The FCC and Open Source Hardware

In the United States, the FCC is responsible for maintaining harmony among hundreds or thousands of businesses all trying to use the same resource: the electromagnetic spectrum. The upside of this is that we can (usually) rely on things like WiFi, cellular phones, police radios, baby monitors, etc etc to work as and when we need them to. The downside is that it creates a hurdle to those of us who want to do business within the United States selling electronics and electronic devices.

There are many myths, misconceptions, and misunderstandings regarding compliance with these laws. We've done a lot of work recently to try and unravel the rules and how they apply to SparkFun, and to other businesses as well. Here's a list of Frequently Asked Questions that may help people understand better what the FCC rules mean (and don't mean) to their business or hobby.

What does the FCC have to do with electronics?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was established by the Communications Act of 1934. Their role as regards to electronics is to safeguard the radio spectrum within the United States and its associated holdings. This is achieved by dividing up the radio spectrum into ranges and assigning each range to a different application, and it is achieved by requiring persons or entities wishing to operate within those ranges to seek various forms of licensure or authorization to do so.

More simply, the FCC seeks to manage a valuable and common resource (the radio spectrum) by functioning as a central clearinghouse for who’s doing what, where. Any electronic device has the potential to interact with that resource, and the FCC has rules regarding which devices must meet which limitations to be legally sold and used within the United States.

What does this mean for a hobbyist?

Very little, actually, depending on what you’re doing. The FCC allows a hobbyist to build up to five devices of a single design for personal use with no testing whatsoever. If you are contacted by the FCC (or anyone else) about a matter of spectrum interference, immediately stop using the device, don't use it again, and you should be okay. Stick to the ISM bands (13.56MHz, 27.12MHz, 40.68MHz, 915MHz, 2.45GHz, and 5.8GHz, +/- a bit for each) for added comfort.

What does this mean for a small manufacturer of open source hardware?

Potentially, a lot, depending on what you’re doing. There are exemptions, but not many. Ultimately, if you are an importer or seller of electronic goods in the US, there are laws regarding FCC compliance that you need to be aware of and adhere to. In almost all cases, devices being manufactured by small OSHW companies are subject to the guidelines set forth in Part 15 of Title 47 CFR.

Even devices which do not use radio transmitters?

Yes, because in the right (or wrong) circumstances, any device which contains a relatively high speed clock (above the low kHz range) stands to possibly produce unwanted interference to other local devices. Devices which do not use radio transmitters are referred to as “unintentional radiators”, and the testing bar is lower for them than it is for intentional radiators. Thus, all devices which cannot be exempted must obtain FCC authorization prior to being marketed in the US.

What can I do to avoid expensive testing and still remain in compliance with the laws?

There are two ways to avoid testing: restrict yourself to selling only subassemblies, or restrict yourself to devices on the exempted products list. The exempted product categories are pretty hard to remain within, and are given in section 15.103 of CFR47:
  • A digital device utilized exclusively in any transportation vehicle including motor vehicles and aircraft.
  • A digital device used exclusively as an electronic control or power system utilized by a public utility or in an industrial plant. The term public utility includes equipment only to the extent that it is in a dedicated building or large room owned or leased by the utility and does not extend to equipment installed in a subscriber’s facility.
  • A digital device used exclusively as industrial, commercial, or medical test equipment.
  • A digital device utilized exclusively in an appliance, e.g., microwave oven, dishwasher, clothes dryer, air conditioner (central or window), etc.
  • Specialized medical digital devices (generally used at the direction of or under the supervision of a licensed health care practitioner) whether used in a patient’s home or a health care facility. Non-specialized medical devices, i.e., devices marketed through retail channels for use by the general public, are not exempted. This exemption also does not apply to digital devices used for record keeping or any purpose not directly connected with medical treatment.
  • Digital devices that have a power consumption not exceeding 6 nW.
  • Joystick controllers or similar devices, such as a mouse, used with digital devices but which contain only non-digital circuitry or a simple circuit to convert the signal to the format required (e.g., an integrated circuit for analog to digital conversion) are viewed as passive add-on devices, not themselves directly subject to the technical standards or the equipment authorization requirements.
  • Digital devices in which both the highest frequency generated and the highest frequency used are less than 1.705 MHz and which do not operate from the AC power lines or contain provisions for operation while connected to the AC power lines. Digital devices that include, or make provision for the use of, battery eliminators, AC adaptors or battery chargers which permit operation while charging or that connect to the AC power lines indirectly, obtaining their power through another device which is connected to the AC power lines, do not fall under this exemption.
Responsible parties should note that equipment containing more than one device is not exempt from the technical standards in this part unless all of the devices in the equipment meet the criteria for exemption. If only one of the included devices qualifies for exemption, the remainder of the equipment must comply with any applicable regulations. If a device performs more than one function and all of those functions do not meet the criteria for exemption, the device does not qualify for inclusion under the exemptions.

Tell me more about subassemblies.

The more easily accessed method for avoiding testing is to stay within the definition of a “subassembly”. Subassemblies are defined in section 15.101e of Title 47:
Subassemblies to digital devices are not subject to the technical standards in this part unless they are marketed as part of a system in which case the resulting system must comply with the applicable regulations. Subassemblies include: 
Devices that are enclosed solely within the enclosure housing the digital device, except for: power supplies used in personal computers; devices included under the definition of a peripheral device in §15.3(r); and personal computer CPU boards, as defined in §15.3(bb);
CPU boards, as defined in §15.3(bb), other than those used in personal computers, that are marketed without an enclosure or power supply; and 
Switching power supplies that are separately marketed and are solely for use internal to a device other than a personal computer.
CPU boards are defined in section 15.3(bb):
CPU board. A circuit board that contains a microprocessor, or frequency determining circuitry for the microprocessor, the primary function of which is to execute user-provided programming, but not including:
A circuit board that contains only a microprocessor intended to operate under the primary control or instruction of a microprocessor external to such a circuit board; or 
A circuit board that is a dedicated controller for a storage or input/output device.
So, basically, if you can stay within these guidelines, then testing is on the shoulders of the person or entity integrating your device into their final product. Of course, in the case of a hobbyist, that means they don't need to do anything but abide by good engineering practice and cease operation if interference occurs.

What about kits?

Kits are defined in section 15.3(p):
Kit.  Any number of electronic parts, usually provided with a schematic diagram or printed circuit board, which, when assembled in accordance with instructions, results in a device subject to the regulations in this part, even if additional parts of any type are required to complete assembly.
It is not 100% clear to us at this time what the rules are pertaining to kits. Section 15.25 seems to deal with kits for “TV interface devices”, but OET Bulletin 61 seems to indicate that the rules laid out in section 15.25 may be generalizable to include all kits (see last line on last page). However, in an order and consent decree released 31 April 2012 (File No. EB-06-SE-388), part II, paragraph 2, indicates that kits do not generally require authorization, so long as they are sold in an unassembled state. A memorandum opinion and order on the same file, released 30 April 2008, indicates that “A device which simply requires installation of the integrated circuits and circuit board in a plastic case is not a "kit" within the meaning of Section 15.3(p) of the Rules”, so the FCC clearly expects a modicum of engineering experience to be involved in the assembly of a kit for it to be considered a kit. Furthermore, in a posting at, an uncited "clarification" from the FCC claiming that compliance of kits with the rules is on the shoulders of the purchaser/assembler, not the seller or producer of the kit. Finally, OET Knowledge Base article 927445 says nothing regarding unintentional radiators, but does indicate that “...devices subject to Certification (whether marketed as a Kit or not), must be certified under Subpart J of Part 2.”
We will seek clarification on this point and update this document in the future, when such clarification is available, but at this time, SparkFun will not be doing FCC testing on kits.

Are “development tools” exempt from the rules?

No. There are no exemptions in the rules which specifically apply to development tools. Furthermore, devices which can be purchased by the general public must adhere to the more rigid “Class B” emissions limits, rather than the more relaxed “Class A” industrial limits.

How much does it cost to obtain authorization under the FCC rules?

That depends on your device. Devices which require Verification or a Declaration of Conformity- which is to say, unintentional radiators- can be tested for about $1000. There is usually an additional fee of around $500 for a report which may or may not be needed. For intentional radiators, the Certification cost is more like $10,000-$12,000, unless an approved module is used. It may be that you will fail, of course, which will require retesting.

Some transmitters come with an FCC ID on them. Does using these devices exempt me from further testing to achieve FCC authorization?

Not entirely. While it does lower the bar from the costly Certification process, you are still responsible for ensuring that your product does not emit other radio frequencies. In short, you must test it as though it were an unintentional radiator.

What are the labeling guidelines for devices which have FCC authorization?

Sections 2.925 and 15.19 deal with the labeling requirements. Alternatively, OET KnowledgeBase article 784748 deals with the requirements for labeling devices to meet FCC guidelines. One thing not mentioned is the implication of including a certified module in your product- in that case, either the FCC ID of the module must be visible or there must be a label on the outside of the product stating “Contains FCC ID: xxx-yyyyyy”.
Failure to properly label a device is probably one of the highest risk points in the entire system. If an Enforcement Bureau agent sees a device which, in their estimation, should be labeled, that device is far more likely to be called into question.

Where can I go for more information?

  • Title 47 full text- straight to the horse’s mouth, but be warned- there are many hundreds of pages of information here, and most of it is not terribly useful.
  • OET Bulletins online- The FCC Office of Engineering and Technology periodically issues bulletins clarifying the rules. There are a few relatively useful ones on this list.
  • OET KDB- The OET also maintains a Knowledge Database containing a sort of “Frequently Asked Questions” list; again, the signal-to-noise ratio for our areas of interest is fairly poor.
  • Equipment Marketing Violations- The Enforcement Division maintains a list of recent enforcement actions, which provide useful guidelines and examples for what they are currently acting against and what reasoning they use.
  • Equipment Authorization- The OET has a useful website going into the authorization process. It has links to other useful sites as well.

Comments 65 comments

  • FCC exists to Help China Win.

    • That may or may not be an unintended side effect, but as a US citizen I’m personally glad that all of my (legal) spectrum-using devices play nicely together because the highways are defined and patrolled.

      • There are many places in the World without FCC fines for experimental microcontrollers; name one in which your precious devices fail?

        • Its not about a device failing. Its about devices interfering with life critical communications like air traffic control and navigation systems like GPS.

          Any device with an oscillator has the potential to jam communication. The range of the jamming will be very limited but in the right conditions it may cause problems on a world scale. Say you have a microcontroller operating at 8mhz and that 8mhz gets into a 1kw audio amplifier(that isn’t properly designed) sitting on the shelf next to it and the speaker cables just happen to be a ¼ wavelength at 8mhz. Even if only 1watt gets into that wire at 8mhz you could jam out HF for all trans Atlantic flights under the right propagation. I just pulled 8mhz out of no where. Usually HF ATC operates on several HF frequencies and change to the best one for that time of day. HF propagation is highly variable due to solar and atmospheric conditions.

          Just because your oscillator is running at X Mhz and nothing else is on that particular frequency doesn’t mean your it won’t interfere with communications. Your micro controller oscillator produces square waves which include the fundamental frequency plus lots and lots of higher frequency harmonics. Then there is intermod interference, where your device will mix with the oscillator of another device to produce harmonics all over the place. Sum of the frequencies, difference, sum of the square wave harmonics, etc…

          Then there is high powered PWM circuits, which make great radio jammers if they are no properly filtered and shielded.

          These rules are very important and must be enforced. Its more important for some devices(like high power) that others. In this age of digital communications its easy to forget that interference exist as you no longer hear it on the radio.

          • So - if Microchip sells me a transmitter fully tuned and tested; that isn’t good enough to save the planet? No; everyone who uses the module has to retest the module in it’s final configuration?

            That’s just B.S. and you know it.

        • Ben, you’re not even wrong.

          SFE moderators, would you please remove this troll thread?

          • While I pretty much disagree with Ben21’s stance, I don’t think he’s really crossed the line of incivility where the comments warrant deletion, and I think there’s something in the discussion worth preserving.

            That said, we’ll keep an eye on things.

    • You haven’t really put any thought into that comment, have you??

      It does not matter what country the device is made in, if it does not comply to FCC standards then companies like SparkFun cannot sell it in America.

      This could mean all Arduino and Arduino compatible boards, no matter what country they come from will need to pass certain guidelines.

      • Somebody certainly hasn’t really put :) Arduino Boards are not tested for FCC compliance; indeed one of the reasons Arduino is not a US innovation, is because every potential US based microcontroller innovator looks at the FCC’s million dollar fines, and says F'it - i’ll just write another Facebook plugin.

        I dare say US innovation rarely happens in highly regulated markets. Countries which can’t tolerate risks, can’t reinvent or innovate, because both of those carry risks.

        Eli Lilly invented insulin production for diabetes some 30 years before the FDA exists. Tesla did all his invention prior to the FCC, as did Edison. The TV was invested 10 years prior to the FCC.

        • I’m not sure where to start here.

          The Arduino Uno does indeed have FCC compliance, precisely so it can be legally sold in the US market. Vast numbers of companies, both in and outside the US do this. We acknowledge that there are those who don’t, and although they may make a fast buck, they aren’t around long-term.

          Aside from the very successful company in which I’m currently employed, I can think of again, vast numbers of companies innovating with microcontrollers in the US without saying “F'it” because of the FCC.

          The “risk” you speak of is legal risk. This “risk” is mitigated by knowing the law and paying the testing cost of compliance, which changes it from a “risk” into a business cost, which we (and vast numbers of other companies) are willing to accept.

          And finally to say there haven’t been any innovations since the FDA and FCC came into existence is frankly preposterous. Though we (all) may not have a blank slate to do whatever we want, the public good and safety these institutions bring to our (in the US) lives outweighs the admittedly substantial bureaucracy involved.

          And as Dennis Miller says, of course this is just my opinion, I may be wrong.

          • Mike, the 5th version of Arduino now has FCC testing; you forgot to mention of course that every prior version; but more importantly, that very first Arduino board which carried all the project risk - no FCC thank you very much.

            Perhaps you don’t understand project risk; but not every microcontroller board is going to make a killing - so a lot of people have to take risks, and if you add that million dollar FCC fine to the pile of risks, you can squash an industry, or at least that corner of it labelled “Small Business”

            You have a job today because some college student took a risk in his dorm, including the risk of being pitchforked by the FCC (don’t even pretend Nate was testing those boards he cooked on the electric grill). Yeah maybe Sparkfun tests a board or two today; but my point is you can’t build an Arduino nor a Sparkfun out of whole cloth; both of them must go through the “illegal” period when compliance with the FCC is simply too high a price to pay for the 100 odd boards they make in the early days. Without small business you don’t get to big. I’m suggesting the FCC doesn’t fit small business and is contributing to the foreignness of innovation. You disagree in words, but your “argument” is evidence to the contrary.

            • That’s a considerably more nuanced argument than “FCC exists to Help China Win”, and as we’ve mentioned we agree with you on many of these points. A small businessperson selling a small number of items will naturally have less of an effect on the global RF environment than a large company selling millions of items, so it makes sense that the FCC would be better served by concentrating on the larger markets (which is in general what they do). As SFE has now reached this level, that is what we are working with. You’re correct that there is an unfortunate gray area for smaller manufacturers, and that the FCC (actually the laws they enforce) could better accommodate those markets.

              • Thanks, I don’t think it’s nuanced at all for those small innovators in the US who look at the laws and say - “I’ll apply my skills to something else”; and every time one experimenter stops buying a transistor or an LED; the market for those parts dries up, and in the end, even if one were determined to use a transistor and go to jail; he’d likely have to import that transistor from malaysia. It’s an irony that weed is more legal than a transistor in CO.

        • Ben,

          You said:

          Eli Lilly invented insulin production for diabetes some 30 years before the FDA exists. Tesla did all his invention prior to the FCC, as did Edison. The TV was invested 10 years prior to the FCC.

          Allow me to suggest you read up on your radio history. For your edification, here are a few actual verifiable facts - and the hyperlinks to cite them - about the early days of radio and television.

          • Though the Federal Communications Commission didn’t exist until it was created by Congress by the radio act of 1934, The Federal Radio Commission was created by Congress in 1926. Prior to that radio station licenses were granted by the United States Department of Commerce, dating back to times prior to the First World War. Ergo, there was government regulation of radio and the electromagnetic spectrum dating back to (at least) the early 1900’s.

          • Regarding the invention of the “TV”, (this is assuming that we’re defining “TV” as a system for transmitting actual, viewable images and sound, that exhibited smooth movement and recognizable images); this didn’t happen until 1936, though very crude mechanical systems for transmitting images existed back as far as 1907.

          • Mechanical “image rasterizers” - which is what they were called back then, not televisions, could not even send a half-baked image until 1924, and even then, the image was a stationary image of extremely poor quality, barely recognizable as something human.

          • You should also note that the first commercial voice grade RADIO (i.e. modulated wave voice), station (KDKA) started broadcasting on November 2nd, 1920.

          • Prior to that time, with the possible exception of some low powered hobbyists, all radio transmission of any serious power was done by spark-gap transmitters or Alexanderson high powered radio frequency alternators transmitting Morse code. The idea that “television”, in a useable, viewable form existed four years later is absolutely absurd.

          • It should also be noted that, though De'Forest invented the vacuum tube in 1907, real, workable, production grade vacuum tubes didn’t happen until World War I - 1915 to be exact - when General Electric in Schenectady N.Y. began production of the Pliotron vacuum tube. These tubes were hideously expensive, very low fidelity amplifying tubes, requiring expensive batteries for even the simplest radios.

          I would like to caution you to actually use your head for thinking, and take the time to verify your facts, lest people begin to suspect that you’re using a body-part considerably further south for all your brain-waves.

          What say ye?

          Jim (JR)

          • Jim, for clarity - we’re debating the claim that 1. regulation kills innovation generally, and 2. the FCC has killed electronic innovation in the U.S. in particular.

            Your argument is that a. I’m a poopyhead. b. the FCC was necessary because people were using huge FR broadcasters, and c. the precise dates don’t coincide neatly.

            Let me counter: a. am not. b. so let the FCC regulate high powered transmitters at the module level; but don’t require people who integrate the module to require the same testing. And for God’s sake don’t confuse a $.50 micro-controller with a threat to the ionosphere. c. Remember Zenith, RCA (Radio Corp of America), Heathkit? Radio Innovation declined in the U.S. while it picked up in other countries.

            I can promise you there are many people like me who look at the onerous testing requirements for electronics and realize that basically you’re little electronics shops (Sparkfun, adafruit) etc are no different than moonshiners in Appalachia - “ain’t nothing illegal till you get caught.”

            • Oh, another thing…

              Saying that “The FCC kills off innovation” is like saying you get the clap from someone sneezing.

              What stifles innovation is the desire to avoid risk. Everything you do has risk. My wife is a Real Estate Agent, and that carries an incredible amount of risk. So much so that her agency, Coldwell Banker, has a separate legal department set up just to help defend the RE Agent from the frivolous and baseless lawsuits that invariably come along.

              I run a computer consulting company, and I run the risk of getting sued out of my socks, despite my best efforts to the contrary.

              The mom-and-pop luncheonette on the corner runs a grave risk every time they set out a plate in front of a customer.

              It’s not the FCC, or their like, that stifles innovation. What stifles innovation is the same thing that stifled it all the way back to the Dawn of Man: the lack of balls. The guy who says “Oooh! There’s a risk - so I’ll just say ” ‘naff this! “ - stifles innovation, his own. He doesn’t want to take risks or try to work with what he has to make it what he wants to have. He wants it for free.

              Likewise, talking about the bazillion dollar fines that the FCC can impose is similarly reactionary and pointless. Let’s say that the FCC DID decide my little boards should have been tested. Are they going to fine a small one-man-shop back in the ‘90’s several bazillion dollars for a few pc boards? No way! Not only no way, but no effin’ way! They’d tell me to stop what I’m doing - and perhaps even offer some advice on how to do it better.

              I worked in a very tightly regulated avionics manufacturing company for just about forever. Having the FAA and the Department of Defense breathing down your neck isn’t fun. But you learn how to play the game - you show them what they want to see. You don’t act carelessly, you don’t get stupid. You don’t prance around like an [donkey’s back-side]. And if something goes wrong, you listen attentively to what they have to say instead of flippin' ‘em the bird. You do all that and things work themselves out.

              Yes, innovation carries risk. Independent thinking carries risk. That’s the nature of the beast. Sometimes you gotta have a Brass Set of Bowling Balls to even think of trying some of this stuff, but as my wife says, “If you don’t take risks, you’ll never drink champagne.”

              And that’s just the way it is.

              Jim (JR)

              • That’s cool. I agree on the Risk; just wish FCC fines weren’t part of that risk. I’d like to see the Gov helping people rather than throwing millstone into the machinery.

                • Ben,

                  I’m glad we’re finally seeing eye-to-eye on at least something ( :grin: )

                  As far as government and millstones and all that [feces] is concerned, that’s the way governments work. It’s been that way all the way back to before Noah and the Ark. I am equally sure that there were Phoenician and Sumerian traders who complained about their own government millstones too.

                  It’s like complaining that water’s wet. It’s not going to change any time soon, so why bitch? That is, unless you feel better after ruffling your neck-feathers, squawking, and flapping your wings for a while in an indignant rage.

                  Me, I see it in one of two ways:

                  • I can moan and groan about how things aren’t the way I’d like them to be. or
                  • I can work with what I have, do what I have to do to get where I want to go, and deal with things as they come along.

                  Case in point: I have family in Russia. We go there periodically to spoil our grandchildren rotten. And, believe it or not, it is an actual, literal fact that it is illegal to bring a computer or other complex electronic device into Russia without a permit/license Does that mean I leave my laptop at home? Nope. I carry mine with me. So does everyone else. Do they really care? No. However this is one of those stupid laws they can use to bust you if they really want your [donkey] and need an excuse. Just like it is here in the States.

                  So, like I said before, the real advice I can give to everyone is to just chill. Deal with it. Have fun and enjoy the ride.

                  What say ye?

                  Jim (JR)

                  • I’m familiar with that - Lived in Ukraine. Mostly they tax tech like a luxury, so they don’t want you competing with an untaxed laptop.

                    Not the model I’d want to follow. Not sure ignoring it is the answer.

            • Radio innovation did not decline in the US, however manufacturing moved overseas to take advantage of cheaper labor.

              In other cases, the business model eventually became irrelevant. Heathkit died off in the 70’s because they didn’t keep up with the times. Popular Electronics Magazine - one of my childhood favorites - also died out because interest in that kind of kit-bashing died out too.

              Now, with the resurgence of companies like Arduino, and magazines like Nuts and Volts, or Servo, we can see a regrowth of the electronic hobbyist and a love of the kind of kit-bashing folks like I did when we were children and teens.

              If you think the FCC killed electronic innovation here in the US, I would suggest you take a second look at the computer you’re using to type these posts. Though that particular one was probably manufactured in Asia somewhere, 99% of the research and development - not to mention the manufacture of commercially feasible personal computers happened, and still happens, in Silicon Valley among other places here in the US.

              Do you like animated movies - especially ones like Monsters Inc. Cars, the various Dreamworks films, etc.? The primary development for the computers and software was done by various firms here in the U.S. LucasFilms, Industrial Light and Magic - which later became Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks, and so on.

              Intel, a US based company, invented the first microprocessor, the 8008, here in the Unites States, long after the FCC was created. Likewise Texas Instruments, Motorola, Advanced Micro Devices, (AMD), Atari, Apple, - the list literally goes on and on.

              And with regard to the folks like Arduino, Sparkfun, etc., if you had actually read the posting they made, they are not illegal at all.

              • They create sub-assemblies, which do not require testing.

              • Their primary markets are the experimenter, hobbyist, and to educational facilities, all of which do not require testing.

              Of course, if you are going to use an Arduino board, (or more likely, use the schematic and develop your own design, it would be cheaper in the long run), and manufacture tens of thousands for someone - part of the contract price should be set up to account for both the R&D, as well as the testing that will have to be done.

              Even in my own case, the circuit I made was clearly a “sub-assembly” designed to be installed into a point-of-sale display by the company that was manufacturing them, so testing was not required anyway. However, despite that, I still did a certain amount of ad-hoc testing to verify that I was being a good “electromagnetic” citizen.

              Regarding dates and facts. Being off by a few years is one thing, being off by decades is something else entirely. Edison was still an active inventor into the 1920’s. Tesla had a laboratory in Rocky Point Long Island even later than that.

              As far as being a “poopy head”, I never said that. However, if the shoe fits… .

              What say ye?

              Jim (JR)

              • Ironically, the individual micro-controllers aren’t regulated by the FCC. Neither is cool rendering software - so let’s delete those paragraphs from the argument.

                What’s left is a. a real decline in US manufacturing AND innovation (ie Sony) The “incomplete” caveat is pretty sucky - yeah maybe it leaves some opportunities for Sparkfun, but it cuts out a whole host of small boards which might serve a complete thought.

                I think a lot of hobbyists went to the Internet, and now the internet is re enabling hardware hobby.

                There are many reasons tech is moving away from the US. the FCC doesn’t need to help push.

    • I’m actually going to take a stand and side with Ben on this one. First off: I’m a small time inventor, I like making small circuits and kits and selling them, on a small scale. But I don’t have nearly the capital to pay for testing, and certification, and all the other hoops they want me to jump through. Ask any intelligent economist, any one at all, and they will all agree that overregulation stifles innovation.

      Lets face it, everybody. There is no real reason that cell phones should be turned off during taxi, takeoff and landing. Not one, single accident has ever been linked back to an iPod (see citation at bottom), and Google turns up page after page of information on why the cell phone scare is invalid. And yet, they still have the majority of Americans believing that if little Timmy doesn’t turn off his Game Boy, the plane will fall out of the sky as a streaking, fiery comet.

      My intention here is not to troll. It is to simply make the point that overregulation stifles innovation. If a customer finds that using coffee and alcohol at the same time causes blindness, he is told not to use the two at the same time. But if the same consumer finds that having his Nano-Bot 5280 and his Robo-Lover 9000 turned on at the same time causes pelvic pains, the FCC will immediately swoop in, hold his hand, and grind the manufacturer into oblivion. Lets be honest, there are hundreds of things out there that are more dangerous than the FCC’s closely guarded electromagnetic spectrum, and yet, there are no regulatory bodies to cope with them. But, I guess that’s what happens when said spectrum is something that you can auction off for hundreds of thousands of dollars per slice.

      SparkFun, thanks for the intriguing article, even if it does stifle my dreams of selling my innovations. A very good write-up in a long line of great tutorials.


      • Thanks for the measured response.

        I feel pretty comfortable saying that none of us would burn a lot of energy defending the FCC from all criticisms. There are plenty, from all sorts of political and economic angles, and personally I’d like to see a good deal of reform.

        It’s just that there’s a pretty sizable gap between “overregulation is bad” and “regulation is bad”. (I don’t mean to characterize your position that way, but that view is usually in the air in these conversations.) Despite the sometimes considerable overreaches and costs of the current regulatory framework in the US, there is good evidence that we, the public, benefit from a measure of control over common resources and environments. Especially where participants in the market have strong incentives to disregard the general welfare and establish their own modes of control.

        One of the only overtly, policy-specific political stances SparkFun has ever decided it’s appropriate to take was opposition to a form of network regulation. That’s surely a specific complaint about overregulation. It’s just that “overregulation” is basically tautological - it’s the amount and kind of regulation that’s bad. Too much is too much. Well, sure, but what’s too much and why? And is the kind of “regulatory agencies exist to keep Americans down!” bit that started this thread really a responsible or nuanced analysis of things? I think that working technologists as a class can do better than that, though we often don’t.

        Probably isn’t the forum for this discussion to play out very far, considering how much of the rest of the Internet is already a burnt-over wasteland of American libertarians and American everybody-besides-the-libertarians screaming “NO YOU” at each other over these questions. But, again, thanks for making a reasonable point calmly.

      • Regarding the FCC, it’s regulations, and radio-frequency emissions:

        The real answer to a lot of these comments regarding the FCC and their multi-bazillion dollar fines is simple: Just use your head and don’t get stupid.

        An example that comes to mind is an product that I manufactured back in 1994 and sold several hundred copies to a company that manufactured advertising displays. It used a Phillips micro controller, a 1 of 16 driver, and a 12v “wall wart” power supply to drive an animated light show for a display.

        How did I deal with the FCC? Easy! I did everything I could to stay “under the radar” as it were.

        • I realized that the FCC doesn’t have the manpower or resources to chase down every walkie-talkie out there.

        • I went to Radio Shack and purchased an expensive, sensitive, broadband digital wave meter designed for ham radio operation. Knowing that my circuit worked using an 8 MHz clock and had long wires that might be effective transmitters, I tested each device I made with the wave meter.

        • I tested at 6" and 1 yard away. Emissions from my circuit were virtually undetectable unless I put the wave meter right next to the PCB. At 6" and 1 meter, there was no detectable difference in the detected radio field with it turned off or turned on.

        Confident that my little PCB would not even be close to attracting the FCC’s attention, I sold it and had a lot of fun in the process.

        My advice? Chill. Be smart about things. Do some basic testing so you know what the heck is going on. And above all, enjoy what you’re doing and don’t stress out over every little house-fly and spider you see.

        What say ye?

        Jim (JR)

  • Thanks for publishing this useful guide. I’ve tried to make sense of Section 15 before, to no avail. Your guide makes infinitely more sense than the legalese on the FCC website.

    Just for my clarification: can a company sell a subassembly (a circuit board) and separately sell an enclosure for said subassembly, and not need FCC testing? I’m wondering specifically if that would qualify the sub-assembly as “marketed as part of a system.”

  • “So they sent this little warning, they’re prepared to do their worst And they stuck it in your mailbox hoping you could be coerced I can think of quite another place they should have stuck it first they might just be neurotic, or possibly psychotic, they’re the folks at the freaking FCC”

    Gotta love Family Guy, if not only for saying it right!

  • based on this article, in particular to the Development kit question&answer :

    Are “development tools” exempt from the rules? No. There are no exemptions in the rules which specifically apply to development tools. Furthermore, devices which can be purchased by the general public must adhere to the more rigid “Class B” emissions limits, rather than the more relaxed “Class A” industrial limits.

    I would like to understand how the “ATmega128RFA1 Development Board ” “DEV-11197” from Sparkfun fit with the FCC rules. It contains a wireless trasmitter, not believe it has a FCC certification Thanks

    • It falls under the “Subassembly” category, similar to things like the [RFM12BSP(] device. Since it’s not pre-programmed and has effectively no use until someone makes something out of it, the burden of testing falls on the person who ultimately integrates it into a system. For most of our customers, that’s going to fall under the hobbyist exemption of five devices or less.

  • As an interesting note to anyone outside of the US developing kit destined for the US, our experience in the UK is that in addition to the CE type approval needed for the UK we had to go and get FCC type approval. If we had been an American company we would have been able to self certify the kit, but as are not American we had to send it off to a test house to get a $2000 piece of paper. Protectionism against foreign companies or what? Tim

  • Hey guys, can someone outline the risks of selling a product without getting FCC?

  • For what its worth, this is a sad story. I now have prototypes of a very useful and highly programmable remote 2.4 Ghz control system for musicians and DJs, which I very much will want to test market soon. I originally designed the system for myself, since no one made what I was looking for, and this is what is inspiring me want to make it a product. But as a remote control, it is an intentional radiator. So it is more than a major shame that I, as an American innovator, have no practical financial means to move forward without investor income. That is an option I will pursue, for sure. But in the mean time it would be more than nice if if someone could advise me on a reasonable approach to a test market. The fact that almost any product will need to undergo some changes after a test market, which could potentially mean the previous 10,000 was wasted, pretty much makes me want to give up. I knew I’d need FCC approval at some point, but $10000 is obviously pretty depressing for all but deep pocked inventor.

    Hopefully I can get some reasonable advise on how to “work” the system. Perhaps inviting initial customers to become a kind of partner, offering a product discount ( or a cash back payment) in exchange for their service, providing product feedback. Or perhaps I can use the old “for educational purposes only” gimmick. I don’t know. If anyone has anything useful to offer here, please contact me privately via the contact link on my “under construction” site,, as the advise will be much appreciated.

    Now please understand my dilemma, and please do not lecture me on the reason for FCC rules. I understand them fully. But as an innovator and out of work engineer, that has invested a lot of personal finances, time, and dedication to making a good product, I am hugely frustrated to find out that testing my product will cost so much. I took great pains to design something that based on the manufacturer’s guidelines would harmlessly generate the equivalent RF power of a children’s toy, on the largely unregulated 2.4 Ghz band. What a wonderful feeling to know the cost of certifying it will be more then I’ve spent on the prototypes, and will potentially put me out of business before i start.

    There really should be some kind of developer’s temporary license available on certain unregulated bands (like this one), that grant the developer something a little beyond 5 units, or forbid you to make a dime on any one of them. Maybe there is and I’m just reading all this wrong.

    • Situtations like this are exactly why modular approval rules exist. Find yourself a pre-approved wireless module and your testing costs drop by an order of magnitude.

      • With all due respect, I appreciate your answer but it is not very helpful. Its always easy to say “start over this way”. Engineering or devising a way to save an existing project is much more difficult. Its not the “Hubble” telescope I’m talking about here, but in i a sense its MY “Hubble”. I can’t afford to start from scratch.

        I didn’t say I was planning a project and now have to change my plans.. These are nearly finished products which at this point I have a couple of years and multiple thousands of dollars invested. There are PCBs, enclosures, labels, and not to mention a significant amount of code that has gone through several modification cycles. Starting over with a different core module is simply not an affordable option.

        If anything, I’m guilty of assuming too much about the WIXEL module I started with. As far as I can see, their designers (Pololu) have ) followed TI’s design guidelines to the letter, for the embedded CC2511F32 MCU, including the design of the PCB trace antenna implementation. So it is unlikely the project wouldn’t pass muster with the FCC. And I always assumed that if the product was successful, I’d eventually have to invest (or get investor funding) to do the whole FCC certification. But I wasn’t prepared for the FCC law forbidding me to make a dime even selling 5 prototypes.

        So what I was trying to gain from my post here, and similar posts on other forums, was to glean actual experience of others in my position, who have either discovered some reasonable legal work-arounds, and/or have discovered that they actually were able to sell a reasonable number of products. Perhaps someone might share ways to do some of your own testing, to at lease ensure you don’t get complaints from interference. And as it stands now, I have heard from some people (although privately for obvious reasons) that they have sold low power devices that don’t have interference problems, for a VERY long time. I continue to seek more helpful ideas from anyone willing to share.

        • Old post, but consider finding some investors to go to the next level. There are people actively looking for investments that can go to the next level. Also, consider licensing the technology to someone. You have IP in your code. It would be better if you had a patent or patent pending.

          I am part of a company that found an investor to the tune of a couple of million dollars for an industrial application. There are huge ranges of people actively seeking out products to invest in.

          Also, go talk to the FCC. They might have programs available for small businesses. Many times government agencies get grants/bonuses for fostering small business ventures. They might have connections for finding funding as well. I know many local areas have business development groups that meet to connect people looking to invest with people who build things. Also, get comfortable with NDAs to protect yourself against people who want to “look” at what you have.

          For the business that I am in we had to pay upwards of $100K to get our product NFPA certified. This took 2 to 3 years. Now you might not consider your device to be dangerous. However and agency has no such luxury of assuming that. I am sure there are hundreds of devices that could kill someone in the wrong situation. So this is not about YOUR device at all. Its about keeping the airwaves clean so things operate smoothly. I mean, you would feel bad if it somehow caused someones pace maker to fail right?

          • Appreciated. Indeed, I’ve moved on to working on other more easily salable and less restrictive products, while at the same time preparing good documentation, a reasonable web presence and write up (, bocures, basline pricing, and everything else I can do to show an investor that what I have is a finished product not some half baked idea. Still, I would gladly offer up ½ my skills as a designer and coder for a greater measure of business and marketing skills. I always spend the lions share of my time making things the best I possibly can and much less on the marketing side. Sadly, that is the likely reason why many good products never see the light of day. I certainly will need a bit of luck finding the help to take this product further.

  • Do you think Arduino shields are considered sub-assemblies?

    • Absolutely. Shields, most breakout boards, modules–these things all (to my reading of the law) are subassemblies.

  • I am still reading the “more information”, but is there not a way to crowd-source this? One thought is to go to an open field ( the quietest place in country ) with some test gear, maybe twice a year and sit in the field and produce reports. Everyone send us your device, designed to be turned on. We turn it on, wait 30 secs for initialization and run a spectrum sweep. We then print the results, package it up and send it all back.

  • Not everything with an FCC ID on it is even really legal, especially if it’s also marked “Made in China”, and sold on eBay.

    See page 9:

    This last week I had interest in upgrading my old Motorola Backflip to a newer android phone, preferably with multiple cores (2-4) above 1ghz, 1gb ddr3, 4gb of nand, and a 5" or larger high res screen/digiitizer. Things like this selling in the US from “real” vendors, tend to be priced well above $600.

    Very nice quad core MTK6589 Star S7189 for $189 are very tempting, except for the lack of a FCC ID. Some of China phones carry a fake FCC ID, like the Note2 series with an fcc id of A3LNote2, which isn’t actually a real Samsung in the database. Take a look at the pictures in the battery bay of China phones on eBay, until you find an FCC ID, then try and look it up. Just for grins, also lookup the IMEI number … for some phones both the FCC ID and IMEI numbers are counterfeit.

    Look at the battery bay picture of this phone, with both a fake FCC ID and IMEI:

    The IMEI belongs to an Eiroga E71i which is a keyboard phone, and the FCC ID vendor is Samsung.

    While this probably helps them get through customs without forfeiture, it’s certainly not going to protect the idiots reselling them in the USA from the FCC without filling the required 740 form, and hoping someone doesn’t check the FCC ID.

    The eBay China sellers when pressed, first they say they are legal, and they have a lot of resellers importing the phones.

    Just like they don’t have a problem with counterfeit name brands, they don’t have a problem with counterfeit FCC ID’s. Press them a little harder, and you might get the following reply like I did :)

     i understand your mean!
     we also sell the model!
     all china phone come with FCC mark on label!
     our phone also come with it!!
     but these phones only have the mark, but no test by FCC
     if you think it is no problem,we can supply these phones!

    So at the end of the day, it’s pretty hard to trust legal operation of anything from China.

  • I recently sent an inquiry to the FCC about this. They replied and said they are clarifying the definition of “evaluation kit”. Here is the link to the relevant changes:

    If you search the text for “evaluation kits”, you will find the relavant portions. Here is the most relevant portion:

    Federal Communications Commission FCC 13-15 53 141. Decision. There was no opposition to the proposal to modify Section 2.803 to allow for the sale of evaluation kits, provided that notification to the buyer is provided regarding the authorization status of the component. Accordingly, we adopt that proposal. In doing so, we note, as pointed out by TIA and the Semiconductor Industry Association, that not all sales of evaluation kits are prohibited by the rules. However, our action here removes any ambiguity that may exist over which kits fell into the prohibited category, thus simplifying our regulations for the benefit of continued innovation.

    • The pdf version is much more readable

  • @Emotion Assuming your circuit board is classified as an “unintentional radiator”: If you are selling to an end user, then YES you would need a FCC certification for the circuit board. However, if you are selling to an integrator and they then include it in a system for sale to an end user, then they would need to get FCC approval prior to sale. I hope this helps give you clarification. If you are interested in discussing this more, please don’t hesitate to give me a call at 866-324-4286. Best regards. Marty Best

  • When it comes to hobby hardware, I wonder how an FCC test is actually conducted. For example, say you have an Arduino - What kind of program is it running during the test? Is it running any peripherals like LEDs? Take a slightly more complicated case - a kit with a microcontroller board that can drive motors or hobby servos. Do you test with or without motors connected (since motors can put out tons of EMI, it seems important)? Or a pololu 3pi robot or similar - do you test it while it’s moving or do you test the circuit board without the motors?

    Now let’s say you bundle an Arduino, a shield, and some motors/LEDs. Are you required to test the Arduino+shield (assuming the shield has a microcontroller - talks over i2c or something) while it’s running the motors you bundle?

    I have noticed that Arduino is now FCC certified and CE marked; I just wish I understood how they actually conducted the test.

    • Truthfully, I do, too.

      If you read the section above about subassemblies, you’ll note that my reading of the law is that an Arduino is a non-PC CPU board, and as such, is not subject to FCC authorization. Of course, there’s very little guidance on test procedures for things like this, so it’s very possible that they simply took it to a test facility, plugged a battery into it, and let it sit on the table, quietly, while the test facility took readings.

  • What does this mean for users of the Nordic line of RF ICs? Are they exempt for some reason, or do they still need certification?

    • It’s all about quantities. If you’re buying our Nordic breakouts for small projects, you’re in the clear (unless someone complains, of course). If you’re designing a product around them, you’ll need to pursue FCC certification.

  • If I build a controller board for a pinball machine, would the machine count as an appliance, and thus not require testing?

    • No. Appliances are things like “white goods”- washing machines, refrigerators, etc.

      Of course, if you’re building it for a one-off purpose (your pinball machine in your house), you’re fine.

  • Great article!

    If one builds and sells intentional radiators that are intended only for use under one of the exemptions (say, industrial/medical test equipment), what steps are needed to ensure compliance? Is it sufficient to issue a disclaimer saying ‘only for use as industrial test equipment’ and verify that buyers are appropriate users?

    • I think if you really follow up with the second part, you’d be in the clear- but then, test equipment is not development tools, so unless you’re marketing, say, a strain gauge type device or something similar, you may not be getting anywhere.

  • Re. devboards, I think there is probably a good argument that they could be exempt as “A digital device used exclusively as industrial, commercial, or medical test equipment.”

    • Not when you start to dig into what “test equipment” is. Basically, test equipment is things like strain gauges, calipers, multimeters, etc.

      They’ve also indicated that one of their thresholds is whether something is too large or expensive to reasonably permit home or small office use.

  • ISBN 978-0-470-18930-6 is your friend.

  • Does anyone know how the testing is done? is there a way we can “pre-test” before sending it in and spending the money or does that require certain expensive equipment?

    If your system fails do they tell you how, why, or what condition it failed in? Or do they simply say FAILED and it is left up to you to figure out how or why?

    • You don’t have to pay the entire cost of testing up front, so what you would usually do is to perform the tests you’re most likely to fail first. If you fail a test, you need only repeat the tests you’ve already done.

      You can also do “pre-compliance scans”–not as detailed as the full test, but they are cheaper and will give you an idea if something is going very wrong.

    • It does require expensive equipment, and shielded rooms so you know that the measured emissions are coming from your device and not something nearby. You could certainly cobble something together to do pretesting, but for any usable results it would requires a substantial amount of RF knowledge. If you do fail, you’ll get charts and graphs showing exactly what frequencies were above the acceptable line. But after that it’s up to you to track down what and where in your circuit those frequencies are coming from, which can be -really- difficult to determine.

  • Some examples (perhaps real cases) would be nice.

    For example it is illegal to use a family radio (FRS or GMRS) to transmit coded data, e.g. you can’t use a regular, unmodified GMRS radio in a balloon to transmit telemetry with DTMF or whatnot except for specific exceptions or within specific FRS rules see 95.193.

  • So a kickstarter project for a radio controlled toy needs to start at $10,000 for the FCC certification.

    • Yes. And this is one of the problems with Kickstarter; that when people add up their budget goals, they may not have enough product development experience to include costs like this.

  • If you google “EMC Test Lab” you should be able to find something in your area. There are many in California. is one of the larger labs that handle all kinds of certification testing including EMC/FCC testing and they are international. Also, if you are making a product and selling it in both Europe and the US, there is a European standard similar to FCC Part 15, which I believe is EN55013 and it is a stricter standard.

  • Great post! Is there anyone who has already certified a product and could recommend a testing/certification facility?

  • Excellent write-up.

  • Dang. Just FCC certification and patent alone cost $$$$$ for a wireless device.