Family Radio more than a name
Although some radio dealers sell UHF Family Radio Service two-way radios to their business customers, not all look upon the practice favorably.
A dozen or more radio manufacturers make the short-range radios that some dealers refuse to sell for business use while other dealers do.
The radios are readily available from consumer and industrial outlets and mail-order companies.
“Where we used to sell a standard business band radio to business-licensed customers in the 151 MHz band, that business has gone to FRS radios. For example, an auto dealer in Olathe, Kan., now buys FRS radios from Wal-Mart. They do fine, covering four or five acres. But that cut us out of selling business radios,” said Phil Snyder, owner of M.I.N.K. Marketing, a manufacturers representative in Olathe.
Whether the FCC’s FRS regulations preclude business use of FRS radios is not clear to everyone.
The Industrial Telecommunications Association would like to clear up any regulatory ambiguity and has asked the FCC to specifically ban business use of FRS radios.
“This is a battle we’ve been fighting for a couple of years,” said Jeremy Denton, ITA’s director of government affairs.
Another manufacturer’s rep, Stan Reubenstein of Denver-based Aurora Marketing, said that instead of the FCC legislating a ban, it should be the responsibility of the dealer to sell the appropriate product for the appropriate application.
“I’ve seen people buy FRS radios in Wal-Mart, Target and K Mart, expecting them to work. Later, they trash them or go out and try to find a better means of communication. The effect is similar to what we saw when people bought cell phones for their business and found that they needed something different. At least it brought more people into the communications marketplace,” Reubenstein said.
Reubenstein said that he thinks the reasoning behind the proposed ban is that people are buying too many FRS radios and using them in lieu of business radios, and that ITA is supported by business radio manufacturers — although many of the same manufacturers also make FRS radios.
“I think this is a case of one or more manufacturers realizing there are a lot of people using these FRS frequencies who shouldn’t be,” he said.
“I talk with my two-way radio dealers — and we don’t have the number out there that we used to, because the mom-and-pop dealerships are disappearing — but there are two-way entrepreneurs out there selling, and their complaint is that when they sell a hand-held now, it has better quality than the hand-helds of 10 years ago; it sells for a third of the price; it does 10 times as much; and it doesn’t break. To make the same income, they have to sell a lot more radios,” Reubenstein said.
“I think they should outlaw all radios that aren’t expensive so we can get back to a profit margin,” he said, tongue-in-cheek.
Gary E. Light, sales manager at KC Wireless, Kansas City, Mo., a radio communications equipment dealer and airtime service provider, said that he has seen dealers sell FRS radios into the business market, but the radios are not rugged enough.
“The batteries won’t hold the charge cycles. Most FRS radios have fantastic battery life, but when you look at using them repeatedly, day in and day out, they won’t hold up to business use,” he said.
He said that FRS is a good idea as it was intended for private, personal, family use. He sees applications in church and Boy Scout activities, at amusement parks and in auto caravans.
“Using FRS keeps them from illegally using business frequencies for such applications,” Light said.
On the other hand, he sees businesses such as auto dealerships using FRS for their car porters and restaurants using FRS for their hostesses at restaurants, “and that’s not what the frequency band was intended for. The hard part for us is when people cross that line and buy GMRS radios off the shelf. Instead of using the 500 mW FRS radios, now they’re using 2 W radios that require a license. But to them, it’s one and the same, bought through a consumer outlet,” he said.
Light said that manufacturers have to consider how much they have undermined their dealers by going to a direct marketing approach while asking dealers for bigger numbers, and at the same time going into markets where the dealers don’t have a chance to compete.
“It’s fantastic that FRS has taken off the way it has. I talked with people in Aspen, Colo., and they said that during the ski season, on all 14 FRS channels you find conversations everywhere. Who thought when FRS was introduced it would have that much impact helping people keep track of one another at a ski area or amusement park? But don’t dilute it by throwing the business people on there and having them using GMRS and going further into the gray area,” he said.
Equipment safety issue
Denton explained that ITA members with large manufacturing plants worry that widespread use of FRS radios could cause fires in areas with a combustible atmosphere and even if their use fell short of tragic consequences, could bring OSHA-related problems upon companies where they are used.
Although FRS radios may not produce internal sparks, they are not built specifically to suppress sparks the way radios designated as “intrinsically safe” are designed.
Only intrinsically safe radios are approved for use where combustible atmospheres may be found, as in oil and gas facilities and in automobile and aircraft manufacturing plants.
Industrial companies might be expected to control what radios are used on their premises, but Denton said that in a large company with plants across the nation, it could be difficult for the corporate bureaucracy to know what radios are deployed in each plant and to maintain standards.
“If an individual at a plant notices that FRS radios could be purchased at a discount store or from a catalog for less than radios for use on a licensed radio system, it might look good to the managers in the plants who may not understand the regulations or who may not have the legal or technical expertise that someone elsewhere in their company might have,” Denton said.
Reubenstein said that it should be the responsibility of the corporate safety officer or the dealer selling into that environment to make sure intrinsically safe radios are used. He said that many business radios that could be sold are not intrinsically safe, either.
Denton wasn’t sure how a prohibition on FRS radio use for business applications would be enforced.
“It’s something we need to talk with the radio manufacturers about to make sure an FCC prohibition would be enforced to protect these large manufacturing plants from getting into dangerous situations. I don’t know that with regulation alone we could stop businesses from deploying FRS radios as opposed to business radios. But it’s worth a look, and a petition for rulemaking is a good start to get ourselves and the FRS radio manufacturers at the table with the FCC to consider the matter,” Denton said.
Robert H. Schwaninger Jr., Mobile Radio Technology‘s regulatory consultant, said that the way FRS radios are used is not likely to be affected by an FCC rulemaking.
Referring to the consumer outlets where many FRS radios are purchased, Schwaninger said, “The genie leaves the bottle at Sam’s Club or Costco, and it will not be again contained by FCC rules or admonitions.”
With respect to the safety issue, Schwaninger said the focus then shifts to compliance with OSHA regulations and product liability issues.
“I suppose the FCC could mandate warning materials to be included in packaging. I further suppose OSHA inspectors could turn this into an issue. But the root of the problem from a spectrum management perspective is already resolved in favor of open use due to open licensing and open availability,” he said.
ITA filed a petition for rulemaking with the FCC on Aug. 22 that was released for public comment by the FCC on Sept. 17.
The deadline for comments to be submitted to the FCC was Oct. 17.
“The petition raises the issue so people can discuss it. It puts ITA, industrial manufacturers, radio manufacturers and others together to make sure we can come up with an industry-wide solution. It’s not something we’re trying to shake the radio manufacturers down for. We want to make sure that these FRS radios are available to users in times of need and at the same time protect industrial manufacturers from what could be unsafe communications devices in their manufacturing plants,” Denton said.
Denton said that Ford, Boeing, FedEx and United Parcel Service are among ITA members that called attention to the potential problem with FRS radios.
Released by the FCC as RM-8499 in WT Docket No. 95-102 to amend Part 95 of the FCC’s rules, ITA’s petition specifically seeks to prohibit daily business communications on FRS frequencies.
ITA told the FCC that the overcrowding of FRS spectrum by business use is depleting the usefulness of FRS for families and friends, especially in emergencies.
The organization said that it was using its petition to educate the FCC on the growing use of FRS by traditional business users.
ITA wants the government to prohibit business use because the FCC did not originally envision it in the FRS band.
ITA reminded the FCC that the agency’s decision to establish the FRS was to “fill a niche market that provided families, friends, and associates the capability to communicate with one another over a very short range, typically a few blocks.”
Specific uses and activities listed by the FCC as examples of FRS operations suggest that FRS is for personal use, not daily business operations.
“For example, the commission expected FRS to be used by outdoor activity enthusiasts, for group outings,” ITA’s petition points out.
Despite what ITA sees as the FCC’s attempt to establish FRS to meet the communication needs of outdoor enthusiasts and families and friends on group outings, Section 95.401(a) of the commission’s rules permits “business activities” as an acceptable form of communication in the Citizen Band (CB) Radio Service.
Business use unintended
Although FRS is a CB Radio Service, ITA said it believed that the FCC did not intend to overrun FRS channels with daily business communications.
“Actually, the only mention of business use in all rules pertaining to FRS is included in the CB Radio Service definition. Nonetheless, this reference is to the business activities of the general public, which is drastically different than the activities of businesses and their daily communications,” ITA’s petition reads.
ITA added that the only statement the FCC made about using FRS for business when it established the service refers to comments made by the Personal Radio Steering Group during the FRS rulemaking proceeding.
“PRSG stated that FRS is a family-oriented radio service that should require a licensing process to protect personal communications from non-personal and non-family interests,” ITA’s petition reads.
ITA said that it understands the practicality for FRS frequencies and reasoning behind the FCC’s unlicensed operating structure for the personal use market, “but we are concerned about the unlicensed mix of business and personal users.
The typical user of FRS equipment (i.e. a family member on an outing) would be using the radio on an informal basis, maybe a few times a day and sporadically throughout the year.”
ITA added that the types of communications mentioned in the FRS rules specifically include sending emergency messages and assisting travelers.
Personal/business use incompatibility
“Business users, on the other hand, need communication anywhere from five to seven days each week, every week of the year, sometimes every minute of the day. These business users could be using their system for safety of life communications, general safety applications in a manufacturing plant, or for maintenance purposes on an assembly line,” ITA’s petition reads.
“These business systems are drastically different from personal communications in that they need reliable, accurate, efficient, constant communications, with a minimal interference potential and a longer range of service.
“The fact remains, unfortunately due to the lack of clarity in the rules, that some traditional businesses are using FRS units for their daily business needs, which limits the possibility of personal communications as envisioned for FRS,” ITA told the FCC.
ITA said that if a single business were to deploy multiple FRS units in a given area, it could easily congest the spectrum in that area.
If an individual in the same area were to use an FRS unit, communication might be impossible because of overcrowding by the business users.
ITA’s petition gave an example of amusement park employees using FRS instead of licensed business radios finding it difficult or impossible to communicate during an emergency because of heavy use of FRS by families in the park.
“Businesses, if restricted from FRS, would be required to be licensed on traditional business radio spectrum, which is a more reliable alternative for all involved. The absence of business users would then free the FRS spectrum for the intended user (i.e. families) leading to a potentially safer environment for each type of user, personal and business and satisfying the public interest overall,” ITA’s petition reads.
ITA’s petition asks the FCC to initiate a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to restrict the use of daily, business-oriented private wireless operations on FRS channels.
Several FRS radio manufacturers were contacted about the ITA petition. Most were unable to provide a spokesperson for comment.
A spokesperson for Kenwood Communications, which makes both business and FRS radios, said that the company had nothing to add to the story.
A spokesperson for Midland Radio, which also makes both types of radios, said that his company had not yet seen the petition and could not offer comment, except to say that he expected that the FCC would give the petition a hearing and determine whether it has merit.