Keeping in touch

Two-way radios: These popular gadgets allow family and friends to communicate over short distances, where cellular phones and pagers can fail.

May 08, 2000|By Roy Furchgott | Roy Furchgott,New York Times News Service

On their February ski vacation to Crested Butte in Colorado, Madeline Bayard and Wendy Black woke one morning to whiteout conditions and a tough decision: Should they waste valuable vacation time waiting for the weather to improve or brave the storm? Emboldened by a pair of $90 palm-size two-way radios that would let them find each other if separated, or even call for help, they decided to strap on their skis.

Indeed, later that day the two became separated, and Bayard was uneasy. "It was like skiing in a pillowcase," she said. Cold and unhappy, she turned to the radio, which she had bought back home in Baltimore, and called for Black. "When Wendy's voice came back, it was like, 'Yeah!'" Bayard recalled. They rendezvoused and traded cold toes on the slopes for warm drinks in the lodge.

Small but powerful two-way radios -- updated versions of the walkie-talkie -- are growing in popularity among families on the go, gadgeteers, hikers, cyclists, roller skaters and other sports enthusiasts.

The Federal Communications Commission had these people in mind when it created the Family Radio Service in 1996 and carved out a section of the airwaves for it. The FRS handles two-way radios that broadcast up to two miles; no license is required. Radio manufacturers won approval to produce 14 FRS models in 1997, 41 in 1998, 72 last year and 23 so far this year, a testament to the demand for these devices.

The radios have become popular partly because they are so easy to use: The push of a button is all that is needed to communicate with friends or family members on the other side of a shopping mall, at the base of a ski run or farther up the road or trail. Any number of radios, even ones from different manufacturers, can be used together.

Most of these short-distance radios offer communication over 14 channels, with 38 squelch settings that help the user block out other people's conversations. By selecting the same channel and the same squelch setting, two or more people can have a conversation and effectively block transmissions from other users who are within range but are not on the same setting (although the conversation is not private -- it can be overheard by others tuned in to that frequency).

The radios cost roughly $35 to $200 each, with the least expensive models featuring fewer than 14 channels and no squelch settings. The more expensive radios come with many extra features, such as voice-activated transmissions for hands-free operation, a choice of incoming-call alerts (various sounds or vibration), a built-in weather radio or a scramble mode that makes your conversation unintelligible to nearby listeners using a different brand.

In the next few months, manufacturers will introduce models that really load on the extras. Motorola will offer a model with a digital compass, thermometer, altimeter, barometer and FM radio. Cobra will have a unit with a weather radio that will turn on automatically for an alert. And Audiovox will sell a radio with a Global Positioning System receiver to pinpoint locations.

The radios are also popular because they are generally less expensive to buy and use than other communications devices, such as cell phones, and can work better at short range. That was the experience of Gary Eheman, an IBM senior market support representative stationed in Atlanta, when he attended an industry convention in Anaheim, Calif.

Although Eheman had a wireless phone and his co-workers had pagers, he was thwarted when he tried to use his cell phone to call a colleague from a basement conference room. That's when he thought about how useful family radios would be.

"I'm looking at my cell phone and I can't get a signal. Why? I'm below ground," he said. He switched to a set of Uniden 1400 radios -- a friend had purchased the pair for about $80 at a warehouse buying club -- and reached a colleague on the 10th floor. And there were no per-call charges.

Away from work, Eheman and his son use the radios to stay in touch while hiking. The range of the radios is generally advertised as two miles, although atmospheric conditions, location and the type of terrain can alter that range significantly.

Another fan of FRS radios is Paul Folmsbee, a real estate agent with Block & Associates in Raleigh, N.C., who uses the radios to talk to clients traveling in a separate car.

"Car to car, you get three-quarters of a mile," he said. "Out in the clear, you get about a mile and a half. Under exceptional conditions, at the beach to someone out on the water, you'll get the two miles."

Folmsbee also uses the radios at the mall with his wife. "If I want to go to Radio Shack and she wants to go to the shoe store, we have a way to meet back up," he said.

Because all models are limited by law to the same power output, a half-watt, they differ primarily in the extra features they offer.

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