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.

VLog – Unication G-Series P25 Receivers

In this Scanner Master Vlog learn more about the Unication Pager-Receivers. A rugged mini-handheld receiver that solves the problem of APCO P25 digital simulcast distortion. Monitor conventional channels as well as digital trunking.

Links
Unication Software –
http://www.unicationusa.com/downloads-new
Get a Unication Receivers – http://www.scannermaster.com/Unication_Pagers_s/779.htm

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.

Reading the RadioReference Database

One of the best sources for scanner information available is the RadioReference.com database. This is a huge listing of frequencies used thruout the USA and Canada for all types of two-way radio operations.

If you do your own scanner programming then the RRDB is invaluable for information. It is usually more accurate than the agencies themselves have! Even if you only use a database scanner (like a HomePatrol or TRX) then it helps to understand the database so you will have a better idea of what you are listening to. Remember: The data in your scanner came from RadioReference in the first place.

To read the RadioReference database and understand how it works you need to understand how it works. Without understanding how it is laid out it can be daunting, there is a whole lot of information at your fingertips.

To understand it you need to know a couple things. There are two main types of data available, trunked and conventional.

First we will look at a conventional frequency listing. Then we will look at trunking information. (Conventional means that it is not trunked.)

Here is the frequency page for Lee County Florida. It shows several fields:

  • Frequency       (Actual frequency used or the repeater output)
  • Input               (Repeater inputs)
  • License            FCC Callsign, click on this to see what frequencies and other info is available for it.
  • Type               Base, Repeater, Mobile only etc.
  • Tone                Could be PL, DPL or NAC 9for P25) etc.
  • Alpha Tag       A short tag used on some scanners, akin to channel numbers etc.
  • Description     A longer description of the channel and its use.
  • Mode              FM, AM, Digital etc.
  • Tag                  The classification that the channel falls under.

If you hover over the column title it will tell you what the codes mean.

Since so many areas use trunking systems these days one might miss a lot of the info needed to monitor the area. Look at the bottom of the county’s page to see a list of trunking systems active in the county. If you see one that appears to be used there click on it to see the data. The first part you will see it the basic info:

At the top you will see an info box with the system name, location, type and other info. Below that you will see the System ID’s (some scanners will show the System ID to identify it) and other info.

If you scroll down the page next you will see the trunked system Sites. Sites is where you will find the actual frequencies used by the system. Some systems only have 1 or 2 Sites, others (like the one shown) have dozens.

This is a portion of the Site List for the huge Illinois StarCom21 system that has many sites all over the state. There are several columns:

  • RFSS is the Zone number (RF Subsystem), then the Site Number within the Zone. Sometimes Sties are shown in other contexts as X-YYY (1-012 meaning Zone 1, Site 12) or just XYY (112).
  • Next is the Site Name, usually the city or location the site is located in. The county the site is in follows.
  • Last are the frequencies used at that Site. Some freqs will be shown in red, these are known to be “Primary” control channels (mostly for P25 systems). Other freqs will be in blue, these are known to be “Alternate” control channels. The rest are shown in black, these are not know to be used as control channels but are used for voice. Unless you know for sure otherwise, it is usually best to include all channels of the Site in your scanner.

The last part of the Trunked system information is the Talkgroup List. These are the virtual channels used to allow the correct people to communicate within the system.

The columns here are:

  • DEC (Decimal)           The most common way to identify a talkgroup in scanners.
  • HEX (Hexidecimal)     Another way to view Talkgroups, used mostly by the fleet radios.
  • Mode                          Tells you if it is Digital (D), Analog (A), Encrypted (E) or TDMA (T).
  • Alpha Tag                   The short channel name
  • Description                 More inclusive description of the channel and its use
  • Tag                              The classification (Service Type) for that talkgroup.

By understanding the way the data is laid out you can apply this to your programming and understanding of the systems you listen to.

What to do with my scanner when the cops go to encryption?

Encryption is a four-letter word among scanner enthusiasts. Encryption is the act of scrambling a signal to make it unmonitorable to radios not equipped with the proper technology and (most importantly) the proper key. The encryption keys are code numbers that are set up to assure that only permitted radios may hear and participate in a communication.

There is no way to decrypt a modern encrypted communication with a scanner, even with any of the various updates. Contrary to the occasional belief, the “Extreme Update” etc. does not open encryption. Neither will any firmware updates.

The only way possible to hear an encrypted communication is with a properly programmed System Radio programmed with the encryption keys. Occasionally police departments with encrypted systems will provide a system radio with basic talkgroups to media, wreckers, neighboring agencies and others that might have a legitimate need to monitor them. Unfortunately this privilege does not extend to scanner users.

So now what do you do if your agency goes to encryption? Often the police will be the only ones to go encryption so you may still be able to listen to other agencies like Fire/EMS, Street and Utility departments and mutual aid channels, often on the same radio system as the encrypted agency. Often the old channels are still in use for other purposes, as backup, tactical, or car-to car use. Some agencies only have encryption on certain channels, for example Tac or Swat, while leaving Dispatch in the clear.

Your scanner may still be used for many other services that rarely use encryption and you may discover all new listening experiences. For example, railroads, aircraft and business operations may still be monitored. Try listening to these services for a while and you might get interested in them. They can be fascinating, even more so than police traffic.

There is also the (slight) possibility that the agency could remove or reduce the use of encryption. In these days of mistrust of the police, however unjustified, encryption can be seen as a block to transparency. Some agencies have since removed encryption from routine dispatch channels for this reason.

PS: Modern encryption is most common these days on P25 digital systems but can also be used on other digital systems. Older analog systems occasionally used rudimentary scrambling that could be cracked with decoder kits or even monitored by some people that could make it out audibly. Those systems are pretty much all gone these days and rarely encountered due to the ease of being overcome.

Just because the police are gone from your scanner doesn’t mean the scanner is totally useless.

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!

ProVoice: What is it and do I need to update my scanner for it?

Recently Uniden announced an update for its BCD436HP and BCD536HP scanners to allow them to monitor ProVoice digital radio systems. This has led to a lot of questions that we will try to answer here.

What is ProVoice?

ProVoice is a form of digital modulation used on some EDACS trunking systems, somewhat similar to APCO P25. Most digital scanners cannot hear it but Uniden has found a way to make it work on their 436 and 536 scanners.

Do I need the upgrade?

If you want to hear a ProVoice system then yes you do. There are several large wide-area systems using ProVoice, Uniden has produced a map showing most known systems. See http://info.uniden.com/UnidenMan4/ProVoice for a map.

Why are they charging for it? It should be free!

Uniden has to pay the license holders a fee for every radio they sell that has this technology. They also have to pay for all the research and development costs.

How do I update my radio?

If you buy the radio from us we can install the ProVoice update for you before we send the radio to you. If you want to update a radio you already have go to http://my.uniden.com to buy the upgrade.

I have a different scanner; will it work with ProVoice?

At this time only updated 436 and 536 scanners will work with ProVoice.