FCC proposes consolidation, simplification of personal radio rules

Over the years, the FCC has assembled something of a hodge-podge of rules governing radios that the public may use without an individual license.  It started with the old CB radios, but today there is an alphabet soup of radio services – CB, R/C, FRS, GMRS, MURS, LPRS, PLB, and even a couple of wireless medical services.  These services are used for a wide range of activities, including: two-way conversation; remote control of model airplanes, cars and boats; personal emergency locator beacons; and monitoring and control of life-saving devices attached to or implanted within the human body.

The FCC is now proposing to consolidate many of the rules governing these various services. It hopes to eliminate unnecessary repetition of the same regulatory admonitions and (ideally) reduce to plain English regulatory language intended for users (as opposed to manufacturers and other tech-savvy folks).  This is a daunting task for a government agency (although the Commission did manage to pull off the feat several years ago for CB radio).

Among the numerous changes proposed by the Commission:

  • The General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) would no longer require an individual license – perhaps an inevitable move, since not many GMRS purchasers apply for those licenses anyway.  (GMRS is a higher powered service whose channels overlap with those used by Family Radio Service (FRS) walkie-talkies.  You see FRS gear on shelves everywhere from RadioShack to Walmart; GMRS gear not so much.) 
  • Handset power levels would be regulated to protect your brain from being fried by radiation. 
  • The once-popular “voice scramble” feature would be expressly prohibited. (Interest in the feature has pretty much died anyway, probably because the FCC starting making nasty noises about it in enforcement proceedings.) The FCC’s thinking is that, in case of emergency, everyone should be able to hear and understand everyone else’s transmissions.  True enough, but banning the “voice scramble” may not achieve the FCC’s goal. After all, the Commission is not proposing to prohibit the use of foreign languages, which most of us can’t decipher at all. By contrast, undoing the “voice scramble” feature is as simple as buying a radio with that feature or building a circuit requiring only high school level electronics sophistication.
  • More flexibility in radio design would be permitted. For example, Global Positioning System (GPS) features could be included in GMRS handsets (as they are already permitted for FRS units).   Multipurpose radios may be sold allowing access to multiple radio services, but combinations of FRS or CB radios with services used for safety would be prohibited.  (That is, FRS and marine radio would not be combined in one handset, nor would CB and Amateur radio.)
  • Wireless CB handsets would be permitted, assuming anyone wants them with the declining popularity of CB radio.  In fact, because of that decline, the FCC suggests that some of its CB rules intended to lighten frequency congestion – such as time limits on CB messages and the prohibition against transmitting music – may no longer be necessary.

Despite its inclination to de-regulate, the FCC declined to allow Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS) radios, which operate on some two-watt VHF industrial radio channels (151-154 MHz), to interconnect to the public switched telephone network.

Roger Dodger, over and out – for those who still use these radios rather than doing everything by cellphone.  I still have two GMRS radios – in fact, I’m one of the handful of people who actually has a license for them, although I haven’t found an occasion to use them for several years.  But then again, I tend not to trek through remote areas where cellphones don’t work and where a two-way radio might be a lifesaver.

Comments on the proposals will be due 30 days after (and reply comments 45 days after) the proposals appear in the Federal Register. The 30-day period is short enough to suggest that the FCC does not anticipate significant controversy; it also suggests that the Commission will probably adopt most, if not all, of the proposals.