I have friends in the Amateur Radio community who are glad I have picked up the hobby. They keep asking when I am going to get my Technician license, which is the first of three levels of licensing. I am content with the GMRS license. If you are not familiar with the difference between GMRS and Amateur Radio, allow me to explain.
The GMRS, General Mobile Radio Service, is a license you can simply purchase like you would a fishing license. There is no exam to qualify. Furthermore, the license is good for ten years and covers you and your whole family under the same call sign. When you operate on GMRS radios with your family, you distinguish yourselves with unit numbers. For example, “WKRP111 unit 5, this is unit 16. Do you copy?” You can pick any unit number you want so long as both parties know their number and can answer to it.
The greatest advantage of GMRS radio, in my opinion, is that it is a completely off-the-shelf communication system. You can buy a couple of radios in a blister pack from your local store and be in operation right away. There is some knowledge necessary to take full advantage of the new radios. However, even limited knowledge is good enough to make use of the radios.
GMRS radios are rather ubiquitous. Most end up in homes for one-off projects, trips, or as gifts for children. To be fair, I am lumping GMRS and FRS, Family Radio Service, together. Both share some frequencies, not all. The main distinction between them is how much power they can legally use. GMRS has the higher power limits. The frequency overlap means that there is potentially a large audience using radios who can summon or provide assistance.
An Amateur Operator license is for one person only. Getting the license requires the radio operator to pass an exam. There are three different exams for different levels of skill and use of frequencies. The advantage of being a ham license holder, Amateur Radio, is that it opens up frequencies and types of radios that the operator can use, legally. There are no power limits with the Amateur license. Combined, the ability to use a wider range of frequencies, the variety of equipment and antennas, and the lack of power restrictions means that Amateur Radio Operators can achieve some amazing feats of communication. For example, some operators will use the moon to bounce radio waves to talk to somebody on another side of Earth.
The fun of Amateur Radio is in achieving those difficult challenges of communication across long distances. GMRS, on the other hand, is intentionally limited to certain power levels and available equipment to allow for more people to use it with minimal interference. Low power, equipment restrictions, and a pre-defined set of fixed channels make GMRS useful to a greater number of people. With a range of only a couple of miles, or maybe more, two neighboring communities can use the same channel without interfering with each other.
Or, one advantage of GMRS has that FRS does not is the ability to use a repeater. Amateur radio uses repeaters as well. These allow for large areas to be able to communicate without the need for high-power equipment. Therefore, GMRS can overcome some distance limits if needed through the use of a repeater. In this regard GMRS is halfway between FRS and Amateur radio. FRS doesn’t offer any tinkering options. GMRS allows for some tinkering options within constraints. Amateur radio lifts most of the significant restrictions on tinkering.
Some of the tinkering permitted with GMRS involves antenna heights, repeater setups, types of antennas, and radios. However, most of the tinkering has FCC specified equipment. Dabbling in equipment that is not FCC approved for GMRS is operating in a grey area. However, more to the point, you can pick up equipment that is designed specifically for GMRS, and you can be relatively certain that it can deliver the results it claims.
Personally, I am satisfied as a GMRS licensee. With the license, I can have backup communications for my family precisely because they do not need specialized knowledge, equipment, or a license. If disaster strikes, we know what channels to use to try to get in touch. My family was my motivation for getting into radio. Talking over long distances appeals to the nerdy part of me. However, it doesn’t evoke the same urgency as emergency communications for my family. Thus, I have not tried too hard to get my ham license. I have spent those nerd energies learning to optimize GMRS. Whereas Amateur radio operators see the limitations of GMRS as a problem, I see those same limitations as something desirable. Those limitations mean that there are fewer variables that would prevent my family from using the equipment that could save their lives.