On the Water
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From Boat to Cabin

Two-way radios make communications easy
By David G Brown
Published: March 1, 2008
Photo by dreamstime.com
We are all accustomed to being connected to one another through our gadgets, from cell phones to laptops. For some of us, this even extends to the cabin. But, cell phone coverage can be spotty in rural areas, and a new iPhone is an expensive loss when – oops, splash! – it’s dropped overboard from a boat.
There is an inexpensive answer to communications across distances up to 10 miles. Try a set of two-way radios that use the airwaves of the Family Radio Service (FRS) or the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). A pair of transceivers can be had for under $30, while the best quality radios seldom exceed $80. Manufacturers include Motorola, Garmin and Cobra.
For the high-end technology lover, a Garmin GMRS transceiver with a built-in GPS mapping system can be purchased for $500. This technology allows you to track your location and keep your bearings on the boat. Or you can “poll” a distant unit to learn its exact location – so when you’re in charge of lunch you can figure how far out your family is and when to set the soup on. The unit also features an electronic compass and, for gadget-inclined hikers and climbers: a built-in altimeter. It does not (yet) make coffee.
FRS and GMRS are different radio communication services under federal regulations, although they share some of the same radio frequencies. FRS radios transmit a maximum one-half watt of power, limiting them to a range of about 2 miles. GMRS radios offer a range of up to 15 miles. But you must license your GMRS transceivers with the Federal Communications Commission because they transmit up to five watts of power.
FRS and GMRS transceivers look and operate alike. They allow a choice of channels (operating frequencies) so you can talk without interfering with a neighbor who’s also using two-way radios. This may not be a problem around your cabin area, but take your walkie-talkies to a busy ski resort and a couple dozen channels can be abuzz with activity! Most have privacy options so you only hear the other person with whom you are talking. All are small enough to clip on your belt.
FRS/GMRS radios can help avoid legal hot water. A lot of people with lakefront cabins install a marine band radio on shore to talk to their boat. This is illegal and can lead to fines of up to $10,000 per day of operation. Legally, marine radios can only be used on boats while they are afloat. They may not even be used when the boat is on a trailer in your yard.
Radio range is dependent upon conditions. Keep in mind that the FM radio signal operates on a line-of-sight rule. When there’s an unobstructed line between you and the person with the other radio, you have maximum range. Flat settings without trees, hills and buildings in the way are best for transmitting radio signals. That’s what makes these perfect for lake use; the half-watt power of FRS is plenty across open water where there are no intervening obstructions. Another optimal situation: use them from a high vantage point looking down into a flat valley or lowland area with minimal tree cover. But even a full five-watt GMRS unit may not be able to communicate in mountainous and heavily forested areas.

For more information, see: http://wireless.fcc.gov.

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