Don’t Buy A Cheap Radio. Instead, Build A Network.

There are a lot of cheap Chinese radios out there in the preparedness, “gun club”, mutual aid, and militia scene. Not only have I seen a lot of BaoFeng radios in photos from different events, but I’ve seen it in person, too. They’ve also been mentioned in a number of criminal indictments, including some related to January 6th. So, it’s safe to say that they’ve become the backbone for many preparedness, protest, and militant emergency communication efforts.

But, they’re really not the good buy they appear to be on the surface. In this article, I’ll explore a number of reasons why I don’t recommend them in 2023.

You Can Buy Better Radios For Not Much More

The biggest problem is quality. The cheapest ones that everyone buys are not very water resistant. Most of the better ones can’t survive a hot car very well. Most older models that people bought put out a lot of spurious emissions. Nearly all of them are prone to front-end overloading and the receiver selectivity isn’t great, so the radio ends up going deaf in environments where there’s a lot of traffic on adjacent frequencies.

Much better options exist in the $100-150 price range that perform better, are more rugged, and are just generally a lot more pleasant to use. I know some people think they can’t afford a $100 radio, but if you can afford $1000+ for a quality AR, hundreds to thousands for ammo for, magazines, and other related gear, you can definitely afford to spend more than $30 on a decent radio.

Given the context, “I can’t afford a better radio!” is almost always a lame excuse. Your communication effort deserves better, especially if you think you’d count on it for life and death.

They’re Not Meant For Unlicensed Use, And That CAN Get You Into Trouble

The other problem with the cheapest radios is that they’re not type-approved for anything but Part 90 commercial radio. If you’re a ham radio operator, that doesn’t matter because type approval isn’t required for that service. But, if you’re trying to use a cheap radio for GMRS, MURS, or other unlicensed services, you’re breaking the law in most cases. If you’re just operating illegally on other “black” frequencies that aren’t used, that’s also illegal.

The chances of getting caught doing any of this are low, but if you’re doing something controversial and get on the feds’ radar, it might be the perfect excuse for government officials to harass or fine you ($10,000+), even if you weren’t doing anything else illegal. So, it’s an unnecessary risk, and all to save a few bucks you could have easily spent on other legal options (more on those further down). Also, keep in mind that it’s pretty clear that all of these radio services are on the FCC and other enforcement agencies’ radar.

In other words, they’re watching out for such uses now and they will come down on you if they want to.

What about the emergency exception to radio licensing and type acceptance? The problem with that approach is that the exception only applies to communications that are immediately needed for the protection of life and property. Any transmission that wasn’t strictly necessary at that moment to protect life and property still breaks the rules, so you still risk getting fined.

Plus, if you’re relying on the emergency exception, you won’t be able to legally practice or do any reception testing ahead of an emergency. Reception testing is particularly important because these radios will struggle to talk for even two blocks without a repeater and/or rooftop antenna setup. If you don’t know what you’re doing and aren’t sure that the signal will get through, you’re not going to be able to count on the radio for that future emergency.

It’s the old “Six Ps” (Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance).

Getting People To Study For A Ham License Is Like Pulling Teeth

When we consider the problematic nature of using cheap Chinese radios for unlicensed and non-type-accepted services (GMRS), the remaining use for these radios is for either amateur radio use or under an itinerant Part 90 license (business radio licensing). I don’t think most small groups of preppers or families are going to mess with business radio, so that probably only leaves amateur radio as a viable option.

But, I know from experience and from talking to other amateur radio operators that it’s extremely difficult to get anyone to study for a license test. The sad fact is that you’re not going to get most friends and family to get licensed, even if you give them a radio, study guides, and keep bothering them. If anything, giving them a radio that’s capable of simplex communications on MURS and/or GMRS channels will make them less likely to study, because they figure they’re good to go.

So, unless you’re only working with some serious people willing to study and take a test, you’re probably left with no realistic lawful use case for these radios.

There Are Much Better Options

But, the good news is that better options aren’t that much more expensive, and they can give you far better communications capabilities.

License-Free FM Voice

If you want something durable, waterproof, high quality, and capable of reliable license-free communication, go with a type-accepted MURS radio.

Something decent like the Icom V10MR can be had for around $170 from various websites. You can use external antennas with this service, including those mounted on the roof of a car or house for excellent local range. You can also upgrade to a higher gain antenna for greater range handheld.

Base stations and mobile radios like the Wouxun KG-1000M are also a great option if you want to permanently mount a radio in a vehicle or use it at home with a tower. With good line of sight and antennas, MURS is capable of solid local reach and possibly some extended regional reach from hilltops and mountaintops.

License-Free Encrypted Mesh Networking

Another very solid option for license-free communication is called Meshtastic. These communications nodes can be had for well under $100 fully assembled and tested. They often run on a common 18650 cell and can be charged with a small solar panel.

Unlike FM walkie talkies, Meshtastic is legally capable of encrypted low-rate data communication. With good line of sight, people have established network links with these units approaching or exceeding 100 miles, but you’ll want to mount a unit on your roof or on a radio tower to get that kind of range.

By strategically placing solar-powered nodes on towers and/or at hilltop locations in a region, you can set up a wide area communications network. If any unit is in reach of another, it has access to the whole network.

A smartphone or a tablet can connect to Meshtastic nodes to send and receive data via Bluetooth (BTLE). Data other than text messages is possible. One great application for this low-speed data capability is ATAK, which can give you a lot of tactical communications options that greatly enhances situational awareness.

With all that Meshtastic and ATAK can do, would you really want to cheap out and go with a $30 BaoFeng radio? Come on!

Licensed, Higher-Power FM Voice

If you want higher-powered voice capability that can punch through suburban foliage and urban buildings, but you can’t get everyone to get a ham license, consider getting a GMRS license. It’s cheap, there’s no test, and one license covers the whole family. Unlike MURS, the power limit for GMRS radios is 50 watts. Base stations, mobile units, repeaters, and rugged handhelds are all legal and easy to use with this license.

Buy radios from an established brand like Midland or Kenwood. They’ll run a lot more than $30, but you can count on them during bad situations.

Amateur Radio Is Still King, But The Network Effect Is Limited

If you want maximum flexibility in your emergency communications, the obvious winner is amateur radio. You get the widest possible selection of frequencies, equipment, modes, and capabilities. But, you’re not going to get much out of it with a Technician license and a cheap dual-band radio. With amateur radio, you can get all of the above capabilities (handheld short-range, base, mobile, and digital mesh networks), but with greater power and range.

The other major advantage amateur radio gives you is access to the HF spectrum. Also known as “shortwave”, HF signals can bounce off the ionosphere and send signals over the horizon. If you do it right, global communications are possible with no infrastructure. Add a small computer to your setup, and you can do this with as little as 2 watts of power. You can’t do this with a BaoFeng handheld.

But, you’re limited to talking to other people with licenses. So, for an emergency preparedness effort, I would recommend a hybrid between amateur radio and the above unlicensed services. 

My Recommendations

For local communications, I’d personally recommend building a Meshtastic network with friends and family. It’s also possible to put a Meshtastic node in a pack or carrier for mobile use with other people on a team. Put a few nodes in high places to maximize the utility of the network. Then, consider adding some voice communications for your team if you think that’s still necessary, and use MURS or GMRS for that.

Have one or two people with a General or Extra amateur radio license and appropriate HF radio gear for long-distance communications. Important information from other ham radio operators in far-flung places around the globe can be shared with others locally via license free services, and vice versa. 

Most importantly, get training and experience! Radio equipment is a lot like firearms. Having a license and some gear doesn’t mean you can use it effectively. You need to run regular nets and exercises with radio gear so that everyone knows how to use it well. The few people on the team who have HF gear need to regularly join national and global nets to stay up to speed. Lots more information about this will be added to the Civil Defense Library soon.

Whatever you do, don’t buy a $30 radio, stuff it in a bag, and forget about it until there’s an emergency. It won’t be helpful to you if you do that.

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