Citizens Band And Ham Radios

By Catherine McNulty

April 3, 2015 5 min read

Imagine you are a long-haul trucker. Peace and solitude are your best friends. Hours and hours of empty stretches of road.

So, how long before you start to go stir-crazy? Solitude and reflection are great, but sometimes you need to hear another voice besides the one in your head. Is it any wonder that truckers and other long-haul drivers want to communicate so badly?

But what's the best method of communication? How can you reach out to someone else from the cab of a truck?

A lot of truckers still use CB radio. CB is short for "citizens band." In the United States, CB was established after World War II to allow citizens a radio bandwidth for personal communication. CB soared in popularity, especially with truckers, during the oil crisis of the 1970s. Fuel shortages and a nationally imposed 55 mph speed limit made getting anywhere in a timely manner problematic. But CB radio let truckers communicate with one another, giving heads-up on speed traps and well-stocked gas stations.

Ham radio is another popular choice for truckers and long-haul drivers. Though the origins of how it came to be known as ham radio are lost, most people believe that it was a play on the word amateur. And that's what ham radio is -- radio for amateurs.

Ham is different from CB. Because the frequency is so limited, CB only allows for communication with people who are nearby. Though antenna height and transmitter power can boost a CB's broadcasting range, it's never going to be very far. A CB's range is anywhere from 1 mile to about 25 miles, with most falling in the middle of that range. CB does not require a license to operate, but ham does. That's because though ham is for amateurs, it can be picked up by anyone worldwide. In fact, ham radio isn't even relegated to Earth. Many astronauts and cosmonauts are licensed ham operators and broadcast and receive from the International Space Station.

So what does that mean?

It means that with some easy-to-acquire radio equipment, you can be broadcasting worldwide. But before you stock up your Amazon cart, there are a few things you should know. In the U.S., there are three different types of licenses. Each requires taking a test that demonstrates the potential licensee understands the rules and regulations, operating practices and some radio theory.

The easiest license to get, the Technician license, will only allow you to broadcast locally, with the potential for nationwide. The General license and the Amateur Extra license require additional testing but come with more benefits. If you're interested in getting a ham license, check the American Radio Relay League's website, at http://www.arrl.org.

But are CB and ham even necessary anymore? Cellphones and tablets have definitely caused their popularity to wane. With FaceTime and Skype, it is entirely possible to take a solo road trip and never be entirely alone. There are even apps that ape CB for your phone! So why would you need an actual CB or ham radio?

For one, CB is used frequently during emergencies and disasters. Radio signals generally remain intact when cellular signals don't. The Federal Communications Commission regulates that Channel 9 on the CB dial be reserved for emergency communication. So if you are driving during bad weather or know there will be some treacherous roadways, CB can be a safety net.

Plus, it's fun! Think of it this way: Ham and CB were the Internet before the Internet existed. They allow for people to communicate with others whom they wouldn't normally. But much like the Internet, the semi-anonymity of these methods of communication can occasionally bring out the worst in people. But you will also find a group of enthusiasts who are always willing to meet someone new.

So which is better? It depends on what you're looking for. If you just need to know what's happening in your vicinity -- e.g., roadblocks, speed traps and traffic -- CB is probably your best bet. If you would rather not be bound by location and don't mind putting in the hours getting your license, then ham radio is for you.

Whichever you choose, just be sure to drive carefully. Ten-four, good buddy. Over and out.

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