Unlicensed Broadcasting Laws

Written by Attorney Joe Irby

Radio Broadcast

Unlicensed Broadcasting – Do I need a license to broadcast?

An engineer once said “The FCC spends too much time going after pirates. As long as the station doesn’t interfere with anything, [the pirate] isn’t hurting anyone.” Wise words, however, the FCC will still shut down (and even prosecute) unlicensed broadcasters or manufacturers of devices that emit unregulated radio waves. Not all broadcasting requires a license as long as it meets certain requirements.

“Part 15 Compliant”

Often in the industry, the phrase “part 15 “compliant” is floated around amongst engineer types. What does it mean and why is it called “part 15 compliant?”

47 CFR Part 15 is the code that the FCC relies on to regulate devices that emit unlicensed radio frequency, whether or not the frequency was created intentionally or not.

If a device is “Part 15 Compliant,” it means that the owner or operator of the device giving off the radio waves does not need to obtain an FCC license to operate it. Typically, these devices include things like cordless phones, cell phones, transmitters that broadcast an mp3 player or iPod a short distance to a radio, etc. Sometimes, however, devices such as a blender or a vacuum cleaner can give off unintentional radio waves. The important thing to remember is that some things are “intentional radiators,” and other things are deemed “unintentional radiators.”

Operation of unlicensed devices must not interfere in any way with a licensed broadcast station. If the device interferes, the operator of the device must cease operation.

Use of a device that gives off or receives radio frequencies to eavesdrop and/or record private conversations of others is prohibited, unless all parties consent, or the recording and monitoring is done by law enforcement.

Anyone who manufactures equipment must employ good engineering practices to ensure that unintentional emanations from the device are suppressed as much as possible.

Any authorized professional or merchant manufacturer of these devices, in order to minimize interference, should make the devices only strong enough to successfully achieve the device’s purpose.

People are allowed to build their own devices without authorization to make the device so long as

  1. the devices are not marketed and sold to the public,
  2. the devices are not built from a kit,
  3. the maker does not not make a quantity of more than five of the device, and
  4. the individual builder does not possess the means to perform measurements for determining compliance with the regulations.

A party who manufactures these devices to consumers must be capable to complying with the requirements set forth by the FCC. They also must take extra precautions to reduce unintentional or unnecessary radiation by, for example, shielding wires. If a device is shipped to a consumer that does not comply with Part 15, the manufacturer must, at no additional charge to the consumer, provide the necessary parts or equipment to the consumer to bring the device into compliance.

The standards for measuring interference are laid out in 47 CFR Part 15.31. They vary greatly depending on the type of equipment being used and monitored, so it is best to contact an engineer to check the device’s compliance with the regulations.

Unintentional Radiators

Various devices that are manufactured do not intentionally give off interference. Sometimes, however, they still unintentionally do. This is acceptable by the FCC as long as the devices conform with the FCC’s standards. The standards are laid out nicely in 47 CFR Part 15.101. These devices must be certified or declared in conformity to FCC standards before being sold.

Only receivers that tune to any frequency between 30 and 960 MHz are subject to the authorization procedures.

Receivers that are subject to a Declaration of Conformity that are contained within a transceiver, the transmitter portion of which is subject to certification, shall be authorized under the verification procedure.

Receivers that operate above 960 MHz and below 30 MHz, except for radar detectors and CB receivers, are exempt from complying with the certification requirements.

Intentional Radiators

When a person says, “Part 15 Compliant,” in the traditional sense, 47 CFR 15.239 is the specific code section to which most people are referring. This section addresses broadcasts in the frequency range of 88 MHz to 108 MHz, otherwise known as “the radio band.” Traditional analog radio stations broadcast in this frequency range.

Generally, anybody can broadcast in this frequency range without a license so long as:

a) the broadcast does not interfere with a licensed radio station; and

b) the field strength of the emission does not exceed 250 microvolts per meter at a distance of three meters from the transmitter.

Both of these requirements must be met, otherwise the broadcaster is conducting an illegal, unlicensed broadcast. This is known as being a “pirate” broadcaster.

“Pirate” broadcasters are subject to FCC fines and sanctions.

In some instances, unlicensed broadcasting is perfectly fine as long as all of the FCC’s requirements are properly met as laid out above.

This post is part of a series of posts on Radio Station & Broadcast Law: 47 CFR 73 – 74 & More

Leave a Public Comment

  • John
    May 20, 2014, 3:44 am

    I work at a casino that has been playing the same iPod playlist for years. I don’t remember all the specifics from the broadcast law classes I took in college, but is this legal? I’m positive that some of the songs are illegal downloads as well, seeing as they are not a consistent volume and they cut off early. Some are also mash ups of three different songs. Is there any law that I could spit at the higher ups to get this to stop? I’m sick of hearing Anne Murray every day.