Citizen's Band (CB) radio, a two-way personal communications service

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      43AX05 Greg

        This site is dedicated to Citizen’s Band (CB) radio, a two-way personal communications service which also became a social fad in the 1970’s.

        The call for a “Personal Radio Service” started shortly after congress passed the Communications Act in 1934. It was realized at that time, that there was a need for a radio service which could be used by non-commercial entities or common citizens, to communicate with each other. While we already had Amateur or “Ham” radio, this service was technical in nature, and the license requirements were overkill for most common citizens who only desired a reliable wireless means to communicate with family members, or to conduct personal business. And so the idea of a “Citizen’s Band” was born. The first attempt at a “Citizen’s Radio Service” came in 1947, when a 465 Mhz UHF frequency block was allocated. There were a few enterprising pioneers who built equipment and experimented there. But ultimately, this band would never become popular due to the expense and unreliability of the UHF equipment of the time.

        The more familiar 27 Mhz class “D” CB radio came into being in 1958, as a second attempt at a “CB” service, after the largely unsuccessful attempt on UHF fizzled 11 years earlier. The FCC created 23 channels, each one being 10 khz wide, starting at 26.965 Mhz, and ending at 27.255 Mhz. The AM (And later SSB) mode was authorized for use on these channels. The new channels were carved out of a part of the seldom used 11 meter ham band. An observant individual would also realize that this frequency span yields more than 23 channels (30 actually). The reason for this is that the FCC also created 5 class “C” radio control channels (With class “D” channel 23 as a shared 6th RC channel) interspersed between the class “D” voice channels. Additionally, there were also two business band frequencies situated between channel 22 and 23 (Which would eventually become channels 24 and 25 in 1977). The 27 Mhz band was also chosen because it would be cheaper to produce radio equipment on this relatively low frequency band, as compared to similar equipment for UHF. Parts were more common, and reliability would likely be better as well. Typical user range would also be better, while requiring less power, and coverage would be less likely to be drastically affected by buildings and local terrain. Of course, like in most good things in life, there was a downside to this band as well. The new 27 Mhz CB band was also shared by industrial, scientific, and medical (ISM) devices, which had the potential to create significant interference. The 11 meter band is also subject to ionospheric propagation enhancement (AKA: Skip). In creating this new Citizen’s Band, the FCC never foresaw (or greatly underestimated) the intoxicating allure of DX talking, which boomed when the sunspot activity peaked every 11 years, and the potential interference that would result from those who would vehemently pursue it.

        To add yet another level of complexity, these 23 new CB channels were further divided initially into channels which were to be used only for communications between stations under the same license. The other channels could used for communicating between stations under different licenses. According to the rules, only channels 10 thru 15 and channel 23 could be used for stations not under the same license. These midband channels were also the place where the most interference was likely to occur, as the majority of ISM devices were centered around channel 14 and, not so coincidently, this was probably the reason why low power CB walkie-talkies were placed on channel 14. Channel 23 was also a shared channel between CB Class “C”, Class “D” and business band. Furthermore, while you could talk to another station under your license for as long as necessary, communications between other licensee’s was restricted to no more than 5 minutes, with a mandatory 5 minute minimum quiet time afterward. So it was clear from the very beginning, that the FCC had designed the CB band to be used for necessary personal and business communication between units under the same station license, and not for idle chit-chatting between other licensed stations. But that fact would never stop anyone so inclined, as we would soon see as the years would unfold…….

        The 1960’s saw a great deal of growth in CB users, and in the manufacturers who supplied the equipment. More and more manufacturers started offering radio equipment for this service. There were also a few kit radios, from companies like Knight and Heathkit, offered as well as the initial FCC regs actually allowed users to construct their own rigs. Indeed, the initial regulations did not even specify the necessity for crystal frequency control. Presumably, if you could offer a technically sound explanation of how your design could maintain the required frequency stability, the FCC would grant type acceptance. In the early 60’s, most rigs were AM only, tube-type, hand wired, and somewhat bulky, especially for mobile installations. But thankfully most cars, in those days, were also big, bulky, and with a lot of room under the dashboard, so mounting a CB radio was not so daunting a task as one might think. Early radios initially had only 3, 6, 8, or 12 channel transmit capacity, while some also had tunable receivers which could pick up all the channels (and those in-between). In the beginning, most people had no real need for more channels. But as the band began to fill up, the flexibility of having all channels available, pushed manufacturers to offer full 23 channel units. This presented both a technical as well as an economic challenge. The first generation CB radio used one crystal for transmit, and another for receive. This was not normally a problem for a 6 channel radio. But it would amount to having to hold 46 crystals for each 23 channel radio made, which represented a significant expense. This dilemma was solved with the advent of a technique known as crystal synthesis. By mixing combinations of crystals, you could generate 23 channels (both transmit and receive) from as few as 12 crystals, which translated to a significant cost savings. With crystal synthesis, 23 channel radios became cost effective and would soon become dominant, while radios with less channel capacity would be relegated to “low budget” status.

        Most of the early CB users in the 60’s, for the most part, operated their CB’s as the FCC intended — at least initially. However even back then, a growing hobby use culture was slowly making its presence known. People who ran their businesses during the day, soon found that informally chatting among the other users at night could be interesting and fun. It was a means of socializing, only it happened over the air. It was also unique and somewhat comforting, to be able to have communications capability from a car or from a hand-held portable. The utility, peace of mind, and the desire for a means to answer emergency calls, led to the designation of CB channel 9 as an emergency calling channel and laid the groundwork for the creation of groups such as REACT, to monitor channel 9 on a regular basis.

        When the 11 year sunspot cycle peaked in the late 60’s, a new phenomenon on the CB band; ionospheric propagation, would give rise to another passion; DX talking. For many people, DX talking was the Holy Grail, the final answer to that often nagging question of how far their rigs could be heard. Where normal CB range was usually somewhere between 5 and 40 miles, atmospheric “skip” allowed people to talk hundreds, or even thousands of miles. It was not reliable however, and subject to the whims of mother nature. It was also definitely not legal, as the FCC stipulated a 150 mile limit for communications. But the excitement of talking long distances was almost irresistible for many CB’ers, and many risked getting a pink slip from the FCC in order to whet their appetite for exploring those additional avenues for DX.

        Naturally the FCC caught wind of the growing number of rule infractions, as communications became less formal, and they would send out notices of apparent violations as necessary. People soon realized that if they abandoned the use of their FCC assigned call signs, which identified who they were, that citing them for violations would be a lot tougher for the FCC, who would then have to rely on their finite resources to physically track down each individual offender. Thus was born the CB “nickname” or handle. A “handle” was a made up name, which would identify you to other users, but keep your real and traceable identity hidden. Also around this time, truck drivers started using CB to keep track of traffic, speed traps, and to chat with other drivers to pass the time.

        The early 1970’s continued the slow growth of the CB band which had started in the 60’s. The ratio of family and personal business users compared to purely hobby users continued to decrease, as more and more people became involved with CB for purely social reasons. This trend continued to the point where it eventually attracted the attention of the mass media. Songs, books, and even a few full length movies were created which showcased, or featured, CB activities, usually revolving around trucker’s usage and their associated lingo. The “fuel crunch” and the resultant national 55 MPH speed limit, imposed during the mid 70’s, precipitated trucker protests, many of which were coordinated over CB radio. The release of the song “Convoy” by C.W. McCall, along with a feature movie by the same name, and the popular “Smokey and the Bandit” series, was pretty much all she wrote. CB radio had reached critical mass and soon become a household word, and the latest social fad (Right up there with the pet rock, platform shoes, and disco). It seemed that, for a time, every other car had a CB antenna on it, and most neighborhoods had several base antennas within easy eyesight. Many people also used CB as a stepping stone to “ham” radio, a place where they honed their R.F. skills before taking the amateur radio exam before the intimidating and ever watchful eyes of the FCC examiners.

        CB radios themselves, evolved to embrace solid state and printed circuit technology. This allowed CB radios to significantly shrink down to an easier to manage size for most mobile installations. It also reduced the cost to produce which precipitated even further price reductions which, in turn, allowed more people to afford radios. Many base stations also became more stylish, adapting ergonomics similar to that found in contemporary hi-fi audio gear. A 1970’s base station was a piece of equipment which could look at home in a family’s living room or kitchen, and not simply relegated to a back room or office.

        Needless to say, the tidal wave of newcomers weren’t always welcomed, especially by those users who had pre-dated the “fad”, and viewed the rush of new users as interlopers. Many of these older operators, in turn, started operating with illegally high power, or operating on non-assigned frequencies, in order to communicate over top of, or away from, what they perceived as increasingly inane “chatter”. Many legally operating personal business users, already fed up over the increase in “hobby” talk, slowly moved over to GMRS (a recast of the class “A” CB service) on UHF which, by now, had become much more practical for personal communication.

        The tremendous increase in CB users also caused an enforcement issue for the FCC. The number of daily violators was already way more than the FCC could handle with its limited resources. Indeed, many newcomers didn’t even bother to obtain the required license, the $20 fee was a major turnoff for some. But rather than appear ineffective, the FCC slowly began to “throw in the towel”. First they eliminated the special channel usage requirements. Then they reduced the “quiet time” between inter-station communications, from 5 minutes to 1 minute, and then eliminated the requirement completely. Then the FCC, in an effort to reduce the percentage of unlicensed operators, offered a “temporary instant” license, then dropped the fee for a CB license from $20 to $4, and then finally to free. Eventually they eliminated the license requirement altogether, opting instead to classify the CB band as “authorized by rule”. By eliminating these small rule issues, the FCC could then presumably concentrate its resources on major rule violations. The biggest rule infraction issues then became; illegal power, illegal channel usage, and indecent language/terroristic threats.

        The major influx of CB users also created a channel crowding problem, especially in urban and metropolitan areas. 23 channels was no longer enough to handle the sheer amount of fad/hobby users of the time. Consequently, many CB operators started screaming for the FCC to allocate more channels. The solution was not long in coming and, by the mid 70’s, an expansion plan was in the works. The original proposed channel expansion plan called for expanding channels from the original 23, up to a total of 99, stopping just short of the 10 meter ham band. But due to technical reasons, the expanded channel plan was eventually trimmed back to 40 channels, which included the former 2 business channels between channels 22 and 23, plus 15 more channels above channel 23, and ending at 27.405 Mhz. On January 1st 1977, the new 40 channel band plan became effective, and the new radios became legal to sell. Naturally, there were all sort of rumors which proliferated around the channels regarding the new radios. It was alleged that they were “less powerful”, didn’t “talk” as well, got more “bleed over” etc. Much of this talk was perpetuated, as some sort of “feel good” justification, by people who just didn’t want (or couldn’t afford) to buy a new radio. But some of it was based in reality. When the FCC revised the technical requirements for type acceptance, they included stricter modulation and RFI suppression standards. This meant that the new radios didn’t automatically get louder when an amplified mike (a common accessory) was added. But power output remained at 4 watts, and if anything, receiver performance was actually better. Another interesting by-product of the stricter type acceptance rules, was the method at which the channels were generated. Previous 23 channel rigs, for the most part, had still employed the same basic multi crystal synthesis as was originally employed in the 1960’s. The new 40 channel radios now required a more stable digital phase locked loop (PLL) synthesizer, which used digital circuitry to synthesize the 40 channels from as few as 2 or 3 crystals (Then later only 1). The original 40 channel radios used generic PLL components which could be easily expanded to give many more channels than the legally authorized 40 (Usually in binary number blocks of 64, 128, 256, or 512 channels). It didn’t take long for the technical experimenters to find this out, and channel expansion soon became a very popular (albeit illegal) modification. The number of “CB’ers” who were venturing outside the legal channels jumped exponentially as a result. A few years later, the FCC would further revise their technical specs to call for new type accepted radios to use “less modifiable” custom PLL circuits. But by then it was already too late. The genie had been let out of the bottle.

        The late 70’s also brought another peak in the 11 year sunspot cycle, and another round of heavy DX talking. This time, the number of CB’ers, were many times the level operating during the last cycle. Illegal power amplifiers were also much more prevalent. The end result of all these factors was that during the day, many CB channels were barely usable by the locals as they were being over run by an almost constant mixing of signals from all over the country. The result of all those signals heterodyning together produced an almost constant high level whining noise. This pushed even more people to resort to using illegal frequencies. Some went there to lower the noise, and increase their DX opportunities. Others went there to escape the DX, and maintain reliable communications with their local friends. These “brutal” conditions soon caused many of the less-technical, casual “fad” users to lose interest and eventually sell out.

        By the early 80’s, the sunspots had once again faded, and the DX along with it. The aftermath of this latest sunspot cycle showed a somewhat different CB landscape than what had become common by the late 70’s. Most of the people who remained on the band were more of the “serious” radio hobbyist, who also usually had radio equipment which were a few notches above the “standard” fare. Most had the capability to go out of band, and most had extra power at their disposal. It was at this time, that the so-called “Export” radio first showed up on the scene. These radios were designed for a CB service in other countries. They typically included higher power output, more channels, and more modes. Though not legal for use in the USA, they nonetheless found their way into this market, much to the chagrin of FCC officials. These “export” radios become an instant hit among the “high performance” CB operators, who often preferred to run a radio which had all of these extra features right out of the box, rather than risk having a standard CB hacked to death by a questionable “technician”. Many of the more serious “CB” operators also used modified ham gear. It was becoming clear that respect for, and fear of, the FCC had diminished to the point where very few CB operators abided by, much less even read the book of, the CB operating rules. Even those who stayed on the legal 40, often used illegal power, and some used indecent language. There were some who also issued verbal threats of violence during an increasing amount of on-air personality clashes.

        Equipment manufacturers, now sensing that the “boom” was over, started to scale back their CB offerings. Even such equipment staples, such as Radio Shack, had trimmed their equipment lineup down to mostly small (and cheap) mobile radios. Recent litigation over base station antenna electrocution liability, had also forced most of the domestic aluminum “high performance” antennas off of the market. What was left amounted to little more than fiberglass “stick” antennas. Many franchise dealers closed their doors, as demand for CB equipment fell off. Those who remained, added car audio, pagers, alarm systems, and other electronic fare, to bolster sales to compensate for the dwindling CB market.

        The 90’s ushered in new avenues for social interaction. The rise in popularity of cell phones, text messaging, the internet, and other wireless services, pretty much rendered CB as a superfluous and obsolete service. Computers have replaced radio as the techie’s “in” hobby. Computers, cell phones, pagers, and video games, have replaced CB as the favorite Christmas toy for the young and curious. But despite all of that, there continues to be a core group of die-hard hobbyists, who remain interested in CB. Some try to recapture the excitement of their younger days. Some are still chasing DX. Some are engaged in “king of the hill” power competitions (called “keydowns”). Many more are truly interested in a radio hobby, but either cannot, or do not desire to, move to “ham” radio.

        Today, in addition to 27 Mhz CB radio, the FCC has created two new license free radio services; the Family Radio Service (FRS), and the Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS) for personal use. FRS is 14 channels on FM UHF, and at .5 watts, is normally used for short (less than 2 mile) range communications. People mainly use this service to keep track of kids, or for hunting, or coordinating events. MURS is 5 channels on FM VHF, with a 2 watt power limit. This gives MURS some promise as a longer (>5 miles) distance service. However, neither service is particularly well suited for hobby-type communicating, and the FCC still promotes amateur “ham” radio for that.

        It’s hard to predict what the future holds for the CB radio services. As advancing technology slowly migrates personal communications over to more spectrum efficient digital modes, it seems inevitable that analog radio will be slowly phased out, kept alive only by a select group of nostalgic die-hards who refuse to let go, much like the Morse code enthusiasts on ham radio. It’s also hard to predict where the FCC’s thinking fits into the picture. As the demand for R.F. spectrum continues to increase, they could reassign the CB band(s) to other services. But it’s unlikely that any true die hard users will leave voluntarily, and the FCC has historically been less than effective in controlling illegal operation. Eventually though, equipment choices will dwindle, and those people remaining will most likely be running “antique” equipment. But that’s still a few years down the road……. Thanks to Dave – Read much more on his website

        • This topic was modified 5 years ago by 43AX05 Greg.
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