Trunked radio system

Last updated
A central-controlled trunked system uses a control channel (as shown). Another type, scan based trunked systems, (not shown) do not have a control channel. Frequencies are for discussion purposes and do not correspond to any specific system. Trunked 5ch central control.svg
A central-controlled trunked system uses a control channel (as shown). Another type, scan based trunked systems, (not shown) do not have a control channel. Frequencies are for discussion purposes and do not correspond to any specific system.

A trunked radio system is a two-way radio system that uses a control channel to automatically assign frequency channels to groups of user radios. In a traditional half-duplex land mobile radio system a group of users (a talkgroup) with mobile and portable two-way radios communicate over a single shared radio channel, with one user at a time talking. These systems typically have access to multiple channels, up to 40-60, so multiple groups in the same area can communicate simultaneously. In a conventional (non-trunked) system, channel selection is done manually; before use the group must decide which channel to use, and manually switch all the radios to that channel. This is an inefficient use of scarce radio channel resources because the user group must have exclusive use of their channel regardless of how much or how little they are transmitting. There is also nothing to prevent multiple groups in the same area from choosing the same channel, causing conflicts and 'cross-talk'. A trunked radio system is an advanced alternative in which the channel selection process is done automatically by a central controller (computer).


Trunking is a more automated and complex radio system, but provides the benefits of less user intervention to operate the radio and greater spectral efficiency with large numbers of users. Instead of assigning a radio channel to one particular user group at a time, users are instead assigned to a logical grouping, a talkgroup. When any user in that group wishes to communicate with another user in the talkgroup, an idle radio channel is found automatically by the system and the conversation takes place on that channel. Many unrelated conversations can occur on a channel, making use of the otherwise idle time between conversations. Each radio transceiver contains a microprocessor that handles the channel selection process. A control channel coordinates all the activity of the radios in the system. The control channel computer sends packets of data to enable one talkgroup to talk together, regardless of frequency.

The primary purpose of this type of system is efficiency; many people can carry many conversations over only a few distinct frequencies. [1] Trunking is used by many government entities to provide two-way communication for fire departments, police and other municipal services, who all share spectrum allocated to a city, county, or other entity. A secondary benefit of a trunking radio system is the ease with which it can accommodate radio interoperability and with proper planning, add authorized user agencies to the system post-implementation.

Principles of operation

Control channels

In essence, a trunked radio system is a packet switching computer network. Users' radios send data packets to a computer, operating on a dedicated frequency — called a control channel — to request communication on a specific talkgroup. The controller sends a signal to all radios monitoring that talkgroup, instructing the radios to automatically switch to the frequency indicated by the system to monitor the transmission. After the user is done speaking, the users' radios return to monitoring the control channel for additional transmissions.

This arrangement allows multiple groups of users to share a small set of actual radio frequencies without hearing each other's conversations. Trunked systems primarily conserve limited radio frequencies and also provide other advanced features to users.


A 'talkgroup' is an assigned logical group of users on a trunked radio system. Unlike a conventional radio which assigns users a certain frequency, a trunk system uses a number of frequencies allocated to the entire system. Then the control channel coordinates the system so talkgroups can share these frequencies seamlessly. The purpose is to dramatically increase system capacity with optimal use of frequencies. Many radios today treat talkgroups as if they were frequencies, since they behave like such. For example, on a radio scanner it is very common to be able to assign talkgroups into banks or lock them out, exactly like that of conventional frequencies.

Fleet maps and IDs

Each system is built with a number of system talkgroups identified as required by the planned user agencies, to which new talkgroups can easily be added as the system matures and new agencies or new requirements are identified. For each user agency, talkgroups are assigned in an agency 'fleetmap'. The fleetmap lays out the various talkgroups that the agency requires to successfully undertake its business. For example, in an ambulance service fleetmap there will be a talkgroup created for each of the hospital ER's that the ambulances interact with; talkgroups for communications with dispatch(s), talkgroups for special events or disasters, a talkgroup for air medical transport, and a number of talkgroups that are shared (with appropriate controls) with other first response agencies such as police and fire services. Each talkgroup is assigned a unique digital ID on the system so that the controller can direct transmissions to the radios which are intended to receive them. Within the same shared system there can be a fleet of ambulances, a fleet of police users, and a fleet of firefighters. In most shared public safety/public service systems, whether city-wide, or state/province-wide, there are often additional users sharing the system at a pre-determined lower priority for service such as animal control, public works, highways maintenance, correctional services, natural resources, etc. The system may also include talkgroups for federal agencies operating within the jurisdiction and in some cases commercial users which provide assistance to general public safety. These fleetmaps are considered subfleets of the actual talkgroups. The subfleets are intuitively programmed into the users' radios so that the users can easily find a talkgroup when s/he is required to switch for a particular situation. Alternatively, a trunking system dispatch console operator can actually 'patch' two talkgroups together making a new 'virtual' talkgroup to allow users from different agencies to communicate without having to switch channels.

Generally in planning a multi-agency trunking radio system, each agency is assigned a 'block' of talkgroup ID numbers based on the number of talkgroups they anticipate requiring, plus some excess for future expansion. Thus a police service block of talkgroup ID's might begin with 102100 up to 102199, and a fire service block on the same system might begin with 102200 up to 102299. This identifies the system as 102XXX and provides one hundred talkgroup ID's for each agency. Agency-shared talkgroups (sometimes referred to as Mutual Aid or Inter-agency) may be assigned a block starting at 102500 up to 102520, allowing for twenty shared talkgroups that can be offered for use by any authorized agency. In many province-wide systems, it is mandatory for participation in the system for user agencies to include all of the authorized shared talkgroups and/or shared simplex frequencies.


Most scanners that can listen to trunked radio systems (called trunk tracking) are able to scan and store individual talkgroups just as if they were frequencies. The difference in this case is that the groups are assigned to a certain bank in which the trunked system is programmed. In other words, the talkgroups are stored on the trunked bank.

Comparison with telephone trunking

The concept of trunking (resource sharing) is actually quite old, and is taken from telephone company technology and practice. Consider two telco central office exchanges, one in town "A" and the other in adjacent town "B". Each of these central offices has the theoretical capacity to handle ten thousand individual telephone numbers. (Central office "A", with prefix "123", has available 10,000 numbers from 123-0000 to 123-9999; central office "B", with prefix "124", the same.)

If all 10,000 subscribers in "A" were to simultaneously call 10,000 subscribers in "B", then it would be necessary to have 10,000 lines to connect the two towns. However, the odds of that happening are remote, as the number of simultaneous phone calls is usually much lower. Erlang-B is a common formula that predicts the optimal number of trunk lines actually needed under normal conditions.

This concept has been simply applied to radio user groups, to determine the optimal number of channels needed, under normal conditions, to accommodate a given number of users. In the event of a widespread emergency such as a major earthquake, many more users than normal will attempt to access both the telephone and radio systems. In both cases once the trunking capacity of the systems is fully used, all subsequent users will receive a busy signal. In such a case management of communications becomes critical with only very local communications sharing simplex (non-system) frequencies, and longer distance communications sharing pre-planned trunking talkgroups and governing use of the resources to essential communications.

In our example of police dispatch, different talkgroups are assigned different system priority levels, sometimes with 'preemption' capability, attempting to ensure that communication between critical units is maintained.

Differences from conventional two-way radio

'Trunked' radio systems differ from 'conventional' radio systems in that a conventional radio system uses a dedicated channel (frequency) for each individual group of users, while 'trunking' radio systems use a pool of channels which are available for a great many different groups of users. [2]

For example, if police communications are configured in such a way that twelve conventional channels are required to permit citywide dispatch based upon geographical patrol areas, during periods of slow dispatch activity, much of that channel capacity is idle. In a trunked system, the police units in a given geographical area are not assigned a dedicated channel, but instead are members of a talk-group entitled to draw upon the common resources of a smaller pool of channels.

Advantages of Trunking

Trunked radio takes advantage of the probability that with any given number of users, not everyone will need channel access at the same time, therefore fewer discrete radio channels are required. From another perspective, with a given number of radio channels, a much greater number of user groups can be accommodated. In the example of the police department, this additional capacity could then be used to assign individual talkgroups to specialized investigative, traffic control, or special-events groups which might otherwise not have the benefit of individual private communications.

To the user, a trunking radio looks just like an 'ordinary' radio: there is a 'channel select switch' for the user to select the 'channel' that they want to use. In reality though, the 'channel switch' is not switching frequencies as in a conventional radio but when changed, it refers to an internal software program which causes a new talkgroup affiliation to be transmitted on the control channel. This identifies the specific radio to the system controller as a member of a specific talkgroup, and that radio will then be included in any conversations involving that talkgroup.

This also allows great flexibility in radio usage the same radio model can be used for many different types of system users (i.e. Police, Fire, Public Works, Animal Control, etc.) simply by changing the software programming in the radio itself.

Since the talkgroups are constantly transmitting on different frequencies, trunked radio systems makes it more difficult for a scanner listener without a programmed trunk tracking scanner to keep up with the conversation.

In 1997, radio scanners compatible with trunked systems appeared on the market. One of the first companies to bring these devices to market, Uniden, trademarked the term 'trunk tracking' on December 5, 1997. [3]

Types of trunked radio systems

This is not designed to be a list of manufacturers' equipment types, it is intended as a list of air protocol types unless significant vendor specific modifications have been made which violate the published standard.

Trunked radio technologies today have generally diverged into three distinct types or 'tiers'. These are not 'official', but are clearly defined within protocol types:- [ citation needed ]


These systems are relatively simple in their operation and only meet the minimum requirements to be defined as a 'trunked' radio system. They generally do not have enhanced features such as data communications or registration awareness. They will provide simple trunking facilities for voice calls only.


These systems exhibit some of the characteristics of a high tier trunked radio system but not all features. Therefore, they are suitable for small deployments where users are expected to use the entire network available (such as a private system covering a campus or town). Because of their lack of advanced features they generally are not suited to mission critical deployments, public access mobile radio (PAMR) type operation or uncoordinated shared user types.

DMR/dPMR true Tier 3/Mode 3 protocols are intended eventually to migrate into the "Advanced Mature high end" list below but today (2015) cannot be classified as such due to major interoperability issues, lack of mature protocol and lack of clearly defined user interface protocol. [ citation needed ]

Advanced systems

Some trunked radio protocols provide additional reliability and security.

NXDN Common Air Interface (CAI) was accepted at the meeting of the ITU-R (International Telecommunication Union Radiocommunications Sector) held in November 2016 and it has been added to Report M.2014-3, published in February 2017. It is an open, multi-vendor protocol widely adopted in mission-critical applications in Japan, USA and mainland Europe.

Other protocols include:


  1. Talk groups, scanning, and group calls are defined in, "Section 2: Needs Summary," Arizona Phase II Final Report: Statewide Radio Interoperability Needs Assessment, Macro Corporation and The State of Arizona, 2004, pp. 16.
  2. The document "Conventional and Trunked Radio Systems Comparison Report" from the Department of Homeland Security analyzes and compares conventional, trunked, and hybrid LMR systems and provides high-level definitions of the architecture alternatives associated with each option.
  3. US Patent and Trademark Office Registration Number 2407576, Serial Number 75400608, registered to Uniden America Corporation.

Related Research Articles

Communication during the September 11 attacks Communications on September 11, 2001

Communication problems and successes played an important role in the September 11, 2001, attacks and their aftermath. Systems were variously destroyed or overwhelmed by loads greater than they were designed to carry, or failed to operate as intended or desired.

In telecommunications and computer networks, a channel access method or multiple access method allows more than two terminals connected to the same transmission medium to transmit over it and to share its capacity. Examples of shared physical media are wireless networks, bus networks, ring networks and point-to-point links operating in half-duplex mode.

Terrestrial Trunked Radio, a European standard for a trunked radio system, is a professional mobile radio and two-way transceiver specification. TETRA was specifically designed for use by government agencies, emergency services, for public safety networks, rail transport staff for train radios, transport services and the military. TETRA is the European version of trunked radio, similar to Project 25.

Base station

Base station is – according to the International Telecommunication Union's (ITU) Radio Regulations (RR) – a "land station in the land mobile service."

In telecommunications, trunking is a technology for providing network access to multiple clients simultaneously by sharing a set of circuits, carriers, channels, or frequencies, instead of providing individual circuits or channels for each client. This is reminiscent to the structure of a tree with one trunk and many branches. Trunking in telecommunication originated in telegraphy, and later in telephone systems where a trunk line is a communications channel between telephone exchanges.

The Government Radio Network (GRN) is a network of various systems in place across Australia that enable statewide trunked radio communication. The network operates through inter-linked sites for government and public services such as police, ambulance, fire, or roads authorities which require such a system to function properly. The main aim of the GRN is to consolidate all resources into one network, ensuring greater coverage and reliability than if each department had its own independent communication system. The existence of the GRN also reduces the amount of government money and resources needed to maintain communication between units of emergency and public service branches. Last, it allows effective intercommunication among these services in times of national or state emergency for coordination of wide-scale actions.

Professional mobile radio Field radio communications systems

Professional mobile radio are person-to-person two-way radio voice communications systems which use portable, mobile, base station, and dispatch console radios. PMR radio systems are based on such standards as MPT-1327, TETRA, APCO 25, and DMR which are designed for dedicated use by specific organizations, or standards such as NXDN intended for general commercial use. These systems are used by police, fire, ambulance, and emergency services, and by commercial firms such as taxis and delivery services. Most systems are half-duplex, in which multiple radios share a common radio channel, and only one can transmit at a time. Transceivers are normally in receive mode, the user presses a push-to-talk button on his microphone when he wants to talk, which turns on his transmitter and turns off his receiver. They use channels in the VHF and UHF bands, giving them a limited range, usually 3 to 20 miles depending on terrain. Output power is typically limited to 4 watts. Repeaters installed on tall buildings, hills or mountain peaks are used to increase the range of systems.

Two-way radio Radio that can both transmit and receive a signal, used for bidirectional voice communication

A two-way radio is a radio that can both transmit and receive radio waves, unlike a broadcast receiver which only receives content. It is an audio (sound) transceiver, a transmitter and receiver in one unit, used for bidirectional person-to-person voice communication with other users with similar radios. Two-way radios are available in stationary, mobile, and hand-held portable models. Hand-held two-way radios are often called walkie-talkies, handie-talkies or hand-helds. Two-way radios are used by groups of geographically separated people who need to keep in continuous voice communication, such as aircraft pilots and air traffic controllers, ship captains and harbormasters, emergency services personnel like firefighters, police officers, and ambulance paramedics, taxi and delivery services, soldiers and military units, fast food and warehouse employees, and radio amateurs.

Radio scanner

A scanner is a radio receiver that can automatically tune, or scan, two or more discrete frequencies, stopping when it finds a signal on one of them and then continuing to scan other frequencies when the initial transmission ceases.

Project 25 is a suite of standards for interoperable digital two-way radio products. P25 was developed by public safety professionals in North America and has gained acceptance for public safety, security, public service, and commercial applications worldwide. P25 radios are a direct replacement for analog UHF radios, but add the ability to transfer data as well as voice, allowing for more natural implementations of encryption and text messaging. P25 radios are commonly implemented by dispatch organizations, such as police, fire, ambulance and emergency rescue service, using vehicle-mounted radios combined with handheld walkie-talkie use.

Statistical time-division multiplexing

Statistical multiplexing is a type of communication link sharing, very similar to dynamic bandwidth allocation (DBA). In statistical multiplexing, a communication channel is divided into an arbitrary number of variable bitrate digital channels or data streams. The link sharing is adapted to the instantaneous traffic demands of the data streams that are transferred over each channel. This is an alternative to creating a fixed sharing of a link, such as in general time division multiplexing (TDM) and frequency division multiplexing (FDM). When performed correctly, statistical multiplexing can provide a link utilization improvement, called the statistical multiplexing gain.

MOTO Talk is a feature on some Motorola iDEN cellular phone handsets which allows users to make short-range 'push-to-talk' calls to other such handsets without being on the iDEN network. This feature goes by different names on iDEN service providers. In the US, Nextel called it 'DirectTalk' and included it as a free service on most new models of Motorola handsets. Boost Mobile disabled the function via handset software settings. SouthernLINC calls it LINCaround and ships handsets with the feature disabled. It can be enabled after paying an activation fee of $20. In Canada, TELUS calls it "Mike's Talk-Around."

Radio repeater

A radio repeater is a combination of a radio receiver and a radio transmitter that receives a signal and retransmits it, so that two-way radio signals can cover longer distances. A repeater sited at a high elevation can allow two mobile stations, otherwise out of line-of-sight propagation range of each other, to communicate. Repeaters are found in professional, commercial, and government mobile radio systems and also in amateur radio.

Motorola Type II refers to the second generation Motorola trunked radio systems that replaced fleets and subfleets with the concept of talkgroups and individual radio IDs. There are no dependencies on fleetmaps, therefore there are no limitations on how many radio IDs can participate on a talkgroup. This allows for greater flexibility for the agency. When scanning Motorola IDs, each Type II user ID appears as an even 4- or 5-digit number without a dash.

Mobile radio

Mobile radio or mobiles refer to wireless communications systems and devices which are based on radio frequencies(using commonly UHF or VHF frequencies), and where the path of communications is movable on either end. There are a variety of views about what constitutes mobile equipment. For US licensing purposes, mobiles may include hand-carried,, equipment. An obsolete term is radiophone.

LTR MultiNet Systems are APCO-16 compliant LTR Trunked Radio Systems and thus are mostly found in use as public safety systems. LTR MultiNet systems usually have one or more "status channels" that act like a control channel in a Motorola or EDACS system, however these channels can also carry voice transmissions simultaneously.

In a conventional, analog two-way radio system, a standard radio has noise squelch or carrier squelch, which allows a radio to receive all transmissions. Selective calling is used to address a subset of all two-way radios on a single radio frequency channel. Where more than one user is on the same channel, selective calling can address a subset of all receivers or can direct a call to a single radio. Selective calling features fit into two major categories—individual calling and group calling. Individual calls generally have longer time-constants: it takes more air-time to call an individual radio unit than to call a large group of radios.

Specialized Mobile Radio (SMR) may be an analog or digital trunked two-way radio system, operated by a service in the VHF, 220, UHF, 700, 800 or 900 MHz bands. Some systems with advanced features are referred to as an Enhanced Specialized Mobile Radio (ESMR). Specialized Mobile Radio is a term defined in US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations. The term is of US regulatory origin but may be used in other regions to describe similar commercial systems which offer a radio communications service to businesses.

StarCom21 is a statewide public safety trunked radio system in Illinois. Owned and operated by Motorola Solutions, the State of Illinois is a major partner in the system. It is used by all Illinois State Police posts as well as the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority (ISTHA) Maintenance and Police divisions.

Control channel

In radio communication, a control channel is a central channel that controls other constituent radios by handling data streams. It is most often used in the context of a trunked radio system, where the control channel sends various data which coordinates users in talkgroups.