Using a Commerical Handheld with Amateur Radio

During the September 10, 2021, club meeting, Kerry K3RRY presented what it is like using a commercial handheld radio on amateur repeaters. A PDF of his presentation is here. Below is a writeup of that presentation.

Since I can get a Baofeng UV-5R dual-band handheld radio from Amazon for $25, spending time figuring out how to use a commercial handheld radio in the amateur bands is a crazy idea. And yet, that’s what I did.

In this article, I’m going to explain my motivation for using a commercial radio in the ham bands, I’ll describe all that you will need to get to do this yourself, and I’ll show how to use everything. Then I’ll report whether the whole endeavor was a good idea or not.

Why Do This?

In 2019 I volunteered in the Art Department at Burning Man. One of my jobs was to help artists find the locations that were reserved for their art installations over a three square mile area of dry lake bed. As a member of “Field Operations” I drove a golf cart, I used a GPS, and I was issued a Motorola commercial radio to let me communicate with my shift lead and with golf-cart maintenance.

I was surprised that the audio quality of radio communications was fantastic, always. I assumed that the radio’s digital mode was the reason, but after I returned home, I learned that the same radio that I had been using in digital mode also could be programmed for analog mode with amateur radio repeaters. Reports were that even in analog mode, the radio would retain its superior audio quality, and so I decided to get a commercial radio for home use, just like the one that I had used in the desert.

What to Get?

I had been issued either a Motorola XPR 7550 or a XPR 7550e (they look the same). It appeared that both the XPR 7550 and the XPR 7550e would work, but there also is the earlier generation XPR 6550. I briefly considered it, but then I viewed a Youtube video that compares the audio of the XPR 6550 and the XPR 7550, and I was convinced not to get the older model.

Since most analog repeaters in Santa Cruz County are on VHF, I used eBay to get a VHF version of the XPR 7550e. A reasonable question would be, why didn’t I get a dual-band radio? The answer is that there’s no such thing. Motorola does not make a dual-band radio in the XPR line because there is no demand. The XPR commercial radios are used in leased-spectrum, private communications systems that do not need to interoperate with visiting radios, and so a single band is all that’s needed.

Motorola does make a quad-band public-service radio, and it works in the VHF and UHF ham bands. It’s even rated for exposure to 500 °F. However, a recent eBay listing of a Motorola APX 8000XE shows an asking price that is more than the cost of a new Elecraft K4! So clearly getting such a handheld is not the way to go.

Assuming that you get an XPR 7550/e radio on eBay, I recommend looking for a listing that shows these things:

  • Photo of the part-number sticker (after removing the battery). The XPR 7550 part number starts with AAH55, and the XPR7550e part number starts with AAH56. After that, a J means VHF and an R means UHF. The rest of the part number specifies additional features like GPS, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. Some features need to be enabled by purchasing an “entitlement ID.”
  • Screenshot of the Device Features window of the programming software showing which features have been purchased and enabled. Some features can be very expensive, and so if you want them, check which radios already have them.
  • Screenshot of the radio’s Radio Info screen showing the firmware version. I’ll say more about the importance of the firmware version later.
  • Screenshot of the radio’s Battery Info screen showing the battery’s service life. The number starts at 100% and decreases.

You will find that some radios look nearly new. This could be because the seller has replaced the outer plastic case and the LCD (for about $100). Expect to pay more for such radios.

One last thing to consider is that the XPR 7550 uses an SMA connector for its antenna, while the XPR 7550e uses a proprietary connector. So if you get the earlier model, you can connect an external antenna. On the other hand, the receiver of the current XPR 7550e is supposedly more sensitive. So there is a tradeoff to consider.

You are going to need a programming cable. Check the eBay listings of BlueMax49ers for an appropriate programming cable. He is local and includes accurate installation instructions.

You’re also going to need software. It will take you about two weeks to get an account created and the software purchased and installed. Yes, you need to buy the software. It will cost $169 for a 3-year license.

  1. Register for an account at Motorola Solutions.
  2. If you receive a questionnaire, the answer to the question about what you want to buy is “MotoTRBO CPS license and download and wideband entitlement ID.”
  3. You may be asked to accept the software license agreement online.
  4. You need to enable the software’s wideband (25 kHz) feature to correctly program the radio for ham repeaters. To get the Wideband Entitlement ID, you will need to watch a Youtube video and pass an online test.
  5. You may need to call customer support to request access to firmware images for your radio.

It took me two weeks to get the software purchased, installed, and working. The process involved five calls to Motorola Customer Support.

Once you have the software, the next step is to learn how to use it. It took me 12 days of reading blog posts and watching Youtube videos. Along the way I discovered that I wanted to purchase a couple radio features. The best way to do this is through North Georgia Communications. I got their DMR Firmware EID Bundle for $35.

There is one last thing to consider regarding the programming software and the radio’s firmware. The original programming software, MotoTRBO CPS, is considered by many to be superior to the replacement product, MotoTRBO CPS 2.0. Also, most training material is for the older software. However, the older software cannot program radios with current firmware, and so you will want to check that the radio’s firmware version is compatible with your choice of programming software. It appears that radios with firmware versions beyond R02.09.01.0001 require MotoTRBO CPS 2.0.

How to Use Everything?

Using the programming software, you can perform these tasks:

  • Enable software features and radio features using entitlement IDs. You’ll use the menu items Features → Register Application Features and Features → Device Features
  • Display a radio’s firmware and purchased features by clicking on the model number at the top of the left navigation window and viewing Device Information and Device Features.
  • Program the channels of the radio. You’ll go to Channels in the left navigation window and right-click Channels with the mouse to insert a new zone. Then right-click on the zone to insert a new analog channel. Be sure to select 25 kHz channel bandwidth, and then set the RX frequency to the repeater frequency, select the TPL squelch type, and set the TPL frequency (the tone). Next use the Offset field and Copy button to configure matching TX settings.
  • Customize a radio’s buttons. This is an optional step, but it can be convenient to have the Zone selection and Mute features on the front-panel P1 and P2 buttons.

What Are the Results?

After taking all of this effort, the audio quality of the XPR 7550e radio is fantastic! I’m not going back! Also, the XPR 7550e seems not to need a squelch knob, because there isn’t one, and I haven’t missed it. The RX Leveling feature has eliminated my tendency to ride the volume knob while listening to different hams on a repeater. This is my favorite handheld radio.

However, to be honest, since this is a commercial radio, there are some drawbacks. I need separate radios for VHF and for UHF, it is impossible to program channels using the keypad, the software isn’t free, and I needed to pay to enable some radio features. But in the end, I’m happy with my choice, and I’d do it again.

Original Presentation Slides