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CB radio in the United Kingdom

CB Radio was first introduced into the United Kingdom around 1972. These dates are hard to confirm accurately; certainly early use was known around the airports in the UK, particularly Stansted in 1973. Some claim that a few illegal CBs were in use in the 1960s. Monitoring the radio control band revealed occasional business/leisure traffic with AM modulation. These early adopters used CB radios imported from the United States that were illegal to own and use. The usage of illegal CB radio peaked in 1980 and the UK Government was forced to legalise CB Radio. CB became legal in the United Kingdom on 2 November 1981; hence the logo stamped on all type approved radios of this era CB27/81 or CB934/81. As of 8 December 2006, no licence is required to own or operate a CB Radio providing it meets the original legal specifications for UK usage: FM only, 4 watts power output and operating on either of the UK allowed 27 MHz bands. http://www.ofcom.org.uk/radiocomms/ifi/licensing/classes/citizen/

In the run up to legalisation, some people wanted the old VHF bomber frequency around 220 MHz (unused since WW2) for UK CB. This would have offered much better conditions for CB: nice clear channels without the chronic overseas interference there is on 27 MHz. This interference is often so severe, it even stops local contacts from being made. However, the vast majority of users were not technically minded enough to realise what a bad slot 27 MHz was, and had already purchased American-sourced equipment, so the preferred option for legalisation was the U.S. 27 MHz AM system. While technically this was one of the poorest possible choices for a short range person-to-person radio system, and was already allocated for other services, the CB community lobbied vociferously for it. The final legalised service was a compromise - a band at 27 MHz was allocated but using FM and offset channel frequencies 27.60125 - 27.99125 MHz which were incompatible with the U.S. system.

Methods of transmission

The originally imported equipment used AM (amplitude modulation) and SSB (single sideband modulation) modes of transmission.

The UK channels legalised on 2 November 1981 were on two blocks of frequencies: 40 channels on the 27 MHz band and 20 channels on the 934 MHz band, both of which used FM (frequency modulation) and both unique to the UK. The 27 MHz band frequency allocation is shown here: 27 MHz CB27/81 Bandplan. In the 1990s 40 additional frequencies were added, which were ironically the same as the U.S. allocation - but again using FM. This additional band is often referred to as the CEPT or EU band. As with the 'old' channels, this band suffered from increased 'skip' reception, especially towards the maxima of the 11-year sunspot cycle.

The illegal SSB mode had its enthusiasts, many of whom lost interest in normal CB and adopted a different style of call-sign (instead of a 'handle') in the manner of radio amateurs. In a related way, some CB enthusiasts took up long-distance communication in a narrow frequency band around 6.6 MHz, using SSB mode. This unofficial 'band' was close to international air travel frequencies and policed more strongly than normal CB radio but reached well into European countries and did not suffer from the high levels of interference on 27 MHz.

Many CB users who witnessed the noisy and unruly conditions on 27 MHz wanted to get away from all that and use the superior 934 MHz UHF CB allocation. In fact, the cost of cutting edge (at the time) UHF radio equipment meant that only the more serious CB operator would use the band, a nice though expensive haven for mature CB operators, and radio hams who didn't like the 'red tape' of amateur radio. At first the range was limited, but as antenna restrictions were lifted and better equipment started to appear, the number of UHF CB operators grew. Sadly, after just a few years in 1988, it was announced that no more new equipment for 934 would be made, the specification was withdrawn and the band was 'frozen'. Due to the relatively low number of users, the 934 MHz band was eventually discontinued by the government on 31 December 1998. Compared to cheap 27 MHz, the main reason for the lower user numbers on the 934 MHz band, was its cost (up to £500 for a radio), coupled with the fact that by the time reliable Japanese equipment became available in the mid-1980s, most people had opted for the noisier but cheaper 27 MHz, or gone on to take the Radio Amateur Exam. Though many people think mobile phones have taken over 934 MHz, the band remains unused to the present day [Dec 2007], and could still be in use for people who spent lots of money on their radio equipment, that still functions perfectly. Arguably, the real reason for the 934 MHz band's demise, was the lucrative sale of the band to the mobile phone industry; the start of a trend which continues with the move from analogue to digital TV.

There are three channels that have a specific use in the UK:

  • Channel 9: The emergency calling channel
  • Channel 14: Calling channel
  • Channel 19: Truckers' channel and secondary calling channel

CB users may use the NATO phonetic alphabet and ten-codes.

Nowadays it seems nobody wants to use Channel 14 for Calling, even though Channel 14 was actually intended for homebase users and Channel 19 for mobile users.

Channel 9 was taken more seriously for emergencies in the 1980s, whereas nowadays Channel 9 is just another breaker channel. If anybody was really stuck or maybe in an attempt of being hijacked of their lorry or similar life threatening situation they should call for help on the most-used Channel which is 19.

The CB craze and legalisation

Wider CB usage in the UK started off with a few individuals, particularly truck drivers, importing US equipment and using it illegally. It clearly served a need as the craze grew rapidly, reaching an enormous peak in the early 1980s. At the same time, technically savvy engineers with a certain amount of curiosity about the rumours, started to convert radiotelephone equipment to use on the 27 MHz band. The result was an explosion in the number of users, and a huge growth in the CB culture that accompanied it. During this time, a great many CB clubs emerged in the UK and they became centres of protest in the march towards legalisation, in the hope that existing equipment could be used legally. As an example of a large CB club, 'Barnsley Breaker's Club' had a thousand members at its peak.

Around 1980, companies in Britain started to sell US equipment quite openly, as there was no law against selling or owning accessories, though being in possession of an unlicenced radio transmitter was an offence.

While the number of users grew, the authorities were slow to react. By the beginning of 1980, a number of police forces began clamping down on illegal CB users. Rural area police were sometimes heard using CB radio in their Land-Rovers.

The normal authority for regulating the use of radio, the Home Office Radio Regulatory Department, was overwhelmed and could not possibly trace and prosecute every illegal user. It is speculated that the actions by the police caused the popularity and longevity of CB to grow - suddenly the legalisation of CB was a common cause among CB enthusiasts. During the same period, CB clubs started appear in a large number of towns around the country, and the number of users increased proportionally. As the fad reached its peak towards the end of 1980, it became impossible to achieve a range of more than a few miles, at most, in built-up areas. This was often attributed by the number of users jamming the channels and the congestion from overseas operators but was worsened by the sunspot activity of the time.

Around this time, a number of CB-related periodicals appeared on the market, you could buy CB equipment such as antennae in many ordinary car accessory shops. The CB clubs organised a number of national demonstrations in favour of legalisation, including a mass "convoy" to the heart of London, which brought the city to a stand-still. In response to this, the government commissioned a white paper proposing a CB service called "Open Channel" around 860 MHz. Among the enthusiasts there was an outcry, since they wanted to use the 27 MHz equipment they had already invested in, despite the fact that the band was already allocated for model control and other applications. Eventually the government capitulated, and sanctioned both a 27 MHz and 934 MHz band. The CB lobby was appeased, until they saw the fine print – the new 27 MHz band used an odd channel offset and FM modulation, so it was incompatible with the American system. The reason for this was on the grounds of reducing as much as possible the interference to legitimate services. By then it was too late, the legislation had been passed, and the 27 MHz FM system was standardised.

The new system was taken up enthusiastically by all those who had held back using an illegal system, and it was one of the biggest selling gifts for Christmas in 1981. The combination of the old and new systems operating on a largely overlapping band rendered both systems more or less unusable, especially in the 6 month period following Christmas 1981. With the fight won, albeit with a considerable compromise, and the system practically unusable, the CB clubs gradually dwindled in membership, many disappearing altogether within a year or so.

Nuisance

While most CB users felt they were a persecuted and harmless segment of society, there were some notable anti-social aspects to the craze. Many users boosted their signals to very high levels using imported power amplifiers (called 'boots' or 'burners' in the CB jargon) and these would often cause interference to local television reception, or cause "breakthrough" on other equipment, such as stereo systems. This was a particular problem from SSB mode transmission.

Even some un-amplified equipment caused interference in some cases. Harmonics from badly designed or misaligned equipment could cause radio interference to legitimate services; indeed, this was the main argument used by opponents of CB against the illegal users. Imported equipment was of variable quality and certainly never tested to any British standard. Problems were often exacerbated because users were not often technically minded and installations were sometimes very poor.

Radio amateurs using the 28 MHz ten-metre band were particularly offended by CB radios which could transmit into their frequency band. This was mostly a problem in the lower-frequency part of their band which was mostly used for morse transmissions. CB dx-ers using SSB mode were the biggest problem but part of the 'hurt' was because amateurs were licenced whilst dx-ers were not.

Some enthusiasts erected very large antennas, which were considered an eyesore and posed a danger in high winds. Others would use high powers even when talking locally and posed a nuisance to other breakers who suffered poor reception as a result.

The band used for CB was already allocated in the UK to radio controlled models. While this was usually little more than a frustrating nuisance for modellers, it did pose a genuine danger for aircraft models, which can kill or seriously injure. As a result of the CB craze, it became mandatory to operate aircraft models on the alternative band of 35 MHz. The legalised service left some of the 27 MHz band available for ground models, but since the illegal American equipment continued to be widely used, most modellers gave up and adopted other frequencies instead.

CB culture

At the height of the craze, everyone was either using CB or knew somebody who did – it is important to realise that this was a very significant movement, in terms of numbers. While essentially a youth culture and a working class one, CB was enthusiastically embraced by people in all walks of life. It led to CB clubs forming throughout the land, which were mostly in competition with each other for ideas and members. In some areas, committees were formed from representatives of individual clubs to try to avoid popular activities from clashing. Club activities often included the normal social activities of any clubs, such as meals, coach trips, quizzes, raffles, treasure hunts and CB-related events like 'fox-hunts'. They often collapsed through financial short-comings (often fraudulent), fall-outs or just a general decline in interest but some of them were well run and outlasted the decade of the 1980s.

Many of these clubs sowed the seeds of long-lasting friendships, marriages and divorces. They were important centres for the CB sub-culture that was a noticeable feature of the 1980s, although many did not last for long.

The cause of legalisation and the community spirit of beating "smokey" and not getting "busted" was very strong. CBers adopted the ten-code and much of the incumbent US slang, but this rapidly evolved into a distinctly UK-oriented lingua franca. New ten-codes were frequently made up, used for a while in the local area, then fell into disuse. For example, a "10-100" was often used to refer to a need to go to the toilet. Most of the official ten-code was ignored, except for basic ones such as 10-4, 10-20 and 10-9, which had mutated into "Give us a nine" (repeat the message). A weak signal was '10-1'.

Everyone was required to have a "handle" - using proper names was definitely out. In addition, at one time the use of slang terms for the most everyday things was considered virtually compulsory. For example, one overheard conversation involved a CBer inviting another round for a cup of tea – after a very long pause with the mike held down following "fancy a cup of. ...", she finally offered the ad-hoc slang term "mud?" Another typical aspect of the UK CB culture was the low-level of paranoia that accompanied every conversation in light of the fact it was breaking the law. It was forbidden to disclose ones location (or "twenty", after the ten-code), but it was OK to give clues in a semi-cryptic form. Presumably any eavesdropper had the same chance of solving these as the intended listener, so the value of this was moot.

Typical terminology included asking another CBer, "How many candles are you burning?" (What is your age?), "Pick a window" (Choose another channel - for example if the current one is too busy for conversation), and, "Do you copy?" (Can you hear me?). The term "Roger" was borrowed from standard radio operating jargon to mean "yes" (even though in fact it means "message received", which is subtly different), and this mutated into other forms unique to CB such as "Roger Dee" (from 'Roger Dodger'), and, "That's a Rog". "Negatory", often used to mean "no", borrowed from U.S. CB slang, also mutated into unique forms such as "That's a Neg".

Another feature was codenames for places, for example, "The Budgie Perch" for a particular ridge in the Pennines that was frequented by CBers trying to get long-range contacts.

There were technical aspects to the culture – for example, few people had much idea what VSWR (voltage standing wave ratio) was, but most users knew their antenna had to be "swred in" before use. Usually pronounced "swarring", some even referred to this process as "swearing in." The "swring in" ritual was also often part of another huge aspect of the CB culture – that of the "wind up". This involved convincing another CBer to do something on a false premise, usually a form of practical joke. Often this could be witnessed if the victim was within sight of the perpetrator, but was not aware of this. A typical example was to get a newbie to "swr in" his antenna by standing on the bonnet of his vehicle with no socks on, one leg in the air and his hand on the antenna. The perpetrator had to convince the victim that it was enhancing his signal.

Eyeballs

Having an eyeball was CB slang for meeting someone off air. This was particularly popular with teenage users who used CB radio to improve their social circle. More mature users often formed clubs which met up in bars and licenced clubs and these were also referred to as 'eyeballs' - on 'eyeball night'. CB Clubs caught on in a big way.

Impromptu mobile meetings between two users could sometimes grow larger as others who were passing by joined in. In some cases, especially before legalisation, disguised antennas were used to evaluate a possible 'eyeball', checking for some kind of set-up.

Foxhunts

Foxhunting was a hide and seek activity (using cars and vans fitted with CB's) that often took place late on an evening, normally Friday and /or Saturday and might last well into the small hours. After legalisation, Bank holidays were good occasions for daylight Fox Hunts.

One breaker would go and hide and would be requested by the others to "Fox give us a count" the 'Fox' would then count to Five and the searchers would use their signal meters to determine how close they were. In some foxhunts, the 'fox' would be asked for clues. These were very popular in rural South Yorkshire, where good use was made of the hills to distort the signal pattern and might cover many miles. One of the largest regular foxhunts occurred every weekend at Hitchin in Hertfordshire, which attracted participants from miles around. There would be an entry fee which was put towards prize money.

Channel 9

Channel 9 was designated as the emergency channel, but this was not a legal requirement, so this wasn't always observed and some users objected to not being able to use it as a normal channel. Channel 9's status as an emergency channel wasn't legally recognised in UK and received no protection.

Two groups emerged to organise monitoring of channel 9, they were:

  • REACT UK (RADIO EMERGENCY ASSOCIATE CITIZENS TEAM - later changed to RADIO EMERGENCY AND COMUNICATIONS TEAMS)
  • THAMES (TRAFFIC HELP AND MONITORING EMERGENCY SERVICE)

REACT UK was formed under licence from REACT INTERNATIONAL in the United States, its teams were located across the UK. It was noted for its members signing on and off monitoring on Channel 9 which annoyed some users, especially when others were told to get offf the channel, as so called monitors chatted to each other on channel 9 (eg: "This is Stevenage REACT monitor 14 signing on/off"). REACT UK also provided members equipped with mobiles and handheld to provide radio coverage for marathons, fun runs, county shows - it also obtained a Private Mobile Radio (PMR) licence so its members had a secure private radio channel.

The national committee of REACT UK was beset by scandals and arguments from about 1986, first the National Communications secretary was arrested and charged with financial irregularities with regards to receipts from PMR licences, then following much in-fighting in the national committee REACT UK members decided to split. Some REACT units provided search volunteers to assist the police with searching for missing persons (something that stil occurs today with ALSAR albeit without CB radios).

Some teams became overseas members of REACT International whilst others chose to join splinter group REVCOM (Radio Emergency Volunteer Communications).

THAMES mainly operated in the south of England, especially around east and north London, plus they didn't appear to gain many members elsewhere. They provided similar services to REACT.

In 1983 the majority of THAMES in Greater London was reformed into The Association of Independent Monitors (AIM), after a summit meeting between THAMES and fed up CB'ers being bossed about by THAMES monitors. Many normal non THAMES members joined including local celebrity CB'er "Queen of the Road" .. a gay lorry drivers favourite.

The bossing about by THAMES monitors caused the normal CB users in north London to create many joke CB monitor groups, including groups named after local waterways such as River Lee, Pymmes Park Lake monitors.

After 2 years AIM was reformed after 2 committee members created few unsavoury incidents happening. AIM lasted until the late 80's.

From 2007 there was only one REACT International team based in Britain, operating under the name of REACT UK Dundee.

As of 2008, there is still a strong membership of REVCOM with 2 new teams having been formed in 2007. With many charity events, horse endurance trials, walks and other events, REVCOM members continue to provide radio links to improve safety. One emergency case this summer attributes her life to quick action by REVCOM members.

QSL'ing

QSL'ing was taken from Q codes used by the military and amateur radio, QSL meant acknowledge receipt.

Amateurs would often follow up contacts around the world by sending specially printed QSL cards. This was adapted by CB'ers and colourful cards featuring 'handles', pictures and so on appeared. They were originally sent to long range contacts (some users would run networks in the early hours of the weekend because it was quieter) during normal conditions at this time of day contact over 50 to 60 miles distance could often be obtained.

A spin off from QSL'ing was collecting - although originally it developed from users having special eyeball cards produced. Most of the CB radio magazines devoted regular features on QSL'ing.

Fall from popularity

Right from the beginning of legalised CB radio, there had been much abuse of the system, with frequent complaints that CB radio was not policed properly in spite of the huge licence revenues, which at one time were second only to broadcast receiving licences. Most of the early adopters expected some official support after legalisation.

Some CB users would play music. Others disrupted conversations merely by pressing the mike button, known as "dead keying". Yet others enjoyed swearing at anyone who would listen. Most complaints were directed at younger users who did not have the self-discipline or motivation to behave well on-air. Many of these were not in at the beginning of illegal CB, where there was a kind of 'honour among thieves' mentality. Original UK breakers had to know other breakers to obtain equipment and this acted to some degree as a filter to exclude trouble-causers. Legality opened the floodgates to anyone and everyone.

All this served to put off a good many enthusiasts and particularly where families could hear what was happening on-air. The most consistent and well-behaved breakers were the mobile users, such as the truck drivers, farmers and trades people who found CB Radio to be of great practical use. The decline was steady but continuous.

CB channels still remained busy until the early 2000s, when technology was changing and mobile phones became affordable and common. Many of the advantages of mobile CB were taken over by easy and reliable phone communication and, more recently, by the availability of 'satnav'.

The easy availability of cheap and licence-free PMR (Personal Mobile Radio) radio has also stolen the place of CB radio. In some cases, it is used with beam antennas to reach further and is often used to find conversations with strangers and friends, like CB radio always has been. Amateur radio had enjoyed a boom time from disaffected breakers deserting 27 MHz in the 1990s, but fell into decline early in the decade. It's fortunes later changed with the revamping of their central body the RSGB (Radio Society of Great Britain) and the advent of easier and more frequent formal examinations. New classes of membership were introduced and crucially the minimum age limit of fourteen was abandoned. Amatuers of very young age are now fully accepted, often cutting their teeth first on the CB band.

Licence free CB brings rise in popularity

As of 8 December 2006, CB Radio now joins PMR446 radio under the category of licence-free personal communications. As a result, reports have been made of a significant increase in CB activity across the country. Coincidentally, several new CB Radios have recently been introduced to the UK market and their popularity with traditional CB users, such as truckers and farmers, combined with a prolific advertising campaign in Amateur Radio magazines sold in the high street, is resulting in a significant number of sales.

CB Radio looks to be on the increase again in the UK. Whilst the quantity of users would be hard pushed to reach the dizzy heights of the 80’s, there seems to be a growing number of rural communities around the UK who are reverting to old-fashioned communications, which of course, are now totally free of any ongoing running costs. Only time will tell if this trend continues.

Freebanding

Most CB radios imported into the UK during the 1970’s and early 1980’s were illegal in that they were capable of transmitting on frequencies not allocated for CB use in the UK. But over the years these radios, which are still available, are still widely in use. Freebanding is the term used for those who transmit outside of the legal frequency range and on banned modes, such as Single Side Band.

During the eighties and nineties when the propagation for international contact was at it highest, many illegal DX groups formed. One of the biggest DX Groups was Alfa Tango from Italy. Alfa Tango went on to create a division list where every country and island in the world had a division number attached.

In addition a calling frequency was allocated, 27.555 MHz on Upper Side Band. Now days this calling frequency is used by thousands of illegal Freeband operators worldwide, and each following unwritten radio etiquette, policed by themselves entirely. All the illegal operators use call signs from differing groups and this call sign, often made up, is always preceded by the country division number as allocated by Alfa Tango DX group.

Freebanding has grown to massive proportions and many Freebanders are not only CBers’ but Ham operators as well, using their amateur radio sets modified to work on the 11 metre band. During sun spot cycles there can be many thousands of Freebanders operating on the 11 metre band and there is little hostility and bad radio practice. For the most part Freebanders are as courteous and proficient in their use of radio as amateur radio enthusiasts.

References

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