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How to buy a two-way radio

Two-way communication can help you quickly and efficiently coordinate your employees' activities and respond to emergencies. To choose the right system for you, first consider the following questions.

What areas of my operation do I want to cover? Having this defined will help determine both the amount of transmitting power you'll need in your radios and what additional equipment may be necessary.

A radio's power rating is represented in watts and determines the strength of the radio's signal and its range. That power rating also affects the radio's battery life. For example, a 4W radio may have a stronger signal and transmit farther than a 2W radio, but it will also draw more power and drain the battery more quickly. Plus, 4W may be more power than you need. Because it's more important to have an efficient system than a powerful one, it's best to have a system designed to use the lowest power rating possible for the size of the operation.

Other components can be added to the system to increase its efficiency. For example, many systems are outfitted with repeaters, which receive and relay signals. This allows you to use a radio with a lower power rating to transmit and receive over a larger area.

Will use be mostly inside, outside, or both? Today's business radios use either very high frequency (VHF) or ultra high frequency (UHF) bands. UHF is more effective when transmitting and receiving within buildings or to and from buildings. VHF frequencies are most effective when used outdoors.

General mobile radio service (GMRS) radios work for some limited applications, but they are not recommended for situations in which private, or secure, communications are needed. UHF and VHF frequencies are leased; the user buys rights to specific frequencies guaranteeing others will not use them. GMRS frequencies, on the other hand, are public, and anyone with a GMRS radio would be able to hear potentially sensitive information.

How many people will use the system? If a small number of people will be using the radios, a conventional system, where each party hears all the conversations, is probably sufficient.

However, if you have a large group of people, you may want to use a system that offers trunking. This technology allows you to organize your channels into “talk groups,” or predefined groups of users. Then each group's radios can be programmed to receive only specific talk groups. However, as farm manager, you may decide you also want a general broadcast channel to talk to everyone who has a radio. Trunking gives you this ability to communicate one-to-one or one-to-all at any given time. The one-to-all function is not available in other wireless services, such as cell phones and cellular-based PCS systems.

Disaster preparedness

Any power loss will eliminate the ability to recharge radio batteries, so you want to make sure any radio you buy can also use off-the-shelf alkaline batteries. Make sure your system includes battery or generator backup that will keep you operational as long as possible.

Call in the professionals

After you've determined your communication needs, it's best to work with a manufacturer-authorized dealer who can recommend and support the best system for you. Don't just call one dealer; interview two or three dealers who carry different brands of gear. Ask them these questions:

  • What radio brands are you authorized to carry? There are quite a few two-way radio brands available in today's market. You should make sure the dealer you work with sells at least one of the leading brands.

  • Have you worked with an operation similar in size and scope to mine?

  • What's included in your service program? Will you supply loaner radios? How fast is your response time?

Also ask dealers for references. And get more than one bid.

A well-designed communication system will operate so transparently that it will often go unnoticed in your daily routine and even in emergencies. An inadequate system, on the other hand, may create more problems than it solves. Your best safeguard to ensure a sound business decision begins with a little preparation and selecting the right dealer and equipment.

Chris Ramsden is the director of sales and marketing for Kenwood Communications Corporation, a manufacturer of two-way radios used in business, government and recreation.

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