UHF CB — you must be joking!

By Ian Miller*
Tuesday, 30 April, 2024

UHF CB — you must be joking!

Back in the 1970s, when CB radio was beginning to come into common use, all of the products were based on the American 27 MHz HF products which were being imported in large volumes. The spectrum regulator at that stage, the Spectrum Management Agency (SMA), was finding that the imported products were likely to cause problems due to the different frequency allocations in Australia and the United States. With thousands of radios being imported from overseas, it was proving to be impossible to manage interference caused by the imported radios.

Although many within the SMA and the general radio industry felt that this was not a legitimate service, there was also some acceptance that the users of the products were actually gaining benefit and that there should be some recognition and regulation of the CB band. Ian McKenzie, the General Manager of Philips-TMC, was one who recognised that the CB service did offer genuine benefits, particularly in the transport industry for truck drivers to be able to communicate with each other. In addition, there was also a genuine group of volunteers who were happy to provide a listening service and monitor CB for emergency calls.

This led to Philips-TMC lobbying the SMA to make changes to the existing 27 MHz frequencies, plus provide a service in a more suitable band. Philips suggested the 80 MHz band and pointed out that the transport industry would be well served, with several channels in that band for communications between drivers and those who support the industry. The SMA finally accepted that there would be a market for CB radio in a higher frequency band, and preferably using frequency modulation (FM) for better-quality signals and audio. The spectrum team went away to work out the details, and it must be admitted that they were not highly motivated to do it quickly.

And so our article headline came to be: the SMA announced that they would be allocating 1 MHz of spectrum in the UHF band to provide 40 channels for CB use. Ian McKenzie’s reaction? “UHF CB — you must be joking.”

Having made his feelings known to the SMA, he then decided that maybe it was worth exploring to see what could be done, and a meeting was held with the marketing and engineering teams at Philips-TMC. The bulk of the imported radios were operating on standard AM transmissions and were priced between $60 and $120; it was quickly decided that there was no way that a product could be manufactured to compete in that market. The more serious CBers were buying units with a single-sideband option and at a much higher product quality; these units were priced between $270 and $350 on average.

The marketing team felt there was a high chance that a quality UHF CB radio would find a place in the market in commercial quantities if it could be sold through dealer channels at around $330. The engineering team were not sure they could make a radio at that level; they were in an era when the FM90 Series had a manufacturing price higher than the supposed sell price of the new radio. Ian McKenzie’s response: Take four of your best engineers and put them into an isolated area so they can concentrate and show me what you can do. Oh, and you have four weeks to give me a viable product design, after which I will lock the doors and you will only have pizza and flounder to eat — things I can slide under the door to you.

It was a tough ask and initially the design team worked based on trimming back the FM90 design to make it a lower-cost radio; it soon became apparent that this was not going to work, so totally new design concepts were put forward, and amazingly there was a product design provided in a very short timeframe. With the basic design completed, the purchasing team stepped in to source components at the best possible prices and the marketing team began planning for product releases.

While this was happening, the standard 27 MHz CB market continued to grow exponentially with products of all types and price levels now on the market. Dick Smith had negotiated some good deals with known brand names like Sony and had established a strong presence in the market, a market where many small and unknown brands and importers were creating confusion. In the late 1970s one of the CB radio magazines organised a conference in Canberra and the Philips organisation decided this would be an ideal situation to release the FM320 and talk up the benefits of UHF CB.

One of the Philips-TMC managers would give a keynote address, with another keynote to be given by Dick Smith. Although the general mood of the CB fraternity towards UHF CB was less than positive, Dick Smith made some very positive comments and stated that UHF CB may just be good for Australian manufacturing and users over the longer term. He could see the long-term opportunities and although he didn’t feel that UHF CB would fit his company’s marketing profile or meet the needs of his customer base, he still felt it was a viable product and service.

Philips then began the manufacture and promotion of the UHF CB concept and products, initially through the commercial radio dealerships and the through the car radio divisions of Philips’ consumer products divisions. In the very early stages, there was internal resistance from within the sales side of Philips-TMC as the sales staff felt that UHF CB was going to take away their commercial clients and they would lose business potential. In fact, that proved to be correct in the rural areas of Australia where the community aspect of CB radio became a positive in both the business as well as the farming communities. In the first couple of years the highest number of UHF CB radios sold was in the New England area of NSW, where the ability of the farming support businesses to talk directly to their customers became a real benefit to doing business.

User groups from within several market sectors started to become established and, in many ways, became the ‘quasi-regulators’ of the UHF CB spectrum. A couple of the very early ones were the Citizens Radio Emergency Service Teams (CREST), who set up monitoring stations on the calling and emergency channels to provide support in the case of emergency or as demand required. A second user group was Truckers Radio Australia (TRA), who coordinated call signs and encouraged proper use of UHF CB by the long-distance truck drivers, many of whom saw UHF CB as being both a social outlet as well as a business tool. Some of these organisations still exist in some form today.

As demand for the better-quality communications of FM radios grew, so did the frustrations of limited range, and there was a push for the SMA to provide repeater channels for increased coverage. One of the major difficulties was the fact that there was only a 1 MHz block of spectrum allocated and to operate repeaters in such narrow spectrum confines was difficult. Over time the SMA made the recommendations that some existing channels be set aside for repeater input operation and others ‘paired’ with the repeater output to permit repeater operation, although these repeaters would have to be licensed under similar conditions to commercial two-way radio repeaters. This meant that in combination with high-quality antenna and filtering systems, repeaters could be set up and licensed for operation.

Over time other enhancements were developed, things like selective calling and then monitoring and control to provide features that suited some of the more specialised markets and generally increased the utility of the UHF CB spectrum. In our modern world there is a whole new segment of social users like the grey nomads travelling around the country during their retirement and seeking ways to communicate with others as they travel our often-lonely highways. Agriculture has also developed many applications to improve farming practices in general, plus community organisations like rural fire brigades also use UHF CB as a back-up to other communications systems.

As the market has grown and much of Australian manufacturing has moved offshore, Philips has stepped back out of the UHF CB market and many new players have stepped up to add even more to the user benefits being offered, but there is no doubt that it was Philips-TMC, and Ian McKenzie in particular, that saw the future potential and created this uniquely Australasian market opportunity. Even as Philips has faded away from the market, the vision of Dick Smith has held true with at least one Australian company continuing to manufacture and develop products for the market, and then to use that strong design base in the manufacture of products in other commercial sectors.

So, we have gone from “UHF CB — you must be joking” to a community communications segment unique to Australia and New Zealand; one that meets many business and social needs and is based around good old Aussie design and initiative — and that’s no joke!

*Ian Miller is the Convenor of the Spectrum & Technical Sub-Committee at the Australian Radio Communications Industry Association (ARCIA).

Image credit: GME.

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