The FCC and Open Source Hardware


If you’re looking for “Engineering Roundtable,” worry not - it will go live tomorrow. Our videographer has been in California for the last few days covering the SparkFun West Coast Tour. So check back tomorrow!

As SparkFun has grown over the years, there have been many hurdles that we’ve had to overcome, both internally and externally. In recent years, SparkFun has caught the attention of some rather large and important institutions. First, there was the cease and desist letter a few years back. Then, earlier this year, we were issued a subpoena. We handled these incidents the best we could, shared them with you, and came out relatively unscathed. However, sometimes it’s best to nip a problem in the bud before it comes to bite you. Enter the FCC. The FCC has a very important job: keeping the electromagnetic spectrum in order. This is no simple task, and with the number of electronic devices that use this resource increasing everyday, their job is only getting more complicated. Add to that the increasing amount of open source hardware products, and you have yourself a large group of people and businesses to watch over.

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Thus, we wanted to tackle this problem before it became one too large to fix (or pay for). We had never gone through any sort of FCC authorization for any of our products, and we didn’t know what the process really entailed. So, we sent one of our engineers out to an FCC conference to get the skinny on Open Source and how it fits in the FCC’s big picture. We have since started taking a product’s FCC compliance into greater consideration, and have begun the process of getting our own products the FCC stamp of approval. However, it’s not always black and white as to whether a product fits the bill for testing or not. We have written a tutorial to share with all of you our findings and hopefully answer any questions you may have about the FCC as it pertains to you and your product/project. Whether you’re a hobbyist in your garage, a start-up making small quantity production runs, or a huge company manufacturing your own goods, there is a chance the FCC could come after you or your product. We’re here to give you the knowledge and resources necessary to prevent that.


Comments 23 comments

  • On thing that has really impressed me about you guys at sparkfun is the positive approach to problems / issues / difficult people… Instead of just wining about things, you attempt to come up with a solution or helpful perspective. A sadly rare attitude. The way u guys handled the cease and desist, the subpoena and other things i have observed have been open, positive and professional. Keep it up i say.

  • Wow, thanks so much for this. Really informative and interesting. And then, there’s this take on it.

  • Be very glad you are still dealing with just the FCC. US Customs (Homeland Security) has been getting into RF enforcement lately. Somebody was running a pirate radio station in downtown ABQ not so long back and US Customs shut them down. I used to work in broadcast engineering and had a good relationship with the FCC but dealing with jack booted goons with machine guns is a whole different ballgame.

  • So… could something like the TV-b-gone ever be FCC certified?

    • I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t be possible to. The typical TV-b-gone is an infrared device, not RF. It would be at best an unintentional emitter (i.e. the circuitry creating radio signals unintentionally) and get tested as such.

  • This is one of the reasons I’d like to see Sparkfun at least mention/promote ham radio and present forums at hamfests and set up sales booths at them. Not only would they seriously expand their customer base, but they would likely help increase the numbers of licensed hams.

    As much fun as it is to transmit data over short distances with an Xbee its more fun to legally transmit your data literally hundreds of miles with packet radio or APRS. No FCC problems as long as you follow the rules which are nowhere near prohibitive.

    There is such a similarity of people between the maker movement and ham radio. And such an overlap when it comes to electronics.

    • We did set up a booth at a local hamfest in the nearby town of Longmont not too long ago, with great response! There are several hams here at SFEHQ, and we are working on maybe carrying some ham-related boards. Keep an eye out soon ;)

      73s,
      KI6YMZ

  • So basically, we can expect price increases on SF products soon?

    • Probably not. Most of our products are unaffected by this- I had the dubious honor of reviewing all 2000+ of our SKUs to see if any of them were likely problems, and I only found a handful.

      It does affect what we choose to carry, however, and informs our design decisions for the future.

      • You mean I can’t hook up my Model T ford spark coil to a telegraph key and then attached to my Tesla Coil to my 150 foot shortwave antenna? You mean my Titanic Marconi(TESLA)set room (See http://www.hf.ro/) is a NO-GO with the FCC? I am just floored!

        • Entertainingly enough, one of the iron tests of a system’s EMI hardness is to take a NC AC powered relay, hook it up so it turns itself off when energized, then plug it into the same power supply as the system and see what happens.

          Old school!

          • Essentially you’re making a big old AC buzzer out of it. And YES your making one heck of a lot of fun power spikes- OR EMPs/EMIs.

            {Edit}- part of the reason they don’t let you make phone calls with your cell phone in the Emergency Room…. OR Take OFF’s in an Airplane. BTW >> IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH the CHINESE Conspiracy against America.

  • Help China Win - Support the FCC. FCC is aiding and abetting the (uhm, china) by making is so expensive and dangerous to innovate in the US that our Overlords in China have a 100 meter dash; whilst we-the-free are jumping hurdles.

    Yea US, we’re so smart, we’re protecting the radio spectrum from threats, except no one looks at direct mail products.

    • It’s important to note that these aren’t drummed-up illusory threats, like bombs in underpants and ceramic shivs in shoe soles. These laws exist to address real, substantive issues, and without them, there’s a good chance that your life would be much harder because your technology would not behave in a way that you expect it to.

      You’re wrong in assuming that the Chinese don’t play this game; they have their own set of rules that they have to abide by, and that we’d be expected to abide by were we to sell into China.

      You are right about one thing- there are a lot of unauthorized products making their way onto the US market. Long term, I don’t know what the impact of that will be- likely, eventually, some sort of enforcement against importers who fail to properly vet their products will occur.

      • Agreed, while the FCC and the regulations it enforces aren’t perfect there has to be some sort of organization with real authority policing the usage of the RF spectrum. Otherwise, it would be impossible to have reliable wireless communication in any location with a population density of more than 1 person per 50 ft2.

      • Oh, I’m so sorry. What’s the FCC fine on a Chinese company that ships mislabelled products to the customer’s door? Bumpkis is what it is. I challenge you find one penny of fine paid by a Chinese firm for mislabelling a battery toy with a microprocessor.

        As for how bloody nice the FCC makes my life; The FCC is preventing the solution to the problem it claims to solve. Wide Spectrum / Impulse / Time Domain Radio uses arbitrary time sequence rather than frequency bandwidth, and reinvents the notion of interference.

        I’m not discounting some role to address intentional radiators; but one should be able to use a licensed module, and one should be able to use a microcontroller, with a presumptive approval; yes, if a design is so onerous that complaints materialize; that product should be addressed, but any product that makes less electronic noise than a blender should not be condemned.

        • The FCC does do enforcement against Far East manufacturers. Most of its enforcement actions are against domestic companies. That will probably remain the case until Congress gives the FCC a CIA-level budget for an overseas clandestine service. Ask your Congressman to support that. The FCC does work closely with U.S. Customs and the Marshals Service at seizing unlawful radiofrequency things.

          As far as fines go, it is more common that the FCC enters into consent decrees with the violating companies. You can read the list of equipment marketing enforcement actions here: http://transition.fcc.gov/eb/marketing/

          As to what you are calling “Wide Spectrum / Impulse / Time Domain Radio”, it is known to most as ultrawideband (UWB). You imply that the FCC is somehow a problem with regard to this technnology. The FCC permits UWB (47 CFR 15.501-15.525) and products that use it are legally marketed in the U.S.

  • A printed copy of this tutorial might need to go in the box for http://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2012/10/19/darpa-funded-radio-hackrf-aims-to-be-a-300-wireless-swiss-army-knife-for-hackers/ if you ever sell those. Or maybe I should say “If they ever get built”.

    • Couple that with a Beagle Bone or similar computing device, Gieger counter board, compact graphical display, some buttons and knobs, and maybe a few other simple sensors; then you basically have a PIPBoy 3000!

      Of course modern smartphones/tablets are already much like the PIPBoys from the Fallout series, but they can’t transmit and recieve on arbitrary radio frequencies.

  • “there is a chance the FCC could come after you or your product” So are you implying I should stop operating my homemade FM transmitter that in no way could possibly be legal? :) To be fair, I have the shortest antennae on it that works and it’s not on 24x7 (and always tuned to empty slots).

  • Thnx, very informative, especially for those who are looking to sell electronics w/in the US.


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