Your guide to PMR446
Written by: Simon Creasey | Published:
PMR446’s popularity for use in leisure pursuits such as camping has soared in recent years, partly because of its low price point; credit: alexbrylovhk

While PMR446 devices can be a cost-effective choice for businesses, without the right knowledge they could be more than you bargained for, explains Simon Creasey

Walk down the high street of any UK town and chances are you’ll spot someone using a PMR446 radio. The handsets are ubiquitous; mostly because they’re cheap and easy to buy.

In recent years their presence in the leisure market has soared – with families utilising them for things like cycling trails and camping trips – but they also remain highly popular with business customers. However, PMR446 radios aren’t appropriate for all business uses so how do you establish whether or not the handsets meet an individual firm’s needs? What are the pros and cons of PMR446 radios and what do potential purchasers need to look for before they take the plunge?

One of the major attractions of PMR446 handsets is their flexibility. That’s why you will find them used in lots of different environments, says Donnie MacLeod, sales engineer at security system installer Scottish Communications Group.

“From retail through to restaurants, small businesses, hotels and sports centres – you will see them in just about every business sector in some form,” says MacLeod. “We also supply to colleges and local healthcare authorities. There aren’t just two to three key market areas where you will find the bulk of PMR446s, because they’re incredibly flexible.”

They’re also incredibly easy to use, says MacLeod. “They’re boxed and ready to go. If you’re looking for a simple radio communication system you can buy as many radios as you need, charge them up and away you go.”

The other major upside of PMR446 handsets, according to Andrew Clark, managing director at specialist telecommunications provider G6 Global, is you don’t need a licence to operate them, which appeals to users who don’t want the hassle of applying to Ofcom.

“They can be used licence-free and that may be the only option in areas where a licence is difficult or impossible to obtain,” explains Clark.

The benefits of using PMR446 radios are manifold (which explains their widespread use) but what factors do businesses need to consider when weighing up different models?

New handsets can be bolted on to a company’s pool of radios as and when needed with relative ease, according to Dave Scaife, operations manager at radio equipment supplier DTS. Solutions. “They are easy to add to existing radio fleets as the channels are pre-set. This gives buyers the freedom to shop around for the best value,” he says.

For many users range is a major consideration. Coverage varies based on terrain and conditions, but PMR446 radios are typically capable of providing coverage for an area of around 16,250 square metres, roughly 13 floors of a building, or up to nine kilometres line of site. For Liz Holt, operations manager at two- way radio supplier Link-Tel Communications, business users have to scrutinise coverage before looking at any other factors. “It doesn’t matter what the cost of a radio is if it doesn’t work on their premises,” says Holt. “They should then consider who will be using the radios and whether the units are likely to be looked after, misplaced or dropped. Wet environments need to be considered and there are waterproof licence-free radios out there to cater for outdoor use.”

One good indicator of quality is the battery type. “If the radio uses AAA or similar then it isn’t going to be as long-lasting as a Li-ION battery pack,” points out Scaife.

The low price of PMR446 radios means they are increasingly becoming a throwaway technology; with many users not bothering to repair handsets that could be fixed relatively easily. However, on some models repairs are not an option as a number of manufacturers don’t provide replacement parts.

If a company wants to stick with the handsets it buys for a sustained period it needs to weigh up which manufacturers are more likely to be able to supply spare parts before they make a purchase, says Scaife.

“Should users want to consider future repairs to keep their fleet going – and the more radios someone uses the more likely this is – then opting for a known brand such as Kenwood or Motorola would mean parts are readily available and more suppliers have the tools to carry out repairs,” he explains.

In terms of the current models that offer the best balance between affordability and durability, Scaife highlights the Motorola XT420 or the XT460. He says that although these are towards the top end of the price bracket, parts and accessories are numerous and easy to get hold of. Link-Tel’s Holt is also a fan of Motorola handsets. She says the Motorola Vertex Standard VX241 has proven to be a robust and long- lasting model. In fact, most industry experts plump for Motorola devices when asked to pick their handset of choice, largely because of the breadth of the manufacturer’s range.

“Motorola has a radio for every occasion,” explains Keith Liddell, business development manager, consumer and business radios at two- way radio distributor Airsys Communications. “From the entry-level TLKR T40 (£29.99), through to the XT460 Charger (£160) and the CLP, CLK (£185). The radios I believe offer value, reliability and durability are the Motorola CLP446, Motorola XT420, Kenwood PKT-23 and the Vertex VX-241 PMR446 for indoor use.”

Some businesses might baulk at paying upwards of £100 for a branded model from a well-known manufacturer when there are lots of PMR446 handsets available online for a fraction of the price, but as with anything in life you ultimately get what you pay for.

“There are a lot of tempting offers out there and a lot of cheap imports from Asia where you’ve never heard of the brand. But if you encounter a problem with these handsets there is no real support network in place because it’s coming from overseas distributors that might not have anyone in the UK you can speak to,” says Liddell. “[Because of this] we tend to steer people towards models from the main manufacturers as you know they’ve got good products that are well supported, and if you need any accessories or if anything goes wrong you can fall back on the dealerships,” he adds.

Although PMR446 radios offer numerous user benefits, it’s fair to say that not everyone in the industry is enamoured with them. This is largely because the handsets have a number of insurmountable downsides, according to Philip Smye-Rumsby, managing director at comms supplier and repair service Smye-Rumsby. “Their range is limited, communication is not secure and there is no exclusivity of use,” he says.

Range is a bugbear for many dissatisfied customers; as the advertised range of the radios is rarely achievable in reality. “They have limited coverage and power compared to professional business radio handsets because of 0.5W power capability in built-up areas,” explains Liddell.

PMR446 radios are also typically not as robust as professional radios. “The antenna is fixed and if it breaks it’s not replaceable, plus when servicing and testing radios the antenna socket is the method of attaching the unit to a test set so the radios cannot be tested professionally,” says Holt.

Then there’s the limited range of functionality and features available to users. “PMR446s are generally designed as a basic radio so they’re pretty much voice only,” says MacLeod. “Some manufacturers do offer private calls and a bit of texting but if you require anything other than voice it might be worth steering away from licence free models and into the licensed realm.” But the biggest issue associated with PMR446 radios is undoubtedly co-channel interference, which is commonplace on analogue handsets. “With a 446 you get every man and his dog; including kids and people wanting to give malicious interference,” says Samuel Hunt, director at two-way radio provider Maxxwave. “There are also a significant number of pirates that cause extensive interference. With an Ofcom light licence you get 10 times the power and regulations that stop malicious interference. You are unlikely to get interference from other users and the kit isn’t really any more expensive – £75 for five years’ [licence] isn’t anything to a business, especially when you consider the benefits.”

Another way of tackling the issue of interference is purchasing a digital handset. Iain Sharratt, director at mobile communications provider CarTel Communications, says that a number of users have started switching to digital PMR446 handsets (DPMR446s) that offer 16 channels instead of the eight you get on analogue versions.

“The only models we tend to sell now are the digital PMR446 radios, simply because they cut out a lot of the interference that standard PMR446 radios are prone to pick up on,” explains Sharratt. “Digital PMR446 radios are less prone to interference because a) there are fewer of them out there, and b) they provide a much clearer signal, so either they will work or they won’t.”

He adds that the cost differential between analogue and digital models isn’t that significant, which makes the latter an increasingly more attractive option for many users.

“Analogue radios are about £120 each and digital radios cost about £150 each,” says Sharratt. “The problem we’ve got is the professional product is coming down to an affordable price compared with the lower cost digital and analogue handsets. Those models are fine for families going on outings, but when it comes to business use it’s nearly as affordable to go for a professional radio as the price is coming down all the time.”

It’s a view shared by Smye-Rumsby, who believes that paying a little extra for a handset might make more sense in the long run.“I fthey are to be used in a commercial environment then the higher-tier versions should be favoured as these are built more like the licensed professional range of radios,” he says. “However, if you are going to purchase a high-end 446 product you might as well consider a licensed radio as these have more power.”

Whatever options businesses explore, it’s advisable to seek expert advice before making a purchasing decision as there are a number of common pitfalls that first time buyers often fall foul of.

“Often PMR446 is seen as the DIY quick fix but doesn’t really solve a problem, so money is spent and the situation remains the same purely because the involved party did not seek professional advice,” says G6 Global’s Clark.

DTS. Solutions’ Scaife concurs. “In our experience most PMR446 business users with say eight or more handsets usually migrate to licensed radios within two years. They then access all the additional features such as private calling, secure channels, lone worker alarms, and so on. If they start with a lightweight version with a lower initial cost we rarely see this upgrade. We can read into this either that they have what they need in the lightweight version or that because their experience of radio is not a positive one they possibly look for alternative technologies.”

More often than not it’s customers who don’t seek professional advice and who purchase cheap out-of-the-box radios from high street retailers that end up having a bad experience and buying numerous pairs of handsets, when if they had spoken to experts from the outset they would probably have only bought one pair for the same amount of money, and with a longer lifespan.

“Most of our sales of PMR446s are to customers who have been sold the wrong thing the first time around,” confirms Sharratt. “We’ve even had professional customers who bought half a dozen radios from somewhere else because ours were seen to be too expensive, but then they’ve had a visit from Ofcom because they’re on the wrong frequency.”

The message coming loud and clear from the experts is businesses should seek professional advice from the outset to ensure they make an informed choice on which PMR446 handset to purchase initially, rather than ploughing blindly ahead and making a decision that could prove costly in the long run.

Top tips – questions to ask when purchasing a PMR446 handset

  • Range – the first and most important thing to look for is range. How big an area will the handset cover? Does the coverage match the marketed range? Is the range of the handset fit for purpose? PMR446 experts say that far too many users buy radios for situations like fire alarm evacuations in office blocks, yet they fail to test the range prior to using them for the first time to ensure they offer coverage throughout a building.
  • Battery life – does the radio have a long battery life? How many hours’ usage will you get out of it before it needs recharging?
  • Durability – does it have an IP rating? Is it sufficiently water and/or dust resistant for the location(s) where it will be used? In hardwearing environments like building sites where it is likely to be dropped on a regular basis? Can it withstand the stress of falling on the floor? Is it easy to source replacement parts if the handset breaks?
  • Price – what’s your budget and is it worth opting for a digital PMR446 over an analogue one, which will help cut down on levels of co-channel interference?
  • Usage – do you intend to use the radios for business-critical communications? If so you should think carefully before going down the PMR446 licence-exempt route as you’ll have no recourse against interference.

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