting us started on the basics all in one place.



#8 BoxCar

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Posted 13 April 2020 - 12:16 PM

GMRS isn't really a plug-n-play type of service. Other than the handhelds no one markets or recommends any complete system. Take the antenna needed for a base station. Which antenna depends on at least 4 variables - size, cost, efficiency and mount. There are plenty more that I cannot fathom. My particular situation is unique as I live in a ground floor apartment facing a 300 foot high ridge on the east side and a 400 foot ridge on the south. I can't make any holes through the walls and I have an apartment on my west side so I can't access the other two directions easily. For an antenna on my mobile used in the house I have a J-pole stuck on a piece of PVC leaning against wall. Not a great install but one no dealer would look to put in. My range is probably 5 miles to the west and north wit a 25 watt unit.

 

Now, how would you attempt to market something similar as a $500-700 kit. As you have to rely on the purchaser to do the install, what kind of performance figure would you attach to this "apartment size" kit. What would you do if the customers complained their range was less? How could you verify any complaints or would you brush them off as being a user installation problem? I live with my limitations because I had a decent idea of what I was going to get because of my environment. But then my case is different from someone in a highrise with a clear place to mount an antenna who gets 10 to 15 miles of range with the same equipment,


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#9 marcspaz

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Posted 13 April 2020 - 01:35 PM

I'd rather have your expertise and there's no need for bickering. If someone knows what is best for each application, stand up and say it. The rest of us need to know when to lead, and know when to follow. 

 

 

I appreciate the flowers... but there are two problems. 

 

1.)  I spent 3 years studying electronic technology and engineering.  I can describe electron flow to a 5 year old kid at a level they understand.  Right now I could start writing everything I know/think that could possibly help in any one given situation, and may finish in time to watch my 3 YO grandson graduate from high school.  And I'm not even close to the smartest guy on this forum.  There is WAY to much information in my head to share all of it, I don't want to write it all down, and I have no idea what is important to YOU until you ask.  

 

 

2.)  The issue isn't to know when to lead.  The issue is for the user to know what direction they want to be led. Then, I can help you 'if' I am qualified to do so.

 

 

Enter forums... a place were people can come with specific questions and experienced people will try to help. 

 

 

And there is the problem. There is usually no clear answer as to what the best, or even at times, a good, decision is. There are far too many variables involved.

 

 

Yes...  ^^^  This. 

 

 

 

We are all here to help, learn and rag-chew about the tech.  However, goals, limiting factors and aptitude of the person needing help, makes possibilities endless.


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#10 VeritasVosLiberabit

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Posted 13 April 2020 - 02:24 PM

@berkinet @marcspaz @boxcar this is all very good info. Thank you for your responses. It helps clarify to me that the answer isn't necessarily to lead or follow as I posited, but to become a better facilitator of structuring information in a way that benefits each person in their own journey who may not even know what to ask or are too timid to ask.



#11 jonnylocks

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Posted 15 April 2020 - 10:51 AM

The basic premise here and the bulleted proposals above ring true for me - that there needs to be better and more centralized support for beginners. I have multiple college degrees and technical knowledge but the practical advice (such as what the OP cited) is scattered across the internet. For an old technology with such potential and use, this makes no sense to me. 

 

Great comments all around though and the replies above are well taken. 


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#12 berkinet

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Posted 15 April 2020 - 11:07 AM

The basic premise here and the bulleted proposals above ring true for me - that there needs to be better and more centralized support for beginners. ...

Conceptually all well and fine. However, who should provide this support? It isn't, in my view, the responsibility of those already involved in the service, they got involved to meet their particular communications needs and not necessarily promote the service to others. Also, many GMRS users are quite happy with things exactly as they are and see no need or reason to encourage others to get involved.  Next, it is not the FCC's job, they regulate the service and, loosely, police it. But, they have neither the funds, means or charter to promote any particular communications service. 

 

So, what we have left are the manufacturers and resellers. We certainly cannot mandate that sellers also promote and support GMRS, so it end up being a marketing option for them. Some will provide support to some degree or another, some won't. And, don't forget that any costs associated with training and support will ultimately show up in the price of the product. But, and here is the rub, a huge percentage of radios used in GMRS were either purchased used or were not specifically certified for GMRS, or both.  In fact, one very common recommendation on this forum is to buy high quality used equipment instead of new gear.

 

For me, I am willing to help where and however I can. But, I have no interest in making a proactive effort at setting up a support program to encourage and support new users, and the responsibilities that go along with that.  Fortunately, there are others around here who are interested in such endeavors and perhaps they will respond here as well.


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#13 gman1971

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Posted 16 April 2020 - 07:06 PM

I wish I would've known Marc Spaz before I started on GMRS, or anything radio, really... he has helped me tremendously go from barely 4 miles to well beyond 15 miles simplex mobile to base... :)

 

G.


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#14 marcspaz

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Posted 17 April 2020 - 07:27 AM

I wish I would've known Marc Spaz before I started on GMRS, or anything radio, really... he has helped me tremendously go from barely 4 miles to well beyond 15 miles simplex mobile to base... :)

G.


That is a very nice thing to say. I appreciate it.. but you did all the work and figured everything out. I just shared some personal experience.

Btw... I had a great time talking with you through all of that. I am very glad it finally all came together.
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#15 gman1971

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Posted 17 April 2020 - 12:50 PM

Your "sharing experiences" was what allowed to put it all together. Thanks!

 

Moral of the story is, even if you think you know, talking to someone who has a lot of experience will help a lot...  

 

 

G.

 

 

That is a very nice thing to say. I appreciate it.. but you did all the work and figured everything out. I just shared some personal experience.

Btw... I had a great time talking with you through all of that. I am very glad it finally all came together.


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#16 chuckn

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Posted 19 April 2020 - 09:37 AM

I can agree somewhat with the OP. Some inital handing holding would be nice. That said, the responders have agreed that there are no ABC steps that are going to work for everyone's location. 

 

So, perhaps stating one's reasons for getting into GMRS is important. Mine include:

1. Have a way to call for help while hiking in the national park where cell phones don't work. This will depend on the availability of a repeater. 

2. Communicate with several groups of family and friends while camping.

 

This says that I need a repeater capable radio. I need to learn how to connect to the repeaters within range. Are there other factors I need to consider? 



#17 marcspaz

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Posted 19 April 2020 - 12:19 PM

In your case of emergency communications while hiking... unless you are at a mountain/hill top, no one is going to hear you more than a few hundred yards in some cases. 1 to 2 miles best case. That includes repeaters.

In the general population of non-radio tech people, there is a huge misunderstanding about how radios work. In the mountains, FRS and GMRS are better than nothing, but there are much better solutions.

That said, if you get to a mountain or hill top, depending on the rest of the terrain, you can possibly get 10-15 miles of coverage.

They are good for keeping in touch while camping, of course keeping terrain in mind, since it is a line of sight service.
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#18 berkinet

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Posted 19 April 2020 - 01:34 PM

...This says that I need a repeater capable radio. I need to learn how to connect to the repeaters within range. Are there other factors I need to consider? 

 

Having the right equipment is only a part of the solution. You have to know who, how and when to call.   This means prior research. There is no magic button to press to find a repeater. Prior to leaving your home, you need to know what repeaters, if any, exit, what are the access requirements (frequency, PL, etc.), are there clubs in the area, do the SAR teams use GMRS (or some other service) and if so what channel do they monitor. Also, there is no point on calling for help at 2AM if that is outside of normal operating hours and nobody knows you are in trouble. Even if you cannot find someone to call, what are the park service, forest service, BLM, state, etc frequencies so you can at least monitor if necessary.

 

Too many people buy some radio thinking it will save them one day and then don't touch it again until they are in deep sh*t. That's when they find the batteries have corroded so badly that the internal contacts have disintegrated.


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#19 chuckn

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Posted 20 April 2020 - 06:37 AM

In your case of emergency communications while hiking... unless you are at a mountain/hill top, no one is going to hear you more than a few hundred yards in some cases. 1 to 2 miles best case. That includes repeaters.

In the general population of non-radio tech people, there is a huge misunderstanding about how radios work. In the mountains, FRS and GMRS are better than nothing, but there are much better solutions.

That said, if you get to a mountain or hill top, depending on the rest of the terrain, you can possibly get 10-15 miles of coverage.

They are good for keeping in touch while camping, of course keeping terrain in mind, since it is a line of sight service.

What are the better solutions? 



#20 chuckn

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Posted 20 April 2020 - 06:45 AM

Having the right equipment is only a part of the solution. You have to know who, how and when to call.   This means prior research. There is no magic button to press to find a repeater. Prior to leaving your home, you need to know what repeaters, if any, exit, what are the access requirements (frequency, PL, etc.), are there clubs in the area, do the SAR teams use GMRS (or some other service) and if so what channel do they monitor. Also, there is no point on calling for help at 2AM if that is outside of normal operating hours and nobody knows you are in trouble. Even if you cannot find someone to call, what are the park service, forest service, BLM, state, etc frequencies so you can at least monitor if necessary.

 

Too many people buy some radio thinking it will save them one day and then don't touch it again until they are in deep sh*t. That's when they find the batteries have corroded so badly that the internal contacts have disintegrated.

 

Good suggestion about finding out which frequencies the park service or forest service uses, 

 

No, I didn't think a radio to be able to save me. It might not be even worth the added weight. 


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