Pirate radio was an anomaly when I became involved in broadcast radio. These days, with people upset over the perceived monopoly stranglehold on the dial, you have everybody from format fanatics to members of underserved minority demographics resorting to pirate activity, most often apparent on the FM broadcast band.
The biggest problem is that the vast majority of these illegal pirates lack engineering skills, not only creating interference to licensed broadcasters but also creating havoc to adjacent radio spectrum, due to poorly constructed transmission equipment.
In my duties as a broadcast engineer, I’ve chased a few pirates, when they were creating interference to a licensed FM broadcaster or another station’s EAS monitoring reception.
There’s a flood of poorly designed, cheap and illegal FM transmitters being imported and offered on venues such as Amazon or eBay, with power levels from 1.2 up to 15 watts or more. Besides the fact that these transmitters will grossly exceed the field intensity allowed under Part 15.239, many of them generate spurious emissions that can interfere with aeronautics and other public safety radio services.
The commission continues to play Whac-a-Mole with enforcement actions, shuttering pirates as they are discovered. How much are taxpayers on the hook to fund these tiger team romps and enforcement agent visits, especially in locales where regional FCC offices previously were closed due to budgetary concerns? In spite of anti-pirate laws in Florida, New York and New Jersey, there’s still plenty of pirate activity going on.
Obtaining a non-Part 15 compliant FM transmitter is no more difficult than a few clicks of the mouse, so should anyone be surprised by number of illegal signals on the air? Perhaps a William Shatner line from the movie “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” can sum it up, “But like a poor marksman you keep missing the target.”
I brought my concerns in a variety of communications to Chairman Ajit Pai, Commissioner Michael O’Rielly and more recently Reps. Leonard Lance of New Jersey and Paul Tonko of New York, authors of the PIRATE Act. Unfortunately, not one could be bothered to provide a response.
I would think it would be better to cut the radio pirate community off en masse instead of the one-at-a- time approach. While Congress and the FCC are busy writing new laws like the PIRATE Act there’s at least one on the books that would be the Achilles heel to prevent any illegal transmitter from entering the country and being sold by any merchant, if enforced.
STOP ILLEGAL SALES
Located in the text of The Communications Act of 1934 in Section 302, titled “Devices Which Interfere with Radio Reception,” Section 302(b) states “No person shall manufacture, import, sell, offer for sale or ship devices or home electronic equipment and systems, or use devices, which fail to comply with regulations promulgated pursuant to this section.”
I personally know of one manufacturer and an online merchant deliberately misrepresenting transmitters and making them available to the public. I made queries through several suppliers regarding an FM transmitter masquerading as Part 15-compliant, even though there’s no FCC certification. When asked, they informed their retailers that they don’t have to be FCC certified because they are below the “specified wattage.”
An online retailer, under the guise of being a “hobby FM transmitter,” sells a transmitter allegedly certified under Title 47, Part 73 subpart G. They believe a simple disclaimer statement on their webpage is enough to avoid FCC action against them. Why hasn’t the FCC done anything about this?
CLEARLY DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN PIRATES AND HAMS
I find another area of the PIRATE Act troubling, as it lacks any sort of written differentiation between a blatant pirate operator, likely pushing an effective radiated power of tens or hundreds of watts, from a Part 15 AM hobby or school radio enthusiast who might have gone slightly astray of the regulations. Many of these broadcast radio enthusiasts purchase FCC-certified transmitters costing many times more than the illegally imported junk transmitters but, perhaps through a misunderstanding of the regulations or installation requirements, may have a signal which may be out of compliance for a Part 15.219 certified transmitter.
Nothing in the PIRATE Act distinguishes between the two, potentially opening up a large liability to someone who is genuinely attempting a goodwill effort in complying with Part 15 regulations at a monetary outlay many times more than a typical radio pirate. When I posed this question to Commissioner O’Rielly and Chairman Pai, they again failed to respond.
I saw an unfair enforcement action several years ago against a law-abiding Part 15 hobbyist using an unmodified, certified AM transmitter that at the time was being sold by a major broadcast equipment manufacturer. If a similar circumstance were to take place after implementation of the PIRATE Act, will it come down to a lawsuit before the commission will recognize and place in writing how field inspectors should distinguish between the two?
Believe me, I’m in favor of preventing pirates from interfering with legitimate users of the broadcast bands. Removing the avenue of easily obtainable, illegal transmitters would greatly lessen the chance of pirates taking on the air in the first place. There also needs to be a differentiation between blatant pirate operators and those involved in legal, license-free low-power broadcasting afforded under FCC Part 15 regulations.
DeFelice is former chief engineer of WMMM(AM)/WCFS(AM) and a freelance engineer-for-hire. He also serves as webmaster for the History of Westport Connecticut Radio.