If you’re designing, manufacturing, or marketing a device for the US market that communicates wirelessly – using Bluetooth, WiFi, cellular or any other RF technology – or that contains a processor, that device is subject to the FCC’s equipment authorization rules. Understanding those rules and considering them early in the design process can avoid delays in getting to market and the potential for expensive fines if your device does not comply with the rules.
What do the FCC equipment authorization rules cover?
The rules cover three basic categories of equipment:
- Unintentional radiators – These devices emit radio waves as a side effect of their operation. Almost anything with a chip clocked at a speed of more than 9 kHz is an unintentional radiator (yes, kHz, not MHz), but the rules also cover other devices that emit radio waves, such as TV and radio receivers and computer peripherals, even if they don’t contain processors.
- Intentional radiators – These devices – including Bluetooth and WiFi transmitters – communicate using radio waves at low power. All devices that transmit radio waves (and some that merely reflect them) are subject to the FCC’s requirements. Hotspots, wireless headphones, and wearables that connect to mobile phones are intentional radiators.
- Licensed services – Equipment that operates at higher power and in certain frequency bands (such as the 800 MHz band licensed for mobile phones) is subject to specific rules for the service where it is used.
These rules apply to consumer devices and many devices sold for scientific, industrial, or medical use.
What does it mean if a device is subject to the equipment rules?
If a device is covered by the rules, it must go through the FCC’s equipment authorization process and meet other requirements discussed below before it can be imported, marketed, or sold in the US.
The FCC’s equipment authorization process varies depending on the specific device, but devices subject to the rules must be tested to ensure that they comply with limits on radio emissions, and the tests must be performed on the final version of a device. Devices can be tested in either accredited or unaccredited test facilities. Many accredited facilities test for compliance with US, Canadian and European requirements at the same time.
Many devices can be marketed once they pass the tests, but some equipment requires FCC approval, using a process called certification. Certification requires an application to the FCC that includes the test results and detailed product information (including the manual). Most intentional radiators and a few types of unintentional radiators require certification.
Devices subject to the equipment rules also must be labeled and include information on their packaging, in a manual, or both. The packaging and manual information tells consumers about the FCC authorization, discusses interference and how to correct it, and warns users not to modify the device. The label identifies the product so that the FCC can track complaints about interference and verify that the product has gone through the equipment authorization process. Labeling requirements vary depending on the type and size of the device, but any device with a screen can use electronic labeling, rather than placing the label on the outside of the device, and very small devices without screens can place the label information in the user manual. Even when electronic labeling is allowed, the product or packaging must include some external labeling to demonstrate compliance with the FCC rules. (This labeling may be removable in some cases.)
What can be done before a device has completed the FCC equipment authorization process?
Devices subject to the FCC’s rules cannot be marketed until they have completed testing and, if necessary, been approved by the FCC. Marketing includes selling or leasing a device, advertising that a device is available for sale or lease, and importing a device for purpose of selling or leasing it. It is possible to market a device without actually selling it. In fact, the FCC has fined companies for displaying unauthorized devices at CES. These rules apply to all kinds of marketing, including websites, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other online media. The FCC has not provided any guidance on whether offering a device as a premium on crowdfunding sites constitutes marketing, so there is some risk to doing so.
The FCC exempts some activities from the marketing ban if the manufacturer or distributor provides a disclaimer. The specific requirements for the disclaimer depend on whether the device being advertised or displayed is the device that the company plans to sell or is a prototype.
The FCC permits a certain amount of product use for testing before a device is authorized, including testing devices in labs with anechoic chambers or Faraday cages. The rules also permit pre-authorization performance and customer acceptance testing, but impose conditions, including requiring warnings on the devices and that devices be retrieved or rendered inoperable after testing is completed. Devices awaiting FCC authorization also can be demonstrated at trade shows or exhibitions if the manufacturer displays a disclaimer.
What about other countries?
Other countries have authorization and testing regimes that are similar to the FCC’s requirements. In many cases, FCC testing will meet the requirements of other countries, particularly Canada and European Community countries. However, each regulator has its own requirements, particularly for labeling and information provided to the consumer.
Last reviewed: March 30, 2021