Introduction to Radio Communications
I am not an expert on Radio communications, but I keep seeing questions on prepper forums with incorrect responses, so I decided to put together a little primer on the subject for my faithful readers, both of them. 😊 Before you dump all over me in the comments, please read this paragraph seven times, especially the first 5 words. 😊
The first question you need to ask yourself is whether you want a radio just to gather information, i.e. listen to during your disaster du jour, or whether you want to communicate with someone, e.g. “Hi honey, I’m going to be a bit late getting home from work due to the EMP.” If you only want news, you’re going to want AM/FM like your $15 wind-up emergency radio, or perhaps something like the Sony pictured which tosses in weather band and is a fraction the size of one of the wind-up types.
You could get yourself a satellite receiver, e.g. Sirius XM Radio, but at the moment these seem to be aimed at cars. There used to be some handheld satellite radios, but those seem to have been rendered obsolete by cell phone apps. Feel free to install apps on your phone.
Citizen’s Band (CB)
CB radios hit their high point back in the 1970s and 1980s when the government decided that we should all drive 55 on the interstate highways and we as a free society said “no”. CB has several advantages, including the fact there are a lot of old CB radios kicking around people’s garages. CB provides a two-way communications system within a few mile range, with no license required to operate. Due to the channel set up, they don’t require any expertise to use.
The disadvantage is that most of the radios around are intended for use in cars. As a result, they are bulky to be carried around on foot and a power supply is required if you want them in your house or a location other than a car. You may also find the 40 available channels clogged with other users in an actual emergency. Range is limited to line of sight.
FRS/GMRS are actually two bands, one of which (GMRS) requires a license for transmission. However, the radios are typically handheld and don’t require an external power supply, though recharging may be an issue. While they are two-way, the range is limited by line of sight. The 25-35 mile range advertised is meaningless because the curvature of the earth will prevent a range of more than about 5 miles and hills, buildings and other obstacles will make effective range significantly less.
Nonetheless, these are extremely effective for short range communications within your group. They are quite easy to use. Having a few around is inexpensive, and they can be tucked in a Faraday cage.
The ultimate form of two-way communications, when nothing else is working, is HAM radio. The good point to HAM radio is that you can communicate over longer distances, and HAMs view part of their mission as emergency communications. During Hurricane Sandy, most of the HAM repeaters remained up and running throughout the disaster and subsequent repair to the electrical and communications grid. Repeaters simply receive a signal and send it back out. They are generally mounted on towers and overcome the issue of line of sight by requiring that the two ends of the conversation be within line of sight of the repeater, but not necessarily each other. This gives you greater range than CB or FRS/GMRS. I have occasionally picked up signals from 50+ miles away off of local repeaters.
For longer distances, you are talking about bouncing signals off of the upper atmosphere, knowledge of antennas, and more money for equipment than discussed so far.
The disadvantages include: You need a license to transmit. Which frequencies work with which equipment is not trivial. The person you are trying to communicate with also needs a license. That hill that blocked your CB or FRS/GMRS transmission is STILL in the way.
Now you may be thinking you can tuck one of these in a Faraday cage and pull it out when licenses no longer matter. Unfortunately, without some practice and equipment testing now, you are unlikely to make that work. Get the necessary licenses for the frequencies you want to use.
Being a competent HAM is a skill that requires real effort and practice. Most preppers are going to decide that becoming an accomplished HAM operator is just over the top. However, if you get to the point in your preps where communications is your top priority, then becoming a HAM might just be for you.
Mesh networks are the new kid on the block. The idea behind Mesh networking is to have something like the cell phone network, despite the provider going down. Every cell phone is a two-way radio, but it normally requires a cell tower to work properly. By allowing cell phones to communicate directly to each other over short distances, they can operate without the network. To achieve more range, signals need to hop from cell phone to cell phone.
This technology already exists. The version I use is called “Serval” and is available for Android on Google Play. It allows you to either talk, or text, over short distances. If you have two Android phones to work with, try it out. You are unlikely to be able to cover any distance because that would require other cell phones running the app between you and whoever you are communicating with, but you can cover short distances and deploy the app to more people after the cell network fails. There are a couple alternatives to Serval, but I haven’t run any comparisons.
You may be wondering what you would do with a mesh network app if no one else is using it. Simply wait for SHTF, then offer to transfer it to other people’s phones. (This can be done with WiFi or Bluetooth.) They can then spread it to others until the density becomes great enough to be able to make longer connections.
Best of all, the app is free! 😊
For most of us, communicating is among our prepping needs, albeit not as important as food and water. We need to gather information about the disaster around us, and coordinate with our families and MAG partners. Give some thought to what makes sense for you and your group and equip accordingly.