2100 Miles on a Handheld Radio?

In recent months, social media has been inundated with advertisements for handheld two-way radios promising nationwide, survivable emergency communications. This is the verbatim text from one such advertisement on Facebook:

  • With the on-going crisis in Europe, the threat of Cyberattacks on the USA, and the uncertainty of WW3 you simply CAN NOT RELY on Cell Phones and Internet for Communications in the Future!
  • These radios are “GRID FREE” with both LOCAL Communication and Worldwide Transmissions possible as well! * We’ll even program the frequencies for you!
  • Keep in touch with your friends, family, emergency services – wherever they are located.
  • Talk for DAYS without losing battery charge + included solar charger option!
  • Our PROFESSIONAL GRADE Radios are SELLING Fast, sold out MOST PLACES, and available for a limited time with FREE Shipping!
  • Listen in around the world during an Emergency! Communicate locally and globally with family, friends, and more!
  • 100% Protected from Cyberattacks, Power Grid Failures, and More!
  • 7-DAY PLUS Battery Life plus OFF THE GRID Charger! Local, Regional and Worldwide communications! *
  • Tune in to Emergency Communications from Governments, Military, Weather, FEMA and More!

It sounds like a miracle, doesn’t it? When the cellular grid and Internet are down, one simply picks up a small handheld radio and checks on Mom and Dad living on the other side of the country!

Worse yet, their web page goes on to state:

  • Our radios from [redacted] are NOT your everyday Cobra or Midland walkie-talkie. Our radios are HAM radios which are professional grade communications used by law enforcement, military and more.
  • You can LISTEN on the radios with NO FCC License required.
  • The FCC rules state that EVEN THOSE without an FCC license may LEGALLY TRANSMIT on a HAM Radio, in the event of an emergency.
  • What does that mean? EVERY CITIZEN in America should own one of these radios – whether they have a license or not, since you can LEGALLY use it – IF and WHEN you need it most!

The advertisements are obviously designed to play on the fears and uncertainty of the public. Worse yet, one can argue that these claims are terribly misleading and potentially harmful to the Amateur Radio Service.

If one digs a bit deeper, one will quickly determine that these two-way radios will not offer nationwide coverage in the event of a grid-down situation. Like cell phones, they rely on cellular mobile data networks for connectivity. Their standard response to inquiries on Facebook comments reads as follows:

We have partnered with major data networks to provide us access to their infrastructure at an omnibus level, with NATIONWIDE range – which allows us to make it so there are no monthly service fees for you – ever! EVERY LTE & 4G network with total coverage and redundancy – not just 1 (every one – ATT, Verizon, Tmobile, etc) – so it’s like a cellphone on steroids… except it’s a walkie-talkie. With no lag, no delay. No programming. NO Monthly fees ever. We are the ONLY company in the USA to do this. We cover the fees for you. Most of our competitors charge between $20-$30/mo per radio. We charge NOTHING monthly and cover the data fees for you. There is also no USAGE fees, minute fees, etc. We also have a GLOBAL option available as well.

In other words, the company’s narrative markets these radios as a survivable communications option, but in fact, major disruptions to the power grid or cellular data networks will limit these to the typical functions and range of any basic handheld two-way radio. Instead of nationwide or global coverage, the loss of cellular data network access will limit range to a few miles.

Worse yet, the two-way radios are marketed as “ham radios” and are operational on Amateur Radio Service frequencies. Furthermore, the advertisements clearly state that an FCC License is not required to “legally transmit” on Amateur Radio Service frequencies in an “emergency,” but the term “emergency” is never defined. What constitutes an emergency? When one’s vehicle breaks down on the side of the road or one is curious about approaching severe weather it may be an “emergency” to the radio user, but this is not the same as a life and death situation as defined in FCC Regulations.

One can easily envision entire prepper groups purchasing these devices with the assumption that they will simply use ham radio frequencies in the event of a major event of some type. Without training, formal communications skills, or knowledge of band plans, protocols, or net infrastructure, one can expect conflict with organized Amateur Radio Service response organizations.

Furthermore, as is already a trend with the licensed “Baofeng crowd” within the prepper community, there will be a tendency of users to expect access to Amateur Radio’s volunteer funded repeater and net infrastructure without any sense of obligation to join the local radio club, the ARRL, and similar organizations, or to pay dues, or otherwise support that infrastructure and the volunteers who maintain it.

While these companies may be operating within the letter of the law when advertising their products, one might argue that they are operating well outside of the spirit of the law. In fact; these advertisements can only be described as very misleading and potentially harmful to the Amateur Radio Service. Is it time for radio amateurs to challenge their narrative if just to protect the future of ham radio?