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Gear: Licence-free two-way radios

16 August 2016

In Africa, the term ‘walkie talkie’ most popularly refers to a meal of chicken legs and head. Of course, it also refers to those neat hand-held devices with which you can chat to your buddy or your fellow adventurer. We put several licence-free two-way radios to the test.

Communication is everything, they say But just imagine for a moment what the world would have been like without radio, television, phones, email and internet. Well, wonderful bliss, really, as it would force us to stop and really take in what is going on around us. This, in a roundabout way, is what overlanding through Africa’s most remote areas is really all about.

But there is one exception to this blissful communication blackout: two-way radio communication. Thing is, when you are driving in a remote area in a convoy with other 4×4s, communication between those vehicles is vital. Take the recent drama of a Lichtenburg 4×4 Club outing on a route along the border with Botswana. The convoy, driving in a dry riverbed, unexpectedly landed up in the middle of a flash flood. If all the vehicles had been fitted with two-way radios, much damage could have been averted as they could have been warned about the danger – and avoided it altogether.

So communication between vehicles on an overland safari is a vital safety aspect. Let’s look at your options then. First, you can go the licenced radio route. These units typically offer a far greater range but the red tape associated with operating such a unit is more intricate. The power output of two-way radios is measured in Watts and typically power outputs range between 0.5W and 5W. Similar to vehicle engines, that unit measures the amount of power of a specific unit.

A higher power output gives a better range; but, these radios are pricey and using any radio with a power output of more than 0.5W requires an Amateur Radio licence from the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA). The latter is available through registered 4×4 and off-road clubs, but it does require some forms and fees.

A much easier solution is the licence-free hand-held unit. These units are rated at less than 0.5W, and their range is far less than the more powerful, licensed options (that also operate on different frequencies). We put five over-the-shelf 0.5W two-way radio options (that operate between 403-470MHz) through their paces.

The testing method:
We essentially used the fully charged radios in line of sight, on a flat section at the McCarthy 4×4 Club’s venue at the Rhino Park complex, increasing the distance between the respective handsets until the signal became too weak, and the message being broadcast incomprehensible.

We measured the distances achieved using a global positioning system (GPS) for maximum accuracy. We used the quality of a cellphone call as the control for this experiment. Not all of the radios performed equally well over longer distances, so we established an audible sound quality standard at 2km. The conditions were real world, and not laboratory-perfect. We used the level area next to the main Rhino Park access road, with some traffic. And it was also overcast: conditions that users would probably experience out on a trail.

A trip down history lane
Two-way telegraphy is said to have been in operation since 1907, when messages were sent across the Atlantic Ocean. By 1912, ships were communicating with bases on land. The big ‘walkie talkie’ breakthrough came in 1923 in Australia, when senior constable Frederick William Downie of the Victorian Police is said to have pioneered the first wireless communication in cars. Up till that time, remote police reports had to be submitted via public telephone boxes.

Apparently Downie’s first wireless units took up the entire back seat of the police car, but it was the start of the mobile two-way radio system proper. In time, the equipment became more compact and efficient, and by the World War II, two-way radios were used extensively by all sides.

A glimpse into the future
Push to talk (PTT) technology may very well replace the two-way radio in the not-too-distant future. Essentially this system uses a smartphone and a GSM mobile phone network to provide a two-way radio service, no matter where you are.

So one person can be in Johannesburg and the other in Cape Town, and you can talk to each other by simply using your phone as a two-way radio piece. You press a button on the phone to talk, and the other person’s response is transmitted via the phone’s speaker – so in practice, it is virtually the same as using a hand-held radio.

From a technical point of view, it works like this: when a Push to Talk (PTT) call is made, instead of making a phone call, the voice message is transmitted over the phone’s data channel directly to Instacom’s Push to Talk servers. The servers then forward the speech to the intended user or users, which results in the message being played out on the phone’s loudspeaker.

To use PTT, you simply download an app for your smartphone, and there is a monthly sub-scription fee. Of course, if you don’t have cellphone signal or a data connection, you don’t have a PTT service. In the middle of the Serengeti it will obviously be useless. However, as cellphone networks expand their reach ever further, so will the PTT reach also grow.

And it works well, too. Some major security firms have replaced all two-way radio communication between control rooms and patrol cars with PTT – it’s definitely not just a cool fashion accessory.

This is how the radios performed:

Licence-free-two-way-radios-01POSITION 1
Zartek ZA-748
Price R1 050 (single radio)
Power output 0.5W
Channels capacity 16
Claimed battery life 35 hours
Maximum range 5km
Sound quality 7/10
Ease of use 10/10
Weight 140g
Where to buy Zartek, Two Way Radio Shoppe

Licence-free-two-way-radios-02POSITION 2
Zartek ZA-758
Price R1 140 (single radio)
Power output 0.5W
Channels capacity 16
Claimed battery life 30 hours
Maximum range 4km
Sound quality 8/10
Ease of use 10/10
Weight 200g
Where to buy Two Way Radio Shoppe

Licence-free-two-way-radios-03POSITION 3
Kenwood PKT-03
Price R1 350 (single radio, charger R215 extra)
Power output 0.5W
Channels capacity 4
Claimed battery life 14 hours
Maximum range 4km
Sound quality 6/10
Ease of use 6/10
Weight 100g
Where to buy Two Way Radio Shoppe

Licence-free-two-way-radios-04POSITION 4
Motorola TLKR T60
Price R1 250 (includes two radio units)
Power output 0.5W
Channels capacity 8
Claimed battery life 16 hours
Maximum range 3km
Sound quality 6/10
Ease of use 5/10
Weight 103g
Where to buy Two Way Radio Shoppe

Licence-free-two-way-radios-05POSITION 5
Zartek COM8
Price R1 140 (includes two radio units)
Power output 0.5W
Channels capacity 8
Claimed battery life 20 hours
Maximum range 2km
Sound quality 2/10
Ease of use 6/10
Weight 80g
Where to buy Two Way Radio Shoppe

  • LancasterL

    Buy a handlheld that has a removable rubber duck antenna – then buy a magnetic mount antenna from any ham radio shop for 70cm – this is close to the wavelength of these handi talkies. Make sure the mag mount antenna has a compatible connector with the handheld. When connected, place the mag mount antenna in the middle of the roof of the vehicle for the best ground plane. Then use the handi talky like a microphone. Two vehicles so equipped will probably double the distances of receive and transmit. It is important that the antenna length is adjusted to resonate with the frequency being used – your local ham shop should be able to help you out.