Monday, October 26, 2009

Amateur Radio and the FCC

The need for at least some top-down regulation of radio, and of amateur radio specifically, should be somewhat obvious.  Radio spectrum is limited, of course, and it's very difficult if not impossible for two stations to share the same frequency, at least within the same geographic area.  In the very early days of radio, of course, there was no government regulation of radio, and stations did whatever they wanted.  Once radio went commercial, in the early part of the 20th century, stations started to interfere with one another, and before long there were lawsuits being filed, typically in state courts under various property law theories.  It quickly became obvious that judicial regulation of radio would become untenable.  Other problems included amateur radio operators who interfered with ship-to-ship, ship-to-shore, and military communication.  The issue came to a head in the public eye with the 1912 sinking of the Titanic; the federal government responded by requiring the licensing of amateurs, prohibiting amateurs from operating in commercial or military frequencies (amateurs were restricted to operating only on the "useless" high frequency bands; at this point skip had not been discovered) and giving minimal regulatory authority to the Department of Commerce.  In 1927 this authority was expanded and transferred to the Federal Radio Commission, and in 1934 to the Federal Communication Commission, or FCC, where it remains today. 

The FCC has regulatory authority over all uses of radio frequency energy for communication purposes within the territory of the United States and the coastal waters thereof, as well as ships at sea sailing under the flag of the United States, except for use by instrumentalities of the federal government itself (which is separately managed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA, another federal agency).  The FCC also has some jurisdiction over noncommunicative use of radio frequency energy, to the extent that such usages might possibly interfere with communicative uses.  (The Department of Health and Human Services, via the Center for Devices and Radiological Health, a division of the FDA, also has some jurisdiction over devices that use or emit electromagnetic energy, but their jurisdiction is concerned entirely to health and safety aspects.)  Since amateur radio amounts to the use of radio frequency energy for communication purpose, it falls within the scope of the FCC's jurisdiction, and the FCC is the principal source of the regulations that apply to amateur radio in the United States.  Amateurs must also be aware of restrictions imposed by NTIA, since many amateur frequency allocations are shared with various federal (including military) uses.

An amateur license issued by the FCC is valid for use anywhere where the FCC has jurisdiction.  Unlike most of the other licensed services, amateurs are not required to declare their station locations to the FCC; we are free to pick up and move whenever we want without notice to the FCC.  (This used to not be the case; the FCC used to require that amateurs could only operate from their fixed station location which had to be reported to and specifically licensed by the FCC.)  The FCC only requires that an amateur keep the FCC notified of his or her current mailing address so that the FCC may contact him or her if it should need to do so.  If the FCC sends you mail and it comes back undeliverable, your license may be suspended or revoked, so it's a good idea not to let this happen.  Also, due to a rather large and complicated system of treaties, an FCC-issued license is also valid for use in many other countries, although many conditions and restrictions apply and the amateur should carefully research the relevant regulations and conditions before operating outside the United States under the authority of a treaty grant.

In general, the FCC takes a pretty light hand in regulating amateur radio.  This is partially because the amateur radio community is pretty good at regulating itself.  However, it's probably more because the FCC is (like many federal agencies) required to meet the bulk of its budget out of user fees.  The nearly three decades of experience of having federal agencies self-fund out of user fees has shown us that when this is done, users who pay large fees get more attention from the regulator than users who pay small fees.  Amateur radio operators pay no user fees to the FCC (except for vanity license fees, which are entirely optional), so the share of the agency's attention we get this way is very small.  And, of course, amateur radio doesn't have a lot of lobbying power, either, which is the other factor that determines the amount of attention an agency spends on an issue.  As a result, amateur radio is typically a very small piece of the FCC's attention at any time.  The FCC is simply not going to spend a lot of effort (that is, money) on monitoring amateur radio operators for compliance, or dealing with issues that involve only the amateur radio service; it's not worth it to them.  At the same time, it's very important that amateurs avoid creating problems with the holders of more lucrative licenses; we don't want to set up a conflict between amateur radio operators and someone with a lot of financial and political power, because that's a conflict we have a very good chance of losing.  Basically speaking, amateur radio continues within the larger scheme of radio at sufferance; it's in our best interest not to create too much trouble.

This post has been brought to you by pool questions T1A07, T1B07, T1C02, T1D04, T1D09, T1D10, and T1D12.