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How many channels does your two-way radio need?

What is a Channel?

Channels are a way to partition a two-way radio, so that its user can communicate with multiple people without everyone talking over each other and having to worry about who talks when. Imagine the chaos if there were no phone numbers and everyone just picked up the phone and started talking!

Of course, there aren't as many two-way radio channels or frequencies as there are phone numbers, so walkie-talkie users have to make some adjustments, but there are dozens and dozens of possible frequencies from which to choose. Users select their choice, from the frequencies available to them, and lock it into partitions called "Channels."

In a typical 4-channel two-way radio, the user has 4 possible channels to tune to frequencies for the radios in that group. Once clear frequencies are selected, all radios in the group would choose the same frequencies for the same channel numbers.

For instance, in a restaurant, the kitchen staff would be on Channel 1, the waiters on Channel 2, the car valets on Channel 3 and maintenance on Channel 4. The manager could scan between all channels to hear all that is going on. But, the waiters could set the radios to only tune to Channels 1 and 2; so that they only hear other waiters and the kitchen staff, but not the unneeded talk from the valets or maintenance staff.

Before shipping, all radios of a brand and model are typically set to the same frequencies and channels in the factory. A common issue with new radio users is that they often use their radios right out of the box with the factory settings for frequency and channel on Channel 1 unchanged. Using your new radio without changing the factory set channel frequencies greatly increases the possibility of nearby, similar radios interfering with each other because those users also probably didn't change their factory settings. Your best bet: set your channels to frequencies that are clear of other users in your area as part of your initial radio setup.

In short: Channels are partitions of your radio that you can and should tune to different frequencies. Besides surfing around for a chatter-free frequency, another way to filter out other people's broadcasts uses “privacy codes."

Privacy Codes?

More like Interference Elimination Codes Privacy Line Codes (PL), Tone, Squelch Codes, Quiet Talk Codes (QT), Interference Elimination Codes. There are more than a few names for them in the two-way radio industry. Privacy codes is the most common name, but interference elimination codes would be more accurate. Though they greatly reduce the odds of your conversation getting stepped on by someone else's broadcasts; they don't guarantee privacy.

For more detailed information on how privacy codes work visit privacy codes To communicate using privacy codes, you and the person you're talking with must have your radios set to the same frequency and the same privacy code e.g. both radios set to Frequency 462.5625, Privacy 13. Depending on the type of radio you buy (analogue or digital) you may have access to between 38 and 121 privacy codes.

Multiply the number of privacy codes available for your radio, by the number of frequencies allotted to the type of radio service you use and you'll have anywhere from 500 to 3,000 or more chances to have an uninterrupted conversation! Just remember that privacy codes increase your odds of not being interrupted, but they don't guarantee it. If someone within range has their walkie-talkie set to the same frequency and the same privacy code as yours, they could hear and join in your conversation. With so many frequencies and privacy codes the odds are slim, but still present.

If someone has their radio set to the same frequency, but not the same privacy code they will be able to hear your conversation, but they won't be able to join in. Analogue two-way radio privacy codes range from 1-38. In general, manufacturers use them in a standardized way allowing for radio compatibility across brands.

Digital two-way radio privacy codes are numbered from 39 and can go as high as 99, 121 or higher. However, digital privacy codes don't always map across manufacturers, so your digital two-way radios, with digital codes, may not be able to communicate using privacy codes with radios made by other manufacturers.

Quick Summary: Channels are partitions of your radio that you tune to different frequencies which you can then subdivide, for more potential lines of communication, by using privacy codes.

Selecting a Clear Channel

All two-way radios come with a monitor function. When activated, it overrides all programmed code settings and allows the receiver to hear what's happening on any frequency. On a clear frequency, you'll hear hiss. If a frequency is in use, you'll hear what's being broadcast. It's important to check the frequency and privacy code you intend to use and select clear frequencies to set your channels. You don't want to risk missed messages or radio interference.

How Many Channels Do You Need?

Be sure to think ahead. A critical consideration for an enduring investment in quality two-way radios is anticipating how many people or groups of people will need to communicate now and in the future.

Several popular models only have one or two channels; as that can be plenty for smaller businesses who are likely to only ever assign one or two groups of people to a channel. The average commercial grade radio offers 2-16 channels, which is typically more than enough for most handheld-to-handheld operations. Heavy duty radios heavy duty radios used by fire and police departments, may have up to 256 different channels. To cut down on confusion in a commercial setting, it's a good idea to divide your employees into groups who use their own channels. For instance in a nursing home, you might make Channel 1 an "All Call" channel that reaches all groups. You could assign the Nursing Staff to Channel 2. Put the Front Desk Staff on Channel 3 and add the Maintenance Staff on Channel 4. Groups might be set up according to location, department, type of work or anything that drives your operations. You'd set up which groups hear and talk to other groups using your walkie talkie's scanning feature. In our nursing home, anyone with a radio could use Channel 1 to call everyone in an emergency. To cut down on excess chatter, the Nursing Staff would communicate with only other nurses by using Channel 2. That way, other departments don't have to be bothered with calls that don't involve them. Our nursing home managers can set their radios to scan; so they're able to hear all communications over all channels.

When making your decision on which model to purchase, be sure to look ahead. You'll want to buy radios now that will accommodate your business 3-5 years down the road. Buying now for later means you won't have to repeat the exercise and expense of replacing equipment, because your initial purchase didn't anticipate the correct number of channels you'd need as your business grew. Sure, it's slightly more expensive to buy radios with more channels now, but it will be much less expensive than replacing your radios, if they can't handle your communication requirements in the coming years.

Channel Scanning and Communicating

To see how to maximize efficiency using your two-way radio's scanning feature, let's take a look at a hotel with the following channel settings:

  1. All Call - Anyone can speak and hear everyone on all channels.
  2. Manager
  3. Front Desk
  4. Facilities
  5. Housekeeping
  6. Bell Staff
  7. Catering

In this scenario, you'd program all staff radios to scan Channel 1 (All Call) and their own channel. So, Housekeeping radios would scan Channel 1 and Channel 5. Front Desk radios would scan Channel 1 and Channel 3 and so on. The Manager might program their radio to scan all channels, so they can oversee general operations.

Each department would leave their walkie-talkies turned to their own channel and communicate amongst themselves by using the Push to Talk button.

If a department wants to talk to another department, they simply turn their radios to that department's channel to communicate with them. For example, when the Front Desk wants to talk to Housekeeping they would temporarily turn their radios to Channel 5. Anyone who wants to talk to Facilities, would turn their radios to Channel 4. Anyone who wants to talk to the whole group would turn their radios to Channel 1 where everyone would hear their message because all radios have been programmed to scan Channel 1; as well as their own channel.

This setup allows everyone in the operation to speak with any group, but eliminates the distraction of unnecessary chatter that would occur if all radios were set to the same channel.