Off the Grid Communications

There’s a lot a talk going around about being prepared for disasters, either manmade or natural. The recent superstorm on the East Coast has reinforced this fact the natural disasters can cause large scale disruptions in communications infrastructure. Establishing an off the grid communications system can keep you in touch in the event of disaster or other type of outages.

kb9vbr j-pole antenna communicationsIn considering an off the grid communications system, you’ll need to asses your communication needs. Are you interested in long range communication or is short range and tactical communication sufficient? Will an unlicensed service like CB or MURS be enough, or will you move to a licensed service like amateur radio or GMRS? Each has their particular advantages and challenges.

Short range and tactical communications are the easiest to form in getting started communicating off the grid. If your communication needs are to keep a group of individuals together and are limited to a couple of miles, an unlicensed service like the Citizens Band or MURS will work. Both do not require a license to operate the radios. CB radios are inexpensive, but are prone to noise and interference. Plus while you can buy a handheld CB radio, they really don’t have any appreciable range. MURS or the Multi Use Radio Service is an unlicensed VHF radio service that uses frequencies in the public safety band. Handheld and mobile radios are limited to 4 watts of power, but can take external antennas. While low in power, the external antenna will increase their range. Expect 1-2 miles of range with a handheld MURS radio.

GMRS is a licensed radio service, but no special training or testing is required to receive the license, you just need to pay the fee to the FCC. Each individual needs to have their own license, although your immediate family can operate under the same license. GMRS radios are a great short range tool, their frequencies in the 462-467 MHz UHF range are pretty immune to noise and interference. Plus you can run up to 45 watts of power, use external antennas, and repeaters on the GMRS bands. This can really increase your range of operations from a mile up to 50 miles if you have access to a repeater.

Amateur Radio is a great choice for both short range and long range off the grid communications. With a wide variety or frequencies available to ham radio operators, the amateur radio service offers versatility to meet just about any communication needs.

On the short range side of things, ham radio has both VHF and UHF frequencies allocated to the service. You can use handheld or mobile radios along with external antennas and repeaters to increase your range. You also aren’t limited in power. Up to 1500 watts of transmit power is available to hams, with the recommendation to use the least amount necessary to maintain communications. To use the amateur radio service, you do need a license, which is received by passing an amateur radio license exam. Every individual in your communications network needs a license, you can’t share licenses within the family.

Long range off the grid communications become a little more challenging. CB radio signals can travel for hundreds of miles if the ‘skip’ is in. But there is no guarantee that propagation will extend your range that much. The most reliable long range communication tool is amateur radio. Amateur radio has access to several HF or short wave radio bands that can be used to communicate 100 to 1500 miles. Each band has different propagation characteristics, so range is really dependent on which band is ‘working’ at the moment.

Communicating off the grid does require some special equipment and training. In our next post I’ll delve into antennas and radios suitable for short range off the grid communications.