Thanks to Congress, electronic labeling may be an option for more FCC-authorized RF devices

Most radiofrequency (RF) equipment certified by the FCC is required to carry a physical label listing the FCC ID and making various other FCC-mandated disclosures. Observant users of electronic products will recognize those labels as the ones with a (usually) long ID number, sometimes an FCC logo, and verbiage like: “This device complies with part 15 of the FCC Rules. Operation is subject to the condition that the devices does not cause harmful interference.”

But, thanks to Congress and President Obama, those physical labels may increasingly be a thing of the past – at least for pieces of gear that include screens. The recently enacted E-LABEL Act (that’s short for “Enhance Labeling, Accessing, and Branding of Electronic Licenses Act of 2014”) directs the FCC to provide (through rules or otherwise) that manufacturers of RF devices with electronic displays (i.e., screens) have the option of using electronic labeling, instead of physical labeling, for their equipment.

As those immersed in the FCC’s equipment authorization procedures know, the FCC’s rules already allow for electronic display on software-defined radio products and modular transmitters with user display screens. The rules also already provide for alternative labeling procedures when permanently affixing a label is not “desirable” or “feasible”, like if the item is too small or when etching the notice on the item would damage it. In fact, just last summer the Commission provided guidance for electronic labeling, at least for devices which (a) are subject to certification or Declaration of Conformity requirements and (b) have non-removable display screens. (For those really curious, the FCC’s Knowledge Database – known to the in-crowd as “KDB” – advises that electronic labels must be accessible to users without special codes, lengthy steps, or use of accessories, and that the information included in the label cannot be modified.) The KDB guidance did not, however, extend to equipment subject to “verification”, a third type of FCC equipment authorization requiring that equipment be "uniquely identified".

The E-LABEL Act’s stated purpose is to “provide for the non-exclusive use” of electronic labeling on RF devices. Its reach is not limited to devices subject to certification or Declaration of Conformity, so gear subject to verification should now have the electronic labeling option as well. Ditto for devices with non-removable display screens: the E-LABEL Act provides for electronic labeling of any FCC-authorized RF device with the capacity to digitally display the required information.

Since the FCC already allowed electronic labeling for a wide number of devices, it’s not clear why Congress – which in recent years has shown no significant ability to take much action at all – chose to act here. But it did so, passing the act remarkably quickly with strong bipartisan support. One possible reason: the forthcoming explosion of the Internet of Things may be one of the few areas about which consensus on the Hill can be achieved.

Whatever may be the case, the ball is now in the FCC’s court, and it’s got to act fast. The E-LABEL Act requires that the Commission adopt rules “or take other appropriate action” to provide for electronic labeling by late August, 2015. In view of Congress’s choice of words, it’s at least possible that the FCC will be able to comply simply by publishing further guidance through the KDB. Check back here for updates on that front.