FCC Licensing for Radio Operators

What is the FCC?

The Federal Communication Commission, or FCC, is an independent agency created by the United States Federal government to regulate communications via radio, television, wire, satellite, cable and internet.

Many portable radio transceivers on table at technology exhibition. Different walkie-talkie radio set. Communication devices choice for military and civil use

Why does the FCC require that certain radio frequencies are only used by licensed and trained operators?

The FCC was initially created in 1934 for the purposes of:

  • Making radio communication available equally to all people across the United States
  • National defense, and
  • Promoting the safety of life and property through the use of wire and radio communications

For obvious reasons, it is important that during an emergency communication lines are not cluttered with civilian chatter. If truckers were trying to communicate weather conditions to one another on an icy road, interference could cause confusion and disaster. Likewise, compromising the frequency of air traffic control transmissions could end in catastrophe.

Some of the FCC radio operator rules that support their mission include:

  • No transmission of messages in connection with illegal activity
  • No transmission of false, deceptive or coded messages (except for the standard APCO “10 codes”; see References)
  • No transmission of advertising material
  • No transmission of campaigning
  • No transmitting entertainment materials
  • No transmission of continuous or uninterrupted signals except in emergencies
  • No transmission of distress signals except in emergencies

The military and law enforcement make use of many radio frequencies – and the FCC rules are in place to ensure these communications aren’t disrupted.

A PRC-152 handheld radio in use
A U.S. Marine speaks into a PRC-152 hand-held radio during a small boat raid at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Brendan Mullin)

Do walkie-talkies require an FCC license to use?

The terms “walkie-talkie” and two-way handheld radio are sometimes used interchangeably, although this is not completely accurate. While all walkie-talkies are in fact hand-held two-way radios, not all two-way radios are walkie-talkies.

A “two-way” radio can both a transmit or receive signals. They are sometimes called “transceivers”. Not all two-way radios are mobile, and not all that are mobile can be held in one’s hand. Some mobile transceivers must be mounted in vehicles or other locations, and there are other two-way radios that aren’t mobile at all.

Typical amateur radio transceiver with push-to-talk microphone switch and portable radios walkie-talkie.

Walkie-talkies originated in World War II, but over time the term came to be associated with low-powered toys. Most serious manufacturers thus refer to their products as “two-way radios”.

Most walkie-talkie, or handheld two-way radios, do not require an FCC license to operate because transmissions are restricted to shorter distances and lower power.

Which radio frequencies require FCC licensing?

Of the popular frequencies for use with two-way hand-held radios, only the General Mobile Radio Service requires an FCC license to operate.

General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS)

The General Mobile Radio Service allows two-way communications over distances of five to twenty-five miles. GMRS is for personal use only.

Operation of the GMRS does require an FCC license, which is good for ten years. The licensee must be 18 or older, and is responsible for ensuring proper operation of the system. The system includes a number of land stations, repeaters and mobile units.

Which radio frequencies don’t require FCC licensing?

There are several popular radio frequencies that can be used without licensing. Equipment made to transmit on these frequencies must be certified by the FCC and labeled as FCC-certified by their manufacturer. There are rules against modifying, enhancing or amplifying their power.

Citizens Band Radio Service (CB)

CB Radio supports two-way radio communications, which can be either personal or commercial in nature. No CB channel is assigned, and users must take turns using frequencies. Users are not allowed to use the frequency for more than five minutes at a time, and must allow at least one minute to pass in between communications.

Family Radio Service (FRS)

Family Radio Service supports two-way communications for distances of less than two miles. FRS units look and operate very much like walkie-talkies. They are intended primarily for family and other group activities, but may be used for business use as well. Their use is permitted anywhere in the United States without licensing.

Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS)

The Multi-Use Radio Service allows two-way communications over short distances, usually not more than a few miles. MURS transmitters may not exceed 2 watts power output.

What are the basic FCC license types?

There are a number of different types of FCC licenses which are required in different circumstances.

  • Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit (RR)
  • Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit-Limited Use (RL)
  • Marine Radio Operator Permit (MP)
  • General Radiotelephone Operator License (PG)
  • GMDSS Radio Operator’s License (DO)
  • Restricted GMDSS Radio Operator’s License (RG)
  • GMDSS Radio Maintainer’s License (DM)
  • GMDSS Radio Operator/Maintainer License (DB)
  • Third Class Radiotelegraph Operator’s Certificate (T3)
  • Second Class Radiotelegraph Operator’s Certificate (T2)
  • First Class Radiotelegraph Operator’s Certificate (T1)
  • Radiotelegraph Operator License (T)
  • Ship Radar Endorsement
  • Six Month Service Endorsement

How to Obtain an FCC Radio License

FCC licenses are now primarily filed online. The first step is to obtain an FCC Registration Number (FRN). There is no cost for an FRN.

The next step is to complete and submit an application. The quick-form application can be used for Ship, Aircraft, Amateur, Restricted and Commercial Operator and General Mobile Radio Services Licenses. It can be electronically filed or downloaded and filed manually.

Once the application is complete, fees must be paid. A GMRS license costs $70 and is valid for ten years.

Licensing fees can be paid online via FCC Pay Fees.

How difficult is it to obtain a license?

The various license types have differing difficulties in testing requirements as part of their application processes. Some of these can be quite challenging to obtain.

The GMRS license does not require testing.

What are the penalties for transmitting without a license?

Penalties for operating radio transmitters without a required license, or outside of its authorized uses, can vary from one situation to the next. They could include confiscation of equipment, fines or even imprisonment.

References

The FCC Consumer Guide to Personal Radio Services

FCC Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, Mobility Division

Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) Standard 10 Codes

Federal Communications Commission Wikipedia

A Special Forces Communications Sergeant uses an AV-2125 satellite antenna with an AN/PRC-117G satellite radio during training at the Yarborough Training Complex at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The training qualified students in the satellite communications module which trained them to be proficient in installing, operating and maintaining satellite communications links. (U.S. Army photo by K. Kassens)

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