Having a two way radio system set-up and ready for an emergency or disaster is a very practical thing to do. Keeping in touch with others in your neighborhood or group and monitoring other radio activity in your area just makes perfect sense.
Preppers today have more communications choices than ever and two-way radio gear is not as big of an expense as it used to be. Pre-owned ham gear and retired public service gear can usually be found on Ebay at bargain basement prices. There’s an ever-growing selection of inexpensive new transceiver options on the market now too.
This subject has brought thousands of radio discussions to prepper forums all over the web and, depending on the website, the conversation can lead to whether or not a license should be obtained before using a particular piece of radio equipment. These discussions usually include input from those that will and those that won’t abide by the FCC regulations.
The usual excuses given for not obtaining the proper license can range from simple lack of time all the way up to deliberate defiance of government regulation. Sometimes the radio owner feels that they will only need to use their equipment after an emergency strikes when all radio licensing regulations will supposedly be null and void. Other radio owners feel that their radios are either operating on an absolutely vacant frequency or are so underpowered that it should be OK to operate without a license.
After recently reading an entire forum thread on this very topic, it dawned on me that these people may not have had the chance to read anything about the individuals that have experienced an official visit from an FCC field agent.
So with that in mind, we did some research on the subject. The FCC keeps an online record of all of their citations and we came up with four very good examples. The text in italics below is copied directly from the FCC website. I’ve edited out the specific names and addresses. My personal comments follow each example.
1) On January 17, 2013, in response to a complaint from the Washington County Consolidated Communications Agency (Washington County), licensee of Public Safety and Special Emergency Station WQPQ345 in Washington County, Oregon, alleging that an unidentified repeater transmitter was causing harmful co-channel interference to their licensed frequency 854.4125 MHz, an agent from the Enforcement Bureau’s Portland Resident Agent Office monitored radio transmissions on the frequency 854.4125 MHz. Using radio direction finding techniques, the agent identified and located the source of the transmissions to a transmitter located at …xxx…., Hillsboro, Oregon. The agent conducted an FCC license database search and could not find any licenses authorized to operate on frequency 854.4125 MHz at this location. The agent then met with the property owner of the site who informed the agent that [there was a] tenant in the transmitter building. The Portland agent contacted [the tenant] requesting to inspect the subject transmitter that was causing the interference.…....the Portland Office issued a Warning Letter to [the tenant] for operating an unlicensed repeater on frequency 854.4125 MHz at an unauthorized location. In the Warning Letter Response, [the tenant] did not contest the operation on frequency 854.4125 MHz, stating that he could not explain why the frequency was programmed into his equipment and that he had removed the equipment from operation.
The full article mentioned that this operator had a GMRS license (465 MHz). I don’t know what he was doing with an 854MHz repeater but it was transmitting for a long enough duration that a complaint was made and an investigator could find it’s location. I suppose it’s possible that he was unfamiliar with the repeater’s programming software The potential fine for this is $10,000.
2) February 15 and 16, 2011, an agent from the San Diego Office, accompanied by LVPD officers, used direction-finding techniques to locate radio transmissions on frequency 159.150 MHz [in] Las Vegas, New Mexico, causing interference to the LVPD’s operations on frequency 159.150 MHz. Once the agent finally located Mr. xxxxx’s transmission emanating from a duplex unit, Mr. xxxxx was apprehended and arrested by the LVPD officers. A review of the Commission’s records confirmed that Mr. xxxxx did not have a license to operate on frequency 159.150 MHz in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
This guy is probably looking at criminal charges on top of an FCC fine. Here’s a tip…. 159 MHz is a frequency that those popular little Baofeng radios are capable of transmitting on so if your programming one of those you might want to make absolutely sure your radio isn’t unintentionally walking on top of the police frequencies.
3) On June 1, 2012, agents from the Enforcement Bureau’s San Diego Office investigated complaints that unauthorized transmissions on 151.865 MHz from the xy Ranch in Julian, California, were causing interference to licensed users in the area. The xy Ranch Operations Manager advised the agents that the corporate owners, sent xy Ranch twelve handheld land mobile radios about two or three years earlier and that those radios had been in use since that time. The Operations Manager could not locate a license for the radios. The San Diego agents examined the handheld radios and determined that the radios were transmitting on frequency 154.600 MHz, and that several of the handhelds were producing spurious emissions on frequency 151.865 MHz.
The 154.600 freq is a legitimate license-free MURS frequency. Some of these handhelds were not only transmitting on MURS but were also transmitting a signal on 151.865 MHz.which is not part of the MURS band, In some parts of the country that second frequency would be used by the police or fire department.
Also, there was nothing mentioned in this report indicating these radios were putting out more than the MURS maximum of 2 watts so it looks like a miniscule 2 watt radio actually DOES have the potential range to cause interference. So what’s the lesson here? Have those used commercial radios professionally inspected before you put them into service. The proposed fine in this case is $12,000.
These are just a few examples of the FCC paying a visit to unlicensed operators. The common denominator in the above incidents is the fact that the FCC was investigating a complaint about interference. It doesn’t appear to me that the FCC was “patrolling” the radio frequencies. They didn’t get involved until someone that is legitimately registered to use a certain frequency had experienced interference on their frequency.
Most FCC fines and citations are handed out to businesses. From what I can see, only a small percentage of their investigations involve private citizens. Fines are generally appealed but it doesn’t look like too many of them are reduced.
4) On May 14, 2013, an agent from the Enforcement Bureau’s Dallas Office used direction finding techniques to determine that strong signals on 27.1850 MHz (CB Channel 19) were emanating from Mr. yyyyy’s residence in Enid, Oklahoma. The agent observed an antenna mounted on the roof of the residence and traced a coaxial cable from the antenna into the residence. The agent knocked on the door of [the] residence but no one answered the door for over 30 minutes. A person eventually answered the door and asserted that Mr. yyyyy was not at home, however, after a few minutes, Mr. yyyy appeared [and] showed the agent his CB transmitter, which was warm to the touch. The agent observed that no coaxial cables were connected to the CB transmitter. The agent also observed the coaxial cable coming into the residence and traced it to a linear amplifier hidden behind a sofa. The linear amplifier was also warm to the touch. Mr. yyyyy did not respond when asked whether he used the linear amplifier.
The example above just goes to show that the FCC isn’t ignoring the good ol’ CBers out there. A license isn’t required for CB anymore but linear amps are still a no-no. Most amps for CB are actually modified ham radio amps. Quite honestly, I would be pissed if I found out my next door neighbor was using an amp and I’ll explain why in an upcoming post.
Right now, there are just a few 2-way options that do not require the operator to obtain a license. MURS and CB are the two most common. The manufacturers of these types of radios build these radios to current FCC regulations, so tampering with them internally or amplifying the signal could get you a face-to-face encounter with an FCC enforcement agent. I would include FRS in this line-up but it’s getting hard to find a true FRS radio anymore. FRS is usually provided with the GMRS consumer radios which still require a callsign to operate. I think there has been a petition entered to drop the license requirement on the bubble pack GMRS/FRS radios but, at this time, I don’t know how that’s progressing.
Any radio technician, amateur or professional, will agree that a 2-way emergency communications plan doesn’t stop when the equipment is purchased. Expecting to use it for the first time during an emergency is not a plan. A 2-way system needs to be tested regularly before it’s actually needed and I don’t know of any way to truly test a 2-way radio network without transmitting.
Using a frequency without the proper license or using a modified a radio is a risk that you’ll have to decide on. FCC rules are being enforced and, whether you agree with them or not, there are some valid reasons for these licensing regulations.