When the FCC designated a new swath of frequency for handheld, two-way radios, Motorola pounced
Walkie-talkies have been around since the 1940s, but until the late 1990s the available models were generally powerful units used in the military and law enforcement or children's toys with severely limited range. That all changed in 1996 with the advent in the United States of the Family Radio Service, a personal-radio system using spectrum in the ultrahigh-frequency band. Motorola was reportedly first to market with FRS walkie-talkies in 1997, and it was the leading seller for at least the next three years—a brief but intense heyday for walkie-talkies as a popular consumer product. Moto's iconic T250 Talkabouts were the most popular model during that stretch.
Portable two-way radios were invented in the late 1930s, almost simultaneously by engineers working separately in Canada and in the United States. Like so many technological innovations, walkie-talkies were first employed in the military, in this case by the Allies in World War II, starting around 1943. The very first versions of the technology were already referred to as “walkie-talkies." They earned the “walkie" half of the nickname inasmuch as the electronics, based on vacuum-tube circuits powered by carbon-zinc or lead-acid batteries, were just small enough and light enough to fit in a backpack. The most important of these early models was the SCR-300 [PDF], introduced in 1943 by the Galvin Manufacturing Co. (the precursor of Motorola) for the U.S. Armed Forces. It weighed either 14.5 or 17 kilograms (32 or 38 pounds), depending on the battery it was using. Galvin began shipping smaller, handheld models a year later, though to distinguish them from the backpack models these were referred to as “handie-talkies." The introductory appellation was the one that stuck, though.
Wireless Communications, 1943: The SCR-300 radio was the first to earn the nickname “walkie-talkie." Some 50,000 of them were built by the Galvin Manufacturing Co., Motorola's predecessor, during World War II.Photo: Photo12/Alamy
Running through the history of walkie-talkies are decades-long efforts in the United States and other countries to find a suitable frequency band where using them wouldn't interfere with other radio equipment. Starting in 1960, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission required a license for commercial use of mobile radio equipment used on land (as opposed to at sea). The FCC would later designate a category called General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). Public-safety and emergency-response agencies soon began relying on GMRS radios, including tabletop sets and walkie-talkies, which also became useful for marine communications and some commercial applications in mining and the like.
Around the same time, the FCC also allocated radio spectrum for unlicensed walkie-talkie use. This spectrum was close to Citizens Band frequencies, and as both consumer walkie-talkies and CB radios grew in popularity in the 1970s, they interfered with each other more and more often, according to a brief account published by walkie-talkie manufacturer Midland. To stop walkie-talkies from interfering with CB radio, the FCC moved walkie-talkie usage to 49 megahertz, a band also open to unlicensed use. By the late 1980s and early '90s, more and more companies were using those unlicensed bands for yet other radio-based products such as cordless phones and baby monitors, and interference among all those products—including walkie-talkies—again became a problem, according to the Midland account.
The countdown to FRS began in 1994, when Radio Shack (a subsidiary of Tandy Corp.) brought a proposal to the FCC that would once again change the frequency for unlicensed land-mobile radios, along with implementing several other ideas aimed at expanding their use. “Working with Tandy Corp., Motorola was a leading advocate for the creation of the Family Radio Service in the U.S. and was primarily responsible for developing the technical and operational rules ultimately adopted by the Federal Communications Commission," a spokesman for Motorola Solutions told IEEE Spectrum in an email.
Two years later, in establishing FRS, the FCC set aside a total of 14 channels in two groups, one clustered slightly above 462.5 MHz and the other above 467.6 MHz. Other countries soon followed suit. The European Union in 1997 approved something called Private Mobile Radio, or PMR446 (as its frequency band is 446 MHz). Australia, China, and many other countries similarly cleared spectrum for unlicensed land-mobile radio use.
The bands vary from country to country, but they're all in the ultrahigh-frequency range. For compact mobile radios, there are several advantages to UHF. One is that the relatively high frequencies mean lots of available bandwidth, which translates into channels that can be well separated and with little interference from adjacent ones. Also, short wavelengths mean small antennas.
FRS in the United States originally permitted maximum power output of half a watt. Though manufacturers would often claim ranges of 40 kilometers (25 miles) or more, these distances were wildly inflated. Under real-world conditions, a half-watt of power typically translates to a range of perhaps 1–4 km, depending on various conditions including the presence or absence of obstructions. For contrast, GMRS radio output can be as high as 5 watts, enabling them to consistently reach 30–50 km, again depending on local conditions.
FRS radios use narrow-band frequency modulation, with channels spaced at 25-kilohertz intervals. Since 2017, all FRS channels have coincided with ones used by GMRS radios. Though interference between the two is possible, users of unlicensed FRS equipment and licensed GMRS gear have coexisted mostly peacefully, with the FCC occasionally tinkering with the rules to keep the peace.
The combination of frequency modulation and the ultrahigh-frequency band made FRS walkie-talkies immensely more reliable and clear sounding than any personal radios that came before. Even today, under some circumstances, FRS walkie-talkie communications can be clearer and more reliable than cellphones.
Motorola's participation in defining the rules that would govern the new FRS category helped it get to the market first, in 1997, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times in 2000. That L.A. Times piece reported that Motorola had been the sales leader in the walkie-talkie market ever since. Other manufacturers of FRS radios at the time included Audiovox, Cobra, Icom, Kenwood, Midland, and Radio Shack.
Prices of FRS sets could range from $40 or $50 to several hundred dollars for a pair, and many manufacturers also sold them in packs of four, for family use. Historical sources quote Motorola selling two T250s for below $100; $85 was a commonly cited price. That would make them far more expensive than the toy walkie-talkies that were common before FRS, but considerably cheaper than the most expensive two-way handheld radios available at the time.
Into the Wild: A late-1990s sales pamphlet (PDF) for the Motorola Talkabout T-250 touted the radios' “virtually crystal-clear reception."Image: Motorola
Motorola's T250s had superb industrial design. They were squat, about 17 centimeters long including the antenna, and also light, at about 200 grams (just over 7 ounces). The most popular color was bright yellow, and the case was edged with rubbery black grips. It turned out they were as rugged as they looked, which appealed to the outdoor workers and adventurers who needed them and also to city dwellers who longed for outdoor adventure.
T250s had jacks for earphones and external microphones (the Talkabout Remote Speaker Microphone was sold separately) that allowed users to operate the devices hands-free in something called VOX mode. T250s had a backlit LCD screen, and they ran on three AA batteries. Motorola followed up the T250 with the T280, a version that had a rechargeable nickel-metal-hydride battery.
That same L.A. Times article also mentions that the demand for FRS radios had taken off in 1999. Another article reported that available models grew from 14 in 1997 to 73 in 1999. In general, the introduction of cellular telephony helped amplify demand for two-way wireless. At the time, cellular telephony wasn't really new, but its popularity wasn't yet universal, even in developed countries. Many people considered walkie-talkies a viable alternative to cellphones. There were obvious drawbacks: notably, the short range and the occasional lack of privacy associated with walkie-talkies—everyone using the same channel could hear everyone else's communications, if they were close enough to each other. And yet some people regarded these as acceptable trade-offs for the convenience and the lack of subscription fees. And because cellular coverage was far from ubiquitous, many used walkie-talkies as adjuncts to their cell service, for example in remote areas or when traveling.
And manufacturers did find ways of adding a measure of privacy. Though FRS radios before 2017 were limited to 14 channels, some models, including the T250, could in effect expand the number with a feature sometimes referred to as “privacy codes." They were part of a squelching scheme that filtered out signals from other users of the same channel who weren't using the code. Multiplying the number of channels by the number of privacy codes on the T250 rendered 532 combinations; in practice, if a pair of T250 users wanted to keep their conversation private, they were likely to be able to do so.
Other features identified in an article in The New York Times published in 2000 included notification tones when someone else was sending, channel scanners that would identify the busiest or least-used channels, and rechargeable batteries, as well as folding antennas, altimeters, FM radio, and GPS.
Family Radio Service Group Portrait: Two-way FRS radios available around 1999 included (from left) the Cobra MicroTalk, the Motorola Talkabout TA280 SLK, the Kenwood FreeTalk E, and the Kenwood FreeTalk.Photo: Bob Carey/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
The late '90s heyday of walkie-talkies was relatively brief. Cellular telephony got more popular and more technologically advanced in the 2000s, and that drastically reduced both the usefulness of and the necessity for a separate wireless two-way communications medium. Nevertheless, in 2017, the FCC gave FRS a bit of a boost when it added more channels, bringing the total to 22, and increased, from 0.5 W to 2 W, the maximum permitted power for channels 1 to 7 and 15 to 22. The extra power could mean ranges of perhaps 4 km or more, depending on conditions. As part of the same rules revision, the FCC also made the FRS and GMRS bands entirely overlapping. Only GMRS's license requirement and the permitted power levels now differentiate the two.
Today, people still buy walkie-talkies for various reasons, among them the fact that cell coverage is not now and never will be truly ubiquitous, especially in remote areas on land and at sea. Motorola Solutions continues to produce Talkabout walkie-talkies—the product line now consists of a dozen different models, ranging in price from $35 to $120 a pair. Market information is lacking, surprisingly so. But the Talkabout series is often acclaimed as the most successful line of walkie-talkies ever.