Should your two-way radio be mounted on the inside of your vehicle or hung from your belt? And why should you spend thousands of rands if there are cheaper versions available? Cyril Klopper finds out.
When you’re in the market for a pair of two-way radios the big question is obviously which type of radio works best in off-road conditions. You also can’t help but wonder if pricy radios are really that much better than their cheaper counterparts. We chatted to Haroon Isaacs, sales manager at Lazer Communications in Cape Town.
Portable vs mounted
You’d expect portable two-way radios, or walkietalkies, to be more expensive than the mounted versions, but the reverse is true, despite the fact that portable radios use batteries and micro-circuitry. According to Haroon, portable radios often have a relatively low charge of 0,4 W or 0,5 W, which is too little to power a powerful transceiver. That’s why their broadcast and reception areas are quite weak – usually no more than a few hundred metres and at most a kilometre or two. Moreover, they have a small antenna that can never be higher than your ear, and your vehicle’s bodywork acts like a Faraday cage and may disrupt a portable radio’s signal.
A mounted two-way radio’s antenna, on the other hand, is usually bolted onto your vehicle’s roof rack where it has an undisturbed broadcast and reception signal of many kilometres. This kind of radio receives electricity from your vehicle and the higher wattage provided can power stronger electronics.
Analogue vs digital
Think of an LP versus a CD. If a turntable’s stylus is dirty, the music will sound scratchy. If a CD player’s laser lens is dirty, the music won’t play at all. It’s the same with analogue and digital radios. The signal of an analogue radio weakens gradually over distance, and on the farthest point of the reception area you will struggle to communicate. A digital signals stays clear right up to its maximum range – a few steps further and the conversation ceases completely.
The mandate for the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa, or ICASA, is to regulate all electronic broadcasts. While the body mostly focusses on the policing of communication giants like the SABC and Multichoice, they do also keep an eye on what best friends John and Steve get up to with their walkie-talkies. >
There is no such thing as an unlicensed two-way radio. However, there is a distinction between whether only the radio requires a licence and whether an operator also needs one to be allowed to use the radio. ICASA decides which licence goes where. They also test radios for things like channel spacing
(if channel one broadcasts on 500 MHz and channel two on 501 MHz, then the spacing is 1 MHz), frequency drift (whether your broadcast is “leaking” into conversations on other radios) and power output (how far your broadcast can travel).
A 5 W radio such as the Bosvark PMR446 is licensed through ICASA, but you don’t have to apply for a personal licence. Its use, however, is limited to 13 pre-programmed, licence-free UHF channels broadcasting on 446 MHz, meaning you can’t communicate very far. But you can increase the Bosvark’s power output to 5 W and plug in an external antenna that will allow you to talk up to 30 km. Unfortunately almost every building contractor and farm worker in the area will be able to listen in on your conversation. With a mounted radio such as the Icom IC-F5062, the captain of your 4WD club can apply for a specific licensed channel that no one else has access to. Your personal radio is then programmed to broadcast on this channel and you may chat to your mates without having a personal licence.
Haroon explains that weather conditions and geography play a huge role in signal quality. On a cool, partly cloudy day your radio will perform best. On a scorching hot day in the iron-rich sand dunes of the Kgalagadi your radio will perform poorest. Haroon suggests you connect your radio directly to the vehicle battery so that it can receive power directly and can remain switched on even when your vehicle is turned off. If your radio is plugged into the cigarette lighter you must set it to low power usage mode, otherwise it’s not going to perform well or you might even blow a fuse.
If you were or still are in the army, you would definitely have learned radio procedures. The basic principle is that everyone gets a turn to speak – not simultaneously like on a phone. A two-way radio conversation goes something like this:
“Bill, Bill, Steve here, over,” Steve calls Bill. Bill’s name is repeated so that Will, who is in the car next to Bill, doesn’t think it’s him being called. Steve ends with “over” so that Bill knows it’s his turn to speak.
“Bill here, send, over” let’s Steve know Bill is ready. He also ends with “over” so that Steve knows it’s his turn to talk.
“We’re turning left at the big baobab. Look out for our track, out,” Steve says, short and to the point. This time Steve ends his message with “out” to let John know he has nothing left to say.
“Left at the baobab. Follow your track, out.” Bill confirms. He repeats the key concept to indicate that he understood the message. He also ends with “out” and thus the conversation ends.
No one plays AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” for 10 minutes over the two-way radio. No “Um” or “Aah”; Steven and Bill both know what they want to say and get it over and done with.
This conversation is very formal and you can obviously chat with mates any way you want to. And feel free to play “Highway to Hell”, unless your friends have other tastes. But spare a thought for others in the group as not everyone might be in the mood for your jokes or playlist.
STATIONARY OR MOBILE? Hand-helds are great if you need to exit your vehicle but remain in communication, but they are handicapped when it comes to range. A mounted radio is often far more powerful and it can’t get lost or fall down a mountain.