How to buy PMR446 two-way radios
Written by: Vaughan O'Grady | Published:

The licence-exempt service PMR446 continues to prove its worth to a wide range of end-users, as Vaughan O’Grady discovers

Radio equipment designed to use PMR446, a licence-exempt service in the UHF radio frequency band available in most of the European Union, has – surprisingly perhaps given the alternatives – survived and thrived for more than 20 years.

What sort of customers make up the market for PMR446? Ian Lockyer, marketing manager at Icom, answers: “Across the board, from schools to retail to catering to construction to high-end users with specific limited applications.” Limited is no understatement. It includes, as Peter Bearryman, RadioTrade’s sales and marketing director, suggests, “such short-term applications as a garden fete or charity event”.

The list offered by Matthew Napier, sales director at Hytera UK, includes consumers, organisations with minimal security concerns, organisations with too few administrative staff to justify obtaining and maintaining a licence, customers with a limited budget, and customers who cannot obtain an Ofcom licence.

Sean Fitzgerald, solutions marketing manager at Motorola Solutions, also cites “customers employing a relatively low number of users operating over small areas”, and adds: “They are especially popular in the retail and hospitality sectors.”

Yet most people have cellular or Wi-Fi-enabled phones and licensed PMR does the same thing as unlicensed, and probably better. So why choose PMR446? The price, which can be as low as £20 for a pair of consumer-grade devices, certainly helps. If you’re an average consumer you might even take some along for a family outing, a holiday, or a hike, although, as Bearryman says, even consumers can pay as much as £104 RRP for a twin pack of high-level, feature-rich and fully waterproof radios.

However, that is not going to work for businesses. Fitzgerald says: “Consumer-grade devices do not offer the same level of ruggedness and performance as the [licence-exempt] business radios.” Thus, “an end-user is likely to pay £100-£220 (excluding VAT) for a professional PMR446 radio depending on the model and accessories they select”.

Companies have even designed PMR446 products for specific market sectors. For example, the Motorola Solutions CLP446 is intended for use within the retail and hospitality sectors where a small low-range product is required and suitable spectrum may not be available. In addition, PMR446 products typically have a simple, rugged form factor specifically designed for the job.

And of course, says Jason Mules, communications area sales manager, UK at Kenwood: “It’s the simplicity. Simply purchase radios, switch them on and select a channel. No ongoing licence costs or Ofcom visits.”

They can also solve coverage problems. As Icom’s Lockyer says: “For short-range comms, they are an excellent, instant communication device where you might not have mobile coverage.” His company offers short-range communications for both business and leisure: “From someone who works in a retail checkout that wants to know a price of a tin of beans to a group of students/teachers on a school ski trip who need to stay in close communication without the need of a licence or mobile charges.”

However, licensed PMR still has its advantages. He adds: “When there are coverage issues, then your two-way radio dealer should advise you to look [at] either licensed PMR, IP radio or LTE/PoC radio solutions.”

And, while Hytera’s licence-exempt radios “have the same or similar build standards [as the company’s] licensed radios and can be maintained in the same way (with regards to spares and repairs)”, Napier does point out: “The advantages of licensed products relate to functionality, security and range.”

Stephen Edwards, communications technical support manager, UK and Ireland at Kenwood, points out: “Licensed radios are much higher power and can also be used with a repeater to significantly enhance coverage. Another difference is the operating frequency. PMR446 operates in the 446MHz band; licensed radio can operate across the VHF and UHF licence bands.”

Icom’s Lockyer says his company’s PMR446 products have over time proved to be reliable, rugged solutions for a wide range of users, “built to substantial waterproof, dustproof and military specifications”. He adds: “I do believe in the adage that you get what you pay for. If you buy a radio that is just a few pounds, there has to be a trade-off in quality and performance.”

Fitzgerald too warns that “buying cheap devices can often be counterproductive if the audio is distorted so messages aren’t understood, batteries don’t last a full shift so devices aren’t working when needed, or if the equipment fails after a short time and has to be replaced”.

But if your needs are not mission-critical, you can certainly find a bargain. It is reasonable to argue, as RadioTrade’s Bearryman points out: “The success of PMR446 indicates that many thousands of users are happy with good simple products that meet their needs at an affordable price.”

We last covered PMR446 devices in 2016 and, in some ways, the changes have been predictable. Icom’s Lockyer notes that build quality, battery life and speaker performance have all benefited from improvements in design and manufacturing.

As an example, RadioTrade’s Bearryman says: “The Motorola Solutions XT660d offers digital quality audio and ‘private’, group or all-calls capability. It also provides remote [monitoring], radio disable and call alert features. It has an LCD display, a full keypad for text messaging, and can record and play back conversations for training and audit purposes.”

The XT660d, Icom’s IC-F29DR2 and many other models are also evidence of the really big change since 2016. Hytera’s Napier says: “The only real advance is the transition to digital.” Kenwood’s Mules says: “Licence changes in 2017 allowing digital and analogue users to fully share the frequency allocation have made digital radios much more attractive.” Edwards advises: “It is important to use the dPMR standard rather than DMR for 446 radios. This is because the dPMR narrowband, 6.25Khz gives a large improvement in range (around 3dB) over DMR while still offering the same number of channels.”

Icom’s Lockyer notes: “Since 2018, the frequency band 446.1-446.2MHz was designated for use by PMR446 licence-free radios across Europe in line with Harmonised European Standards EN 300 296-2, EN 300 113-2 and EN 301 166-2. The new frequencies, which follow ECC Decision (15)05, create greater capacity by extending the assigned frequency spectrum for digital and analogue equipment to 446.0-446.2MHz with a channel plan based on 6.25kHz (digital) and 12.5kHz (analogue) spacing where the lowest carrier frequencies are 446.003125MHz and 446.00625MHz respectively.”

Motorola Solutions’ Fitzgerald adds: “A change in the PMR446 regulations means radios can now have twice the number of channels (16 instead of eight), so customers can make more calls, or more easily avoid interference from other users.”

Analogue devices are still around because, says Lockyer, “they feature a tried-and-tested technology”. But Napier adds: “Digital offers greater usable range and greater clarity”, as well as improved privacy and, suggests Lockyer, “access to less congested digital PMR channels”. “Kenwood has introduced a small dual-mode radio, TK-3601D; this makes it simple to integrate analogue and digital fleets,” says Mules.

There are some indications that the price differential between high-end PMR446 handsets and their Business Radio equivalents has narrowed slightly, but Kenwood’s Edwards says “these are different products. PMR446 is often seen as a gateway for radio users”, and, as Bearryman says, “these products have no ongoing costs for licences or network charges”.

But among the reasons PMR446 continues to thrive are the same drivers that keep two-way radios in general popular. Fitzgerald lists them as follows:

  • Two-way radios are designed to provide instant communications between groups of people at the push of a button. There is no waiting for a dial tone or connection, and no calling or subscription fees.
  • They are not reliant on third-party infrastructure and therefore don’t suffer problems of lack of control over coverage or capacity, providing more reliable operation.
  • Two-way radios are normally designed to be much tougher than smartphones or tablets.
  • The initial purchase cost of an unlicensed radio is lower than most phones and the lifetime of radios is longer than smartphones and IT equipment.
  • As a dedicated device, two-way radios don’t have apps or other distractions so staff can stay focused on their job, not on their technology.
  • Radios are typically louder than phones, so are easier to hear, especially in noisy environments.

RadioTrade’s Bearryman says: “[Smartphones] depend on network coverage and the associated ongoing charges. They are more expensive and [echoing Motorola’s point] can be a distraction to staff because they are not specifically business tools.” And, of course, as Bearryman points out: “[Consumer smartphones] are not always the simplest way to conduct group communications.”

However, whether it is for a family function or a construction site, the bottom line is that if your application can be handled by a cheap, low-powered device then PMR446 is for you – in fact, it’s for “anyone who wants no-fuss, short-range radio comms without the licence”, as Lockyer puts it.

Is PMR446 right for you?
“If you have short-range, simple communications requirements which depend on instant group communications, it is likely that PMR446 has an entry-level solution for you,” says RadioTrade’s Peter Bearryman. “For a very affordable price it is possible to purchase a pair of PMR446 radios and experiment with these to see if they meet your requirement. If they do not meet your coverage requirements then it is advisable to consult an experienced radio communications dealer to plan a more sophisticated system.

“Don’t expect PMR446 to be upgradable to a wide area or more complex system. PMR446 does what it does extremely well but has limited range and simple functionality built in, and cannot operate with mobiles or repeaters to improve coverage or functionality.”

The dos and don'ts of PMR446

  • Do ask yourself whether you require a serviceable product. If so, where will it be serviced/repaired? What are the ongoing costs (of batteries, for example)?
  • Do try them out first.
  • Do make a shopping list of what you want and try to match it to the solutions available in the marketplace (such as battery life, ruggedness or waterproofing, warranty level).
  • Do consider which type of radio may fit which environment: rugged? Smaller and lighter? Waterproof?
  • Do consider making changes in work practices enabled by the radios to improve customer service and operational efficiency.
  • Do choose a reputable manufacturer.

  • Don’t use portable cellular hotspot devices for professional uses.
  • Don’t rush into buying from an online vendor who may be selling Family Radio Service (FRS) radios –these are not approved for use in the UK and Europe.
  • Don’t focus only on price.
  • Don’t overlook accessories such as earpieces and multi-unit chargers.

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