On June 7, 2010 the FCC released an extensive document proposing a large number of changes to its set of rules governing Personal Radio Services or "Part 95". The Part 95 rules establish and regulate many different services including FRS, GMRS, Citizens Band (CB), MURS, Radio Control (RC), and even personal locator beacons and medical related services. If this FCC proposal is adopted, it will result in essentially a complete rewrite of the Part 95 rules. This will include some fairly large changes to the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) which is used by most of the consumer grade radios that we sell.
Before we get into specific changes, it is important to note that this document is only a proposal. At this stage, the FCC has released the proposal and is requesting feedback or comments from individuals who would be impacted by these changes. The proposal may very well change based upon the comments received. Also, if you disagree with any of the proposed changes you still have time to do something about it. We encourage everyone to submit your comments to the FCC.
As I mentioned above, the proposal would result in a rewrite of the Part 95 rules. The FCC thought this would be appropriate since the current set of rules was created over 30 years ago and was in need of some serious condensing. In the years since Part 95 was initially created several new services - including GMRS - have been added and the rules contain a lot of redundant information. By removing repetitive information, the new set or proposed rules is easier to understand and implement. This should result in reducing the confusion that currently exist in regards to allowed and disallowed services.
Even though the FCC has simplified the rules, most are not going to delve very far into this 44 page section of the Code of Federal Regulations. That's why we are here. Below I am going to detail the changes that this document proposes to the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) and some changes to a couple of other services.
Proposed GMRS Changes
Elimination of the GMRS license requirement. This is certainly the biggest news from the proposal! The GMRS license requirement would be eliminated and current GMRS licenses would become void. Currently users of GMRS radios are required by the FCC to become licensed before using radios. A license is good for 5 years and costs $85. In reality very few users of GMRS radios even realize that there is a license requirement, and far fewer actually complete the licensing process. In the proposal, the FCC acknowledges being aware of "reports" that confirm this all too common breach of the law.
They also point out that a license makes little sense when it allows a user to communicate on any frequency in any location.
Portable GMRS radios limited to 2 watts power. It seems that the FCC never specifically set a power limit for portable GMRS radios, meaning that they are currently technically subject only to the 50 watts ERP category limit. This has resulted in available GMRS portable radios that transmit at up to 5 watts. Creating a limit of 2 watts should not create any major issues because the vast majority of existing consumer grade radios are within this limit. This also brings the United States in line with Canada, which has a system similar to GMRS that uses the same frequencies with a 2 watt limit.
Changes to GMRS repeaters. There seems to be signs of panic within the GMRS enthusiasts community concerning this FCC proposal and repeaters. The concern seems to have arisen from a request from the FCC for comments regarding whether repeaters and base station operations are still needed in GMRS. Even though the FCC is asking for feedback on the necessity of GMRS repeaters, it appears that they do not have any intention of prohibiting them, at least for now. In the proposed Part 95 text (Appendix B of the proposal document) repeaters are still allowed and there has been no change to the power limits (50 watts ERP).
Businesses allowed to use GMRS. As the proposed Part 95 rules are now written, businesses would be allowed to use the GMRS. The document points out that businesses have been successfully using FRS, a lower power service that shares 7 channels with GMRS. Currently, businesses are prohibited from receiving a GMRS license, but licensed individuals can use radios for business use.
GPS coordinates and text messages. The proposal would allow radios to encode user generated text messages and GPS coordinates and transmit this information over GMRS frequencies. This is already allowed on FRS frequencies, 7 of which are shared with GMRS.
Voice scrambling explicitly prohibited. A few years ago, at least two consumer grade GMRS radio manufacturers released products equipped with a voice scrambling feature that was marketed as a way to counter others eavesdropping on conversations. Even though the radios with this feature were approved by the FCC, at least one of these manufacturers were fined after the radios came to market.
The existing Part 95 rules contains some poorly worded language requiring that messages be "in plain language without codes or hidden meanings" and there was confusion as exactly what this referred to. The FCC is proposing to clarify this rule and explicitly prohibit voice scrambling functionality. While consumers loved this feature, the FCC believes that "these voice-obscuring techniques could thwart the channel sharing protocols in these services and the ability to communicate during an emergency."
Elimination of combination service radios. The FCC is concerned that some manufacturers are now producing radios that will allow a user to transmit on both GMRS and VHF marine frequencies. Certain marine frequencies are monitored by the Coast Guard and are important for safety, and if the ability to transmit on these frequencies were to be added as a common feature in consumer GMRS radios it could lead to problems such as hoax mayday calls. The FCC is proposing to prohibit certifying a radio for both Part 95 and any of several other Parts including 80, 87, 90, and 97. These other Parts provide rules governing the use of frequencies for other purposes, including commercial radios and marine radios.
Narrowbanding. Around half of the GMRS frequencies are currently spaced 25 kHz apart, or "wide band". If the proposal is adopted, equipment produced after a set date would need to have the channel spacing for all frequencies set to 12.5 kHz, or "narrow band". Having radios use narrow band allows for twice as many possible channels to be allocated by the FCC and brings GMRS more in line with commercial radios, which also have a narrowbanding mandate approaching.
Designate frequencies by channel number. Previously the FCC simply stated the frequencies that were approved for use by GMRS. Now they propose to list frequencies in a table along with an assigned channel number. The point of this change is "to reflect current technologies and the way people use the services". It is interesting to note that the FCC's designated channel numbers for GMRS are different from the channel numbers being used by radio manufacturers.
Frequency tolerance and unwanted emissions. Changes are proposed to the language in Part 95 concerning frequency tolerance and unwanted emissions. These changes seem to simply bring the document in line with current manufacturing standards and do not seem as if they would have an impact on product performance or manufacturing cost.
Other Proposed Changes
Personal locator beacons must use appropriate frequencies. In 2002 the FCC authorized the use of 406 MHz for personal locator beacons (PLB), which transmit a distress signal that can be tracked by search and rescue responders. The PLB system is a well thought out international system that uses satellites to route distress signals to proper authorities. Apparently, lower cost devices using other frequencies have been marketing themselves as PLBs. The FCC is concerned that consumers may buy one of these devices assuming it is a "real" PLB and not be able to summon help when it is needed. This proposal would require that anything market as a Personal Locator Beacon or PLB operate using the 406 MHz international system.
CB radios can now be used hands-free. The proposed rules would explicitly state that hands-free microphones for CB radios are not prohibited. Existing language that prohibited "remote controls" for CB radios was unclear and could have been interpreted as applying to hands-free devices. The updated rules would require that the hands-free microphone only operate within a short distance from the CB unit, similar to a wired microphone.
In the next post, I am going to further discuss the proposed changes as they relate to the industry.
Please feel free to discuss the FCC changes here on this blog post and on our two way radio forum.
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