Ham Radio News: Radio License Loopholes

Okay, so you can't afford or can't obtain a radio license. If you're willing to accept some limitations, there are loopholes that will allow you to use the airways for communication.

| September/October 1978

  • 053-copthorne-macdonald-radio-license.jpg
    Copthorne Macdonald, the inventor of slow-scan television, has some suggestions about ways to use the radio spectrum without a radio license.

  • 053-copthorne-macdonald-radio-license.jpg

All over the world, national governments control their own citizens' use of the radio spectrum. Everywhere, would-be users of electronic media must traverse a tangle of laws, bureaucratic regulations, and restrictive procedures to obtain a radio license.

Why all this control? Government rhetoric usually justifies the regulation on the grounds that radio spectrum space is a valuable and limited resource, and thus must be "managed."

There is truth in this, of course, but that is not the whole truth. Governments also know that by managing any basic resource they exercise a large measure of control over the use to which that resource is put, and thus (in this case) over the flow of information within the society.

There is no technical reason, for example, why we couldn't have oodles of low-power neighborhood AM, FM, and UHF-TV stations. But there are economic and political reasons why such a proliferation of outlets is not permitted. Your eyes and ears must be kept available for sale to a paying advertiser, after all! And the status quo is more easily maintained if those in power have a reliable daily conduit into millions of homes via the widely trusted network news broadcasts. All over the world, then, Big Media is safely "protected" by Big Money and/or Big Government. And government regulations don't permit much in the way of small media.

Down in the United States—where many of MOTHER EARTH NEWS' readers live—the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates the airwaves. It calls the shots, issues the licenses, and polices the whole affair. (Fines up to $10,000, and prison terms up to a year, serve to deter any who might consider breaking U.S. communication law.) A license is required for almost all types of on-the-air activity, and some licenses—such as those for broadcast stations—are nowadays almost impossible to obtain. There are a few small loopholes, however, that just might be of interest to experimentally inclined MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers. These are the rare situations where no license at all is required to put yourself on the air as long as certain technical conditions are met.

The first of these situations involves the so-called FM wireless microphones available from outlets like Radio Shack. These "microphones" are actually small devices that contain both a sensitive microphone and a very-low-power transmitter, and they radiate a signal in the 88-108 MHz FM broadcast band. The FCC has decreed that these wireless mikes may be used only for one-way communication, and has limited the useful range of the devices to just over fifty feet (all of which makes this a tiny loophole indeed!). Still, an FM wireless microphone occasionally can be used to good advantage inside a single controlled area, such as an apartment building or institution.

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