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If a transceiver such as the BaoFeng UV-5R is used to transmit over FRS/GMRS frequencies (unlicensed), it is illegal in the United States due to FCC regulations that state that the power must be <0.5W and that the radio must not have a detachable antenna (the UV-5R is rated up to 5W and has a detachable antenna). Realistically, though, I am wondering if and how the FCC actually enforces this?

For instance, if two people decided to use these as high power "walkie talkies", and were careful to select unused frequencies, didn't disrupt other peoples' communications, didn't communicate from home/work (i.e. a static location that identified the person transmitting), and changed frequencies regularly, my questions are:

1) I understand the law, but is it actually enforced? Do they even waste resources trying to catch people doing this if there is no disruption occuring? Are there any documented cases of the FCC actually tracking down and harassing/fining/jailing people for illegal FRS/GMRS transmissions of this sort?

2) How would the FCC actually track down this sort of sporadic, non-disruptive transmission from multiple locations? I understand the concept of triangulation of radio signals, but how is this actually achieved on a nationwide scale and in a way that can promptly lead them to the location of the transmission (so that they can fine/arrest someone)? Are there passive monitoring systems in place in urban areas that can automatically/instantly detect illegal transmissions? Black helicopters with FCC agents flying around hunting for illegal walkie-talkie usage? etc :) What does their tracking technology actually look like nowadays, and what kind of capabilities does it have that would enable tracking this type of transmission?

3) Are there any sorts of identifying signals (some sort of unique identifier) that handheld transceivers such as these emit while transmitting, that allow for the instant identification of the device? (i.e. something akin to an IMEI # for cell phones)

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    $\begingroup$ PS Just to be clear, I am not asking whether this is legal, and don't need to be told that people should always have a license to transmit. I am specifically asking about those cases where people decide to ignore the law and transmit anyway. I want to understand, from a technical perspective, how the FCC tracks these people down (or if they even try), and what technology they use to do so. Please limit answers to this topic, and don't sidetrack this thread into a "why you should get licensed" conversation. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – J. Taylor Jul 28 '16 at 8:22
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    $\begingroup$ I am surprised that a device such as the UV-5R that you mention has been type accepted by the FCC for FRS/GMRS if the power level capable is more than allowed for that type of service. Also, I think that a radio that is capable of transmission on two different types of service (licensed amateur radio VHF/UHF and unlicensed FRS/GMRS) is illegal. Or, at least it has been for some other radios such as dual CB and amateur radio. Note that licensing by type acceptance is based on TX frequencies, not RX (with the exception of blocked frequencies such as cellular). $\endgroup$ – K7PEH Aug 2 '16 at 0:21
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    $\begingroup$ it is my understanding that all electronic devices manufactured within the US or in any other country must abide by the FCC regulations title 47. Part 15 of title 47 covers RF devices and there are other parts that cover other types of commercial communication devices. Part 97, covers that amateur radio service and it has type acceptance regulations for all amateur radio devices sold in the US. However, it is very possible that some small innocuous devices like that of the UV-5R can be missed in their administration of regulations. $\endgroup$ – K7PEH Aug 4 '16 at 15:59
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    $\begingroup$ A YouTube video youtube.com/watch?v=MlxK80QUYpk shows how to actually set a UV-5R to transmit on one of the FRS/GPRS channels. I'm interested in your question with the following additional restriction: suppose there's a group of people, some with FRS radios and some with UV-5R's, the UV-5R's set to transmit on one of the 2W FRS channels in "low-power" mode (hence less than 2W), conducting permissible clear voice communications (no obscenity, music, etc.); is there any way for the FCC, or anyone who might report to the FCC, to distinguish between the real FRS radios and the UV-5R's? $\endgroup$ – KD8WQF Dec 19 '17 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ While it is technically possible to make a UV-5R transmit on those frequencies, they are not type-accepted for such use, and so doing that is illegal. We should not be encouraging (or even enabling) such behaviour $\endgroup$ – Scott Earle Dec 20 '17 at 3:28
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Are there any documented cases of the FCC actually tracking down and harassing/fining/jailing people for illegal FRS/GMRS transmissions of this sort?

You can browse the Enforcement Bureau's Field Notices at http://transition.fcc.gov/eb/FieldNotices/. I did find a few related to FRS violations, e.g. several cases where a company (or even a township water authority!) was using FRS/GMRS for business purposes — even going so far as to set up repeaters.

I didn't find a case of enforcement against simply an individual casually using an unlicensed walkie-talkie in an otherwise non-interfering manner. However, if the FCC truly "didn't care" they would change their rules to reflect that.

Instead, they have recently (May 26, 2016) issued a Public Notice warning that "Persons or Businesses Using Authorized Equipment In a Manner that Violates Federal Law or the Commission’s Rules Are Subject to Enforcement Action". They don't single out "use an uncertified ham handheld on FRS?" in their examples — and in fact they mostly seem to be targeting the use of "authorized equipment" in unauthorized ways — but it's clear that at least some attention is being paid to the use of "unlicensed" (more properly, "licensed by rule") spectrum.

The ARRL for their part, want you to think of the the FCC's notice as applicable in this case. In their news item covering the notice they add this as their own example: "using an Amateur Radio transceiver on the Family Radio Service."

How would the FCC actually track down this sort of sporadic, non-disruptive transmission from multiple locations? […] Are there passive monitoring systems in place in urban areas that can automatically/instantly detect illegal transmissions?

Most of the NAL documents I've seen are in response to complaints. Even the aforementioned public notice doesn't talk about agency resources being bulked up or anything, but merely "If you have reason to believe that radio frequency equipment is being used […] in a manner that violates the Commission’s rules or the Communications Act, you can file a complaint with the FCC."

The liability letters also provide insight not just into why enforcement action was taken, but how enforcement is done. For example, when a GMRS licensee was maliciously interfering with a LMRS licensee, one of the transmitting antennas involved was tracked down "using a mobile direction finding ('MDF') vehicle" — i.e. they had to send an agent out driving around to find the perp. Perhaps this is merely parallel construction, but taking their word for it, means enforcement is not cheap.

The FCC does have a High Frequency Direction Finding Center which is apparently fairly precise — whether this is true or primarily a Television detector van-type ruse to keep us honest I couldn't tell you. (It's certainly more plausible in the case of an intentional radiation.)

Of course, due to much more limited UHF propagation you would need a lot more listening stations to address this sort of problem. Perhaps there is public information on this, perhaps there is inter-agency involvement NOT part of the public record (the HFDFC is part of a "Homeland Security" bureau…) — whether the feds are as interested in non-hams out hiking with Baofengs, as they are in tracking the cellphones of everyone attending a political protest… your guess is as good as mine…

Are there any sorts of identifying signals (some sort of unique identifier) that handheld transceivers such as these emit while transmitting?

Radio fingerprinting is a thing, for an example of some of the signal characteristics that might be involved check out Use Real-Time Spectrum Analysis to Characterize a transmitter key-up. Whether the FCC could or would use this as sufficient evidence for liability, I don't know.

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  • $\begingroup$ Another user here mentions he would "watch as [an FCC monitoring station] used what they called 'TXID' - Transmitter identification - the way a signal from a CW or FM transmitter wanders in frequency and amplitude as they were keyed up. They were very good at this, and often could tell who was transmitting before any identifying modulation was applied. i.e, saying or keying a callsign." ham.stackexchange.com/a/9445/1362 $\endgroup$ – natevw - AF7TB Oct 26 '17 at 17:37
  • $\begingroup$ Some more discussion about the Motron TxID-1 and similar can be browsed at forums.qrz.com/index.php?threads/… too. $\endgroup$ – natevw - AF7TB Oct 26 '17 at 17:50
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It also depends on the legal users of that part of the spectrum who may land up monitoring violations and reporting to FCC. Eg ARRL has monitoring volunteers who monitor for amateur band violations. I would think that it will be in the commercial interest of the cellular companies to monitor any abuse of their frequency spectrum and report t violations to enforcement agencies.

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    $\begingroup$ Hi, and welcome to ham.stackexchange.com! We recommend all new users take the tour to get the most from the site, and since you volunteered an answer, it couldn't hurt to also read how to answer. $\endgroup$ – rclocher3 Jan 5 '17 at 18:57
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There are ways to track radio transmissions, however, due to low power output of hand held devices they would have to be relatively close to track you. I think generally if you aren't causing any interference (using 5 watts or less, not stepping on other peoples transmissions or using unauthorized frequencies) the men in black suits would leave you alone.

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    $\begingroup$ Unless the user happens to be near an amateur who reports non-licensed activity. $\endgroup$ – Scott Earle Sep 7 '17 at 9:01
  • $\begingroup$ @scottearle how would an amateur know that an FRS/GMRS transmission came from an unlicenced radio? $\endgroup$ – Navin Dec 31 '18 at 1:52
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    $\begingroup$ They can’t, but they can suspect an unlicensed radio is being used if they hear it from a relatively long distance away when the type-approved radios are supposed to be limited to 500 milliwatts. Or if they encroach on the amateur bands (without knowing/caring) and aren’t following the usual operating procedures $\endgroup$ – Scott Earle Dec 31 '18 at 1:58
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Because of how spread out they are today, the FCC has become more of a complaint-driven organization. In short, if people don't complain about your illegal activity, you might probably never get turned in. If people do complain, the FCC typically forwards the complaints to the Amateur Auxiliary, who's in charge of locating the offending parties.

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    $\begingroup$ "you might probably never get turned in" is pretty vague, and as such this is terrible advice. What is being suggested is against the conditions of the various licences, and risks the confiscation of any equipment used in contravention of those licences - especially as the OP states that "I understand the law, but is it actually enforced?" $\endgroup$ – Scott Earle Feb 26 '18 at 1:44
  • $\begingroup$ This answer does not appear to be an improvement on the accepted answer — it says one thing that the existing answer already says and does not address the rest of the question at all. $\endgroup$ – Kevin Reid AG6YO Feb 26 '18 at 2:54
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    $\begingroup$ The first question was, "...is it actually enforced?" My answer addresses this question. $\endgroup$ – Noji Mar 9 '18 at 17:16

protected by Community Jan 30 '18 at 23:29

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