In the age of smartphones, a consumer two-way handheld radio may seem like the dumbest of dumb phones. You can’t phone California. You probably can’t even phone home.
If you find yourself in a situation with no wireless service whatsoever, it may suddenly seem the smartest communications purchase you ever made.
The Motorola MT-350R Talkabout series fits the “everybody ought to have a couple of these” category of items for any disaster preparedness kit. Reliable short-range communication would prove invaluable in any situation where everyday people might find themselves engaged in search and rescue activities.
These units are also handy for recreational outdoor excursions to remote places that have poor wireless signals. There’s still plenty of dark territory out there, regardless of what the color-coded maps say.
The seamless ease of wireless communication is taken for granted by a generation of smartphone users. Those of us who grew up playing with walkie-talkies in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s know just how useful these old-school communication tools can be, despite their challenges and limitations.
Compared to a smartphone, the Motorola MT-350R is a chunk. But back in the day, a Motorola MT-350R would have been the coolest thing imaginable. In contrast to those fragile, half-watt toys (to say nothing of their eye-gouging retractable antennas), one of these radios is a modern marvel — shock resistant, water resistant, dust resistant with unimaginable features for a such small, hand-held unit.
To say nothing of range. According to Motorola, the maximum reach of the MT-350R is 35 miles.
The first caveat is that this applies to transmitting over the open ocean or from a mountaintop across an open plain or some other ideal location. In reality — both urban and rural — consensus is these things work best within a 2-mile radius.
The second caveat is that one should carefully read the instructions provided before actually experimenting with hand-held transmitters like the MT-350R. If you don’t, you might inadvertently find yourself violating Federal Communications Commission regulations. One needs a federal license to legally take full advantage of what the MT-350R offers.
The MT-350R offers 22 channels. Eight of them (channels 15-22) are classed as General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) channels. Six (channels 8-14) are classed as Family Radio Service (FRS) channels. Seven (1-7) are combined GMRS/FRS channels.
According to current FCC regulations, one cannot legally transmit on the GMRS channels (apparently including 1-7) without first applying for and obtaining a GMRS operator’s license from the FCC. One must be at least 18 years old to be eligible. The license costs $85 and is good for five years.
The only channels on an MT-350R unlicensed consumers have a green light to use are 8-14. The supplied instructions do include information about FCC licensing requirements. The information can also be found in small print on the exterior of the bubble pack in which the units are sold.
Contemporary consumers are often inclined to play with a device first and ask questions later. Most bubble-pack consumer radios are bought for sporadic, short-range communication. The Motorola units are extremely intuitive to use. The average person can figure out how to get a pair of MT-350Rs up and running (and running very well) without consulting the instruction manual. Some users may eventually refer to the instructions for information on specific features (like weather band, scanning or VOX hands-free operation). Some users may never get around to examining the instructions at all.
This means large numbers of unlicensed users are invariably communicating on these restricted GMRS channels at one time or another. This clearly violates FCC regulations. But it is apparently a fact of life. There are millions of these small GMRS units in the hands of consumers and it has become difficult, if not entirely impractical, for the FCC to actually enforce these restrictions.
In 2010, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making that would consider, among a number of options, relaxing GMRS licensing requirements, extending the term of the license or perhaps even eliminating license requirements altogether.
Three years later, the FCC is still receiving public comments from both individuals and manufacturers. More is at stake than what initially seems apparent.
For instance, eliminating signal repeaters from GMRS service is one of the proposals under consideration. Well-trained and licensed GMRS operators who utilize repeaters are important components in many regional disaster response communications networks. Some licensed GMRS operators are already annoyed by interference from unlicensed casual users. Others in the licensed community seem more sympathetic. There is a surprising diversity of opinion out there.
There are a number of other technical issues and regulatory bones of contention the FCC is sorting through in connection with GMRS status. Public comments can be viewed online here.
With the MT-350R series, Motorola did a terrific job producing a quality, two-way unit that simplifies radio communication for the average consumer. It’s the technical and political realities governing the public airwaves that remain so complicated.