What if I wanted to run a radio broadcast station on a commercial SW band? Say, I am on a boat in international waters. Or say I am in a free country. I monitor the frequency for months and I check the records seeing nothing is assigned to it. Then I start transmitting. I know there are all these draconian laws by the governments, but when I am out on a boat I am subject to no government. And when I'm in a free country and I'm not stepping on anybody's toes, what's the harm?

What are the practical risks? Realistically? Are the governments really wasting that much tax payer money to be monitoring the waves and triangulate you and hunt you down for speaking your mind on the mostly deserted commercial SW bands?

A corollary question would be how much it would cost to put up an SW broadcast station legally? Searching the FCC directly brings up exactly nothing: https://www.fcc.gov/media/radio/how-to-apply the only mention is AM radio in the MW band. So, that might mean that the commercial HF bands are essentially abandoned by the FCC?

PS: It seems I am having a discussion with myself. I wish that others chimed in. But people down voting my question or not responding doesn't deter me from researching and discussing it.

PPS: I think I need to clarify, even for myself, a little better what the purpose of this thought exercise is.

  • I am asking out of curiosity
  • Ham radio is fine and all, but you are constrained on just idle private chatting, what if instead I wanted to speak my mind to a larger audience, and do on SW what many people do on YouTube?
  • Imagining life without Internet, how could we recreate the format of world wide citizens interactions? What about a YouTube live hangout on air (literally) using a group of Hams discussing but with the ability of commercial SW radios listening in?
  • A full blown radio program on SSB with music and all? "Amateur radio" rules are too restrictive for that.
  • Clearly, a 50kW or highers transmitter is a piece of massive engineering effort so probably out of reach, but who knows, I've been picking up old big iron computers decades ago, which previously sold for millions, I might come across a government auction that sells a 10 kW RF amplifier which I might use as a SSB broadcast station and reach quite far with it.

4 Answers 4


What if I wanted to run a radio broadcast station on a commercial SW band? Say, I am on a boat in international waters.

What you're suggesting is known as pirate radio. That Wikipedia page provides plenty of examples of unlicensed stations, many of which operated for years before either being shut down or getting licensed. Many of those stations operated from ships or platforms outside territorial waters. Although you're asking specifically about shortwave frequencies and most of these examples are in the commercial FM or AM broadcast bands, I don't think the frequency makes a difference. A station such as you describe is surely in the realm of pirate radio.

...and I'm not stepping on anybody's toes, what's the harm?

That you don't hear anything when you listen on a given frequency doesn't mean that your high-power transmissions on that frequency won't cause problems. There aren't any empty spaces in the HF range on the FCC's spectrum allocation chart, so there's a strong chance that the signal you're thinking of blasting out will cause problems for people operating on your chosen frequency at power too low for you to hear.

It seems I am having a discussion with myself.

The hypothetical nature of the question might have something to do with the lack of response.

Are the governments really wasting that much tax payer money to be monitoring the waves and triangulate you and hunt you down for speaking your mind on the mostly deserted commercial SW bands?

Not for speaking your mind... you're free to say whatever you want, especially if you're outside the jurisdiction of any country. You can jump up and down on your transmitter-ship and shout your opinion. You can email your opinion to the New York Times, post it on Twitter, create your own web site, post it on billboards. The content isn't the issue, so don't conflate that with the actual problem. Broadcasting on frequencies that you're not authorized to use, and potentially interfering with other users, is the problem.


I don't know that commercial class HF transmitters are still being built, but it shouldn't be very difficult to put one together. You'd need the audio mixing and control equipment that goes with any radio broadcasting station (this would be the same as a commercial MW AM or FM broadcast station), an HF transmitter that can be tuned to your chosen/assigned frequency, one or more stages of amplifiers to reach your chosen output power, transmission line and an antenna suitable for your chosen frequency and power level.

This isn't going to be cheap -- your final, at least, will use high power tubes (far beyond a 6146 class) that cost thousands of dollars each; your transmission line will have a cost measured in hundreds to thousands of dollar per meter, your antenna will need a tower high enough to get half a wave above ground, in addition to the cost of a high power antenna itself.

Typically, to set up a licensed station in AM or FM at "low power" (a few hundred watts for a college campus station, say), from scratch, will cost tens of thousands of dollars for equipment. Add the tower, amplifiers, and feed line needed for a station with enough range to cover a significant geographic footprint, and you can multiply that figure by at least ten (likely more).

For your offshore location, of course, you'd add the cost of generating equipment, ongoing fuel and maintenance costs, and the ship itself with the necessary equipment (anchors or thrusters) for station keeping to ensure you remain in international waters -- or the cost to buy you own private island (or "private nation" platform -- there are a couple for sale, last I heard, one with much of the radio equipment you'd need), plus the generating equipment. Best plan to start with a good size suitcase of C notes...

  • $\begingroup$ "there are a couple for sale, last I heard, one with much of the radio equipment you'd need" -- now that's interesting! Do you have a link? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 14:48
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Not handy; I read about this in an article or YouTube video about "private islands no one wants to buy." The one with the equipment had been used as a pirate station (UK MW band, it stands just outside UK territorial waters) and claims to be a "sovereign nation" as well. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ Ah yes, UK with things like Jersey is quite interesting. But I'm looking more in the central America to be able to reach North and South America. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 15:27
  • $\begingroup$ Might be worth shopping around for an abandoned or soon to be abandoned oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, then. Might need another suitcase of hundreds, or even two more. Mexico is apparently quite liberal in what they allow re: transmitters, also, and avoids the issues with piracy, drug cartels, and national navies. Well, some drug cartels. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 15:39

As for the USA, the FCC has a database of enforcement actions here: https://www.fcc.gov/reports-research/maps/fcc-enforcement-actions-against-pirate-radio-location/. Casual sampling of this information leaves the impression that the majority of the enforcement actions concern the commercial FM band and are generally initiated not by any systematic FCC surveillance but by complaints from license holders in the commercial FM band.

Since commercial SW radio is almost dead, I doubt the risk is very high. But then, as soon as a station becomes more famous, the likelihood for someone to initiate a complaint would grow.

The FCC has a special page on shortwave radio broadcasting https://www.fcc.gov/general/high-frequency-broadcasting and a fact sheet https://www.fcc.gov/reports-research/guides/fact-sheet-building-high-frequency-shortwave-international-broadcasting-station. But the whole issue is very unclear from there. It's a good example of regulatory overreach. For example, they say that you need a minimum output of 50 kW. OK. So what if I have an output of 200 W? Then I can't even apply. But the waves are empty, so why does the government block me from broadcasting at a signal strength too low? And I have tried to find what the actual application and maintenance fees are that they demand, but there is no direct way to find this information. Only publications about publications and proposed rule making with 400 pages and no occurrence of the words "high frequency".

Here is a very short list of FCC Authorized High Frequency Stations:

  1. KHBN Medorn, Aimeliik, Palau - Since gaining independence, licensed locally as T8BZ, and, by treaty, frequency coordination by FCC
  2. KNLS Anchor Point, AK
  3. KSDA Agat, GU
  4. KTWR Agana, GU
  5. KVOH Rancho Simi, CA
  6. WBCQ Monticello, ME
  7. WEWN Vandiver, AL
  8. WHRI Furman, SC
  9. WINB Red Lion, PA
  10. WJHR Milton, FL
  11. WMLK Bethel, PA
  12. WRMI Okeechobee, FL
  13. WRNO New Orleans, LA
  14. WTWW Lebanon, TN
  15. WWCR Nashville, TN
  16. WWRB Morrison, TN

This is it! 16 stations only! And a large proportion are on outlying island like Palau and Guam, etc. Now the list of frequencies can be found here: https://transition.fcc.gov/ib/sand/neg/hf_web/B19FCC01.TXT it is quite a complex schedule different seasons different frequencies, different days of the week and times of day.

Given that the SW bands are so quiet in the continental US, I am amazed by the FCC's statement that:

Most existing stations have a transmitter power greater than 50 kW and an antenna gain greater than 10 db in an attempt to overcome the increasing congestion and interference in the limited frequency spectrum allocated to this service.

Congestion? What congestion?


Well this is my first answer on Amateur Radio Beta, so be gentle. While I'm a new ham and liable to be ignorant on some subjects, I'm also a 10 year veteran software developer. However, if I'm wrong about something, please enlighten me. :-)

I might be off-base here in that I interpret "not ham" to mean "not necessarily ham".

HamNet might be what you are looking for although IDK if it precisely matches what you are thinking of. HamNet is a mesh WiFi net operated by hams. That may not sound very impressive but then again the Cellular system is similar in function if not design. Further, one should keep in mind that a standard WiFi router uses milliwatts whereas hams are authorized up to 1500 watts on some bands. Couple this with the Tor protocol and you have something fairly interesting and fairly hard to defeat.

Of course, encryption is a concern when ever you start talking about computer networks. Hams aren't, generally speaking, permitted any encryption. In order to make something like that legal, it would have to happen a connection or two down the pipe, or so I'm told. I had occasion to ask around since it was quite bewildering to myself as to how Hams can live without encryption. I suspect that this restriction may be lifted one day soon although I could be wrong. The more computerized Ham becomes the more vulnerable it will be without encryption. The first time there's a major hack wherein the perpetrators use an unsecured Ham connection to get in or obfuscate the trail, I expect the FCC will be drug into the future like it or not.

For those hams who find this objectionable, consider that network connectivity is an increasingly anticipated service such that some might consider it an essential utility such as phone service. Who fills in the gaps where that doesn't exist or if it becomes unusable in an emergency? Apparently not us, if no encryption is permitted and people have to check their bank accounts, for example, without it. Especially if commercial wireless TV and Radio eventually go the way of the Dodo bird.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting take. You might want to think about this "permitted" issue. Do you have 1st amendment rights? Yes. Do you have 4th amendment rights? Yes. Are those inalienable rights? Yes. Are the bands a shared commons that need to be kept organized? Yes. But also, in a SHTF scenario, will you be able to make bank transactions? No. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 14, 2020 at 4:10
  • $\begingroup$ OP is pretty specific about wanting to broadcast at high power and outside the constraints of a ham license. $\endgroup$
    – Caleb
    Commented Jan 14, 2020 at 14:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Gunther Schadow We aren't talking about global collapse or EMP type SHTF. More like hurricane or tornado, fire or earthquake type and all the cell towers in range are inoperative. Another scenario might be an island out in "Timbuktu" where cellular is just not cost effective. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 14, 2020 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Caleb 1. I needed some points in order to make my own comments and ask questions. 2. I understand his motivation and agree but frankly a Dark Web social media service combined with radio sounded interesting. 3. I figured he was generalizing and so Ham became a subset. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 14, 2020 at 14:35

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