Doctor Strangecomms or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Baofeng

I first learned about Amateur Radio, specifically the 2-Meter band, in 1982 from reading How To Survive A Nuclear Disaster, by Robert C, Smith. I found this book on the paperback rack at a Shop Rite supermarket next to action/adventure titles such as Jerry Ahern’s The Survivalist and Mack Bolan’s The Executioner. Yeah, back in the day you found all sorts of cool shit at the places your parents dragged you to when they went shopping. He mentioned either 2 Meters or CB for mobile communications, which were your choices back then. So survivalist types have been using those two services based on author recommendations for almost 40 years now.

Two years later I managed to get my ham license, and the first radio I purchased was an Icom IC-02AT 2 Meter handheld. It was a toss up between that and a Santec ST-144 because those two radios had the best out-of-band frequency coverage. The Icom won because most of the hams in my area were running the older Icom IC-2AT, and a local ham had one for sale used. He bought it, thought it was too complicated, and went back to his IC-2AT. I later found out while messing with the radio that the Icom was capable of better frequency coverage than the Santec, 140-151.995 MHz. Many mid 1980s vintage two meter rigs had limited extended frequency coverage out of the box so they could be used on MARS and CAP frequencies by hams who were members of those organizations. Many MARS and CAP repeaters had a split with the input/output pairs just outside the lower and upper edges of the 2-Meter band. As the early 1990s rolled around, we all bought dual-band 2m/440 radios. Alinco was the cheap brand those days, and one of the easiest to do a MARS/CAP mod on. You only had to open up the radio and cut a wire jumper.

Just about every ham radio operator I knew had a modded dual-band HT and a few alleged to have occasionally gone out of band when they wanted to have a more private conversation. One group said they used 152.660 MHz. with a PL tone with a low power setting. This was a pretty busy paging channel in most cities, and they said that by using the PL tone and low power they wouldn’t be bothered by the paging signal, and that their comms would be blanked out past a half-mile or so. This is a rather ingenious use of FM capture effect, albeit one that is illegal and would have gotten them a hefty fine if they were caught. However the interference and discovery potential of a half-watt signal under a 100-300 watt paging channel would have been pretty slim.

In 2007 I saw my first Chinese HT on a friend’s hamfest table. It was a Weierwei V1000 2-Meter unit. It had 136-174 MHz frequency coverage right out of the box, and single-band inversion scrambling that taxi cabs and some police departments used back in the days before ASTRO. The rig cost $60. I bought it, took it to the radio shop I worked at, and my boss and I examined it. After looking at the internals, we swore the thing was bootlegged Motorola Visar or EX series HT. It was also a pretty decently performing radio. Shortly afterwards, you began seeing the Woxun, Puxing, and Anytone radios hitting the market. These were of similar design and quality to the Weierwei, and a lot of hams started using them.

It was a few years after this I saw my first Baofeng, a UV3R. A few of the microwave weak-signal guys picked them up somewhere and were using them as antenna range intercoms. They put them on test equipment and discovered they sucked, but if you ran them on low-power to talk across a parking lot they worked OK. A lot of the UV3Rs died after a year or so of use, but it was a $20 radio and no one cared. Baofeng then released the infamous UV5R, which sucked almost, but not quite as bad as the UV3R. Despite that, they became popular with threepers, preppers, and other similar marginal types who wanted cheap comms so they could afford to buy yet another M4forgery.

The Baofeng came in 2012 or so, and I first heard about 2 Meters in 1982, so pundits have been pushing 2 Meters for prepper comms for 30 years before everyone jumped on the Baofeng bandwagon. 2 Meter HTs have been around much longer. I seen ads for them going as far back as 1972. The January 6th idiots were using Baofengs for comms, and that was this year, almost ten years after the HT was introduced.

Last weekend I had the misfortune of meeting one of the stupidest people I have ever met at a radio swap. The dude was sporting a Baofeng and looking to buy CB radios. Looking at his HT, I saw that he was on some random UHF and VHF frequencies that he just entered into the VFO. It was then that I had an epiphany. Radio hackers have been bootlegging outside the 2-meter and 70-centimeter ham bands for at least the past 30 years, and the technology has been around for almost 50 years. The FCC responded to complaints of unlicensed operation on low-power business frequencies by creating the MURS service and giving it two two worst frequencies for unlicensed operation: 154.570 and 154.600 MHz. Not only that, it gave grandfathered compliance to all the green/blue dot jobsite radios operating on them. I heard stories from my old LMR boss about how everyone back in the day was on the same 35 MHz. business band channel. If you didn’t want to hear anyone else you ran a PL, and you turned it off when you wanted to play FM CB with all the other licensees (especially during band openings). Businesses who didn’t want to get their FCC license would simply rent radios from our LMR shop and run on one of our frequencies. One of the LMR shops around here still operates on a VHF-Low frequency, and they use it like a personal CB channel. Any “private” communications get done via cellphone. Nowadays, any moron can spend $25 and set up their own personal communications network on 477.985 MHz., just like the morons from January 6th.

I traded my two MURS-legal VGE-encrypted GE MPAs for a National NC-173 shortwave receiver at the last swap meet. So far I’ve gotten more use out of the National in one week than I got out of the MPAs in the past two years since I picked them up. When I was working in the yard this afternoon I was monitoring the local 2 Meter machine which I’ve been known to use on occasion, especially when 10 meters is open and they link up their 10 Meter repeater to the 2 Meter one. You know what I grabbed to monitor the repeater with? Yep, a Baofeng UV-5R. If it gets left outside and rained on, I’m out $25 and I’ll go buy another cheap dual-band HT at the next hamfest. Maybe I’ll mail order one of the dual-band 2m/6m Woxuns…

Readers who are smarter than the average bear will follow the advice in Issue #30, get some nice older gear they can fix, and set up small simplex radio networks. Everyone else can be perfectly happy bootlegging Part 90 on their Baofengs, and maybe hitting the local ham repeater with it. At low power, the chance of a second harmonic accidentally interfering with some Eagle drivers flying a CAP mission at 30,000ASL is pretty low. I’ve discovered from communications monitoring exercises over the years that people are unimaginative when it comes to selecting “random” frequencies. They prefer easy to remember ones such as 151.230 and 466.660. The spectrum sweeper function on a Whistler WS1040 can go through the VHF-high and UHF bands in about 5 seconds, so it doesn’t matter where they try to hide. Most of the time I hear preppers on the MURS channels because those are license-free and legal to use. Well, except for the guys using their employer’s old VHF repeater (with an expired license) on 152.990 MHz. after hours. Amazing what you’ll hear on the business/industrial pool late on a Saturday night.

For what it’s worth, when in the field or working an event, my wife and I use a pair of GMRS/FRS handhelds we bought about 6-7 years ago. Since then, the number of FCC complaints received about bootleg GMRS HT operations caused them to change the Part 95 Regs in 2017. Now all those GMRS/FRS radios are 100% FRS legal. They did set a precedent with MURS, after all. Much like the Crimethinc article I referenced in a previous posting, we use a verbal shorthand that serves our security needs adequately. It’s one of those things that couples develop after being together for 20+ years. The radios run on AA batteries which is good because I can then grab a package on the way to wherever if I forgot to charge them the night before. Really that’s what it’s all about, tools to make your daily work/life easier, and that would come in handy during unforeseen circumstances. Most of my friends, some of whom aren’t hams, also have these radios so we have interoperability among each other.

So after hating on the Baofengs all these years because they truly do suck from a technical standpoint, I have to revise my opinion on them. They’ve helped get hams on the air, who hopefully go out and get a better radio after they gain some knowledge. They also have facilitated many years of entertaining communications monitoring, and helped people become examples of how not to do something.

Listening to the radio hasn’t been this entertaining since the 1970s CB craze.