How to ensure you buy legally compliant radio equipment
Written by: Piers Bedford & Sam Fenwick | Published:

The march of progress has made buying and using two-way radios easier. However, as Piers Bedford and Sam Fenwick discover, there’s still much that buyers need to know to ensure they are purchasing safe and legally compliant equipment

We are all used to picking up our mobile phones and effortlessly calling a friend or colleague almost anywhere in the world.

We then wonder why our handheld radio, at least twice as bulky, often struggles to communicate more than a couple of miles. Range is always high on our wish list... followed by reliability, battery life, build quality, additional safety features, functionality and so on. The reason our mobile phones, the emergency services, and some businesses get such good coverage is because they have local repeaters that receive the weak signal, boost it and then retransmit it, usually using a tall aerial mast.

With a huge choice of radios available, all with different features and ranging from very cheap to expensive, choosing the right radio needs careful thought.

Claims are repeatedly made for radios that have ‘greater range’ than others. The reality is that all radios have a legal maximum output power and so most devices all have the same range. The maximum output power of handhelds is five watts for VHF, four watts for UHF, and in the case of PMR 446 only 500 milliwatts. Most base stations and in-vehicle installations cannot exceed 25 watts.

Whatever claim is made for a radio having greater range than others, this is unlikely to be true in a comparative test using fully charged batteries and similar aerials.

The regulations for maximum output are made primarily to prevent radios interfering with each other, but this is just one of a number of factors that make a radio ‘type approved’ for use in the UK. Most radios require some sort of licence and to comply with that licence the radio must conform to certain parameters to be legal.

Buyer beware
With so many cheap imported radios being advertised it is essential to know that these are compliant. The easiest way to do that is to look for the CE mark. Among other criteria this ensures it transmits within a given band width, transmits on legal frequencies and at the legal maximum output.

“Pretty much all of our dealers are aware of the requirement for compliance, particularly if they’re dealing with large organisations,” says Martin Edwards, head of product management at Hytera UK. “All of the products that we manufacture, be they hand-portables, repeaters, mobile radios, whatever, they all carry CE marks, so they’ve been tested and certified to that standard.

“From our side of things we can say with clarity that our products do meet the requirements. It doesn’t just cover RF performance and ‘is our product going to interfere with other devices?’, it also covers environmental testing as well. It is to make sure that the product is not only compliant to the standard, but it’s robust enough that any damage to the radio is not going to cause a risk to the user.”

Edwards adds that to obtain CE certification a product must meet “a whole series of tests defined by the ETSI standard” and this covers the RF side of things, “making sure that the transmit power isn’t going to be too high, that the audio levels are not going to cause long-term damage to people’s hearing, that the chargers are safe, that they’re not going to catch fire when you put a radio into them, that the batteries are also safe. So if there is a fault within the battery, for example, it will fail safe and minimise as far as humanly possible the risk of any damage.”

Whole system compliance
When it comes to safety and compliance radios aren’t the only thing you need to consider. “[With] any radio system you need to make sure that every part is compliant, not just the radios… but also the infrastructure, the base stations, the antenna combining systems, even the antennas themselves, because it only takes one part of that system to be non-compliant,” explains Edwards.

“It’s about making sure you’re protecting yourself and other people. What you don’t want to happen is if somebody discovers that part of your system was non-compliant and it was that non-compliance that caused, [in the] worst case, death.”

Richard Russell, accessory and energy business development manager and product specialist at Motorola Solutions – EMEA, says that this holistic approach should extend to the accessories and batteries attached to handsets because they alter the device’s RF and electrical performance. While Motorola Solutions tests all the combinations of radios, batteries and audio accessories it sells as a complete system, the same cannot necessarily be said for manufacturers of third-party accessories.

“Customers have complained about radio performance [and] it has turned out that they purchased third-party accessories” resulting in poor-quality audio. “Sometimes the sound pressure level coming out of those earpieces can leave the user with the sense that they are still listening because the sound levels are too high. That can potentially have a long-term effect on the user’s hearing.”

He adds that there are situations where such accessories can cause distortion or ‘chopper noise’, due to the RF feeding back into the accessory because its immunity is low quality. “That has had a detrimental effect on the brand. They see the Motorola radio and they blame that.

“That has happened on numerous occasions when third-party low-cost accessories have been used on Motorola radios and I’m sure it will also happen with other brands as well because [third-party accessories] are not designed to the level they should be,” Russell says.

“Manufacturers such as Motorola Solutions go to great lengths to ensure that audio and energy accessories are compliant because we want to ensure the best possible performance, but it comes at a cost. You will find that there are other manufacturers who are lower in price but it’s possible they may not obtain the same level of quality assurance.”

On the battery side, Russell says that the use of cheap third-party batteries can have operational consequences as they might not last a full shift. “When it’s fully charged the battery may only hold sufficient charge to last 30 minutes.” He explains that many of Motorola Solutions’ batteries have safety circuitry that means the user is told by LEDs in the charger when a battery is approaching end of life, but “it will still last five to six hours”.

Ofcom’s view
Where does Ofcom fit in as far as RF equipment compliance is concerned? “Our responsibility is to enforce regulations where required to protect and manage the radio spectrum,” says Clive Corrie, head of spectrum enforcement at Ofcom, the regulatory body that issues UK transmitting licences.

“The more minor non-compliance issues aren’t really within our remit. Having said that we do undertake proactive market surveillance to ensure, as far as possible, that harmful non-compliant radio apparatus is restricted from the market in the UK.”

He explains that before the London Olympics Ofcom’s staffing levels rose to handle the greatly increased complexities of spectrum allocation licences and type approval.

“We’re focusing on consumer goods because there are more consumer goods sold than specialist PMR equipment… and we liaise with interest groups about PMR equipment. We tend to assume that people in the [business radio] industry perhaps have a head start on consumers in so far as they know some of the basic things to look for, and generally they’re dealing with reputable manufacturers and known apparatus. It’s when you stray into the fringes that the danger might arise – sometimes when a deal looks too good to be true it quite often is.

“We do have horror stories but [they] largely [concern] internet sellers,” Corrie continues. “There are companies that give the appearance of being a UK entity so you purchase in good faith, believing that you are buying from a [UK-based] reputable dealer, products that meet the requirements and are CE marked. But in fact you’re buying something that will be drop-shipped from China and is not compliant. You’re buying from someone who is outside our jurisdiction and as a regulator we’re unable to take action against.

“The internet has been described to me as the Wild West,” he adds. “It is and you just need to take that little bit of extra caution… We’ve gone to businesses and told them they can no longer operate certain equipment. I’ve had irate stakeholders on the phone and I’ve said ‘do me a favour and go back and see who you bought that from. Have a look at the invoices, check the VAT numbers, check the company registration details’. I’ve had a situation where someone has phoned me back to say ‘I’m sorry, I’ve been duped’.”

How does Ofcom approach the removal of non-compliant equipment from the market? “We follow guidance that the European Commission issued and updated this year. It’s called the Blue Guide. [It] gives quite detailed guidance on the way member states should enforce the regulations.” He adds that it applies to all the product-based directives, including the RED [Radio Equipment Directive].

“Unless there is an immediate risk the guidance provides that market surveillance and enforcement authorities engage with the relevant people, identify the area of non-compliance, and then go down a process of trying to put the error right and encourage business to be done properly rather than going down the enforcement route straight away,” Corrie explains. “It’s in everybody’s interest that everyone does the right thing and this gives us the space to focus on more blatant non-compliance areas, particularly those where there is a safety risk. While we want to educate and inform, safety is one of our main drivers.”

However, there are some in the industry that think this perhaps isn’t the best approach. “I get what [Ofcom is] looking to do, to work with manufacturers, but I think it ought to be ‘let’s not put [non-compliant] products on the market in the first place’. I think that’s the right message to be promoting,” says Motorola Solutions’ Russell.

Staying out of trouble
With more and more people using radio devices there is very little spectrum available without interfering with one another, especially in London. Licences cover only very specific frequencies that can be used and are often ‘geographically limited’ to specific parts of the UK.

The tempting ‘cheap’ imported radios are often capable of covering a wide frequency span, most of which are illegal to use. Worse, some of these radios come pre-programmed to a set of fairly random frequencies, sometimes ones that are already licensed for use by security companies, ‘shop watch’ groups, airports or emergency services. These radios are intended to be programmed by the customer to different legal frequencies but most people use them ‘out of the box’ (totally illegally) on whatever channels they are already on. Most ‘professional’ radios come unprogrammed and the channel programming is then done by a dealer to your specified frequencies on production of a relevant licence.

Ofcom polices the airwaves, checking whether users have licences and are transmitting on compliant radios on legal frequencies. For minor infringements a recently introduced fixed penalty notice gives enforcers the right to issue an on-the-spot fine of £100. For continued or more serious offences equipment can be confiscated and a court appearance becomes necessary.

The regulator is also keenly looking at non-renewal of licences. Because the gap between licence renewals is up to five years many businesses move premises in the interim and the renewal documentation is not forwarded. After a short period the licence is then revoked and checks are made on whether the licensee is still transmitting. This can result in prosecution and difficulty in getting the user back on their previously-allocated channels. All in all, a costly process.

If you have never read your radio licence do so now. Check it’s up to date and your contact information is correct. If you don’t have a licence get one. It’s easier and cheaper than you think.

To fully comply when using radio equipment there are also restrictions on the content of transmissions. You cannot broadcast music, bad language, or use them as part of a public address system. If by chance you hear a message not intended for you you must not communicate it to a third party. All these rules are in place to enable Ofcom’s 35,000 licensed and compliant radio users to communicate efficiently and without interference to each other.

Professional radio dealers, large and small, have a wealth of experience – talk to them, and use their knowledge to get the radios that you need and that are legal and safe to operate.

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