Breaker, Breaker: CB Radio Is Back

In this "retro" age when teenagers are rediscovering disco, the rock group Kiss has returned to the stage, and lime green is back as a fashion statement, could CB radios be far behind?

Like a growing number of twentysomethings, computer operator Larry Spencer is eschewing a cellular phone and the Internet for a low-tech mode of communication that some may have dismissed as an anachronism of the '70s.

"This is going to be very different than just talking on a phone," Mr. Spencer says, eyeing a brand that offers 40 channels. "A whole new world can open up to me."

Breaker, breaker: Citizen's band radio is on the rebound. Sales of CBs in the past four years have jumped in the US, and electronics industry experts see a new niche for the communications device. They say young people and those in the middle- and lower-income brackets have turned to CBs as a less-expensive, more-practical alternative to cellular phones, pagers, and computers with modems.

"There's a whole new generation of Americans discovering what the CB is," says Mark Rosenker, vice president of the Electronic Industries Association in Arlington, Va.

Indeed, Spencer is too young to remember the CB craze of the 1970s. But he is fed up with the costs of a cell phone, in no need of a pager, and he wants a way to communicate cheaply. CBs range in price from $40-$500, with no monthly services fees or air time charges. "It's one-time buying," says Cliff Welch, owner of Clyde's Corner.

Also, the number of parties a person can talk to is limitless. "Cellular phones and pagers operate from point to point, in that sense they're limited," Mr. Rosenker says. "In a sense [CBs are] like an audio version of the chat room in cyberspace."

Adding to the CB's popularity is its long range. Some CB's with "sideband" capability can almost span the hemisphere in the right atmospheric conditions. This facet has made it popular in states such as California with large immigrant populations.

For example, Omar Aguilar of Concord, Calif., says he frequently drives up nearby Mount Diablo, where the altitude gives him better reception, to communicate via CB with his family in Juarez, Mexico, near the US border. "I speak to a cousin who has a CB," Mr. Aguilar says, "and he carries messages back and forth to my family." Aguilar estimates he saves a tidy $50-$100 per month in phone bills.

Some operators use "amplifiers," which extend a CB's range even farther, but this violates Federal Communications Commission rules.

Citizens band radio began as a communications tool for police and emergency personnel. In the 1970s it became a cultural phenomenon, popularized by truck drivers and glamorized by music and movies. At its peak in 1977, more than 11 million units were sold in the US and an estimated 50 million Americans were using CBs.

But the CB's popularity proved its undoing. With so many people jamming the airwaves communication became difficult, particularly between emergency response agencies. The FCC cracked down. It established limits on the channels a person could use and the transmission power of CBs. Also, operators were required to get a license. Thanks to the new rules and declining popularity, CB sales dived. Less than 1 million units were sold annually in the late '80s.

The FCC eventually dropped its license requirement, and in 1993 sales began to rise again. But Rosenker says the telecommunications boom helped CB sales more than the less-restrictive FCC regulations. In 1995, 1.8 million CBs were sold in the US and Rosenker expects between 2.5 million to 3 million to be sold this year.

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