Bubble-pack radio pirates

This entry was posted by on Tuesday, 27 December, 2005 at

So I picked up a pair of these nifty wristwatch walkie-talkies when browsing Fry’s Electronics. Super cheap, and they work as advertised with about a 1-mile range. They’ll be great for camping, hiking, geocaching — though my wife plans to use them as an intercom, so she can page me to come out of my basement music studio!

The strange thing about them that caught my eye in the instructions is the manufacturer’s warning: of the 22 radio channels they can use, 14 of them are freely usable, but the upper 8 channels “require an FCC license” to use. So I googled around for a bit, and discovered this bile-filled FAQ page telling me that I’m a radio pirate, and that I need to buy an $80 FCC license to use the device at all.

After spending an hour or two reading the FAQ and FCC websites, here’s my take on the situation.

Once upon a time, the FCC created something called General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS), which allowed individuals/families to create local radio networks for private use over a few-mile range. It required a license and radio call-letters to use, and was restricted to 8 frequencies. Then Radio Shack came along and propsed a new standard called “Family Radio System” (FRS), which was much lower power (half a watt, instead of 5 watts), and used 14 frequencies that lay between the GMRS frequencies. The FCC approved the standard, saying that that certified FRS radios didn’t require a license. Then, some evil electronics companies started marketing some super-cheap radios branded as “hybrid” FRS/GMRS: they could transmit on all 22 frequencies. The instructions said nothing about license requirements, and suddenly thousands of people were accidentally using GMRS without FCC licenses. The angry FAQ calls these people “bubble pack pirates”, referring to the packaging the cheap hybrid radios come in.

Well, as you can imagine, this phenomenon has greatly angered all the law-abiding radio enthusiasts. The FCC has been blindsided, and is too busy scanning airwaves (hunting terrorists) to bother to slap the hands all these accidental violations. As a result, the true radio hobbyists have turned into a self-righteous vigilante force. They patrol local GMRS networks, demanding people present their licensed call-signs. When they discover accidental pirates, they send them to the FAQ page and try to persuade them that they need to buy an FCC license.

The thing is, I don’t think their argument holds any water.

There’s no doubt that the FCC is a good and useful thing. The spectrum is a shared, scarce resource, and without FCC regulation it would be absolute anarchy. Whoever had the most electricity (i.e. big corporations) would dominate all airwaves. So the FCC intelligently requires people to license parts of the spectrum when the transmission signal is strong enough to interfere with others’ activities. But what I think we’re seeing in that angry FAQ is a bunch of radio hobbyists feeling cheated: “I had to pay $80 to use these frequencies, and now the rules changed, wahhh, it’s not fair.”

The hobbyists are arguing to the letter of the law, rather than the spirit. They claim that the FCC officially recognizes FRS radios and GMRS radios, but that it does not recognize hybrid radios capable of both. The law says that only 100% pure FRS radios are license-free, and therefore, they argue, anything else must require a license. In other words, simply because my device is capable of using GMRS, I have to buy a license. Sounds like a bunch of baloney to me, or perhaps sour grapes. It’s like arguing that if I don’t have a driver’s license, I’m not allowed to own a car. Sure, it would be illegal for me to drive the car, but it’s not illegal to own it and let it sit in my driveway. Likewise, I own a radio which is (questionably) able to broadcast on GMRS. If I don’t use that feature, I’m not breaking any law. (I say “questionably”, because my radio only outputs .3 watts, which is well below the .5 watt FRS maximum, and far below the 1 watt GMRS radio standard.)

The point is, I have an FRS radio that conforms to definition (and spirit) of the FRS law: it transmits extremely weakly, and on the correct free frequencies. As long as I avoid the GMRS frequencies, I’m not interfering with anyone else or breaking licensing laws. The hobbyists are angry at the hybrid-radio manufacturers for making it easy to accidentally break the law, but arguing that “the law doesn’t explicitly recognize these devices, thus you need a license” is extremely weak. I’d like to see what a court says about it.

The whole thing reminds me of the commercialization of the internet. In olden days, only elite computer hobbyists knew what email was, or how to have conversations on Usenet. When the net exploded in the mid-90’s, the old-timers got really irritated at the the influx of clueless newbies flooding the discussion boards. Sorry, that’s just how it goes.

28 Responses to “Bubble-pack radio pirates”

  1. What surprises me about the whole thing, though, is the apparent
    absence of a well-established FCC policy on the sale of devices with
    capabilities that might require a license. You’d think this would have
    come up before: some manufacturer makes a device that can do
    some things that don’t require a license, and some other things that
    do require a license. I mean, shouldn’t this question have been
    definitively settled some time in the 1950s? It’s weird. Whether one
    agrees with the policy of pre-emptive restrictions on equipment
    ownership or not, surely we shouldn’t be improvising at this late date…


  2. Eric

    I totally agree!

    Owning a car that is capable of exceeding the speed limit is not illegal, why should owning an FRS/GMRS combo be illegal if you only transmit on the FRS frequencies?

    The cost of a driver’s license is less than the cost of your car. Why should a GMRS license cost more than the cost of the radio?

    To continue the comparison, most licensed drivers and even the agencies that license them realize that there can be driving situations where it becomes necessary to exceed the posted speed limit in order to preserve your own safety.

    The same thing goes with communications capability.

    Let’s say you were trapped in earthquake rubble under your desk at work with only your office 72 hour kit within reach – what would you rather have inside: a receive only NOAA Weather radio, a few hundred milliwatt FRS Radio, or an FRS/GMRS/NOAA radio combo with 5 watts out on GMRS that you knew lots of other people were using as well?

    The fact is FCC is making it incredibly difficult for the masses to purchase basic two-way radio capability that would be enough for them to realistically punch through in an emergency situation. Either they don’t have the time or talent to get an amateur radio license. Or they don’t have the extra money to pay for a GMRS license. In Katrina we had people who couldn’t even pay for gas to evacuate so don’t tell me every American family can afford the 5 year $85 license fee, especially when they are just holding the radio in reserve for that rare time they might need to use it.

    For the record, I actually purchased a GMRS license. But I’m hoping that by the time it expires, the FCC will allow those who want to use GMRS frequencies for emergency communications drills to do so without a license.

  3. Andrew

    If I remember the FCC rules about the GMRS license, in an emergency anyone can use a GMRS radio, so long as it it for emergency use only. The license rules state that some where under usage for emergencies. For any other use of course, the radio must have a license for the user (and any other family members)

    The only part I am not sure about is the topic of drills. The FCC says you can use a GMRS radio in emergency situations, but doesn’t say it can be used for drills of emergency situations.

    The cool part of the license is that it IS for 5 YEARS and includes ALL family members. (Well technically some members were left off the list if I remember correctly.)

  4. cooldude69

    Ok here is a late but fairly accurate post. The FCC licenses the use of frequencies to transmit on. And only they reserve the authority to enforce these licenses. Don’t let any local group or police department say otherwise (ofcourse they have the option of reporting this to the FCC). You can own any kind of radio unless local law prohibits it. (Certain cities/counties prohibit radios capable of tuning into police frequencies). But other than that you can own any equipment provided that you don’t broadcast on the frequencies that you’re not licensed on. Therefore you can own and operate any “hybrid” radio as long as you broadcast on frs frequencies and at

  5. cooldude69

    less than 0.5 watts (low power).

  6. BlueStreak

    Well, how are they going to fine you for using GMRS radio stations, just out of curiosity. They can’t pinpoint you and send an FCC helicopter and slap the ticket on you. They have way more better things to do and if it does happen they will just notify you via radio. I would probably not say a word after they say anything on the radio (if it even ever happens) so they can’t trace me because I’ve heard about possibilities of tracking through radios. I’m 15 years old, I don’t think they would really do anything unless they really enjoy putting down teens. I think that we should all just use the radio channels and if possible there will be so many people using them that they will stop enforcing it and get rid of that pesky license fee.

  7. BlueStreak

    Ooh damn. Not sure if its a good thing or not but I’m not even eligible for a license

  8. discgolfer

    I agree

    I think that all these gmrs ham operators are just bitchy becuase they spent 300-2,000 or more on there huge flashey radio sets in the basment or other dark room in there house and now there exclusive little private more money than since club has been toppled by a 70 dollar handheld.I fell they need to get over them selves I mean geeze the max range on my set is like 2 miles at 4.5 watts chances of actually causing interferance on the channel and privacey band they are using is one in 2332 even less since in the city the radio range drop to a half mile or less.They are just being ellitest who want the airwaves to be exclusive to only people with ultra high end 300 watt monster systems in there house with 3 story antennas in the back yard.The same thing happend when cb becak affordable back in the 70’s and the fcc decided to make it license free all the hard core hams threw a baby fit.The same thing is happening to gmrs now the units and become cheap and plentiful every out of towner and soccer mom with soon have one and they know this means that within a few more years the fcc will probly go the license free route with it like they did with cb and frs before it.

  9. anibal solimano

    y use my hybrid frs/gmrs for my job crew in the city and outdoor conditions, my question is, what manufacturer have the really 1/2 watt in frs and one watt in gmrs for the not expenses equipment for example Radioshack or motorolas talkabout.

  10. Lee-KE7KPY

    “They are just being ellitest who want the airwaves to be exclusive to only people with ultra high end 300 watt monster systems in there house with 3 story antennas in the back yard.The same thing happend when cb becak affordable back in the 70’s and the fcc decided to make it license free all the hard core hams threw a baby fit.”


    1. There is no Ham who would waste their time talking on FRS/GMRS. It is useless to our purposes. Also, Hams diddnt throw a fit because the FCC took away the licences for cb. The 27 mhz 11 meter band was taken away from us before it was given to the public.

    2. 300 watts on 462 mhz???? No one is using that much power on that freq. not to mention no radio in existance that can do such a thing.(its also illegal to use over .5 watts on frs/gmrs)

    3. Look up Ham radio before lumping every radio service in with us.

  11. Lee KB3MKK

    Dude at .3 watts you can legally us FRS/GMRS channels 1 through 7, and FRS Chennels 8 through 14 with absolutely NO LICENSE. AS long as you do not exceed the FRS restrictions on power, and it is clear from your posting that you can not. then you can transmitt from channels 1-14 with no problems at all. Just shy away from Channels 15 through 22, they are GMRS only.

    By the way as you can see by my name, I am a licensed Amateur radio Operator. I also have a FRS/GMRS combo,because I use it to communicate with the wife and kids who are not licensed, but I use low power, and only on the lower 14 channels.

    I also have my 70 CM Ham radio set up to receive Channel 1, and you better believe that in an emergency I will kick that radio up to the full capacity of the radio and transmit through the highest Antenna I have for that frequency. That means if I have a radio that will do 50 watts, that’s what I will put out, and if I really need to be heard, I will use an amplifier, to kick it up even higher.

  12. Lee KB3MKK

    Dude at .3 watts you can legally us FRS/GMRS channels 1 through 7, and FRS Channels 8 through 14 with absolutely NO LICENSE. AS long as you do not exceed the FRS restrictions on power, and it is clear from your posting that you can not. then you can transmitt from channels 1-14 with no problems at all. Just shy away from Channels 15 through 22, they are GMRS only.

    By the way as you can see by my name, I am a licensed Amateur radio Operator. I also have a FRS/GMRS combo,because I use it to communicate with the wife and kids who are not licensed, but I use low power, and only on the lower 14 channels.

    I also have my 70 CM Ham radio set up to receive Channel 1, and you better believe that in an emergency I will kick that radio up to the full capacity of the radio and transmit through the highest Antenna I have for that frequency. That means if I have a radio that will do 50 watts, that’s what I will put out, and if I really need to be heard, I will use an amplifier, to kick it up even higher.

  13. Hello,

    Could i just ask then, if you use a GMRS channel personnally, cause their are millions of kids out their using them without knowing, is it possible to be found out? because im sure people listening can’t tell if you 0.5 or 1 watts without physically rtaking your radio of you!?!?!/

    Ive been using them for a while, just want to make sure their is no way you can be found out?


  14. James

    As a radio operator in the military, I have some experience with this.

    Lee-KE7KPY – There are certainly radios that will transmit with 300 watts and more, although the radio itself is almost never designed to transmit that much power, it can be hooked up to many amplifiers.

    Jamie – Locating a transmitting radio is very easy, which is why the military uses hop-sets and why we break longer transmissions into pieces, you load the same hopset in more than one radio, and while it transmits, it changes frequencies many times every second, making it harder to locate the radio, and making it nearly impossible to decipher what is being said, it also helps reduce the effects of radio jamming by the enemy, forcing them to jam tons of frequencies for it to be effective.
    That being said, no, they can not tell what power you are transmitting at without knowing where you are and using expensive, accurately calibrated equipment. The FCC is not going to waste time tracking you down lol.

  15. Anibal

    Hi, only a question:
    the Icom 4088 is similar in performance in FRS mode than Midland 850 ???

  16. Dan

    Basically if you operate on the GMRS only channels you *are* in violation of federal law if you are unlicensed. Period. Just like if you drive a car without a license you are in violation of the law. Its a victimless crime and to my knowledge nobody ever got hurt because the kids down the street were using channel 17 on their radios. Here are the basics. You ARE required to have a GMRS license to transmit on the GMRS channels. if you are caught operating without a license you will be notified by the FCC in writing and given 30 days to explain why you were operating without a license. In the case of bubble pack radios the excuse “I didn’t know any better” should be all they need to know. After you are notified the first time of your violation it is in your best interest to avoid the GMRS only channels (15-22). if you caught a second time you can be fined and even do jail time. The law is the law, period. I hold a valid GMRS license and use it to operate bubble pack radios as well as more powerful 50 watt radios. I feel the $85 fee I paid to the FCC is well worth it considering that on the rare chance that I get caught using GMRS without a license I stand to loose other licenses and authorizations I have and that can really cut into my paycheck. A previous post stated that the FCC isn’t going to waste time tracking you down. This is not entirely true. While initially they may not waste time tracking you down or even know to look for you they will track you down if you get on their radar screen as a problem user. In other words, don’t piss off the locals, they may track you down and report you to the FCC and once the FCC knows who you are its easy enough for them to come down on you a lot harder the next time. My suggestion to everyone – Don’t give anyone a reason to turn you into the FCC and you won’t have a problem.

  17. Doug

    I think it’s all BS. The fine line and unclear laws are an out dated problem, and the a family camping in the woods in America should not have to buy a license. It’s a money maker…Like everything else..I am not saying the FCC is useless, Oh wait they are! I am a Paramedic and very familiar with high power repeater/radio systems in which we are dispatched by the 911 center.. This a great example of the only reason I would be for licenses, but for 10 Dollars a lifetime just for proper education and tracking. For about 3 months we had a problem with some unknown local business/towing/delivery of some sort some how transmitting there stupid business radios over the 911 frequency. I would be calling patient reports to the hospital and get stepped on (over powered) by “frank” asking “booby” if he got da’ key’s to da’ drawer, and to grab him a hot dog. This was reported multiple times to the FCC and no help, investigation, or resolution was carried out by them. Finally after someone recognizing something to do with the business they personally went there and informed them they have been transmitting on illegal 911 channels. The guy was very apologetic and simply had no idea… The FCC was no help. If it is really that serious of a problem that everyone needs an outrageous 85 dollar license then maybe the regulation should be Pre-Sale. I’m allowed to own a gun but not shoot someone… But…… I have to have it registered etc… I DON’T HAVE TO PAY FOR THAT GUN TO BE REGISTERED!. But I can’t buy it until it is.. Same thing should apply if it is that important to them, but it’s not…The 85 dollars is…Can you imagine how much they bring in on that!? Millions….I hear people say “I don’t mind paying it if it keeps me legal”. Well really, in today’s economy? 85 dollars means a lot more to the consumer than ever before. Our country fought from the birth to not be taxed unfairly etc… We herald our fore fathers for it… I am no anarchist or revolutionist, but I ain’t buying a license…I know the FCC won’t enforce it when it needs to be so why should I let them take my money for undisclosed uses, some of which were exposed 3 years ago in that several big hats used a good portion of the Licensing interest for pay raises, vacations, etc… EAT MY AZZZ!!! Don’t buy a license!

  18. Mike

    How would anyone know if I have a license or not?
    How would they catch me if I use a gmrs channel without a license?
    How could anyone prove I was on a gmrs channel without a license?
    Even a video of me using the radio is not proof.
    I’m not rich so I can’t throw my money away just to follow the rules.

  19. kb3mkk

    Well, for one thing, licensed GMRS operators would have a call sign.
    No call sign, then you’re probably not licenced, and yes you can be tracked down if there is a complaint. I have equipment that can find out what frequencies are being transmitted on at a glance.

    I did go ahead and buy the license so now my whole family can use the GMRS freqs.

    But hey, if you think you can get away with it, go ahead and transmit to your hearts content, and while your at it, why not transmit your name abd address just to make it easier.

  20. David

    Haha, I like in the OP’s comment about how much bullshit the rules are, he says something about owning a car and not having a license. In the state of virginia, you CAN NOT hold the title to a motor vehicle without a valid driver’s license.

    Ham operators dont care about some goofy little 2-way radios, nor do they care about CB bands.

    Think before you open your mouth; research it before you put it in writing.

    I dont know about this gmrs crap, but an Amateur Radio License (from the FCC) only costs $15 — that’s the cost of the licensing exam.

  21. Donald

    How would you like it if you just had a pool installed at your home. You paid a lot of money to have this nice size pool with a hottub on the side. That then come home one day and find the hole neighborhood swimming and just having a blast in your pool!

    And guess what. You can’t do a thing to stop them.

    Or let’s put it this way. Some bussiness pulls up to your house and decides to start working from your front yard stomps all over your flower beds.

    And you can’t do a thing about it.

    This is what is happening. Kids with endless ringing the call button for hours. Kids screaming. People cussing.

    What’s happening to my flower bed. I used to use my radios to talk to my wife and grandma when I was driving around town.

    Follow the rules people. And yes the FCC will slap fines on people that don’t follow the rules. I found some kids just cussing a storm
    on the radio and was able to track it down to the door and the FCC fined them $12000.00 and took the radios.

    I don’t hear them any more.

  22. Rob

    I work in southwest Washington, DC, about a mile from FCC headquarters. I have had a Midland GMRS radio in scan mode on my office windowsill for a little less than a week now.

    I have yet to hear a SINGLE legitimate and legal GMRS transmission! No kidding! I have yet to hear a single spoken call sign on GMRS frequencies!

    I hear almost exclusively commercial “building management” traffic: “Go up to this suite and pick up some light bulbs.” “Go let the repair guy into the HVAC room.” “The people in the 204 conference room can’t get the projector screen to lower.” And on and on, all day long.

    The only other thing I hear is foreign language: Spanish, Korean, etc, and I don’t think that’s legal either.

    It seems like allowing the combined FRS/GMRS radios has killed this service, and that the FCC has thrown in the towel, as they are not over here shooting fish in a barrel handing out $10K fines to building managers!

    Private use, or someone to talk to: 0%. Commercial: 100%, at least downtown. Out by my house in the ex-urbs (Chesapeake area), it’s more like 0% / 0% — just completely dead everywhere I drive around with it clipped to my visor.

    The biggest losers here must be the vendors of commercial radios. What chump would bother with decent legal equipment when these unlicensed throwaways are available? Motorola both wins and loses, I guess.

    I predict that, within a couple of years, the FCC will just remove the license requirement like they did with CB, and that will be that. I remember having a CB license too — It took 30 years, but … FOOLED ME TWICE!

    /// Rob

  23. rod

    Some of you guys desperately need to get laid. Stop crying cause we don’t want to pay $80 to use a gmrs on a occasion such as camping or paintball it Parks. You’ll never catch or stop us nor will the FCC waste their time trying to do so.

    I can understand why Ham operators have to buy a license. You guys can transmit over very long distances with your nice powerful radios which you can broadcast on any frequency range. You can transmit even farther if you are using a repeater and can also make free phone calls with your Ham. Why are you guys so upset about a $10-$20 radio that can transmit 14 to 22 miles on flat unobstructed land?

  24. dave

    I have plundered and pillaged GMRS for over a decade now and have yet to even have been contacted by a butthurt licensed user. Oh sure it started with blister pack radios, but soon I found myself programming GMRS/FRS into my 70cm HT, then I got several battwing mobile business radios at auction, unknowing to me when I bought them, already programmed for GMRS simplex freq’s, putting out 50w on the shared FRS channels. I even ran a low power repeater for awhile. As far as I am concerned its the new CB. Just wait you guys will really be crying a river once the narrowbanding deadline goes into effect and all those used wideband radios hit the market. Of course you can shut everyone else up by using toned squelch (a.k.a.privacy code) but then you woulnt get to hear all us pirates and you have nothing to whine about. UHF CB, just like Australia, thats what it needs to become. Repeaters, tones,etc I know people down there and they all love it, used alot more than our fatally flawed 27mhz CB with blaring interference from every neon sign and traffic light in town, and all hell breaking loose every 11 years with the sunspot cycle.
    BTW, range for me even with a 50 watt mobile to mobile is only about 10 miles tops, with 5 being more typical sometimes less than 2 miles depending on terrain. 14 to 22 mile claims are from mountaintop to mountaintop, in the desert on a dry sunny day. Only thought a repeater ($$$) can you talk 20 to 30 miles and the dimestore radios dont work with repeaters.

  25. dave

    You got ripped by the FCC for $80, bwahahahaha! And then they allowed these cheap simplex hybrid radios from walmart, bwahahahaha!! What, your hunting club, 4×4 convoy or paintball team cant use it, just your family, bwahahahahahah! Damn no wonder you guys are so pissed at everyone who didnt get raped by the FCC for $80, and thats what its all about. The FCC does little or nothing when some tow truck co interferes with Fire and EMS, but is quick to fine Fire and EMS for using non type accepted equip. when some lid of a hammy rats them out. I got a strong feeling this new widebanding req is going to be a major cash cow for the FCC. F the FCC pirates rule!

  26. Joey

    You hit the nail on the head.

    Just tonight I was listening to my evil hybrid radio, and came across a self-righteous license-holder telling a user to get off the channel like he owned it. There was very low traffic on it. I almost got on to kindly tell the user that if he switched to channels 1-14, he could talk without interference from license-holders with sticks up their *ss. But I stayed out of it. Felt for the user, though.

  27. I find it hilarious that this blog post is over 6 years old, and still gets comments! It’s even more ironic that in the last 2 years I’ve taken up Ham Radio as a hobby, took a bunch of tests and got the highest-class amateur license — along with the callsign NN9S. I now have a wire running across my backyard and I chat with folks around the world. The FRS radios are sitting in a box somewhere, unused. I do long distance radio now, and without having to pay licensing fees. 🙂

  28. James

    The whole license thing is just a revenue generator for the FCC anyway, nothing to do about control. Trying to control licensing on this scale would be like trying to herd a thousand cats into a yard with no fence.