Monday, August 16, 2010

What does the FCC have to do with amateur radio?

T1A02: What agency regulates and enforces the rules for the Amateur Radio Service in the United States?

  1. FEMA
  2. The ITU
  3. The FCC
  4. Homeland Security

The correct answer is C–The FCC.

(Authority: 97.1)

This is another question that's in the question pool to ensure that aspiring licensees are educated about something that is very important to know: that amateur radio, in the United States, at least, is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, and not by any other entity.

The FCC has been charged since its creation in 1934 with the regulation of all uses of radio frequency energy for communication within the terrority of the United States, its coastal waters, and ships at sea sailing under the flag of the United States, except for use by instrumentalities of the federal government itself (over which the FCC has no jurisdiction). Amateur radio falls within this scope, and so amateur radio is regulated by, and the rules for amateur radio written and enforced by, the FCC. 

Two of the other three entities listed are other federal agencies that have no authority over radio: FEMA and Homeland Security. Hams have no specific duties, functions, or responsibilities with respect to either FEMA or Homeland Security. The third entity offered as a distractor is the ITU, or International Telecommunication Union. The ITU, unlike the others, is not a federal agency; it is instead an agency of the United Nations, formed originally in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union in 1865 by a multilateral treaty amongst 20 nations. The United States is a charter member of the ITU and, as a member nation, agrees to abide by the regulations the ITU sets forth regarding radio. However, while the FCC will only rarely write regulations that are inconsistent with those issued by the ITU, it remains the case that it's the FCC regulations, and not the ITU regulations, that apply to amateur radio in the United States. Which is just as well, because the FCC regulations anyone can get for free from the US Government Printing Office, while the ITU regulations are not available without the payment of a fee to the ITU, or more accurately the ITU's publisher.

The FCC isn't the only entity that a ham has to care about. Hams must also follow FAA regulations (when erecting towers over a certain height, as set forth in Part 17). Hams must also be aware of and follow certain regulations of the National Technology and Information Agency (NTIA), issued as part of the latter's authority to coordinate the use of radio by the federal government. Several amateur bands are shared with federal users (including the military) and amateurs must be aware of the NTIA's regulation of those shared bands and observe any restrictions placed by NTIA in the use of those bands. Finally, while FCC regulation preempts state and local regulation of radio with respect to radio frequency interference and radio frequency exposure safety, state and local authorities may still enforce "reasonable" regulations on antenna structures for the purpose of electrical and mechanical safety and other "legitimate" purposes.

In practice, the FCC governs with a relatively light hand. Amateur radio is a tiny tiny piece of the FCC's pie. Amateur radio licensing generates very little revenue for the FCC (as the licenses are free), and they put relatively limited resources into the amateur radio area. In general the FCC expects us to take care of ourselves. This is a mixed blessing: on one hand it means that the FCC isn't something we generally have to deal with much; on the other hand, when there is a problem, getting the FCC to act on it can be difficult. It's not clear to me that a heavier hand would be better for amateur radio, though, and the other alternative (no amateur radio at all) is clearly worse.