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Radio Scanners – Equipment and Software Control FAQ
Introduction to Scanning
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Strong Signals – Books – How to select a scanner, antenna and coax cable: Radio systems: Laws: Popular targets and how to find them: Setting up a listening post: Scanner clubs, …
Police and Scanning Info features information on sounds, frequencies, and other stuff, including a search engine on scanners.
Scanners – Equipment and Software Control
This article is reproduced with the express permission of the author
This introduction is intended for people new to the scanning hobby and is oriented to scanning in the USA. It tells where you can buy your first scanner, what features it should have, where to get it repaired if required, how to get frequency information, and mentions a few scanner clubs worth joining.
The author writes a monthly "Scanner Equipment" column for Monitoring Times magazine, published by Grove Enterprises but views expressed in this article are his own.
How about listening to a presidential candidate discuss strategy with his advisor from a 415 MHz radiophone in Air Force 1, or a team of G-men protect him while transmitting in the 167 MHz range?
Baby monitor intercoms are actually transmitters and you can hear them between 49.67 and 49.99 MHz.
Stay ahead of road conditions by listening to highway road crews, snow plows, and traffic helicopter pilots. Many midwesterners monitor the state police and and county sheriff to learn of approaching tornados long before warnings are broadcast on TV and commercial radio. Take your scanner to sporting events and listen to race car drivers, football coaches, etc., in the 151, 154, and 468 MHz ranges.
Monitor the everyday hustle and bustle of businesses, from cable TV repair crews tracking down pirate descrambler boxes, to security guards at your nuclear power plant or mall security guards chasing a shoplifter.
In the United States, scanning from your home or at work is perfectly legal in most situations. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 made it illegal to listen to mobile phones, common carrier paging, and a few other types of communication. A new law outlaws listening to cordless phones, too, but many scanners cover these frequencies, and it’s clear that Americans still listen to whatever they want in the privacy of their own homes despite the laws.
It is now illegal for companies to sell recently manufactured scanners which cover or can be easily modified to cover the cellular phone frequencies, but sales by private individuals will still be allowed.
Speaking of privacy, federal law also requires you to keep what you hear to yourself and not use the information you hear on your scanner for personal gain.
Be aware that several states have laws pertaining to scanning while in your car. Indiana restricts some portable scanners. A few states have enacted their own laws against listening to cordless phones. You can find out about these restrictions in a paperback book, Listeners Lawbook, compiled by Frank Terranella, Esq. available for $9.95 + shipping from Grove Enterprises, PO Box 98, Brasstown, NC 28902.
Radio Shack and Uniden (maker of Bearcat, Regency, and Cobra brands) offer a wide choice of scanners. Radio Shack scanners are actually manufactured by both GRE (General Research Electronics) and by Uniden. Personally, I don’t recommend Trident nor many of the AOR brand scanners, although the AR8000 and AR3000 have good reputations.
Programmable (synthesized) units have replaced crystal controlled models as they don’t require crystals and usually have a keypad that permits you to store frequencies into channels. Programmables are now so cheap it doesn’t make sense to buy a crystal unit as your main scanner unless you get it for under $45 or so.
You can get a battery operated hand held scanner, a bigger "base" scanner which is powered from an AC outlet, or a mobile scanner which connects to your auto’s electrical system. There are tradeoffs — base and mobile scanners have larger displays and almost always provide more audio than portables, and some portables are more prone to interference when connected to outdoor antennas than base models. But when severe weather knocks out the power in your home, there’s nothing like having a battery operated scanner to monitor the power utility and police frequencies!
Make sure your first scanner:
1. has a "search" feature, which allows it to search all the frequencies between two frequency limits of your choosing. The lowest cost programmables can’t search.
If you’re not sure whether you’ll like scanning, don’t want to spend much money, a 40 channel radio will do. In general, the more channels and banks, the better.
Most of the action takes place on frequencies between 30 and 1000 MHz, so don’t be misled by scanner models boasting coverage from 3 to 2000 MHz. There’s currently not much to monitor in the 1000 – 2000 MHz range.
If you are interested in receiving short wave, that is, signals in the 3 – 30 MHz range, it’s best to get a short wave radio specifically designed for that purpose. Although some scanners receive the short wave band, their performance in that range is often second rate. |
Deluxe scanners can be controlled and/or downloaded by a | personal computer, a feature which appeals to a small but | growing number of scanner owners.
Almost all low and mid-priced scanners are prone to | receiving images — receiving the same signal erroneously on two or more frequencies. With a few exceptions, images are unwelcome due to the interference they cause, e.g., hearing aircraft transmissions while the scanner is tuned to the local police frequency. Premium quality scanners use "up conversion" circuitry, a scheme which greatly reduces, but does not eliminate, image reception.
Currently, the more popular scanners include the Uniden/Bearcat BC760XLT (a/k/a 950XLT) and discontinued Radio Shack PRO-2006 base/mobiles, the Uniden/Bearcat BC200XLT (a/k/a BC205XLT), BC220XLT, and Radio Shack PRO-43 portables. A number of owners report problems with the Icom R1 portable and the older Uniden/Bearcat 8500XLT base and 2500XLT portable. The new Uniden BC9000XLT base and | BC3000XLT portable work very well and are my current | favorites.
Considered by many as the best scanner ever made, the 400 channel Radio Shack PRO-2006 was replaced by the 1000 | channel PRO-2035, which was replaced by the PRO-2042. The portable Radio Shack PRO-62 and PRO-60 are good performers. | All five models employ up conversion and are made for Radio Shack by GRE (General Research Electronics).
All scanners come with a built in antenna, permitting reception up to about 20 miles or so.
Portable scanners are supplied with a helical (spring shaped) antenna, covered by rubber. The rubberized antennas furnished with current models are too stiff and place stress on the antenna jack. Older scanners to be supplied with more flexible antennas. I prefer to replace the stock antenna with an Icom FA-1433B dual band flex antenna which is thin and very flexible while providing better performance than a stock antenna.
Although it is small and somewhat tolerant of physical abuse, the range of a heliflex antenna is very limited. Augmenting it with a 19" or larger telescoping metal antenna can improve portable reception greatly. (See our CAT-WHISKER antennas in our
If your antenna installation requires more than 50 feet of feedline, use RG213/U or high quality RG8/U coaxial cable. RG213/U has a non-contaminating jacket and will last longer. Each has an outer diameter of about 13/32". Similarly sized Belden 9913 cable and clones have lower attenuation but are difficult to bend, require special connectors, and can accumulate moisture inside because they are hollow.
If you must use a small diameter cable for long runs, use RG6/U. Avoid RG58/U (7/32" OD) due to its losses at high frequencies. RG8/X (1/4" OD) is suitable for short patch cords.
Almost every community has at least one Radio Shack store, and you can find scanners there. Discount chain stores like Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Service Merchandise, and Circuit City sell scanners, but carry just a few models. Department stores, like Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Wards, sometimes offer low end scanners, although at high prices.
The best buys on new scanners are from reputable mail order radio dealers, for example:
Beware of inflated "shipping and handling" charges and be sure to include these when comparison shopping.
Used scanners may be found at hamfests, flea markets, garage sales, or listed in the classified advertisement section of your newspaper.
The term "mod" is often used as shorthand for "modification." If you are handy with a soldering iron, you may be interested in modifying ("modding") your scanner to add features or enhance its performance. Be warned this usually voids your warranty and current models are difficult to service due to the small, delicate surface mount components. By federal regulation, new scanner models cannot be easily modified to tune the cellular phone bands.
The term "mod" has been narrowly used by some people to mean a change which permits a scanner to receive cellular phone frequencies. This definition is far too restrictive as there are several ways one could modify a scanner, e.g., changes to improve audio quality, adding an S-meter, expanding the number of channels, changing the earphone jack to accept stereo headphones, etc.
Modification article files can be copied from several ftp sites including the /pub/ham-radio/mods directory at:
oak.oakland.edu (IP address 22.214.171.124)
KD4MOJ maintains a scanner modification server for people without FTP access. You can request a list of scanner modifications by sending electronic mail with the words GET INDEX.TXT to FTPmail@exchange.tlh.fl.us
If you cannot find files describing modifications to a particular scanner, it’s probably because nobody bothered to devise a modification, or more likely, nobody has taken the time to document their modification.
Modification articles posted on Usenet seem to have a life of their own. Frequently, they are plagiarized from the Internet and compiled by book, CDROM, and magazine publishers, sometimes reworded, then sold. Hobbyists then copy the modifications from the books, CDROMs, and magazines back onto the Internet or BBSs (bulletin board systems)!
Grove Enterprises and other companies advertise a | warranted, modification for fee service.
Is your scanner broken? Aside from sending the scanner back to the manufacturer for repair, here are least two companies which repair scanners:
1. Electronic Repair Centers (telephone 708-455-5105) – Several people have been pleased with good repair service from Electronic Repair Centers in Franklin Park, Illinois. Although they are not authorized to perform warranty work, this outfit has been repairing Bearcat scanners for several years. They charge a flat rate of fixing scanners, and shipping is extra. Electronic Repair Centers will fix Regency scanners if they can obtain the parts.
2. G & G Communications (telephone 716-768-8151) – This family owned company repairs scanners and pagers and stocks parts for several older models. G & G cannot usually repair AOR scanners due to lack of manufacturer support. G & G sells and sometimes buys old scanners and parts, too. They are located at 9247 Glenwood Drive, LeRoy, NY 14482. 3. Electronic Equipment Bank sells and services AOR Scanners, and also does modifications for 3rd party equipment.
To avoid chaos, the FCC licenses two-way radio users and assigns them specific frequencies. Groups of frequencies are allocated to specific types of users, so you won’t usually find fire departments using the same frequencies as taxi drivers, for example.
Scanner enthusiasts can obtain frequency information from several sources, including books, government microfiche records, or other listeners.
Books: The most convenient source of fire, police, and local government frequencies is Gene Hughes’ Police Call, | published each year in 9 regional volumes by Hollins Radio Data, and sold at Radio Shack and larger book stores. The | 1996 editions contain selected business listings, too, | although callsigns are listed only for local government and | public safety licensees.
I also recommend the book, Monitor America, published by SMB Publishing (now known as Scanner Master Publishing), and available from Grove Enterprises for about $30. A new | 3rd edition is expected in late 1995. Monitor America contains several pages of police, fire, local government, news media, sports, federal government, and commercial broadcast frequencies for all 50 states. It contains detailed communications system profiles and precinct maps for major metropolitan areas. Police and fire radio codes and unit identifiers unique to local agencies are listed for several cities. This differs from Police Call, which gives a more sterile, but uniform treatment of licensees, listing even the smallest of towns.
Uniden has published several regional directories using the "Betty Bearcat" name, although there are much better directories available from Scanner Master (Newton Highlands, MA, tel. (508)655-6300) for some regions.
The most readily available source of sensitive US government frequencies is still Tom Kneitel’s Top Secret Registry of US Government Radio Frequencies. Published by CRB Research, the 8th edition is available from Grove Enterprises for about $22. Kneitel’s book contains frequency listings for NASA, military, FBI, Secret Service, DEA, IRS, Border Patrol, arsenals, ammunition plants, missile sites, and others in the 25 to 470 MHz range.
Tab Books Master Frequency File, first edition, written by James Tunnell and Robert Kelty, lists federal agencies and frequencies and deserves a read. However, there are no military listings and many pages are devoted to appendices and references which contain no frequency listings. The space would be much better used by a combined federal frequency list sorted by frequency.
Commercial Magazines: Although national in circulation, local frequency information is sometimes available in Groves Monitoring Times Magazine (tel. 704-837-9200) and the sensationalistic Popular Communications, (tel. 516-681- 2922). National Scanning Report is a national scanner magazine published bimonthly and is affiliated with Uniden’s Bearcat Radio Club. Early issues disappointed experienced scanner hobbyists, but it now has a good column on scanner modifications and has greatly improved its coverage of east coast frequencies since merging with NESN (North East Scanner News). The best scanner frequency lists are often found in club publications, not commercial magazines, and are discussed later. Also look at US Scanner News a revitalized publication with a growing readership.
Government Records: Every year, the US Government sells FCC license information, in the form of microfiche, floppy disk, and magnetic tape, to the public through the US Department of Commerce National Technical Information Service (NTIS). The high cost of buying government records limits their appeal to hardcore enthusiasts. You can write for a catalog of FCC Master Frequency Database items to the NTIS, 5285 Port Royal Road, Springfield, VA 22161.
The FCC has an agreement with PerCon (tel. 716-386-6015), a private company, to sell FCC license information to the public on CDROMs. You can buy the full license information for a multi state region or a less detailed license database covering the the entire USA on CDROM for about $100. The PerCon Spectrum CDROM sells for $29 and contains a handful of fields for every FCC license in the US. The Spring 1995 edition works in DOS, Windows, and Mac environments.
Grove Enterprises sells FCC license information on CDROM for $100. In the 1995 edition, fields are different than PerCon’s Spectrum CDROM but the data appears to be of the same vintage. The licensee name and licensee city are used instead of the DBA (doing business as) name and transmitter city which makes query results confusing.
When you try listening to a frequency for the first time, you’ll want to know who you’re hearing.
Although FCC rules require radio systems to identify their operations with their assigned call letters either automatically or verbally, most ignore the regulation. This often makes it difficult to know who is transmitting. Moreover, many radios are now being placed in service illegally, without first obtaining the required FCC license.
There is a challenge in deriving new spectrum usage information on your own. Sometimes it requires several days of listening, taping, and compiling fragments of information. Other times, the frequency information is there for the taking – without hassle.
You can approach from two directions:
1. Listen first: Monitor a frequency or frequencies, and
2. Compile first: Take advantage of opportunities, such
Most listeners use a combination of both approaches.
You can examine the FCC license on premise. I have found the actual FCC radio license, complete with frequency assignments, hanging on the walls of places like the mall security office or company guard shack. You can examine the labels on radio equipment. Frequency information is engraved on labels on the back of many walkie-talkies, or inside the battery compartment, like in the Motorola HT220 model. Most pagers have labels on the bottom or inside. Like passwords taped onto terminals, it’s not uncommon to find labels embossed with frequencies or call letters glued to the front of base stations.
You can make your own opportunities for eyeing the equipment or take advantage of "open house" events. If information is displayed publicly, then a reasonable person could assume it’s not government secret. Hobbyists are urged to exercise a modicum of restraint and good judgement, however.
to Uncover New Frequencies?
If you don’t know the exact frequency, but have a general idea of the range (e.g. 150 – 152 MHz), use your scanner’s "search" mode. Most programmable scanners afford the ability to search between two frequency limits set by the user. A few models, like the ICOM R7000/R7100, and R1, and older Bearcat 250 and Regency K500, have the ability to automatically store active frequencies found during an unattended search operation.
To find the frequency of a hotel communications system, one fellow installed his Bearcat 250 in his car and parked in the hotel lot, leaving the scanner in the "search and store" mode. He left the antenna disconnected so the scanner would only respond to a transmitter in the immediate vicinity.
Aside from a scanner and antenna, the most useful piece of equipment for sleuthing is a voice actuated (VOX) cassette tape recorder. You don’t need a high fidelity model or anything fancy, a Radio Shack CTR-82 will do. It’s best to use a shielded, attenuating cable to feed the scanner audio into the recorder rather than relying on the recorder’s internal microphone.
VOX recorders allow one to compress a whole day’s worth of monitoring onto a single tape. I often leave a recorder "armed" and connected to a scanner at home while I am at the office or doing something else. When call letters are mumbled, I can play and replay the tape until I hear and understand them.
Test equipment can aid in the quest for new frequency information. I’ve used a spectrum analyzer connected to an outside antenna, and a frequency counter for close-in work.
One of the best parts of the hobby is sharing it with other radio buffs. Trading information with other hobbyists about frequencies, communication systems, and receiving equipment is more valuable than any pile of magazines.
The world’s largest scanner club is the Radio Communications Monitoring Association (RCMA). Founded in 1975, the RCMA is the "first national and international organization of monitor radio listeners." There are several regional chapters which hold regular meetings. Club dues are $27.00 per year, which includes the monthly Scanner Journal, approximately 50 pages in 8-1/2" x 11" format. Although the focus is on VHF and UHF ranges, there is coverage of HF utility stations below 30 MHz. The RCMA web page is at http://comp.uark.edu/~plaws/rcma/
Inquiries about RCMA membership should be sent to RCMA General Manager, P.O. Box 542, Silverado, CA 92676, USA.
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