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Outbanding and Freebanding
Freebanding, or outbanding, is the practice of setting up a radio to transmit outside of the frequencies for which it was originally designed. The term can also be used to refer to a radio operator transmitting outside of the bands authorized by the license held. Though it has a number of different applications, these days it is mostly associated with CB radio, and the so called export radio, or with the modification of standard gear. The practice peaked during the big CB craze of the late seventies and early eighties, though it is still quite common today. It is a practice that is rarely engaged in by serious amateurs; but this was not always the case.
Though it seems very established and traditional to most of us, radio has only been around for a bit over a hundred years. Marconi is usually credited with the invention: but the exact date and inventor is a matter of some dispute. Regardless of who you believe, the invention of radio occurred sometime in the 1890's. The initial users were the Navy, scientists, engineers, and a loose band of experimenters who called themselves radio amateurs. These categories were not mutually exclusive. For a number of years, radio was wide open, unregulated, and unorganized. This all changed after a few high profile accidents at sea.
The wireless ship act of 1910 required all ships with over 50 passengers, traveling beyond 250 miles from the coast, to carry radio gear. It placed no restrictions on other operators, nor did it require any licensing or training in radio operation. Even so, this was a definite beginning of government involvement in the new science of radio technology, and it was clearly now only a matter of time until restrictions were imposed. It was also a beginning of the congestion of the airwaves, and an excuse to organize and ration this resource.
Amateurs were not happy about this, and they fought it. False distress messages were sent, as well as fraudulent naval orders. Jamming attempts were made, as well as interference in communications by other government and commercial services. At the time, there was nothing illegal about any of this. These activities had just the opposite of the desired effect, and after a couple of years of this, the government struck back.
The Radio Act of 1912 was where the gauntlet was thrown down. It required amateur radio operators to be licensed, limited their transmitter power, the frequencies on which they could operate, and the hours at which they could transmit. The airwaves were put under the control of the Department of Commerce and Labor. Though restrictions would eventually ease, initially the relationship was strained and adversarial. With the start of restrictions, came the start of their breaking and the introduction of outbanding, bootleg radio, pirate radio, and various other types of underground radio operations.
The Radio Act of 1927 created the Federal Radio Commission, which now had authority over the airwaves in place of the department of commerce. The Radio Act of 1934 put in place the FCC, which still exists today. With these two acts came the closure of the majority of active commercial radio stations, due to new licensing requirements, and a great curtailment of experimental and amateur radio. This was when the band allocations began, which separated the various parts of the radio spectrum into public, private, commercial, and government sectors. This was also the beginning of pirate radio, outbanding, bootleg radio, and clandestine radio.
Pirate radio stations are unlicensed stations, broadcasting on the commercial bands for reception by the general public. They tend to be low powered, short range stations, and are very transient. The FCC actively seeks and closes such stations down. The original pirate stations were literally at sea, broadcasting from ships in international waters, and beaming their signals in, primarily to a European audience. Today's pirate usually transmits from a warehouse, hilltop, or even from a private residence. Though some of the larger, more popular pirate stations may have turned a profit through advertising, most are just looking for a voice.
Setting up a pirate station, outside of the possible legal difficulties, is easier and less costly than you might think. HLLY and similar companies make FM transmitters that broadcast on the commercial radio frequencies. These are legal to use, as long as power is kept under certain levels. Most pirates will use higher powered versions, or hook them up to amplifiers. Real estate agents often use the low powered versions to transmit sales pitches from houses for sale. Using a half watt of power, such a transmitter might have a range of a few hundred feet, to a few blocks.
For those with a bit more technical knowledge, it is also possible to retune Ham, commercial, or public service radios to transmit on the broadcast bands. This costs less, and gives access to more powerful transmitters. Occasionally, surplus or obsolete gear from commercial stations comes on the market. With a suitable, transmitter, a microphone, a CD player, and perhaps a turntable or two, you can be on the air as a radio pirate - until the FCC catches you.
Up until the early seventies, those who wished to transmit commercially, but who could not get an FCC license, had the option of becoming a Border Blaster. A Border Blaster is a station near a national border that beams its signal primarily to the bordering country. There were lots of Border Blasters in Mexico, until an agreement was reached in the early seventies, between Mexico and the United States to try and moderate such operations. Often, the border blasters were former U.S. station operators who had been shut down by the FCC, and simply moved south a bit. In other cases they moved south in order to utilize power levels that would not have been permitted from American based stations.
The most famous Border Blaster was XER (latter XERA), which began operations after its owner, John Brinkley was denied a renewal for his Kansas based station, KFKB. Station XER started out at 100,000 watts, and then upgraded to 500,000 watts. Many others followed suit. There are still a few Border Blasters left; but the practice is disappearing.
For those with a bit less ambition, there is outbanding. This is the practice of modifying a radio so that it will transmit on frequencies other than those for which it was originally designed or certified. This is generally done for purposes of private communication, and is not usually attempted on broadcast bands, except by pirate broadcasters. It is notorious in and around the CB bands, though ham operators and electronics experimenters have also been known to engage in the practice. The more the restrictions laid upon an operator, the greater the temptation to outband. While ham operators are allowed to transmit with up to 2kw of power, and have a variety of bands and frequencies on which to operate, users of CB, GMRS, and FRS are laid under a number of restrictions, which is why outbanding flourishes on these services. In particular, CB radio is a fertile field for the practice. This would probably be a good place to warn that such practices are illegal and are subject to fines and various other legal actions.
The easiest way to outband on CB is to purchase a CB radio that lends itself to the practice. There are a number of CB radios that can have mods applied to make them work on bands above and below the regular CB band. The bands are usually given letter designations, some of which are listed on the tables below. CB radios have to be type certified to be sold in the US, and the FCC carefully looks at radios before giving approval. In a number of cases, radios which had once been allowed for sale here were subsequently banned from importation after it was discovered they were being easily modified for out of band transmission. This is why a number of Cherokee and Northstar radios are no longer commonly sold or imported.
A radio transmitting out of band, due to mods, requires either a sharp operator, or a means of knowing what frequency is being used. Most of the commonly modified radios have a frequency counter, or a band indicator. The display of the Cherokee radio, shown to the right, has a letter C indicating that it has been modified for multi band operation, and is presently using the C band. More common is a direct frequency display, as is shown in the Galaxy radio in the section below.
Modding is possible because most manufacturers produce a number of standard components, including circuit boards. As an example, Maycom produces the AH-27 (no longer sold in the country), which can be set internally for use on the standard American 40 CB channels, the UK 80 channels, or up to as many as 200 channels for other regions. Different internal jumpers or pads are connected, for different capacities.
Modding can also be done on radios that were never meant to be used in any other configuration, but which use certain processors or chips to generate their operational frequencies. Depending upon the chip or PLL unit used, jumpering certain pins can increase or decrease frequencies by certain set amounts. Connecting these jumpers to switches is common, with the switches mounted outside of the radio case and toggled to short the pins and give extra channels. By shorting certain pins or combinations of pins, a number of different bands may be accessed. Such mods were pretty common on Cobra and Uniden radios of a generation or so ago. Modified radios can be easily recognized by the toggle switches hidden under or on the sides of the case. technically, such radios are illegal; but FCC enforcement on the CB bands is spotty at best, and such radios are commonly sold and used.
There are some radio techs, and even a few radio shops that specialize in doing such modifications, but they risk fines and legal action, as there are is no way to even put forth the fiction that such radios are legal. A less risky, and more elegant way to outband is through the use of export radios.
Export radios are generally illegal to use, though they may be legally bought and sold. For outbanding on CB, most are sold as 10 meter radios, though they would be poor choices for ten meter operation. Such radios are usually sold with warnings that an FCC license must be in possession of the user before transmissions can be made - though in truth it would never be legal to use such a radio on CB bands due to not being type certified. These radios can be sold because their operation on ham bands by licensed amateurs is completely legal. In appearance, these radios greatly resemble standard CB radios, though they are somewhat more expensive. Popular export radios are the Galaxy, Connex, Northstar, and Ranger brands. Note that the Galaxy radio in the photo to the right is shown on band D (CB band), on channel 19, with a frequency of 27.185, which is the frequency of CB channel 19. Such operation is illegal.
Most Export radios will have a band switch or band dial. usually this will be marked with letter designations A through F, or perhaps a bit higher. Depending upon the radio, the standard CB band would be either C or D. Each band is, by convention 450 KHz higher than the preceding band. In many cases, these radios are built on the same chassis as regular CB radios, and often use most of the same components. They are channelized, like CB radios, and operate on a series of 40 channel pseudo bands. Many will also have a 10 KHz switch, so that a few odd channels (the so called A channels) used for remote control of models and such can be accessed.
Another feature that the export radios often have, is increased power. CB radio is limited to four watts, but an export radio operating on the CB band can put out as much as 200 watts, and perhaps a bit more, depending upon the model. Most of these radios put out between 10 and 50 watts. The use of linear amplifiers, and higher than legal power is not technically outbanding, but the two practices often go hand in hand. Export radios have the advantage of eliminating the need to tamper with your radio and possibly doing it some damage. They are also not illegal to own, which is not the case with modified CB radios.
True ham radio gear can often be easily converted for use on CB, as well as many other bands. This is not often done, for a few reasons. Though such radios have much more potential for power, and generally put out a better signal, they can be more difficult to use than export radios. This is because ham gear is not channelized - it works by frequency rather than channel. So rather than simply tuning to channel 19, the user would need to carefully tune the radio to 27.185. ham gear also tends to be expensive, and very capable. While many amateur radios have a number of memories, and may have enough to program the 40 CB channels (and perhaps some of the outband CB channels as well), this is not a practical use of this very capable equipment. Most users of such gear have little need to transmit out of band, and may use such radios at their full capacity (provided they get a ham license) without risking legal penalties.
In some ways, modifying ham gear for use on CB and CB outband frequencies is easier than trying to modify CB gear. Part of the requirements for type certification of CB gear is a requirement that the radios be protected against easy modification. This can consist of component selection, special epoxy coverings over boards, or use of parts which have been partially disabled. The FCC regularly monitors such things, and radios which are discovered to be too easy to modify will be banned from importation. Ham radios, in contrast, are quite easy to modify, and amateur radio operators regularly modify, adjust, and enhance their radios.
In my own case, as an example, my main HF radio can be modified to transmit on any frequency between 100 KHz and 30 MHz, which includes the CB frequencies. This can be done by simply cutting a diode on one of the control boards. This is a Kenwood TS-440 radio, which can put out 200 watts, and can easily hit all of the normal CB outband frequencies. Other ham radios, particularly older models, are not so easy to modify, and may require replacement of crystals or retuning of circuits.
CB radio outbands
Table from Defprom's Radio Mods band chart: http://www.radiomods.co.nz/freq.html