Surplus LMR Ham Radios
The FCC has mandated that by 2013 all land mobile radio (LMR) users in the VHF-high and UHF bands switch their systems to a narrowband standard. Previously, LMR systems ran FM with a maximum 5 KHz. deviation. The new standard calls for 2.5 KHz. This doubles the amount of available channels as the spacing will then go from 15 KHz. To 7.5 KHz. All LMR radios made within the past 10 years or so are narrowband compliant, but there is still quite a bit of older stuff in use out there. Commercial radios are built to last!
This FCC mandate has made millions of perfectly serviceable radios unusable for LMR use after 2013. While most of them will find their way to developing countries or be scrapped/recycled, there will still be plenty around for hobbyist use. The two meter (144-148 MHz.) and 70 cm (420-450 MHz.) ham bands are directly adjacent to the VHF-high and UHF LMR bands respectively, and the LMR gear can moved over to the ham bands with no or little adjustment, 90% of the time.
The best equipment for the hobbyist to look for, in my opinion, would be the 50-100 watt mobile radios, and any radio that is front-panel programmable (FPP). An FPP radio is exactly as described, a radio that you can program frequencies in from the front panel, without the need for a computer with the correct radio service software (RSS), radio interface box (RIB), and programming cable. One of the biggest differences between ham gear and commercial gear is that ham gear is designed to be set by the user to any frequency within the edges of a given ham band, while commercial gear is set to specific channels in the LMR band, usually by a radio shop, that the user is licensed for. So where a ham can simply tune right to 146.52 MHz. for example, a commercial LMR user goes to Channel N and the frequency is pretty irrelevant unless someone wants to listen in with a scanner (assuming the mode is analog FM or P25, and not something like TRBO or NEXEDGE).
Being that LMR users are restricted to specific channels, the equipment can not be ready programmed to go off their licensed frequencies. Older radios had quartz oscillator crystals in them that determined the specific frequency. Some can be programmed directly from the front panel by entering in an unlock code on the panel's keypad, usually after moving a programming jumper on the radio's circuit board or attaching a programming dongle to the radio. Most radios are done with a computer, using the proper RSS, RIB, and programming cable for the specific make and model of radio. In the days of USB ports, the RIB is becoming a thing of the past with a USB programming cable that goes directly from the computer to the radio.
Of the three items, the RIB and cable are the easiest to get. The RSS may be a different story however. Some LMR companies are not too bad with software availability, and may have it available at a reasonable cost (or free) without hassle. Other companies are a different story. They may restrict software availability to “authorized service centers”, and discontinue software availability for “obsolete” products. Some companies have been extremely aggressive in going after individuals who “pirate” their software. Motorola is notorious for this. Your mileage may vary.
There are also early synthesized radios that are programmed by burning a PROM or EPROM that is then plugged into the radio. The programmers and chips range in availability from unobtanium to pretty commom. Generally speaking, the Motorola stuff using their proprietary modules and "suitcase programmer", such as the MX-350S handhelds, should be avoided as it's almost impossible to get the stuff to get them reprogrammed. The old GE stuff used more common hardware that has since been reverse engineered by hobbyists, and is available in the ham community if you look and ask around.
So What's Out There, and What Do You Recommend?
The easiest and best option for the beginner RF hobbyist looking to get into "real radios" is an FPP model, as no external equipment is needed to get it up on running on the right frequencies. More likely than not you'll be getting a portable (HT) as that'll be the unit you'll be changing frequencies on most often. There are several types of FPP radios out there. My favorites are the Motorola JT1000, Icom H-16 & U-16, "hamflashed" GE MPA, Kenwood TK-350, and Bendix King LPI (a/k/a U.S. Military PRC-127). If you can find an old Radio Shack simplex repeater box (cat# 190-0345), they work very well with the Icom radios. On the mobile side, a lot of hams like the Kenwood TK-705 (VHF) and TK-805 (UHF). Icom also made the V-100 (VHF) and U-400 (UHF) mobiles that are FPP.
Older crystal controlled radios, in which each frequency is determined by an oscillator crystal inserted into the radio, are generally overlooked by hobbyist types. I've found them a useful source of RF parts, especially when acquired for free. Getting them recrystalled and retuned for ham band frequencies is not too difficult, and they are reliable performers for certain fixed applications where you won't be changing the frequency.
Case in point, many years ago I came across a Drake TR-22, which is a vintage solid-state crystal-controlled 2 meter rig, that was recrystalled by the previous owner for all the AX.25 packet radio channels in the 145.01-145.09 MHz. region. It also had the 146.52 national simplex frequency in it, and a couple other common simplex channels. The radio cost like $30, and it made a very handy packet rig. More recently I was given a donation of older vintage VHF-low band (30-50 MHz.) equipment to help out with a project I'm working on. Included was a Motorola Mocom-70 that was recrystalled to operate on the 6 meter band (50-54 MHz.) simplex frequency of 52.525 MHz. Just attach an adequate 12V power source to the radio, and it's all ready to go. Stuff like this, despite its age, will continue to run like a tank for many years to come. When it does break, you can usually find a scanned copy of the service manual online, and fix it with commonly available electronic components, if you can't find someone with a "parts unit" they'd like to offload. If you come across any Motorola MT-500 portables, you might want to give them a second look. There have been copious ham-related mods done to them, and one gentleman has done a great job converting them for APRS use on the 2 meter ham band.
That leaves the radios that require computer programming. As mentioned previously, getting RSS can be problematic, depending the make/model of your radio. Fortunately, there are plenty of hams who work in the LMR industry, and hams who like to work with surplus commercial gear. Assuming you don't come across as a total jerk or basket-case, they will likely be able to get your radio up on the ham bands. Do not ask them for copies of current production RSS, and do not ask them to program non-ham frequencies into your radio. I can assure you that the answer will be no, and that future assistance may not be very forthcoming. While hams who work in the LMR industry are for the most part very helpful in helping their fellow hobbyists get surplus commercial gear up and running on the ham bands, they're not going to do anything that will jeopardize their job, such as pirating software or putting someone on a frequency they're not authorized for. With that said, some of the older stuff from companies that are not be around in their original incarnation may be available online if you look around. Downloading and using such obsolete, orphaned software for non-commercial (ham) purposes will probably not cause you grief.
My first commercial portable was a Motorola MT1000. They come in a 99 channel variety, and if you find one you would do well to get it. Those Genesis series radios are true bricks. After that I ran Saber and HT-1000 portables, which are both excellent radios. Some of the early ASTRO Saber radios are also becoming available in the surplus market, which would be a good way to get a P25 handheld. For mobile radios, the two Motorola models to look for are the Maxtrac and the Spectra. Both of those have an accessory jack on the back of the radio that, among other things, gives you unfiltered demodulated audio, like a discriminator tap on a police scanner, which can be used for monitoring various digital modes such as POCSAG. These radios will also handle data transmission very well. There are plenty of older Spectras, and to a lesser extent Maxtracs, still in active service. Come 2013, they will not be able to be legally used on the LMR bands.
Some of the best radios to come out of the surplus LMR market are the 100 watt remote-mount mobile radios that also see use as base stations. The radio's control head has a nice small footprint that fits anywhere on a workbench, and the RF deck can be placed somewhere out of the way. Motorola Maratracs are nice, especially if you can get a 99-channel control head for it. The Primo unit in my opinion, however, is the VHF-low band Syntor X9000. Unlike other low-band radios that only cover a portion of the band, the Syntor has full 30-50 MHz. coverage and will operate on both the 10 meter and 6 meter ham bands with up to 128 channels. Syntors have been discontinued for some time now, and are beginning to become like unobtanium. If you find one, grab it and hold onto it!
Further Resources For Ham Conversions of Commercial LMR Gear