An FCC Enforcement Advisory released in late May seems to state the obvious: All FCC-authorized equipment must be used in compliance with laws and rules, and that people or businesses violating federal law or FCC rules are subject to enforcement action. A closer look, however, suggests that the prominently emblazoned advisory is aimed at illegal “off-label use” of radio transmitting devices. Before such equipment may be used, manufactured, sold, marketed, or imported into the US, the FCC generally requires that it first receive a grant of equipment authorization, demonstrating that it meets congressionally mandated Commission technical standards, which include requirements to minimize a device’s potential to cause harmful interference.
“This equipment ranges from small devices like your smartphone and WiFi-enabled thermostat to powerful transmitters used by broadcasters and wireless carriers,” the FCC advisory explained. This also can include such Amateur Radio equipment as linear amplifiers, and transceivers with scanning receivers; most ham radio equipment does not require a grant of authorization for use in accordance with Part 97 regulations.
“Even if a device has an authorization, however, it may not be used indiscriminately,” the advisory continued. “Authorized equipment must be used in a manner that complies with federal law and the Commission’s rules.” This does not apply to devices and systems the government uses on its own frequencies, the advisory pointed out.
“For licensed services, authorized equipment also must be used in a manner that complies with the terms of the license,” the Commission said. “Federal law prohibits the use of any authorized equipment in a manner that is inconsistent with the terms of its equipment authorization or that is in violation of the Communications Act or the Commission’s rules.” The FCC said an equipment authorization only signifies that a device meets FCC technical standards; it is not an authorization to use a device in any possible way.”
The FCC offered some examples of authorized equipment being used in an unlawful manner:
- The use of authorized WiFi equipment to intentionally disrupt the lawful operation of neighboring WiFi networks.
- The use of authorized broadcast transmitters to operate unlicensed or “pirate” radio stations.
- The use of authorized Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure (U-NII) devices on unauthorized frequencies or, on certain frequencies, without a dynamic frequency selection (DFS) radar detection mechanism enabled.
- The use of authorized WiFi routers on unauthorized channels or on authorized channels at unauthorized power levels.
- The programming and use of Private Land Mobile Radio devices (Part 90 radios) to operate on unauthorized channels.
The FCC’s revised rules make it illegal to include user-reprogrammable firmware in such devices as routers, so that they can be re-flashed post sale. For some time now, hams involved in broadband WiFi networking activities have been modifying commonplace routers for use on Amateur Radio frequencies — a legal activity. It is not legal, however, to use a radio transmitting device authorized in one radio service under the provisions of another radio service for which it has not received required FCC authorization, such as using an Amateur Radio transceiver on the Family Radio Service. And recent FCC enforcement proceedings have involved the illegal use of devices possibly authorized for other purposes, to block cellular telephone signals.
The advisory suggested that anyone wishing to complain about off-brand use of authorized devices or otherwise used in a manner that violates FCC rules or the Communications Act can complain to the Commission.