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A Sound Education

When Old is Old Again

BufordTJusticeCB2

Buford T. Justice: Breaker, breaker for the Bandit.
Bandit: Come on back, breaker.
Buford T. Justice: Bandit I got a smokey report for you. Come on!
Bandit: Well, talk to me good buddy.
Buford T. Justice: You got trouble comin...
Bandit: Well what's your handle son, and what's your twenty?
Buford T. Justice: My handle's Smokey Bear and I'm tail-grabbin yo ass right now!

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)


Just when you thought CB radio was dead, the Federal Communication Commission passed a rule that might have every "Smokey and the Bandit" fan yearning for another sequel. The FCC is allowing FM transmission on CB radio!

Though not in the forefront of the American conscience anymore, Citizens Band radio has been around since 1945. Twenty-three channels (later 40) were carved out of the 11 meter shortwave band between broadcast AM radio and old-school VHF television. From the beginning, CB radios transmitted by amplitude modulation (AM), which was more economical and common than frequency-modulation (FM) in the 1940s.

At the height of its popularity in the 1970s and 80s, the CB craze was everywhere: TV, movies, music, and magazines. Millions of radios were sold and everyone seemed to have one in their home or car (including our family). Even new cars like the Pontiac Trans Am (the one the Bandit drove) could be ordered with an AM-FM-CB radio. Back then, this instant communication with people in your community was almost parallel to today's social networks, except way more civil. But after a while most folks burned out on it and left the airwaves to the truckers. Go to ten yard sales on any given Saturday and you'll find at least one dusty old CB radio for sale.

What killed CB radio? Crowded airways, boredom, static and noisy transmissions, and eventually mobile phones and the internet. Truckers, farmers, hikers, trail riders, and some businesses continued to use CBs because of the economical way to have short-range communications. Sure they have a squelch feature to block out background static, but they've always been limited in range from power restrictions and susceptible to noise from auto engines, power lines, and atmospheric interference.

In the mid 1990s the FCC opened up the UHF spectrum to create the license-free Family Radio Service Band (FRS). Initially proposed by Radio Shack, FM-transmitted FRS has a lot less noise than AM-based CB radio. But like it's sister, FRS is limited in range. Now called HT (handy-talkie), it has been widely adapted by businesses and outdoor enthusiasts.

Who still uses CB radio in the U.S.? Mostly truckers for real-time alerts about road conditions from other truckers. Large family-owned farms and ranches may still use them, as well as some businesses with simple communications needs. Some newer transceivers include superior noise reduction plus an optional SSB (single side band) mode that makes everyone sound like aliens. Like the dark web, SSB even has its own community and terminology. But curiosity seekers will probably quickly grow disillusioned while trying to find anything interesting to listen to. Some may graduate to ham radio, never admitting that they took a step up from the "Chicken Band."

So why would the FCC suddenly allow CB radios to operate in FM mode if it's unpopular? FM does have increased fidelity and reception over AM, but that's not the driving factor. Is it because the FCC is trying to lure people away from the increasingly crowded FRS band? That's probably not a factor. Is it because the public has been loudly crying for FM on the CB Band? No, most pleas have been for more power and a wider frequency band. It's most likely because one manufacturer just simply asked them to.

Cobra, a long-lived but dying manufacturer of CB radios, filed a petition with the FCC in 2017 to add FM to CB's 40-channels. President, another manufacturer of CBs, went on record in support of it. You see, Cobra and President already manufacture CB radios that transmit on the CB band with FM. Those have been sold in the United Kingdom since 1981 when the Brits created their own Citizen's Band spectrum. Its channels reside very near ours, but CB operators in the UK have had much clearer transmissions because they operate in the FM mode. Cobra, President, and other manufacturers who already supply the UK and European market will only need to slightly modify its FM circuitry to sell these as new models in the U.S.

This is where the controversy in the amateur radio community begins. The FCC apparently is allowing AM and FM users to use the same channels simultaneously. That means that AM users will only hear garbage when an FM user transmits, and vice-versa. This risks clogging the channels with unintelligible radio waves and effectively squelching millions of existing CB radios. In order to "breaker-breaker" on the channels the've been freely using since Truman was president, CB users will have to – you guessed it – buy a new radio. Radio buffs are really PO'd that the FCC ignored the power and frequency upgrades that the larger community has wanted for decades, only to have one company's petition come to fruition in just a handful of years.

What does the future hold for CB radio? I see a big race to the line between AM and FM, like a thrilling movie chase scene with a big rig built for speed and a sports car built for agility. There's only one cop that can police this situation and it's not the FCC. It's Sheriff Buford T. Justice.

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