In terms of popularity, no radio system comes close to Citizens Band (CB) and amateur (ham) radio. For nearly a century, these two radio systems have captivated the hearts and minds of radio enthusiasts, hobbyists, and emergency responders. And how can you blame them? Communications do not rely on any pre-established grid, so there is no downtime.
So, yes, they are both great, but which one edges out the other? Well, we pitted CB against ham radio systems to find out the difference between the two and the better of the pair. But before we get into all that good stuff, let’s introduce our contenders.
What is CB Radio?
CB Radio is fancy talk for Citizens Band radio, and it is a two-way radio communication system that comes with 40 channels. In case you’re wondering where the name came from, CB was meant for the public; hence, Citizens Band.
History of CB Radio
CB radios have a long and proud history that dates back to the mid-20th century. In the ‘40s, the FCC had a range of frequencies that were only to be used by CB radios. By the time the ‘50s rolled in, CB radios only came with 23 channels, so the FCC slotted them within the 27 MHz frequency range.
CB radios enjoyed a boom in the 1970s with the release of 1975’s “Smokey and the Bandit.” In the movie, Burt Reynolds’ character was a trucker and an avid user of the CB radio. Following the movie’s release, everyone wanted a CB radio. The government took notice, and the FCC introduced the 40-channel restriction.
You know what they say about everything that goes up; they eventually come down. CB radios had their day in the sun, and 1980s cell phones and pagers were going to ruin that. Sure, ‘80s phones were nothing like the computers we keep in our pockets today, but they were still a significant upgrade to CB radios.
Today, CB radios are cherished among radio hobbyists and enthusiasts. Law enforcement, truckers, and emergency service operators remain faithful to CB radios. Truckers in the U.S., for example, use Channel 19 (27.185 MHz).
Frequency Range and Power Limitations
Today, CB radios still operate within the 27MHz frequency range. And if we were to get specific about it, it spans between 26.965 MHz and 27.405 MHz. Within this range, you’ll find 40 channels spaced between 10-MHz intervals.
As for power, the FCC restricted CB radios to a maximum carrier power of 4 W. Keep in mind the lower the power, the lower the transmission range.
Ham Radio is the common name for amateur radio. In its early days, radio operators were poor in Morse code, so they were described as being “Ham-Fisted.” This description later bled into amateur radio, and it was acceptable to call it ham radio. Ham Radio is primarily used as a hobby.
Where did ham radio come from?
History of Ham Radio
The origins of ham radio can be traced to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Great inventors from the era, like Nikola Tesla, Reginald Fessenden, and Guglielmo Marconi, all had a hand in the development of Ham Radio. In the early days, it was just radio enthusiasts experimenting and tinkering to build their own equipment.
As for the government, they joined the party in the 1910s with the Act of 1912. By this time, it wasn’t uncommon to find clubs of ham radio enthusiasts. Some, like the American Radio Relay League of 1914, are still active today.
During the war years, ham radio operators were instrumental in relaying military comms and assisting emergency efforts. Post-war, ham radio operators continued in their international communications, this time in a friendly tone to exchange ideas. This continues today, with the U.S. boasting over 700,000 licensed Ham Radio operators.
CB vs. Ham Radio: Licensing Requirements
You don’t need a license to use the CB Radio system. But that does not give you free rein over everything. The FCC still maintains specific regulations to govern the radio communication system, including 4W power limits.
As for Ham Radio, you need a license to transmit on the service. There are three different license classes, each with its own perks.
Below are the three main license classes granted by the FCC:
Technical Class License
With a Technical Class license, you get access to certain VHF and UHF frequency bands, including:
- 6-meter band (50 MHz)
- 2-meter band (144 MHz)
- 25-meter band (220 MHz)
- 70-centimeter band (440MHz)
- Portions of the 33-centimeter (902 MHz) and 23-centimeter bands (1.2 GHz)
- Limited High-Frequency (HF) privileges on specific segments of the 10-meter band (28 MHz) and Continous Wave (CW) segments of the 80,40,15, and 10-meter bands
General Class License
With this license, you get all the advantages of the technical class plus additional segments in the 80,40, 20, 15, and 10-meter bands (HF). Also, CW and data segments in the 160-meter band (1.8 MHz).
Extra Class License
This permit combines the benefits of the Technical and General Classes. You also get access to additional segments in the 80, 40, 20, 15, 12, and 10-meter bands (HF). It also grants you total access to the 160-meter (1.8 MHz), 30-meter (10 MHz), 17-meter (18 MHz), and 12-meter (24 MHz) bands (HF). You also get to enjoy total access to 6-meter (50 MHz), 2-meter (144 MHz), and 70-centimeter (440 MHz) bands, both VHF and UHF.
But there is one more catch; you have to sit for a test to qualify for any of the licenses. Apparently, the FCC feels that you should be well-versed with amateur radio before operating it.
CB vs. Ham Radio: Equipment and Technology
To transmit and receive communications on the CB radio service, you need need a CB radio, and those come as handheld and portable units for vehicles. CB radios come with a fixed set of 40 channels that operate within the 27 MHz frequency band.
They use Amplitude Modulation for voice communication. However, Single Sideband is also available for long-distance communications. Why? Because it is more efficient. CB radios are simple and easy to use; even a child could find their way around a CB radio.
Unfortunately, due to the FCC’s power (4W) and channel restrictions, CB radios are only good for short-range communications.
Ham radio equipment is more diverse and advanced; no wonder the FCC wants you to sit for a test. For communication, they use AM, SSB, FM, Morse code, pocket radio, and digital voice. Depending on your license, you have access to a broad range of frequencies within the radio spectrum. With all these choices, you can take on long-distance communication.
CB vs. Ham Radio: Range and Coverage
CB radios have limited power, so they are only good for a few miles (typically 1-5 miles). With this range, you can chat it up with your people within a small town. Truckers in close proximity to one another can also communicate and share traffic updates.
Ham radios have access to HF, VHF, and UHF bands. As such, you can send correspondence across the border or outside the continent. And with skywave propagation, you could even reach other continents.
CB vs. Ham Radio: Communication and Channels
CB radios only support voice communications between two individuals. The conversation can be informal or formal, depending on the relationship the two speakers share.
Under the directive of the FCC, there is a 40-channel restriction imposed on CB radios, and all these channels fall within the 27 MHz frequency band.
Ham radios also support voice communications, but they have a wider range of frequencies across different frequency bands. And again, access depends on your license class.
CB vs. Ham Radio: Community and Support
CB and ham radio both enjoy thriving communities of users, enthusiasts, and hobbyists. But the difference comes in the nature of the crowds they attract. CB radio users are casual; they are your average truckers, hunters, casual fishermen, hikers, and construction workers. Their goal is to transmit and receive simple voice communications.
Ham radio users are more passionate. There are those that use it for emergency preparedness, some use it for experimentation, and others use it for international communication.
CB vs. Ham Radio: Regulations and Restrictions
Yes, the FCC governs both CB and ham radio systems. But each radio communication system has its own unique set of regulations and restrictions. Why don’t we discuss both?
For CB radios, here are the regulations that govern the radio communication system:
- Channels: Limited to 40
- Power Output: Limited to 4 W for AM and 12 W for SSB
- Licensing: None
- Equipment: Importers and manufacturers have to comply with FCC’s technical standards
- Frequency Bands: Operate within the 27 MHz frequency band
- Communications: Voice
As for ham radio, below are restrictions set by the FCC:
- License: You have the option of three license classes. And you have to pass a test before earning your amateur radio license.
- Frequency Bands: You have access to a broad range of frequencies, including HF, VHF, and UHF.
- Communications: Voice, Morse code, and digital modes
- Power Output: Depends on the frequency
So, which one is better? Well, that depends on why you need a radio communication system. If you just want to communicate with your friends and colleagues around your town, then go for CB radio. If you want something more technical that can send communications to Japan, then apply for an amateur radio license. Find the right tool for the job.