Large “voluntary contribution” stems from rules on unintentional radio-frequency emissions.

The FCC regulates the use of radio waves. So why did PreSonus, a company that distributes professional audio equipment (for recording and live performances), agree to pay $125,000 to settle claims it had violated FCC rules? The company also consented to a detailed compliance plan intended to prevent future violations. Yet no one thinks the FCC has jurisdiction over sound waves.

The FCC got involved because PreSonus’s products, like many others nowadays, incorporate digital circuits. Like all such circuits, these generate and use radio-frequency signals inside the device. The computer or phone on which you are reading this post works the same way, by shunting electrical activity around its chips and boards at hundreds of millions of pulses per second. Although needed only for internal use, some of that radio-frequency energy inevitably leaks out of the device, where it can pose a threat to radio communications. Ever since 1979, when early desktop computers caused severe interference to home TV reception, the FCC has regulated what it calls the “unintentional emissions” from digital devices.

The FCC has not disclosed the exact charges against PreSonus, but the information it did release suggests the company had not followed the required procedures to demonstrate compliance with the rules limiting unintentional emissions. It also appears that the company’s products did not display certain labels required by the FCC, did not provide required text in the instruction manuals, and did not follow certain importation procedures. The size of the “voluntary contribution” PreSonus must pay under the settlement – about 10-15 times higher than usual for this kind of offense – would be appropriate if many different product models were involved. An earlier digital audio case went even higher, to $1 million, again in part because the alleged violations applied to multiple models.

Manufacturers, are you paying attention? The FCC really does enforce compliance with unintentional emissions limits, along with the associated labeling and paperwork. There are exemptions in the rules for certain categories of digital circuits; but the FCC interprets these narrowly. The vast majority of devices containing digital circuits are subject to the rules. Fortunately, compliance is rarely difficult. As to companies that fail to make the effort, an FCC official once said, “we’ll keep jacking up the fine till we get their attention.” After the PreSonus  case, we think they mean it.