CB radio in the United Kingdom
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Citizens Band radio (often shortened to CB radio) is a system of short-distance radio communications between individuals on a selection of 40 channels within the 27-MHz (11 m) band. In the United Kingdom, C.B. radio was first legally introduced in 1981, but had been used illegally for some years prior.
In December 2006, C.B. radio was deregulated by Ofcom and it is now licence free. Although the use of C.B. radios in the UK has declined from its peak, it is still popular, especially with the farming community, Land Rover owners and Mini-Cab services. It is also fitted as standard to 'Street Glide' and 'Electra Glide' models of Harley Davidson touring motorcycles sold in the UK.
C.B. Radio was first introduced into the United Kingdom around 1972. Early use was known around the airports in the UK, particularly Stansted in 1973. As citizens band radio has been advertised in the U.S. since before 1962, it is possible that a number of these radios were brought into the U.K. and used illegally. In 1978, C.B. radio in Britain was much popularized by its use in the film Convoy and the usage of illegal C.B. radio peaked in 1980. Companies in Britain sold U.S. equipment quite openly, and equipment was readily available in car accessory shops. During this time, a great many C.B. clubs emerged in the UK and they became centres of protest in the march towards legalisation, in the hope that existing equipment could be used legally. In response to this, the government commissioned a white paper proposing a C.B. service called "Open Channel" around 860 MHz. The U.K. Government eventually legalised C.B. Radio, and on 2 November 1981 a C.B. service was introduced on a frequency band and offset that is incompatible with the imported American radios. At the same time the ownership of non-UK approved 27 MHz transceivers was made illegal except for those obtained by UK radio amateurs holding a UK "A" (HF) licence, for conversion to the 28 MHz (10 metre) amateur allocation. Given that virtually all illegal C.B. radios were contraband, this concession required the licensed amateur to pay outstanding import duty and VAT. A licence to operate these new radios became compulsory, and this could be purchased from most Post Office counters for £15. Unlike that required to qualify for a radio amateur licence, no proof of technical competence was needed. As of 8 December 2006, a licence is no longer required to own or operate a C.B. Radio providing it complies with one of the 3 type approval conditions currently permitted by Ofcom: FM only, 4 watts power output and operating on either or both UK and CEPT (EU) 27 MHz bands only.
In the early stages of the run up to the final legislation, most of the pro-C.B. lobby wanted the government to legislate around the U.S. standard C.B. system, primarily due to the large user base that already existed. The UK government made it clear from the outset that legislation for use of this equipment would be unlikely. Interference problems associated with badly calibrated amplitude modulated (AM) or Single Side Band (SSB) equipment were cited as the main factor, and it was made clear that if any system was legalised it would be frequency modulated (FM). The C.B. lobby argued that interference from AM was unlikely to occur from the use of original unmodifed AM radio equipment, a view initially rejected but later accepted by the Ministry of Defence. Many active and potential users continued in their insistence on a 27 MHz system, although for a locally available Citizen's Band system, the 27 MHz concept was not universally endorsed.
The government initially proposed a FM system on a 928 MHz band with an RF Input power not exceeding 500 mW. This was unacceptable to the C.B. lobby partly because the low power would give a short range but mainly because the cost of equipment to operate in this band would be prohibitive.
The more knowledgeable C.B. enthusiasts made a counter proposal to use a frequency around 220 MHz. This was immediately dismissed by the government who pointed out that it was a reserved military frequency band. It was subsequently discovered that the frequency had been unused since the Second World War. The government initially refused to relent and continued their insistence on legalising the 928 MHz band. The C.B. lobby continued to insist that any C.B. system had to use the (U.S.) 27 MHz band, be AM and a maximum output power of 4 watts (i.e. the U.S. system).
Ultimately, the government hinted that they were going to give in to the C.B. lobby but, as it turned out, only up to a point. C.B. was eventually legalised on a 27 MHz band but not the band used in the U.S. Whereas the U.S. used a band occupying the range 26.965 to 27.405 MHz, the UK system was to operate on 27.60125 to 27.99125 MHz. These awkward frequencies would prevent illegal U.S. sets from being modified outside of the type approval system, though it was possible to have existing A.M. radios modified to comply with the new F.M. standard. The choice of frequency would also give the U.K. electronics industry a head start in the production of unique U.K. only radios. The system was FM as expected, but one initial surprise was that the power limit was set at 4 watts. The surprise was short lived when it was realised that antenna restrictions would limit the real radiated power to little more than a 500 mW system. A further restriction on power applied if the antenna was elevated by more than 7 metres from the ground. The antenna restrictions were largely ignored and, in the main, unpoliced.
The government of the day had hoped that UK based manufacturers would be able to compete on a level playing field with foreign (notably Japanese) manufacturers for a share of the potential market. As it happened: the awkward choice of frequencies conspired against this ideal. The frequencies were such that, initially, only one manufacturer in Japan had the capability of producing the frequency synthesiser chips capable of producing the transmission frequencies and the local oscillator signals for use in receive mode. This manufacturer, not surprisingly, refused to supply any UK based manufacturer while it was attempting to keep Japanese manufacturers supplied. In the event, the UK market saturated within a few months and many Japanese manufacturers and UK importers were left with vast amounts of unwanted stock. Within a year of the introduction of C.B. to the UK, C.B. radio sets were being given away free with some purchase or other by many of the major retailers.
In addition 20 channels in the 934 MHz band were also legalised, but equipment was considerably more expensive than the well established 27 MHz sets. At first the range was limited, but as antenna restrictions were lifted and better equipment started to appear, the number of UHF C.B. operators grew. In 1988, it was announced that the manufacture of 934 MHz equipment would be prohibited, though the use of existing equipment would remain legal. Its use largely confined to enthusiasts and amateur radio operators, the type approval specification for this band was finally withdrawn on 1 January 1999 and it is now illegal to use this equipment in the UK.
An additional frequency band was introduced on 1 September 1987 giving a further 40 channels in the CEPT Band,(26.965 MHz to 27.405 MHz) also some antenna restrictions were lifted, over the past few years all antenna restrictions have been removed and planning constraints now restrict antenna size rather than regulatory compliance. It is not permitted to add the CEPT channels to existing 27/81 equipment, the only radios permitted to operate on this band are purpose made 80 channel or CEPT only sets.
Associations and groups
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Countless C.B. related clubs and groups have existed over the years, including some more notable organisations:
- NATCOLCIBAR (NATional COmmittee for the Legalisation of CItizens BAnd Radio)
- REACT UK (Radio Emergency Associate Communications Team - later changed to Radio Emergency And Citizens Teams)
- THAMES (Traffic Help And Monitoring Emergency Service)
- REVCOM (Radio Emergency Volunteer COMmunications)
The National Committee for the Legalisation Of Citizens' Band Radio was a pro C.B. lobby consisting of interested parties and (at one point) up to 60 members of Parliament.
REACT UK was formed in 1982, under licence from REACT INTERNATIONAL in the United States, its teams were located across the UK. It was noted for its members signing on and off monitoring on Channel 9. REACT UK also provided members equipped with mobiles and handheld to provide radio coverage for marathons, fun runs, county shows - it also obtained a Private Mobile Radio (PMR) licence so its members had a secure private radio channel.
The national committee of REACT UK was beset by scandals and arguments from about 1986, and the National Communications secretary was arrested and charged with financial irregularities with regards to receipts from PMR licences. REACT UK members decided to split following much in-fighting in the national committee, and in 1986 many became affiliated directly with REACT International. Some REACT units provided search volunteers to assist the police with searching for missing persons (something that still occurs today with ALSAR and RAYNET albeit without C.B. radios).
From 2007 there was only one REACT International team based in Britain, operating under the name of REACT UK Dundee. Some teams became overseas members of REACT International whilst others chose to join splinter group REVCOM (Radio Emergency Volunteer Communications).
THAMES mainly operated in the south of England, especially around east and north London, and provided similar services to REACT.
A perceived heavy-handed attitude by the bigger organisations caused a number of smaller groups to be formed in response. In 1983 the majority of THAMES in Greater London was reformed into the Association of Independent Monitors (AIM). After 2 years AIM was reformed.
Another group originally formed with the use of C.B. radio in mind are REVCOM, though this group no longer uses the C.B. service.
Methods of transmission
The UK channels that were legalised on 2 November 1981 were on two blocks of frequencies: 40 channels on the 27 MHz band and 20 channels on the 934 MHz band, both of which used FM (frequency modulation) and both unique to the UK. The 27 MHz band frequency allocation and related information is shown here. In 1987 40 additional frequencies were added, which were ironically the same as the U.S. allocation - but again using FM. This additional band is often referred to as the CEPT or EU band. As with the original 40 channels, this band is affected by the same atmospheric characteristics, especially towards the maxima of the 11-year sunspot cycle.
The (formerly) illegal SSB mode has its enthusiasts and adopted a different style of call-sign (instead of a 'handle') in the manner of radio amateurs. The unofficial 'band' centred around 26.6 MHz
Three channels have been unofficially recognised for specific uses within the U.K., though the arrangement has no legal standing:
- Channel 9: The emergency calling channel
- Channel 14: Calling channel
- Channel 19: Truckers' channel and secondary calling channel
The C.B. craze and legalisation
The new system was taken up enthusiastically by all those who had held back using an illegal system, and it was one of the biggest selling gifts for Christmas in 1981. The system suffered from many nuisance users who denied the use of the recognised calling channels to other users by transmitting a blank carrier and/or music. With the fight won, albeit with a considerable compromise and particularly with the many nuisance users, interest rapidly waned, the C.B. clubs gradually dwindled in membership, many disappearing altogether within a year or so.
There are some notable anti-social aspects to the hobby. It is possible to increase power output to very high levels using power amplifiers, and in some cases this can cause interference to and affect the operation of other equipment such as television and radio, and also to other CB radio users.
The band used for C.B. was already allocated in the UK to radio controlled models. While this was usually little more than a frustrating nuisance for modellers, it did pose a genuine danger for aircraft models, which can kill or seriously injure. As a result of the C.B. craze, it became mandatory to operate aircraft models on the alternative band of 35 MHz.
There is a diverse vocabulary associated with the hobby, many words and phrases having been copied from the original American service. Few of these words are used in general conversation in the U.K., and they serve equally as a reminder of the hobbies' American origins. An extensive list of such words and their associated definitions can be found here.
Not to be confused with fox hunting
A fox hunt is a direction finding activity using cars and vans fitted with C.B. radios. The objective of this activity is to use a signal strength meter to triangulate or otherwise locate a hidden transmitter, or "fox".
QSL'ing is the exchange of contact confirmation reports, adapted from Q codes used by the military and amateur radio. Amateur radio operators would often follow up contacts around the world by sending specially printed QSL cards. This was adapted by C.B.'ers and colourful cards featuring 'handles', pictures and so on appeared.
Fall from popularity
From the inception of legalised C.B. radio, there has been much abuse of the system, with frequent complaints that C.B. radio was not policed properly in spite of the licence revenues.
C.B. channels still remained busy in many areas, despite mobile phones becoming increasingly more common and feature rich. Many of the original advantages of mobile C.B. have been surpassed by the development of mobile internet access, satellite navigation systems, and the proliferation of other instant communication technologies such as text messaging.
The introduction of a new licence free handheld PMR 446 radio service has provided much of the features of traditional C.B., in a small handheld format. This service is not directly comparable with C.B, as PMR446 was intended to provide a short range service.
Changes to the U.K's amateur radio licensing system mean that it is now possible for people under the age of 14, and anyone else, to gain legal access to most of the U.K. amateur frequency allocation with only basic technical knowledge.
Licence free C.B. brings rise in popularity
In June 2011, the EU announced another change in technical specifications for C.B. use which, if implemented, would introduce a type approval for both AM and SSB operation. The introduction was originally delayed by the 2012 Olympics, and was scheduled to take effect in 2014.
SSB and AM legalisation
Following most other European countries, Ofcom proposed to adopt European Communication Committee Decision (11)031 in October 2013. This would permit the use of Single Sideband and AM operation on the CEPT CB radio band, and Ofcom proceeded with legislation to this effect on 27 June 2014.
Furthermore, a recent cross forum/website vote took place and new recommended calling channels have been suggested:
AM - Calling Channel 14 (27.125MHz)
SSB - Calling Channel 27 (27.275MHz)
FM - Calling Channel 31 (27.315MHz)
Over the first weekend of legal AM/SSB (27th, 28, 29 June 2014) a 'Big Multimode Net' event was organised by the UK CB radio community starting at midnight on the morning of 27 June 2014. CB radio operators up and down the UK stayed up late to be part of the event. Many contacts were made and the event was seen as a great success. Some operators made videos and posted them to video sharing sites such as YouTube.
The new AM/SSB legislation only permits the use of new and approved sets, not 'legacy' multimode sets.
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