Using a two-way radio as a scanner

One of the more common question we get here at the opulent ScannerMaster Palace is how do I program this (Brand X) radio to my local systems. Usually it is one of those off-shore $40 two-way radio with unpronounceable names that are flooding the market on eBay and in stores.

The basic answer is that you don’t. These radios are intended as Ham radios and are basically toys. Some can be made to receive on VHF and UHF conventional analog channels and even talk on them.  This is not a good thing. First off the build quality on these things is poor. They are designed not for performance but for cheapness. If the radio breaks it usually cannot be repaired.

If your area still uses VHF or UHF analog channels then these might be able to be used to receive your local channels but they cannot do any type of digital or trunked system.

These cheap radios are not ideal for most monitoring anyway. They lack the features scanner buyers have come to expect such as banks, scanlists or quick-keys. They also usually do not support other typical scanner features like CloseCall, Fire tone out, easy field programming etc. They often do not work on aircraft, either civilian or military.

For not much more than you will pay for one of these cheap toys you can get a decent basic scanner like the BC125AT or WS1010 that will run rings around  them with the feature sets.  Our basic scanners start out at under $100 and have way more features than these junk toys.

When the best scanner isn’t a scanner (Unication Receivers)

 Unication G5 Dual BandIf you live in an area covered by a Simulcast P-25 radio system you likely have suffered from Simulcast Distortion. This is the interference and missed calls caused by simulcast sites of these radio systems interfering with each other. All scanners have this issue and there are various things one can do to remedy the situation. This includes relocating or reducing the antenna, use of a directional antenna or turning on the attenuator.

Sometimes even this doesn’t help. If you really get in a bind there are other ways to get better reception. For some this means getting a specially programmed two-way radio set up on the system and using it as a monitor. While sometimes these can be programmed for receive only there are problems with this approach. First off is legality. Unless authorized by the system owner it may be illegal to have such a radio set up on the system due to the use of a “System Key”. Some states even This is considered to be intellectual property and restricted to authorized personnel. Even if you got past this hurdle two-way radios for these systems are expensive, sometimes over $5000. Add into that programming software ($300) and cables ($200) and pretty soon you are talking about real money.

The Unication receivers provide a possible solution that is much more reasonably priced, does not require permission or special codes or keys for the system but with reception rivaling that of the expensive radios at a fraction of the cost. The downside is that the Unication is not as flexible as a scanner and does not allow for field programming.

The Unication provides professional quality reception at a hobbyist price. While more expensive than scanners, it receives P25 Simulcast systems as well as the expensive two-way radios do at a much lower price.

ScannerMaster can program the Unication radio for you, be sure to select this option at the time of purchase if you want it. You can also do the programming yourself with a Windows computer, the software is free from Unication. Of course if there are any questions our knowledgeable staff is here to help!

The Unication G4 works in the 700 and 800 MHz. bands. The G5 works in these bands plus another, such as VHF or 2 different UHF bands. Currently they work on Phase 1 systems only but a Phase 2 upgrade will be available soon. This will be a paid update but pricing has not yet been announced.

DMR, ProVoice and Ultimate Updates for Uniden Scanners.

ScannerMaster offers a service to install the various paid updates for Uniden HomePatrol, x36 and P2 series scanners. These updates include the HomePatrol Ultimate Update (for HomePatrol 1 and 2 scanners) as well as the ProVoice and DMR/TRBO updates for the BCD436HP, BCD536HP, BCD996P2 and BCD325P2 scanners.

If you buy one of these scanners from ScannerMaster we offer a service to install these options for you before we ship the scanner. You can also send the scanner to us to perform the update, we then send the radio back to you.

Sometimes however it is not practical to send the radio to us. For US and Canadian customers it is pretty simple to buy the update directly from Uniden and install it yourself. For customers in other countries however it is a different story. Uniden can only accept credit cards from US and Canadian addresses. If you live in other countries then Uniden cannot accept your credit card for payment for these updates. They will refer you to a third party like ScannerMaster to obtain your updates.

ScannerMaster can accept credit cards from most countries. As long as the card works on our payment system we can provide you with the secret code to unlock the update for your radio. There are a couple things you will need to do to make this all work out:

First you need to update the FIRMWARE for your scanner. This is so important that if you don’t do it the paid updates just will not work! On the HomePatrol and x36 scanners it is done thru the Sentinel software, on the 325 and 996P2 radios it is done thru a separate (free) program available from Uniden’s website.

Once you have done the Firmware Updates then you need to obtain the “ESN” (Electronic Serial Number” from your scanner along with the “SUM” code. Here are the procedures for this:

HomePatrol-1 and HomePatrol-2:

  • Press Menu
  • Press Advanced Menu
  • Press the down arrow to get to the second page of items
  • Press the Version Information Button.

The ESN is listed and starts with 36 for the HP-1 and 37 for the HP-2. The SUM Code is the last 3 digits past the second dash. The ESN will look something like 36327-0040012345-123, the SUM code is the “123” part.

BCD436HP, BCD536HP, BCD325Ps and BCD996P2:

  • Press Menu
  • Select Settings.
  • (If you do NOT see “Upgrade” as an item in the list go back and update the firmware and start over!)
  • Select See Scanner Information
  • Select Firmware Version
  • The ESN will be listed as “SN37……”
  • The SUM Code will be a 3-digit letter/number combination.
  • We need both the ESN and the SUM Code. Don’t worry about the M-VER code.

We need the complete ESN and the SUM Code as well as the model of radio you have. With this info we can obtain the one-time code that unlocks the feature you want and send that code to you. You then go to the Upgrade menu on your scanner and enter it using the rotary knob to select the numbers. Once the code is properly added the radio will think it over for a minute or so and then announce that it was successful.

Once properly updated the code will stay working on the radio and will not need to be reinstalled. The code will only work for the radio it was obtained and if you dispose of the radio there is no way to transfer the code or feature to another radio.

Trunking System Types Glossary

Earlier we discussed the differences between Type 1 & 2 and Phase 1 & 2 trunking systems. This week we will discuss some other formats of trunking. I choose to use the easier to understand mnemonics of 1 and 2 rather than the more correct I and II for some of these systems. These mnemonics are often interchanged.

“Motorola” trunking systems include Type 1, Type 2 and Type 2i systems. The original Type 1 systems used a 3600 baud control data signal and a Fleets/Subfleet programming style. In time it was found to be too limiting, it restricted the number of subfleets and radios that could be accommodated within the Fleets. Motorola developed what was called Type 2 trunking that used a similar 3600 baud control data signal but removed the restrictions about Fleets and Subflleets and removed many of the limits on radios. Type 2 systems could have more than 65,000 individual radio ID’s and thousands of Talkgroups.

Some Type 1 systems were upgraded, either to Type 2 or to a hybrid system that allowed both Type 1 and Type 2 radios, this was commonly referred to as Type 2i. A later version of Type 2 trunking, called APCO P16, used the same Type 2 control data but allowed either analog or digital modulation.

APCO P25, as we discussed last week, is an all-digital format sold by several manufacturers, including Motorola, Harris and others. The format was developed by and for APCO and is licensed from them. The system was designed to be interoperable between the several vendors but often they add features that only they can provide so as to rope in customers to continue buying their radios instead of radios from other companies. One way to tell a Motorola designed system apart is by the control channels. On Motorola systems the Control Channel rarely changes and there are only 2 to 4 channels that they would rotate to if one becomes unavailable. Harris designed systems can use any of the channels for control data and some of these rotate the control data regularly.

P25 voice is also commonly used on conventional (non-trunked) channels as well.

There are two main types of P-25; Phase 1 and Phase 2 (or Phase I and II). Phase 1 allows a single conversation on a voice channel while Phase 2, a form of TDMA, allows 2 on each channel, effectively doubling the capacity of the system.

Most scanners these days only require the current Control Data channel for many of the P25 and Motorola trunking systems to track them.

EDACS is a trunking system originally sold by General Electric as a competitor with Motorola Type 1 and later Type 2 systems. This comes in 2 different types, the 9600 Baud control data commonly used on 800 MHz. systems and 4800 baud control data mostly used on UHF and 900 MHz. EDACS systems can use either analog voice or digital voice, called ProVoice. While any trunking scanner can handle analog EDACS systems only certain Uniden scanners (BCD325P2, BCD996P2, BCD436HP and BCD536HP) scanners can monitor ProVoice operations and these require the ProVoice paid upgrade.

EDACS is commonly used for public safety and less often in business applications. It shares many features with the Motorola trunking formats but is not compatible with it. It can be used as Single Site, Simulcast or Networked or some combination of these.

After several years GE sold the EDACS product line and it bounced around to several companies before landing at Harris Communications. Since EDACS is no longer sold or supported by Harris many of the systems have been shut down or converted to other formats. At some point EDACS systems will all be shut down as parts become unavailable for repairs.

To program an EDACS system into a scanner one needs to put the channels in their proper assigned slots. This is called the “LCN” (Logical Channel Number). This is because the radio only sends the channel number, it is up to the scanner or other radio to match this with the actual frequency.

LTR (Logic Trunked Radio) is a popular format for business users and occasionally used for public safety. This format does not use a dedicated control channel like Motorola, EDACS or P25 systems do. Instead data is sent piggybacked onto the regular traffic on the channel advising specific radios to go to a channel for a message. While this allows all channels to be used for voice messages it is not as robust as other systems so is not often used for police and fire use.

One can tell is an LTR system is in us, there is a characteristic repeater key-up on most channels. This is sending data to radios assigned to that channel as it’s “Home Channel”. Most trunking scanners can handle LTR systems, the trick is determining the LCN slots properly.

DMR/TRBO/NXDN systems can be either conventional or trunked. Some systems can be trunked with a single channel, using sub-audible codes to separate the groups. These systems use TDMA for voice traffic so multiple conversations can be carried on one channel.

While used mostly for business activities these systems occasionally are used for public safety, especially in the SE states.

MotoTRBO is a brand name used by Motorola for it’s DRM offering. While there are slight differences a DMR scanner works fine for unencrypted TRBO systems.
DMR is available on certain Uniden and Whistler scanners.

NXDN trunking is very similar to DMR but just different enough to require a different mode. As of this writing (Spring 2017) NXDN was only available on the TRX-1 and TRX-2 scanners by Whistler.

Type 1, Type 2, Phase 1, Phase 2, what’s the difference?

There is often confusion between different types of trunked systems. One of the most confusing things is the names of some systems. We get calls and letters all the time asking about Phase 2 and Type 2 systems and whether a particular scanner will work on them. They are different and the difference will determine if your scanner will work with it.

TYPE 2 (more accurately but less often written as TYPE II) systems are older Motorola trunking systems that use 3600 baud control data channels. These are commonly referred to as just “Motorola” systems when programming scanners. These were an evolution from the original Type 1 and Type 2i systems. The difference between Type 1, 2i and 2 systems is the way talkgroups are developed. Type 1 systems use a Fleet/Subfleet system that resulted in limited flexibility to assign talkgroups. Most of these systems have been shut down or updated and very few remain in use. Type 2 systems had a different method of assigning talkgroups and allowed greater flexibility. Some systems were called Type 2i, and were a hybrid between Type 1 and Type 2 systems.

Newer Type 2 systems, referred to as APCO P16 systems, allowed either digital, analog or both forms of modulation. There are still many of these systems in use all over the country.

PHASE 1 and PHASE 2 (more accurately referred to as Phase I and Phase II) systems are totally different than Type 1 or Type 2 systems. Phase 1 and 2 systems are forms of APCO P-25 digital systems that use 9600 baud control data channels and all digital modulation. Phase I systems have a single voice path per frequency while Phase II allows 2 voice paths per frequency, effectively doubling the amount of traffic a set number of channels can handle.

It gets even more confusing when programming some radios. Some scanner program the Type 2 and Phase 1 or 2 systems with the same system type, others have different selections. On the user end, most Motorola P25 (Phase 1 or 2) radios are also capable of being used on the older Type 2 systems.

Next week we will look at some of the other trunking systems like EDACS, LTR and TRBO.

ProVoice, DMR, MotoTRBO, NXDN and scanners FAQ

Recently Uniden and Whistler announced scanners with capabilities of handling new digital formats. Each company has announced updates to their top-tier scanners and Whistler has also announced new models.

Here are some of the more frequently asked questions:

Q: What is DMR?

A: Digital Mobile Radio (DMR) is a digital format, similar in function to APCO P-25. It is mostly used by businesses but occasionally by public safety users. It is less expensive than P25 for the end user but it is not compatible with P-25 radios. It can be used in conventional or trunked modes.

Q: What is MotoTRBO?

A: It is Motorola’s implementation of DMR. They added a few features to the DMR standard and named it TRBO. DMR scanners can handle TRBO.

Q: What about encryption?

A: If the user selects the Encrypted mode then scanners cannot monitor it. There are no modifications or upgrades that can be made to get past radio encryption.

Q: What is Uniden offering?

A: Uniden has announced updates to its BCD436HP (handheld) and BCD536HP (desktop/mobile) scanners. One update is for ProVoice, a digital format used for some public safety purposes in parts of the country. They have also announced updates for DMR and MotoTRBO formats occasionally used by public safety but more often used by business users. Each of these updates are paid and ScannerMaster can install them for you.

Q: What is Whistler offering?

A: Whistler has announced updates for its WS1080 and WS1088 (handheld) and WS1095 and WS1098 (Desktop/mobile) scanners for DMR and MotoTRBO. These are free updates that are installed by updating the firmware in EZ-Scan. Again, ScannerMaster will be happy to install these for you as part of our Setup & Optimize service. No ProVoice upgrades have been announced for Whistler scanners.

In addition, Whistler has announced 2 new scanners. The TRX-1 (handheld) and TRX-2 (desktop/mobile) will work on DMR and MotoTRBO out of the box and will be updatable later for NXDN. (Expected about January 2017.)

Q: What about NXDN?

A: NXDN is a separate digital format used by some public safety agencies and businesses. It is slated to be used by the nations railroads once the required updates are made to the railroad’s infrastructure and radio fleet.

Whistler has already announced that NXDN will be available sometime in late 2016/early 2017 for its TRX-1 and TRX-2 scanners but will not be available for others. Uniden has not announced any NXDN updates yet but has said they are working on “other formats”.

Q: What about DMR trunking?

A: Both the Uniden and Whistler scanners will track DMR trunking systems.

 Q: My question isn’t answered here. Where can I go for more information on these scanners or to buy them?

A: You can send your questions via email or call 1-800-SCANNER.

DMR Scanning is coming soon! FAQs & More

DMR Scanning is coming soon! Here are some FAQ’s

On May 16, 2016 Uniden announced that the BCD436HP and BCD536HP scanners will soon be capable of being updated to allow reception of DMR and MotoTRBO communications. There are a lot of questions out there, here are some of them:

Q: What scanners will this work on?
A: At this time ONLY the BCD436HP and BCD536HP scanners.

Q: Will I be able to upgrade my (insert model here) scanner for DMR?
A: If it isn’t a BCD436HP or BCD536HP then no. There are no upgrade paths for ANY other scanner model.

Q: How much will it cost to update my scanner for DMR?
A: If you do it yourself the introductory price is currently $50 from Uniden. If you prefer ScannerMaster perform the update for you then it will be $69.95 plus return shipping (if not purchased with a new radio). The price may change.

Q: What formats of DMR will this update work with?
A: Conventional DMR and MotoTRBO as well as Capacity Plus and Connect Plus trunking.

Q: What about NXDN? IDAS? IDEN?
A: Only DMR and TRBO formats are covered now. Any possible future formats (if any) would be announced later.

Q: I have 2 (or more) x36 radios. Do I need to pay for each one? How does the pricing work?
A: The above prices are PER RADIO. If you want to update more than one radio you will have to pay for each.

 

Q: Do I need to have the ProVoice update also?
A: No, they are separate updates and are not dependent on each other. You can have the ProVoice and DMR updates at the same time, or just one or the other. Each is a separate purchase.

Q: If I update my radio now and sell it can I install the update to my other radio?
A: No. Once updated the update will only work with that radio. If you sell the updated radio the update stays with the radio, you cannot remove it and install it into a different one.

Q: When can I obtain the update?
A: As soon as Uniden makes it available. As of mid May 2016 they are still tweaking the update and ironing out some wrinkles to ensure a smooth installation and operation.

Q: How do I do the update?
A: Hard way: First you update the radio with the latest Uniden Firmware Update for the x36 radios by using Sentinel. Then you obtain the ESN (Electronic serial number) via the menu system of the radio. Then you go to Uniden.com and order the update, providing the ESN at the time. You will then be provided with a one-time code to enter into the radio via the radio’s menu system. After all that the x36 radio will be capable of decoding DMR audio and trunking.

Easy way: Just send the radio to us and we will do all this for you and return the radio to you. Fill out the form at (insert link to form) and send it and the radio to us and a little while later you will get it back ready to go with the DMR Update installed.

Q: Will I be able to see it in action first?
A: Sure, come see us at HamVention 2016 this weekend in Dayton OH. ScannerMaster will be in Booth 402 to demonstrate the update to you!

If there are any other questions please contact us at support@scannermaster.com or 800-SCANNER and we will do our best at answering it!