30 years of 40 Channels          

Wow! Has it been that long already?   


On January 1st 2007, we will have reached a milestone.  It's not a milestone which will likely garner the attention of the mass media, who would rather concentrate on the inane vapidity of some Hollywierd celebrity, or some other subject which is more in tune with today's pop culture.  But to a CB radio operator who has been involved in the hobby for more than a few years, January 1st marks the 30th anniversary of the FCC authorization which granted the use of the current 40 channel spectrum.  Before that historic day in 1977, CB radios were only 23 channels (or less).  So if you see a rig on the auction block with only 23 channels, you know right away that it's been around for longer than 30 years. To the active CB'er in 1977, the legalization of those extra 17 channels was heralded as a landmark, which brought along with it, some relief from the congestion which had been experienced on the lower 23 channels as a result of the CB radio "hobby" gaining wide popularity, and earning its place among the pop culture icons of the 70's. Those of us who were around back then, may also recall that the 40 channel expansion was a pretty big deal, and not one which came and went without some bit of controversy.  So it's time to climb into the way-back machine again, and take a trip down memory lane to revisit that time period and remember what it was like back then.

The quest for more channels had become a front-burner issue by 1975, when the explosion of new CB'ers placed a tremendous strain on the channel capacity in many densely populated urban areas.  The obvious solution was to expand the band to encompass more channels.  But the wheels at the FCC turn very slowly, as they had to thoroughly evaluate each proposal to make sure that it did not adversely impact existing CB users as well as those other service users who may still be using the frequency space earmarked for the CB expansion plan. The first, and most popular proposal, was to expand the CB band from 23 to 99 channels, stopping just shy of the 10 meter Amateur radio band. This proposal had the backing of CB groups and other interested parties.  But there was a technical glitch which would shoot down this generous expansion plan. This glitch involved a great many cheaper designed CB sets, which had receivers with a single conversion 455 Khz I.F. frequency.  Due to the design of the radio, the receiver had an image frequency which was 910 Khz (2 times the I.F.) higher than the desired channel.  Also those radios had local oscillators which were 455 Khz higher than the desired frequency which could radiate enough to cause interference to very close stations operating on a frequency range starting at 27.420 Mhz (It's no coincidence that the final 40 channel plan stops at 27.405 Mhz).  For these technical reasons (And maybe some objections by current spectrum users), the final expansion plan was trimmed back to just 40 channels. There was also a short lived proposal for a separate class "E" CB band which was to fall somewhere in the 220 Mhz band.  Opposition from hams pretty much put the kibosh to that plan though.

The upcoming rule changes, besides generating much conversation on the home channel,  also meant the opportunity to ogle new radio models, which the manufacturers had lined up ready and waiting to sell once the gun went off.  Many of our locals got an early in-person preview of some of those new 40 channel radios during the Christmas season of 1976, at the Lafayette store in the King of Prussia Plaza.  There in the store, for all to see and feel, were examples of Lafayette's newest 40 channel offerings.  Rigs like the HB-640, 740, 940 and Telsat SSB-80, were among the displayed fare.  While they were not yet legal to sell, they were nonetheless there proudly on display for all to see, wired up and functional, with the exception of having no microphones attached.  Of course, on those rigs, having the microphone removed also killed the receiver audio, so we really couldn't verify much except that they lit up.  But that sure beat looking at a rig in a 2 dimensional catalog picture.  I remember thinking how strange it was to see a rotary channel dial indicator that had 40 channels on it, after being used to the 23 channel dial for so long.  In fact, it was so difficult to place 40 individual numbers on the dial, that most manufacturers only printed every other number, with a simple "dot"  holding the place for the channel in between.  It was this cumbersome nature of the hard to read dial numbers, that led to the quick evolution to the more common LED channel display that we take for granted today.  It was a neat experience watching the CB service evolve to the next level, and being a part of it when it all went down.  But not everyone was happy.......

By 1976, there were already a great many people who had the capability to go "out of band" to frequencies outside of the legal CB channels.   These guys were not waiting for the FCC to relieve the channel overcrowding, and they sought their own (albeit illegal) relief.  Some added crystals to gain some extra channels.  Others ran VFO's to gain an even greater range.  At the extreme end of the scale were those guys who ran out and bought expensive H.F. ham rigs like the Yaesu FT-101 to gain access to those "funny freqs" and gain a little more performance to boot.  When 23 channels were the norm, only channel 16 (and in some cases 17 as well) were set aside (by gentleman's agreement only, there were no FCC rules defining this) for SSB (Single Side Band) use. The increasing interest in SSB caused channel 16 to be virtually unusable.  If SSB'ers tried to jump to another channel, they were met by very angry AM'ers, and fights usually erupted.  Many of our local SSB'ers, faced with this unworkable situation, chose to move out of band and started hanging out around 27.365 (Which would eventually become channel 36).  Many others sought out of band channels to improve their chances at making a rare DX contact, as the 11 year sunspot cycle was on the rise then, and very close to the peak.  Still others wanted an "escape" from the "fad" people, some of whom were looked down on for not being primarily interested in the "radio" aspect of the hobby.  Ironically enough, while there were already a fair amount of people running around illegally on the "uppers", those who were there were fiercely territorial about it.  SSB'ers pretty much claimed most or all of the territory above channel 23 for exclusive SSB use.  AM'ers were expected to drop below channel 1 for their illegal channel forays.  Those who didn't abide by "the rules" were in for a severe on-air tongue lashing.  The irony, of course, being that these guys demanded adherence to their unwritten "rules", while they were all on illegal channels to begin with.  These guys also viewed the upcoming 40 channel legalization with contempt.  After all, they figured, the reason they were all out of band in the first place, was to escape the hordes of "fad-users"  and all of those people were about to come storming onto "their" nice clean frequencies with the full blessing of the FCC.

Besides the political issues, there was some opposition in other corners of the hobby as well.  The CB radio community was a gullible, conspiracy theorist's paradise.  There were always rumors of the FCC being in town, along with rumors running around about a particular brand of radio or antenna, and the associated problems they were "rumored" to have.  The print was still drying on the FCC's final rule notice granting authority for the 17 expanded channels, when the mostly unfounded rumors started flying about the new 40 channel radios.  The biggest rumor was that the FCC was cracking down on the ease of radio modification (Boy were they ever wrong!), and that power output was being dropped to 2.5 watts, and designed to not be able to be peaked much above that value.  It was also rumored that the radios were not as well designed and would suffer from more bleed over and they would not last as long.  Remember that these rumors were flying long before anyone had their hands on an actual 40 channel radio, and were based on "insider knowledge" from "unnamed sources" who "knew someone" in the business.  Despite the glaring lack of fact-based information, that didn't stop people from repeating what they'd heard.  I, myself, was guilty of repeating some of these rumors, but I did qualify the information as hearsay after passing it on.  A lot of this suspicion and animosity toward the new radios had to do with the expense involved in upgrading.  Human nature being what it is, says that it's much easier to justify NOT having to upgrade something, if you believe that it isn't a better product.  It didn't have to be true though, you only had to BELIEVE it was.  Most people didn't have a spare $300 lying around to upgrade to a 40 channel SSB base rig (Especially if they only recently spent $300 on their current 23 channel one). This drove many people (including me) to talk down the new radios while, at the same time, seeking alternative methods to access the new frequencies, so they could retain the familiarity of their current rig, while taking advantage of the new channels.

Behind the scenes, the radio manufacturers had been test driving their new "expansion ready" designs.  Since it takes time to design, test and market a new product, the manufacturers didn't want to wait for the FCC to finalize their plan before getting to work designing the expanded coverage radios.  Since the old method of crystal synthesis would become too costly if radios became 99 channel, a newer technology, the Phase Locked Loop (PLL)  was employed instead. A PLL design can generate hundreds of channels with as few as 1 master crystal.  These new PLL designed radios started to creep into the 23 channel lineup starting in 1975, sometimes as an identical looking "updated" current model (I.E. the Midland 13-882C, which was physically identical to the 13-882B, except for the new PLL design). These radios were pretty much ready for whatever channel plan that would eventually be approved by the FCC.  All that would have to be changed was the channel selector switch and maybe a few support components.  

Well Jan 1st 1977 came and went.  During the following year,  40 channel radios became the norm, while the 23's faded from dealer's sight as their shelf stock was depleted.  These 23's were given help finding a new home by the deep discounts that the dealers gave to them (sometimes up to 80% off).  This was a source of much consternation to those who had paid full price, just 6 short months prior.  The new 40 channel radios turned out, for the most part, to be just as good in performance as their 23 channel counterparts.  In many cases, the newer designed receivers were even better, getting even less bleed over than earlier models did.  Transmit power remained at 4 watts and radios could still be peaked (for what little gain it gave) to 6 or 7 watts.  The only negative spot was in the modulation limiting.  The newer design radios (Including some later 23 channel rigs) included a much better modulation limiter.  Where older rigs simply clipped overmodulation peaks, the new rigs actually reduced the gain of the mike amp circuit to compensate for overmodulation.  But this wasn't an insurmountable condition as many screwdriver techs would simply "clip" the limiter out, and regain that familiar overmodulation which was common on the older 23 channel sets.  Soon the advantages of the PLL frequency synthesizer became apparent as people discovered that there could be 100 or more additional channels "hidden" within the confines of their rig.  Since at the very beginning, the original expansion plan called for up to 99 channels, many radio designs used PLL components which could generate many more frequencies than the final 40 channel band plan finally settled on.  This situation would lead radio hackers to illegally expand their PLL rigs to cover many more channels than what was called for on the 40 channel plan.  And what about those SSB guys hanging out on what had become channel 36?  Well as part of the channel expansion, many SSB groups got together and made another "gentleman's agreement" where channels 36 through 40 would be set aside for SSB use only.  Many of the former illegal operators remained on 36 - 40 where there was still a good deal of room to spread out. Those who couldn't handle that, moved even further out of band to frequencies like 27.555.  

So there you have it.  The channel expansion went fairly smoothly, and everyone eventually benefited from it.  The radios would continue to evolve as the next generation 40 channel rigs adopted a much easier to view LED channel display.  The FCC started to crack down on the ease of frequency expansion, once it was clear that 40 channels would be all there was.   The next generation designs were "encouraged" to not allow expansion beyond the standard 40 channels. Today's designs are pretty much all this way with the exception of one or two Uniden based designs that are still basically unchanged from 29 years ago. It's interesting to note that, with a few exceptions,  most of today's CB radios are still using 25+ year old technology.

Boy I'm getting old........