Two-Way Radios: How They Work and Why

Two-Way Radios: A History

Two-way radios first came to prominence during the early 20th century, being initially developed throughout the 1920s and 1930s. These radios actually had a surprisingly quick development process, with fully functioning models being used to facilitate troop communication during the Second World War, less than 20 years after their creation.

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Two-Way Radio History

Two-way radios definitely saved the lives of may soldiers during this war, with real-time position updates and reconnaissance being sent and received between soldiers further up on the lines, and those reinforcing them.

World War 2 Portable Radio

Granted, it must be taken into account that these two-way radios used vacuum tubes and other outdated technology, so they were initially far larger than the two-way radios which we are accustomed to in the present day.

Most of the more powerful radio sets in use during this time period were also incapable of transmitting voice over the airwaves, so radio operators had to be fluent in morse code, which further slowed down the communication process.

Regardless, the advent of radio and its further development during these dark years of human history further spurred on the creation of small, compact and efficient two-way handsets which are still in use today for all sorts of applications, be they commercial or personal.

Morse  Code Radio Operator WW2

Many people would wonder why you would still need two-way radios in an age such as the current one, where everyone has a cellphone which can be used for quick and efficient communication. The fact of the matter is that radios are more reliable, since you do not need to have cell service for your two-way radio to function, you merely need to be in range of the other transmitter.

Another aspect to be considered is the durability and ruggedness of these handheld radios as opposed to cell phones. Two-way radios are built to be tough pieces of equipment by their very nature. There is only so much you can do to toughen up a cellphone.

Rugged Two Way Radio

People have spent decades refining the design of radios and ensuring that they will work in the most harsh of conditions, and some devices can function in such conditions for years, which is more than you can say for most cell phones.

Another upside in comparison to cell phones is that radios do not require a subscription to a network. Radio waves are all around us, and the only limiting factor is to make sure that nobody else around you is using your frequency.

If you find yourself out in the forest, during a rainstorm, with no cell phone coverage, and you want to stay in touch with your friend or hunting partner, a walkie-talkie is the ideal choice, since it will most likely not break, and it will still be usable, even out of range of the nearest cell tower. This is the reason for which two-way radios are prized in many survival situations, and are an ideal component to any outdoorsman’s equipment.

Types Of Two-Way Radios

Handheld

Handheld two-way radios are commonly referred to as walkie talkies. They are the most common form of two-way radio and they can range from children’s toys to professional survival equipment. They lack the transmitting power of more powerful sets, but they are easily portable, rugged, reliable and proven over time.

Handheld Radio

These portable walkie talkies use batteries, and they must either be recharged or replaced to keep using them. This is the difference between disposable-battery two-way radios or rechargeable two-way radios. Handheld walkie talkies are some of the smallest two-way radios you can buy commerically.

Desktop Station

These models usually have a base which connects to a wall outlet so they can draw more power and increase the range of your transmissions.

Desktop Radio

These radios are usually found in homes or other buildings where a two way radio transmitter may be required, such as a forest ranger outpost, ski resort or countless other places.

Vehicle Station

These draw power from your vehicle to boost the signal transmission and reception, and are generally in the middle ground when it comes to power compared to walkie talkies and desktop mounted stations.

Vehicle Radio

Their transmissions can be augmented by an additional antenna that you attach to your vehicle, and they could be very useful in case of an emergency situation where you find yourself out of a cellular reception zone or something similar.

FRS Vs. GMRS

General Mobile Radio Service vs Family Radio Service

GMRS

The GMRS is the General Mobile Radio Service, which is the agglomeration of channels used by commercial radios. In order to broadcast on the GMRS you require a license, so it is not quite as simple to use a GMRS radio as opposed to a FRS radio. Once you have acquired your license, however, you typically have more freedom of use than a FRS radio user. GMRS functions in the UHF band.

GMRS Licence Reference

A GMRS radio can be legally modified or retrofitted to increase its signal power, and in general GMRS radios have a longer range than FRS, so it entirely depends on your intended range for radio use and how much you would like to customize your radio when picking between these two. In Canada, the usage of GMRS radios is not controlled by the government and anyone can use the service without fees.

FRS

The FRS is known as the Family Radio Service, which operates on the UHF band. The FRS is slightly less powerful than the GMRS so the range is diminished in comparison. The FRS does not require a subscription so you can use it.

Motorola MH230R Two-Way Radio

FRS-compatible radios are prohibited from modification, so you cannot augment the capacities of your antenna or any of the other aspects of your two-way radio. The FRS system is better used, as evidenced by the name, by families and close friends, and in situations where you would not require an excessive range or a modified transmitter.

Walkie Talkies Range

Range will vary from handset to handset, with advertised distances from 10 to 15 miles, but in reality, you will have difficulty achieving distances further than 2 or 3 miles maximum. A walkie talkie’s longest range is more easily measured if you know the surroundings you will be in. In urban areas, this range will be cut down by a large margin due to the interference between the buildings and walls.

Walkie Talkie Range Effectivness

Walkie-talkies are at their optimal range in open, flat terrain such as plains or meadows. Even trees in a forest can interfere with your signal, but nothing is quite as bad as walls in an urban environment however this is counteracted by the fact that urban areas usually have strong cellular coverage which can often render radios redundant.

Long range walkie talkies do exist, but these models are usually expensive and bulky in comparison to most consumer models of walkie talkie.

Channels

Channels are one of the more fundamental aspects to understand when it comes to walkie talkies. Most two-way radios are capable of using up to 22 channels, and these channels are shared by all users within your range.

In order to minimize radio interference between unrelated conversations, you may also use two-way radio privacy codes which essentially cancel out the background chatter of others. These codes are not as private as they sound, though, since other people can easily enter a privacy code into their walkie talkie and hear your conversation as clearly as ever.

If you’re looking for a way to have a private conversation, stick with cellphones, or otherwise make sure that you and your intended recipient are the only two within receiving distance of your transmitters, since radio is a very open method of communication.

Wattage

The wattage of your radio will boost the range if it is higher, which is why the GMRS is more effective in long-range transmission than the FRS. This is also the reason that radios connected to an outlet will have more transmitting power than those which run solely on battery power.

The strength of the batteries required to power a 60 mile walkie talkie would be rather straining on the batteries themselves, which is why these models are so expensive, otherwise the batteries would die very quickly in comparison to 50 mile walkie talkies or 10 mile walkie talkies.

Walkie Talkie Batteries

However, in reality, non-professional walkie talkies which are advertised as having a 50 to 60 mile radius will rarely achieve that unless you are in the most perfect of conditions, with nothing but open land and clear weather between you and your intended target.

Radio waves are finicky, and the further they go, the more proponency they have to break up and distort before reaching their target, so even if the signal reaches your intended target, you have no guarantee that your voice will not be distorted beyond comprehension.

Price Range

Walkie talkies can range in price level from 10-15 dollars to several hundred dollars, all depending on many factors, such as their transmitting power, waterproofing, durability, whether or not they are up to milspec standards, the types of batteries used and a variety of other factors.

As with any other product, it is up to you to decide what is worth it for you. This can depend on your intended use of the walkie talkie, your budget, and whether or not you will be using it for recreational or commercial use or instead using it to ensure your personal safety in the wilderness.

The cost of radios

If your walkie talkie is going to be the only link between you and your friends in a hiking expedition where you may get easily split up, then it would be a safe bet that you would need a reliable, relatively long-ranged walkie talkie to ensure that you don’t get split up and end up in a bad situation.

On the other hand, if you’re looking to buy some walkie talkies for your child who is an aspiring radio enthusiast, you needn’t buy a model that costs hundreds of dollars, unless you expect your child to be testing the limits of their walkie talkie and you can rest assured that they will take good care of it.

Antenna Size

The size of your two-way radio’s antenna is another crucial aspect to consider before making your purchase. As with many other aspects, the size of your antenna must be a compromise. In this case, you must choose to compromise between portability and signal power.

A larger antenna necessarily means that you will have an easier time sending and receiving signals, however, an overly large antenna is quite honestly unwieldy and difficult to pack into any sort of reasonably sized bag.

Walkie Talkie Antennas

Another issue is that, while a larger antenna will certainly help you in sending and receiving longer distance signals, there gets to a point where there are diminishing returns from the size of your antenna if you do not have the proper wattage to send signals at a far enough range to take advantage of the antenna’s size.

A general rule is that you want your antenna to be the same size as your handset, if not slightly larger. For home sets and vehicle mounted sets, you may also choose to mount an external antenna on the outside of your home or vehicle to boost your range, unfortunately, an added antenna isn’t necessarily an option on walkie talkies due to the size constraints and the potential for incompatibility with the rest of the unit.

Batteries

Another important aspect to consider when purchasing your walkie talkies is what kind of batteries they use, be it your typical AA or AAA disposable batteries, or rechargeable batteries. Some walkie talkies have provisions to support both of these types of batteries.

Modes

Two way Radios usually operate in these 3 modes, each one has it's own pluses and minuses.

Simplex Communication

Simplex communication is a form of telecommunications where only one device can send communications signals, and the other device can only receive.

This is the most basic form of communication where each device is specialized to only send signals and the other device is optimized to receive the telecommunications signals.

Simplex Gear

This has the benefit of being less complex than half-duplex and duplex systems, but this kind of system is rarely used anymore. The most famous example of a simplex communications system is telegraph stations.

They were the first forms of mass communication and essentially created the revolutionization of the communications industry and began the industrialization of telecommunications.

Half-Duplex Communication

This is the method of communication that is used by walkie-talkies and other two-way radios. It is simple enough to comprehend. Both sides can receive and send messages, however they cannot do so simultaneously. If both sides were to transmit simultaneously, neither side would receive either message.

Two-way radio frequencies are tricky in that you must always assure that one side is receiving and the other side is sending, otherwise the frequency will simply result in a jumble of sound which is disorganized and makes no sense, rendering the channel moot.

Half Duplex Communcation

These are the reasons for which radio discipline must be strictly enforced in half-duplex radio networks, because a channel can quickly devolve into white noise very quickly if people do not observe proper etiquette. This is why radio users use certain keywords to clarify what they are doing, such as saying “over” when they are done transmitting, and so that the other user may know that they can begin transmitting and stop receiving transmissions.

These types of communication networks share a single channel for transmissions, and the individual transmitters must take turns using this one channel, this was done to conserve bandwidth and make the communications system more feasible for an inexpensive product. This is the kind of system used by commercial two-way radios.

Duplex Communication

Duplex communication is a form of telecommunication where both parties can send and receive at the same time. This is akin to a telephone, which is a metaphorical two-way street, where both parties do not have to go through the extra process of switching to transmitting or receiving, and instead have the freedom to converse as if they were speaking normally in person.

Mobile Phone Radio

This takes slightly more resources and bandwidth to accomplish than half-duplex communications, which is why it hasn’t entirely taken over as the preferred method of communication for all uses, such as in commercial airliners, national parks, and many other businesses.

Waterproof Walkie Talkies

Waterproofing is an important aspect to consider if you plan on taking your walkie talkie out into the wilderness. The last thing you would want to happen in the middle of a rainstorm is to have a method of communication short out on you, which would be a most unfortunate occurrence.

The level of waterproofing is determined by your walkie talkie’s IPX rating which is a measurement of how much water resistance it features.

  • IPX0: Not resistant to water whatsoever
  • IPX1: Protected from water drops coming from the top
  • IPX2: Protected from water drops coming at an angle
  • IPX3: Protected from water spray
  • IPX4: Protected from water splashes
Waterproofing Standard
  • IPX5: Protected from water jets
  • IPX6: Protected from stronger water jets
  • ​IPX7: Waterproofing in less than 3 feet of water
  • IPX8: Waterproofing in more than 3 feet of water

Waterproofing should not be overlooked, especially if you plan on using your 2-way radio as a hunting walkie talkie, since you never know what kind of inclement conditions you may find yourself in, and having a crucial piece of equipment stop working out in the wilderness is just a bad situation that you do not want to find yourself in.

This is especially true if you do not have a backup method of communication with you, as it is extremely hazardous to be out in the wilderness with no form of communication.

Do All Walkie Talkies Work Together?

Most walkie talkies sold within the past 30 years should have absolutely no problem communicating with each other. They operate on the same basic principle, so there should be no difficulty in sending and receiving transmissions between them.

The only slight hitch may be on older models which will have to be slightly reprogrammed by pressing the 0 and 1 buttons so you can hitch onto the proper network, which is really not so complicated of a process.

Walkie talkies are simple electronics in concept, they simply send signals over radio waves, like radios have been doing for a century. Every radio which uses the FRS and GMRS systems should theoretically be compatible with each other, since they share the same twenty-two to fourteen channels, meaning that as long as you are set to the same channel and privacy code and you are within range, you should have no issue contacting someone using a different model of walkie talkie.

On the other hand, more complex radios may have difficulties interacting with each other depending on whether they use VHF or UHF frequencies, but most consumer walkie talkies do not get this complex when it comes to frequencies. So this usually only applies to 2-way radios which are used in a commercial capacity, as consumer radios typically lack the range of frequencies to cause an incompatibility with other sets.

Conclusion

In the end, 2-way handheld radios, or walkie talkies, are some very versatile pieces of equipment, as they can be used by aspiring amateur radio enthusiasts to gain some knowledge on the subject, or by hikers and campers so they can maintain contact with each other outside of the coverage of cell phone towers.

The applications have stretched further throughout history, beginning, as with many inventions, as a tool used to better coordinate military forces, but has since evolved into a reliable method of communication which can be used in rugged conditions and survival situations. After a century, radio communication is still going strong, but will it continue on to the next century? Only time will tell.


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