VHF, UHF, and Scanning

Even before I got my ham radio license, I was crazy about radios.  Getting my ham license has just made my addiction worse.

While I've played around on the local repeaters, and done some APRS-related stuff, most of the casual VHF/UHF activity in my area is centered around either drive-time or ARES work.  While everyone I've met on the air has been extremely friendly, there's just doesn't seem to be a lot going on.  I still feed my radio need, on a regular basis, with one of my long-time favorite pass-times:  Scanning.

Scanning

One of my favorite activities is listening to local public safety agencies, such as police and fire.  I've been a scanner enthusiast for more than 20 years.  You sure do learn a lot about what's happening in your area when you listen to the public safety bands.  And, I must say, I never much appreciated the police until after I started listen to the local police department channels, and learned what it is they have to deal with every day.

Motorola Changed My (Scanning) Life

I live in Southern New Hampshire, where (with the exception of the trunked system in Nashua) just about all the police and fire communications are conventional VHF and a lot of it is P25. Despite owning (almost) every scanner variety known to humankind, I was never pleased with either the reception or the quality of P25 decoding.

Then I stumbled across a "For Sale" ad (on radio reference) by Scott, webmaster of Scan New England (the best web site for definitive info and pointers about scanning in the New England Area). Scott was selling a very simple (and thus, relatively inexpensive) Motorola Astro Saber VHF radio with P25 decoding capability. I figured I'd give it a try... and it did such a great job, it revolutionized my scanning experience.

I've been a dedicated Motorola radio fan ever since, and now I own several radios including (as of this minute) a pair of XTS-5000s, an XTS-2500, and two Astro Sabers. Oh, and an XTL-5000. Not only do they do a great job for public safety monitoring, they work great on the 2M (144MHz) and 70CM (440MHz) ham bands.

Getting Started With Motorola Radios

If you're interested in getting started using Motorola radios for ham radio and/or public safety monitoring, here are 10 Tips to Help You Get Started:
 
  1. The radios are really awesome for monitoring conventional (that is, not trunked) police and fire channels. The sensitivity and especially the selectivity are far better than any scanner I've used. The P25 decoding is particularly good. Where I live (Southern NH) there are numerous "mixed" P25/analog channels, some of which also combined transmissions MDT data on the same channel. I've never heard a scanner that can properly handing combined MDT/P25/Analog channels. All my Motorola radios handle such channels perfectly.

    Let me hasten to add here that these radios are no good at all for casual users who want to monitor trunked radio systems (such as the municipal system in Nashua, NH). Even if you buy a trunking-capable radio, programming it to monitor a trunked system requires a "system key" that's unique to the trunking system. This key is the closely-guarded property of the trunking system administrator, and you won't be able to get a copy unless you're an authorized user on the system. But, don't worry... it's no big loss: The radios basically suck as truking system monitors even if you could get the system key, because you're typically limited to monitoring no more than 10 talkgroups. So, if your goal is to monitor a trunked radio system, avoid disappointment and stick to a Uniden or GRE scanner. That's what I do... I use a 396t to listen to Nashua. And it works just fine most of the time.
  2. Study before you buy. You buy a Motorola radio as a hobby item, so spend some time reading up on the various features and capabilities. If you're at all like me, you'll be very surprised at how much there is to learn. Read up on what you'll need (both in terms of the radio and the software/accessories to program it), how to get it, and what it'll cost. You already have a good start by reading this web page!

    These radios are a lot different than a scanner, or even you're typical ham-radio HT. They come in many different models, and the capabilities of each radio is determined by something called the radio's "Flashcode." The Flashcode is a firmware program that's put in the radio by Motorola that dictates what features the radio has, and which can't be changed (legitimately) outside of Motorola. So, before you blindly charge off and buy some useless crap on EBay, figure out what features you need, what questions to ask, and what you can expect to pay for it. You'll be surprised... there's lots of junk offered on EBay at ridiculous prices, waiting for unsuspecting fish.
  3. To program the radios you'll need a copy of RSS or CPS software. RSS is no longer available from Motorola. CPS is readily available (see below). You'll need to license it from Motorola, and it costs about $300 for a 3-year "subscription" that includes updates.

    There are numerous versions of CPS. The version of CPS that you will need is based on the radio type(s) you need to program, and they are not upwardly compatible among different types of radios. For example, the Astro Saber and XTS-3000 use the same version of CPS, which is order number RVN4182V (the "V" is the current revision number of this version of the software). If you have an XTS-5000 that you want to program, you need a different version of CPS, and that version can't program XTS-3000s. Fun, huh?

    There are lots of scary postings all over the internet about how hard (or how impossible) it is to buy CPS from Motorola. Perhaps they've changed their policy recently, but I had no problem at all buying CPS and I've never heard of anybody having any trouble buying CPS in the United States... at least not in the last couple of years. I was able to buy a copy from Motorola Online (MOL) and have it in my hands in about a week. See below for how to signup for a MOL account.
  4. Sign Up for a Motorola Online account. This is a pretty simple process: Simply sign-up for an account on Motorola Online (MOL) at https://businessonline.motorola.com -- If you do this, you'll need to indicate on the application why you want an account ("to purchase parts, accessories, and software") and whether you're an end-user or business. Don't hesitate to say you're an end-user (assuming you are). Motorola doesn't mind.

    Even though the application process says they'll phone you to complete the setup process, when I applied I received an email the morning after I applied with a few additional questions to complete the setup process. The questions included a physical address (for shipping and software licensing) and whether I'd want to purchase software (which I did).

    I replied to the email and the next day I received email that my MOL account was setup.
  5. Agree to the Motorola Software License. Once your MOL account is established, log in and go to the "Software Support" section under "Resource Center" -- In that section, there will be a license to read and agree. Despite what you'll read in numerous forums, the license is no more unreasonable or "scary" than the license for any high-end application software (have you ever read the license for something like AutoCad?). The license says that the software is Motorola's property, you can only use the software at your location, or on a laptop you own, and that you can't sell, rent, or let somebody borrow it from you. No big deal, at least as far as I'm concerned.

    After submitting the license on line (no signatures or faxing requied), after about a day you'll receive an email notice that my license had been accepted.
  6. Ordering CPS is simple. On MOL, go to "Search Catalog" and enter the appropriate part number. "RVN4182V" is the part number for Astro Saber and XTS-3000 CPS. When it comes up, just enter the quantity and clicked "add to cart." Oh yeah: At the time of this writing (December 2007) the software cost $276 (plus shipping). When I placed my order, I requested 2nd day delivery. I had CPS in my hands 3 days later.
  7. To program these radios, you'll need at least a special cable.  To program XTS-3000 or Astro Saber radios, you'll need a Radio Interface Box (RIB) and a radio cable (or a so-called "ribless cable"). To program an XTS-2500 or XTS-5000, you'll need specific radio cable (which is, of course, different from the cable you use for the Astro Saber or XTS-3000). The cable (and RIB, if necessary) don't typically come with the radio, so you'll have to buy it. The options range from cheap (to buy a Chinese-made knock off) to ridiculous (to buy the real thing directly from Motorola).

    When I got my first Astro Saber, I bought a RIB and cable from Polaris Industries at http://www.polarisradio.com/ -- I bought a PA-3 (a little rechargeable RIB that's smaller than a deck of cards). Yes, their stuff is expensive. Note that there are made in China RIBs and cables for sale on EBAY that cost less than 20% of what the Polaris parts cost. Since this was my first experience with Motorola radio programming, I wanted something with a warranty and somebody that I could call if I had any questions or problems, so I went with Polaris. The folks at Polaris were incredibly nice and went out of their way to get me my order quickly. I would not hesitate to recommend them.

    On the other hand, I have not had good luck with "after market" (read: made in China) cables for programming my XTS-5000 or XTS-2500 radios. I bought one off EBay, and bought another (for three-times the cost) from a reputable dealer on the web. Both looked remarkably similar, and neither worked consistently with my Astro25 radios. There are many stories, in fact, of people who've ruined their expensive Moto radios using these junk cables. So, I had to bite the bullet and buy a real Motorola cable. Luckily, I was able to buy a used one for a friend... which is what I should have done in the first place. Arrrgh. The damn cable costs a couple hundred bucks (which is ridiculous) if you buy it directly from Motorola.
  8. Actually using CPS is surprisingly complicated. After you hook-up your radio (and RIB if you need it) and run CPS, the first thing you should do is download the current programming info from your radio (which is called the "codeplug") and save it. That way, if you screw something up, you'll be able to get back to where you started.

    Fortunately, CPS has a bunch of tutorial information in it. Most of the options are pretty well explained. It just took me some time to understand the various options that are available and which work best for a particular channel. Just about everything, from the role of the buttons on the radio to how the squelch is interpreted for each channel, is programmable. But that's supposed to be part of the fun, isn't it??
  9. You can fool with the frequency ranges. The Motorola radios come in multiple frequency ranges. For example, the upper UHF split, also called the "S Split", is 450-512MHz. You'll notice that this doesn't include the 70CM ham band. But, fear not! The radio works great down in the 440MHz range. You'll just need to modify CPS to let you program your radio out of band! It's surprising easy, if you follow these instructions. And, yes, it is legal for a licensed ham radio operation to use one of these radios on the ham bands. At least it is in the United States. If you don't live in the United States, you probably worry a lot less about legal minutiae in any case.
  10. There's lots of help available. These radios are pretty popular in the hobby community. The single most authoritative place to read, learn, and ask about the hobby use of these radios is the BatLabs forum web site. Spend some time time searching and reading this site, and also surfing the web. Remember, Google is your friend.

    Even (or, perhaps, especially) after you've gotten your radio you'll find BatLabs a terrific resource. Need somebody to tune, fix, update, or otherwise work on your radio? Need parts, accessories, or something else Motorola-related. Got a question about how to do something in CPS? You'll find folks on BatLabs ready to help.

Note for the cynical among you (good for you!): K1PGV has no connection with, and receives no consideration or compensation from, BatLabs or anyone associated with that web site. I have, however, benefited greatly from what I've learned from the site and the people who have done me numerous kindnesses that I've contacted through the site. I hope you have similar luck.

Buying Your First Radio

When it comes to buying your first Motorola radio or two, I suggest you avoid EBAY like the plague and buy your radio from an established member, with a good reputation as a seller, via the BatLabs web site. You'll need to sign-up for an account just to be able to READ the For Sale section of the site. Check the sellers reputation in the feedback forum on BatLabs before buying anything. Don't be afraid to email or PM the seller, tell him you're a noob, and ask all the questions you want . Most of the good folks on the site understand the world of Motorola radios is a confusing one, and are patient, willing, and even eager to help out somebody that's new. After all, you're starting to share their passion for Motorola radios! If the seller doesn't seem helpful or willing to spend the time (not everyone is), move on and buy a different radio.

 You won't be able to post a Want To Buy ad on BatLabs until you've established a reputation for yourself on the board. However, you might want to consider posting a Want To Buy ad on the Radio Reference web site. Many BatLab'ers are also active on Radio Reference. If you decide to go this route, be sure to check the seller's reputation on Radio Reference. However, also ask the seller if they're a member of BatLabs and what their username is there. PM them on BatLabs to make sure they're telling you the truth. Then check their reputation in the BatLabs feedback forum. If the seller claims they're not a BatLabs member, think twice before doing business with them. Just about everyone who has a Motorola radio for hobby purposes has asked (or answered) a question on BatLabs at one time or another. If the seller isn't a member there, maybe he's a ham who works in the radio business and doesn't need to ask questions online, or maybe he found the radio in a storm drain and wants to make a quick buck. Only you know if you want to take that chance. I'd suggest that you might be better off waiting for somebody who has a reputation you can thoroughly check.

It might take you a few weeks to find somebody reputable offering the radio that you want, for a price you want to pay, but like I said above... this is a hobby. Take your time, and you can get a really good deal on a radio that you'll enjoy for a long time.